In Parrots and Proximity (Part One), I examined the importance of proximity to parrots. (If you have not yet read that blog post, please do so before you read on.) Parrots react both positively and negatively to the proximity of people they encounter, to other parrots, and to objects.
You may be thinking: “Well, this is nothing new! We know that parrots react when we bring things close to them that they don’t like.” I ask you simply to read on. This is a close look at something we have failed to appreciate fully in the past.
Both humans and parrot species organize their societies through what might be termed “rules of proximity.” Parrots are flock animals; proximity to others ensures their very survival. Beyond that, however, parrots use different proxemic distances to form specific relationships.
Proximity is of primary importance to parrots and is in fact a primary reinforcer. (This is why the Constructional Approach is always effective in a relatively brief period of time when used correctly.) Given this, we must investigate more thoroughly the importance of proximity to parrots and how we can use this knowledge both to make them more comfortable in our world and to be more effective with them. We can use this knowledge to improve quality of life for all and to resolve behavior problems more easily. We can use it to improve our ability to communicate with our parrots and to develop better relationships with them. Let’s examine each of these areas.
Improving Quality of Life for All
Too Close for Comfort
I have long lobbied against putting a group of parrots into a “bird room,” for multiple reasons. For the purpose of this discussion, a room would deserve this designation if it imposed an artificial boundary between the parrots in their cages and the people in the most used living space. Placing a parrot’s cage in a room other than the living area assumes that the bird is not really capable of relationship and instead will simply be called upon for periods of mutual entertainment when out of the room.
As I stated in Part One, each species seems to have its own culture when it comes to the proximities they choose for roosting, interacting with friends and pair bonding activities. This is an area where a great deal of investigation is still needed.
Old World parrots (greys, cockatoos, Poicephalus, Eclectus, and others) have different body language and customs than do New World parrots (Amazons, Pionus, macaws, Quakers, etc.). In many bird rooms parrots belonging to multiple different species live in close proximity to maximize space. It is impossible to quantify the amount of stress that this may cause some parrots.
I have the same concern about adoption organizations and their need to maximize space. Directors that I have spoken with tell tales of waiting lists, too many parrots relinquished, too few foster homes, and too few adoptions to keep up with the demand. Too many parrots remain in organizational living for too long a period of time, so examining these issues is a must.
It’s inevitable in these facilities that parrot cages will need to be placed close together. However, we should explore options, such as visual barriers, that might help parrots adjust to those living conditions. For parrots that flock as a single species, they should all be placed in the same area. That one single move could conceivably improve the experience for Old World species in organizations. If going into foster homes, these parrots should also be placed in twos whenever possible.
In our homes, we can use this new awareness regarding parrots and their proxemic preferences to prevent stress by making sure that we don’t place cages too close together. I have found that this will vary among species, but at least four feet between cages would be optimal for most medium- to large-sized parrots. More may be necessary for larger birds. We can “ask” the parrots by bringing them closer together and watching their body language to identify their “preferences” about their nearness to other birds.
The Single Parrot
We must also examine the experience of the single parrot. I have changed my ideas over the years, and now believe that we should not keep single parrots if we have a choice. They have a difficult experience over the course of their very long lives, especially when kept in a room apart from the family area.
Mammals are not birds and birds do best with another bird in the home. Since parrots are flock animals, and staying in close proximity is necessary for survival, it’s a safe bet that a single parrot in the home might benefit from the presence of another.
This does not mean I think that everyone with a single parrot should go out and adopt a second! No one should ever adopt one parrot for another. Please – only adopt another parrot if you truly want another one! You are the one who will sign up for decades of cleaning and increased expense. And, there’s no guarantee that the parrots will get along. You might wind up with a second parrot and a behavior consultation fee.
An important note before we go on: NEVER get a “mate” for your single parrot, thinking this will solve some of your problems. It won’t. You will simply have twice the problems.
If you adopt another parrot, make sure that it is the same gender as the one(s) you already have. That won’t prevent the possibility of pair bonding, but the ramifications won’t be as disastrous if you have a species that forms very strong pair bonds, such as Amazons and cockatoos.
And, do NOT expect that the parrots will interact and become friends. The true benefit comes simply from having another set of feathers in the house. We must respect the fact that they derive pleasure from the presence of the other from a distance. When conditions create stress, such as the need to be boarded, the birds have each other as a familiar stabilizing presence.
