10 Tips for Relationships with Parrots

It has occurred to me that this blog post could turn out to be just a piece of self-indulgent fluff. However, the topic fascinates me. How do we best craft long-term relationships with our birds? So, I ask for your patience as I sort out my thoughts and I will leave it to you to be the final judge of its worth.

Recently, I asked someone whether it might be possible that they had fallen out of relationship with their parrot. Photo by Tavis Beck on UnsplashI’ve never asked anyone that before, and the question just popped out. It derived from an intuitive sense about what might be going on. My friend, an excellent caregiver whom I have known for years, just hadn’t been aware of what was really going on with his parrot. The bird had been startling and falling more often, but this had gone unnoticed until it created a wound.

It would make sense, wouldn’t it, if we did fall out of relationship with our parrots from time to time? Our relationships with people we love certainly go through ups and downs if they last for any period of time.  We aren’t always kind and loving; at times we may fall into a state of disconnect. Obligations, guilt, and the needs of others can become overwhelming at times, generating the need to create some emotional distance.

Why should it be any different with our parrots?  They live a long time, affording the opportunity to have a relationship that spans decades. They are socially sophisticated and have a deep sensitivity to us and our moods. They are emotional and intelligent, as are we.

I find it very odd that, in conversation with each other, we don’t seem to focus ever on the quality of our relationships with our birds. Do we even recognize that we have a relationship with each parrot? manfred-goetz-522979-unsplash Do we instead have a tendency to objectify them?

When I read comments online about parrots, I see plenty of labels like “cute,” “needy,” cuddly,” “sweet,” “aggressive,” “nippy,” etc. But I rarely hear anyone talk about their relationship with their birds. That is good cause for concern because relationship difficulties often evolve into behavior problems over time.

Everyone agrees that relationships take work. Relationships with parrots certainly take work. Despite all of their good qualities, parrots don’t appear to exhibit much gratitude or awareness about all the work we put in to keep them well-fed and healthy in a clean, enriched environment.  Not a one of my parrots has ever said “thank you” as I cleaned sweet potato off of the wall or “I’m sorry” as I scraped the bottom of my shoe off after having stepped on a piece of fresh pear. Beyond that, they apparently lack any awareness of the need to be nice. They are, to a one, incredibly unapologetic.

If I look back at my own life with birds which spans four decades now, I can easily identify periods when I was not as motivated to provide enrichment, got lazy about diet, and was not much inclined to provide behavioral guidance. I often surfaced from these times after attendance at a good parrot-related conference or a workshop with Barbara Heidenreich, once again motivated and re-energized.

My conclusion is that it’s normal for us to fall out of relationships emotionally with those we love from time to time, those with our birds included. Given that, the question becomes: How can we form the very best relationships with our birds and prevent them from falling apart?

Photo by Ruth Caron on UnsplashWhen we take a new parrot into our homes, we should be forming a relationship by looking to the future and imagining what we want that to look like, just as we would with a small child we had adopted. I don’t think we do that. Evidence to support this would come from the number of parrots relinquished daily to second, third or fourth homes. If the number of parrots living in rescue and adoption organizations like The Gabriel Foundation or Phoenix Landing is any evidence, we don’t put much thought into this at all.

It’s quite popular these days to refer to our birds and other pets as “family members.”  However, saying so doesn’t make it so.

I think most of us fall into relationship with parrots in the same way we form them with dogs and cats. Aside from their daily care, we interact with them physically by holding and petting them. It is soothing for us to have a well-loved cat or dog on a lap or right beside us and we have promoted parrots to a place alongside them, keeping them on shoulders much of the time. All of that physical contact meets our needs for love and companionship, but does it meet our birds’ needs?

Photo by sk on UnsplashParrots are not yet domesticated, as are our mammal friends we keep as pets. Their needs are diverse and complicated – so much so that we still don’t know exactly what they are. Much of their behavior is rooted in instinct. When that peach-colored head rests on your chest does it mean that your cockatoo loves you or does it mean that he seeks to form a mate-like bond with you? Reproducing is high on his list of instinctive priorities, while this possibility might not even be on your radar.

