THE ELEVEN MOST PREVALENT
PARROT BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS
Parrots and People
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By Sally Blanchard
1. Unrealistic Expectations
The number one problem that people have with their parrots is based on their own unrealistic expectations. Of course, this is not a problem that the bird exhibits but one in which the caregivers expect the bird to be something it can’t be. Many unrealistic expectations are based on generalizations. For example, many people who buy an African grey do so because they know that “all African Greys are excellent talkers.” Some greys are not talkers and people can be very disappointed if their greys don’t fit the stereotype. It is also important to note that the best talking parrots are the ones that have received a lot of instructional interaction from the people in their lives. Another example is the fact that many people believe that cockatoos remain love sponges throughout their entire lives or that their parrots will keep their baby personalities forever. The only solution for unrealistic expectations is the knowledge gained by reading quality information and talking with many people who have lived successfully with their particular species of parrot for a long time. The rule in regards to the companion potential of parrots is Input=Output.
2. The Bird in Control
The major cause of just about all parrot behavioral problems is a bird in control of his own life doing a bad job of it. Parrots, even hand-fed babies, do not naturally develop the ability to adjust to life in our living rooms. Parrot behavior is a complex combination of instinctive and learned behaviors. A parrot’s instinctive behaviors are based on living in the wild where the baby’s parents and its flock would teach it the rest of what it needs to know to survive in its natural habitat. That’s where we come in with domestically-raised parrots. We need to teach our parrots how to adapt to life as our companions. There is nothing instinctively that prepares them for life as a caged pet in our living rooms. Without guidance from us, our parrots will be confused because of the conflict between their natural behaviors and their life with humans. Most of the behavioral problems that companion parrots exhibit are actually the symptoms of this basic conflict. In order to stop the symptoms, we need to provide enough basic guidance so that our parrots will look to us for their behavioral cues. Otherwise, any attention that they are given to stop a behavior will most likely just reward the negative behavior.
3. Biting and Aggression
Aggressive behavior is the most frequent symptom that parrots exhibit when they do not receive guidance from the people in their lives. Generally speaking, aggression is the easiest symptom to prevent and solve. Most aggression starts because we do not give our parrots clear messages and/or do not properly read their body language. My African grey, Whodee, certainly knows that when I reach my hand in and say “Up” he should step on my hand. It is a clear message that he understands. However, before I try to take him out of his cage, I pay close attention to what he is doing. If he is bashing one of his toys around or in a grouchy mood, I will not try to take him out. I know him well enough to know that he is, like me, not a morning “person” so I rarely ask him to come out early in the day. If there is a reason he needs to come out then, rather than reach in for him, I tap on his cage door and offer him an almond, which is one of his favorite treats. I also understand that he does not like to be approached by someone he does not know when he is in his cage and that he will bite if he is. He also can be somewhat aggressive with me if I have my caique, Spike, out at the same time and have been giving him attention. Because I pay close attention to their body language and respect their moods, my parrots rarely exhibit aggression.
4. The Parrot Can No Longer Be Handled Safely
One of the most serious problems with companion parrots is that the caregiver can no longer handle them. This is often more a problem of the person becoming afraid of their parrot because the parrot bit the caregiver or was aggressive with the person. Sometimes the person can develop fear after just one bite instead of trying to figure out why the parrot bit and working to make sure it doesn't happen again. I seriously will admit that in the 43 years I have lived and worked with parrots, the majority of times I was bitten, it was caused by what I did rather than the aggression of the parrot. Turning and incident into a pattern can be created if a person is bitten and becomes uncomfortable with their parrot. Parrots sense this and in response, the parrot usually becomes more uncomfortable. This can escalate to the point that the person is afraid of their parrot and the bird can no longer be handled. This is also the reason I highly recommend stick or branch training a parrot.
