Life After Weaning – Your Companion Bird and You

Owning a bird is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have. But like all things which are worth doing, they are worth doing well. Birds are very special beings. They are blessed with a high level of intelligence and capable of enriching their owner’s lives in hundreds of ways. The owner who takes the time to understand this specialness and treats his bird with gentleness, compassion and love will be rewarded with joy, love, trust and an unforgetable relationship in return.

I’ve worked with birds for many years and have learned to see the world from the bird’s view. Loving, parental relationships, based upon gentle interaction, perceptiveness and consideration of a bird’s reality are the key. If you want a gentle bird, he must be treated gently and with consideration. Not only is a bird a lifetime companion but he can and will learn his whole life. Cast yourself as the parental figure and deal with your bird consistently, fairly, and gently.

Birds, like other prey animals, are suspicious and cautious. They are not domesticated animals. They are, in most instances, one generation removed from the wild. Inborn and inbred instincts are fully intact. Birds, unlike some other animals, don’t live only in the moment. Their curiosity, intelligence, memory, and emotions are shaped by the past. They think differently, but that difference is not inferior.

Birds are amoral – they feel no regret after eating your computer keyboard or dismantling your mouse. They cannot be shamed into “good” behavior. They are what they are, albeit tame, loving and trusting with those they respect and love. This love and respect must be earned – it won’t come in a day, a week, or perhaps even a month, but it will come.

BEGINNING YOUR RELATIONSHIP

Initially move slowly and perform needed tasks around him deliberately. If an item must be carried past him, hold the item below waist level. Talk softly and reassuringly, make frequent eye contact. Every time you pass the cage, speak to him – it can be nonsense – the tone is all important.

Socialization, in many ways, comes from the emotions and the mind of the handfeeder or owner. When dealing with birds, the harmony of your interior emotions and external actions will be reflected in the behavior of your bird. Never approach a bird quickly or with excitement. If you are anxious, in a hurry, impatient – stop, breathe deeply and allow your emotions to subside. Birds are empathic and very sensitive creatures who pick up on your emotions.

After a settling-in period, begin more extensive and intensive touching. The head, nape, under the wings, and toes are the areas they are accustomed to have petted. Birds like to have their toes gently squeezed and massaged. Another benefit is the added sense of security they feel when perched on the hand. You will be better able to control the bird if you “pin” the toes. Some birds do not accept pinning from the new owner and careful attention should be paid to the bird’s reaction to pinning the toes.

It is important for the owner to initiate frequent interaction. This avoids the sight of a bird clinging to the bars of the cage calling for attention. If the bird is spoken to and acknowledged dozens of times a day, he won’t feel it necessary to resort to what may become unpleasant efforts to gain your attention.

Many short periods of attention are more desirable than one or two long sessions. The short interactions are, by nature, on an irregular schedule. Irregularity is part of the necessary conditioning so that the bird doesn’t come to expect a certain amount of attention at any one particular time. If you will take the time to do these things in a conscious manner, the payoff will be a bird who knows he is loved and cherished because he has seen so many examples of your love.

Be considerate. If the bird is eating, grooming, napping, playing or otherwise safely occupied, wait until you catch his eye and say in a coaxing manner – “Would you like to come with me?” – “Would you like your head scratched?” If you interrupt in a questioning manner, he likely will want a ride or a tickle. Don’t feel rejected if he prefers to continue his present activity. Don’t expect him to give up an enjoyable activity unless he wants to do so.

DEFINING THE ROLES

A bird needs to understand what is expected from him as well as what he can expect. All companion animals are comfortable with reasonable limits and reasonable predictable behavior from their human companions. “Y” action from the bird produces “C” behavior from the human.

Once the bird accepts the owner as the guide, the teacher, the parental figure, the mentor, both of you can be comfortable in your home and the space you share. The relationship is not master/slave. A bird will never be able to accept that because it presupposes the bird will behave perfectly within the “master’s” limits. Unlike any other companion animal, birds can be themselves (parrots), be true to their identity as individuals and still have a warm, deep, satisfying parental relationship with those they love and trust.

Speaking softly to a bird and slowly putting your head around the corner and saying, “I seeeeee you…” reassures him that the flock is nearby and he’s not alone. Birds understand the concept that a thing or person still exists even though it is not in view. Calling softly to the bird in reply to a contact call reassures the bird he’s still in touch with the flock. At first the bird will need a little more reassurance since he is in a strange place with strangers.

THE THREE MAJOR RULES

Three things the bird must learn – he is never allowed to bite, he must always step up and down on command and he may never roam the house.

Biting and other Behaviors

You can encourage certain behaviors with treats but, as with other animals, praise and love will set a better tone for your future relationship.

Never strike your bird’s beak with anything. When a bird bites, you may softly rap the beak with the pad of a finger and say “Don’t bite!” or “Stop!” Don’t grab the bird’s beak – some species recognize this as aggression on your part. You may, while pinning the bird’s toes securely, give a sharp short shake (moving the hand only a fraction) and say “Don’t bite!” or “Stop!” Learning a bird’s body language and avoiding situations when he will bite is far preferable to constant correction.

