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!

My Parrot Won’t Play With Toys!

This is a claim I hear often from parrot owners who are totally frustrated in their efforts to offer enrichment in the form of toys or foraging, only to see their birds ignoring it.  Many simply give up, after spending what seems like endless amounts of time and money, having achieved no success at all.

And, after all… isn’t it okay if we have a bird who doesn’t play with toys if he seems happy enough? If he’s not displaying behavior problems and he’s healthy, why keep trying? Keeping parrots seems to be a lot of work at times. Many ask, “Do I really need to keep working on this too?”

I hate to disappoint you…but the answer is yes.photo-1519165209234-0545d0e2c755  You do need to keep working on this.  Your parrot does need to interact with enrichment for the very best quality of life.  If you want him to enjoy physical, emotional, and intellectual health, you’ve got to keep trying.

Parrots, like all creatures, evolved to act upon their environment in different ways. When they do, the environment gives them feedback. This feedback from the environment offers them the chance to learn. This learning process enriches their lives much of the time in different ways.

A parrot who doesn’t know how to keep himself busy is a lot more likely to develop behavior problems such as screaming or chewing off feathers.  “Captive settings may limit the expression of normal behaviours and, as a consequence, abnormal behaviours may develop.” (Rodriguez-Lopez, 2016)

Glove StufferYour parrot can work on a foraging project for 30 minutes, finally accessing his treat.  Or he can scream for 30 minutes until you finally react.  The treat and your reaction are both “feedback” from the environment. Both types of feedback enrich his life because he acted on the environment in order to get a certain result.

His existence is enriched by your social attention when you react, even if you sound angry or use a swear word or two.  It can be quite enjoyable for a bored parrot to figure out what he can do to get a reaction out of you. He is hard-wired to act upon his environment. He will do so independently of you and your desires.

I have always thought of a parrot’s day as similar to a “pie chart of activity.”  In other words, they operate in our homes within an “activity budget.”  I want my parrots’ activity budget to look something like this pie graph. Granted, the time spent in each activity likely would not be the same, but you get the idea. Foraging

If your parrot doesn’t fly or interact with wood or other enrichment, there’s a much greater chance that some of those pie wedges may read “screaming” or “biting” or “feather destruction.”

There is a second reason why we can’t give up on trying to get our parrots to interact with physical enrichment. Life in captivity is stressful  for our companion parrots, no matter how good a job we do with them.  “Captive animals are susceptible to chronic stress due to restricted space, lack of hiding places, presence of visitors, or the lack of resources that promote physical and mental stimuli. In birds, chronic stress can promote stereotypes, self-mutilation, feather picking, chewing on cage bars and walls, fearfulness and excessive aggression. Environmental enrichment (EE) becomes an important management tool to decrease chronic stress in captive animals.” (de Almeida, Palme, and Moreira 2018)

Thus, it is a real problem when a parrot doesn’t interact with enrichment or know how to forage.  It’s enough of a problem that it deserves dissection. If we can come to a better understanding of the problem, we can both prevent it AND solve it.

The problem begins with our own expectations. Everyone talks about parrots “playing,” so we expect our parrots to play.   This expectation is not a reasonable one, if applied to all parrots.

Mylas+and+Severe+2+7-20-2009+6-02-44+PM[1] (2)Baby parrots play.  One of the happiest periods of my life was when I was breeding a small number of African Greys each year.  There is nothing more fun that watching the development of baby parrots. They are learning machines. They are eager to investigate anything you give them. Like all baby animals, they are playful. That is their job –  it’s how they learn about the world.

Once mature, however, most adult parrots don’t play. It’s not their nature to be playful. Granted, there are exceptions.  Some individuals are more playful than others. Some species tend to be more playful  than others – caiques, lorikeets, small macaws and some conures, to name a few. Some individuals within those species could play for hours with a simple object. If you need cheering up, check this video out.

However, if you expect an African Grey, one of the Poicephalus species, or an Eclectus to be playful, you could wait a very long time. Thus, the first problem is thinking there is something wrong with your parrot if he doesn’t play.

