Ethical, Moral & Spiritual Considerations of Companion Parrot Care
By Pamela Clark
My life has been entwined with the lives of parrots now for over 30 years. I have delighted in them as my companions, and have lived with parrots ranging in size from parrotlets up to the largest of macaws and cockatoos. As a breeder, I watched in wonder as young African Greys claimed themselves in flight and began to discover their surroundings. As a trainer, I felt the accomplishment of teaching parrots to fly freely outdoors and come when I called. In an informal role as a rehabber, I felt the gratification of taking in neglected parrots, teaching them better living skills, and placing them into better homes. As a behavior consultant, I assist parrot owners to better understand their birds and cope with the challenges they face with them. And now, as a veterinary technician, I help to heal them when they are ill. Not only do I love parrots and their many gifts, but I am fascinated by the relationships that form between people and their companion birds.
These varied experiences have given me not only a knowledge of parrot behavior, but an ever-growing desire to help them live happier and healthier lives in captivity. Many things must change in our care-giving practices before we can feel good about the fact that we have taken these birds from the wild, made them our own, and now breed them and keep them for our own purposes. The sad truth is that the majority are living neither happy nor healthy lives in our world. While many individual parrots are well cared for by their owners, the majority are not. And, improvement is possible in even the best of homes.
As I have consulted with owners over the years, I’ve become aware of certain recurrent patterns in both parrot/human relationships and in the choices owners make about the way they care for their birds. It is these patterns that I’ll be speaking about today, for they have a negative impact on the care we provide our birds. If we can become more psychologically visible to ourselves, identify these patterns and better understand how they impact the care we provide, then we will be freer to see our parrots as they really are and provide for them accordingly.
I will address what I see as the primary problems in our common approach to parrot keeping. I will also provide an outline for improvement. It is my deepest wish that listeners will come away with a new understanding of themselves and their birds and a renewed conviction regarding improved care. The truth is: Their quality of life in our world is determined by the manner in which we see ourselves in relationship to them.
The first patterns I would like to examine today have to do with our motivations for adopting parrots and the ways we develop relationships with them.
First, we must accept the truth that we adopt parrots to meet our
own emotional needs. This is
largely true of most pet purchases. However,
parrots are especially seductive creatures for this purpose.
They are truly the stuff of which fairy tales are crafted… magical…
brilliantly colored, capable of both flying through the air and speaking
to us in our own language. The
social structure of their flocks is similar enough to the social structure
of human society that they are able to participate in relationships with
us in a most sophisticated and intimate manner. It is no coincidence that
so many parrot owners describe their parrot as a soul mate.
The vast majority of us reach adulthood with a suitcase of unmet
emotional needs. For many,
this is a result of having grown up in a dysfunctional family. As
Earnie Larsen states in his book Old
Patterns, New Truths, “To some degree every family is dysfunctional
because perfect families and perfect people do not exist.”
Less-than-nurturing or dysfunctional parenting techniques produce
codependent adults. I have heard it estimated that today about 95% of all
families now rest firmly in the “dysfunctional” category.
There are many hallmarks of a dysfunctional family.
However, the primary characteristic is that the family lives by a
set of dysfunctional rules that are taught to the children. Within this set of rules is the assumption that the child is
not 100% acceptable as he or she is.
The rules tend to sound like these:
Do not talk about your
problems…Do not talk about your feelings…Do not think or feel
anything…Do not trust…Do not make mistakes…Do not ask questions…Do
not be needy…Do not be selfish…Do not be yourself…Do not rock the
boat…Do not have fun…Do not get too close or intimate.
If the rules we practice are dysfunctional, the relationships we
develop will also be dysfunctional. The
patterns of relating that we learn as children come to play out in our
adult human relationships. They
also play out in our lives with our parrots, more so than with other
animals we keep as companions. Why?
Because, by virtue of their intelligence and great flexibility,
they are able to participate more sophistically in relationships with us.
There are many commonly recognized traits of co-dependency, and it
is not too difficult to see how they manifest themselves in our
relationships with our parrots.
Many of us growing up in dysfunctional families are covertly
pressed into being a resource for the very people who should be caring for
us. We receive an early and
extensive education into how to care for others, often at our own expense.
This becomes quite gratifying over time and often leads us into targeting
employment in the “helping” professions, such as nursing, teaching, or
counseling. However, for some
this tendency becomes a pattern of inappropriate caretaking and rescuing.
Those of us who love parrots may begin to rescue parrots or become
resources to those in need of help with their parrots. This
is only a problem when those doing the rescuing forget, in their
compassion and enthusiasm, that there is a limit to their resources.
Occasionally, parrots need rescuing from those who rescued them in
the first place.
It may be difficult to see at first how rescuing, or taking in, a
neglected parrot is being done to meet one’s own emotional needs.
