Creating a Healthy Mutual Trusting Parrot/Human Bond
By Sally Blanchard
A Loving Bond
In an all day program I gave several years ago, I discussed the bond that parrots form with us. At lunch, I heard one woman say to another, “I hate that word bond.” I didn't understand what she meant so I turned towards her table and asked her. Even though I had talked most of the morning about winning and keeping a parrot's trust to form a quality bond, she said that if they bonded with us, it meant that they were subservient to us. Sometimes I can give a program or write an article and people find one part of it that no matter how clear I try to make what I say, someone won't understand what I am saying and will misinterpret it so that it fits what they believe. I seems to be all about the syntax of words. Forming a mutual bond certainly doesn't signify subservience or dominance to me.
It has always amazed me that a parrot-family bird, no matter how small or big, will actually form a loving mutual bond with us when we are so much larger than they are. It also has always amazed me that they don't see us as predators and that they learn to trust us. In my mind, this certainly doesn't imply that they are subservient to us. It does however, mean that they are dependent on us for their care and the stimulation needed to keep them interactive and curious. They also depend on us to keep them healthy and safe.
There are a lot of opinions as to why parrots bond so strongly to us. One states that they would never bond to humans if they had another parrot to bond with. This may be true of some parrots but I have known many parrots of different species who are bonded with both humans and other parrots. This is usually made possible by the fact that the person really works toward this goal.
Years ago I got a call from a man who had won a macaw in a bird club raffle. He had been told that the bird was raised by his natural parrot parents and he would never make good companion. A friend told him to call me and I did a consultation telling him how he could win the bird's trust. He followed my advice and within a couple of weeks the macaw was devoted to him and his wife. The advice he had been given had no truth to it. I knew this from taming hundreds of wild-caught parrots in a trust-building manner. When I was able to teach the new caregivers these methods successfully, their parrots formed a strong bond with them.
There was belief for a long time that parrots imprinted. This mistaken information caused a lot of baby parrots to be poorly socialized. Part of the belief was (and still may be in some circles) that if a baby parrot even saw another parrot, they would never bond to people. This depends a great deal as to how they are treated from people. And the reverse was also believed … that parrots that bonded to humans would never make good breeding stock. While this may be true of some individual parrot-family birds, it is a massive generalization and black and white thinking.
After working with hundreds of parrots and talking to even more parrot people over the years, I absolutely believe two truths about parrots. The first is that parrots are capable of learning new behaviors for as long as they live and if they are our companions, it is up to us to remain their teachers. The second is that parrots are capable of bonding and re-bonding throughout their lives whether it is to new people, new parrots or both.
If the woman who didn't like the term “bond” in regards to a parrot human relationship she must have been thinking of the possibility of over-bonding and sexual-bonding. Both can create serious problems. People with handfed baby parrots need to form the parental bond of a teacher. Just cuddling a baby parrot can create an over-dependent adult that may drive its caregiver crazy. There is nothing wrong with cuddling a baby parrot from time to time, maybe at bedtime for security. But the cuddling and physical affection has to be balanced with nurturing guidance and teaching the youngster through instructional interaction and play. The more time caregivers spend teaching their young parrots to play games that develop their physical, intellectual, and emotional skills the more likely they are to develop a sense of security and independence. One of the most hideous statements that I read continually was, “Don't give your baby parrot very much attention or you will spoil it.” If someone has lived with a parrot for very long, one of the aspects they will understand is that parrots are very intelligent. In the wild, depending on their size and species, baby parrots spend from weeks to years in the care of their parents and flock. Why? Because they need to learn their social and survival skills or they won't survive. While a baby parrot destined to be a human companion needs to learn slightly different lessons to adjust to live in our living rooms, well-socialized parrots who have learned their social skills and to develop security among the caregivers. Parrots who are not well-socialized when they are young will have more behavioral problems and needy over-bonding is usually one of them. A well-socialized toddler parrot who has been taught to play through instructional interaction will learn to occupy himself with play and won't constantly need a caregiver to keep them entertained. Basically, giving them the right kind of attention when they are young will keep baby parrots from over-bonding. This is the exact opposite of the absurd nonsense perpetuated for years that giving a baby parrot attention would spoil it.
Another important aspect of early socialization using nurturing guidance and instructional interaction is that it helps the parrot develop a friendly “buddy bond”. The young parrots learn to look towards their caregivers for guidance. This can go a long way in preventing companion parrots from forming a sexual bond with their caregivers. I have lived with quite a few parrots in my long life with them and the only one who behaved in a sexual manner with me was my late great African grey Bongo Marie. She was my second parrot and I knew nothing about her except that she was very sick when she came to live with me. She was not expected to live she was so sick but it seemed like a miracle and she lived with me for 25 years. I don't know if she was imported, if she had a previous caregiver or how old she was. I knew she wasn't a baby although she was presented as one at a bird club raffle. Friends of mine bought her but decided they couldn't keep her so she came to live with me. I took me a few months to get her to trust me. Once she trusted me, I cuddled with her a lot not realizing that the fact that she regurgitated for me a lot wasn't because she was sick. Over the years she would occasionally behave in a sexual manner with me but, in her case, it wasn't very frequent and she got over it quickly. After a while, I figured out that when she was acting in a sexual manner I had to stop full body cuddling and placing pressure on her back.
