Allowing a companion Parrot quality time outside of their cage is essential for their mental and physical well-being. Many of us humans are even uneasy about other humans sharing our living space.
When Parrot and Parrot owner with vastly different lifestyles are sharing the house space, compromises and changes must be made. I’ll argue that they shouldn’t all be at the Parrots’ expense.
Examples of two extremes
Both Maria in UK and Joe in USA are living alone with their pets. Maria’s proud of her immaculate bungalow. She keeps a pair of African Grey sisters in a Macaw-sized cage.
Max, the Labrador lives outside in a large kennel on a long chain and comes indoors for periods of time with Maria. He’s walked every day on a leash. “Max can’t be allowed to play in the garden because he digs holes,” Maria explains. "The Greys don’t come out of their cage; because they don’t want to!”
Maria demonstrates by opening the cage door and shrugs; unsurprisingly neither of the Parrots unaccustomed to being allowed out move off their perch. "They’re happy though," Maria confidently adds. “They talk and whistle a lot,” she says, (which of course proves nothing.)
Marie had asked my help to teach them to step up. I declined. Our ideas of how to keep Parrots or dogs are unfortunately incompatible.
I met Joe, a carpenter, a few years later, when I was visiting a friend in USA. He’s proud of his log cabin, which he built himself. He shares the interior with Charlie, his thirty-year-old, wild caught Moluccan Cockatoo, and two Umbrella sisters.
Evidence of the Cockatoos’ exploratory behaviour is everywhere. The top of every door is chewed; the Cockatoos have also been practising their whittling skills on the handsome, sturdy handmade wooden furniture.
What astonished me most was a layer of 10cm thick woodchips, the type supplied for stable litter, which covered the floor. Joe laughed. “I sweep it up once a week and put down fresh.” Joe is very safety conscious; he has wired windows and fitted screens to the doors.
There were no cages but a plentiful of perches for the free range-chewing Parrots. There was no doubt the Cockatoos had sufficient occupational enrichment. Two Boston terriers skulked in their basket. “Charlie doesn’t like them and he is the boss.”
I didn’t stay long because Charlie didn’t like visitors and shrieked so loud that I couldn’t hear Joe. No doubt with the chewing ability of Joe’s Cockatoos the interior of his cabin will become more spacious.
Not many of us would enjoy either of these set-ups. But most carers of Parrots fall between such extremes.
Dangers in households to us and them
Parrots resemble toddlers. They have the same unquenchable zeal to investigate their environment. Everything is exciting to a little human, as it is to an intelligent animal like a Parrot whose daily life in the wild, involves foraging in trees and on the ground - testing things with their beaks - tasting items with their tongues - their curiosity seemingly endless.
Consequently, when a Parrot is allowed out of their cage, he wants to explore and is often so excited, he doesn’t know which experience to take on first. Parrots have a short attention span and consequently they’ll examine everything that catches their eye.
That’s why when a Parrot is allowed out of their cage in the home, hazards must be recognised and anticipated. A toddler safe environment will protect a house-roaming Parrot, with two extra provisos.
These toddlers have wings and strong beaks which can pierce quickly, do damage to any material, animate or inanimate or YOU.
Assuming your Parrot will spend time out of the cage (four hours a day is a reasonable minimum) what are the dangers on both sides to avoid?
For the Parrot
Open doors and windows, ceiling fans, electric wires and plugs A worthwhile investment is wire frames for windows. These also have the benefit of excluding insects. Doors can be a problem. Some doors will have porches. Extremely conscientious Parrot owners may erect a screen door to external doors.
Hanging screens of metal or rope can deter a bird anxious to fly outside. Keeping fans switched off may be temporarily uncomfortable but fans are dangerous for Parrots.
Bathrooms can also contain hazards. Toilet seats should be always kept closed and medicines and other chemicals placed in cupboards should be latched or locked. Hard plastic containers for instance that contains chemicals like toilet cleaners can be swiftly, effortlessly be pierced by a Parrot’s beak.
When hazards are anticipated and dealt with in advance, bath time can be relaxing and enjoyable for a Parrot and their owner. Giving your Parrot a gentle spray in the shower (introducing him or her to the experience carefully and slowly) or even taking your feathered companion in the shower with you can provide mutual enjoyment.