However, the proof is in the often-heard announcement, “I rescued
him!” Owners often announce this with a certain emotional charge in
their voice, because the act of rescuing this creature says something good
about them. They have a need
to help and rescue the wounded and hurt, and in doing so feel better about
Most children who grow up in dysfunctional families never get the
love they need and become adults constantly seeking relationships that
will make them feel loved. Often,
disappointed by people, they will seek that same feeling…with a
cockatoo. So intense is our desire to have that feeling of closeness
that a young affectionate cockatoo can provide, that we look no further
than the initial experience…only to be disillusioned completely when
that same bird becomes a problem later. Certainly, cockatoos can be
difficult companions, but I believe their large and disproportionate
population in rescue organizations and sanctuaries also reflects the
number who have been discarded because they were not able to sustain that
early ability to make their owners feel loved.
Whether you relate to the above discussion or not, the truth is that we are all looking for love. It appears to be simply human nature to look to companion animals to partially meet this need.
The second truth we need to examine has to do with the manner in which we relate to our parrots and the ways we behave in relationship to them. We have a tendency to set up relationship rules that parrots, but their nature, can not possibly succeed with.
For example, many of us, especially those of us who find ourselves
regularly feeling victimized in some way in our relationships, have a
tendency to assume as relationships are forming that an unspoken agreement
exists. This can be worded
simply as “If I be nice to you, you will be nice to me.”
If our partner doesn’t keep the unspoken pact, we feel victimized
and take it very personally, unable to see that the behavior might not
even have anything really to do with us, but manifests only from the other
person’s inability to relate on a healthy level.
And then we buy baby parrots and transfer this same silent set of
expectations to our relationships with them.
We forget that they are essentially wild creatures, and when they
bite us for the first time, we are devastated. We don’t say to
ourselves, “Gosh! This must reflect a lack of training and exercise.”
No, we take it very personally. I find the same reaction occurs with screaming
parrots. I have consulted
with many owners who feel
very victimized by their birds’ screaming.
Many times, I have listened to the tearful statement that the bird
is trying to “get to”
Even beyond the business of setting up relationship rules that guarantee
future problems in a parrot/human relationship, a deeper problem exists in
the way we relate to our parrots. All
sentient, intelligent creatures have a wide range of intellectual,
emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. Regarding these needs, we must
understand one basic, fundamental difference in perspective that divides
parrots from humans.
Parrots are not yet domesticated, and focus on the daily meeting of
these needs in the same way that wild parrots do…largely through
instinct. They have a primary focus still on the meeting of physical, or
survival, needs. Further,
they live, eat and breathe with the instinctive knowledge that their
environment has the capacity to deliver either life or death each day.
However, humans divorced themselves from nature thousands of years
ago. Living apart from nature
in a very “domesticated” lifestyle, humans are no longer primarily
concerned with meeting their survival needs.
It has been quite some time since the meeting of these needs had to be our primary focus, as it did when back living close to the earth, depending upon her for food and shelter. Then, just maintaining the assurance of a food supply was a full time job. My hunch is that meeting love, or relationship, needs probably did not loom quite as large in the human consciousness back then. In those times, too heavy a focus on getting love needs met might result in the leaving of a relationship. Leaving a relationship might result in an insufficient supply of food or lack of shelter.
Now however, most of us have a lifestyle that allows us the luxury of focusing more on our emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs. Of the three areas, the need for love and relationship looms largest for most people, in terms of preoccupying our thoughts. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a need to feel loved. In our society, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and being misunderstood rattle us all. Some of us experience them fleetingly, and some of us live with them daily.
This relates directly back to my statement that many people acquire parrots to help meet their own emotional needs. It is our need to fill our longing for love that often is at the forefront of our motivations when a young parrot is purchased. Couple this longing for love with a need to nurture, and you have the basis for every impulse purchase of a baby parrot from a pet store that’s ever been made. Sadly however, whereas baby parrots may seem especially well suited to fill these needs, the same parrot five years later has usually “moved on,” in terms of his developmental needs, while the owner has not.
This “mindset” we have when acquiring the young parrot, and our focus on “relationship needs,” then often leads to problems. It dictates in large part our expectations of our new companion. It colors our observations and our interpretations of his behavior. Such misinterpretations of his behavior then too often serve as the basis for the decisions we make about his care. And then we truly can not see the parrot for what he really is. Unlike us, the parrot is an undomesticated creature, still concerned primarily with “survival” and physical needs.
As Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House, “Remote
from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in
civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and
sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.
We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate
of having taken form so far below ourselves.
And therein we err, and greatly err.
For the animal shall not be measured by man.
In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished
and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never
attained, living by voices we
shall never hear. They are
not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with
ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour
and travail of the earth.”
Truly, in our present practice of keeping parrots as pets, we see only the feather magnified…and the whole image in distortion. We assume them to be brethren. We see them as underlings. What we must learn to see is their autonomy, their presence in our world as other nations. Then, and only then, will we do our best work with them.
I first saw this with the greatest clarity when rearing African Greys. In the beginning, I knew of them only by what others had said. They were described as “nervous,” “sensitive,” “clumsy,” “neurotic.” The first year of breeding, I allowed them two weeks of fledging and flight before clipping their wings so that they could go to new homes. With each successive year, I allowed longer periods of flight, until in my last year, I did not clip wings at all. I sent all babies home that year fully flighted, having never experienced a wing clip, and trained to fly to their owners on command.
