HIGH ENERGY PARROTS
By Sally Blanchard
The High Energy Contest
Several years ago I got a terrier puppy who was 8 months old. The previous woman who had her was unable to relate to such a high energy puppy. I had lived with terriers before so I was prepared. I think the other thing that made it easier is that I had lived with a caique for twenty-five years. I have often thought of caiques as the terriers of the parrot world and the other way around. The big difference between my puppy and my caique, Spike, was that I have more experience working with the high energy of parrots.
There are many birds in the parrot family that could be classed in the “high energy” category. I lived with two of them; Spike and my slender-billed conure, Twiggy. I am not sure which one would have won in a contest of the bird with the “highest energy.” Many years ago, I had a red (Moluccan) lory named Gypsy and I lived with a dusky lory for a couple of years. I would say that lories would easily compete for “highest energy.” Hawk-headed parrots could also be a qualified contender. Some conures can also enter this contest. I have lived with a delightful Kakariki worked with several of them. I always thought that they were like trying to work with a butterfly when it came to their energy. Of course, there can be individuals in many species that could participate in the contest. I have met quite a few cockatoos that fit this description, especially the bare-eyed, rose-breasted, and umbrella.
All one has to do is watch young caiques play to know that they have boundless energy. I watched two white-bellied youngsters wrestle with each other for about half an hour. They took one short food break and started in again. I would need to be sports announcer to describe their interactions as they hopped up and down and rolled around together. If I was the referee, I would have called it a draw until the last moment when one of them rolled over on his back and stayed there as if to acquiesce. The wrestling match stopped when they got a drink of water and went about their business. Later in the day, I went to look at them and sure enough, they were at it again. In another situation, a caique youngster grabbed hold of a Hawk-head’s tail and held on as the larger parrot awkwardly dragged him across the play area. Even when the Hawk-head climbed to a perch, the caique remained attached to his tail.
Keep Them Busy
I believe that the best way to deal with high energy parrots is similar to dealing with terrier puppies; keep them busy. I play throw and fetch with my puppy until she wants to collapse next to my desk. While I wouldn’t say Spike collapses; it is clear to me that I have worn him out if we spend some intense time playing. This was evident when he traveled with me for seminars and I always had to compete with him for the audience’s attention. Then I would have him do his tricks for people and when the audience would applaud, Spike would spread his wings and sway back and forth. Once the event was over Spike was as worn out as I was. He wanted to be left alone and could be very grouchy if anyone, including me, bothered him.
Both Spike and Twiggy, my Slender-billed conure play with their toys enthusiastically but love interactive play with me the most. I got Twiggy several years after Spike from a bird shop because the shop owner didn’t think that anyone else would understand her hyper personality or her beak length. I felt I was qualified since I lived with a caique, had lived with a couple of lories, worked with many high energy birds and had shared my life with 5 terriers at one time or another. Twiggy’s favorite game was swinging. I put her on a ring hanging from the ceiling. She sat there for a moment and then rolled over and grabbed the ring from the bottom. When she said “Ready,” I made the ring swing back and forth and up and down. The harder I swung her, the more she squealed with delight. If it got too difficult for her to hang on, she just flew off. She would have been happy to do this most of the day but seemed happy if we just did it once or twice a day as long as she got attention otherwise
Spike hopped when I “wound him up” and he loved doing somersaults in my hand. Spike had a large cage with more toys than any other bird in my household. He played with just about every toy every day. He kept himself very busy. One of his favorite ways to play was to get sopping wet in his water bowl and then climb up to his tent. It had a plastic floor, which became the perfect place for him to dance in the puddles he made. I almost expected to hear him whistling “Singing in the Rain” while he danced. He also had an odd habit of forming his foot into a cup; then he dipping it in his water and bringing it up to his beak to drink. He loved to roll on the floor of the cage and “fight” with foot toys or the toys I attached to the bottom of his perches. He was always busy doing something but he also took a few naps if he got the chance.
Gypsy, the Moluccan lory that lived with me in the 1980s was an incredible companion and also played almost constantly. We had a special game where I took a bowl of poker chips and put them on the floor. She would fly down and get in the bowl. Then she would throw all of the poker chips out of the bowl. Once they were all out of the bowl, I would put one or two of the chips back into the bowl and she would hop all over the floor and put the rest back in the bowl by their color. She never lost interest in this game and it kept her very busy for some time. She also had an endless variety of toys in her cage and loved to play mostly with ones that she could climb, swing on, and or made lots of noise.
High Energy Cockatoos
In an article in the Emu (The scientific journal of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists, volume 94, part 3) Julian Read describes a flock of Rose-breasted Cockatoos deliberately flying into vortices (they call them willi-willies; we call them whirlwinds or dust devils.) According to Mr. Reid, “The birds spiral acrobatically, calling loudly, leave the vortex, then catch up with it to take another spin.” In the particular incidence that Mr. Reid observed, the birds took their E-ticket ride in five or six short bursts spanning a total of 30 to 40 seconds. Eventually, the flock settled in a group of trees as the willy-willy continued out of sight. Playful bare-eyed cockatoos have been observed enthusiastically hanging off of windmill blades as they turn around and around.
