"My bird loves me, but hates my husband."
"She is so cute she loves to snuggle with me and will lay there for hours while I pet her."
"Her favorite thing is to sneak under the pillows or the blanket, then she comes out to show me all of her pretty feathers and actually tries to feed (regurgitate to) me. Then she backs up under the pillow again clucking at me. It is so cute!"
"He loves to play on top of his cage and 'patrol' the area. He gets so intense that if we try to take him down from the top of the cage he will bite us."
"Our bird loves her little snuggle hut - we could never take it away from her."
"She has always loved us, but one day out of nowhere, she became such a mean bird. I don't know how much longer we can take this!"
And the list goes on...
These are all frequent comments that those of us working with people and their companion parrots hear almost every day. It is critical that we help parrot caregivers gain a better understanding of their bird's behaviors and most importantly, their affect on them. One of the most important things to understand is that parrots are not domesticated. They exhibit all of the natural and instinctual behaviors of their wild counterparts! Parrots do not think like we do. Birds have no frontal lobe (the logical portion of the brain) but rather, they have large hypersensitive emotional centers. This leads us to believe that birds perceive our interactions with them much differently than we may want them to. Birds interact with each other visually, verbally, and empathically. This makes it extremely important that we take on a consistent leadership role that will gently guide our birds to adapt to lives in our homes. Parrots do not know how to live in our homes and it is our job to teach them how.
The two main questions we must ask ourselves as companion parrot caregivers are as follows:
1.) What do our companion parrots perceive to be happening during our interactions with them?
2.) What do we perceive to be happening during these same interactions?
Often these are two completely different things.
Our parrot's perception of any given situation is the most valuable tool we have. We must pay close attention to how we interact with our companion parrots. We must also understand how they are affected by our interactions with them both medically and behaviorally. How do we determine our parrot's perception? One of the best ways is to observe outdoor birds. Whether you are lucky enough to watch parrots in their wild environment or spend time watching native birds in your own back yard, you will find that most of their behaviors play a major role in helping them survive in the wild. With that said, I would like to break down the above comments to find the natural and instinctual reasoning behind them.
"My bird loves me but hates my husband."
It is unlikely from what we have learned about the parrot's brain that your bird 'loves or hates' either of you, at least not in the same sense that people love or hate each other. It does however make perfect sense that a companion bird would attempt to choose someone in the household as a potential mate. Remember we are thinking natural and instinctual. Once a bird has identified a mate, any others making advances towards them or their mate would be perceived as an intruder. The parrot's job (to be successful in the wild), would involve driving the intruder from the territory. This is accomplished through posturing in an attempt to look larger, color display, and vocalizing. In most cases the perceived intruder will leave and the dispute would be considered settled. Occasionally, the first bird may be the one driven off by the newcomer. In either case it is almost unheard of for any actual physical contact (like biting) to take place during the confrontation. Once the dispute is settled the pair can then continue nest building, courting, and rearing their young.
In our homes when a bird has come to perceive someone in the household to be their mate they are often geared towards driving perceived intruders (other family members) away - especially when their perceived mate is in sight. It is easy to see why it is very confusing for parrots when the perceived intruder does not take such blatant (no flock member would misunderstand this in the wild) hints to leave. The situation is not considered by the parrot to be settled and the territorial behaviors used in the attempt to drive off the perceived intruder may be regularly repeated. These futile attempts to drive them from the territory may lead to frustration and desperation in the bird. In the home, as in the wild, the bird will posture, show colors, vocalize (scream repeatedly) and now may even bite. This may even cause the bird to bite their perceived mate in an attempt to get their assistance. This can be severe if the perceived mate is interacting with the perceived intruder rather than helping to defend the territory.
I would like to offer a description of the positive developing relationship that my Double Yellow Headed Amazon, Lt. Columbo, has with my husband, Terry and I. Columbo has been my companion parrot since he was only a few weeks old and I am his favored person. Terry was involved in his initial raising and development before he came to live with me (this was before we were married). Terry and I were married in 1999 and Columbo is now 9 years old. I am sure that many of you have heard the myth that male Amazons 5 years and older can be unmanageable. Many breeders and even some veterinarians commonly recommended (some still do) that these birds needed to be put into a breeding program. They considered them only suitable for breeding purposes and not as companions. Or they would recommend keeping the bird and finding it a mate. Finding a mate is not the easiest thing to do either. It is not much different then an arranged marriage in humans. Parrots do many things to attract the mate of their choice and it is unlikely that we will be able to guess what bird that may be. Other potential problems with finding the bird a mate are; possible injuries to one or both of the birds during a dispute, concerns about disease, breeding, the birds bonding to each other and becoming more aggressive to people, and potentially adding more work and complexity to an already exasperated caregiver.
