Setting Clear Expectations For Your Parrot

Setting Clear Expectations For Your Parrot

 January 27th, 2010
Posted By:
Patty

Galahs, Congo African Grey

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 might have become more assertive of his wants, will cooperate with your requests in pleasant and acceptable ways.

Rescues are packed to the brims 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 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?

Let’s look at the three top reason that people give up their birds, how it relates to us as their teachers, and what we can do to prevent problems in immature birds, or correct an existing problem in sexually mature birds:

Rose Breasted Cockatoo and African Grey

BITING/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 on to your finger or your clothes, quietly 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) and put her on a nearby perch or cage top.  Discontinue eye contact, don’t speak, turn away and count to ten.  Then you can pick her up again and go with whatever you were doing.  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.  Then you will have to start over, but this time you will not only have to teach the right behavior, but undo what has just been learned.  If you are completely consistent in your actions, 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!”  And it usually does.

If your bird bites you, or threatens to bite, when you go to retrieve her, calmly withdraw your hand, but 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, letting her learn that you and the home offer no threat to her.

Galah, Military macaw

SCREAMING:

The young bird:

Vocalization is natural for a bird.  Your baby will sooner or later learn to use that ability to emphasize a point.  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, 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 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, 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, 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 and 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, etc.  These methods work, they really do, as long as you remain unfaltering in your application, and your hearing is covered in your insurance package.

Galah

DESTRUCTION:

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 or 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.  Have a designated area for bird play in your house and only let him outside of the area when he accompanies you and will be 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:

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 because 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 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 wanders off, divert his attention in such fun ways that he would rather stay put.  If your parrot enjoys eating a good book, why not give him one that you’re done 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.

Galah

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 only anger the parrot, and/or 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, but they are inquisitive 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.

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12 Comments on “Setting Clear Expectations For Your Parrot”

Connie Vasquez  01/27/2010 12:56 pm

Hi guys,

Did you have to adapt the way you introduce new environments, experiences, or training techniques from one species to the next? For example, I have always heard that African Greys need to be more gently introduced to new experiences as they may tend to be more phobic than other species? But with Tika, I tend to introduce new experiences casually or with enthusiasm and she generally gets on board rather quickly. Very curious about about this… Thanks for the info.

Connie Vasquez


Patty  01/27/2010 11:10 pm

Hi there Connie!

I worked with a couple of “phobic” greys in Austin living in different homes. Both suddenly just became this way according to the owners. One was clearly the result of the new hyper, almost jittery, dog they had bought recently. I would’ve cowered in the back of my cage too. The other one became hand phobic for reasons unknown, but I suspect this one had that tendency towards being phobic all along, and had finally just reached a breaking point. Even while I was there, the owners would thrust their hands into the cage and snatch her out, which clearly rattled her. Then there’s Cressi, who doesn’t seem bothered by much.
Theo, my goffins cockatoo, is easily alarmed by things that would only stir the interest of most other goffins. I think it’s best to base your actions on the individual bird rather than the species.

Patty


Patty  01/28/2010 9:51 pm

Hi Karla,
Very true. You can only weed out the bad if you reward the good!
Patty


Eva  05/12/2010 6:57 pm

Hey, me and skeeter want to know another thing 🙂 sometimes i just want im sitting on my hand and he tries to go on my shoulder and it is really hard to get him off when he does that any suggestions on how to handle that? also he likes to crawl around under my shirt and when he does that he NEVER wants to get out what can i do when that happens? Thanks!
EVA and SKEETER


Patty  05/15/2010 10:07 pm

Hi Eva and Skeeter!
Bird will always try to go “up”. Your shoulder offers a high perch for a bird, so it’s a favorite place to be. Unfortunately, if he’s been allowed there in the past, he’s going to continue to try to go there and will not want to come down. Handle this the same way you would any other unacceptable behavior, consistently move him to a place he is allowed to be. If he continues to go on your shoulder, he goes back to the cage. If he wants to hang out with you, he’ll have to follow the rules. But it’s really important that you be very consistent with not allowing him on your shoulder or under your shirt. He won’t understand why he’s allowed to do something one day, and not the next. Have you tried getting him one of those little bird tents to play in instead of your shirt?


Eva  05/17/2010 5:00 pm

well im trying to get him one but id have to pay for it and the trees are sorta expensive but im going to give him one soon!


Patty  05/20/2010 4:00 pm

The tents are about $15 and can go right in the cage. They get nippy in them sometimes during spring though.


Danie  06/21/2010 4:40 pm

I just bought an African Grey about a month ago. She is very scared of a hand coming close to her and touching her . She would at times allow you to scratch her head but in general runs away from the hand. She was like this from the time I got her. She is still quite young. Any suggestions please?


Patty  06/21/2010 5:53 pm

Hi Danie,
It is most likely that she is still settling in. Greys can be a bit fearful, but the more positive interactions she has with you, the less she’ll feel afraid. Give her time and space. Be sure not to force attention on her. It’s best to let her explore you and the house when SHE is ready. Leave her cage door open and let her come to you instead of reaching in to get her, and make sure you talk to her a lot. This will slowly teach her she has nothing to fear.
Patty


dots  08/30/2012 1:30 am

what about cats? I have been offered a 3 yr old cockatoo but have 2 cats


Eileen Frohnen  06/13/2013 4:10 pm

We have a wonderful 15 year old female umbrella cockatoo that wasn’t quite fully weaned when we got her. She doesn’t bite (except when she is overly stimulated at play so we don’t allow her to get overly stimulated), is so extremely quiet that neighbors and visitors to the house don’t even know we have a parrot unless I bring her out to visit, and is just a love. The only problem we seem to have with her is being very hormonal. She was prolapsing so our vet did surgery on her about three years ago to stop the prolapsing. Her vent has still remained quite more relaxed than it should be and my heart is breaking because I think she is starting to prolapse again. She has plucked feathers til she is bald in areas and will have periods where she will pick at her skin, draw blood, and make scabs on herself. She has periods where she chews wood blocks we cut for her like mad but then either gets tired of that or for some other reason stops. She is an only bird. She is very bonded to me as I am her only caretaker and I spend the most time with her. She spends a lot of time out of her cage (which is an 8′ aviary that has plenty of different toys and foraging toys in it) on her playstands that are in my home office, our family room, and media room. We love this bird so much. We wish we could figure out what she needs that we are not giving her that would help her to stop mutilating herself. We don’t want her to have to spend the rest of her life with a stovepipe collar around her next so she can’t reach her picking areas. We cannot get another bird to keep her company because I am 67 and starting to have physical problems that make it hard to take care of and clean up after the one bird we already have. I am hoping that someone somewhere can offer some advice that will help.


Jess  02/25/2014 9:21 am

Hi in response to Eva’s comment about Skeeter constantly going to her shoulder, I discovered that training my 18 week old Lani “Down” and rewarding her perching on my forearm fixed my problem!