Parrots from Single-Species Flocking Patterns
We may have an ethical issue when it comes to keeping parrots with single-species flocking habits in the wild. This is true of Congo African Greys, which are known to flock in unusually large groups of their own kind, even when breeding.
Most of you know that, while I have experience with a great many species, a lot of it is with greys. During my career, I have helped clients with one grey to adopt a second many times. In 95% of cases, this goes so well that it hurts your heart and the client wonders why you didn’t do it sooner. In the other 5% of cases, people have usually mismanaged the situation.
Greys (almost) always do well with other greys. The photo is of Boston and Phoenix. Boston (age 8) had always lived by himself until his owner adopted Phoenix from me. This photo was taken within two weeks of their first meeting. They formed a fast friendship almost immediately.
We need to examine our practice of keeping these species as single parrots. They may very well need the proximity of others of their kind to have the best life. New World parrots often do well with any of the other New World species, so having a conspecific may not be as critical for them.
Behavior Problems and Proximity
Screaming for Attention
Screaming is a behavior problem I am often asked to resolve. Once I began to take a closer look, I found that most often a parrot is screaming for proximity, rather than attention. For years, behavior consultants have assumed that parrots are screaming for attention. And, for the most part, the correct interventions of ignoring the screaming, rewarding desirable vocalizations, and changing antecedents do solve the problem.
However, that is a lot of work to go to if you are relying on those strategies alone because you may not really resolve the parrot’s main issue, which is frustration at being placed at too great a distance from the people. Often, if you simply place the parrot in the preferred human’s proximity on a playstand or cage that offers plenty to do, the parrot will be happy with that. It is simply not normal for a single parrot to spend the day alone when the owner is in another room. Further, pair-bonded parrots are exquisitely sensitive to distance from their person. We still need to teach the parrot to station but by placing the parrot in the person’s proximity, we set everyone up for success and stationing becomes much easier.
This will not be the case with pair-bonded parrots who have learned to spend large periods on the shoulder or lap. These often become “boomerang birds,” if you try to get them to station even two feet away. If you have one, you know what I mean. It is necessary in these cases to work with a consultant to gradually teach the parrot to be happy with some distance.
Fear and Aggression
Fearful and aggressive parrots also do best when placed in the living area, in a spot out of a high traffic pattern. They need the opportunity to observe the owners as they go about their daily activities. Parrots establish trust more easily if they can observe us as we ourselves behave throughout the day. The benefit holds true for all parrots, of course.
Fear and aggression both are best resolved by the use of the Constructional Approach (also known as the CAT Protocol). This approach rewards the bird for calmer behavior by removing an object that causes discomfort (sometimes it’s the person). Thought for years to be an approach that could break trust, it turns out that in this application negative reinforcement is the strategy of choice and gives the parrot the greatest relief in the quickest period of time, making it possible to use positive reinforcement to teach trust.
The Constructional Approach is also the most powerful intervention for resolving fear toward unfamiliar objects, such as new toys. To learn more about this approach, Barbara Heidenreich has an excellent video.
Parrots Who Don’t Get Along
When we have problems with parrots who don’t get along, we can use knowledge of proximity and behavior to resolve those issues and instill a measure of community. A wonderful client used this principle to resolve occasional aggression between her budgies and her two Green-cheeked Conures, two species not known to get along. By setting up two different “living areas” we gave them a bit of space from each other, which then allowed us to encourage more peaceful interactions by setting up a communal foraging spot for all the birds.
When a parrot enjoys a pleasurable experience in the presence of another, their opinion of “the other” becomes more favorable. This is how counter conditioning works. We work to change the opinion that a parrot has toward another bird by pairing high-value reinforcers (rewards) with the proximity of that other.
I will be delving into situations like this with multiple birds in my new webinar, Inclusive Living with Companion Parrots, next Thursday, November 16, at 11:00 am. This will be a two-hour deep dive (with plenty of opportunity to ask questions) into creating the best environments for all parrots and then how to use positive reinforcement to create the best social relationships. If you are unable to attend, no worries. I will be recording the webinar and will make this available to all registrants. Please come! This is original material that I have not presented before. Just go to the link above to register.
