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Article by JULIE ZICKEFOOSE

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Perhaps you’ve seen a colorful, talking bird in a pet shop and thought, “I’ve always wanted a parrot!” Before you take the plunge, here’s a note of caution.

As I write, the emerald-green head of a macaw emerges from under my desk. He has crawled up my leg from a favorite perch on my foot. He’s been doing this for 21 years, and I expect him to be sitting on me, giving creaky calls and showering me with feather dandruff, for at least the next 21. He’s the relationship I can’t get out of.

I bought this parrot in 1986, the first time my biological clock rang. I needed something young and helpless to care for, but living hand-to-mouth as a field biologist, a baby wasn’t in the cards. It was one of the moments in my life when a crystal ball might have been helpful; to look forward 21 years and see myself still fixing a hot breakfast every morning for a bird; to see that sweet cooing baby parrot morph into a crotchety tyrant, not averse to sinking his powerful beak into flesh to make a point.

And yet, Charlie speaks a few words; he has a flair for slapstick. In the company of people, he listens to the conversation and laughs loudly at precisely the right moment. He waddles around the house, toenails clicking on linoleum, looking for a nice closet where he can hole up. On cold days, he dives down the front of my sweater and rides like a joey in its mother’s pouch, muttering and cackling in the friendly warmth. The bare skin on his cheeks is soft and warm. He likes to be hugged.

A captive parrot selects the only mate it can find (in this case, Charlie’s picked me), but I just refuse to follow the plan he’s laid out for me. I share my affections with another of my species, even when Charles punctures my skin to prevent this perceived infidelity. I won’t eat the breakfast he regurgitates for me, no matter how tenderly proffered. Occasional furtive copulations with my sock-clad foot net him nothing but a temporary release. He points out and protects his chosen nest site, a grotto under the sink, with cracked squawks and sudden rushes at passersby. But I can’t succumb to his will, crawl under the sink and lay the two round white eggs that Charlie believes I must have in me; that he so longs to incubate and protect. He crouches in the half-darkness, looking up at me with a Don King wig of feathers over crazed golden eyes. Come on in, baby. You know you’re ovulating.

Every once in awhile, I look down on myself, a middle-aged woman with a middle-aged parrot dropping dandruff and worse on her shoulder. Sometimes, after he has perforated my finger or lip in a fit of pique, it occurs to me that I might just surrender Charles to a parrot rescue group. Just as quickly, I discard the idea, since people are constantly calling me to rescue their birds. Who am I to dump this slightly mad bundle of idiosyncrasies and multicolored feathers onto anyone else? We have a history together, forged in stone on that fateful December day in 1986 when I gathered a baby macaw in my arms and said “I do.”

Parrots can be delightful. But they are raunchy, awful pets. I’ll probably be an old, old lady before I figure out what has kept me and Charlie together all these years. And I’m sure Charlie, that tatty old rotter, will be sitting on my shoulder when I do. Maybe it’s love. But it feels a little more like marriage.

Commentator Julie Zickefoose loves birds of all species, but the intelligence and sociability of parrots makes them rank among her favorites. She is the author of Letters from Eden.

Parrot Behavior Problems

Parrot Behavior Problems

Many parrot owners report that there birds have behavior problems. They ask things like, “Why does my parrot hate my girlfriend” or, “Why does the bird scream every time I leave the room?”

The brutal truth of the matter is that birds were not designed to live in your house or to be perfect pets. These creatures evolved to survive in some of the most dangerous jungles, desserts, and rain forests of the world. As a result we can’t always expect them be quiet when we’re on the phone or play nicely with small children. That said, there still are ways to correct or at least alleviate most of the problems that you may have with your parrot.

There are three main kinds of behavior problems that people have with their birds:

  1. Instinctual or natural behavior problems
  2. Unintentionally trained behavior problems
  3. Problems caused by the ‘Conditions of Captivity’

In this article we will learn the differences between these three types of problems. In the articles that follow we will discuss individual behavior problems to find possible solutions.

Instinctual or Natural Parrot Behavior Problems

These are the behavior problems that simply exist because they are a part of how your parrot is built. They are instinctual behaviors that are essential for a parrot’s survival in the wild but that are really annoying to those of us who are trying to live with parrots in our homes. These problems include screaming, chewing, and aggression towards strangers (especially during mating season).

