I admit that it still surprises me when people insist that they have to purchase a “baby” Parrot so the bird will properly “bond” to them. Worse yet are those that fall for the rubbish that they must actually handfeed a youngster for it to “bond” to them.
This is all total nonsense, often propagated by those who profit from reaffirming these old wives’ tales. After all, handfeeding and handrearing is tremendously time consuming (hence, financially taxing), so if money is the prime motivation, it behoves breeders to sell the babies as young as possible. But this is not an article on the validity of handfeeding; it is instead about giving older Parrots another chance.
It is simply not true that only a baby Parrot will “bond” to you. Humans have been living with Parrots for thousands of years. Egyptian hieroglyphics show images of pet Parrots, and Parrots were highly prized by the ancient Greeks. Yet in North America, Parrots were not routinely bred in captivity until the early 1980s. Prior to that, one could not purchase a baby Parrot; all our Parrots were wild-caught adults, including my blue and yellow macaw hen, Sam.
The difference between babies and adults is simple. Getting a baby Parrot to love you is a no brainer. Babies don’t care who or what you are. As I like to point out, a baby Parrot would love an axe murderer as much as it will love you. So there is no effort involved with a baby Parrot, which is the way we Americans apparently like things. Instant gratification, yesssss! (We will completely ignore the actuality that most things that are unearned are therefore valueless.) On the other hand, the love and trust of an older Parrot must be earned, which requires a little work on our part.
In addition to having Budgerigars as a child, I’ve lived in the world of Parrots for forty years. Over that time, I observed a salient fact – that people who invested time and effort into building a relationship with an older Parrot were much more committed to that animal. Those who purchased a baby were much less invested in their bird, and more inclined to get rid of it the moment things were no longer easy. And of course, life with a Parrot becomes more problematic as the bird starts to mature, which is why most medium and large Parrots in the “For Sale” sections of newspapers are around two years of age.
I used to board Parrots (and an occasional hamster or tortoise) in my home for almost fifteen years. This provided me with extraordinary experience in Parrot behaviour and handling. I never advertised, so I had a small, exclusive clientele; I only accepted personal referrals from the top avian veterinarians in my area. Most of my clients were repeaters so I had the rare opportunity to get to know the birds without the presence of their humans. What a wonderful thing! It was rather like being a grandmother, I suppose (never having been a grandparent) – except that owners asserted that their birds went home behaving better, not worse.
At any rate, I followed the same procedure with each bird that came to board, which was quite simple. I let them tell me how they wanted things handled. I watched a Parrot’s body language to gauge its comfort levels, never forcing myself on it, always allowing it to move at its own speed.
Despite their reputation for being resistant to change, many of the Greys who boarded were eating and talking before their humans had gotten home from my house, even if it was the first time in my home. If a young Parrot seemed anxious, I would incorporate it into my life, doing such things as bringing it to the breakfast table for warm oatmeal. One application of warm oatmeal generally fixed things up nicely for young domestics!
At any rate, I would generally open cage doors on new boarders and hang out in their room, working. That would give me an opportunity to evaluate their adjustment. Most of them were happy to climb on top of their cages, and many were happy to be picked up almost immediately. However, a bird that was obviously uncomfortable with my presence had a perfect right to feel that way, and I would withdraw and return later.
Setting the Pace
In other words, I let them set the pace of our interactions. This is crucial with a new Parrot, and one thing many people fail to realize. They like the bird right away, so they assume the bird should like them as well. When I point out that the bird is likely quite frightened in a new surrounding, they are quite startled. I have had people call to complain about new adult Parrots still being standoffish after only a week, as obviously there is something wrong with the bird.
I would often turn this around to give the people a different perspective. For instance, I might ask them how long it took them to learn to really trust a person they just met. Surely it only took a week, right? No? But why not? This tactic often clarified the situation, so they would better understand that building trust takes time. Besides, this is a little bitty prey animal and we are great big predators.
Even the Hyacinth Macaw, the largest flighted species of Parrot, weighs less than 2 kg. (4.4 lb.) [Note: For those of you who are curious about the larger species of Parrot, it is the Kakapo. This flightless and nocturnal New Zealand Parrot weighs 2-4 kg. (4.5–9 lb) at maturity.]
