So many companion birds are purchased purely for their ornamental value and their considerable beauty. They are indeed incredible creatures to look at, but their capacity to learn and understand their environment is often tragically underestimated. For the record, let me state that I am not a licensed avian behaviorist. I am, however, an experienced bird owner and handler, and I have worked with birds of all sizes for years. In this capacity, I am creating the following writeup completely from my own experience, as well as from the rough memories of articles and books I have read on the subject. I will primarily be speaking about birds from the family Psittacidae, which are more commonly known as parrots, and the purpose of this writeup is to pass on a basic knowledge of parrot behavior and how to begin to train these amazingly intelligent, beautiful pets.
Parrots need constant daily stimulation in their environment. They are explorers; they need to touch, test, taste and see as much as they can of everything. Their behavior revolves around this simple idea. Parrots have the ability to bond naturally with humans because they are very similar to us in their need to understand what's around them and to socialize in a group and one-on-one situation.
Due to parrots' need for stimulation, any good bird breeder or pet store employee will recommend that you provide a companion bird with the largest cage you can afford, which multiple toys made of different materials and hung in creative ways around the cage. The minimum cage size should allow room for the parrot to completely spread his wings both ways without touching the sides of the cage. Ideal cage size would be double the bird's wingspan or larger. They will also suggest that you buy perches for the cage that vary in diameter, length, and material. The reason for this is that any parrot will explore every inch of his cage and needs as many interesting things in it as you can give him, and the perches will exercise the bird's feet and toes. Provide him with a nutritious diet, ideally consisting of a good quality pelleted food, some seeds as treats, and vegetables and fruits offered several times a week. Vitamin supplements added to the water are not necessary. You can also try offering a parrot hard-boiled egg, cooked chicken, whole-wheat toast and cooked pasta. I emphasize diet because sometimes behavioral problems in parrots can be due to nutritional disorders caused from an inadequate diet. Consult with a qualified avian veterinarian for more information on this subject.
Assuming that you have set up your parrot's cage properly and are offering a balanced diet to your bird, the next most important thing to beginning your life with your new family member is understanding how to positively interact with your parrot. If you are purchasing a hand-fed baby parrot, generally they are going to be incredibly sweet tempered, snuggly, and a bit clumsy when you first bring them home. However, even when they're very young, it is important that you begin to establish what you expect out of the parrot as he grows up. As he goes into his adolescence (when exactly he does this varies between species), he will begin to challenge you, much as a two year old human child does during the "terrible twos." In order to help both you and your parrot through this difficult stage, it is important to understand how to properly train your bird.
Some of the most essential things to remember when training your bird are the following:
- "Step Up": "Step Up" is the most important command that your bird will ever learn. If a bird will not "step up," it will be a challenge getting him out of his cage, rescuing him if he gets into a tight spot in your house while you're playing, and getting him back into his cage. Immediately after bringing your parrot home, begin enforcing the "step up" command. If your bird came from a good breeder or pet store, he will already have been taught this on a limited basis. All you have to do is place your finger or hand in front of your bird's chest and say clearly, "Step up." If the bird looks at you like you're nuts or flies away from you, bring him back and repeat, this time gently pressing your hand into his lower chest/abdomen. This action will push him a little off balance, and he will naturally grab at your hand with his feet to hold on. Try to avoid the irresistable temptation to let your bird ride around on your shoulder while you're training him on this command. Being on the shoulder is a place of dominance for a bird; if he chooses, he can run around behind your head and hide from your hands that are trying to scrape him off of you or bite your ears and neck. Until your bird has mastered the "step up" command, avoid this; you'll be glad you did.
- Trust: Show a bird that you are trustworthy and that you trust them. Do not stare at the bird directly; turn your head from side to side slowly, breaking eye contact often. Birds do not want to look at a pair of predator's eyes staring them down. Catch the bird's gaze, then carefully and slowly blink, and hold your eyes closed for small periods of time. The combination of these actions will show the bird that (a) you are interested in the bird and are checking him out (b) that you're not threatening him by staring him down in a challenging manner and (c) that you trust the bird enough to close your eyes and "wink" at them. All of these things are good ways to establish good eye contact with your bird.
- Body language: The key here is to think like a bird. Remember, birds spend their days perching on tree limbs. With their mates and flock members, they will perch together on a common branch to socialize. Mimic this by sitting or standing at a level so that your head is even with theirs or slightly higher; do not sit lower than them or stand towering above them. Follow this up by standing or sitting with your arms behind your back/in your back pockets. This will give the bird the impression that your "wings" are folded up and those mysterious, scary claw-like hands are gone. Remember, birds' wings (unlike our hands) play almost no role in their interactions with each other. Supplement this with the eye contact tricks above, and the bird will begin to see you as less threatening, and more like a "fellow bird."
