SPECIAL PRIVILEGES FOR SPECIAL PARROTS
Especially the Privilege of Being on Your Shoulder
by Sally Blanchard
We all love to spoil our parrots, but there is well-spoiled and spoiled rotten. Spoiled rotten doesn’t create a happy parrot or a happy parrot household. On the other hand, allowing parrots to have special privileges when they deserve them is part of being well-spoiled. In order to allow our companion parrots special privileges, we have to guide their behaviors so they know the boundaries of these special privileges. Once the human and parrot trust each other is the time to start allowing special situations for well-behaved parrots.
A good example is floor play. Lots of parrots love to play on the floor – especially cockatoos and macaws. But if we just let them run loose in the house we could be asking for some serious problems. Parrots can get into a lot of trouble if their floor time has no supervision or boundaries. Both cockatoos and macaws are big chewers and curious enough to get into trouble with electric cords and furniture destruction. Years ago I knew a woman whose wild-caught Hyacinth macaw decided to escape his cage and go on a walkabout when she was gone. When she arrived home much of her very nice dining room set was in ruins with chomped chair and table legs. The first step in establishing rules for floor play is to put a sheet or blanket (or two) on the floor with some toys. Then put your parrot on the designated area and sit down with it to play. If he stays on the sheet, praise him and keep playing with him. If he starts to leave the sheet, call him back to you with enthusiasm and if you want to, offer him a treat. When he comes to you give him lots of praise. Repeating this as a pattern will teach him to stay on the sheet.
This is a good time to think of your parrot as a feathered puppy. Playing with him the same way you would play with a puppy on the floor can be a new adventure for both of you. When my 43-year-old double yellow-headed Amazon was a youngster, we used to wrestle on the floor with a stuffed animal. I would also roll a whiffle ball across the sheet for her to chase and she learned to bring it back to me for a sliver of almond. I tied all kinds of objects to a string and dragged them along the floor for her to chase after. This was the way I taught her to climb up and down the stairs, in the house, I lived in then. We also played on the bed in this manner.
My caique, Spikey LeBec was a lot smaller and we often play together on a table. When Spike first came to live with me in 1989, very few people had ever seen a caique. For years, Spikey accompanied me all over the country to seminars and people couldn’t get enough of him hopping around the table. I made it look as if I had something to do with his hopping by holding him in my hand and bouncing him up and down so that it looked as if I was winding him up. Actually, he did hop with more enthusiasm when I ‘would him up.” When he turned 24, he still liked to hop but was missing some of his youthful enthusiasm. I had trained Spike to put a ball in a basketball hoop and to put rings on a stand. One day, he tripped while hopping with the little whiffle ball and it rolled off of the table. A woman in the audience quickly picked it up and gave it back to him. You could see the wheels turning in his head as he made the decision to roll it off of the table rather than do his trick correctly. Of course, everyone laughed and the woman picked it up and gave it to him again. That was the end of him playing basketball. He liked the response he got for rolling it off of the table a lot better. Interactive play on the floor, a table or on a bed can be a wonderful learning experience for both parrots and people and it also helps to set boundaries.
A lot of caregivers just open their parrot’s cage door and let the parrot come out and climb to the top of its cage. For some people, this is one of the ways that they lose hand control of their parrots. I remember a woman that I worked with years ago who had a sturdy little yellow-naped Amazon that quickly turned into a little tyrant because she would open the door and he would immediately climb to the top of his cage. She was fairly short and when she tried to reach for him, he would just run to the other side of the cage. It became quite a dramatic game and he had actually nipped her a couple of times so some nights she would just leave him on top of his cage. Of course, the day came when he went exploring before she got up. It was my opinion that he should only be allowed to climb to the top of his cage under two conditions. The first was that he came out of the cage on her hand and she put him there and the second was that he stepped off of the cage onto her hand when she asked him to. If he didn’t meet those two criteria then he shouldn’t be allowed the privilege of hanging out on the top of his cage. The first step I had her take was to get her kitchen step stool. That way she was tall enough to reach him on the top of the cage. Whether it was based on height dominance or not, she was more confident reaching for him when she was on the step stool. He had established a negative pattern and she had rewarded it with her dramatic attempts to get him off of the top of the cage. Using the step stool broke that pattern immediately. She also got him a play gym and once he got used to it, he was happier to step on her hand so she would take him to play on the gym with lots of toys.