That experience was a revelation. I saw with clarity that most of what is written about parrot behavior applies only to clipped birds, and is not valid at all when it comes to describing true parrot behavior. I realized that almost nothing written to date about African Greys was true at all. Today, living with a flock of flighted African Greys, I can describe them as bold, curious, opportunistic, loving, funny, determined, playful, investigative, destructive, clever, quick…and extremely coordinated. Truly, they are “other nations”…creatures with a wealth of intelligence and resources. Living with these resourceful, energetic, brilliant creatures has given me a clear understanding of just how inadequate are the generally accepted assumptions about parrot needs and how to provide for them.
Let us return now to my assertion that we err when we purchase a parrot with our own emotional needs in hand, and proceed to focus on our “relationship” with him when caring for him. Such a focus often leads directly to the day when the parrot loses his home.
I will give you an extreme example. As mentioned earlier, more than one individual has commented to me that her bird was her “soul mate.” While this is often announced with pride, it is a statement that makes me squirm. Soul mate. That’s a term that carries a heavy burden, if applied to an undomesticated species relatively new to captivity. Parrots are not exactly well-suited to this role, in my opinion, and I suspect that a single parrot could be profoundly unaware of his “job” in such a relationship. I do believe also that, a soul mate is likely to be a same-species relationship. I get nervous when we expect a parrot to meet our own emotional needs. A parrot given this weighty job is almost sure to fail.
Consider, for example, the all-too-common phenomenon I often describe as the “lover’s triangle.” This occurs primarily in homes with cockatoos, although sometimes Amazons are the unwitting victims.
Many are drawn into cockatoo ownership when they first meet the baby Moluccan. It is gratifying to hold such an exotic animal, have him place his huge, peach-colored head on our shoulder, and relax into our human chest as we stroke those soft feathers. Such possession of the wild…of the exotic…is quite beyond anything ever visualized or previously experienced. It makes us feel very special. For those of us who might be a little lonely or a little needy, the experience is intoxicating and compelling. For some, it may even be enough for us to regard this creature as a soul mate. We hold him on our lap while at the computer. He sits on our shoulder as we fold laundry…a soft, exquisite, reassuring feathered presence, reminding us we are loved. A very strong bond forms.
However, it is the very differences in perspective held by parrot
and human, which we examined earlier, that allow the two to reach entirely
different conclusions about that bond while it is forming.
The domesticated human is reaching the conclusion: soul
mate, while the undomesticated parrot is reaching the conclusion: mate.
In the majority of such cases, wherein this conclusion becomes part of the picture, such a peach-colored head usually is a young head when this relationship first forms. And, as most of us know intellectually, a young parrot behaves quite differently than a sexually mature parrot.
Such intellectual knowledge seems not to prepare the owner, however, for the day when the beak attached to the peach-colored head suddenly and unexpectedly bites deeply into the flesh of the forearm in response to the mere entrance into the room of the other person who lives there. It’s a shock. It hurts our feelings. We search our thoughts for some reason. What did we do to deserve that? Nothing, we are fairly sure. This behavior often then escalates to the point where the cockatoo attacks and bites the other partner. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the “other” human was not the one fondest of the parrot in the first case. Sometimes, not fond at all. Now, having to endure surprise attacks in one’s own home from a creature of whom you are not fond seems to be more than many people want to deal with. Very sadly, this situation usually results in the bird’s losing his home.
If we are to be successful with parrots in captivity, and prevent the frequent “giving up” of companion parrots, we must realize the folly of placing “relationship expectations” upon them. It is time to take a step back and review our thinking in many areas related to parrots. We must again revisit and take to heart the truth that they are not domesticated, while we are, and explore the full ramifications of that. For, other problems also exist in the way we see and relate to our parrots.
I have observed that, once proof of an exotic specie’s intelligence is irrefutable, we then proceed to sentimentalize that species and immediately want to “possess” the experience of being close to it. This has happened with dolphins and the latter are now subjected to having to “swim” with humans. I doubt a little if this was what dolphins had in mind for themselves as their next evolutionary step. They get no choice in the matter, however. They are ours for training and entertainment.
And so it is with parrots now. Parrots are dynamic and exciting pets, offering us a previously unexplored companion animal experience. We sentimentalize them, attributing our own emotions to them. We expect them to be “in relationship” with us, and to behave in ways that are consistent with the unspoken relationship rules we set up for them. Further, because of our unrecognized differences in perspective, we misunderstand their needs, misinterpret their behavior, and focus on pleasing them. This leads us to stray far from good parrot keeping standards, which leads directly to the development of behavior problems.
In examining how we often misinterpret parrot needs, I can use a typical
consultation I did this past year with a wonderful woman.
She and her husband have three parrots, all of whom were having
problems of one sort or another. Her macaw engaged in repetitive behaviors that were loud and
disturbed the family dog. This
same bird would not come out of her cage.
Both the cockatoo and the grey showed aggression through biting and
engaged in feather abuse.
She contacted me because she could see that her parrots were not
happy and was thinking about giving them up.
