My best Christmas gift this year is Chuckie. Chuckie is the sixth African Grey to join my flock for good, although a few others have come and gone. He is approximately 11 years old and has been cared for well by a friend of mine.
She didn’t used to be a friend. She was a client who brought Chuckie in annually to the vet clinic at which I worked. I was always her technician and we grew fond of each other over the years.
At one point, she began asking me if I would adopt Chuckie when she died. I said “No.” She continued to make the request each year when I saw her, and I finally agreed to foster Chuckie while I tried to find him a home. At some point, she must have caught me in a weak moment, and I did agree finally to adopt him myself. That was several years ago.
This December, age, health and other concerns forced a move for her to be closer to family and it wasn’t possible to take Chuckie. The decision was an agonizing one, as it so often is when anyone surrenders a beloved parrot. But, there really was not a choice when it came right down to it. And, now Chuckie is mine.
This change is a big adjustment for Chuckie. He is used to living with his best friend in their home – just the two of them. Now he lives with me, whom he knows just a little, and five goofball African Greys and assorted other parrots.
Now he must not only navigate a new friendship with me, but learn to live alongside other birds as well – something he has never done. A parrot who has always lived with humans can find this to be a considerable challenge. Chuckie speaks English very well, but doesn’t know anything about speaking African Grey.
Behavior is a Study of One
Many people ask about the best way to introduce a parrot into your home, expecting a set of simple instructions. Years ago, the oft-repeated advice was to leave a new parrot in his cage for three days to allow him to “acclimate” to your home before you allowed him out to interact. That might be appropriate for some parrots, for others it could be punishing.
Behavior is a study of one. I don’t know who first said that. I am repeating it here because this is one of the most important things you will ever learn. Generalizations, such as the advice to leave a new bird in the cage for three days, will never serve you well.
Every parrot brings with him a different learning history, in addition to differences dictated by genetics. Further, his behavior in your home will differ from the behavior he displayed in his previous home, especially if that was a rescue organization.
Even small environment changes can have a significant impact upon a parrot’s behavior. When it comes to changing homes, a total environment change, the impact on a bird can be huge in the short term. Therefore, the behavior you may have observed in his last living situation may not be the behavior that you see once you get him home.
Before You Bring Him Home
Prior to bringing a new adult parrot home, it’s important to collect as much information as possible about his past. Does he choose to fly? What are his favorite treats? What diet has he been eating? What are his favorite toys? Does he show fear of anything? Ask as many questions as you can that are pertinent to your home and family.
When it comes to information about diet and environment, you can use this to make your new parrot feel as comfortable as possible. You can use his favorite foods for motivation and teaching. You can provide his favorite toys to ensure some level of continuity. You will certainly offer the diet he is used to eating.
Try to keep as many things the same in this regard during your early weeks with him. You can always improve his diet and get him a better cage once he’s more comfortable.
When it comes to information told to you about his behavior, you will not be able to rely upon this to be true. It offers you a starting point only, and the information that you collect by observing the parrot yourself will be much more important.
For one thing, when people relinquish a parrot, they often lie. We are all human, and if you want to get rid of an animal, you are not going to highlight their problem behaviors when speaking to a potential adopter.
Additionally, the previous owner may not know how to interpret body language and, therefore, may not really know or understand the parrot with whom they have lived. In these cases, the information they provide may not be helpful. So, when you finally get your new bird home, you may be in for some surprises.
Have in Mind Some Future Goals
As I anticipate the addition of any parrot into my home, I always have in the back of my mind a set of goals. These goals represent all of the activities that I believe are vital to good emotional, mental, and physical health:
- Eating a varied, nutritionally complete diet
- Time spent foraging
- Chewing wood and other materials
- Learning new things
- Acceptance of a variety of alternate perching sites
- Enjoying an outdoor aviary
- Compliance with my requests for handling
- The development of better flight skills (if possible post clip)
- Peaceful co-existence with the other birds
- A minimum of noise
- A lack of aggression
The Early Days of Introduction
When a new parrot joins our home, we must suspend whatever arbitrary agenda we might have previously entertained and instead support the parrot’s process for integration into the family. A parrot’s innately social nature will move him to incorporate himself into whatever social structure exists. All we have to do is to provide support and guidance.
How do we do that? We observe body language and respond appropriately. Parrots are great communicators. All we have to do is to be good listeners and to take our cues from the new parrot.
Generating Specific Goals
When a new parrot arrives in my house, my approach is two-fold: (1) I begin to slowly introduce activities consistent with my overarching goals, and (2) I begin to build a trusting social relationship.
Since I know that I can’t necessarily rely upon the information I have gathered about my parrot’s previous behavior, I proceed slowly when I begin to introduce each of these things. I then watch his reaction, which provides me with better data about what types of teaching will be necessary as we go forward.
