Addressing the “One Person Bird”
Often I hear people say the birds in their house belong to one individual. I do this too and call my birds, “my birds”. There are certain people and certain situations out there specifically about which I am thinking though. It’s the household or the family member that describes to me, with a look of sadness in their face, how they brought the bird into the house with the intention of it being a part of the family, but the bird has chosen one family member over the rest. They continue to explain how, over time, no one can now interact with the bird except that one family member. I have paid close attention to this and have found it to be quite a common issue. What I find really interesting is that I can see these problems developing when I talk to bird owners. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have also been becoming pretty good at picking out the likely candidates of which household this may happen if precautions are not discussed. I say fortunately because I may be able to give the owners a “heads up” on what situations may start to occur. I say unfortunately, because if I’m getting good at seeing the problem develop, it is because it is more common than one would think.
Having the feeling of being the bird’s preferred person can give us the sense of being honored to have such a special bond from such an exceptional creature. It feels good to have our attention, and our attention only sought after by something, especially such intelligent animals such as our companion parrots. Birds are such unique creatures in the first place, so to have our affection personally requested by them may feel like such a compliment. I know; I’ve been there. I’ve seen three of my four birds request my attention over my husband’s. I’ve seen two of my birds show aggressive behaviors such as lunging, biting or growling toward my husband. At first, I may have been a bit flattered, but slowly I realized how many downfalls there can be in this situation.
A lot of times, a family or one family member goes in search of bringing home the perfect bird. Once they think they’ve found it, the bird gets acquainted with its new environment, hopefully, and things seem to be going well. Everyone settles in nicely and oftentimes one person begins interacting with the bird more than the other family members. The one that begins interacting the most with the bird starts observing and learning a lot of the things the bird enjoys such as a favorite head or wing scratch, a favorite treat, certain sounds to which the bird reacts, and even a favorite toy. Life begins to happen on a normal basis for everyone and the other family members interact in their own time and in their own ways. These other family members may not have the time, nor as much interest, to interact as the one family member that is recognizing all the details that the bird likes. The bird becomes used to and begins preferring the one that knows the most about it and begins looking forward to the time of the one family member over the others. A lot of times this is usually when the bird may begin to show unwanted behaviors toward the other family members who haven’t had as much time or don’t know the preferred treats or scratches that the one preferred does.
The changes in the bird’s behavior can be so subtle that a lot of the signs can be easily overlooked. Over time, the other members approach the cage toward a bird with raised neck feathers. If this bit of body language is ignored it very well could lead to a lunge. If the lunge is ignored it usually leads to a bite. The behavior is ignored and the information from the preferred family member is not shared and when little Timmy goes up to ask the bird to step up and little Timmy gets a pretty painful bite. The husband starts getting a growl from the bird every time he walks by the cage. The next time, he may even receive a bite. If you get bit once, this has paved way for an anticipated consequence to happen the next time one sticks their hand in the cage for a ‘step-up’. If the bite occurs again, one would probably be pretty reluctant to try it again. Slowly, different family members stop or are reluctant to interact with the bird, leaving the one “preferred family member “ to all of the interactions. These are the beginning stages of the development of what I call “The One Person Bird” and with this can begin a list of developing negative behavioral issues, with one of the main behaviors being stress.
Having a “one person bird” in the house can create a lot of stress. Number one, depending on who you talk to, the one it can create the most stress for is the bird. If the favored person is out of the house or out of sight, a lot of stress may be placed on the bird while it waits for the favored person to reappear. If the family or person is to leave on vacation, this can also create a lot of stress on the bird while it endures life with other individuals until the vacation is over.
Having a “one person bird” can also create stress for the preferred family member. Certain issues may develop and the preferred person may be the only one who can feed the bird without it lunging at the food bowls. The preferred person may be the only one able to clean the cage or change the cage papers. The preferred person may be the only one able to get the bird out of the cage, which in turn may result in the bird not getting out of the cage as much as it could if it interacted with all family members.
Having a “one person bird” can also create a lot of stress for the rest of the family members. This can develop into a major problem for all involved. The bird may begin exhibiting negative behavioral issues such as flying or chasing after family members. This also results in the bird being in its cage more often. The bird may begin exhibiting undesirable noises such as screams, or ear piercing beeps. A beep here or there isn’t that bad, but when a habit or rhythm begins to develop in it, it can become very stressful for the rest of the family members in the house. Many times this may even cause the bird to lose its home.
