I have lived with parrots for a great deal longer than many of you reading this have been alive. My decades of involvement with them afford me a unique perspective. What has our history been with companion parrots? The following is my view.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, we have taken these parrot species into our homes without knowing anything about them. Once we began living with them, we proceeded to make up out of thin air a lot of “information” about them that has been published as fact. Below are a few examples.
“All parrots need 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.” “All parrots must have clipped wings to keep them safe.” “All parrots need regular toenail trims.” “All parrots become more hormonal in the spring.” “We all must bathe our parrots regularly for best health.” All untrue. (While each of these statements might be true for individuals, they are not true for most parrots.)
It is our nature as human beings to concoct explanations for things we do not yet understand. However, we have now lived with our parrots for long enough that we have learned some things about them. True, what we have learned may not yet be mainstream. The social media machine is slow to change its message. That does not mean that the issues about which I write aren’t known to many already.
Have they been proven scientifically? No! However, as Dr. Susan Friedman once convinced me, during a personal conversation, enough anecdotal evidence can and should carry the same weight for consideration as that which has been proven by science. The latter can also be slow to catch up and is often dependent upon the ability to study a large group of individuals, as well as the funding to make it all possible. Two enormous hurdles when it comes to parrots.
I watch parrots all the time and have for decades. Over time I have noticed how important to them proximity is so I began to study this issue. What I have discovered may be critical in the future to a greater quality of life for all parrots, as well as having an impact on the way we provide for their care and resolve behavior problems. My hope is that you will read it not just for entertainment, but will take what I say into serious consideration, especially those of you who help others with behavior problems. I have been developing and using these ideas for several years now to make sure that they are solid. They have improved my ability to solve behavior problems with my clients and improved the quality of life of each bird, every time.
The Evils of Anthropomorphism
We, as parrot owners and behavior consultants, have had the evils of anthropomorphism drilled into us. For those of you who have escaped these warnings, the definition of anthropomorphism is “the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.” (1) This fear has gotten in the way of our ability to understand our parrots. I hope to convince you in this article that parrots and people have more in common than you might think and that we would do well to heed the implications of this and abandon any concerns we might harbor about “being anthropomorphic.”
Why? Because both humans and parrot species organize their societies through what might be termed “rules of proximity.” It is time to stop worrying about being anthropomorphic and allow the obvious to become clear. Parrots and people have much in common. Our inability to recognize this to date has resulted in poor quality of life for many parrots, both companion and breeding.
Birds and Proximity
I first became fascinated with the issue of how birds manage proximity when watching videos of starlings manifesting the behavior of murmuration. Please take a few seconds and watch the video at this YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY.
If you watched it, you understand that this behavior would be impossible without exquisite sensitivity to proximity and an individual laser focus for each bird. We know that birds are intelligent, including starlings which are the subject of the video. Our parrots are no different. If you have ever watched a fully-flighted budgie hurtle towards a window and then turn on a dime at the last minute you understand this. I have often watched my greys tuck their wings in at the last moment when going through a partially open doorway. I will not be surprised if, in the far future, it is discovered that birds have a sense that humans do not – a sense related solely to their proximity to other things.
Humans and the Study of Proxemics
As it turns out, humans too are concerned with proximity. Proxemics is “the study of how human beings communicate through their use of space.” This term was first used by E.T. Hall, an anthropologist. Proxemics is studied within the subject matter of communication skills and body language. Hall defined proxemics as, “The spatial dimension of non-verbal behavior.” (2)
I found this quote especially interesting: “Blyth, an expert in the field, while talking about proxemics states that, ‘Hall sets forth a theory about how people react to others at various distances from their own bodies, indicating thereby a sense of territoriality, similar to that shown by animals or birds and develops notation for this purpose.” (2)
Within the field of proxemics, humans have four recognized zones of proxemic behavior that not only allow for a greater understanding of an individual but also a culture. These are the zones that have been defined:
The intimate zone is 0 to 1.5 feet. This zone requires no explanation and is used mostly for non-verbal communication.
The personal zone or space is identified as 1.5 feet to 3 feet and is informally known as one’s “bubble.” This is known as the best distance for developing rapport and building relationships. The distance may vary by culture or individual personality.
The social zone is defined as 4 to 11 feet. This is meant for events like cocktail parties or business meetings where people might not know each other well. The public zone is 12-25 feet. This is the zone you might experience if you take a college course or attend a presentation by a live orchestra.
These suggested zones are by no means hard and fast. They are influenced by culture, the height of the person speaking, the size of the space, the time of day, and whether the person is more used to city versus rural living. However, these are now considered to be “hard-wired” in our culture; they are the default distances that most people use most of the time.
Parrots and Proxemic Zones
I believe that companion parrots also have proxemic zones that are hard-wired. They may not be identical to ours, but they are similar enough to cause anyone reading this to have some light bulbs going on by now. For parrots, proximity to others in the flock is a matter of survival. However, each parrot species seems to have its own “rules of proximity.” The fact that bird flocks are organized due to their “rules of proximity” is irrefutable.
The way companion parrots use proxemic distances will undoubtedly be influenced by the habituation of living in limited spaces and having to live in mixed-species flocks not of their choosing. Further, these zones will only be true for parrots who are fully-flighted with the opportunity to move about at free will when out of their cages. Parrots who have lived with clipped wings for years have learned that they have no power to control their proximity to anything. Those who are flighted quite freely make choices in this area.
The following is a discussion of what I have observed so far in my own flocks regarding the use of proximity. It appears that they too have an intimate zone or space. This explains why, when we keep a parrot on our shoulders or laps, or we engage in a lot of cuddling, they develop a pair bond with us, and the production of reproductive hormones soars. This is exacerbated by the practice of what I call intense proximity which is the fate of the parrot who has become habituated to spending long periods of time on the owner’s shoulder or lap.