She believed that she did not have enough time, because of her job,
to care for them properly. We
proceeded with the understanding that I would help her to examine her
care-giving practices, advise her in ways to improve them, and then help
her place the birds if she found that their care was beyond her
capabilities. My hunch when she first contacted me was that she felt the
care of her birds was beyond her simply because she did not fully
understand what those needs really are.
Before we started, I asked her to tell me what she would do for her parrots to make them happy if she had all the time she needed. Her response was revealing and consistent with what I have said above. She told me that, if she had the time to take really good care of them, she would spend between one and two hours a day with each of them.
She was focusing only upon their social needs, and this had allowed her to remain unaware of the manner in which their other needs were not being met. Together, we made changes in diet, environmental enrichment, and learning opportunities. Three months later, she reported significant improvement in all problem areas. Further, the changes we made demand of this client much less time spent on a daily basis then she had envisioned, when she guessed what it would take to produce happy parrots. She has no further thoughts of giving them up and no longer feels guilty when she looks at them.
This tendency to focus solely on relationship and our lack of true understanding of parrots…the tendency to see only the feather magnified…leads us to misinterpret their behavior as well. The example that comes to mind is the owner who described to me the ways in which her parrot helps her clean. She reported that, when she scrubs the carpet, her African Grey also gets down on the floor and digs with one foot. When she wipes down the cage, he rubs his beak up and down the bars. He mimics her cleaning efforts because he is her “soul mate.”
My own interpretation of these observations would be different. First, I feel concern about a parrot rubbing his beak up and down the bars of the cage. Not only might this expose him to ingestion of cage materials over time, but more importantly this could be a good indicator of a bird who is bored out of his skull and needs more to do in his cage. Further, many greys dig with their feet. This is instinctive behavior and is usually associated with sexual maturity. I simply have a hard time believing that parrots come to us out of the wild with a desire to help us clean. I don’t care how bonded they are to us. If we are interpreting these behaviors in such a way that they flatter us, we are likely to encourage them… perhaps to the parrot’s detriment.
The biggest problem I see however is the way we strive to please our parrots and make husbandry decisions accordingly. Many owners demonstrate care-giving decisions that are strongly centered around the owners’ perceptions of what the bird likes. If he doesn’t seem to like vegetables, we stop offering those. But, if he really likes peanut butter-filled pretzels, he gets eight a day and good nutrition is sacrificed in our need to make the bird happy. The majority of parrots in captivity suffer from malnutrition, and this is one of the reasons why. Further, owners are reluctant to introduce any new foods or experiences that their parrot doesn’t seem to like. This often results in a parrot profoundly lacking in living skills.
I believe this need to please stems from two sources.
First, children who grow up in dysfunctional homes must stay safe
by learning to anticipate the needs of others and by doing whatever it
takes to make those others happy and content.
Second, any of us will, sooner or later, begin to feel guilty about
having parrots. The simple
truth is that they should not be here with us.
Some of us allow this truth to creep into our consciousness, and
others manage to keep it at arms length.
Let’s explore this idea further before going on.
In most areas of the United States, capturing a wild bird and keeping it
in a cage is illegal. For any
who might have tried it, the distress demonstrated on the part of the bird
is horrifying and heartrending. Even
without the firsthand experience of trying to cage a wild bird, even the
thought makes us shrink. We
know that this would be very wrong.
And, yet keeping parrots in cages with clipped wings has become
quite acceptable. It is my
assertion that this is only because we are able to distance ourselves not
only from their true natures, but from the fact of their origins.
It is not much different, I think, than the subject of eating meat.
Many of us are quite able to eat a steak as long as we purchase it
from the grocery store in a white, sanitary, plastic wrapped package.
Sold to us in this manner, it is quite a distance from the cow at
the time of slaughter. Should
we witness the slaughter and the butchering of the same cow, there are
those among us who might not want to eat a steak that night.
Parrots, when sold as babies from store personnel or breeders who
appear caring individuals, are a distance away from the reality of the
manner in which many breeding pairs are kept in captivity, or from the way
in which thousands of parrots are still brutally captured in the wild.
Since we sentimentalize them anyway, it is easy to convince
ourselves that the baby parrot needs us.
I believe it is really this sense of guilt that only occasionally creeps
into our consciousness that causes owners to be so overly-concerned with
what their parrot likes.
If the parrot doesn’t eat his breakfast, they make him another.
If he screams, they immediately run to him to receive information
about what they must do…to see what he wants.
A large cockatoo is allowed the run of the house, and the fact that
he bites the feet and ankles of visitors is tolerated.
Never would be behave this way with a human toddler, and yet we
tolerate out of control behavior from parrots, afraid to set limits and
boundaries for them.
I hope that these examples are enough to elucidate the problems and
convince readers of the fact that we have taken a rather profound wrong
turn when it comes to providing for our parrots in the home.
It is essential that we take a step back and view our parrots a bit
more dispassionately. We must
recognize and acknowledge that we should not have them.
They don’t belong here. They
have a set of needs that is most difficult to provide for when we keep
them in captivity. Further, all
of these needs must be met if they are to have an adequate quality of
life. Their need for social
relationship is only one of those needs and it must be provided for in
good balance with their other needs.