I bird sit for high energy and playful Umbrella cockatoo named Ginger. When she comes to visit, we play “Ms. Cockatoo.” This is a totally silly game that Ginger loves to play with me. Clearly, it is frivolous without any purpose except to have fun. After her caregiver leaves, Ginger starts to initiate the game with her postures and excitement. It is mostly me making a big deal out of all of the things she does. She will throw her crest, spread her wings and knock her beak on my hand. Of course, there are no other contestants so she is the winner every time we play. We sing and dance and I move her crest from side to side. She squeals with delight but it is not screaming, it is an indication of how much fun she is having. When she is on my hand, I flap her down up and down just a bit and she spreads her wings and I tell her how beautiful she is. When I announce her as the winner, I put a makeshift paper crown around her crest and she is really happy about it all. The fact that I give her totally focused attention for 5 or 10 minutes seems to keep her happy if I have her out with me a few times during the day. Parrots that get focused attention and have a daily interactive play with the people in their lives are usually secure enough to be happy playing by themselves.
Play During Visits
I often had fun playing with parrots during my stays at people's homes when I did seminars. One woman who had a high energy Bare-eyed Cockatoo. The cockatoo and I played our fun version of baseball several times over the weekend. I later played a similar game of baseball with a Toco Toucan. I would hit a small whiffle ball with a paper towel cardboard away from the bird and he would chase after it and run from one place to another finally bringing it back to me. At another visit, I also played catch with a delightful Moluccan cockatoo. I would throw a whiffle ball across the room and she would chase after it and throw it "back to me". Of course, her aim was rarely good enough for me to catch it so she would have to get it and throw it to me until I got it to throw for her again. Good exercise and great fun!
Most of us have seen Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, on Youtube. I think that most cockatoos and many other parrots have the ability to dance to music but this type of interaction can be encouraged by the people in their lives. Dancing is another way that a high-energy parrot can expend a great deal of that energy. While he is not as talented as Snowball, my caique, Spike loved to dance on my hand when I whistled the Mexican Hat Dance.
Problems with High-energy Parrots
People tend to have more behavior problems with high energy parrots than with the more sedate birds. These parrots need situations where they can expend that energy and people need to provide those situations. If the energy is not dissipated in acceptable ways, it may result in negative behaviors such as screaming and aggression. Spike was a classic example. When he got wound up and started misbehaving, I could pick him up and have him do a few somersaults in my hand and then praise him for being so talented. He loved enthusiastic praise. If he was in his cage and started yelling, usually all I had to do was whistle from wherever I was and he would start whistling with me. Of course, these are behaviors that I taught him through play and they also worked very well as distractions from negative behaviors.
Parrots, even high energy ones, are very tuned into our energy especially if they have a bond with us. Lowering our energy when a high energy parrot gets carried away is one of the best ways to slow it down. Twiggy would get carried away and start making a high-pitched screeching sound. If I was nearby, I would say “Peek-a-boo” without looking at her and she would stop and start saying “Peek-a-boo” because we played that game a lot. If that didn't work, I walked up to her cage without giving her any eye contact or attention. With my head lowered, I would take a few deep breaths to slow down my energy and she would slow down with me. This also worked well for Spike when he was on one of his high energy rants.
Nutrition for High-energy Parrots
We know that lories need a special diet because of their energy needs. When Spike first came to live with me in the late 1980s, he was either 100% on or 100% off. I was concerned about him when he went from super hyper to being fluffed up and almost comatose. I took him to my vet and he couldn’t find anything wrong. The problem seemed to be his diet. His previous owner let him have high sugar treats and Spike was used to getting a sugar rush and then crashing. Once I straightened out his diet, his seesaw behavior stopped and he settled into his basic high-energy behavior. I fed both Spike and Twiggy a good assortment of vegetables, grains, and quinoa but I gave them a higher percentage of fruit than my other parrots. I believe that they needed more calories because of the energy they expended on a daily basis. I tried to feed Spike and Twiggy fruits with quality nutrition such as peaches, nectarines, cantaloupe, mango, cherries, berries, and pomegranate, but they also got occasional apples and grapes. Sometimes it is whatever is in season. Both Twiggy and Spike loved their daily sips of fruit juice – I only give them the natural ones with no added sugar. Now there is such an assortment of healthy juices made from tropical fruits that are packed with nutrition and they love them all. Neither parrot was on pellets except I did keep TOPS Parrot Food (the only pellet I feed or recommend) in their cages and all of my parrots ate it as no more than 25% of their diet. It has none of the soy, corn, peanuts or questionable chemicals (like Menadione which is banned in human food because it is considered a carcinogen) that other pellets have. TOPS is made from sustainably farmed organic nutritionally sound food powders. It is also a cold-rolled pellet and is not heated to the degree that it loses nutrition like the extruded (crunchy) pellets.
While high energy parrots can be more difficult to live with in some ways, the trade-off is that they can be a lot of fun if we channel their energy into play and think of special games that expend some of that energy in a positive manner. Since parrots are so empathic, they will often match our energy and slowing ourselves down can go a long way to slow them down. I had a lot of fun with both Spike and Twiggy and enjoy other high energy parrots that have been in my life. It can be fun for me to get really silly with them and lose myself in play.