Ain’t Misbehaving

Pet owners need to understand some key points about avian behavior in order to build a healthy and happy relationship with their pets.



The study of bird behavior has evolved dramatically since the days when many scientists believed animals were basically instinctual creatures that were only capable of reacting to their environment. Back then, they assumed that many animals were not capable of feeling emotion or doing something just for fun. Thus, when young animals like kittens were play fighting, for example, the researchers believed they were just developing hunting skills. 

Of course, some scientists, including the famous Charles Darwin, who is best known for his evolutionary theories, believed that animals were more sophisticated than that. In fact, in 1872, he wrote a book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he used anecdotes from pet owners to prove that animals do show emotions, including one story about a parrot dying of grief shortly after its long-time mate had passed away. 

Anyone who has owned a parrot can attest that these extremely intelligent birds exhibit many types of behaviors and often seem to be too smart for their own good. Their intelligence level has been compared to that of a three-year-old child, but parrots don’t “think” exactly like we do, which can make them very difficult to understand and train, although often these birds seem to be able to train us very well.

The best way to train any of the most popular pet birds is through positive reinforcement, usually accomplished by giving treats and praise. Parrots are very social creatures that thrive on attention, and the larger the species the more attention they will need. The important thing to remember, however, is that a parrot will take any type of attention as a reward, even if it is negative. Thus it is very important for owners of young pet birds to ignore unwanted behaviors like yelling and to break social contact if a parrot nips or bites, so they won’t act out in these ways when older.

On the other hand, pet owners also need to understand that certain actions like calling out after the sun comes up and just before sunset is a natural behavior for parrots. If an owner wants to minimize this behavior, they should never yell at the bird to be quiet because as far as the bird is concerned, their owner is yelling with them and not at them. It is best to ignore the “bad” behavior, otherwise the bird will scream louder and longer, waiting to get the same level of attention from the bird owner. 

Positive reinforcement can be used to help keep a bird from calling out too long or loudly by rewarding the bird when it is quieter, such as when it is talking or whistling. Give the parrot a treat and praise when it stops yelling and starts to talk and the bird will learn very quickly that screaming is ignored while quieter actions are rewarded.

Biting is not a natural behavior of parrots in the wild. They will sometimes lunge at each other, but rarely will they bite another parrot. Most pet birds may bite out of fear or if they are feeling territorial around their cage or have reached sexual maturity. A parrot may attack another person, especially someone that’s the opposite sex of the owner, if they feel jealous and consider the owner their mate, as can happen with some of the larger parrot species like Amazons. My yellow-nape Amazon, Pablo, liked women and loved me, but he disliked men. He hated any man that was close to me, like my dad, which was ironic since he gave me Pablo when I was a teenager. Pablo’s wings were clipped but that didn’t stop him from chasing my dad on foot down the fish aisle on occasion.

Sometimes parrots seem to go through an “adolescent” phase where they may test their owner a bit, or their “mouthing” of owners’ fingers gets too hard. This is why it’s important to not let a bird use fingers, hands or ears as a chew toy at any time, and to give them something appropriate to gnaw on, like food or a toy, just as you would when training a puppy. Those light nips and mouthing could become bites over time if not stopped from the very beginning. 

However, there are some exceptions to the rule. For example, some species, like African greys, naturally mouth their owner’s fingers, but it is always very gentle. Also, parrots will use their beak to sometimes grasp the finger or hand they are stepping up on for balance, but they should never bite down when doing so. 

Very tame birds may sometimes bite because they get bored or were being ignored by their owner. They may nip at first to get attention, then grab on harder and bite until the owner yells out and gives the bird the attention it is craving. If a parrot bites, it is best to say a firm “no” in a quiet, angry tone and put the bird down and break the social contact by leaving the room for a moment.
 
Breaking contact with a parrot can be considered negative reinforcement and should be done the moment a bird bites, as it will learn quickly that they won’t get any attention if they bite. Remember, pet owners should never hit a bird, even lightly, as punishment for biting, as often it makes the bird fearful of the owner. Parrots also have long memories and may never go back to the owner again. The same is true if the owner hits the cage to make a bird be quiet.


The Power of Positivity
It is important to do some positive reinforcement training with parrots, because, just like puppies, they are smart and love to learn tricks and commands. As “sit” is the first command usually taught to a dog, “step up” is the first command that a young parrot should learn. Hold a finger or side of one hand up near the parrot’s stomach while the other hand can hold a favorite treat that the bird can only get to by stepping up. Say the command once and wait for the bird to step up. Give it the treat and lots of praise, and then do the command again. 

Parrot owners should work on the step-up command a few times a day at first and get the pet parrot to step up several times during each session, taking a few moments in-between for praise and eating of the treat. When the bird automatically puts its foot up when told to step up, then a new trick or command can be taught like waving or pooping on command. But the step-up command should be used whenever a bird gets onto or off the owner’s hand. If unwanted behaviors occur—for example, a bird being aggressive around its cage—the command will help get the bird to come to the owner.

If a parrot owner rewards their intelligent pet for good behaviors by using positive reinforcement such as treats and praise, and ignores or breaks social contact for bad or unwanted behaviors from the very beginning, they will end up with a wonderful and well-behaved parrot.


Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.

 

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