- Communication: To all birds, communication plays a vital role in daily life. It is how flock members locate and track one another, how they express joy, anger, frustration, how they mark nesting or feeding sites and how they have fun with each other. Vocal communication is as important to birds' social interactions as it is to humans'. Listen to your bird. Begin by establishing a "hello" phrase, one that you use when you first see your bird in the morning and when you come home from work or doing errands. This will become your greeting, and can be anything from just "Hello," to "Hi, pretty bird!" to "Good morning, beautiful!" - anything you want. Even if you have a bird like a budgie or another small bird that is less of a talker, they will still associate that phrase with your arrival. When you are sitting at your birds' cage, try your best at mimicry. It can be difficult, particularly, to do a parakeet's chattering sound or a dove's gentle cooing, but it will still show that you are trying to learn your bird's language as well as their learning yours.
- Positive Reinforcement: Reinforcement is one of the most important things to remember when you are working with a bird. Birds, especially larger parrots like conures, cockatoos, African greys and macaws, pick up on everything. You want to make sure that you are reinforcing the right behaviors and discouraging inappropriate behaviors.
If they start to notice that when they scream, you run from any part in the house to check on them, guess what. Every time you leave their field of vision, they'll start yelling for you. Screaming is one of the top reasons that birds are turned into animal shelters, and it is a problem easily avoided. The solution ties in with communicating with your bird. Begin when your bird is young or if you've adopted an older bird, start immediately after he comes home. When you leave the room or his field of vision, choose a word, phrase, or sound to call to your bird to let them know where you are. If this is something like "I'm here!" or even just a simple wolf whistle, etc., it will become the way in which you let your bird know you're still around. In the wild, when a flock member flies away and the others can't see him, they will begin screaming for him, and he will answer. In your home, screaming is not necessary, but the bird will begin doing so if you don't establish a routine here. Remember, they have the vocal capacity to be heard for miles away! If you adopt a parrot that already has a screaming problem, it is actually relatively easy to fix. First, never, ever give the bird attention, treats or a food refill if it is screaming. Wait until the bird has quieted down for at least a minute or so, then walk quickly to the cage, praising him with phrases like "You're being so quiet! You're a good bird!" Then toss a favorite nut (almonds are usually savored) or seed (like a sunflower seed) into his cage as an added treat. If he starts screaming again, walk away and ignore him. Do this every time he quiets his screaming. Eventually these periods will grow less frequent, since he'll realize he gets nothing he likes for yelling, and gets loaded up with lovin' and treats for being quiet.
Another top reason why birds are turned into shelters is biting. Bites, especially from a beak as big as a large macaw's, are going to hurt badly. Before purchasing or adopting a large parrot, you must be willing to accept the fact that you might get bitten sooner or later by your parrot, and when you do, you can't freak out and throw your parrot into his cage. First of all, remember this: a bird's primary means of escaping something it isn't enjoying is to fly away from it. Since most bird owners clip their parrot's wings, this option is now eliminated. What would be a very logical, effective second option? That's right! Birds will very often display body language or try to let you know in some other way that it isn't happy with what you're doing. Say you're scratching your bird's head, and he keeps ducking away from you, and you keep trying to scratch him. Suddenly, he bites you, hard. You scream, and put him in his cage. Shit, that hurt! Right?
What has the bird learned here? "Well, if she's doing something I don't like, and I bite her, she (a) stops, (b) puts me back in my cage with all my toys and treats, and (c) screams and cries loudly, which is really funny!" Do you see any reason why the bird wouldn't try this again? Read the warning signals. The bird was ducking away from your hand. Maybe he's got a pinfeather growing in, which can be painful and bothersome. His reason isn't as important - but he was decidedly trying to tell you, kindly, to stop.
These are only a few basic things to remember when initially training your bird. Remember that it is important to establish these rules early, so that you won't have more trouble later on. Raising a parrot from a juvenile to a mature bird is very much like raising a human baby, except when your parrot is mature, he will have the mental capacity of a three year old human his whole life: sweet, charming, intelligent, but also stubborn and willful. Parrots are so different from any other pet you can have. In my experience, there's something about them that is so human it shocks me, and yet they are quintessentially birds, in their own right, and make incredible companions.
Finally, last, but definitely not least: if you do own a parrot and for some reason are experiencing behavioral problems with him, please contact an avian veterinarian. A parrot that is acting "weird" might be having some sort of health problem or illness. Start with eliminating any potential sickness and then work your way back from there. An avian veterinarian can then recommend a qualified avian behaviorist to diagnose your problem and help you correct it.
While my reference list for this writeup is only my own experience/miscellaneous past reading, I must recommend that anyone interested in the subject of avian behavior please look up any article or book written by Liz Wilson. She is one of the best avian behaviorists in the country and writes a monthly column in Bird Talk magazine if you want to get an idea about her work. She can also be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org