Liz Wilson explains why the common perceptions about our companion Parrots preferring one person can actually be the cause of the problem. This article is filled with useful information covering areas such as rehabililtation, controlling aggression and prevention.
Having lived in the world of Parrots for over 40 years, it amazes me how many totally invalid Old Wives’ Tales continue to circulate about Parrots. Some are just silly – like sexing a Parrot by the sex of the human it prefers. (I mean, really? That’s why your dog loves you best, right? Because it perceives you as being the opposite sex?)
But one that continues to do serious damage is the premise that it is “normal” for a Parrot to only allow contact with one human. Absolutely not!
The One Person Bird
Parrots are highly social creatures, and many species live in varying sized flocks at least part of each year. But how could you be highly social if you normally only have contact with one other bird? That is completely illogical. By stating that the one-person bird is “normal”, we are inadvertently setting our Parrots up to fail in our human habitat.
We all know that Parrots can be problematic companions even on a good day, thanks to the potential for racket, mess and destruction. If you add that a Parrot disallows contact with anyone but its favourite person, the probability for loss of home increases exponentially. After all, why should other family members have to tolerate living with such an animal?
Indeed, scores of human relationships are damaged by the forced cohabitation of people with a Parrot that does not tolerate their presence, especially with escalating levels of aggression towards non-favourites as the Parrot approaches maturity.
But since popular myth states that being a so-called one person bird is a natural behaviour, most owners do nothing to prevent this from developing. The result, as Blanchard said, the myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is therefore important to understand why this happens and how to resolve it, as well as how to – better yet –prevent its development from the very beginning.
Despite the apparent belief of many people, Parrots are not children. However, there are useful parallels between the two. For example, if someone had a child that no one else, not even other family members, could approach without the child biting and screaming, would that person think he/she had a “normal” child? The answer is obviously no, yet people accept this aberrant behaviour in Parrots as routine, until more serious problems arise and the bird becomes homeless.
I perceive interaction with a companion Parrot as similar to raising a child. Human parents understand their child will mature and leave the safety of their home (thereby “leaving the nest”). To properly prepare that child for a successful future, parents must instill the child with the skills necessary for forming positive relationships with other people, to succeed in school, to be able to acquire and keep a good job, and to find a good mate.
Since psittacine birds are capable of such long lifespans, a healthy young medium-sized or large species of Parrot purchased by an adult human is likely to need another home in the future as it will likely outlive its first owner. Accordingly, owners need to raise their Parrots with the same forethought as good parents, teaching proper boundaries for behaviours and socializing the Parrot to interact successfully with other people.
Such training virtually guarantees the Parrot will transition to its future home smoothly and successfully. Indeed, Parrot rehoming organizations agree that well-behaved and socialized Parrots are extremely easy to rehome. If these skills are not instilled, initial caretakers actually lay the groundwork for the psittacine bird’s total failure in its next home.
Choosing the Favourite
It is perfectly normal for any animal to have a favourite. Growing up, my family’s poodle loved us all, but my mother was his absolute favourite person. But at no time did our dog refuse to interact with the rest of us, and that is the difference.
Selection of a favourite person may happen when the Parrot is very young (as early as 6 months for a medium-sized Parrot), which is many years before this Parrot would choose a mate in the wild. Under these circumstances, the bird is actually exercising control over the humans around it, not picking a lifelong companion.
Retired aviculturist Phoebe Linden theorized this to be a result of a young Parrot being given far too much autonomy, and she asserted that a medium or large species of Parrot that is less than 2 years old is far too young to be permitted to select whom it likes and dislikes
In my experience, a factor that exacerbates this selection problem is the reaction of the rest of the household to a Parrot choosing a favourite: since they were not the chosen one, their feelings are hurt. This often precipitates the all-too-human reaction of, “I don’t care, I don’t really like the bird that much, anyway.”
As a consequence, the other family members withdraw their handling of the bird. The bird rapidly becomes habituated to only one person, since only one person is interacting with it.
As always, prevention is easier than trying to fix a problem later. According to colleague Mattie Sue Athan, “In order to maintain an outgoing and social disposition, it’s important to avoid allowing a Parrot to become overly possessive of a particular human.” (Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior, 1999.)
Years ago, Sally Blanchard devised an extremely useful game for people to play with their Parrots, to keep the birds habituated to handling from multiple people. Called Warm Potato, it is based on the childhood game of Hot Potato, only done slowly.
Involving all of the people that wish to interact with the Parrot (family members, friends, bird sitters, etc.), they gather with the bird in neutral territory. This is defined as a location to which the Parrot has no attachments, hence no territorial behaviours will distract from the interaction.
Sitting in a circle, the bird is passed from one flock member to the next with the up command. On his/her turn, each person interacts positively with the Parrot in a manner the bird enjoys (i.e., snuggling, grooming, praising enthusiastically, etc.), and then passes it to the next circle member. The process is repeated around the circle, several times.
Through this exercise, Parrots learn that each person in the circle is a valued flock member, to be accorded the proper respect. If this game is played weekly for the remainder of the Parrot’s life, the bird will remain tame with all the people in the household.
Non-favoured individuals must also establish their own personal relationship with the bird, separate from other members of the household. In addition to having positive interactions in neutral territory, each person should choose one favourite activity that they exclusively do with the Parrot.
