At the heart of many behavior problems is a social relationship that has taken a wrong turn. Why? Because, despite our best intentions we often misunderstand what parrots really need from us socially. And then, we do the wrong things.
We take all that we know about living with other companion animals and attempt to apply this to life with parrots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Parrots are too different. They are prey animals, not predators. Most are not yet domesticated, while our dogs, cats and bunnies are. A parrot’s social needs are more closely aligned with the wild life than with captive life.
Lessons from the Wild
So, what do parrots really need from us socially? Observations of their wild lives provide valuable clues. They have many different relationships on various levels. They enjoy parallel activities which serve to cement the integrity of the flock. They all forage at the same time, preen at the same time, nap at the same time.
They are also full of trickery. They engage frequently in brief, playful interactions. They steal perches and food from each other. They engage with each other in mid-air. Some species even play physically with each other.
Each parrot also has a relationship with the flock as a whole. The flock serves as the vehicle for finding food, accessing that food, evading predators and providing a sense of safety. A single parrot away from his flock would likely meet with a swift demise. They understand this instinctively.
Pair Bonds In the Wild
It is important to note that the only time that adult parrots in the wild spend extended periods of time physically close together is when they have formed a pair bond. They are engaged in cementing that pair bond through remaining close by each other, searching for a suitable nest site, excavating that nest and then laying eggs and rearing young.
Pair Bonds in Captivity
I assert that it physical closeness with a companion parrot that serves as a physiological trigger that causes our parrot to form a pair bond with us. This conviction is based upon two decades of anecdotal experience. Petting the parrot down the back and under the wings, having the parrot on the shoulder for extended periods, cuddling at night before bed, allowing the parrot under the covers…all of these activities give the parrot the wrong message – that we are inviting a sexual relationship. But, we certainly don’t want that, right?
What DO We Want?
I know what I want. And, I know what we should all want for a companion parrot. We should want that parrot to be fully independent, well able to entertain himself most of the time…foraging for food and interacting with enrichment. We should not want a parrot who sits on our shoulder or lap all day. That’s not much quality of life for a captive parrot, given the myriad of activities in which they would engage in the wild on a daily basis.
What DO They Want (Need)?
Lessons from the wild indicate that they need a sense of safety and security that the flock provides. What does this mean for us? I hate to break it to all of you who depend upon them, but bird rooms are a really bad idea. They may be convenient for us, but are a source of stress for parrots, making it impossible for them to satisfy their social needs.
Parrot have big personalities and a well-defined sense of territory. It is stressful for larger parrots to live in close proximity to others, especially others of different species. Parrots seem most comfortable with a minimum of about five feet between cages, which is hard to accomplish in the typical bird room.
Parrots of different species, while they may enjoy having other feathered ones around, will not usually form a cohesive flock bond with them. Instead, most parrots consider the humans in the home to be their primary flock. It is with us that they want to enjoy those parallel activities. Thus, the best thing you can do to facilitate a healthy social life for your parrot is to locate his cage in the living area of the home. (A play stand is not good enough. Sorry….)
The importance of parallel activities to a parrot should not be underestimated. While we may imagine that our birds need hours of one on one time with us, that isn’t the case at all! They don’t need much focused time with us. This may be good news to all of you thinking that you may need to give your parrot up due to your lack of time.
They will satisfy themselves socially by eating when we eat, preening while we ready ourselves for the day, and snoozing while we nap. We don’t have to do anything other than have our parrots in our proximity to satisfy this particular need of theirs. How easy is that?
Brief, Playful Social Interactions
How about the need for brief, playful social interactions? That one is easy to satisfy too. When our parrots are located in our living areas, it comes naturally to interact with them throughout the day in this manner.
Parrots and people have a way of developing little social duets over time. For example, my African Grey, Marko, loves to hang upside down from my hand. She started that. Now, I can step her up and give her the cue to flip upside down. Once upright again, she is happy to take a treat and go back to her perch.
Dancing with your parrot is another example. How about playing toss the paper ball for a few minutes? What else can you think of? What does your parrot like to do? Can you turn that into a 60-second game?
Following the Flock
Parrots also need to follow the flock. That means that, when we change rooms, they want to change rooms to accompany us. A flighted parrot will do this on his own. If you live with a clipped parrot, you will need to provide the transport. Think about having a perch in every room. This way, if you are going into another room for an extended period of time, you can bring your parrot with you to perch while you go about your activities.
Other Social Needs
Aside from these very specific social needs, parrots must have a minimum of three to four hours out of the cage each day for a decent quality of life. More is better. This block of time should be divided into two periods, one in the morning and a second later in the day. It is simply too hard on a parrot to only come out of the cage once a day. Such a schedule often contributes to behavior problems. This time out of the cage allows them to make choices, change locations, and engage in those important social activities outlined above.
For the past 15 years, I have worked full-time as a veterinary technician while pursuing my behavior consulting career on the weekends. People always ask me how I can possibly care well for eight parrots while doing all that. I have been easily able to meet the social needs of my own parrots because I follow the advice given in this blog. My parrots are happy, undemanding, and keep themselves busy without needing big chunks of my time.
Does a Pair Bond Already Exist?
What if you have already allowed your parrot to form a pair bond with you? How will you even know if a pair bond exists? I can tell you some sure signs:
- Your parrot hates everyone but you.
- Your parrot tries to bite your partner when he or she comes close. (Or the parrot bites you under the same circumstances…another fun variation on that theme.)
- Your parrot tries to masturbate on you when you are holding him.
- You can’t get the parrot off of your shoulder (and you’re not in the veterinarian’s office).
- Your parrot frequently wants to preen your hair, eyebrows, or beard.
I can tell you that you don’t want a pair bond with your parrot. Such a bond leads to increased aggression, screaming and feather destructive behavior. For females, it can also lead to chronic egg laying, which puts the parrot at risk for egg binding. Not only is that a life-threatening condition, it generally incurs astronomical vet bills.
Evolving the Pair Bond
A pair bond can be evolved into a more appropriate relationship with consistent effort over time. First, figure out how much time your parrot currently perches on your shoulder, lap or chest. Begin to reduce that systematically by small increments each week. At the same time, immediately stop petting him anywhere but on the head. Keep him out of your bed. Stop the cuddling. (I know…this is hard. Perhaps a cat or a Yorkshire Terrier might be a good addition at this time.)
Replace that physical closeness by beginning some parrot training. Parrots in the wild are constantly problem solving. Their physical environment requires this. In captivity, most parrots are bored. By doing some training on a daily basis, you accomplish some very important things.
Learning new behaviors enriches the parrot’s experience to an extent you can’t imagine. Learning new behaviors in an important form of enrichment. Learning new behaviors tires a parrot out mentally so he has less need to threaten your eardrums with vocalizations.
But, most importantly, training your parrot will serve over time to evolve that pair bond. By placing yourself in the role of teacher/trainer, you encourage the parrot to look to you for guidance and direction, rather than physical love.
Training doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Five minutes once or twice a day is enough. It doesn’t even matter if you skip days. Your parrot will quite easily pick up where you left off in the training.
What to Train?
It’s best to begin your training by teaching a simple behavior like targeting. Not familiar with targeting? Here is an excellent video, created by behavior consultant Stephanie Edlund, to get you started: http://understandingparrots.com/guide-to-target-training-your-parrot.
Parrots need the following for social satisfaction:
- Cage located in the living area.
- The ability to engage in parallel activities.
- Brief, playful social interactions with you.
- Three to four hours out of the cage each day.
- Parrot training with you as the teacher.
Happy training! Happy Socializing! Sent with much love to you all!