Lt. Columbo has at times clearly perceived Terry as an obstacle in his path to forming a reproductive bond with me, yet he has always viewed Terry as a flock leader as well. Several times each year (usually in the Spring), Columbo, while on his play tree, will literally wait for Terry to walk by him (he never does this face to face) then just as Terry passes by, Columbo will lunge out (not actually touching Terry) in display with outstretched wings and a fully flared tail. He always waits until he thinks Terry is not looking and he will then check to be sure that I have seen him. In his mind he has shown the competition that he is the boss. He is also showing his prospective mate (me) his ability to defend the territory and drive off the perceived competition. When he does this I try my best to ignore it. When Terry notices he will either completely ignore it or he will talk to Columbo calmly for a minute or so asking him to do some of his tricks (like hanging by one foot). Terry will regularly take Columbo to another room (away from me) and spend time with him. Some of this time is just spent with Columbo in the room while Terry works on his computer, watches television, or reads, every once in a while looking up and talking to and acknowledging Columbo. The rest of the time is spent teaching him things - all of it is meant to be non-confrontational and is instigated by Terry. It also involves a great deal of praise and positive attention. Terry has these types of interactions with Columbo throughout the year, not just when Columbo is exhibiting hormonal behaviors. Although Terry wants to be perceived as a leader, he also wants to remain Columbo's flock mate and friend.
"She is so cute she loves to snuggle with me and lays there for hours while I pet her."
Understanding that this can be the cause of many problems for companion parrots and their caregivers is very difficult for many people to accept. We have spent a lifetime hugging our children and others that we hold dear. We have always stroked and petted our companion animals, primarily dogs and cats. So how could it possibly be a problem to interact this way with our companion parrots? We want them to know that we care for them and even love them! Shouldn't they receive the same care and attentions as the others we cherish? Again, we need to take a look from our parrot's point of view. Take another moment to observe the birds outside. What do you see? Most often, unless mating or raising young you will not see birds, even a mated pair, in direct contact with each other or stroking each other. Touch on the back generally implies courtship, leading to mating and rearing young.
Many people are unaware of how birds mate (believe it or not, we get asked this question by companion parrot owners regularly) I would like to give a quick (non x-rated) explanation of how parrots mate and help clarify what certain types of touch can imply. When parrots mate there are generally two methods that are employed:
1) The male bird actually climbs onto the back of the female and then wraps his tail around the females tail to initiate contact and a rubbing together of their vents.
2) Larger species (like Macaws) will stand next to each other and the male will wrap his wing over the hen's back and they will each tilt their vents towards each other initiating contact and a rubbing together of their vents.
From these explanations it is easy to see how our birds might get the wrong idea while we are 'petting' them! One of the more extreme situations we hear about regularly is where someone describes how much their bird enjoys it when they stroke them with their entire palm down the back and then continue on to wrap their fingers around the birds tail in order to continue the petting all the way down. This type of 'full body stroking' usually involves (although not intentionally) direct contact with the vent area as well as the back of the bird. After the above description of bird mating behavior I am sure you can see how this full body stroking might give a companion parrot certain ideas! Truthfully, about the only other time that a bird in the wild would feel touch on the back would be from a predator coming down upon them. Sally Blanchard has taught us for years about our need to nurture and guide our companion parrots. Nurturing must be carried out in an instructional manner with the caregiver portraying a leadership role. Then our companion birds can interpret the interaction as it is meant to be. I also refer to this form of nurturing as 'Guided Leadership'. It is very important for parrots to view us as effective, confident, highly seasoned flock leaders. Flock leaders that will keep them safe and teach them how to survive in our homes and to become well adjusted, independent secure birds. If our parrots view our touch and attentions to be sexually stimulating rather than instructional, it is we who are giving them the idea that we want to be looked upon by them as a mate. I am NOT telling you that you can never touch your parrot. It has been stated by many people that there are certain times of the year that you should just not touch them at all. The problem with this 'all or nothing' thinking is that it does not teach your bird anything and often leads to a cage-bound bird with caregivers that are afraid of them. I am telling you that you must pay close attention to where and how you are touching your parrot and most importantly what your parrot perceives your touch implies. If your parrot seems to perceive your touch as sexual, STOP that form of touch!