Kitchens can be especially hazardous. I taught my human babies many years to avoid heated surfaces by letting them approach an operating oven or stove to feel the heat and firmly say “Hot! Leave!” The method worked and I have used it to teach every companion Parrot about the kitchen stove, etc.
Knives positioned on magnetic racks should be put in drawers because a Parrot’s attention will be in drawn to them. They’ll try to pick them up, often by the blade, to gnaw the handles. Knobs on microwaves and hobs are often easily pulled off or switched on by the manipulative mandibles of a Parrot.
(I confess it has happened here!) Objects like microwaves and wooden bread bins or knife blocks can be protected by covering them with large thick bath towels. Half dozen towels can be used in the kitchen to cover almost all objects you don’t want to be carved, pulled off or perforated.
Dustsheets or bed sheets are inadequate because the Parrot can damage objects by biting them through the thin material into the object.
Damage to your objects by curious Parrots
Ornaments, books, your clothes or jewellery or you. This is a hard one to solve. Parrots can learn not to wreck zips, pull off earrings, dart down to the table and fly off with your food.
My solution is a bit of a compromise. I don’t wear jewellery when they’re out. I have given up on the zip problem and wear a hat or headscarf for my hearing aids protection.
Enrichment in the house as well as the cage
Advice to cover and remove items may give the impression there is nothing outside the cage to provide enrichment. You handle throwaway items every day that would be harmless for a child to play with which a Parrot will find interesting.
Cardboard, empty plastic milk cartons and plastic bottle tops, the more colourful the better. Parrots usually won’t swallow cardboard or plastic their tastes are too discerning. A wide variety of safe, specially designed Parrot toys designed to be gnawed or dismantled will maintain a Parrot’s interest.
Like a child at Christmas some items (you like) will be ignored, and due to their quest for novelty they require a variety of items and activities to keep them occupied. Many of us have shared the experience of both toddler and Parrot offered a shing new toy and preferring to play with the wrapping.
Ceiling ropes provide one of the finest and safest sources of amusement and activity. They are widely used in zoos and bird gardens to provide enrichment. If you don’t like ropes festooning a room when entertaining non- Parrot people, they can be attached to the ceiling with hooks and taken down on occasions when the Parrots won’t be popular.
The reason ropes are ideal for Parrots is that they sway when perched upon resembling branches in the forest. Once accustomed to the movements, Parrots play acrobatically on ropes and make a charming sight.
Branches set in a cement pot makes a fun foraging tree, or if you have plenty of cash they are available fashioned in cured wood.
Necessity of careful training
What keeps an indoor bird safe and your belongings relatively unscathed relies on the quality of the training you provide. Letting a Parrot out of their cage is easy. Getting them to return voluntarily requires training.
Basic requests can be taught to any Parrot although the younger the bird -the easier it is. Basic training involves commands such as, “Step up”, “Step down”, “Off there”, “Fly to me”, and “Stay”.
These requests are essential if you’re to enjoy the company of your companion, if you want to prevent your home being trashed, the Parrot sustaining injury, and you want them to voluntarily return to their cage.
Here are some examples from my flock
Any caller or visitor arriving at a Parrot owning household falls into two camps; those that find Parrots free ranging in the house amusing and unusual and those who find it unhygienic, distasteful and alarming. For those of you who fall into the first division, I’ll explain how this happened and how it works out in practice.
Artha and Casper – African Greys
Artha Grey came from the excellent breeder Barrett Watson in Suffolk. At 14 weeks weaned, harness trained and basically socialised. That was the ideal situation for a novice carer. Once the two German Shepherds realised that she hadn't been acquired as dog food and the cats realised, they couldn’t catch her – (she was too swift a flyer) Artha soon established her ascendancy over every other animal in the house – including the human caregivers she constantly impersonated.
When she started to speak English, she imitated my husband Wal’s voice perfectly. After they’d heard the familiar bass voice call, “Hi, darling,” coming from the next room friends would say, “I thought Walter was out,”
How Artha became free range happened gradually over several months. It wasn’t intentional. At first, she lived in a large King's cage in a corner of the sitting room and was let out for short periods. When put back in the cage she’d slide down the bars to the bottom and begin a continuous, pathetic scraping against the bars.
And make little mewing sounds. It was heart rending. Gradually time out of her cage grew longer and longer. And the mess and destruction increased exponentially.
