Establishing boundaries for your young parrot, one that has yet to reach sexual maturity, is an important first step in laying the groundwork for a happy and healthy co-existence between parrots and people. By setting and adhering to rules consistently, you are ensuring that your older parrot (who otherwise might have become more assertive of his wants) will cooperate with your requests in pleasant and acceptable ways.
Rescues are packed to the brim with unwanted parrots. Many of them have been determined to be a “problem” later in life when owners tire of misbehavior, destruction, and their inability to retrieve their uncontrolled parrot. Rescue owners frequently report that these behaviors stem from a parrot having been given free reign of the house and never being shown limitations.
The first step in eliminating unwanted behaviors is to find the source of the problem and to place the blame squarely where it belongs, which is always on the caregivers, US! Whenever a parrot’s behavior goes awry, it is the fault of the humans involved. We have failed in either teaching acceptable behavior or have been inconsistent in establishing our expectations. Why would a parrot accept being told no today to something it was allowed to do yesterday? How can we expect her to follow rules that have not been clearly defined?
In this post we'll explore the three top reasons that people give up their birds and how it relates to us as their teachers. We'll also learn what we can do to prevent problems in immature birds or correct an existing problem in sexually mature birds.
BITING and LUNGING
The Young Bird
Baby birds learn with their beaks the same way human babies learn with their hands. They explore and experiment. It is not uncommon for a baby bird to nip us without understanding the intensity of the pressure they are applying. These are not bites in the traditional sense with the intention to warn or harm. It is simply the exaggerated action of an inquisitive beak. Still, this is an ideal opportunity to teach your young parrot how much is too much and what is acceptable.
When she latches onto your finger or clothes,
quietly detach yourself. (See below for a *How to.)
Put her on a nearby perch or cage top.
Discontinue eye contact.
Count to ten.
Then you can pick her up again and return to whatever you were doing.
(*How to detach yourself: a good way to do this with a bird of any age is to gently push into the bite rather than pull away from it.)
The most important thing is to be certain NOT to make a scene, even if it hurt. A young parrot, in particular, will turn biting into a game in no time.
Furthermore, you will have to start over! This time you will not only have to teach the right behavior but also undo what has just been learned. If you are completely consistent in your actions, then your bird will have learned that a bite equals only the loss of your attention. Nothing more, nothing less!
The Older Bird
An older bird that bites has learned somewhere along the way that lunging, threatening to bite, or biting will get her what she wants. This is a more complex problem because it requires that you first undo the notion that biting is beneficial. The only way to do that is to STOP making it beneficial.
How is biting beneficial to a bird? Aside from all the fun drama it creates, which is in itself a good reason to bite, a bird can teach its owner to back off and let it have its way. He’ll think, “If the lunge doesn’t work, the bite surely will!” Unfortunately, it usually does.
If your bird bites you or threatens to bite, when you go to retrieve her, then calmly withdraw your hand. Stay where you are standing. This way you have removed your hand from danger but have NOT fled in terror. Continue to engage your bird verbally using quiet tones. Offer a toy for the bird to chew on. This is an incompatible behavior: a bird can’t chew on you and a toy at the same time! Attempt the step up again and again as necessary. While you may not have gotten the bird off the ground yet, she is learning that threats are not going to be effective.
Take a look at possible reasons for the bite. Is it possible your bird is reacting out of fear? Birds have been known to develop hand and other phobias quite out of the blue to our way of thinking. If this is the case, you will have to go slowly and re-establish trust. I think the best way to reform a broken bond is by literally starting over. Interact with her as though she has just come to live with you again. Move slowly and respectfully around her; let her learn that you and the home offer no threat to her.
The Young Bird
Vocalization is natural for a bird. Your baby will learn to use that ability to emphasize a point sooner or later. Your peaceful future with your parrot depends on how you handle it today, tomorrow, and the days following. Think of the child in the cart at the checkout line in the supermarket who is wailing, “But Mooomm, I WANT a caaaandy baaar!!!” Mom finally relents and says, “FINE. Just be QUIET!” We all know what will happen to mom in the checkout line next week. This is not a bad child. In fact, it’s a smart child, but poor mom will be paying for this transgression for a long time.
If your parrot is screaming for your attention and not out of need, then don’t give in until there is quiet. This sends a clear message to your parrot and will save you a lot of frustration in the future. Problems at this age are usually quickly resolved.