What are a parrot’s basic needs? I will assert that, since they are only a few generations out of the wild at most, parrots still have a primary focus on basic survival and physical needs – the need for a high quality, appropriate diet that insures optimal health, the need to forage for food, the need to be busy, destroying things with their beaks, the need for social interaction and expression on multiple levels, the need to bathe, the need to exercise, the need for adequate rest, the need for safety, the need for fresh air and sunshine, the need for medical care, and the need to learn new things.
I encourage all who live with parrots to adopt what I have come to think of as a zookeeper’s approach to providing for them. I’m sure that any good zookeeper working with parrots enjoys them and even loves them. However, he recognizes that his responsibility to them is the most important thing, more important than any relationship he might have with any one of them. If we place ourselves in relationship to our parrots in this manner, then we don’t worry so much about what our parrots “like.” We don’t worry so much about being rejected by them and we don’t get our feelings hurt by their behavior. Instead we focus on our responsibility to understand and provide for their needs in the most excellent way we can. This, I will point out, is a selfless endeavor.
I’d like to point out at this juncture that the majority of behavior problems are the result of unmet needs, coupled with a lack of training. In almost every consultation I do, I simply improve the diet, make recommendations for a better environment and stress reduction that will result in a greater sense of safety for the bird, and then explain how and what to train. If all owners focused more on providing an exceptional diet and environment, and then trained their birds, there would be very few behavior problems, except those caused by medical problems. Let’s go on to examine in more detail psittacine needs and how best to provide for them.
First, parrots have a need to forage for their food, in addition to their need for appropriate nutrition. This need is not addressed by the widely-accepted, recommendation that we feed a pellet-only diet. Certainly, pellet-based diets are a vast improvement over seed-based diets, in terms of nutritional content. Each of my parrots has a dish of pellets, and I consider them invaluable in terms of achieving optimal nutrition for my birds. While many have been resistant to eating pellets, I have found ways over the years to get them into the diet of each of my parrots in one way or another. I consider eating a good quality pellet to be a desirable skill.
However, they do not address a parrot’s need to forage and make food decisions. I believe it essential that the parrot in captivity be provided daily with a chopped “salad” of fresh, raw foods that provides variety and food making decisions, as well as appropriate nutrition. In order to do this without too much trouble, I have long used a layered salad recipe for feeding my birds that requires chopping vegetables and fruits only once a week. This recipe can be found in the article “But He Doesn’t Like It!” and is available at www.parrothouse.com.
Other foraging activities can be provided as well. Parrots have an instinctive drive to discover what is inside of things. Thus, the more we can hide foods for them, in toys made for that purpose or in ways of our own devising, the more entertained they will be.
Next, is the need for excellent and appropriate nutrition. Each parrot species comes from a different area of the world and has a specific set of nutritional needs. Therefore, I question whether a pellet-only diet offers appropriate nutrition in all cases. I will not argue that parrots who eat only pellets enjoy superior feather quality and good health. However, they do sometimes exhibit behavior problems that I believe are directly attributable to eating such a nutrient-dense diet. Further, their plumage does not display the florescence of color obvious in parrots who also consume a variety of raw foods.
Pellets, especially the more processed varieties, lack certain classes of nutrients, including essential fatty acids, enzymes, and phytonutrients. Further, as mentioned above, some species do not thrive when fed such nutrient-dense fare 365 days a year. Having such a high-protein, high-fat diet in front of them each day sometimes leads to louder, more aggressive, behavior, especially in large cockatoos and macaws.
Jamie Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, at the 2002 Companion Parrot Quarterly convention reported that studies of large macaws in the wild reveal that their diet contains approximately 29% fiber. Undoubtedly, this is true for most species in the wild, since they forage on plant materials as the basis of their diets. Parrots in captivity eating a wide variety of fresh, live, raw foods, in addition to pellets, not only reveal feather color and quality that is superior, but they also demonstrate steadier, calmer behavior. They reveal excitement when receiving their salad dishes and engage themselves throughout the day in important foraging activities. Such provisions go a long way toward meeting the standard of environmental enrichment that a good zookeeper strives for.
Parrots have an intense need to be busy, and it is the beak that is most often the tool they use for this. They must have an adequate supply of “destroyables” in the cage. I have read a thousand times that owners should rotate toys. In my experience, I can rotate toys every day and it does not encourage my birds to be busy. My parrots take one look at the newly-rotated toy and play with it for about five minutes before returning to ignoring it.
However, they will spend an hour tearing apart a well-constructed food skewer. My African Grey feather-picker, Catherine Sophia, never learned to play with toys in her first home, but she will spend all day shredding the pages of a paperback book I have placed through her cage bars. Every parrot should be patterned, i.e. trained, to expect a new project every morning and they should receive one that will keep them busy for at least a portion of the day. I usually give my clients a shopping list as follows:
¨ Food skewers made by Expandable Habitats.
¨ Fun Rings in all three sizes (4", 5" and 7") from Fowl Play Company (www.fowl-play.com).
¨ A vast array of toy making parts.
