Fear & Neophobic Parrots
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Fear & Neophobic Parrots

Published on Tuesday, 30th October 2012

Predator vs. Prey

People often complain at how skittish their Parrots can be about new things like toys, sofa pillows and pictures on the wall, carping about how stupid it is for the birds to be afraid of such things.

However, when analyzed unemotionally this behaviour makes perfect sense. Parrots are neophobic – afraid of new things – for a very simple reason: they are prey, not predator.

If you look at the skull of an animal you can often deduce a great deal about what that animal did for a living by the location of the eyes. If the eyes are situated on the front of the face, that animal had the bifocal vision necessary for it to successfully hunt other animals for food; hence that animal was a predator. Visualize the face of dogs, cats, monkeys and the Arch Predator, the Top of the Food Chain: the human. 

On the other hand, if the eyes are on the sides of the skull, this is an animal that spent a huge chunk of its life looking over its shoulder. Indeed, there are some species of birds whose eyes are placed so far back on the skull that they can actually see better behind them rather than in front of them. An animal with its eyes on the sides of its head are prey animals. Picture: horses, cows, goats, deer, songbirds and Parrots.

If you are born with scads of animals looking down on you hungrily from higher up on the food chain, it makes perfect sense that you need to be very, very careful. So Parrots tend to be neophobic for an excellent reason. By perceiving a new object as a potential threat until otherwise proven, they increase the odds that they won’t end up someone else’s lunch.

Those of us who have ridden horses have often encountered breathtakingly exciting moments in which our steeds produce hair trigger responses to various terrifyingly deadly things such as a shadow on the ground, a stick, a tiny bird.

During an exhilarating gallop across a trail in a high Montana meadow, I abruptly found myself clinging tenaciously to the side of my horse like a spider. I had no memory as to how I came to be in such a position but there I was.

I soon found out that someone’s hat had blown off up ahead and my loping mount literally hopped sideways four feet to the right of the trail. (I adore the definition of horseback riding as the art of keeping a horse between you and the ground. Definitely words to live by.) 

“Normal” Behaviour = What?

So being afraid or at least wary of new things is normal survival behaviour for Parrots. But what do we do with that information? Should we spend our time protecting our psittacines from things that frighten them?

The answer to that is simple...Absolutely not.

In an effort to protect our birds from things that frighten them, we actually produce the opposite response. By acting like our Parrots’ fear response is justified, we actually encourage the behaviour.After all, isn’t the behaviour mantra to reinforce behaviours we want and ignore behaviours we don’t want?

I learned this simple rule while working as a camp counsellor 40 years ago. If a child took a spill and I rushed over in alarm to see if she was wounded (“Are you OKAY!?!”), the child invariably wept and wailed whether injured or not. On the other hand, if I expressed interest in something else (“Wow, you hit the ground pretty hard, did you crack it?”), I got a different reaction. Instead, the child usually searched happily for evidence of her seismic impact. Tears would occur only if the child was actually injured.

Decades later I was tickled to see the same reaction in a Parrot. I was managing the baby bird department in a pet store and had repeatedly warned a staff member about allowing Parrots to sit on top of doors. Eventually the expected happened, and an Amazon got his toes thoroughly pinched by a closing door, causing him to favour the other foot quite dramatically. The staff member was distraught that she’d caused this tiny tragedy and she made a huge fuss over the little bird for quite a while.

Then the store abruptly got busy with customers and we all rushed about for a while. After, the staff rushed back into the bird room to check on the injured Amazon. At her approach, the bird obviously remembered the attention it had previously received because it instantly started limping again … but favoured the wrong foot.

Dealing with Fear – Flooding vs. Desensitization
While you do not want to pander to a frightened Parrot, you also don’t want to force them to “face the fear.” Such an approach is not just non-productive; it can actually cause irreparable damage. If not handled correctly, the ‘muscle through it’ approach to fear – better known as flooding – can cause grave problems in the future that are best avoided.

Instead, a less confrontational approach is recommended. This approach is called desensitization and it gently introduces the animal to more and more contact with the feared object. Each step of this process pushes the envelope a tiny nudge at a time, slowly expanding the bird’s comfort zone.

The Slow Process of Desensitization
Desensitizing a Parrot to, for instance, a frightening new toy starts with the toy across the room and below the eye level of the Parrot. Being below eye level is important, as there is generally a much stronger fear response associated with things from above.

This is logical when you note that many deadly predators come from overhead. Indeed, Parrot people often note how something as benign as a moulted down feather becomes The Terror From Above when caught in an air current that wafts it higher than the head of the preening Parrot.

A high-strung Parrot might show wariness rather than fear with the new object a sufficient space from its cage. Again this makes sense because the object is outside of the animal’s fight or flight distance so its presence won’t trigger a full-blown response. This wariness might be evidenced by a slightly elongated neck and slightly widened eyes.

Depending on species, stronger fear-associated body language includes a fully elongated neck, wide eyes, feathers tight to the body, and wings slightly extended in anticipation of escape through flight. Should you see such body language then you are moving too fast in the desensitization process and you need to back off and move the toy further away again.

Once the bird’s body language indicates it is unconcerned about the toy, you can move it a little closer.

Again, watch for signs that a Parrot is on the edge of a fear response and back down instantly if such evidence arises.

The process should move only at a Parrot’s speed and it will take as long as it takes. There is no rush, after all.

When you have finally moved the toy next to the cage, leave it on a nearby table until the bird no longer pays attention to it. Then progress to hanging it down low on the outside of the cage. Once that is no longer an issue, you can move the toy up slowly, eventually working your way inside the cage.

Years ago, Sally Blanchard commented that new things inside the cage seemed more frightening than in other areas, so perhaps introducing something new away from the cage will work better. Techniques vary and there is no single way to do things.

Another approach I really liked was explained on an internet list many years ago. Unfortunately I do not recall the author so I cannot credit her for her brilliance. Whenever she brought a new toy into her Parrot’s environment, she explained that she would sit on the floor with it with her body canted away slightly. This allowed her to pretend to hide the toy while still allowing the Parrot to see glimpses of it.

Then she would commence to play with the toy herself, tossing it around and laughing … then periodically looking over her shoulder as if afraid someone would see this wonderful toy and try and take it away from her. She found it wouldn’t take long before her normally skittish Parrot was DYING to get at that new thing that was obviously such fun, and we all know how most Parrots feel when we don’t want to share something!

A Personal Note
I consider myself to be a reasonably brave person but I really detest being frightened. Unlike many of my friends growing up, I’ve never liked creepy movies, haunted houses or scary rides at the amusement park. I have a very strong startle reflex which can make my life extremely uncomfortable.

My husband, bless his heart, has learned this over our decades together. As a result he always makes a lot of noise when he gets home, in case I am totally absorbed in what I am doing and fail to notice small signs of his arrival. (“Hey, CATS! Tell the old lady that I’m home so she doesn’t have a heart attack!”)

My husband also agreed to my insistence that if a scary movie is on television, then I have sole proprietorship of the remote so I can change the channel or turn off the sound when I need to. I have never, for example, succeeded in watching the movie “Alien” or “Jaws” all the way through in a single sitting!

So perhaps I can easily identify with Parrots so often being skittish about new things. When I remind myself how gut-wrenching fear can be, it makes it a lot easier for me to be patient about things Parrots may find frightening. It is, after all, built into their DNA.

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