"Her favorite thing is to sneak under the pillows or the blanket, then she comes out to show me all of her pretty feathers and actually tries to feed (regurgitate to) me. Then she backs up under the pillow again clucking at me. It is so cute!"
This is serious business for your parrot and not in the slightest bit 'cute'! She is in sexual overload, a condition that could trigger her into a constant reproductive state potentially leading to Hormone and Adrenaline Toxicosis. There are ongoing studies by some wonderful veterinarians that have led them to believe that this state of constant reproductivity is very harmful to these parrots. Some of the other health problems seen in these types of birds can be extremely high levels of Cholesterol and Triglycerides, Heart Disease, and Feather Destructive Behavior that can be brought on (or a current feather related problem is worsened) by an inflamed reproductive system.
It is best for birds to play in an area that is not perceived by the bird as a potential nest site. This behavior in the wild would be geared toward her mate to indicate approval of the possible nest. Many female birds will back up and cluck or pant in a mating display indicating breeding readiness to their mate. She may also raise her tail feathers or avert them to the side for mating. Regurgitation is used primarily to strengthen the bond with a mate or to feed offspring. These behaviors are almost exclusively used for purposes of courtship and reproduction. They have absolutely no place in our personal relationship with our parrots.
For over fifteen years (before that most people did not recognize what was occurring) we have heard of people saying that when a bird exhibits reproductive behaviors it is best to allow (and to actually aid them) in following their hormonal reproductive drives to whatever conclusion was as natural as possible in captivity. These same people would state that not to allow this was to deny the bird's ability to be a self-actualized parrot. How would they suggest aiding these birds in becoming fully self-actualized parrots? Many would go as far as recommending that you encourage your bird to masturbate - including offering toys to masturbate on. We have actually spoken to many people who allow their birds to masturbate on their hand, their shoulder, etc., and they are convinced that this is the best way to fulfill their parrot's needs. In all of the years of numerous people attempting these methods, we have yet to hear of a situation that did not lead to behavioral problems (from the bird developing a strong sexual bond to the caregiver) and in a number of cases severe medical problems occurred as well. It is unfortunate that many of these old ideas that have no research backing them are reappearing today. Not only are they reappearing, but they are being presented by people portrayed as 'experts' as that this is new 'state of the art' information. Our philosophy at Parrot Island has always been one of doing no harm.
Many people say, "What is the harm? It is not as if the bird can actually produce young". In this case they are absolutely right, the bird cannot produce young by masturbation. This in and of itself is the harm. These bird's bodies remain in a constant state of hormonal inflammation. Female birds can lay eggs without another bird in the household! They can also continue to lay eggs over and over again until they become very ill. Chronic egg laying and other repetitive reproductive illnesses contribute to many of the major health problems and untimely deaths of companion parrots today. Why, if we know this, do we continue to do things that can harm our parrots? I believe that any caring parrot owner would never intentionally harm their parrot. It is critically important to gain a better understanding of how our actions affect them and to learn how to properly interact with our parrots in a manner that is healthier and more natural for them.
