I’ve said it before and will probably say it again; parrots don’t give unconditional love. A dog will rest his head on your lap and say: “It’s okay that you forgot to feed me before you left this morning. My tummy is full now. You’re the greatest.” A parrot will turn his back to you and give you the cold shoulder for a week for the same infraction. Trust is a hard-won commodity. It sure is in this house. It only takes one incident to break apart all that you’ve established.
1. Hit or Punish Your Bird
First, let me state the obvious: hitting your bird not only runs the risk of injuring him, but violence attracts violence. Remember, he is born equipped with weaponry on his face, and he’s not afraid to use it. Second, it is a huge breach of trust when you assault someone, and it carries the message that if you don’t see things my way, then I will harm you. You will have earned that missing finger.
Punishing a bird is pointless because the message is never clear to him. By the time you’ve figured out what the punishment will be and administered it, the bird no longer will relate it to the crime. From the bird’s perspective you are just being mean. A time out does work, however, because it is immediate and easily associated with the behavior. (A time out is when when you stop and disconnect from the bird by turning your back or walking away for several seconds.) It has a low impact and does not teach your bird that you mean to harm or bully him. Instead, your bird will quickly learn that when he does something unacceptable, he will lose your attention.
2. Force Your Parrot to Do Something He Doesn't Want to Do
Applying force to your parrot is counterproductive. Sure, you may get what you want at that moment, but the long term loss of trust is not worth it. We've all had times when we've had to whisk our birds away from a dangerous situation. A good example is when the beak is about to close down on the electrical cord. I am not referring to these situations. Somehow our parrots are able to discern that we are not doing this out of anger or frustration but out of concern for their well being. We might get bit, but it is out of their shock at the abruptness of our behavior rather than anger. These transgressions, if handled correctly, seem to be forgiven.
Here’s another example: Theo, my Goffin's cockatoo, needs a nail trim. Badly! Her nickname has become Needle-toes. She doesn’t like her toes being touched. I am working with her so that I might eventually be able to trim her nails myself. I have a vet appointment for my cat next week at which time they will do her nails, but I don’t know if I can make it that long. She is usually on my shoulder when I am on the computer, which is often. I have scratches all over my right shoulder which have scabbed over. Being the wonderful friend that she is, she preens the scabs; it’s an ongoing cycle. If I were to towel her and force a nail trim on her, then my shoulder would get some needed relief, but I would lose my little buddy for sure.
Since she has come to live with me, I have given her the time to adapt slowly to all of the changes in her life. She has come to know that I will not be pushy with her. If I were to aggressively hold her down and force her to do what I wanted, then she would no longer give me the benefit of the doubt when I asked her to do something she was skeptical about. All of our hard work would be lost. Needle-toes and I are working on the toe phobia.
3. Lose Trust by "Lying" to Your Bird
Your parrot loves to go bye-bye in the car. He will drop everything and come running to you at the mere mention of the possibility of a ride. You are late for work and can’t get him to step up so you can secure him in his cage. I know what you're thinking. If you tell him we are going for a ride then he’ll cooperate. You’ll hurry him to his cage and lock the door before he knows what hit him. Do this, and you can expect in the future that you will receive no such cooperation from him. You might want to allow an extra 20 minutes or so to get him into his cage tomorrow. Good luck with that! A parrot never forgets.
Something that we often forget is that parrots understand what we are saying. They may not repeat the words back to us; they may only understand vaguely from our tone of voice, but they understand. I had a conversation the other day with a friend and fellow cockatoo owner on this subject. He told me that if his bird sees a hawk outside the window, and she gets unnerved and agitated as they all do when they see a predator, then he doesn’t say “it’s okay” to soothe her. Instead, he says, “Uh oh, danger!” and takes her away from the window. He pointed out that he can tell her that it’s okay all he wants, but she knows that it is not okay at all. She knows there is a very real danger present. She trusts him all the more for his honesty and calling it like it is. Now when she sees a rabbit outside the window and becomes upset, he can say it’s okay to her and mean it. She understands. Just food for thought…
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.
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