An adult parrot has a different job – to stay safe with the knowledge he’s learned to date. They are often suspicious, if not downright afraid, of new things.  If you expect your adult parrot to immediately interact with a new toy or project, you may be sadly disappointed. It could very well take a week or longer before your bird decides that object is safe enough for exploration.  So, that’s the second problem – expecting your parrot to interact with new enrichment items without a proper period of introduction.

If your older parrot was raised by a breeder who didn’t offer enrichment to the babies and then went into a first home or two where this need was also neglected, he may have temporarily lost that once-important desire to investigate, even once an item does become familiar. Both situations can lead to that diagnosis – My parrot doesn’t play with toys!

The third problem we create for ourselves with this issue has to do with perception. Dr. Susan Friedman has made enormous contributions to our understanding of behavior. In many of her articles, she discusses the problems that result when we label parrot behavior. For example, if I think of my parrot as aggressive, this leads me nowhere, in terms of arriving at a solution to that problem. However, if I look at the circumstances surrounding the bites, I see that there are some things I can change.  Changing the right circumstances in an effective way does lead to a solution to the problem.

When you tell yourself …My parrot doesn’t play with toys!…it’s the same thing as imposing a label on your parrot. photo-1538440694107-8448c848ad97That statement in itself will prevent you from solving this problem because you will believe it. To move toward a solution, you must look at what the parrot does do and build from there. Every parrot interacts with some objects, even if you don’t think of them as toys.

A fourth obstacle to having a parrot who interacts with enrichment is the type of things manufactured and sold to parrot owners. Often these are targeted at you and your pocketbook, rather than your parrot’s preferences. Purchasing the wrong type of toys can lead to the same conclusion – My parrot doesn’t play with toys! 

For one thing, the desires of a parrot and the desires of a parrot owner are not the same and toy manufacturers know this.  A parrot wants to destroy a wood toy quickly and easily.  He wants to act on his environment. A parrot owner wants to buy a toy that will last due to the expense. He wants to spend his money wisely. images (15)

How many of us have wasted our money on the toy to the right?  Those alphabet blocks and round wooden beads are so hard that only the very largest of parrots can chew them up. Most parrots will simply give up after a short while. But, the important thing to the owner is that he didn’t spend $25.00 on a toy that only lasted a brief while.

The second problem is the power of advertising. We love parrots and we love photos of parrots.  Therefore, as a selling tool the manufacturer or company will position a toy with a parrot suggesting interest in the parrot towards the toy.91M9oTClGZL._SL1500_  You’ve got to use your critical thinking skills to question the advertising before moving the item into your shopping cart.  Look at the toy to the left. Suggested by the photo as appropriate for a cockatiel, this toy is totally unsatisfactory for a bird of that size…or any bird.  Those coconuts are very hard and the holes are so small that getting anything out of them would be difficult.

Let the buyer beware.

So, what are you supposed to do if you have a bird doesn’t play with toys?

First, find a starting place.  Most parrots interact with something. If you have a parrot who loves to play with bottle caps (and doesn’t chew on them), hide bottle caps in a foraging toy so that it takes some work for him to get at them.

If your parrot loves to chew the back of your sofa, create toys made of fabric. Get a cotton gardening glove and stuff it with interesting items and food treats and hang this in the cage. Or find a pair of baby overalls at Goodwill and use zip ties to close up the legs.  Then, stuff the pockets with foot toys and treats.

If your parrot loves paper and cardboard, but won’t chew wood, then give him foraging projects made from those materials. If your parrot only chews on smaller wood toys, but demolishes them too quickly, then create these with wood slices and beads on a stainless skewer sold for parrots.

Second, make sure that the perching you provide sets the bird up for success and makes it easy for him to interact with the item.  I often see toys hung in the cage without any perch nearby.  Put yourself in your parrot’s feathers.  If he perches there, can he reach that toy comfortably?

