Few Problem Parrots Just
have One Behavioral Symptom   

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By Sally Blanchard   


Companion parrots can have a whole bunch of behavioral problems for many different reasons. One of the root causes is that they are still instinctively wild and have no idea how to live in our living rooms. However, in the wild they depend on instruction from parents and flock members to develop their social and survival skills. When they are our companions, they depend on us to teach them with nurturing guidance so that they learn the social skills that will keep them content in their homes and keep the people in their lives dedicated to their care.  Although confusion and unmet needs are the basis of some behavioral problems, it can be difficult to determine a specific reason for some behavioral problems.

Behavioral problems are rarely as simple as, “My parrot was angry and bit me.” I believe that there is actually one behavioral problem and that is “a parrot in control of his own life doing a bad job of it.”  Such things as screaming, biting, a strong one-person bond, phobic behavior and so on are usually the symptoms of that primary problem. Our parrots are very clever animals and will come up with their own behaviors if we don’t give them the guidance they need to behave in ways that our acceptable in our homes. 

Most people think of behavioral problems as being specific and individual. They contact me with a statement like, “My parrot is screaming.” When I ask them about the screaming, I also ask if the parrot has also started exhibiting other problems like biting or excessive fear.   Generally speaking the answer is yes, but the screaming is what concerns them to most.

I believe that if a parrot exhibits one negative behavior, most of the time they have others on some level or another.  With many parrots, behavioral problems don’t just happen one at a time; they usually occur in clusters. Sometimes it seems as if they can’t get what they need one way, they will keep trying in as many different ways as they can. Biting, screaming, and/or other
behavioral symptoms often occur together when a parrot is in control of its life doing a bad job of it.

The basic behavioral problems that I see in companion parrots are;

-No longer tame enough to be handled

-Constant or situational aggression.  Aggression can have many causes including the returned aggression towards an aggressive person, fear of a new situation, loss of trust, invasion of its territory, confusing interactions, and pain.

-Over-protection of territory.  Usually this occurs when a parrot perceives a person as a mate and a certain location as nesting territory. When the parrot is in sexual mode, it needs to protect its perceived mate and nest, which can result in aggressive behavior.

-Being a one person bird usually creates a strong sexual bond with one person in the household. This is a major cause of aggression towards other family members.   

-Excessive and/or manipulative screaming.  This is screaming that goes beyond contact calls involving such daily events as the sunrise serenade, time to eat, greetings, and time to head off to the roosting area.  Most of the time manipulative screaming is intended to get your excited attention and it often does which simply rewards the negative behavior.

-Behavioral feather picking. While I believe that a great deal of feather picking is caused because of physical and health reasons, it can also be a communication or a sign of unmet physical and/or emotional needs.

-Neo-phobia or excessive fear of new experiences, situations or things in the environment. Parrots are prey animals and this seems to be an instinctive part of what they are all about. Consequently some situations will create fear and if the parrot in continually placed in fear producing situations, the parrot may go into a fear mode that requires working to give the bird increased confidence.

-Phobic behavior towards even familiar people or situations. This type of fear goes beyond neo-phobia and can result in a parrot that becomes terrified of everything and everything even if it was a normal part of the parrot’s life before the fear started.

-Repetitive behaviors such as beak wiping, foot biting, or continually manipulating the same item in the cage (like a chain or piece of cloth.)  These are usually called “displacement” behaviors and are usually related to a situation where a parrot can’t do what it would normally do so it does something else as a substitute. Most displacement behaviors are infrequent but some can become repetitive habits if a parrot’s needs are not being met at all.

-Food rigidity where a parrot refuses to eat anything new. Often this is caused because they either have been weaned to a very narrow diet or have been on one for many years.

If you examine the above list carefully, you will see that many of these problems are interrelated.  For example, situational aggression can be a result of the parrot’s desire to defend the perceived territory for its chosen “mate.” So even though it may seem like only one problem when the parrot bites someone in the family, it may be the result of separate problems.  

Often in this situation, excessive screaming becomes part of the problem too when the parrot can’t understand why his perfect breeding situation is simply not working for him. When behaviors are completely blocked, the parrot may turn to substitute behaviors such as behavioral feather picking or a repetitive behavior such as food biting.  In some cases, behavioral feather picking can be a repetitive behavior caused by the confusion and stress of too strong a bond with one person.

There is actually a diagnosed phobia in humans in regards to trying new foods and that can be quite complex. Such a thing on some level exists with parrots and neo-phobia in parrots can often be paired with food rigidity. 

Normally when any parrot doesn't receive clear guidance for behavioral problems, it is unusual for them to have just one problem. Problems with a parrot "in control of his/her own life doing a bad job of it" are usually clustered together with an element of several problems. There can be an element of screaming, behavioral feather picking, sporadic aggression, excessive fear or phobic behavior, food rigidity, repetitive behaviors such as excessive beak wiping or foot biting, and these can occur in various mixtures of all of them;  some a lot, some barely noticeable. It is unusual for any parrot to exhibit just one negative behavior.

Problems with a Perfect Cockatiel

Many years ago a woman called me about her family cockatiel. He was about 3 years old and was well-loved but the family had become busy with various activities and the cockatiel didn’t receive his normal amount of family attention. The first negative behavior was when the woman was holding the cockatiel and the youngest child hopped into her lap. The cockatiel bit him; the bird had never bitten anyone before. The young boy was heartbroken because he and the cockatiel had been good friends. Then the bird started biting everyone. Then the 'tiel started screaming, especially during mealtimes.  I asked what had changed and the woman couldn’t come up with an answer yet as we talked it was apparent that almost everything had changed for the cockatiel. He was used to coming out of his cage every day but the family had been too busy with other things.  When he was finally getting some one-on-one attention, the high-energy child competed for attention from the mother.  Normally the cockatiel was not so attention-starved but biting must have seemed appropriate.  Because he bit the youngest child, the parents became tentative about letting the kids handle the bird.  Because of the fear that he would bite someone, he no longer was allowed to eat dinner off of his own plate on the table. As more of his life changed, his behavioral problems escalated.  The “cure” was easy.  Ten minutes a day of in-your-face attention from each member of the family each day; more if possible. It only took ten minutes of focused attention a day to rebuild his trust. The broken trust between the boy and the cockatiel was rebuilt with the mother’s supervision and the bird got his dinner plate back. Sometimes it is that easy.

When behavioral problems are more entrenched, it can be more difficult to get past them. The increased attention really helps but that attention needs to be focused instructional interaction. The "cure" can involve a lot of patient redirection of the behavior from negative actions to positive actions. It is the instructional interaction from people that builds enough trust to give the parrot a sense of security. The caregiver has to be very careful to create situations where the parrot can be rewarded with praise for good behavior but should receive no attention (negative or positive) for negative behavior.

Regardless of behavioral cluster of problems, If we realize that the basic cause of most negative behavior is a need for more interactive attention and guidance, many behavioral problems can be nipped in the bud when a parrot is no longer in control of its own life and doing a bad job of it. When he learns acceptable behavior about any one problem, any other problems will also improve.




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