In my last blog “Fear: normal or abnormal?” I wrote that being fearful is a natural and biological state, as it keeps one safe, so it is normal to feel fearful of novelty. However, while being fearful is normal, when that fear interferes with quality of life, then this may be a phobia.
I discussed simple strategies to help frightened Parrots; purchasing the Parrot as a chick from a caring and conscientious breeder who has allowed the chick to be parent reared, allows them to become fully flighted and provides a novel and suitably challenging environment. Additionally, there is the option of introducing change and new objects slowly and gradually.
However, it is a sad fact that most species of Parrots will endure an average of 4-6 new homes in their lifetime, with some of the longer living Parrots such as Grey Parrots or Macaws enduring in excess of 10 plus new homes in their lifetime. This means that the majority of caregivers will have little to no knowledge of where their Parrot came from originally, nor their training or behavioural history.
Often, all they have in front of them is an emotionally broken, suspicious Parrot who lacks trust and is often fearful of change. As previously discussed, fearful Parrots may become aggressive towards caregivers and may self-mutilate or be very vocal too.
The first few months of living with an older re-homed Parrot are critical in establishing a trust bond based on mutual respect and decreasing the Parrot’s natural suspicion and fear of both the caregiver and the new environment.
When a caregiver knows that the Parrot has had a less than desirable existence or has had many homes, the temptation can be to shower the Parrot with new things, provide a better diet and be very much in the Parrot’s face -- constantly trying to train, talk to, or touch the Parrot.
With our desire to make amends for past transgressions, we may actually exacerbate issues - by flooding or sensitising the Parrot.
Picasso: 3-year-old Double Yellow Headed Amazon
Picasso, who was flighted, had lived with his female caregiver for 2 months before I was contacted because he could be aggressive towards his caregiver when she was sitting with him on her knee or taking him to and from his cage. His diet was poor. Picasso would not allow anyone else to handle him and would growl when they came into the living room.
Aggressive behaviour towards caregiver:
Picasso’s caregiver admitted that she felt sorry for him, as she knew that he had been unwanted in a home before finding himself in a pet shop, where he was miserable. Subsequently, when she was at home, she spent a great deal of time actively trying to engage Picasso to have an interaction with her.
This was too much for Picasso who was suspicious of her and had not yet built a trust in her. By controlling where he went in the living room, Picasso was deprived of not only choice but also the opportunity to explore his new environment, learning what is safe or not safe at his own pace. Everything in her home was new and strange to him.
Helping the Parrot feel safe is crucial to relationship building; the position of a cage or play stand should be considered for optimum feelings of safety. What seemed like a great position for a play stand close to the sofa actually wasn’t to Picasso who felt vulnerable, as he could be approached from all around.
Watching their interactions together, an observer could note Picasso’s caregiver had a habit of moving her hands around when she spoke and reaching towards Picasso for unsolicited touch. Both caregiver behaviours were likely to result in Picasso’s warning her away or becoming defensive.
The living room was Parrot proofed, Picasso’s cage was moved to a corner and some play stands added. His caregiver was now mindful of how her own behaviour affected his. Using food, she began to slowly move her hand and arm to drop a piece of food for Picasso, and when he was more comfortable with her slow movements, she began to quicken her movements.
By doing this, instead of being fearful of her “talking hands”, he began to anticipate that fast movement could result in a treat for him.
Consequently, he became more confident in his new environment and could cope with small changes-- the addition of a cushion to the sofa or a new toy, etc. Most importantly, he began to trust his caregiver.
Fear of novel people:
As we had no way of knowing Picasso’s previous experiences with people, we assumed that he had little socialisation, and any that he had may not have been positive for him.
With Picasso either in his cage or on his play stand, his caregiver invited a friend around for a short period of time; once in the house, the guest was advised to avoid looking at or talking to Picasso or approaching him. His caregiver reserved some of his favourite foods that were delivered by her to him only when the friend was in the house.
Picasso did not have to do anything to earn the food, but rather the food was coupled with the presence of the visitor. Importantly, Picasso did not have to approach the strangers in order to gain the food; thus, he could maintain his safe distance. All critters have a safe distance from an object or person, and by giving the stranger a titbit to offer they may feel conflicted and approach because they really want the titbit, not because they are less scared.
Once close to the stranger they may be too close for comfort, become more frightened and reactive- thus, undoing all of your previous work.
After a few weeks once Picasso was relaxed in the presence of visitors, did the visitor begin to offer Picasso food by placing the food in a food bowl inside the cage or on a play stand, so that he began to build a positive association between the visitor, but was still not compelled to approach.
Following a few weeks of pairing tasty food coming from visitors he was ready to accept visitors approaching him. This was done by the visitor walking slowly towards Picasso-- head lowered, with no eye contact, depositing the food and then leaving. When Picasso began to engage with the approaching visitor, the visitor would linger for a few minutes to chat before leaving.
Picasso began to enjoy these interactions and resulted in his seeking visitors to solicit attention from them. With a few regular visitors, he would accept an arm outstretched to step up to and be moved.
Ideally, we wish for a Parrot to be eating a good quality species- specific diet as soon as possible. However, changing from a familiar poor nutritional diet to a better one too quickly can cause the Parrot to become anxious as the Parrot may be apprehensive about novel foods. It is better to change the diet slowly and over a period of months.
Using social learning by allowing the Parrot to see a caregiver eat an unknown food may encourage birds to try for themselves. Having breakfast, lunch or dinner together is not only a useful and natural social interaction to a Parrot, but this time can be useful to encourage better eating habits.
In conclusion: being scared or fearful is normal for Parrots, as it is for us, but we can improve the situation for our Parrots by understanding why they may be scared and taking the slow road to help them. As caregivers we need to see our home through their eyes and be adaptable to making changes when the need arises. This can only be achieved by taking a holistic and systematic approach to behaviour modification.
Elaine Henley P.G.Dip CABC
Animal Behaviour Clinic
Full member Association of Pet Behaviour Counselors (APBC)
Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist (ABTC)
Certified Parrot Behaviour Consultant (IAABC)
Telephone: 01294 833764 or 07789112347
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