¨ Cooked whole artichokes, whole cooked sweet potatoes, whole pomegranates, large leafy greens, fruit in halves, whole carrots with the tops on, big chunks of corn on the cob, etc. - all for skewering.
The food skewers can be used to make either a new toy each day, using the toy making parts or a true food skewer for tearing apart. The Fun Rings can be used in the same manner. You can put a frozen bagel on one in the morning and hang it in the cage before leaving for work. The largest Fun Ring will accommodate a whole roll of white, unscented toilet paper for shredding. Toy parts can also be strung on these.
Parrots are exquisitely social creatures and benefit from having a variety of relationships on many different levels. The quality of their most-enjoyed daily interactions has gone largely misunderstood, however. The majority of owners with whom I talk assume, as did the client mentioned earlier, that parrots want large blocks of time close to us or in direct communication with us. This misunderstanding has occurred because of our practice of keeping our parrots with clipped wings. A clipped parrot truly can not relate socially in a typically avian way.
When you observe a flock of flighted parrots, you will see that they enjoy most engaging in very brief social interactions. Trickery often plays a large part in them and the tone of these interactions is playful. If we strive to replicate this sort of interaction with our birds, we can keep them happier than if we carry them around on our shoulders all day or have them sit on our laps for hours.
Now that my parrots are flighted, they take equal initiative in instigating social interactions. My grey, Marko, will fly to my shoulder, flip upside down yelling “whee!” and then fly off again. Zorba will fly over to Puffin and they will briefly “beak tussle” before one of them leaves to find another perch. This is very typical behavior for parrots. Parrots do not usually spend large amounts of time sitting next to one another unless they are engaged in breeding and rearing young.
Even with clipped parrots, owners can focus on providing social interactions that have the same quality to them. Frequent, small bits of attention are greatly appreciated by companion parrots and go a long way to insuring more balanced relationships with them.
Another aspect of the social needs of parrots is the need to engage in parallel activites. They find it very satisfying to have their flock around them. Not only do they enjoy having the family flock around for this reason, but it contributes to a sense of security. I find bird rooms to be a problem. They are convenient for the owner who wants to contain the mess, but they do not meet the needs of parrots to be around the human flock members.
Parrots can not enjoy good health without frequent bathing opportunities. This area of care, next to diet, is the one that seems to distress owners the most, in that they are reluctant to inflict upon their birds an experience that appears not to be enjoyed. However, parrots can and should be taught to at least tolerate bathing. Different parrots enjoy different bathing styles. My Goffin’s Cockatoo, Topper, does not enjoy a shower in the house. However, he will hang upside down and flap happily when outdoors in an aviary in the rain. It is the responsibility of all owners to find ways to bathe their parrots that work for them. It is not okay to “wimp out” in this area. This is merely a training issue.
Parrots need to exercise and it is critical that owners really appreciate what constitutes exercise. When I ask clients to describe how their parrot exercises, I often receive the explanation that he climbs around his cage. This is equivalent to saying that I exercise when I walk down the hall. Parrots need aerobic exercise to insure the greatest emotional and physical health.
Allowing flight is the most obvious way to provide for this need. This is not possible in many homes, but should be considered at least as a possibility. For a complete discussion of this topic, please refer to “Feathers, Flight and Parrot Keeping” which can be found at www.parrothouse.com. For those who can not allow flight, there are other ways to exercise a parrot aerobically. I taught my Blue and Gold Macaw to step onto a yard-long rope, stretched between two hands, which I would then swing from one hand causing him to flap his wings. Also, many parrots will be more athletic when outdoors in a larger enclosure.
Parrots, as prey animals, have a fundamental need to feel safe in their environment. Many things that we take for granted will startle or scare our birds. We need to take their reactions seriously and find ways to make them comfortable in our homes. Cages should not be placed directly in front of windows, allowing the greatest visibility and exposure. Raptors will stare at companion parrots through windows.
Keep the helium balloons out of the house – no birthday celebration is worth badly scaring your bird. Make your friend take off the baseball hat before walking into the room. Leave a nightlight on at night and close the blinds so that headlights won’t sweep the room when least expected. Be considerate of the fact that these captive parrots of ours have no choices when clipped and kept in a cage.
I often observe one of two different inappropriate reactions in owners to their parrot’s fear. Some owners do not take the parrot’s discomfort seriously, and do nothing to accommodate the bird’s reaction. Others, however, see their bird afraid and use the social relationship to reassure the bird. As soon as the bird shows nervousness, he is placed on the shoulder with the message “I’ll keep you safe.” While this is not a problem in some circumstances, if the parrot is a very nervous individual and the owner has a tendency to be overprotective, the bird will spend way too much time sheltered on the shoulder from the world at large and will never learn better living skills. While we want to reassure our birds, we must also teach them that the world around them is safe. The more you train a parrot to accept new things, the safer he will feel in the world.
Parrots need fresh air and sunshine outdoors in an enclosure that provides for physical safety. This is not optional and it is not refutable. Think how you would feel if told that you had to spend the rest of your life indoors …that you could never go outside and look at a tree, hear the sound of running water, or feel the sunshine on your skin or the wind in your hair…ever again. And yet, the vast majority of parrot owners do not ever consider seriously the expense of providing a large outdoor enclosure that also allows the bird to feel physically safe.