Preferences for proximity seem to differ by species. Green-cheeked Conures enjoy hanging out in close proximity to each other when roosting. They use the “intimate zone” for social reasons, whereas African Greys would not. African Greys are a species that appear to incorporate quite naturally more distance between individuals. My own pair-bonded greys, Ruby and Chuckie, rarely choose to be close together. During the day, they stay between 2 and 10 feet from each other in my living area until it’s time to go to roost. They spend no more than 5 minutes a day in pair-bonding activities.
The internet is full of pictures of parrots on shoulders. Most clients whose birds have behavior problems have practiced physical closeness and have established a pair bond with their parrots. This then begs the question: Does the continual closeness of a parrot on a person pose any threat to a parrot’s physical and mental health because of the stress of imposed proximity? No two parrots, of any species, would ever spend as much time close together as some parrots spend on their owner’s shoulders. I have come to believe that feather-damaging behavior, self-mutilation, and cloacal prolapse are directly tied to excess hormone production caused by inappropriate closeness and touching that occurs over a long period of years.
In addition to the intimate zone, parrots use other proxemic zones. They are similar to those that we use. Depending upon the species, they have a personal zone that ranges from 2- 6 feet. This is the zone they prefer when with a human they trust and interact with freely.
They also display a “social zone.” This would be approximately between 6-12 feet, or the furthest distance within the room. This zone would include those people in the house the parrot does not prefer or actively aggresses against.
The last zone we might consider describing for companion parrots is the public zone. This would apply to strange people coming into the home or any experiences that the parrot has when leaving the home.
Parrots also concern themselves with their proximity to objects and activities. This is why the strategies of desensitization and counter conditioning, as well as The Constructional Approach, are so often necessary in working with them.
Scientific Information on Parrot Proxemics
The implications of this knowledge are huge and far-reaching for our parrots’ quality of life. Research that reveals information on how parrots use proximity is scarce, but let’s look at what I was able to find so far during a brief search:
In one study, closer proximity to the door of a bird room resulted in increased frequency of “feather damaging behavior” while the development of stereotypies “was negatively correlated with the number of neighbors.” (3)
One study examined the spatial relationships of nesting Lilac-crowned Amazon parrots. The conclusion: “The behavioral spacing requirements of nesting parrots may limit breeding densities and restrict management strategies to increase numbers of nesting pairs within protected areas.” (4) While the reduced density of nests may be due to resource availability, it is possible that a behavioral need for a particular proximity is another factor.
In the “Manual of Parrot Behavior,” Cheryl Meehan and Joy Mench offer us a discussion of the factors in our homes that impact the welfare of our own birds. Mentioned is the fact that isolation from conspecifics may result in several behavior problems and that increased closeness then resolved. (5) It would not be hard to find other examples.
In terms of anecdotal evidence, I have three cases so far in which I can show that feather-damaging behavior increases in direct proportion to the amount of time the parrot spends on the owner’s body.
Understanding the value of proximity to parrots raises a host of important questions, both ethical and practical. It also, however, allows us to get busy right away improving their quality of life. It is time to recognize that proximity is a primary reinforcer for parrots. After all, we know that a lone parrot is more likely to succumb to a predator. Parrots live in flocks for reasons of safety. We must learn to recognize and respect how parrots indicate their preferences for proximity. We must use this information with greater intention when interacting with them and when creating their environments. Look at the excellent example above, that one amazing client created for her mixed-species flock of small birds.
Putting this Knowledge into Practice
In Part Two of this article, I will explore how we can best use this new understanding of the importance of proximity to parrots. As I have used this new perspective, I have become convinced that it is a valuable tool. It will change the way we read body language. We will examine some questions related to training, environment, social interactions, and how methods used for solving certain behavior problems might incorporate this knowledge:
- Do bird rooms where cages are placed close together compromise the quality of life for parrots?
- Is it easier to establish a relationship with a parrot if we locate their cage in the living area?
- If we have mixed-species flocks of both Old and New World parrots, how does this inform cage placement?
- Do parrots who flock in single-species flocks need a conspecific in the home for best quality of life?
- Can this understanding be used to solve some behavior problems more easily?
- Does this knowledge change the way we read body language more easily?
- Can this information be used to best introduce a new parrot into the house?
These are just a few of the questions I will examine in Part Two of this article. I hope that this discussion has been at least a bit eye-opening and that you will stay with me on this journey as we explore how we can use this new perspective to create environments that foster the best quality relationships with our parrots.
- Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism (Accessed 05/06/23)
- O.Minu Agnus M.A., M.Phil., M.B.A., Ph.D. Proxemics: The Study of Space. IRWLE VOL. 8 No. I January 2012 “Thousand of experiences teach us, that space communicates” E.T.Hall (1990 p 161). https://worldlitonline.net/proxemics-the-o.pdf. (Accessed 05/11/23)
- Genetic, environmental, and neighbor effects on the severity of stereotypies and feather picking in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica): An epidemiological study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 96, Issues 1–2, 2006, Pages 153-168, ISSN 0168-1591 (Accesses 6/15/23)
- RT Journal Article, Salinas-Melgoza, Alejandro, Salinas-Melgoza, Vicente A1 Renton, Katherine. Factors Influencing Nest Spacing of a Secondary Cavity-Nesting Parrot: Habitat Heterogeneity and Proximity of Conspecifics. YR 2009. DO 10.1525/cond.2009.090017, VO 111, IS 2, SP 305, OP 313, SN 1938-5129, RD 5/6/2023. https://doi.org/10.1525/cond.2009.090017 (Accessed 7/1/23)
- Manual of Parrot Behavior. Cheryl Meehan and Joy Mench. “Captive Parrot Welfare,” pages 301-315.
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.