A description of our life so far with Sam, our 14 year old female Double Yellow Headed Amazon may be helpful in understanding some of the affects of excessive reproductivity and stimulation as well as some ways we have found to prevent it. Sam (as do all of our birds) spends many of her days at Parrot Island with us while we are open for business. When she was between four and five years old she began to show distinct changes in her behavior as she gradually played less with her toys and seemed very interested in direct physical contact with Terry (my husband and Sam's caregiver) or especially with any blonde haired woman. Most days at the store she would spend a great deal of her time sitting around and simply waiting for the next female customer (hopefully blonde) to come into the store. Immediately upon seeing a woman her entire demeanor would change. She would become very active climbing about and talking, cooing, meowing and doing anything she possibly could to get their attention. Of course, most people would go right over to her upon hearing and seeing her reaction to them. She plainly wanted their attention - something most people are immediately drawn to. What more could Sam hope for? She displayed and perceived potential mates flocked to her. We have always believed in weighing our birds regularly throughout their lives to track any weight losses or gains. Terry quickly came to realize that when Sam would go into these 'broody' periods, with no changes to her basic diet, she would gain 60 grams in about 2 weeks! Her normal weight has always been around 425 grams and she would climb all the way up to 480+ grams! This is a physiological change (conservation of calories) that female birds go through as their body prepares for the rigors of producing eggs and caring for offspring. We have found that through lowering the fat content in Sam's diet and increasing her exercise (primarily through the use of 'Assisted Flight Aerobics') as well as limiting her time at the store on busy weekends, and educating our customers about the effects of their interactions with her, that we have been able to greatly reduce the risks of over-reproductivity for her. Her mother (the hen that produced her) actually died due to a combination of reproductive health problems including egg yolk peritonitis so we have been very aware of potential problems with Sam. Over the last several years of gaining a better understanding of how we can help her she has become a much happier, playful bird - especially at home. As a side note: all Terry has to do is hold Sam for a few minutes and then place one finger on her lower back for her to fully display and cluck at him in an attempt to mate! Terry's interactions with Sam are limited to just hanging out (ambient attention), instructional play, and limited scratching of her head. The more of these types of interactions she gets the more she prefers it and she is definitely more content.
"He loves to play on top of his cage and patrol the area. He gets so intense that if we try to take him down from the top of the cage he will bite us".
Isn't this parrot doing a fantastic job protecting his perceived nest and the territory surrounding it? There he is on top of his cage, defending his perceived nest (the inside of his cage) for all he is worth. In the wild the defense of the nest is essential in warding off intruders and successfully producing and raising offspring. Take a moment to think of a parrot in the wild. Picture him out on a branch a few feet from the nest opening carefully watching the area around him. Is this behavior really any different than what your bird perceives he is doing in your home on top of his cage? Probably not! A play tree or gym away from the cage rather than on top with many interesting things to do is essential to a parrot's emotional stimulation. Male birds may react differently than female birds when they are hormonally driven but they are certainly not immune to the affects of hormonal toxicosis. In male birds it may often appear to us that the bird is more aggressive when they are really in a state of extreme confusion and frustration. In our homes both male and female birds can suffer from hormonal toxicosis. This condition inflames the reproductive system and with no natural form of release it becomes a key contributor to many serious behavioral and health problems for parrots.
"Our bird loves her little snuggle hut. We could never take it away from her."
When a bird is acting sexual in response to a snuggle hut (sleeping tent), toy, perch, mirror, shredded paper, wooden toys, etc., they are triggering your bird into reproductive behaviors. Anything that appears to trigger your bird into reproductive behavior should be removed from the cage. This can be determined by your observing your bird rubbing on, shredding or tearing, regurgitating onto, displaying at, vocalizing to, or being aggressive around the object. Some toys and perches can be perceived mates, a bird seeing himself in a mirror can be perceived as a mate, and snuggle huts can often be perceived as a nest site. Birds are truly at their most vulnerable to predators when in the nest so it is almost assuredly our perception rather than the birds' that they 'need a snuggle hut' to feel safe. I am not telling you that no companion bird can have a snuggle hut. I am saying that it is your job to pay attention to how your bird reacts to the hut and to you.
My Hyacinth Macaw, Mateo, has a certain toy that he particularly favors and at times, perceives as a mate. During the fall and winter months he can play with this toy and act like his usual, gentle self. In the spring and summer he will act very differently around the toy and he sits very close to it. If I (or anyone) try to remove him from his cage when the toy is there he will lean back and posture with wings slightly away from his body in an attempt to look bigger and rock back and forth. If I continue to push the issue to remove him from the cage he ultimately may bite. If I remove the toy (perceived mate) first, he will step up and come out without a problem. It makes sense to not give him this toy during certain times of the year and avoid this confrontational situation all together. Watch your bird to determine if anything in the cage or surrounding area is a hormonal trigger for your bird. If it is remove it.
