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Psittacine Behavior

Based on papers by

Michelle Curtis Velasco, DVM, ABVP-Avian

Liz H. Wilson, CVT

Edited and compiled by Kerry Jackson, DVM, MS

 

 

Selecting an Appropriate Pet Bird

 

Human beings have kept parrots in captivity for thousands of years, but only relatively recently have parrots become common as pets. Their popularity began 30 years ago with the appearance on the pet market of domestic-bred, hand-raised baby parrots. Wild adult parrots can be formidable to approach and may frighten faint hearted potential owners. Domestic-bred, hand-raised baby parrots, however, toddle into potential owners’ arms, cooing, and few people can resist them.

 

Should the Person Get a Bird at All?

 

The appearance and demeanor of domestic-bred, hand-raised baby parrots makes parrot ownership seem easy. As a result, people have been buying parrots in increasing numbers without learning anything about these wonderfully intelligent and totally complex creatures. Potential owners who are unaware of behavior and health concerns are far less likely to enjoy long term avian companionship. Examples include the following:

 

The potential owner is not tolerant of a messy pet. Birds are messy creatures, and this will never change. In the wild, favorite roosts for parrot flocks can be readily identified by the piles of detritus on the ground below. Captive parrots are no different.

 

The potential owner has a low tolerance for noise, and this would include the neighbors. Generally speaking, quiet birds are sick birds. Healthy birds make noise.

 

The potential owner wants a bird simply because they are beautiful, or that their color matches a chosen decor. Beauty alone will not justify the work and mess involved with bird ownership, especially parrot ownership.

 

The potential owner wants a parrot because they talk. Whereas a talking parrot can be amusing, entertainment value fades rapidly in light of the negative aspects of parrot ownership. Also, if speech is crucial, the person should be instructed to get a bird that already talks, because that is the only way to guarantee speaking ability

 

The potential owner wants a parrot but is afraid of being bitten. Sooner or later, all parrots will experiment with biting. If the person is afraid of being bitten, the parrot will sense this and bite to get control.  Undisciplined birds are a common problem, and most undesirable behaviors can be averted by a confident owner that instructs the parrot in basic bird obedience.

The potential owner has asthma or respiratory allergies. Respiratory problems can be exacerbated by bird dander, particularly dander from powder down species such as cockatiels, African grey parrots, and especially cockatoos.

 

The Potential Owner Has Passed the Preliminary “Tests,” Now What?

 

           Once a person has decided he or she wishes to cohabit with a parrot, the availability of varieties from which to choose is staggering. There are many aspects to consider regarding bird ownership, including limitations in commitment, money, space, noise, and human personalities.

 

Potential life spans of most avian species are extraordinary. 

If genetically strong, fed properly and provided with competent

veterinary care, even small birds like canaries and budgies are

capable of living longer than many breeds of dogs. Larger species

of parrots have potential life spans similar to those of people, so

the level of commitment from the owner is crucial. These are not

animals to be traded like used cars once the person gets bored.

 

Depending on species, the financial investment can be substantial. First is the initial price of the bird, which actually may only be a small percentage of the total financial outlay during the first year of ownership. Depending on species and size, an appropriate cage can cost twice as much as the bird, and play gyms, toys, and food are additional necessary expenses.

 

 Veterinary care for birds is usually more expensive than veterinary care for dogs and cats, because extensive testing is often required for an accurate diagnosis of disease. Diagnostic samples obtained must be sent to special laboratories, support staff must be specially trained and considerable time and patience is required to work with many avian species.

