On an episode of “The Dog Whisperer,” host and teacher Cesar Millan took the time to articulate the three basic emotional needs of a contented pet dog.
"Exercise, mental stimulus, and affection were the indispensable ingredients owners must provide 'in correct balance' so that their dogs can achieve paramount happiness in the home," Millan explained.
While Cesar was demonstrating, it struck me that the same triad of essentials also can be logically applied to the pet psittacine.
How many keepers of otherwise healthy pet Parrots end up distorting the proper balance between exercise, mental stimulus, and affection in their birds’ environments?
As an example, it is common practice for many birdkeepers to routinely trim their Parrot’s wing flight feathers, supposedly to ensure it will not fly uncontrollably around the home or out an open door or window. Then the owners set up swings and playpens and the like to try and give their pets an adequate amount of exercise. .
But true exercise for a psittacine means strong flapping flights, tight braking landings, and all sorts of twists and turns in the air to keep bodies fit. After flights, out of shape psittacines end up huffing and puffing to catch their breath—something that does not occur in cage movement.
Walking and climbing and swinging alone simply will not do the trick. These can never totally substitute for real flight. Accordingly, this balance we talk about is skewed in such Parrots away from proper exercise levels.
What about stimulation?
The second necessity, mental stimulus, too, is frequently curtailed in captive hookbills. We purchase a Parrot, then give it a nice new cage which we expect to be the unchanging 'home' for that bird for decades of its life. Yet the pet grows and changes its mindset, its needs, its sexuality and knowledge of the world around it, etc.
Many keepers consistently obtain new toys and items for their Parrots to chew and explore, but plastic is plastic and wood and leather are much the same at any time — so one toy becomes basically the same as the next in many subtle ways. .
As soon as my young fledglings learn the joys of playing in a fresh leafy bough, or chewing in a deteriorating hollow log, they choose these items for distraction and play and begin ignoring our store-bought items.
And for those birdkeepers who purchase a toy or two for their pet and leave it with them in the same spot in the same cage for months on end, well, what sort of mental stimulation is that?
Food we all provide our birds in plenty every day, sometimes in unvarying cooked or pelleted ways, real foraging is seldom available and exploration of trees or plants with buds or berries or flowers is rarely provided. Is it any wonder our birds become fixated on gnawing to destruction or over-eating, or attempting to get out of their cages?
With the intelligence of psittacines well documented in the animal world, how many of us actually provide adequate mental stimulus year in, year out for our charges?
I have even noticed some of my more adventurous Parrots becoming bored with the sameness of routine in a 25 foot, tree planted aviary and begging to me through the wire when I am doing something outside.
No, the satisfying of our pet and breeder birds’ requirements for mental stimulation is a full-time proposition and is the number one workload for any birdkeeper. It is also a very common disparity in that triangle of emotional needs mentioned by the dog whisperer.
Often, pet owners are instructed to de-emphasize and attempt to discourage overt sexual stimulation in adult Parrots. Yet, we believe this is a fallacy in aviculture, and in fact, sensuality is a normal part of being a bird and should always be channeled into healthy outlets.
Affection As A Need
That brings us to affection. Surely most of our well-loved Parrots receive a perfect amount of this from their handlers, right?
Oops, not so fast! There are a lot of advanced bird behavior skeptics, I amongst them, that believe all too many psittacines are lavished with way too much affection by humans during their upbringing and later pet keeping.
Certainly the Cockatoos can illicit so much physical stroking that they come to expect it. When it grows out of balance with the rest of their environment, problems arise.
Many Parrots crave human affection to the detriment of their own self-identity and their ability to entertain themselves. When they are raised this way, they form habits around such handling, but when things change for their humans or they begin to experience sexuality during puberty, then the copious need for touch may become dysfunctional.
A single psittacine without a natural bird companion is much more likely to depend upon humans way too much, rather than being able to entertain itself in healthier ways.
Consider those hand-fed Parrots which are brought up with all this affection and then destined to become breeder birds. This often happens with rare and endangered species where the birds are weaned and fledged in the human nursery environment, hand-fed and doted on by some keepers, then soon thereafter, paired up and shuffled into a breeding cage where they are expected to form a bond with an opposite gender mate.
All the while they are three or four or seven years away from any full breeding maturity and basically have grown more attached to human hands than they have to some new same-species companion.
I have seen such youngsters spend hour after hour peering out of a cage hoping for any inkling of attention from human owners. It can be a very sad scenario, and it shows how out-of-balance the offered affections for our Parrots can become.
Exercise, mental stimulus, affection, it really helps to think of the three as intricately related. When you give your pet psittacine strong aerobic exercise, you are in fact offering him or her powerful mental stimulus. And there are many ways to show affection for a pet other than just touch and cuddling.
Parrots are smart, much of the affection they show one another is by 'doing things' together—like games or exercise or snacking or singing. Presto, there you have healthy mental stimulation again.
Being the owners of a standard poodle, April and I are learning that the most successful pet keepers are the ones that are inventive in their ways of interacting with their animals.
Parrots are very much the same in their needs. A little effort and imagination are all it takes.
Staying one step ahead of our birds with these three key ingredients beats falling into daily ruts and having to later solve the difficulties that result. My thanks to “The Dog Whisperer.”
Find everything your Parrot needs here.