Other birds in the household or even outside can be a trigger for reproductive activity and sometimes the cause of health issues in our parrots. We have two Black Capped Caiques, Scooter (8 year old female) and Skeeter (4 year old male) who have been around each other for many years. Skeeter initially viewed Scooter as a parent but as he began to sexually mature (at about 2 years of age) his view of her then gradually changed to that of a potential mate. He would pester her when given any opportunity and beg to be scratched or fed as well as attempt to feed and mate with her. Scooter would rarely get a minutes rest when he was around, yet they really seemed to enjoy being together. After about a year or so of this developing behavioral change, Scooter began to have occasional seizures. We had no idea why and brought her in to our Avian Veterinarian immediately. The only thing the doctor was able to find out of the ordinary was that Scooter's ovaries and reproductive tract were enlarged and very inflamed (this was found on x-rays). Through observation we were able to determine that Scooter's seizures seemed to happen when she was agitated by Skeeter's advances. By keeping them in separate cages and separating them completely from each others view at times we have been able to keep Scooter seizure-free now for the past 5+ years and her reproductive tract and ovaries have returned to a more normal size.
As a side note, an additional question that might be asked is:
"How come these birds seem to be so easy to trigger into a reproductive state?"
We have two theories that we have come up with (along with a number of other people and veterinarians who are interested in this topic):
1) There are so many triggers constantly present for reproduction in our homes for our companion birds that they would only have during their breeding season (usually once per year) in the wild. They have a perfect temperature, an unending supply of food (sometimes high fat content foods or sprouts that would only be available before their breeding seasons). Their lighting cycle or photo-period in our homes is very different than the yearly changes in length and angulation of sunlight that occur in the wild and many have both a perceived mate and nest site.
2) It is also a realistic theory to say that the last 30+ years of most breeders naturally choosing pairs of birds that proved to be the most successful, productive parents would eventually genetically select for offspring that would become easier and easier to trigger into reproduction. The most obvious argument for this in a commonly kept companion bird is the cockatiel. Many of you probably realize that it is now more difficult to prevent excessive egg laying and breeding behaviors in cockatiels than it is to get them to start!
"She has always loved us, but one day out of nowhere, she became such a mean bird. I don't know how much longer we can take this"!
Of course this does not come upon us out of nowhere. If we pay attention to our bird's behaviors, no matter how slight, we will clearly be able to identify changes in their hormonal behavior and work towards diminishing sexual related behaviors.
What about 'Nurturing Guidance', 'Guided Leadership', and 'Healthy Interaction'?
Sally Blanchard's method of 'Nurturing Guidance' has paved the way for parrot owners to understand the importance of trust building interactions. Many people hear the word nurturing and place human emotions on it (hug, hold, love, etc.). When Sally refers to 'Nurturing Guidance' she explains it as a way to interact with our parrots in a trust building manner so that we can gently guide them along to become well-socialized, independent, and confident birds.
When I use the term 'Guided Leadership' I use it in much the same way. I do not mean that we need to rule or dominate them but to guide our birds towards proper interactions by teaching them proper ways to interact with us. This is much the way flock leaders would behave. Flock Leaders are the birds that the others trust and follow. They are followed because they are trusted. They are the ones to lead the flock safely to eat, drink, bathe, play, and roost. This is not to say that their leadership role may not be tested from time to time, as ours will be, but we as they must maintain this role for our birds to feel safe and view us consistently as leaders. As flock leaders we must teach our birds, usually verbally, what we are doing from one moment to the next. Just because you may not have one of the species of birds considered to be 'big talkers' does not mean that they are not listening and able to understand! It is important for our birds to develop a routine that gives them a basic idea of what to expect. This routine should be altered enough from time to time so that the bird is able to handle some flexibility and be secure enough to deal with change. It is important that our birds feel safe with us no matter what we are doing. Truly the most nervous birds that we see are those with the most nervous or reactive caregivers. Our birds travel to and from Parrot Island with us on a regular basis and have been taught to not only be okay with change but to actually enjoy it.
Instructional Attention: Teaching them things is great fun and a good way for your bird to learn new things. Allow everyone in the family to participate by regularly playing on the floor (bed, etc.) with your parrot and a large variety of toys. Reward your bird when he does things that you like. There is no greater reward than praise from everyone. This is an excellent way to interact and play, much better than having them sit directly on us on the couch (giving them mixed signals). It is also better exercise and much more mind stimulating for our parrots. Parrots are highly intelligent animals and many of them enjoy interactive toys and will learn colors, counting, and playing catch. Many parrots love to play hide and seek with their human flock mates. Give them the best play area away from their cage that you can. Avoid using the top of the cage as a play area from the beginning and the chances of your bird showing aggression and protectiveness of the cage and surrounding area will be greatly lessened. This also gives your bird a chance to play in different areas of the home and be more connected with the human flock. Avoiding a potential problem from the beginning is much easier than correcting a problem once it already exists. If you have a cage that has the play area on top, try to remove it. Many cages with play tops allow you to move the play top off of the cage and use it elsewhere.
