On Best Behavior
Pet specialty retailers can give bird owners the information they need to encourage healthy behaviors in their pets and avoid disruptive ones.
One of the worst things for pet owners to deal with—and a reason they often get rid of their animals—is bad behavior. Unfortunately, it is often the pet owners themselves who are inadvertently encouraging this behavior, and this is particularly true with parrots.
Retailers can help bird owners prevent bad behaviors by teaching them about birds’ natural tendencies and explaining how to avoid encouraging troubling behavior, such as yelling excessively or biting—the two most common problems parrot owners complain about.
Parrots naturally babble and call out in the morning and before sunset in the wild to contact their mate and/or others in the flock; this is natural and should be expected from any parrot species. Like people, some parrots are louder than others, but the calling out should not go on too long or loudly, especially once the parrot has had contact with its owner. In fact, if a bird that cannot see its owner calls out and the owner gives a quiet “contact call” back, like saying “hello,” that should quiet the bird down. If the owner responds only after the bird has gotten increasingly loud, she has just rewarded it for getting louder.
Yelling at a bird for bad behavior is equally as troublesome and will exacerbate the problem. A parrot that is being yelled at will think the owner is yelling “with” it, causing the parrot to scream more. If the owner follows up by hollering at the bird, he or she has just rewarded the behavior further. Negative attention is still attention, and the parrot will actually enjoy the interaction and the opportunity to vocalize with its owner.
Parrot owners should never wave their hands angrily at a bird, hit the cage or worse, hit a bird, even lightly, in reaction to disturbing behavior. The owner will only succeed in teaching the pet to fear them—and/or hands in general—thus creating one of the most problematic behaviors with parrots, biting. The owner also risks losing the bird’s trust to a point where the bird may never go to the owner again. Getting angry or aggressive at any pet will only encourage fear or aggression in the animal. It’s also important to remind pet owners that parrots do not think like humans, so their reactions and actions are going to be different.
Although it is natural for a parrot to call out at certain times of the day, it is not natural for them to bite down hard on anything, except to chew wood, bite hard foods such as nuts, and in fear of a predator if it cannot flee. Parrots mainly use their beaks to touch and taste, as a third “foot” to grasp something for climbing, and to beak wrestle with other birds.
Parrots will lunge and gape at another bird or person if it is feeling territorial or hormonal, but usually the other bird will know to move away, although an unobservant owner may not. This is why it is extremely important for parrot owners to understand their parrot’s behaviors and moods, so that they do not provoke pets to bite.
Besides biting out of fear or because it is feeling territorial or hormonal, a parrot may bite when it feels pain or is sick, gets too excited, to test boundaries as it matures, to avoid something it doesn’t like or want, and sometimes just for a reaction, as this would be a reward.
If an owner yells at a bird in response to being bitten, the owner has inadvertently taught the parrot to bite by rewarding the behavior with attention that the bird may want. A parrot will understand very quickly that biting is not good, but it will bite again, and harder, if the owner reacts by yelling—bird behaviorists refer to this as a drama reward. To keep this from happening, it is very important that the owner does not react at all when their bird bites, except to say “no” in an quiet but angry tone, and to give the bird a seriously dirty look, which will help the bird understand that it has done something wrong.
Laddering, which is when a bird is made to step up from hand to hand (or perch to perch) a few times while preferably using the “up” command, is another good way to regain control of a parrot that is biting. The laddering should be done a few times each day to help stop the bird from behaving badly. Note that bringing the parrot back to its cage is not a good punishment”for biting because by the time it is put into the cage, it will have forgotten about the incident and will not make the connection that biting is bad.
Easy Does It
Demonstrate to new bird owners how to pick up a young parrot properly with a steady finger or hand held slightly above the legs, pushing lightly against the stomach area preferably while using the command “up” or “step up.” A young bird may reach down to hold the finger or hand with its bill while stepping up. Tell new owners about this, or demonstrate it if possible, so they don’t think the bird is reaching down to bite their hand, which may cause them to pull quickly away and frighten the bird or make it unsure—this could lead to actual biting.
A parrot that is excited because it has been playing a lot or has reached sexual maturity should be left alone until it calms down, otherwise it may bite. Tell owners to watch for signs that their pet is too crazy at the moment to be picked up. Signs include pupils that are small (called pinning) or getting big and small, raised head feathers and/or a tail that is flared out. If the bird is just bouncing around or head bobbing a lot, that is also a sign to just let it be.
Many parrots become territorial around the cage and will bite any finger or hand that intrudes into their home. The best way to deal with this is to avoid it by teaching the “up” command from the beginning so that when the bird hears this word, it will automatically step up on the hand. With some birds, it may be best to let them come out of the cage on their own first, as long as they are willing to go to the owner right away.
Like dogs, parrots will be better pets if they are trained to obey commands, are rewarded for good behavior and given the positive attention they need to stay healthy and well behaved.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.