Screaming is not a behavior problem … it is natural for most parrots to have loud vocalizations based on the events of their day. For example, the sunrise call to the flock to forage for breakfast can be very loud. It is excessive manipulative screaming that creates a serious problem for many parrot households. In the majority of situations where screaming and loud vocalizations become a serious problem, it is because the bird has learned it can manipulate its owner into a dramatic response. Ignoring the screaming is rarely effective once it has become a pattern. The most successful way of dealing with screaming is to teach the parrot a positive behavior such as spreading his wings on command. Once he learns this trick, the negative behavior can be distracted with a command or cue for that trick. Once the bird spreads his wings, receiving a verbal reward will help reinforce good behavior. Another important concept to understand is that parrots pick up the energy around them. If people in the household are excited and loud, the bird will act the same. Over the years I have talked with dozens of people who have told me stories about their arguments. The people were arguing with great vigor when their parrots started in with their own interpretations of the argument. Sometimes it is so amusing that the people completely forget what they were arguing about. Because parrots match our energy so closely, it is often possible to calm them down simply by calming yourself down.
6. Sexual Bonding
Bonding to one person in the human flock can create many serious problems in companion parrots including territoriality and aggression to other people in the bird’s life. Presuming that any parrot is a one-person bird can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are ways to work with parrots so that they will bond with multiple people in a household and accept new people into their human flock. This type of training should be done in a neutral room where the parrot has not established a perceived territory. If the bird already has a strong exclusive bond, it is best for the other person to work with the bird without the favored person present. The less-favored person can start by just spending time with the bird in the neutral room, giving it a few treats and, if possible, some head skritches. If it is a young bird who has not established a favorite, the best way to keep him tame to everyone in the household is by playing a game I call “warm potato.” This involves slowly passing the bird from person to person with each person providing the bird with some special pleasure like a nut, a head skritch, or teaching it a special tick like lifting his foot with the “gimme four” cue.
People should parent their birds or be their buddies rather than allowing the birds to perceive them as a mate. Many experts believe that parrots that exhibit sexual behavior towards their caregivers can develop some serious health problems because of hormonal over-stimulation. Caregivers need to pay attention to the way they handle their birds and the way they respond to that handling. If a bird responds in a sexual manner by regurgitating, panting, or flicking his wings and dancing around, the person needs to understand that the bird is being sexually stimulated by the handling. When the bird exhibits this kind of behavior, it is best to calmly put him back on his playgym or back in his cage.
7. Feather Destructive Behavior
I believe that most feather destructive behavior starts for physical or environmental reasons. These include disease, injury, allergies, and toxic exposure. However, the caregiver’s response can easily reward the plucking and turn it into an attention-getting habit. I did a consultation with an African grey that started feather picking because of a health situation. This problem had been long solved but the grey continued plucking. Each time the owner had seen the bird pull a feather, she ran over to try and stop the bird from messing with his feathers. As I talked with the woman, the grey sat poised with a feather in his beak. When the woman made eye contact with him, he pulled out a feather. It was obvious that his feather picking had turned into an attention-getting behavior. Even though it may seem important to distract the bird from pulling or destroying his feathers, the attention may actually create more of a problem.
8. Fearful or Phobic Behavior
Fearful behavior can be a result of a lack of exposure to changes in the environment and new situations when the bird was a baby. Many parrots are wary or even afraid of new objects that are introduced in and around their cage territory. These birds are far more comfortable when they can become accustomed to new toys and other items away from their cages and then once they are used to them, the items can be placed in or near the cages. True phobic behavior is much more complex. This is when a previously accepting parrot suddenly becomes afraid of almost any contact with the person or people they previously trusted. When their previously favored person approaches them too directly, the bird will usually thrash around its cage in fear. The most effective solution with phobic birds is for the people in their lives to approach them slowly in a very submissive manner with lowered head and little or no direct eye contact. I recommend what I call “the chair exercise.” This involves sitting in front of the cage with the cage door open and your shoulder or arm leaning into the cage. Read a magazine and don’t pay any attention to the bird. If you do make eye contact, lower your head and look away. I have found that many previously tame birds that have become phobic will come out to be with their human friend after doing this exercise a few times.