The Older Bird
A learned behavior is difficult to change. As many times as a parrot has experienced that it can get away with something, it will take many, many more experiences of NOT getting its way to learn that the game is over. A single slip up can send you back to "Go". As maddening and incessant as it can become, you must remain consistent in the following while your bird is screaming:
Do not make eye contact.
Do not approach the cage.
Do not speak to or address him in any way.
You don’t hear anything, you don’t react to anything, your ears are not bleeding, and you are not fantasizing about the “special turkey" you will be having next Thanksgiving.
As soon as there is quiet, within seconds, start to make pleasant conversation with your parrot and have a treat nearby to offer him. Be very aware of your timing in doing this so that you don’t reward the wrong behavior, and immediately disconnect with the bird once the screaming resumes.
Sometimes a pleasant shower or spray bath will give you a reprieve until you regain your sanity. Remember not to issue this as a punishment. Your bird is learning throughout this process that screaming has no gain. It is expending a lot of energy to no avail and will eventually give up and stop. At this point, teach your bird a call to get your attention that is suitable. I have a different contact for each of my birds.
It is really important that you analyze why your bird is screaming. Are her needs (clean water and good food) met? Does she have enough toys and shreddables in her cage? Is she utilizing the toys you have provided for her, or does she have to play with ones YOU thought were cute? Is she comfortable, too hot or cold? Is there anything in her environment she might perceive as scary?
Another consideration is that your parrot is screaming to get you to LEAVE the room, which is usually what people do. If your parrot becomes quiet once you or the “problem human” is gone, then this is pretty clearly the case. If you leave the room, you are rewarding the screaming. Follow the same procedure as above, but try to ride it out in the same room for a bit. The best advice I can give you is to go about your business without connecting with the bird in any way. When you do leave the room, don’t leave in a huff; just go as if you have business in the other room. Remember, you don’t hear anything, your ears aren’t bleeding, etc.
As long as you remain unfaltering in your application and your hearing is covered in your insurance package, these methods work. They really do!
The Younger Bird
Birds chew things. It is natural and normal and to be encouraged. If you value your furniture and woodwork, you will set up boundaries on this issue right away. If you don't, your parrot will literally eat you out of house and home. The most effective way to keep a young parrot from destroying your valuables is to not let him have access to them in the first place. It’s hard to explain to a parrot why the wood toys on the playstand are okay to demolish but not the chair legs. Instead of wasting your time with this, make areas of the house off limits. You should have a designated area for bird play in your house and only let him outside of the area when he accompanies you on a portable T-stand.
I can practically guarantee that your parrot will make every attempt to step outside of these invisible boundaries to explore. So, be alert and react in time before damage is done. Birds are crafty little devils and will sometimes wander off just to get you to come and get them. This is a favorite game. Usually they will be looking over their shoulder to make sure you are watching. Try not to make this too much fun for them.
The Older Bird
Once again, bad habits are hard to break. Damage to the house is probably the best example of the result of lack of limitations. I am not going to pretend that I haven’t experienced damage, but it’s always been my fault. I have been dumb enough to turn my attentions away from a cockatoo for more than a few seconds. Several years ago Linus, my umbrella, managed to open up about two feet of the top seam of my couch in the 30 seconds it took me to go into the kitchen for a drink. I came back to find him staring at the exposed stuffing and contemplating the fun he was about to have. My bad!
The best way to start with the experienced home-wrecker is to make sure he has plenty to do in the area he is allowed to play in. When he begins to wander off, divert his attention in such fun ways that he would rather stay put. If your parrot enjoys eating a good book, then give him one that you’ve finished reading! Over a period of time, he will not only learn where the "no zones" are but might actually prefer the play area. Never say, “My job here is done.” He will continue to surprise you by finding things you didn’t realize he was aware of.
If you are having behavioral problems with your parrot, NEVER RESORT to hitting, shaking the cage, throwing things, or spraying with water out of anger and frustration. These methods will anger the parrot, possibly make him fearful of you and compound those problems you are already experiencing. Parrots do not respond to violence in ANY productive way. Punishment is ineffective in dealing with parrot problems.
The way your bird behaves is all on you. Birds are not bad. They are inquisitive; however, and that will sometimes get them into trouble. The methods I mentioned of dealing with those problems are by no means the only ways, but ways with which I have had successes.
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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