The Two Week Rule vs. the Honeymoon Period
This segues nicely into something I have heard and read several times about adopting older Parrots – that you should leave the bird alone for two weeks to allow it to settle in prior to working with it. This makes no sense to me at all. If you moved in with a new family, how welcomed would you feel if they didn’t interact with you at all for the first two weeks? How dreadful that would be! If I’d followed that rule, most of my boarders wouldn’t have had any attention at all, as many only stayed a few days.
Besides, many of us have encountered what we call the “Honeymoon Period” with Parrots. This appears to be the amount of time it takes most adult Parrots to settle in to a new environment and establish territory. During that magical window in time, changes can be more easily implemented. For instance, handled correctly, this is the perfect time to implement the eating of a healthier diet.
Behaviour patterns can also be put in place now that will greatly ease living with the bird. For instance, for a highly food motivated Parrot like an Amazon, it is easy to train them to step back to a rear perch and stay there, prior to your putting your hands in the cage to feed – completely avoiding many bites. Using positive reinforcement training, you can lay the groundwork for future happy interactions by teaching the bird through rewards it values, to want to do what you wish it to do. That makes everything so much easier!
When I was growing up, my mother established the rule that friends that came over were to follow HER rules, not the rules from the child’s own home. She did not, for instance, care a fig if a friend was allowed to play ball in her own house. In OUR home, such a thing was not done. Laying things out clearly from the start makes interactions clearer and more comprehensible. My house, my rules.
This made perfect sense to me, so I established the same pattern with my boarders. If a Parrot was allowed to roam around its own house without supervision, I thought that was foolish and dangerous, but that had nothing to do with me. However, that surely was not going to happen here! And the birds caught on right away, and acquiesced to my rules.
Problems with Sam
When I purchased my Sam in the early 70s, there was no such thing as getting a “baby” Parrot. On the east coast of the USA, we did not see baby Parrots on the pet market until the early 1980s. Instead, every Parrot was wild-caught and either still untamed, or previously owned. Sam’s previous owners had had her for twelve years, so she was definitely an adult.
Unlike many of the adult Macaws I’d read about, Sam was extremely outgoing with strangers, thoroughly enjoying interacting with other people. I wanted to preserve this behaviour, so I encouraged others to play with her, and she loved every minute of it. However, none of these folks were experienced with Parrots, so they couldn’t get her back into her cage when they were leaving; so I would put her away.
As oblivious as I can be, it wasn’t until it finally penetrated that she preferred anyone within a 20 mile radius to me that I realized what I had done. I’d put myself squarely in the role of The Bad Guy, constantly removing her from those whose attention she enjoyed. Since there was no Parrot behaviour information at the time (or any other animal behaviour, for that matter), I had no clue as to how to handle the situation. However, I did have a modicum of common sense (which has become increasingly UNcommon and is apparently now close to extinction), so the first thing I did was change the rules with Sam’s human buddies. From then on, the main rule was simple: You let her out of the cage, you get her back in. This improved our relationship a great deal.
As to what else I did with her, I frankly don’t remember. Inexperienced as I was, I’m sure I flailed around a bit and it took me a long time. If my memory serves me correctly (and it often doesn’t), it took me almost two years to get our relationship on firm ground. I know this seems like a long time to spend trying to repair damage, but you know, that was thirty-three years ago, so it matters not to me. As far as I am concerned, thirty-three years of an excellent relationship is superb repayment for only two years of problems. And I’m proud to say that Sam still goes eagerly to strangers who want to meet her, and has many human friends and admirers.
The Take-Home Message
Perhaps dealing with adopting an adult Parrot would be easier to understand if you visualize that the bird as being like a newly adopted 10-year-old orphaned child from Outer Mongolia who does not speak English. The youngster has no idea why everything has changed in its life, nor can you explain it, as the language barrier blocks you every time. All you can do is demonstrate your love through your actions.
Patience and consistency are the most important components of earning the trust of an older Parrot. By being consistent in your behaviours, the bird learns what it can expect from you, making it calmer in your presence. Infinite patience gives the animal time to settle in at its own speed. Put together, patience and consistency will go a long way towards teaching a Parrot that you can be trusted, and trust is the foundation of every good relationship. And if you give an older Parrot a chance, I’m sure you’ll never be sorry.
Find out more about choosing the right Parrot for you here.
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