What is an Instinct?

Scarlette Macaw

Scarlette Macaw

When we see a brand new baby we often times assume that his little brain is like a blank white canvas ready to start learning. This is actually a false belief. Our brains, and the brains of other animals, actually come pre-programed with all sorts of instincts. An instinct can be thought of as a computer program that tells a creature how to do certain things without it having to learn them.

Human babies have one program that tells them how to drink their mother’s milk, one program telling them how to blink their eyes, another telling them how to breath and so on. Even though we can’t see an instinct just by looking at a babies face or even looking at CAT scans of his brain, a child’s instincts are as real as his fingers and toes. Further more, instincts are passed down from parent to child the same way skin color is passed down through heredity and for this reason, from generation to generation, they can be acted upon by the power of natural selection to help promote a creatures survival.

A good example of a human survival instinct is the disgust we feel when we smell rotting meet. We are repulsed by the smell and will try to get away from it as fast as we can. We will even gag or get sick if we get too close. Our instincts are doing everything they can to stop us from swallowing a piece of the tainted food so that we don’t get sick and die.

Problematic Parrot Instincts

Different species of parrot have different instincts which evolved to help them survive and reproduce within their perspective environments and social communities.  ‘Flock Calls’ are loud screeches that some types of parrots do instinctively when they are separated from their flock or mate. The scream is intended to carry long distances so that the birds can locate one another. That’s wonderful in the wild but it is really annoying in captivity.

Parrots show affection to their friends and mates by grooming each others feathers. If a bird sees that his friend has some feathers that need to be de-sheathed, he has a strong instinct to lovingly chew on the feather sheathe until it is removed. In captivity, parrots will often chew off buttons or rip apart zippers on their masters cloths. If your bird does this to you it’s not because he thinks it’s a funny joke, in the parrot’s mind he’s just showing you some love by ‘fixing’ your funny looking feathers.

Correcting Instinctual Behavior Problems

Telling a Sun Conure to never scream again would be like telling a dog to stop having a wet nose – it’s not going to happen! That said, even though you can’t get rid of an instinct, you can help your bird learn to control his troublesome urges in the same way a mortician can be conditioned not to get sick every time he sees a dead body. To learn more, see the article on Parrot Screaming.

Unintentionally trained Parrot behavior problems

All of us are constantly training our animals and even the people around us. We train for good and we train for bad. Every time you walk up to a gold fish and drop floating flakes in the top of his bowl you are teaching him to swim to the surface each time he sees you. Every time a man finally breaks down and does the dishes after his wife has been nagging at him, he is training his wife to nag more often.

Some parrots don’t like to be handled by people and they require a lot of hard work in order to warm up to the idea. If a bird bites you when you take it out of the cage, you get frightened and then put him back in his cage, you have just taught him that biting is good and will always get him what he wants.

When your bird displays a bad behavior, ask your self “Why is he doing this? What reward is he expecting to get?”. If you can stop rewarding the bad behavior, chances are, it will quickly fade away.

Problems caused by the ‘Conditions of Captivity’

African Grey Feather Plucking

Photo by Joel Zimmer

Feather plucking, extreme phobias, and extreme aggression are all behaviors that are very common in captive birds but extremely rare in wild birds. Because of this, its safe to assume that these behaviors are being triggered by what I call ‘Conditions of Captivity’. Cages, clipped wings, food bowls, strange diets, and the lack of interaction with other parrots are all Conditions of Captivity that could be causing the mental illnesses that manifest them selves in the form of bad behavior. Again, your bird’s brain developed for life in the jungle with other parrots, not for life in your living room with a bunch of flightless apes.

The closer you are able to simulate their life style in the wild, the better off your parrot is going to be. This is easier to do than you might think and we have an article all about it called “Animal Enrichment”. When we go out of our way to stimulate our animals in a manner that is naturally appealing to them, we are doing what is called “Animal Enrichment”. This is a term widely used in Zoos around the world and it can cure all sorts of nasty behavior problems in most animals and even in humans. After all, we weren’t designed to sit behind a computer screen for 10 hours a day now were we? Now that you’ve finished this article, I recommend you go outside and play!

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