Forming a relationship with a parrot by focusing on physical affection may be a feel-good practice, but it creates a host of problems. Based upon my experience as a behavior consultant, engaging in a lot of close physical contact not only encourages dependence for the bird, but serves as a trigger for the development of a pair bond. Once the parrot has formed a pair bond with you, what comes next is not a feel-good experience at all if you happen to live with other people

Parrots with pair bonds typically display a host of unproductive and problematic behaviors – aggression toward others in the home, increased noise, and a tendency to destroy feathers. They develop a desire to get down on the floor more often, looking for “nesty” spots and destroying woodwork in the process. They slowly lose their desire to interact with enrichment or do much of anything except pursue activities related to nesting.

For the human in the pair-bonded relationship, problems also derive from this focus. I would describe this primarily as a lack of vision when it comes to really seeing the parrot in front of you for all that he is.Photo by Romina veliz on Unsplash

Author Henry Beston once wrote:  “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

There’s nothing wrong with showing our birds we love them by offering physical affection, but when we focus on cuddling with our parrots to the exclusion of other ways of interacting, I think we forget that they are “other nations.” Instead, we see only the “feather magnified” – a distorted image at best. The only way to stay in functional relationship with our parrots is to see them as the resourceful, complicated creatures that they really are, rather than as simply objects of our affection.

If you search through articles and websites about success in human relationships, the number available is staggering. It’s an amazing reflection of just how self-absorbed we can be as a people. Further, no one agrees what a healthy relationship really depends upon. The 10 Signs That You Are in a Healthy Relationship published on the Psychology Today website serves up quite different criteria than does 7 Signs Your Relationship is Healthy on the Huffington Post website.

How can we know that we are creating healthy, i.e. functional, relationships with our own birds that will stand the test of time?  Here are a few thoughts, about which most of those publishing information on human relationships agree:

Respect: If we respect our birds, we don’t use force with them. Instead, we learn to use positive reinforcement to teach them to do the things we want them do. If a parrot won’t step up, we don’t push our hand into his abdomen to insist. Instead, we decide on a preferred food for which he will work, set up the request so that he is likely to comply, and reward him consistently when he does. We afford them autonomy.

Good Communication: We don’t assume we know how they are feeling. Instead we learn to read body language and change our own behavior according to what the parrot communicates. The only way our birds can “talk” to us is through body language and we understand this and respect them enough to learn their ways and preferences. If a parrot leans away from us when we offer petting, we don’t insist. Instead we back off and give him his space. Further, we make sure that our own communication is understandable. If asking for a behavior, we give clear, distinct cues so that he understands what we want.

PoicephalusAnger Control: If a parrot bites us, we don’t blame him. No matter how much it hurts, we control ourselves and instead of lashing out, we look at our part in the problem. Much biting stems from a lack of sensitivity to the body language they have tried so hard to use. If the biting continues, we take responsibility and seek help from someone who knows how to solve the problem. That does not include taking the problem to social media to have strangers weigh in. No one that I know who really has a foundational knowledge of how behavior works hangs out on social media answering questions for free. There is no reinforcement for doing so.

Empathy:  We strive to see things from the parrot’s perspective. If a bird is driving us crazy with screaming, we examine what we expect from him and wonder if perhaps we are asking too much. Are we meeting his needs? Is he getting out of his cage for sufficient time each day? Is he getting enough enrichment, bathing opportunities, and exercise? Expecting a parrot to stay in his cage 22 hours a day or remain isolated in a bird room most of the time without exhibiting problems is simply expecting too much. In addition, if a parrot ever displays fear, we stop in our tracks and rethink what we were about.

Commitment:  When things get difficult, we don’t automatically look at the option of giving the parrot up.download (2) Instead, we remind ourselves that this is a long-term commitment. Things won’t always be wonderful.  Sometimes they get hard. We can accept this fact with some patience and perhaps a sense of humor and wait for other answers to come. We pay money for help when we can’t solve the problems that have arisen.

Problem Solving: We realize that keeping an undomesticated creature inside of four walls is a daunting task. We don’t blame the parrot when problems arise. Instead, we seek solutions and release our preconceived notions of how things have to be. Rather than staying stuck in black and white thinking, we open ourselves to other possibilities.

Compromise:  I’m a great believer in the idea of creating balance in any social flock or family. Everyone must have a way to get their needs met, husbands and parrots included. This takes an open-minded approach that allows the family to strike a balance.