9. Lack of Curiosity
If a parrot has not been exposed to toys and other colorful objects when they are young, they may not learn to play. They may not develop the curiosity that helps create a happy parrot with a joy for life. We can make up for lost time by teaching them to play. Put some toys on a bed or couch and bring the bird into the room and sit down on the bed with him for a play session. Play with his toys so he can see what they are for – "monkey see, monkey do" goes a long way in teaching a parrot to play. I also recommend playing “real estate agent.” This involves taking him around the house, showing him new things and telling him about them. The safer new adventures parrots have, the more people can develop curiosity in their parrots.
10. Food Rigidity
Often if parrots have been weaned to a seed or pellet only diet, they become food rigid and this is all they want to eat. This is particularly true of cockatiels, cockatoos, budgies, and African greys but can happen with other parrot-family birds. Many people give up too easily because they think that if their parrots do not eat something the first few times, they will never eat it. The truth is that eventually, the majority of parrots will eat almost anything if they are introduced to it often enough and with enough variety. For example, high vitamin A carrots can be fed raw, mashed, steamed, sliced, diced, with almond butter on them, and as many ways as one’s imagination allows.
11. Not Staying Put and Destroying the Environment
I received a call from a woman who was exceedingly agitated because her cockatoo was eating all of the woodwork in her house. The bird simply would not stay put anywhere and he was dedicated to wreaking havoc when he left his cage or playgym. The more she admonished the bird for the behavior, the more she rewarded it. I asked her why he was allowed to run free and her response was that if she left him in his cage, he screamed incessantly. So actually the most serious behavioral symptom was screaming for attention. I tried to explain to her that these behaviors were symptoms of a more serious problem - a bird in control of his own life doing a bad job of it. She needed to establish guidance in a way that allowed her to change his behavior. I recommended spending time with him in a “neutral room” where he did not have an agenda. She needed to spend more time teaching him basic behaviors like stepping on her hand with the “UP” command, having him walk across the bed using a cue like “Come here” and teaching basic tricks like spreading his wings when she said “Eagle Boy.” When he complied with her requests, she could reward him with positive verbal praise. Using this type of instructional interaction, she would eventually be able to change the negative behavior and reward him for positive behaviors.
12. The Abuse of Neglect
Parrots are highly social animals and our companions need attention from the people in their lives. One of the major causes of behavioral problems in companion parrots is a major change in the attention they receive from their human flock. Neglect can cause a parrot to act out to get attention. Some people give their birds so much physical attention when they first get them and then get busy with other things without stopping to realize why “all of a sudden” their parrots are screaming and being aggressive and just being a pain in you know what. They blame it on the parrot when if they t set aside time every day to provide attention, even if for 10 minutes of focused, in your face attention. If they talked to their parrots when they are in the room and let them know that they still are still loved and appreciated, it would make a major4 difference to the birds.
I rarely did consultations with cockatiels. I guess most people thought paying money to change the negative behaviors wasn't worth. One of the few that I did do was with a very sweet male who had talked, sang, and whistled. He had stopped the behaviors that made him such a delight and had started screaming and being aggressive. Their non-bird vet said it was hormonal – I knew it wasn't immediately. The family had gotten too busy for the bird and he was acting out about it. The couple had two pre-teen kids that said they loved the cockatiel but had become very busy with school. The woman had started doing work on church committees. The man had a project at work and it went on and on. I got the 'tiel out of his cage on my hand and started whistling to him. He perked up right away and whistled a duet with me. I made my point to them that he needed more attention from them and had each member of the family promise to give their talented 'tiel at least 10 or more minutes of "in your face" focused attention spending time playing, whistling, and singing just to let him know he still mattered. I got a follow-up call from the woman telling me that he was back to being their very playful and entertaining buddy and they would never let him be ignored again. In all of the hundreds of in-home consultations I gave, this was one of the main reasons parrots started acting out so badly. All it took to change that was renewed attention.
Many rescued parrots that go to new homes have been seriously neglected, ignored and even mistreated. Some take time to respond but it is always worth the effort. Providing them with loving, calm attention and giving them time to learn to trust you can make all of the difference. This is true if it is a rescue parrot or if you are trying to rebuild trust with your companion parrot.