Many of these behaviors can be prevented with early interaction. Instead of the same person giving the bird its favored treat every time, why not share who gives the favored treat while paying close attention to the bird’s nutritional needs? I mention this because we don’t want the bird being constantly fed and only fed almonds. Why not have different family members ask the bird for a behavior such as “step-up” and then reward him with his favored head scratch? If the bird likes to be held, why not have different family members take turns in holding the bird different times throughout the day? Whatever it is that the bird obviously enjoys, why not have different family members take turns throughout the day or throughout the week in positively interacting with the bird with its favored actions or items? This may prevent the problems that can come with the bird over bonding to one person.
I’d like to share a few different examples which I experience with my own birds. I don’t mean to keep talking about my own birds, but they are the birds with whom I interact with most frequently and I am so fascinated with parrot behavior that I pay close attention to a lot of their actions and the consequences which those actions serve for the bird. For example, Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo, is the only one of my four birds that I brought home at a young age. My husband and I brought him home at the age of five months. I do and always have interacted with him the most because I have the most time between my husband and I in which to interact with Rico. Because of this, I intentionally withhold Rico’s favored behaviors or treats until my husband comes home so he can share these same experiences with Rico and Rico with my husband. I do this intentionally so Rico looks forward to his time with my husband also. I need my husband to help me with the birds and I want the times that he shares with the birds enjoyable for both him and the bird… and they are!. My husband needs to live happily in this house also, so I intentionally reserve time and special treats for the two of them to share. This also helps in preventing less stress on the bird for those unexpected or unavoidable times when I have to leave for periods of time.
Another instance I’d like to share is a bit ironic and it involves my female Eclectus, Molly. When Molly was rehomed with my husband and I, she only liked me and would growl at my husband whenever he was near her. I’ll admit, I did think it was a little funny and I didn’t see it causing much harm to anyone. Well, one day I had to medicate Molly. I now do this differently but at that time I was toweling Molly to give her medication. This created so much stress and struggle for her. She only had to be on medication for seven days but by the second day of delivering them to her, our relationship was damaged. Our relationship was marred by that one for quite a while. Soon, the growls were directed at me and my husband quickly became the favored member of the household. No big deal, right? Well, I didn’t think so but I did miss the positive interactions between Molly and I. Soon Molly began chasing me across her cage when I would walk by. Because my husband was the only one to be able to get her out of her cage, she began calling for him. Molly began ‘over bonding’ with my husband. This isn’t and wasn’t healthy either. Molly began calling for my husband with this loud ear piercing beep. Once in a while it wasn’t that bad and was easily over looked. Well guess what? That sound started occurring more frequently. When you are trying to talk on the phone or have guests over for dinner and this ear piercing beep is happening every 8 seconds for about 21 times in a row before the cycle starts again after a 15 second break, it tends to get a little stressful for me too. Molly made this sound every time my husband would walk out of the room or out of her sight. Where this brings me, is that I had allowed Molly to become over bonded with my husband while I began refraining from positively interacting with her as much. At the time, I didn’t see much harm in it. It gave me more time to focus on my other birds and it seemed like Molly was content with this. That whole scenario was a time bomb just waiting to blow, and that it did! I’ll save the details on how I modified that behavior for another newsletter, but the point is to show how a situation got out of control and negative behaviors escalated to the point where it created a high amount of stress for all involved. I have since modified Molly’s ear piercing beeps to a cute cooing sound and I have taken many steps in making her interaction with me as positive as I could possible make it. I did this by being the one who transported Molly to her favored person. I did this by being the one who delivered or gave Molly her favored treats while I had my husband refrain from doing so. I did this by showing Molly how much more fun life could be outside of the cage than choosing to remain inside until my husband came home.
I had to take small steps with Molly to regain her trust. I had to take small steps to regain my trust in her. With a lot of persistence and attention to detail, we are almost back to where we used to be, which was with her riding around the house on my shoulder. I just have to be very careful to not over bond with her. If I make that mistake again, the whole bomb scenario begins to develop. With two large cockatoos, a large macaw, an over-bonding confused Eclectus, and an attention deficit and not yet behavior modified husband in the house, I have enough explosions of some sort that have no problem in inconspicuously keeping my attention!
About the Author
Lara Joseph lives in Ohio where she shares her home with four birds; two cockatoos, a large macaw, and an eclectus hen. She dedicates her time to the work and study of parrot behavior and their welfare in their captive and native environments. She writes articles on different aspects of companion parrot welfare, including behavior, enrichment and foraging and its effects on behavior, her life with her own birds, and approaches on increasing the human/parrot bond. In her free time she enjoys consulting issues of parrot behavior, working for her avian board certified veterinarian, designing her own line of foraging and enrichment toys, and traveling to further increase her education in the world of these amazing, intelligent, and extraordinary creatures.