Reading Body Language
When I read suggestions from others on how to read body language, I sometimes get the impression that this is done for reasons of self-defense. Most often discussed are the indicators of impending aggression or a state of heightened arousal.
However, until now, no one has focused on the need to recognize the much more subtle indications that a parrot gives regarding proxemic wishes. If we are looking for the broader strokes, such as pinning pupils and fanned tails, we will miss many messages that our parrots offer us on a daily basis.
Parrots indicate interest by leaning forward. They indicate an aversive reaction by leaning away. We must learn to recognize and then respect these very first signs of discomfort or interest and then respond accordingly. It is not okay to put the toy into the cage if the parrot clearly indicates discomfort. Find another way.
This is difficult for people. Humans are animals who enjoy the use of force. Force includes subtle “persuasion.” If a bird tells us by leaning away that he wishes greater distance, we must give that to him immediately, rather than trying to get closer to somehow “desensitize” him to it (especially if you have not taken a course in applied behavior analysis so that you understand what desensitization really is). Social media is full of pseudo-science, even from those who should know better.
We constantly push past the subtle messages about proximity that our parrots give us. This is how we teach birds to bite. Think about the times when you helped to clear away the sheaths of new feathers on your parrot’s head. How many times has he pulled just slightly away, and you followed with your hand to do more despite that subtle sign? This is a very slight form of force. We must learn instead to exercise more self-control over our desire to touch our parrots so that we pay attention to such “requests” to stop that the parrot gives to us.
We all could do with a lesson in sensitivity. You can begin by taking a day to find out more information about your parrot’s wishes regarding his proximity to different items and experiences in his day. Don’t operate on previous assumptions. If he leans away from the harness, but then allows you to put it on anyway, that is not a win and you should retrain the harness in a force-free way.
Improved relationships rely on improved communication. Communication is a two-way experience. It requires both speaking and listening. You can’t “listen” to parrots who speak “body language” unless they are in your space.
Beyond that, we can use this knowledge of proximity and how parrots in flocks behave to capitalize on the fact that they thrive on parallel activities. Parrot flocks are, in fact, a study in parallel activities – they all preen at the same time, forage at the same time, vocalize at the same time, and roost at the same time. Parallel activities are the glue that keeps parrot flocks together.
What types of parallel activities can we offer our parrots? If we place parrot cages in our living area, this will occur naturally. Parrots are much more aware of us than we are of them and will sync their activities to ours. They will eat when we eat, snooze when we snooze, and get busy when we are busy. They vocalize loudly when we yell or play music.
You will find that there is nothing parrots love more than doing their stuff as you do your stuff. When I clean the house, I play music. As I clean, the parrots chew up enrichment or bathe, or mess around with each other.
We can encourage harmonious relationships between different parrots by structuring parallel activities in various ways. At least twice a day, I draw a cup of cold water and go around offering a drink to everyone. Parrots prefer cold water freshly drawn to that which has been standing around. The act of going around, offering drinks as each parrot relishes the water, solidifies their bonds with each other and with me.
Sharing food is another way to establish closer flock relationships. Unsalted, unflavored rice cakes are an excellent choice. Outshine fruit popsicles have a no-sugar option; many parrots are fascinated with frozen things (especially African Greys). Crackers made from nuts are another good choice. We don’t want to fill them up with such things. But taking a rice cake, breaking off a small piece for each parrot, and then enjoying the rest yourself is a small, but powerful, action.
Parrots and people are very similar in that they both organize their societies according to proxemic distances and both use parallel experiences (think about sports) to build relationships. Let’s recognize this by locating our parrots in our living space and then training them well so that they can continue to enjoy that right.
As I write this, my parrots are all out of their cages. I am working in my sunny kitchen while I listen to music. Chuckie is in his (open) cage, taking a bath in his water dish. Ruby is also in there with him, working to destroy a wood toy. Cyrano is perched on his AviStation and Marko is chilling on top of the (well-protected) refrigerator. It feels very companionable to me. Granted, this is the result of well-placed cages and playstands and a lot of training, but it’s SO worth it. If this seems impossible in your case, it is not. This is what I make possible for those who listen to me. Please register for my first webinar Inclusive Living with Companion Parrots, in my new series Progressive Parrot Keeping.
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots, with any problem large or small. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication, or purchase my webinars, go to http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.