Enjoying Time Spent Together: We find ways to enjoy our birds that don’t involve cuddling and petting. We devise games. We put on music and have a dance party. We teach them to perform fun behaviors. We spend time outdoors together in a safe enclosure. We honor their need to enjoy parallel activities and bring them to the bathroom while we get ready in the morning or into the kitchen as we chop vegetables. We think about what they might enjoy.

DSC_1905Acceptance: We appreciate and respect the parrot for what he is… a flighted spirit. We don’t mutilate his wings to prevent flight without determining that this is absolutely necessary, rather than a matter of convenience for us. We accept him as the “other nation” he is, including his ability and need to fly. Every aspect of a bird’s physiology has evolved for the purpose of flight and this birthright should not be removed without an absolute need, such as preventing him from losing his home.

Trust: Each relationship is a bank account. Each trust-building interaction creates a deposit. And every time we spray the bird with water to stop screaming or force him to do something, we make a withdrawal. We cannot expect to have trust in these relationships unless our account balance is far in the green and stays there. It is possible to become overdrawn and it’s a difficult road back from there.

It is easy to get sucked into conversations about how these birds shouldn’t really be pets. That ship has sailed, my friend. Instead, let’s expand our thinking. Our parrots aren’t dogs or cats or rabbits or reptiles or horses. We need to create a new category of “pet ownership” that calls upon us to take into account their exceptional intelligence, resourcefulness, emotional sensitivity and long, long life spans. And, that takes some thinking!

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I get it that sometimes we must relinquish a parrot to another home.Thefuturewillbedifferent I get it that sometimes we do have to clip wings. I get it that there will be times when the parrot can’t get out of his cage for enough time.  I never blame anyone for making those hard decisions. However, I think we can set the bar a little higher than we have in the past by simply thinking a bit more about how we should be shaping our relationships with our birds.

I would love to hear your thoughts about being in relationship with the parrots who live in your homes. Please send me a comment and I will be sure to reply.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

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Pamela Clark, CPBC

IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant offering services to parrot owners who need advice regarding parrot behavior and parrot training.

13 thoughts on “10 Tips for Relationships with Parrots”

  1. Hi Pamela. Your blog was interesting & informative. I have a 4 year old galah which was given into my care at 2 weeks of age. I naively thought I could get to the stage where he could be independent & let him fly with the flock of wild galahs here in Eucla. Being a male, asking constantly ‘what are you doing’ whilst flying with flock did not bode well for my galah. He enjoys interacting with other birds when he free flies but always returns to us as he seems to consider us his flock.
    He is so fortunate in being in such an isolated location in Australia that he can enjoy the benefits of being free.
    Our concern is not that he would leave us for a galah mate but that a human would intervene thinking he was lost & not allow him to return home. This has happened numerous times.
    We try to enrich his life by having him with us inside, or on our shoulder but we also appreciate he as well as us need time apart as a breather.
    He has a magiflight run my husband built & he is entertained by birds coming to drink in the bird baths or just curl up in a nesting place for a good sleep. He is well loved & he enjoys our company though I believe it is challenging for all of us on occasions to work out why he’s cranky, or sooky or downright naughty.

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    1. Vanessa,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I love it that you honor your bird’s need to express himself freely. As I’m sure you are aware, it’s a risky lifestyle, but is perhaps the ultimate in quality of life for your little bird. He is lucky to be so well-loved!

      Pam

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  2. Thanks for a great article!
    I have lived with (not owned!😃) a female Triton Cockatoo for all but 10 months of her 18 and a half years. She is the most wonderful companion. She gets to go lots of places with me, wearing her harness at music festivals and the like. And she loves meeting, and shaking hands with almost anyone who shows interest.
    She does appear to show gratitude in the form of making little kissy noises when I’m cleaning her cage or preparing her meals, or performing other tasks for her.
    She loves learning new tricks and games. Loves music.
    Seems to use certain words in context, and also seems to understand quite a large number of words and phrases.
    Most of all she loves her cuddles!
    Best regards, Tim Marris.

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    1. Tim,
      Thanks so much for your comment. It sounds to me like she has a wonderful life with you. I love it that you take her places with you. Not all parrots would like that, but it’s excellent for those who do. So many parrots suffer from extreme neophobia, and exposing them to new experiences as you have helps greatly to overcome this tendency. I do think that the acceptance of new things and experiences becomes a skill at some point. Thank you for providing her with such a well-rounded life, including those cuddles! Makes my heart happy.
      Pam

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  3. I love your blog. It has made me think differently about what I am doing with my parrot. I would like to have any advice that might be willing to give me.