Why is it so important that we don't let or encourage our parrots from forming a sexual bond with us? It is not just a matter of being prudish. I believe that parrots that form a strong sexual bond with their caregivers often stay in “sexual mode” for a longer time than is normal. With most parrots, there is a specific time when they become sexual. There are certain situations that lead to breeding behaviors in wild parrots and this is also true for parrots in captivity, whether they are breeding birds or not. The first would be the presence of a mate but other circumstances are necessary and these include but may not be limited to an increase in the duration and angle of light, increased humidity, availability of nest sites, and an increase in the availability of food sources. These criteria send a signal to the parrot that there will be available food for their babies once they hatch. If a parrot is sexually bonded to a member of their human flock, the bird will start to exhibit mating behaviors. Depending on the bird, these can be dancing and prancing around, spreading wings and panting, and rubbing their vent on the person's hand or arm. I did have a man write to ask me what his cockatiel was doing rubbing himself on the man's big toe? If things work out for a parrot with a parrot mate, they will mate and the hen will go on to lay eggs and that is usually it. Sometimes if a companion parrot is sexually bonded to a person, the logical sequence is blocked. In some cases, the sexual behavior continues way past the time it should have ceased. This essentially means that the parrot remains in hormonal overload for too long and this can create serious health problems. In some birds, particularly hen cockatiels, sexual overload can increase egg production to the point of robbing the body of calcium. In severe situations, this can be fatal.
Again the best way to keep a parrot from forming a sexual bond is to provide guidance, set some basic rules, and provide instructional interaction through play. It is also important to understand that handling you parrot in certain ways will encourage sexual bonding. This includes pushing on the bird's back, full body cuddling, and what I call the full body stroke. This involves grasping the bird's back with your hand and then running your hand down the body all the way to the tail. You have to pay attention to where your thumb is on the way down to understand why it is sexual to the bird.
A great deal of what I know about parrots, I learned in the hundreds of in-home consultations that I did. I did a consultation with a chiropractor and his wife. They had just purchased a baby Umbrella Cockatoo. This purchase was mostly the man's idea because he thought it would be wonderful to have the bird in his office to keep him company and to greet and entertain clients. The problem was that the young cockatoo immediately fell in love with his wife and pretty much wanted nothing to do with him. Unfortunately some people mistakenly believe that this kind of situation is unchangeable but that can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first question I asked was why they thought the cockatoo liked her so much and didn't enjoy his company that much. I had actually figured it out within a short time after meeting them both. She was vivacious and playful with the Umbrella, while her husband had a much more serious nature. She danced with the cockatoo and whirled her around singing to her and she loved it. The man just picked up the 'too and held her about a foot away quietly talking to the bird. She took the cockatoo into the shower with her and sang to her. She fed him both her daily meals and treats. She made a game out of cleaning her cage and sang her a lullaby when she covered her cage at night. The husband needed to loosen up and play games with the cockatoo. He needed to have fun with the bird. He also needed to share some of the care responsibilities. In actuality, the man needed to watch the way his wife interacted with their new companion and behave in that manner getting a little silly from time to time. He also started cuddling with the young bird at bedtime and sang her her nightly lullaby every other night. A few weeks later when I called them to see how it was going and they reported that the Umbrella enjoyed spending time with both of them.
I often hear that there are several parrots species that are “one-person” birds. From my experience, I find that if there is any truth about this in regards to any parrots, it isn't engraved in stone. Again, if people believe that a certain parrot is a one person bird and don't work to prevent that rigid bonding, it will most likely become true. With a young bird and even an older tame re-homed bird, there is a game I recommend that works quite well in creating a companion parrot that will be tame to several people. I call it “Warm Potato”. Anyone who wants to be actively involved in the parrot's life should take part in the exercise and it should be fun for all. If a person is really afraid of handling the parrot they shouldn't take part in this game. There is another way to get people past this fear that I will discuss later in this article. If the parrot has become protective or defensive of his cage, this group exercise should be in a location where the bird can't see his cage and has not territorial imperative about it. It should be a comfortable area where people can relax and sit around together. I have been told that this has worked with 2 to 6 people by those who have tried it. The person who is most comfortable with the bird should start by bringing the parrot into the group and have a calm discussion with the bird introducing what is going to happen and the people who are participating. It doesn't really matter what the person says but making eye contact with the other people while talking to the bird will help it accept each person. After a few minutes with the parrot, the bird should be passed to the next person. Each person should hold the parrot for at least a minute or two and should have pre-planned their special way of interacting with it. One person can sing to the bird, one can try to teach a trick, another can give the bird a healthy treat. Depending on what the parrot enjoys, the bird may enjoy climbing from one hand to another, swinging from a perch, ladder, or towel, or some other form of acrobatics. Remember if you do this exercise, that you need to pay close attention to determine if the parrot is getting tired or over-excited. If this happens, you need to slow down or if it is a problem, you may need to stop the game to be continued later. If at any time the parrot become aggressive, the person handling the bird should put him down on the couch or chair and get up. The person who the parrot has the strongest bond with should NOT rescue the bird or the person. This can give the parrot a message that it is OK to bite someone else to get to go back to its favored person. This exercise can be continued throughout the bird's life to keep it tame to everyone who wants to be a part of its life. I first suggested this game many years ago with a young double-yellow head. At that time the oldest son in the family of five was just entering his teens. The boy and the Amazon were great friends as were the other members of the family. When he was 18, he went away to a college that was across country from where his family lived. He only came home for the summers and the minute he walked up to the door, the Amazon called his name and was greeted with great affection.