 

Space limitations are an important consideration. A captive bird needs the largest cage with safe inter-bar spacing that one can afford (or, as someone commented, ‘one size larger than one can afford’). Minimum cage size would enable the bird to easily spread its wings without touching the sides or top of the cage. Remember, this is the absolute minimum, and a bird in this type of cage must be allowed plenty of time every day outside the cage!  Compensating for space occupied by food cups and toys, 1.5 times the bird’s wingspan may suffice, depending upon species.  Large macaws can have wingspans of 3 to 4 feet, so these birds do not fit into small apartments. Smaller, extremely active species like lories and caiques also need large cages in which to play Because birds do not fly straight up and down like helicopters, the living space a bird requires is horizontal, not vertical. Most bird cages on the market are designed with the comfort of the owner, not the bird, in mind.

 

Noise levels may be a concern. When lay parrot magazines talk about "quiet" species, the use of the word is relative. This means the species is quiet compared with avian species considered to be noisy.  This would be like saying a small terrier is quieter than a beagle. Certain species do make less noise than others, so birds like the pionus, jardine, budgerigar, and cockatiel are often more satisfactory for apartment dwellers.

 

In regard to human personalities and lifestyles, several scenarios will most likely lead to

short-lived, unhappy parrot ownership. For example, parrots are not low-maintenance pets, so people who are extremely busy should not consider getting one. Basic cage maintenance is time consuming, and this time commitment does not begin to approach that required for addressing the parrot’s flock-based psychological need for social interaction.

 

Just as some breeds of dogs are more aggressive than others, most parrot species are headstrong birds that rapidly develop behavior problems unless clear guidelines are established. Consequently gentle-hearted souls who are unable to establish discipline are usually not successful parrot owners, especially of medium and large species. Out-of-control parrots are a nightmare to live with, especially as they reach adolescence.  Most end up on consignment in pet stores, abandoned in shelters, or dumped on parrot adoption agencies.

 

Most people do not understand that a parrot is ultimately a wild animal, domestic—bred or not. To say an animal is “domestic—bred” only indicates that it was born in the continental United States; it does not mean that the animal is domesticated. My favorite analogy is that of a tiger born in a zoo. It is domestic-bred and often bottle-raised by people but it is still a tiger. Most parrot species are second- or third-generation from the wild and have no genetic information regarding adaptation to human habitats. Simply put, if birds are not taught how to be good pets, they will not know how to be good pets. The irony is that birds often then lose their homes because they do not know how to be good pets.

 

Most people are not prepared physically, or psychologically to share their lives with wild animals. People want a pet that considers them (the person) to be the center of the universe, a pet that offers unconditional love. Parrots do not fulfill these obligations. Parrots are not dogs with feathers or feathered children. They are simply themselves—they are unable to make the compromises that the average person expects from a companion animal. Several years ago, Davis used a wonderful analogy that living with a parrot was similar to living with an extremely short, more than slightly crazed relative. You love your Uncle Fred, but you never know how he will behave, if he will like the people you want him to like, or even be polite to guests. But you love him anyway because he is your Uncle Fred.

 

Even the cutest, most loving baby parrot will commit the ultimate betrayal—it will grow up and not stay a cute and cuddly baby. As it matures, it will go through developmental stages similar to those of human beings, with many of the accompanying problems. People may describe such birds by saying “he used to be cute, but now he is mean.” People who cannot understand that the behaviors of these birds are often genetically programmed may take negative behaviors personally This reaction usually results in the destruction of the human-parrot relationship.

 

The Right Kinds of People

 

The right kinds of people to cohabit with parrots are rare. They recognize that these birds are wild animals and are not extensions of themselves. They require these creatures to be nothing more than they are. These people understand that no one owns a parrot. A parrot is owned only by itself. Their self-esteem is strong enough to withstand a parrot’s changing moods and attitudes as it grows and develops. Their ego is strong enough that they do not need to use these birds to correct deficits in their own personality or attract attention to themselves. They are honored to have the opportunity to share their lives with an extraordinary companion, a living fragment of the rain forest.

Hopefully by being cognizant of species characteristics, we can help prevent unhappy pairings of parrots and the wrong kinds of people. Under the best of circumstances, parrots are difficult creatures to live with and few people will actually enjoy long-term cohabitation with them. A parrot in the wrong home, living with the wrong people, is totally miserable and will make people around it equally miserable.