Dangers? Well, I think they’re exaggerated. Yes, she fell in the bath but I fished her out and she never did it twice. Yes, she perched on light fittings but she learnt the phrase “Bad Parrot, get off there.” So, when I heard her in turn saying “Bad Parrot” I knew she was somewhere she shouldn’t be.
She had perches in the rooms where she was permitted to go; ropes were stretched across the ceilings. She’d would spend hours playing ‘circus Parrot’ which entailed hanging upside down by one leg, making the rope swing back and forth, flapping her wings and squawking, “What a pretty Parrot!”
The mess? Well, yes, there was a lot, but newspaper placed at the foot of doors and frequently taking her back and forth to her perch meant the level of Parrot poo wasn’t too horrendous. She was an avid book lover and chewed them all her life. This meant that bookshelves were wrapped in towels.
A year later we decided she needed a companion - she was too much like an only child. We chose another African Grey male chick. The two settled down together in the same cage within 24 hours. The feared jealousy/rivalry just didn’t happen.
We had a conservatory built to double as a bird room. The conservatory was 4x5 metres with a pointed roof. Ropes and branches, swings, ladders and hiding places for snacks which are placed under the ‘roof’ space.
After trial and error, I found out which plants Parrots will leave alone - basically plants on which they cannot perch like palms and ferns. When my grown up kids visited (they all considered the feathered kids Artha and Casper were spoiled rotten) the Parrots remained in the conservatory, when the kids were not visiting, and that’s most of the time, the birds shared my living space. They came and went as they pleased.
Their curiosity and sense of fun provided never-ending amusement. They were simply toddlers with wings.
Sadly, Artha, once Casper arrived, spoke much less English. Casper never became a fluent speaker. Casper sang and whistled, mostly Parrot and wild bird songs copied from the excellent BBC tape Bird Songs of the World. Even non-Parrot worshippers were charmed when his evening chorus consisted of owl, blackbird followed by wolf whistle.
Both birds went willingly to anyone’s hand for step up but showed marked preferences; Artha’s preference was for young men and Casper’s for long haired blondes with a fetish for preening their hair for as long as they let him.
The changes to our lifestyle in having two Parrots loose most of the time meant we HAD to be tidier– if not, ANYTHING in a drawer or on a shelf left in view would be seized upon investigated and if possible, taken to bits. The problem of their opening jars, tins and screw top bottles had a simple solution. Everything was kept upside down and the bread bin back to front. They learned working in unison how to tip the biscuit tine over. A lot of it was trial and error. When errors occurred, we focused on preventative measures.
My compromise solution for taking the Parrots out of doors was to put them in harnesses. Harnesses have worked well for us. Both the Greys came out on frequent trips for walks, shopping, visiting friends and I believe this compensated for the freedom their wild relations enjoy.
The commercial harnesses were too heavy, especially for Artha, so I made lighter ones with nylon cord. I had to keep repairing them. Artha liked to unpick stitching but at least my homemade harnesses were closed with a buckle not a bulldog clip, which Artha undid in less than a minute.
Because my Parrots were given more opportunity to choose what to do and when to do it, they became calmer and more relaxed. Casper usually put himself to bed at 8pm by roosting on a door top. Artha preferred to watch TV snuggled under my sweater or whatever I wore.
Two pet Macaws
15 years later than Artha’s arrival, I was given a Macaw to hand rear. The difference was amazing. How much was this due to the difference in species and how much to the individual bird, I’ve never discovered. Keeping Benni secure and relaxed was easier than keeping the Greys secure.
Benni also did not have their intense pleasure in destruction. He’d play with his toys or stay on the perch.
By the time Benni arrived, we had a large aviary, so he had a lot of space. At 8 months old he became a free flier. A year later female Military Macaw, Mina joined our flock. She became adept at free flight at six months old. And keeping her indoors with the Greys and Benni demonstrated the truism that each Parrot is unique.
Mina became, and still is a consummate destroyer. Remote controls, cameras, I phones, pens, pencils. Her favourite objects are made of plastic. And here is one of happy difference - unlike Artha she does not chew books.
Although free flight out of doors produces happy birds, no one would advise you to attempt it without experience, plenty of free time and mentors. Not so for free ranging indoors. If you can toddler proof the house before allowing your Parrot out of their cage, and you have done the training, you’ll enjoy their companionship and the expression of different personalities.
You just must cover items and areas, secure cupboards and boxes - forget about being house-proud and enjoy your free-range Parrot.
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