Some examples include: The Designated Shower Person, responsible for enabling a water-loving bird to have wildly enthusiastic bathing experiences; The Designated Treat Person, sole bearer of a particular special food treat; The Designated Game Person, the chosen person for a particularly favourite Parrot game. Assigning each task with such an important and official-sounding title especially intrigues children, encouraging them to follow through and work with the Parrot.
For example, the positive effects of this type of interaction can be seen with my own Blue and Yellow Macaw. Despite the total lack of a positive relationship over many years, my Sam sees tremendous value to my husband David when he is cooking dinner.
Modification of problem behaviours in companion Parrots always begins with the same fundamental training. Using positive reinforcement training in short and upbeat daily training sessions, Parrots are patterned to step onto the human hand when cued. Once this training is progressing well with the Parrot’s favourite person, steps can be taken to modify the one-person bird’s attitude towards other people.
First, the non-preferred person should observe a couple of lessons so he/she understands the training. Second, the favourite should take the Parrot into the training room, placing it on the training perch. Third, the favourite person leaves the room, and a non-preferred person then enters.
This person should then train the bird in exactly the same manner as the preferred person, to maintain consistency. The non-favoured person, in this fashion, establishes himself/herself in a comfortable relationship with the Parrot.
The non-preferred person now chooses one of the Parrot’s favourite foods, games or toys, as previously explained. In the future, the Parrot is obligated to go to the non-preferred person to receive the favoured item, or play the favourite game. For example, if the Parrot loves sunflower seed treats, then the non-preferred person becomes the Designated Sunflower Seed Person, exclusively. This individual has now gained tremendous value in the Parrot’s eyes. .
Under no circumstance should the preferred person tolerate any psittacine aggression towards other people. If a Parrot shows aggression towards others, it is imperative that the preferred person should instantly give the bird an extremely dirty look (The Evil Eye) and say No in a quiet but exceedingly displeased voice, then turn his/her back on the bird.
The favourite person is then using psittacine body language to express displeasure in the bird’s behaviour. If necessary, he/she should then exit the room, leaving the bird behind.
As a response to their bird’s biting someone else, preferred people often pick their birds up to reprimand them. If so, they run the risk of their Parrots learning that biting is rewarded by being returned to their favourite.
Since drama is also a reward, the preferred people should also not shout at a biting Parrot. It is also important for favourite people to understand that, amusing though it may be to them to watch their Parrot chase their spouse, laughter is a powerful reinforcer.
Recipients of psittacine aggression need to react quickly or the Parrot will not make the connection between aggression and the reprimand. They should immediately give the bird intense direct eye contact in the form of an extremely dirty look, saying no firmly (but not loudly), and step the bird onto their hand with the up command.
When the Parrot does as told, the people should provide positive reinforcement, such as smiling and verbally rewarding the bird for following their instructions. The biting incident is now over, and no one should hold a grudge.
However, if the recipient of aggression is not comfortable handling the bird, the responsibility falls to the favoured person to reprimand an act of violence. In these circumstances, he/she must take pains to make certain the Parrot does not perceive this as a reward. This is accomplished via an extremely negative facial expression.
Unfortunately, some favourite people may actually exacerbate over-bonding, consciously or otherwise. They may claim to want the problem fixed, but that often is not the case at all.
We Parrot behaviour consultants often encounter situations where favourite people encourage over-bonding with them and aggression towards others. They may talk obsessively about how attached their birds are to them, and verbalize concerns about “what will happen” if or when he/she dies.
Some individuals go so far as to put it in their wills to euthanize their birds in the event of their death, because they feel the birds “can’t live without them.”
Other people are more blatant, actually bragging that their bird disallows handling by anyone else – such as the woman who approached me at a seminar and smiled slyly, saying conspiratorially, “He HATES my husband.” (She was not pleased with my reaction, as I recommended marriage counselling and suggested she refrain from using the Parrot as a weapon against her husband.)
Many actually appear to enjoy that their Parrot is aggressive with other people. Consciously or not, a bird’s over-bonding and subsequent aggression is being rewarded in situations like these. Accordingly, these Parrots will not change their behaviour until the favoured people realize that their behaviour is unhealthy and must change.
The Shifting Of the Bond
However, many of these people find (to their intense dismay) that their beloved Parrot is capable of changing its attitude towards them. It is not unusual for an over-bonded young Parrot to abruptly switch bonds as it matures, often to a family member who has never shown any interest in the bird at all.
We are unsure why this happens, but in some cases it might be a natural response to an overly smothering relationship with the former favourite. It could also be a Parrot’s natural reaction to switch from a youngster’s mommy/daddy relationship to a more mature mate relationship. (Oedipus notwithstanding, most animals don’t wish to mate with their parents.)
Whatever the aetiology, I have found it quite useful to warn favoured people of this very real possibility, as the threat of losing the relationship with a Parrot will sometimes encourage these people to work diligently to change the patterns they established that led to a Parrot becoming a one-person bird.
One cannot make a Parrot like someone, but it is important that Parrots learn to be polite to others and this can be easily accomplished with patience, non-aggression and clear and consistent controls.
Get more advice on training your Parrot here.