 

 Types of Parrots

 

 First, a disclaimer:  within each species of parrot, the differences in personality are endless.  Generalizations can be meaningless when applied to individuals.  The species of parrots seen in a pet bird practice differ not only in their relative size and color patterns but also in their basic behavior tendencies. The following is an overview of some of the characteristics of many of these species. By having a basic understanding of some of the natural behavioral tendencies of a particular species of bird, you will also be better equipped to handle your pet and correct undesirable behavior.

 

 

         Budgerigar

 

Commonly referred to as the parakeet, the Australian origin budgie

 has long been domestically produced. They are easily tamed, personable

and relatively easy to find.  Due to their small size and availability, the

budgie is often overlooked as an ideal avian companion.  Many budgies

 have extensive vocabularies and can be very interactive with the family.

  Behavior problems are rare, and breeders have produced a wide variety

 of color morphs.  These are probably the best choice for a first time bird owner. Fatty tumors are a common ailment, and dietary control of fats is recommended.  Iodine is needed in non-supplemented diets such as seed only mixes.  Pelleted diets are an excellent choice. 

 

           Cockatiels

 

Generally very sweet, loving birds, they are limited on their ability to mimic the human voice and prefer to whistle rather than talk.  Some males will talk a little, usually in a somewhat garbled voice.  Cockatiels are usually available after they reach 8 weeks of age

 through the pet trade, and even if parent raised, readily adapt to home life and

 bond with family members.  Multiple cockatiels can be kept together and still

maintain a bond with people.  The more highly mutated color birds tend to be

 less disease resistant and sometimes not as intelligent (Lutino cockatiel

syndrome as described by Walt Roskopt) but will make a loving pet for the

more timid bird owner.   Females are likely to lay eggs with or without the

presence of a male bird. Careful attention to light exposure, less than 10-11

hours a day and controlling the fat in the diet are important for preventing

excessive egg laying. Diets should be more grain oriented, rather than seeds, and pelleted diets that are un-colored and the size of millet are readily accepted (Harrison’s fine or very fine pellets). Cockatiels are suspicious of table foods if not started early in life, and are more likely to accept white or pale colored foods such as Cherrios, bread, rice or potatoes. Medical conditions such as feather picking usually have an underlying medical condition such as

giardia.

Lovebirds

 

Hand raised birds can be very sweet and calm, whereas parent raised

babies may be difficult to tame when older. Lovebirds are relatively non

destructive, quiet, and calm. Untamed lovebirds can be quite aggressive,

 but due to their small size, bites are not serious.  Inappropriate nesting

 and egg laying behavior is not uncommon. Egg binding is more likely to

be fatal in this species.  The information on cockatiels also applies here

regarding egg laying. Stress and crowded conditions may result in feather

picking and self mutilation.

 

         Quaker Parrots

 

Quaker or Monk parakeets are sweet, interactive pets with a

 relatively good mimic ability.  Similar to cockatiels in size,

Quaker parrots are very flock oriented.  Due to the

establishment of wild flocks, some states prohibit ownership

 of these parrots.  In the wild, they build large community nests

and can be seen in Florida on the coast nesting in palm trees.  Self mutilation is very common in single birds, probably due to the lack of the security of a flock and a lack of exercise or activity.  This behavior is difficult to control, and many birds need Elizabethian collars until totally healed.  They are similar in size to the cockatiel, and cage size, pellet and food size can be similarly based.