I have worked with people who got a parrot when they were single and then found a significant other. They loved their parrot and wanted the new person in their life and their parrot to form a bond. Generally speaking, the worst way for them to meet is for the new person to go up to the cage and make direct eye contact with the parrot. The basic reason is that parrots are generally far more wary of new situations occurring around their cage and can become aggressively protective or become threatened. Consequently the best introduction should take place in a neutral room which is a comfortable location where the bird can't see his cage. I recommend that the new person should be comfortably seated in the room and the parrot's caregiver should then bring it in and introduce them. Again, the words don't matter as much as the voice should be reassuring. The person who is new to the parrot shouldn't move but should wait for the caregiver to place the bird on their hand, arm or knee depending on their comfort level. I did a consultation with a woman who had lived with a scarlet macaw for about a decade and wanted her new serious boyfriend to get along with the macaw. The major reason that the macaw accepted the man so quickly was because his longtime caregiver had introduced them in a safe and comfortable situation for both of them. I had them do this introduction a few times over a couple of days and both became very comfortable with each other. A caution about something I have seen several times … the caregiver should stay in control of the situation even if the other person states that he or she is very comfortable with parrots. Just because someone has handled parrots doesn't mean that they will handle the bird in a manner that makes the bird feel comfortable.
It is likely that the bonds that a companion parrot develops with multiple people will be somewhat different with each one. Parrots are intelligent animals and even have a degree of emotional intelligence. They are also capable of bonding and re-bonding to new people throughout their lives. It is actually our responsibility to interact with our companion parrots in a way that creates and maintains a healthy bond. In a two person household or even one where there are more people in the family, there is often a favored person and a less-favored person or even tolerated person. This seems to be particularly true of African greys. I have seen a similar situation many times where the parrot lets one person handle them all over and wants to physically hang out with that person but doesn't really want to be handled by the other person. However the bird loves to have his head skritched through the cage bars by the less-favored person and often talks in that person's voice. They may tolerate being handled or moved from cage to playgym by even the tolerated person is the favored person is not home. This can go on for years, but every now and then I have heard from people whose birds suddenly changed loyalty and they want to know why. It is not always easy to know the answer. Some parrots, particularly greys are barometers in our lives and they notice our energy. Chances are the favored person has been under a lot of stress or not feeling well. Something has happened that changed the comfort level or even the trust level in the relationship. I have heard far too many people say something like, “All of a sudden, my parrot hates me”. That is not the case at all, it is far more likely that the bird is reacting to a change in the favored person's energy and the parrot becomes wary. So if the person takes responsibility and works to slow down their energy and takes a deep breath and relaxes before approaching his or her parrot, chances are the bond will change back to the way it was.
For years another generalization that I heard was that if a parrot was bonded with another parrot, it could never have a bond with a person. With some parrots it may be more difficult, but I believe that it is possible for multiple people and multiple parrots to all have a positive bond with the others. Certainly in the wild, most parrots form bonds with a mate but also family and flock bonds. Knowing this it became obvious to me at an early stage with parrot-keeping to know that my parrots, friends and I could all get along if we wanted to. I had several friends with parrots and also friends who liked to come over and visit my parrots. My double-yellows, Paco and Rascal were siblings and were great friends. They were babies when I got them so I quickly established myself as their parent/teacher with nurturing guidance. They were buddies but they also stayed very tame to me. I found that with them and with my other parrots, the key was to give everyone attention together and separately. Paco, Rascal and I had carpet races where I ran a string with a plush animal attached around the room and up and down the stairs with them chasing after me. After the “race”, the three of us had a cuddle fest. I also gave each of my parrots individual instructional interaction by spending time singing to them, teaching them fun tricks, or cuddling one at a time. I do believe that multiple birds establish a hierarchy in a household and if we pay close attention we can figure out who thinks he or she should be fed first, get attention first. Learning and respecting that hierarchy can prevent jealousy among multiple birds as long as everyone gets the kind of attention they need maintain the parrot to parrot to person bond.