The Importance in Creating an Independent Bird
By Lara Joseph
Our parrots, how would we describe them? Intelligent is one word that comes to mind. An array of words could describe our companion parrots such energetic, cuddly, boisterous, fun, and loving. On the other end of the spectrum we would probably hear descriptions such as loud, destructive, territorial, and aggressive just to name a few. Most of the words in which we choose to describe our birds are often reflective upon how we as caregivers raise them and interact with them and often unbeknownst to us.
Much of my time and focus is working with bird’s behavior and changing undesirable behaviors into desirable behaviors through the way in which I interact with them. One of the most common undesirable behaviors of birds I hear about from their owners most often is screaming issues. The second most popular behavioral issue is aggressive behaviors or aggression toward other family members. I also see much of these behaviors being reinforced through the years of living with the bird. Often times when owners have reached their limit in frustration level, the bird is often found at risk of losing its home.
When a bird screams it is not uncommon for the caretaker to run to the cage and tell it to be quiet. When a bird bites another family member, often the bird’s preferred caretaker runs to the incident and removes the bird, and sometimes because no one else is able to pick up the bird without getting bitten themselves. When we are at home and relaxing, it is also not uncommon for us to spend hours on end with constant interaction with our birds. All of these situations may aid in creating or reinforcing behavioral problems.
For instance, if a bird is screaming and we run to the cage to tell it to be quiet, talk to it, or just appearing next to the cage, we could be rewarding or reinforcing the scream. If the bird wants our attention and every time or once in a while it gets our attention, we are encouraging this behavior to continue. Even if we are in the other room and the bird wants our attention, if it screams and we yell back, the verbal interaction alone could be enough of a reward or reinforcer to encourage that screaming to continue and often increase. Does this sound familiar?
If we spend our free time with our bird on us for long periods of time, we are not encouraging that bird to play or behave independently without us. I am all for spending quality time with my birds and building that bond through love and wing pit scratches. I’m talking about walking around the house with a bird on your shoulder for most of the day. When we walk out of the room or line of sight, this bird most likely will scream for us until we walk back into view if it can’t get to us or see us. Having our birds on us or interacting with only us also may create such a bond to just us that anyone else may not be able to get near the bird without being bitten or approached with some type of aggressive behavior. It may be cute or complimentary in the beginning but the more this continues it does not create an enjoyable place for other people to be or interact. It often may cause the bird to be returned to the cage and that is also when we will see the bird exhibit higher levels of behavioral issues, anxiety, and stress. Is this what we really want for the well being of our birds?
This is a very common problem among households and most people do not realize they are often creating and reinforcing these behaviors. I know of many sad instances where people have had to re-home their most beloved birds because when the main caretaker leaves the house or walks out of line of sight of the bird they will scream non-stop until this person comes home or back into view. In these instances, most people begin living very restricted lives; restricted by the bird. This often causes the main caretaker to have to take the bird with them wherever they are in the house to prevent the other members of the household from complaining about the ever-growing behavior issue. If they have to leave the house, they begin rearranging their daily chores and times they can leave the house around the times other members of the household are out of the house. By trying to prevent the complaints from other household members, we are often reinforcing the behavior issue at hand. A double whammy! Not an uncommon story at all. Most birds loose their homes due to negative behavioral issues.
It is not too late to change these behaviors if you find yourself in these or similar situations. These behaviors take time to create so keep in mind they will take time to correct or change through training. If you haven’t yet had to deal with one of these situations this is fantastic and I would encourage different ways in maintaining independent behaviors from your bird. I do this every day with all of my birds, the independent and the not so independent…..yet! I reward the independent play. When I hear a bell of a toy ring, I know that bird is playing with that toy and if the bird has an issue playing independently, I will tell him from another room what a good boy he is. As he begins playing more and more independently I will reduce the amount of times I verbally interact to the point where I can fade it out almost completely. When I hear quiet resting from another room, I may walk out and give a smooch to one bird, a nut to the other, and a wing pit scratch to another and then leave.
Routines can be a major contributor in encouraging the opportunity for negative behavior issues. Let me explain because this is one of the main ones in which I focus attention. It’s easy to develop routines in our daily interactions with our birds. It is a process we use out of convenience to us and rely on to make sure tasks are accomplished. We come home from work or school. We check the mail or the answering machine and then we walk straight to Rocky’s cage to let him out. We do this Monday through Friday. Rocky soon becomes very dependent on this routine. What happens on Wednesday when you come home and you have plans to meet your friend in less than an hour? This may not be a concern of yours but chances are likely that this will be a big deal to Rocky when he is used to getting out like clockwork each day. Try to think of all the areas in which you work with your birds on a routine. The numbers of them are probably more than that of which you are aware.
I find routines are great and important in working with a bird that already has behavior issues but I think it is very important to begin incorporating small variations and changes in this schedule. Try coming home and changing that routine a bit. If there is a definite routine, you may have to start small and make small changes while rewarding your bird for not screaming or pacing in anticipation of what he or she knows usually comes next. Try coming home, saying hi to Rocky, getting something out of the refrigerator, turning on the tv, saying hi to Rocky, put in a load of laundry, and then getting Rocky out of his cage. Don’t forget to reward the good behavior of not screaming or staying calm until you get him out. This reward may just be the sight of you, the word “good”, or a scratch on the had when you walk by the cage. The next day, mix it up a bit yet again. Each day I come home, sometimes I’ll get one of the birds out immediately and other times I may wait an hour. They remain calm and content and we vocalize back and forth here and there. This comes in so handy not only for us, but also for the bird because there are going to be those times when the phone rings before Rocky comes out. The lack of routine, or variety in one, shows to be less stress and anxiety for Rocky.
I also have birds that prefer either my husband or myself. This is fine but I also make sure I have positive interactions with all of them and that each of them spends time with both of us. I don’t want to live in a house where I have to be worried about being bitten by a bird if I get too close to it being on my husband and vice versa. I encourage my bird’s interaction with my husband and with other people. I reward my bird for interacting with other people by clapping in praise or giving them special attention when they are being held by someone other than myself. This encourages them being more social and often shows less stressful situations for the bird. It may take some work with a bird that has a long or strong history of attacking other family members but it can be done and each situation and bird is different from another.
I also encourage my birds being content and eating in their cages and interacting with one another from their cages. I often play with the birds from the outside of their cages and encourage and reinforce them interacting or reacting with the other’s behaviors. This encourages them to focus on each other and interact with one another, even if there is no physical contact. When I can’t be home or even when I am and I hear them talking or mimicking each other, this will bring a smile to my face. I want them to be content in my absence and as stress free as I can make their environment. It makes for a happy household too, for myself, my family, and our visitors.