Nevertheless, countless parrot owners report the practice of taking their bird outdoors on their shoulder or to sit in a tree. Please do not do this! Even if you do not recognize the very real danger from the presence of raptors, your parrot does. I have talked to more than one owner who watched as her bird was carried away by a hawk…the same parrot that had sat on the perch at her side a moment before.
To insure for safety and a sense of security, the aviary should have wire spacing that is no wider than ½ inch by 3 inch. At least one-half of the roof should be covered by a material that provides shade, in addition to protection from the eyes of predators.
In addition to physical protection, parrots have a need to move about when outdoors, so the size of the enclosure is important. They need the freedom to move in or out of the sun, to be visible or to hide. Parrots will flap and move about more in a larger enclosure. Any outdoor aviary should be at least six feet wide. One of my favorites is six feet wide, four feet high and three feet deep. It stands up on legs and allows for plenty of room for even my large macaw to bathe and move around. There are many styles available and every parrot owner should budget for this expense as a necessity and research the many types available before selecting one that best meets his needs and those of his parrot.
Parrots need adequate rest. This has been widely written about, but still I find it discounted among owners. The standard recommendation is 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness a night. I have found that this actually varies from species to species. New World parrots absolutely do need this much. Greys often can do with nine or ten hours of sleep a night. However, the quality of that rest is important no matter what the duration. Parrots do not sleep with the television going. The room where they sleep must be quiet and provide safety. Blinds should be drawn so that headlights do not sweep the room, for instance.
Next, parrots need preventive veterinary care. Many owners do not take their parrots in for annual exams. Reasons include distance, lack of funds, and a reluctance to stress the bird by exposing it to the experience. Sadly, many veterinarians report a disinclination to see parrots because all their patients die. This is because owners wait until the bird is so ill that it is showing symptoms before they take it in. We know that, as prey animals, parrots will conceal symptoms of illness until the last minute. Such symptoms, however, can be as subtle as simply vocalizing less. They can be easy to miss. Every parrot should have an annual exam with an avian vet and have some laboratory testing done.
Lastly, but critically important, parrots have a profound need for learning opportunities, as any intelligent creature does. The behavior of most adult parrots reflects a lack of learning experiences in their juvenile years. The best and truest statement I ever heard spoken is, “Parrots are what you make of them.” If a young parrot is fed a diet of variety that includes fresh foods and pellets, then he will like those things when he gets older. If he is provided with destroyable objects when young, he will keep himself busy when older. If he is bathed when young, he will not resist the experience when an adult. If he has been allowed to enjoy the outdoors when young, he will continue to embrace the experience without fear when he grows up. If he is allowed flight when young, he will learn to avoid dangers in the house and will exercise freely and joyfully when older.
Because of their genetic programming, parrots have a drive to learn everything they can about their environment in their early developmental periods before maturity sets in. After they reach adulthood, they automatically react with suspicion to anything new because of their status as prey animals. Thus, the learning opportunities afforded to a young parrot will directly determine the quality of his life during his entire captive existence. The length of this developmental period differs according to the size of the parrot. For smaller birds, such as cockatiels and conures, it lasts approximately a year to 18 months. For Amazons and African Greys, it lasts between two and three years. For larger macaws and cockatoos, it can last between three and five years. I oppose the purchase of a baby parrot by anyone who is gone from the house for more than nine hours a day and can not allow the parrot at least three to four hours out of the cage each day.
An older parrot that shuns fresh foods, displays fear of being outdoors, cringes when bathed, sits in one place all day, and avoids new things placed in the cage simply never had enough appropriate learning opportunities when young. However, that older parrot still needs learning activities. It is not acceptable to acquiesce and maintain the parrot’s status quo offering the excuse that he doesn’t like those things. Instead, the owner should learn more about training techniques and work with the parrot to teach him to accept these experiences and enjoy them. It is not as hard as it might seem at first glance.
Further, even parrots with good living skills need training and learning experiences. As mentioned earlier, the majority of behavior problems will resolve when the owner steps into the role of trainer or teacher, and increases learning opportunities. I encourage any parrot owner to learn about and implement clicker training with his bird, teaching perhaps some “stupid bird tricks,” in addition to teaching the parrot to enjoy new experiences. Such learning contributes hugely to a parrot’s quality of life.
I have been doing some research lately into the quality of life for animals, and read an interesting article, titled Maximizing Quality of Life in Ill Animals in the May/June 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. The author, Franklin D. McMillan, DVM listed the major contributing factors to quality of life for all animals, ill or not. These included social relationships, mental stimulation, health, food consumption, stress, and control. I was interested, but not surprised, to see that control was listed as necessary to quality of life.
Dr. McMillan states, “A large body of research in animals and humans has demonstrated that a sense of control over one’s life and circumstances, especially the unpleasant feelings and events, is one of the most reliable predictors of positive feelings of well-being and health.” He goes on to explain that animals deprived of any control over their own circumstances, especially under persistent or repetitive aversive conditions, may develop severe emotional distress in the form of helplessness and hopelessness.
