Dot Schwarz looks at how Parrots bond and what you can do to prevent overbonding in her latest blog.
Most Parrots who live with us are now born in captivity – pet animals. But they are genetically still wild creatures. Although people have kept Parrots for centuries, breeding has only been established in any great numbers in the latter part of the 20th century.
When Parrots in a collection died, they were replaced with wild caught. That means that the innate behaviour of their wild cousins is still a great part of the captive bred Parrot’s repertoire. The more you know of wild Parrots’ behaviour the easier it is to understand the complexities of Parrots in the home.
You are unlikely to make friends with a wild mammal (though it’s possible) but this isn’t necessarily the case with wild birds. One London winter, I sat with Aaron, my 6-year-old grandson, on a bench in a small patch of grass at a bus junction and fed wild pigeons with biscuit crumbs.
Before we left, we both enjoyed the delight of a pigeon taking crumbs from our hands. We aren’t bird whisperers; the birds were hungry and by explaining to Aaron that he must keep still and quiet, the pigeons overcame their distrust of two enormous, flightless predators.
Trust is the quality that we must establish between ourselves and any Parrot who comes into our lives. I believe that my two African Greys, Artha (hen) and Casper (cock) are bonded to me and friends with each other. They are not over- bonded. Here is a brief account of why I believe this.
There is a difference in bringing a well-socialised baby into your home compared to a mature bird who may not so easily adjust to a new environment. Having brought up dogs, cats, kids, horses and other assorted species, twenty years ago when Artha came into my life, I expected Parrots would be a pushover; I was mistaken.
I already knew a successful, kind and conscientious Parrot breeder. Barrett Watson’s Parrots are parent-reared for some weeks then pulled from the nest box and handfed with skilful care and great experience.
From a breeder like Barrett, the just-purchased baby arrives in her new home, fully weaned, trusting people, used to household noises and in good health.
Artha progressed rapidly. She wasn’t scared off me and within a few days would step up out of the cage and take a treat from my hand. When I talked to her she would cock her head to one side. When I arrived at her cage each morning, she’d raise a wing in greeting. My kids had already left home but visitors, friends and family all were introduced to the young Parrot.
Our bond strengthened because Barrett Watson had accustomed Artha to wearing a harness while he was hand feeding her.
So, as a novice owner, I didn’t have to harness train her. Taking her out frequently on various excursions, shopping arks, friends, provided great opportunities for socialisation and interest. Had Artha been a wild African Grey, at this age, she’d have been flying over the forest to forage with her parents and other Parrots.
So, I reasoned – the more opportunities she was given to participate in a wider scene, the less likelihood that she’d become bored, scream for attention.
And yes, misadventures occurred. Walking in a nearby wood, I didn’t have the leash looped round my wrist.. Artha spooked, the leash played out and she ended up at the top of an oak tree. At 35- weeks old she had not the skill to fly down. The Fire Brigade rescued her. That particular accident never happened again.
The behaviour of a well-bonded Parrot
- Artha would greet me as soon as she saw me
- Artha would respond vocally in Parrot language, beak clicks, wing raises, whistles and chirps
- Artha’s body language, wing raises, fluffed-up feathers was positive
- Artha adopted certain English phrases like ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good evening,’ “hello.’ ‘Goodbye,’ and used them in the right context. (She‘d also imitate telephones and microwaves – not so amusing)
- Artha solicited petting. I could handle her wings and tail (all over body handling is essential if you want the Parrot to wear a harness)
- Artha never bit or even nipped (she still doesn’t)
- Artha learned ‘step up’ and ‘fly to me,’ ‘off there,’ and ‘drop it’
- Artha picked up some tricks like high five wave, turn around. (I’ve tried but never managed the retrieve)
- Artha accepted other humans
- Artha adjusted to the company of our dogs and cats
- Artha preened me. I enjoyed it when it was my hair, less so when it was pimples or moles and was nervous when it was my eyelash
By the time she was a year old, I considered the human – Parrot bond was strong and flexible.
Given my age and Artha’s (more than 50 years between us) I knew she wouldn’t spend her whole life with me so we acquired Casper, an African Grey from the same breeder. I was told by some friends and some experts and read in manuals that Artha might become less bonded to me with a new Parrot companion or that the two would fight.
Neither situation arose. Artha had met Casper as a chick at his breeders before he came home. Within a day they were sharing a large cage.