Some people advocate potentially dangerous and psychologically damaging techniques for dealing with objectionable behavior in birds. Never drop your bird to the floor when he bites. Birds have hollow bones which makes this physically dangerous and sends a devastating psychological message. How can your bird trust you if you drop him to the floor?

Do not use the cage as a punishment area. Do not put your bird in a carrier or small cage in a remote location as punishment. Do not put your bird in a bathtub or shower stall as punishment. Do not cover the cage as punishment.Another bad technique is the “earthquake” in which you drop the hand/arm the bird is sitting on several inches and wobble him when he is doing a forbidden thing. Once again, the bird will not feel safe or secure if you “earthquake” him. We have overcome the inborn reluctance to feeling safe on the floor with our domestic babies. Using a technique that leads your bird to think he is falling does nothing to build trust. Your clipped bird can’t fly away to avoid injury.

A good technique for controlling birds who go after buttons, zippers, rings, etc. is to place your bird on your knee. Be persistent in discouraging this behavior. Rather than a bird hearing a steady stream of “No” “No” “No”, it’s better to ignore what he’s doing. Move the forbidden item from his reach and instead, offer him a hand toy. The connection between the hand toy and the forbidden activity should not be obvious or the bird will perceive the hand toy as a reward for the forbidden activity.

Fingers are always forbidden. Even when the babies are just exploring, I seem not to notice but gently remove my finger from their beaks and offer a bit of food, a toy, a kiss or a rub on the outside of the beak. Beaks are very sensitive and birds often enjoy this type of touching.

NEVER strike a bird no matter the provocation. They will neither forgive or forget. Birds’ bodies, with their hollow bones throughout, are equipped for flight, not fight. A domestic baby who has known only love and gentleness may never recover from physical punishment or punitive aloneness. It may break the spirit of the more fragile – in most it will produce an aggressive biting bird who fears that he will die with each confrontation.

Never tease your bird. No roughness, no rowdy behavior, no tug-of-war or ruffling the feathers the wrong way except on the head, nape, under the jaw.

Stepping Up and Down

Most domestic baby birds have a rudimentary awareness of concept of the “Up” and “Down” commands learned from the breeder. Teach your bird to step up by using the “Up” command and gently pushing your hand into his lower belly. If he doesn’t step onto your hand, you can pick up the two front toes on either foot, support his weight with your hand and lift the bird slowly and gently straight up. Repeat the “Up” command and praise him when he raises his other foot onto your hand. Command “up” firmly but not loudly or sternly. Don’t say “up” in a coaxing or questioning way.

Never allow your bird to come out of his cage by himself. Always command “up” and bring him out. The cage is his home but you as the parental figure have a right to enter his “home” at will and without any objection from him.

When he is returned to his cage or placed on a play area or a stand, command “down”. Place the bird’s tail behind the perch and never let go of the second foot until the first foot is securely on the perch. He will step off in a backward fashion and he depends on you to see that he is safely on the perch before you relinquish your hold.

Territory

The bird must learn that his territory is defined to be: on you, on his cage, in his cage, or on the play area. The young ones will have to be returned to these areas 10,000 times the first year. It may be inconvenient at times to enforce this rule, but it must be done for safety’s sake. A bird only needs to be electrocuted once. Be matter-of-fact but replace the bird unless he comes directly to you – no side trips to chew on the baseboards. The bird is coming to you because he loves you and this must not be discouraged. The young one explores because his instincts tell him that his survival depends on knowing his environment.

A bird perceives all he can see as his territory. A bird who is exposed to all areas of the house is intelligent enough to realize that he cannot “defend” the whole house. The territorial imperative can be significantly reduced by using this strategy. A bird exposed to many new safe experiences, locations, and people will be a self-confident unafraid bird.

TOUCHING

When you begin touching, do so very softly and gently. A bird fears and is intimidated by a heavy touch. Birds must be gently led to accept touching on the back and the long feathers on the wings because they are helpless to escape (fly away) from a predator while being so constrained.

I begin touching the babies from the first feeding – I use a very gentle touch, barely touching the body. In the beginning, I gently cup the bird’s body while holding the sides of his jaws when he is being handfed. When they are a little older, I stroke them from above the nares in a soft gently cupping motion over the back of the body down to the tail. Even then they squirm and wiggle and it takes many weeks for them to accept this touching. When the birds are a little older, I begin placing both palms on the sides of the body under the wings, raise the wings and kiss the back between the wings. I also raise the wings and kiss the side of the body.

Don’t attempt these intimacies at first but begin to let the bird know through soft words and a reassuring attitude that he can come to expect pleasure from you. Go a little past his comfort zone. Then stop, still talking and reassuring him. Return to the touches he accepts readily. Don’t touch the areas he’s uncomfortable with for several hours. Go slow, as you won’t regret the time taken later. Pay very close attention when you go beyond his comfort level – stop before he reacts. Done correctly with attention to his body language and comfort level, you will have a loving, confiding, responsive companion.