Conures

 

While there is some variability in the wide range of conure species available to the pet purchasing public, as a rule, the conures tend to be vocal (loud) and gregarious. They like attention and can be very entertaining and playful. They are easily taught tricks. Biting is a common undesirable behavior that comes very naturally. Because they are small, the owners often allow them to ride on their shoulders, which should be discouraged because it will often lead to a possessive bird that will bite the owner when they or someone else tries to remove it. The smaller species such as the maroon belly are a little quieter and less destructive, while the very colorful suns, jendays and nandays (especially) often move from home to home due to their irritating screams and demanding behavior.  Sengals, also, can

be very aggressive.  Feather picking may be common in conures and

while it may become habitual, the inciting cause usually has some

medical origin.  With the exception of the smaller species, conures

are not recommended for the first time bird owner, and avian behavior

and socialization classes are recommended.

Amazon Parrots

 

Amazons are considered excellent talkers especially the yellowhead types.

They are very independent and can be very aggressive during breeding season. 

Rarely like to be petted and may only allow handling by preferred individuals.

Will demand attention and can be irritating when ignored.  Body language is

easy to read once understood.  Amazons that flare their tails and have pinpoint

pupils are ready to bite!  Rarely feather pick for psychological reasons.  There

is no need to hand feed juveniles since they are best parent raised for their

psychological health.

African Grey Parrots

 

Probably the best mimic of the commercially available parrots, the African

Grey will readily imitate sounds as well as voices.  As Irene Pepperberg

demonstrated with the African Grey, Alex, the intelligence of this species

is similar to a four year old child. African Greys travel in large flocks in

the wild, so behavior problems due to anxiety in a single bird household

Are common. The tendency to feather pick may have actually been inbred

into the species selectively and then exacerbated by improper early

development or lack thereof. They tend to be clumsy as youngsters and

should not have the wings trimmed before weaning and fledging. Early flight may be as important as crawling to human infants.  Body size is similar to Amazons, but the body language is entirely different. Very responsive to obedience training and seem to enjoy having a variety of activities.

 

         Cockatoos

 

Cockatoos are very popular as pet birds for those looking for

a cuddly, pettable bird. They will usually be friendly to all

members of family but can be destructive and demanding when

ignored. Screaming in the evening is a natural behavior and

mimics the calling together of the flock at nightfall. Very flock

oriented and do respond well to obedience training when initiated

before severe separation anxiety behavior starts.  They can

talk some, but usually not clearly. Umbrellas are the most adaptab1e

To captivity.  Moluccans should probably not be kept as pets by most potential

bird owners due to behavioral issues.  Cockatoos will not only feather pick, but will self mutilate when socially disturbed, a condition that can be very difficult to control.  Can be easily housetrained, but emphasis on this behavior may be a factor in cloacal prolapsed.

Macaws

 

Macaws are extremely intelligent animals that require a large amount of living

space. They can be quite demanding and VERY loud.  They use their beaks to

test footing and as a third “foot” and effective handling requires trust. Flinching

or drawing back when a macaw reaches with its beak is more likely to be followed

by a bite on the next approach. The smaller species tend to be more vocal and

active while the very large macaws such as the Hyacinth (a CITES I species) and

green wing are somewhat more mellow and quiet.  In fact, the mini macaw

varieties such as the Yellow-collared Hahns macaws may be the loudest for its size of any species on earth.  Temperaments vary among the different species.  The colorful scarlet macaw is a difficult bird while the almost identical in appearance green wing is a much better pet quality bird.  Macaws respond well to a relaxed, self confident handler and are likely to bully a more timid one.  Due to the necessary cage size, diet and handling techniques, macaws are only for the experienced, dedicated and isolated (property) bird owner.

Other Species

 

Birds from the Poicephalus family, such as the Senegal,

Myers and Redbellied Parrots are becoming increasingly

popular and may be an excellent choice as a pet parrot.

They are not as noisy as conures and have playful,

entertaining personalities, some talking ability and are

not as large and imposing as the macaws or conures.

Their beaks are rather powerful however and they can

deliver an intimidating bite when frightened.  Pionus parrots

 are another smaller Amazon like species that are not as noisy.

They can be nervous and will hyperventilate when stressed.

Some species may not tolerate high heat and humidity.

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