For example, I will present him with the diet I feed all of my birds and see what he does. If he eats it, I continue to offer it and observe. If he only picks at it, I will supplement with other foods his owner might have provided. If he has been on a seed mix, I will continue to provide that and use the method I have developed to convert him from eating seed mix to pellets and fresh foods.
If I provide a basic foraging toy and he ignores it, I assume that I will need to teach him to forage. I will provide an easily destroyed wood toy. If he ignores it, I know that I may have to use positive reinforcement to capture and shape the behavior of chewing on wood. If I spritz him with water and he runs away, I know that I will need to teach him to bathe.
When it comes to Chuckie, I am very lucky. He already eats a great diet and loves to bathe. He chews on wood when it is provided. He’s a wonderful talker but makes no sounds I don’t like and he hasn’t shown the least inclination to bite. He already enjoys one playstand, having explored this on his own by climbing over onto it from his cage. Luckily, Chuckie is partially flighted as he recovers from a wing clip.
He is already exploring away from his cage on his own and has even made it out to the living room. Since he can move around on his own, I see no reason to try to force this issue by carrying him out there. He’ll make the trip when he’s ready.
He is also already making friends. Bongo Marie and Navidad are now hanging out near his cage, where Chuckie still prefers to stay most of the time. They have become steady companions. It will be fun to see what materializes in the future. Greys do enjoy those other grey birds.
Chuckie does not, however, step up from inside his cage and only part of the time from on top. He also still prefers to remain in or on his cage a lot more than I would like. And, he’s relatively new to an aviary environment, having been out there just once previously when he boarded with me. And, I don’t think he yet understands the concept of hidden food.
So, my list of things to work on for him include:
- Better compliance when it comes to stepping up
- Learning new cued behaviors (targeting to start)
- Learning to forage
- Learning to enjoy the aviary
When it comes to establishing a social/handling relationship, I prefer to let the parrot take the lead in the early stages as I make observations. If I don’t know the parrot well, I simply put the carrier with the door open inside the cage when I first get him home. I recommend this approach. It allows him to come out on his own when he’s ready. The door to the cage can be open as well.
At this point, you can begin your data collection in regards to his “social temperament.” Hopefully, you have a list of his favorite foods and objects that you can use as reinforcers. A new parrot will look for ways to be successful (gain access to the things he wants) in this new environment.
If the parrot remains in the carrier for longer than 10 minutes, you have an indication that he may be fearful, at least for now. That will tell you that you may need to proceed slowly. This is the benefit of allowing him to make the moves early on.
When he does emerge from the carrier, watch what he does. Does he stay in the cage at the back? Or goes he come out on top and begin exploring. These are critical observations to make. It will be the best evidence you have about whether his behavior lies on the side of bolder or shyer. This information can then inform your other training for your future goals.
During his first week, you will be able to make a list of things that you need to work on and adjustments that you may need to make to the environment.
Does he startle when the dog or cat walks by? Or, does he show too much fondness for your husband? Does he sound an alarm every time someone walks by the window? In order to make him comfortable, or to avoid long-term problems, you can begin to make adjustments to the environment that will help.
Handling Your New Parrot
Once he shows some interest in interacting, you can respond by making some social overtures. I begin by offering a treat from my fingers, at times when I see no signs of heightened arousal. Once I see that he takes treats easily, then I ask him to walk a step or two toward me to take a treat.
Once he will walk several steps toward me, I will see if he will walk toward and then step onto my hand for a reinforcer. If he does that easily, I will ask him to step up using my typical cue.
If course, you may be able to skip some or even all of these steps. On the other hand, you might need to work through them all. If so, working through them might take two days or two months.
The Gifts of the Older Parrot
Incorporating a new, older bird into my home is one of my favorite joys. I encourage you to consider it also. (Eight of my eleven parrots were older when they came to me.)
I will never criticize anyone for purchasing a well-reared baby parrot. They can be hard to resist and rearing a young parrot well is a learning process also. We must have tolerance for each other’s choices.
However, adopting an older parrot brings rewards that might not be apparent at first glance. We tend to focus upon what we are doing for them. Yet what they do for us is far more valuable in the scheme of things.
They come with baggage, as do we all. If we work well with them, the level of wisdom, patience, and focus required for this elevates us. It is nothing less than a spiritual pursuit. And, therein is the gift.
Do you remember Siljan and Dorris? I have now worked with Siljan for a year as her consultant and coach and a strong friendship has developed. She wrote this to me right before Christmas:
“The meaning of life never comes for free. You have to work for it and it is only yourself who’s able to find it. I was looking for the meaning of life everywhere, but with age I finally figured out how to create it myself. I often lose this meaning of life thing I’ve created, but the traces and pieces are still in me, so I often find the way back.”
Siljan describes well the struggle we all face during our lifetimes. I’m lucky that parrots and my love for them has allowed me to create a meaning for my life.
I will continue to dedicate my efforts to you and your parrots in 2020. Happy New Year to You All!
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots and offer behavior consultations to that end. 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. Until next time!