One curious, inexplicable thing happened. Up to the time she was 18 months old Artha’s vocabulary was 150 words or which 40% were used in context. Casper, arrived, learned a few words and was (and is) particularly musical. He can sing in tune and whistle various bird calls.
Within some weeks of his arrival, Artha stopped speaking English and in the 17 years since, she has hardly ever spoken English, although she makes her wishes known with whistles, chirps and body movements.
No one has ever satisfactorily explained this phenomenon. That she still knows her English vocabulary is attested by the fact she has sometimes been heard talking to herself.
When Artha reached sexual maturity, she never considered me as a mate.
Unfortunately, she did not consider Casper either. So, the patter of tiny African Grey claws that I have dearly wished for, has never rejoiced my heart.
Signs of over- bonding: an over bonded bird can show some or all of these signs and even display some that I have not listed
- Parrot only wants to be with or on the Chosen One. Let’s call this CO
- Parrot screams when CO leaves the space
- Parrot cannot be handled or fed by any other person than CO
- Parrot attacks anyone who approaches the CO
- Parrot may even BITE CO is anyone comes near or CO interacts with another creature
- Parrot is only content when on or close to CO, and constantly preens and attempts to feed/court CO
- Parrot may not eat or drink unless CO is present
Tips to avoid over-bonding
- Try to obtain a young well-socialised bird to start with
- Develop and maintain, calm and patience when dealing with a young or new bird
- Don’t send MORE time with the new bird than you intend to spend eventually
- Make sure other members of a household interact with the Parrot, especially feeding it
- Find time to train the bird with basics: step up, step down, fly to me. drop it
- Add tricks to the bird’s repertoire
- Treat the bird as a bird not dog or cat or human baby
- Fids = F – feathered K- ids
If anyone calls me Mummy in relation to my my pet birds, I reply, ‘Absolutely NOT. I’ve never laid an egg.’ Treating birds as Fids, can increase your affection for them but may lead to the drawbacks of not seeing them as birds.
Humans and birds have a lot in common. Birds are similar to people in that they like a (mostly) permanent partner, they live in groups (flocks) they communicate with one another. Several species have even picked up the rudiments of human language.
They often eat holding their food in one claw (like a hand). One ability we do not share is their ability to fly which brings them somewhat closer to the angels. There is nothing intrinsically wrong is considering your bird is a fid.
Problems can arise if you expect a fids reaction to mirror a kid’s (or a puppy or a kitten). As much as they can and do adapt to life in our sitting rooms, the deeper imperative of their wild life is still a major part of their pysche.
The problem with Cockatoos
This wonderful group of birds, ranging from the diminutive Lesser Sulphur Crested, to the amazing Goliath Black Cockatoo in Australia and the Moluccan in Indonesia are the species who more than any other, except perhaps some Amazons, can become over-bonded.
Until quite recently, great numbers of Cockatoos were bred and hand-raised freely. These chicks displayed a trustfulness, a beauty and a cuddliness that was irresistible to many people searching for a pet Parrot.
What happened is that the baby bird raised too often away for other birds imprinted on its human carers and often in maturity chose a member of the household as its mate.
To live with a screaming biting over bonded Cockatoo is virtually impossible. That’s the reason that sanctuaries contain a disproportionate number of male Cockatoos. Three breeders that I know, have stopped breeding Cockatoos for that reason.
Cockatoos can live lives acceptable to themselves and their carers if enough conditions are met. They need space; they need activity for their inquisitive intelligence.
Perdy Lesser Sulphur Crested cockatoo came to us at one year old. Well socialised by Les Rance. Cautious of over bonding I did not let her get too attached to me. Instead, she chose Wal my husband. Fortunately, it was not a disaster because although Perdy was reluctant to let me handle her, she was not a biter, screamer, nor plucker.
That was due, I’m sure to the early sensible upbringing she had undergone with her breeder Les Rance.
At ten years old however, Perdy’s desire to mate became impossible. She would guard a nest box in the aviary (and attack you if you approached).
She developed an unhealthy, curious relationship with Casper the Grey. Natalie Spencer agreed to rehome her. And there now, almost 3 years later, she is a much happier bird.
Her adoration for Wal is transferred to Matthew. Natalie’s husband. And he keeps her with him all day in his workshop and allows her to fly around the garden. Natalie accepts that she cannot handle Perdy without a lot of caution.
The nicely bonded Parrot is a continual joy. If you are unlucky and the bonding becomes exaggerated, with knowledge and patience it can usually be put in proportion and under control.
For more on training and behaviour please click here.