Third, provide reinforcement.  Once you have found an item with which your parrot interacts, keep a soft focus on his behavior. When you see him touch or chew the toy…or even just look at it…immediately tell him “Good!” and quickly offer a preferred food treat. Soon he will learn that messing around with things in his cage earns him food!

Fourth, experiment.  Gradually, add a wider variety of toys – stainless steel bells, paper, fabric, easy-to-chew wood, puzzle toys, etc.  Through this process, you can discover a lot about your bird.  Don’t pre-judge his interests and preferences.  Perhaps you’ve always just given him wood toys, only to find that he’s insane for bells.  Many small macaws for example, enjoy sitting underneath bells.  One caveat:  most parrots prefer toys made of natural materials; my advice would be to leave those acrylic toys at the bird store, unless they offer a foraging challenge.

One small study found that parrots interacted with their staple diet of pellets for longer periods if they were provided with “over-sized” pellets.  (Rozek, Danner, Stucky, Millam, 2010) These required longer periods of time for consumption, given the additional challenges of manipulation. If your parrot consumes one size of pellet, perhaps providing much larger pellets in or out of foraging toys could be an important type of enrichment.

The most difficult challenge can be teaching an older parrot to forage who never learned the skill in the first place. Baby parrots are naturally curious, but they have to be provided with the raw materials to develop this into the skill of exploration. Older parrots can still learn this, however, and it is important that they do. “Enrichment is more successful it if is aimed at soliciting species-specific behaviours such as foraging.” (Coulton, Waran, Young, 1997)

BobbingForApplesTeaching a parrot to forage requires starting with very basic challenges and then making them incrementally more difficult in small steps.  Many of you may have already seen this, either on my website or on Facebook, but I have completed a pamphlet of foraging challenges that are easily made at home from inexpensive materials.  It demonstrates how to start out simple and gradually add complexity. This is free to all of you for download: Parrot Enrichment Made Easy: Low Cost Tips and Tricks.

Lastly, there are some foraging toys sold on the market today that do help beginning foragers to learn the skill.  My favorite is the Acrylic Foraging Kabob.  It triggers interest because the parrot can see that it has something inside of it, but offers enough of a challenge in extracting the items. It can be very helpful in introducing vegetables.  And, it includes a food skewer that is useful in making other toys.

A last word.  Remember – always watch your parrot with any new toy to make sure he’s interacting with it safely. Most parrots will not ingest non-food items, but watch nonetheless, especially if you are giving your parrot a toy with cotton strings attached.

End Note:  I attempt, whenever possible, to substantiate my anecdotal observations with scientific research. I have cited a number of studies at the end of this blog that help to support what I have said.  However, there has been a bit of a bias among researchers to focus more on enrichment for captive primates and carnivores. The studies that have been performed for captive parrots are few and often have been done on very small populations. They may be suggestive, rather than definitive.

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. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Saeed Lajami on Unsplash.com.

References:

Coulton, LE, NK Waran, and RJ Young. 1997. “Effects of Foraging Enrichment on the Behaviour of Parrots.” Animal Welfare 1997, 6: 357-363. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_Young15/publication/233642678_Effects_of_Foraging_Enrichment_on_The_Behaviour_of_Parrots/links/004635388f928d5693000000.pdf

De Almeida, Ana Claudia, Rupert Palm and Nei Moreira. 2018. “How Environmental Enrichment Affects Behavioral and Glucocorticoid Responses in Captive Blue-and-Yellow Macaws (Ara araruana).” Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 201: 125-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.12.019

Meehan, CL, JP Garner, and JA Mench. 2004. “Environmental Enrichment and Development of Cage Stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica). Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychogiol 44: 209-218. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bbb2/a21684e23a62de973c1779e8d6a103f7463a.pdf

Rodriguez-Lopez, Rogelio. 2016. “Environmental Enrichment for Parrot Species: Are We Squawking Up the Wrong Tree?” Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 180: 1 – 10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.016

Rozek, Jessica, Lindsey Danner, Paul Stucky, and James Millam. 2010. “Over-sized pellets naturalize foraging time of captive Orange-winges Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica).”  Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 125: 80-87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.001