    I have a male African grey. He is a rescue, feather picker (when I got him and still is), and about 22 years old.

    After reading your article I realize we have a pair-bond relationship. He has never liked men and has gone after them. I connected that to the fact that he is a male bird and prefers human females. I feel that one of his reactions is related to a pair-bond that I experienced. I was sitting next to my brother-in-law and talking quietly when Squeaky got down from his perch and walked over to me. I put my hand down to pick him up and he gave me a nasty bite. He had never bitten me before. After cleaning up I tried to figure out why he had reacted that way. I had read that a male bird will bite his mate to make them flea danger. Is it possible that this is a reasonable assumption?

    I will give him more time out of his cage. I like to leave the cage open during the day but he has made toothpicks out of my hardwood cabinets. I need to solve this in someway. A perch that would be difficult to get off of?

    His favorite game is to throw a folded paper towel when I toss it to him. We play with me swinging my hand in a circle, up and down, and side to side with me making sounds to go with the motion. When he stands on my hand he wants to feed me. Thinking back I think I encourage this by playing beaky-beaky by putting my fingers on his beak and wiggling it back and forth and saying, “beaky-beaky”. When he starts that I put him in his cage. I will stop playing this with him.

    I would like some input on these problems. I try to read his body language. He always is willing to step up out of his cage.

    Thank you

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    1. Sharon,

      Thank you so much for your comment and the kind words. I’m happy to know that I’ve made a difference.

      It does sound as if he might have a pair bond with you. The fact that he regurgitates for you is some evidence that this might be the case. His aggression towards your brother-in-law and then to you could be due to this. We can’t read a parrot’s mind, but we do know that aggression is common in cases as you describe.

      The solution to his destructive habits could be to teach him to station. If you go to my website at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com and click on the “Free Resources” tab, you can find instructions for teaching a parrot to station.

      You might also want to read my articles on feather destructive behavior that are on the same page.

      When he does regurgitate for you, I suggest simply putting him down on a perch and walking away in a matter-of-fact manner. It’s not necessary to punish him for it – just provide clear communication what this behavior isn’t welcome now. It will likely take him awhile to catch on. Make sure that you reward him for other behaviors that ARE appropriate – stepping up, playing, etc.

      If you continue to have challenges, I would be happy to do a behavior consultation with you.

      Warm regards,

      Pam

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  4. My Blue and Gold has been with me 9 years and I have had her since 3 months old. She is registered as an emotional support animal and I try to bring her with me when ever I go out. She has a cage but never really locked in it. She has free rein of the home and goes to bed on our headboard between 6:30 and 7:30 every night. The longest I have been away from her is one night. I cannot imagine my life without her and my children do not understand.

    If I leave the home I turn the tv on for her if she is not with me. When I take her out I put a diaper on her and we are gone for most of the day. I have a stroller she rides on and I take her for bike rides. I do clip her wings but not to the point where she can not fly. She can fly for a good distance without gaining height. However when I do travel far distances with her I will clip the wings more so she can not fly for I had to wait at a rest area over 2 hours for her to come out of a tree.

    I do not get made at her for chewing on woodwork in the home but I was a carpenter so I know how to replace things she destroys and not her fault for the toys are wood so why would they think it was bad to chew up more wood that is nailed in place.

    We all need to be more patient with our birds and I realize things happen but it sickens me to see all these parrots in rescue places because I look at them like children and would you want a child to be going from home to home to home. I believe before any one buys a parrots they have to take courses to make sure they understand what they are getting into.
    My son told me I can come visit any time but I cannot bring the bird and I told him than I cannot come and visit because she comes with me because they are 1800 miles away and I am not leaving her for someone else to watch.

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  5. Thanks for the article, Pamela.
    I just found your terrific blog and am now following you.
    Our household consists of two humans and 4 parrots, and is a very happy place to be, with lots of laughs courtesy of the feathered ones. Despite being different species, we have encouraged them to become a flock and it seems to be working.