One of the greatest privileges a well-behaved parrot can have is to spend time sitting on his favored person’s shoulder. There are people who are adamant that parrots should never be allowed on shoulders but it can be a great reward for a parrot that knows how to behave when he is there. People have to have a pretty good understanding of their parrots before they allow them on their shoulders. My first piece of advice about this is not to let a parrot automatically run up to your shoulder. It should be the person’s decision based on what is going on at the time. For example, if I am in my office working, Paco can sit on my shoulder without any problems as long as it is just the two of us. She will startle a bit if one of the dogs or the cat is moving around but if another person is here, she can become aggressive with me. I simply don’t let her on my shoulder if anyone else is here. My grey, Whodee, is just fine on my shoulder if it is the afternoon even if someone else is here. Perhaps because he mimics my energy and I am NOT a morning person, he is grouchy until mid-afternoon. His favorite time with me is usually in the evening and I can trust him on my shoulder. I do, however, have to pay attention to him shifting his weight. That means I need to move him over the trash can so his copious dropping will go there and not down my back.
I didn't let Spike on my shoulder at all and it was difficult to get him out of the habit of running up there when I got him. I just had to up him off of my arm over and over. He will still take advantage of other people who don’t know any better. Before they even know it, Spike was on the top of their heads, hair surfing. If I had let him run up my arm to my shoulder all of those years, I would probably be bald by now. Both Spike and my slender-billed conure, Twiggy weren't allowed up on my shoulder but they were delighted to have the privilege of hanging off of my blouse like a large broach. My two other parrots both had balance problems. Roxi-anne, my bare-eyed cockatoo, only had one leg so she is not comfortable on shoulders but she happily sits on my arm or knee. Pascal, my other double yellow-head had scoliosis and she also did not do well sitting on my shoulder for very long. She did have a couple of friends who visited and loved to sit on their shoulders. During their visits, I became totally insignificant to her and I needed to stay away or she would bite them or me. Knowing this saved everyone problems.
There are a few basic rules for letting a parrot on your shoulder. The first is to put it there with a basic command such as “down.” This saves the arm from being a raceway and gives the person control of the situation. The second is to know the situation. I know that Pascal would bite me if I came too close to her when she was on someone else’s shoulder so I stayed away. There are many parrots that might be fine on their caregivers’ shoulders when it is just the two of them but when someone else comes into the room (it could be the family dog), the parrot can go into protection mode and become aggressive. The third rule is that a parrot should not be allowed on a person’s shoulder unless it behaves while it is there. That is why I didn't let Spike on my shoulder – he wouldn’t stay there and had to climb up to the top of my head. Sometimes he could be quite bitey when I tried to stop his hair surfing and pick him up.
It is also important that they have something to do when they are on shoulders. I recommend an old towel with a few knots or toys attached to give them something to chew on instead of moles, glass frames, or that “bird toy” hanging off of your ear lobe. Of course, if they do start to be a dermatologist and try to remove that mole on your neck, the drama you give them will just make them more dedicated to the task so stay calm about asking them to "step up" and remove them from that area.
The final rule is that the parrot will step off of your shoulder when you present your hand and say “up.” Over the years I have watched some very funny ways that people have tried to get their parrots off of their shoulders. The most popular technique seems to be where the person leans against the cage and moves around trying to rub the parrots off of their shoulder on to the cage. I would love to take videos of several people doing this and put it to music. During a consultation, one woman practically did a strip show for me as her parrot clung tenaciously to each bit of clothing before she removed it. In another, a man pulled his shirt over his head twisting it around while his Amazon was having a great time grabbing onto the man’s hair. If a parrot is aggressive sitting on its caregiver's shoulder or won’t come off without intense drama, then the bird has not earned the privilege of being there. However, I have to add that it is the caregiver who needs to provide enough guidance so that the parrot can earn that privilege.