Ambient Attention: This is when you are directly in sight of the bird while the bird plays on it's own on a designated play area. You are not actually instructing the bird but glance up from time to time and say "Hi" or "Good Bird", etc. As I am writing this article I have four of my birds playing on their trees and watching me. Every once in a while I look up and acknowledge them. Even ask their input from time to time, whether or not they are inclined to give it. I always clap and praise them when they play hard with a toy or hang upside down. Whenever they do anything that is acceptable I always take time to enforce and praise them. These types of interactions can be perceived as normal flock activity and are both ways to maintain 'Healthy Interactions' with your companion bird.
Focused Attention: You can sit with your bird and scratch his head if you like or wrestle with him a bit. It is just important that you watch how your bird is reacting to whatever it is you are doing. It is you that will ultimately be able to determine what is and what is not 'Healthy Interaction' with your parrot. The better you are (and everyone interacting with your bird is) at paying attention to your bird's reaction to various activities the more likely that you and your bird will live a long, happy, and healthy life together.
Since the beginning of Parrot Island 95% of our business has been derived from a combination of veterinary and customer referrals. We are also extremely lucky that these veterinarians and customers (many of whom have worked and lived with companion parrots for 20+ years) through their research and observations, have become a tremendous resource and have helped us gain a better understanding of the effects of captivity on these birds.
Our opinions about these things have not come lightly or from a few people's observations about their parrots. The methods we have employed for many years with both our own birds as well as hundreds of our customer's birds continue to show us that we are on the right path to a better understanding of the overall care of companion parrots. Terry's interest in birds began in 1970 with native birds, particularly birds of prey, and then a 7-year old male Cockatiel named Chester entered his life. Most of Terry's education and interest in birds was developed by a combination of veterinarians, biologists, and other people with a strong interest in bettering the lives of birds, as opposed to those with only an interest to produce birds for the pet industry. While volunteering for numerous bird related study programs, such as The Macalester College Field Station, The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Raptor Rehabilitation Programs through the University of Minnesota, Terry also attended college courses in biology, ornithology, animal physiology, zoology, and all classes required for the Pre-veterinary program at The University of Minnesota. Terry was working as a Veterinary Technician at Kenwood Pet Hospital and spent much of this time in aviary management. Terry became so involved with educating companion parrot owners that he decided to open Isles Pet Supply, now Parrot Island, in 1987. At that time two of his partners were veterinarians. I was so impressed by his obvious care for these birds that I left a career of 17 years in banking (and all the perks that went along with it) to share his passion and become his business partner in 1997. In 1999, we were married.
I want to thank my husband, Terry, for his patience and willingness to teach me, and so many others how to properly care for and live with these magnificent animals. I feel fortunate to have found Parrot Island (then Kenwood Pet Clinic-Isles Pet Supply), so many years ago. When I first entered Terry's store, as a customer, I was very impressed. The wealth of knowledge I received was amazing. Not only was I taught about the importance of diet, caging, socialization, and veterinary care, but I was also informed about proper interactions with my bird. Even then, some 11+ years ago, Terry was already instructing customers about the problems that could occur from forming a sexual bond with their parrot and most importantly how to recognize and prevent that bond from occurring. He even kidded me back then - that it was okay for me to love my parrot - just not to LOVE my parrot!
I cannot end this article without thanking Sally Blanchard for sharing her 30+ years of studying parrots (and many other bird species) to help us understand and change for the better, our relationships with them. I would also like to thank Dr. Tammy Jenkins of St. Francis Animal and Bird Hospital, who has tirelessly and patiently shared her information and opinions with me. Mostly, I must thank the companion parrots that share my life for teaching me more then I can express. They have accepted my family, friends, Parrot Island customers and me as part of their flock. Through their interactions and our observations of them they continue to teach and challenge us every day.