Herein lies the challenge of successful parrot-keeping. How do we afford a companion parrot, who lives the majority of time in a cage, and has clipped wings preventing freedom of movement, any sense of control? This is a difficult problem to solve, and will take the creativity and dedication that we all have if our parrots are going to have excellent quality of life.
Dr. McMillan goes on, however, to point out that “having choices imparts control and permits the animal to increase pleasurable experiences, as the animal can select certain activities or stimuli over other less desirable options.” You will notice that many of the recommendations above offer just that – the ability to make choices and weigh options. A wide variety of healthful foods allows for choice-making. Being flighted contributes hugely to this.
It is time that those of us who enjoy the presence of parrots in our homes stop placing relationship expectations upon them and instead treat them like the other nations that they are. Just enjoy them and provide well for them and let that be enough. See it as a way of honoring the parrots in the wild…as well as “the wild” itself. Stop requiring that parrots always show us affection and never react with less than that. Accept the truth that our own feelings of affection for our birds will come and go throughout a long life with them. The same will be true for them. This does not dispel our responsibility to them.
This recognition of our responsibility to provide selflessly for all of the needs our captive parrots have mirrors the same responsibility we have to wild parrots, of which we must remain cognizant. Our experiences with our companion dogs and cats do not call us to consider a higher level of responsibility, due to the fact that their link with the wild has long since been erased by centuries of domestication. However, parrots are not domesticated and their habitat is being destroyed with each passing day…. I assert that it is critical to our spiritual development as humans that we work to honor the wild in any way we are able.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote, in her collection of short essays titled Small Wonder, about some friends who had visited Cancun. They were dismayed at the devastation of the forested area that was becoming evident. Kingsolver reports that her friends, wanting to preserve something of that remarkable place, brought back with them some orchids they had collected.
Kingsolver comments, “I
admired their enterprise and empathized with their heartbreak at seeing
delicate, rare lives crushed. And
yet if it had been my choice to make, I think I’d have felt uneasy at
the prospect of profiting in any way – even just aesthetically – from
the destruction of a sacred place. Maybe
I’m wrong about this, or maybe there really is no right way to look at
it, but my heart tells me it’s better to grieve the whole loss than to
save a handful of orchids. Better
to devote oneself to anger and bereavement, to confront the real
possibility that soon there will be nowhere left to go, anywhere, to see
an orchid in the wild, than to derive a single iota of pleasure from these
small, doomed relics of a home that’s forever gone.
Anger and bereavement, throughout history, have provided the engine
for relentless struggles for change.
In a greenhouse these orchids will flourish awhile and then, after
a few years or many, die. A jungle is a form of eternal life, as ephemeral and enduring
as the concept of love or mystery. It
can not be collected.”
And yet…that is just what we have done. We have collected our prizes… our greys and Amazons and cockatoos. We keep parrots, who naturally have the exuberance and energy of flighted creatures, in cages with their wings clipped to inhibit their movement…for nothing more than our own pleasure. As Kingsolver states, perhaps there is no right way to look at this. And certainly, I am not suggesting that we return our parrots to the wild. Nor am I suggesting it is wrong to keep them in cages and enjoy them. I am suggesting, however, that we do so consciously and with compassion and with respect.
As Sandra Ingerman writes in Medicine for the Earth, “Life is a spiritual practice. You must concentrate your efforts on living a life infused with spirit.” This requires that we face squarely the truth that our parrots do not belong here with us…that we accept this without squirming and make some decisions based upon this. I suggest that it is spiritually correct to make amends for their presence here by taking the following actions:
First, be the very best zookeepers we can be and provide selflessly for our birds.
Second, work to see that all parrots have a better existence in captivity. Perhaps we should not spend our money in stores that don’t care well for their birds…or perhaps stores that sell parrots at all. Each of us must decide where to draw the line. Each of us can choose daily to speak up when we see a bird who needs help in whatever conditions. We do not have to be silently complicit with any neglectful conditions. We can learn to educate others kindly and clearly.
Third, I suggest that we each take action to preserve parrots in the wild. Make a contribution to the World Parrot Trust or other cause each year on your parrot’s birthday. Leave a portion of your estate to them. Help with fundraising activities.
Years ago I wrote the following: Parrots
are only recently out of the wild. Essentially,
we have in our hands the interface between the wild and man in
civilization. What we allow
ourselves to learn from them could have far-reaching implications.
Sometimes I allow myself to wonder if they could conceivably have the
power, by virtue of their place with us in space and time and their great
beauty and intelligence, to finally convince man of the need to preserve
what is natural and most precious. They
can touch us where we live.
Let’s enjoy and provide for our companion parrots with full
recognition of the fact that we owe a debt to parrots…those in our
homes…and those in the wild. Accepting
this and taking action upon this truth will make us better caregivers in
captivity. It will serve to prevent us from taking for granted the
feathers in our homes and help us also to remain aware of the need to ever
search for better ways to provide for them in captivity, as well as
preserve them in the wild.
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