    Like most parrot owners, we agonise over whether they are getting enough attention, stimulation, etc. – but I think that’s a good thing.
    I have a few posts about them on my blog here on WordPress, and you can follow Mr Tucker T Tucker on facebook, where he has his own page. Keeping parrots is not for the impatient or faint hearted, but I have learned so much from them and it is a privilege to have them as housemates.

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    1. Liz,

      Thanks very much for commenting and I apologize for a slow response. I am not so tech savvy at times, and after I read your message I “lost” it until this morning, lol. I really love what you wrote, and you reference something that works for me also but that is difficult to articulate…in terms of how it is done. We too have a very happy place here with lots of laughs and a flock that gets along. I think that stems from some gentle direction and expectations communicated in subtle ways. It’s always worked for me. I would agree with everything you have written. Your parrots are lucky to be in your hands.

      Warmly,

      Pam

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  6. Hi Pamela!

    I could easily use up all your server’s space writing about how valuable your newsletters and blog posts have always been to me–I cannot thank you enough for them. However, on this occasion, I will attempt to stick to the topic at hand (though I will probably STILL chew up your server space…being succinct has NEVER been one of my strengths!).

    Much of what I am about to write will (quite understandably) elicit a “well, DUH!” from you, because so much of what I know comes from the best resource a parrot-keeper could possibly have (that would be you, just in case you wondering!), and from Barbara Heidenreich’s writings (particularly The Parrot Problem Solver). However, it’s also true that my relationship with Eliza and Neville is also shaped by my own attitudes and philosophies regarding pets in general (and birds in particular, in this case).

    Before obtaining any pet, I’ve always spent a lot of time visualizing what I would like the relationship to be; not only between me and the pets, but between them and the environment I create for them, as well as the relationship they have between each other. I should point out that I leave a LOT of room for flexibility; as we all know, all pets have their own individual personalities, traits, quirks, etc.

    In the case of Eliza and Neville, I don’t want to make them into dogs, or cats, or children, or adult humans. I just want them to be birds, and for me to always keep in mind that they see the world far differently than I do.

    I never pet them, for instance; they have no idea what that means. (Or, perhaps more accurately: what I think it means, and what they think it means are two very different things!) In the evening, they like to cuddle on me, but it’s as much about them being together (they sleep pretty much the same way) as it is being with me; I just put my hand down so Neville has a spot to put his foot (he sorta squashes himself sideways, which doesn’t look all that comfortable to me!).

    I interact with them all the time, talking to them, singing, etc. (You should hear the ensuing noise when I play guitar or piano and sing. They make this sort of strange guttural sound which makes me wonder “is that what my singing sounds like to them?!”)

    I’ll play with them too–although it’s much more fun for me to watch them play, I’ll admit! In my mind, I don’t really differentiate between training sessions and play sessions with them; it’s all fun and enjoyable, and they certainly find it stimulating. I mean, it’s great that I can play soccer with them, but if I REALLY wanted to train them, the first thing I’d do would be to teach them to make coffee!

    I really don’t know if this is specific to caiques, or to parrots in general (I’ve long discounted the theory that it’s simply because I’m so gosh-darned irresistible), but Eliza and Neville seemingly just want to be where I am. That doesn’t mean on my shoulders (they rarely do that), or on me in general; they just want to be where I am. As you taught me, it’s always good to have stations for them. Consequently, I have stations in every room in the house; but the added nuance is that the stations are located where I am likely to be in that room. The station in my office, for example, is behind my chair, near the window. They’re on it right now, preening each other, chattering, and no doubt waiting for their opportunity to get to the keyboard and write their rebuttal to everything I’ve written so far.

    Anyway, I’ve gone on way too long. I just wanted to give you some idea of how I approach my relationship with Eliza and Neville. I always keep in mind that–as with any relationship–it is ever-changing and I that I need to stay flexible and open. I’m not saying my approach is the best one; but they certainly seem to happy, and that’s all the thanks I need.

    Speaking of thanks, once again, thank YOU for all that you do!

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    1. Derek,

      Your response touched me. You may be surprised to hear that, as I wrote that blog and thought about who most closely approximated with their birds what I was trying to describe, I thought of you and yours. That is the best description of a parrot-human relationship I might have ever imagined. Thank you for taking the time to share that.

      Pam

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      1. Okay, now it’s MY turn to be moved! Thank you, Pam; your kind words mean more to me than I could ever express. Derek

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