The one-person bird (AKA:The ‘you must like everybody you meet fallacy’)

Owner expectations

A common complaint heard by behaviorists, is the inability of some parrots to “like” EVERY individual in a human flock, and to socialize equally with each flock member.

Choosing to compare birds to humans, is rarely appropriate. However, if we do choose to judge bird behavior by human terms, we then should think about what this would mean for a human. For example, Human relationships are complex. Human beings have “friends, acquaintances, and lovers”.  Perhaps parrots have equally complex relationships?  Research currently being done supports this.  Layne Dicker in his article-The Parrot/Human Relationship, Nature, Flock, Peer and Mate (Pet Bird Report, vol.9, no#3, #47/May 2000), talks about the complex social systems of cockatoos in the wild. They have their group of close friends (peers), a mate, and acquaintances from outside their immediate group but still within the flock. The interactions between each individual of each classification are very different. The same is true for humans. Should a human be expected to have a close relationship with a rarely seen acquaintance? Most of us would say not!

Just who deserves respect?

Before you decide whether your bird is acting appropriately, please consider what your expectations are for your bird and why your bird is acting the way it is. It is appropriate for you to want your bird to act respectfully towards family members. But what about strangers? If you were lounging around in your bedroom one morning and without warning some giant opened up your window and stuck a finger through what would you do? I would probably bite that finger! Strangers and family must be taught how to properly interact with parrots. People must remember that parrots are genetically wild animals with no idea how to live in your living room. Parrots must be taught which behavior is appropriate in the human jungle. Sally Blanchard suggests that proper introductions are the key to forming human/bird social relationships (Companion Parrot Handbook, 1999). As the responsible owner you must choose who is appropriate to handle your bird and when. The interested person should understand how to handle your bird safely and how to react to various situations ( excitement-biting, etc). Individuals responding inappropriately to a behavior because of their inexperience may reinforce a pattern of behavior. The owner should supervise all visits. A stranger who mishandles a parrot can significantly jeopardize future interactions with strangers and family members.

The Lovers Triangle

A typical scenario=husband buys a bird for his wife. Bird decides that the husband is the most wonderful thing and decides to bite and drive off the wife. Wife demands that the husband choose between the bird and her…..This can be prevented and dealt with. It is fine for a bird to have a preferred person. We all have people in our lives that we prefer to spend our time with. It is important, however, for the bird to understand that the less favored people in the flock are still important members of the flock and worthy of respect. Biting is not appropriate behavior towards these members. Keep in mind that there are many reasons why birds bite, and the scenario for each bite must be evaluated. See Liz Wilson’s article “Take The Bite out of Biting in Bird Talk, (July/01). The primary responsibility to teach appropriate behavior lies with the preferred person. The least preferred person must decide what type of relationship they want to have with the bird. Here are some suggestions that I have found to work. See Sally Blanchard’s –The companion parrot handbook for more details.

  1. The favorite person must never laugh, or in any way encourage inappropriate behavior towards the least favored person. Inappropriate behavior should be accompanied by a firm no and an “evil eye” (from writings of Mattie Sue Athan, and Sally Blanchard).
  2. The favorite person should reward the bird with lots of verbal praise for not reacting inappropriately to the least favored person(from writings of Chris Davis)
  3. The least favored person should be given the responsibility of doing all the favorite activities and giving all the favorite treats to the bird. The bird must learn that in order to get these wonderful things, he must treat the least favored person respectfully first. Conversely, the favorite person should be the one to do the disliked activities with the parrot (i.e.-vet visits).
  4. All birds must have at least an annual physical exam. A sick bird is often more cranky and less tolerant to daily handling. Some sick birds can be the opposite as well. An overly compliant bird can be mistakenly seen as a “sweet little bird’ when in actuality it is very sick.
  5. All companion parrots must be stick trained. The least favored person MUST be able to move the bird from one location to another if needed. This is especially true during an emergency (a house fire for example).
  6. All companion parrots require basic training. Both the favored and least favored persons must participate in this. How this is done varies with the species and the individual bird. Consult an avian veterinarian and avian behaviorist on how to do this appropriately for your bird.
  7. Constantly reevaluate your expectations of your parrot. Talking ability is NOT the most important companion parrot characteristic. Not all parrots are cuddly. Your parrot is an individual with traits like and unlike your neighbor’s parrot or your friend’s parrot. Lowering your expectations frees up your parrot to be who it is. At the same time you will be more open to your parrots good characteristics-you will be pleasantly surprised!
  8. Seek professional help. Consult you Avian veterinarian or an experienced behaviorist before the problem escalates. An outside person can often spot problem attitudes, expectations or confusing body language of the humans involved. Sometimes there are problems between the humans involved that need to be resolved. The longer you wait, the more entrenched the behavior will be and the more frustrated you will be (and less willing to solve the problem).
  9. Set up specific rules and boundaries in the home that EVERYONE must follow.
  10. For example: no unsupervised floor time. You must be consistent with enforcing these rules. If a bird knows that you will not be consistent enforcing the rules 25% of the time, than it is worth his effort to do the undesired behavior because he will get away with it 25% of the time!
  11. All unwanted behaviors take time to develop. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that correcting/solving the behavior takes at least equivalent amount of time. Often the behavior will get worse before it gets better.
  12. Have the least favored person initiate trick training. Having a fun activity that you both do together can strengthen the least favored person relationship with the bird. Many parrots will mimic the least favored persons voice more than the favored person. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the least favored person. They can spend time teaching the bird to sing nursery rhymes or to talk. Mattie Sue Athan in “Guide To a Well Behaved Parrot” and Sally Blanchard in “Companion Parrot Handbook” describe various games and activities that the least favored person can initiate. Many of these are “hands off” games involving verbal or body language.

In conclusion, ask yourself why it is so important for you to be the most favored person. As a least favored person you can still have a fulfilling relationship with the bird in your life. It may be different than the most favored person, but it can be equally rewarding. Jealousy on your part says a lot about your internal workings and how you view relationships (See Bird Rage by Chris Davis, Bird Talk , Dec/00). Perhaps there is some work that needs to be done in your life too.

“Article by Susanne Hardy RAHT , Bsc. (AnSc.).”

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