When the bird bows his head and ruffles his head and nape, he can be petted from nape to forehead (against the way the feathers grow). The head,nape, and jaw area are the only areas the feathers should be petted against the grain.

“Peek-a-boo” games with a towel on a bed can be beneficial. The towel should cover the owner’s face rather than the bird’s head in the first phase of the game. This game should initially be from the front and can progress to the bird standing on the towel and the towel being brought up over the bird’s head – first from the front and then from the back. The towel should be opened slowly so the bird can see the owner’s face and hear the cue “peek-a-boo”.

TOUCHING BY OTHERS

No one may touch or hold your bird unless they are instructed in the proper manner. Trusted friends and adults in your home can sit in a circle on the floor so the bird may be passed from one to another. Before each is passed the bird, that person should speak reassuringly in a low coaxing voice that promises safety and pleasure. Each should speak softly but firmly using the up command and make soft eye contact. Explain to each of them how to pet a bird. The more informed gentle humans a bird is exposed to, the more likely he is to be a friendly bird who expects pleasure from strangers. He will willingly go to strangers if he has been socialized carefully in this manner. “Pass the bird” and the “peek-a-boo” games were first articulated by bird behaviorist Sally Blanchard.

ADOLESCENCE – A TIME OF TRANSITION

The first two years are critical. At about 18 months of age, the bird will begin pulling away somewhat. Be consistent and gentle with him at this time. Emotional separating is a natural milestone. He is no longer a baby and his relationship with you will change slightly. He may not be as accepting of the intimate full body caressing. Give him a little space but under no circumstances lessen your time or attention.

Some species are less interested in physical intimacy but all species should be offered the chance to enjoy the pleasure many birds get from such intimacy. Birds are individuals – some will enjoy more touching, some less.

This may last a couple of months – he may be more interested in having you preen him. Choose a group of nape feathers, get down to the skin level and gently pull a separate feather through your thumb and forefinger – go to the next feather and do the same thing.

If the bird has been lovingly and correctly managed, by the time he reaches 18 months of age, he will be a well-behaved, loving, confident, gentle companion for the rest of your life.

At this time, some birds begin to refuse to step “up” to come from the cage. A bird at this time should be offered the choice of coming from the cage on the “up” command or being brought from the cage in a towel. This toweling should be done calmly, gently and in a matter-of-fact manner. Offered the choice, birds will choose to step “up” after a time or two of being brought from the cage in a towel. When a bird next refuses, show him the towel. You will find he will come out on the “up” command – by his own choice – when shown the towel.

Don’t feel rejected at his temporary change of attitude. In the wild he would be part of the juvenile flock and interested in assuming his rightful place in it (at the top of the pecking order, of course!) This short period is analogous to the terrible twos one experiences with human children but isn’t as bad as the awfulness of puberty in human children. It passes quickly and your loving relationship will resume, deepen and become richer with experience and time.

RECOMMENDED READING AND OTHER SOURCES OF HELP

Read “My Parrot, My Friend” by Doane & Qualkinbush frequently. This is an important and significant book on bird behavior.

Sally Blanchard’s “Pet Bird Report” details many innovative methods relative to socialization, behavior modification, and understanding companion birds.

My other articles including the Grey Parrot series may be helpful to you at this time.

Conclusions

You may think these suggestions are a tall order, but your bird will likely outlive you and think what kind of life he would have if he were not a well-behaved, trusting, and accepting adult. A well-loved well-behaved companion bird will be a welcome member of your family. A bird is forever (almost) and he deserves the very best you and your breeder can offer. Make arrangements in your will for your bird. Most of the larger species can live 40-75+ years. A cockatiel has a natural life span of 25 years with good care and a good diet. Greys and macaws can live for 50-75 years, given regular health care and a nutritious varied diet. Some Amazons have lived past 100 years.

The most important way you can show your love is to allow your bird to be a parrot. He is not a perfect little robot who will respond in only one way to a particular stimuli. Parrots are very complex animals with complex reasons why they behave as they do. If you are a perfectionist, you will have to concentrate this inclination in some other part of your life – don’t expect perfection or perfect behavior even if you behave perfectly toward the bird.

You may find that other methods work better for you and your bird. Whatever you choose to do, however, MUST be firmly based on a relationship of mutual trust, respect, and love. My advice is based on my experience, research, and a common sense approach. As Steve Martin (respected trainer and behaviorist) tells us: “The best approach is to never make the bird do anything it doesn’t want to do, but find ways to use Positive Reinforcement to encourage the bird to do what you want him to do”.

Don’t allow problems or inappropriate behavior to accumulate or escalate. Don’t hesitate to call your breeder, your avian vet, an avian behaviorist, or an experienced bird keeper regarding temporary or minor behavioral or health problems… or for recommendations to professionals for your more serious concerns.