It’s not hard to imagine why people fancy parrots – there are over 300 different species, each with a unique size, shape, and a distinctive combination of beautiful, vibrant colors; and of course, some parrots even talk! These features make them very attractive pets. However, many first-time bird owners don’t realize that raising a parrot to be a happy, healthy bird can be a lot more challenging than one might think.
Even though they are born in captivity, parrots that we keep in our homes are genetically identical to wild parrots. Many of our pet parrot’s behaviors are based on instincts that are useful for survival in the wild. We can’t expect our parrots to dramatically adjust their behavior just because we own them as pets. Instincts run deep.
This means that parrot ownership is a very different experience from dog or cat ownership, but don’t take “different” to mean better or worse. Rather, it means that you’ll just need to be prepared and well-informed prior to purchasing or adopting a bird. A responsible caretaker will try to learn as much as possible before deciding to bring home a feathered friend. Thanks to the internet, there is no shortage of accessible and useful information. It is important to do your homework and learn as much as you can about what you should expect as a parrot owner.
Some of us may have heard about behavior problems in pet parrots and how devastating the consequences can be, but we don’t often hear about wild parrots having the same issues. Behavior problems in captive parrots can result when an owner is unaware of the bird’s needs or is unable to meet them. Issues can also result when an owner has unrealistic expectations for their bird.
In the wild, parrots are free to fly and search for food throughout the day, which provides exercise and significant mental stimulation. They happily socialize and bond with their flock members to create mating pairs for reproduction. By comparison, if a pet parrot spends most of its day inside of a cage without anywhere to fly, is apart from other birds or people, and is without access to enrichment activities like toys or perches, they can quickly develop behavioral issues. When the home environment is compared with what a parrot might encounter in the wild, it’s not surprising that birds can struggle without the right care, attention, and enrichment.
How can you meet your parrot’s basic needs and make sure they are physically and mentally healthy in your home? Although it’s nearly impossible to perfectly mimic the scenarios they’d encounter in the wild, you can try to give them a healthy, happy life by learning about normal parrot behavioral responses and use that knowledge to avoid accidentally triggering anxiety, fear or stress. As all of these can lead to destructive and/or dangerous behavior, you’ll want to provide appropriate activities to keep the bird mentally stimulated and engaged.
You should plan on committing time to understanding your parrot. Beyond doing some research online, pay close attention to their body language to understand what their own “normal” is like. Once you understand what normal behaviors to expect, you’ll be less likely to accidentally scold your bird for something that’s natural for them. For example, chewing is a typical parrot behavior. An inexperienced owner might be shocked or angry to find their furniture destroyed when they let their parrot out of the cage. Instead of scolding the pet, you might offer them toys or chew-safe items. This will keep the bird entertained while also protecting your home and your sanity: a win-win solution!
When it comes to body language, the position of the feather and the size of pupils will reveal a lot about the animal’s mood. Look closely for subtle changes. When parrots are afraid, they may try to fly away, which is a normal response. If they are unable to fly away, they may react with aggression. The feathers at the back of the neck will rise or fluff slightly, and as things escalate, you may see more feathers rise on either side of the neck. The bird will focus their gaze on the threatening object and their pupils will shrink to the size of a small pinpoint. Sometimes, parrots will open their mouth slightly in response to fear or anxiety and they might also vocalize. Ultimately, the beak will be used as a weapon for self-defense. Here’s a typical scenario:
You get home from work and your dog bounds over to greet you. You hug or kiss them in response. If you try to do the same with your parrot, it may perceive a quickly approaching hand and moving fingers as threats.
A normal reaction to threatening stimulus is to move away from it. This is a fear response, not a sign of rejection. If you ignore what your parrot is trying to tell you with its body language and you reach for the bird anyway, you could get bitten. It’s important to remember that parrots will react to triggers according to instinct, even if you didn’t intend to scare, threaten or frighten them.
Before labeling your bird as “bad,” always try to consider the context of their behavior and how you might be able to avoid a dangerous situation by changing your own actions. Parrots are great pets when their owner understands how to keep them feeling safe.
Aside from fear, many adverse behaviors in pet parrots result from boredom. It is best to try to prevent boredom or to address it quickly before behavioral issues get out of hand. Try the following list of tips to keep your bird happy and healthy:
Try training: Training activities can be a great way to keep your bird mentally engaged, and training will help you to achieve a long-lasting, positive relationship with your parrot. Be patient! The best approach is positive reinforcement training, which means rewarding good behaviors and ignoring bad ones. Parrots are smart, active and sociable creatures, and they’ll enjoy learning new things, especially if it means getting to spend more time with you!
Provide toys: Parrots can make a hobby of tearing things apart and destroying things if they are bored. Visual and physical stimulation is important to prevent boredom, so give them chew toys, climbing toys, foot toys and/or puzzle toys. Be creative! Many toys can be made at home. Avoid toys that contain lead weights, leaded glass or lead wine seals because they can be toxic to your bird. Be observant when providing new toys to make sure your bird plays safely as you don’t want them to ingest unsafe material. Toys are a fun and easy way to keep your bird entertained!
Good eats: Balanced nutrition is essential for parrot health, so be sure to offer a feed that meets your bird’s various nutritional needs. It’s best to consult with an avian veterinarian to find appropriate options. A seed-only diet will lead to health problems. Once you have established a balanced diet, consider supplementing with interesting snacks. In nature, parrots work hard for their food. This is called foraging. When we provide feed at home, they lose out on that foraging opportunity. Try providing fresh shelled nuts such as walnut, coconut or Brazil nuts. Your bird will find it entertaining and interesting to open and eat these snacks and you will have brought some of the fun back to eating!
Share time: Many parrots like being wherever you are, so try keeping them close. Place the bird on a tree stand with wheels on the bottom so that they can be moved to any room in your house. They will enjoy being included in family activities. Commercially available shower perches can even allow you to take showers with your parrot. It can provide an opportunity for socialization, encourage your bird’s natural bathing behaviors, and help their plumage. A bowl with water can accomplish the same results, if you prefer.
Good sleep: It’s very important that you buy or build a cage that is an appropriate size for your bird. It should be at least 2 to 3 times your bird’s adult wingspan in width, depth and height. At night, be sure to place the cage in a dark and quiet room. Parrots need at least 10-12 hours of daily sleep and it will be difficult for them to get that sleep if the cage is in a room with too much light or noise. Sleep deprivation can lead to behavior problems.
(Cautiously) Try outside: Have a playground area outside of your home if your bird isn’t flight feathered, which allows your bird to exercise and get some sunshine. You can add ropes, which your parrot will enjoy climbing. Remember, never to leave your parrot unsupervised because, like children, they can easily and quickly get into a dangerous situation. You can also consider taking your bird on walks with you using a backpack designed to hold a parrot. Your bird will likely enjoy the scenery! You may even be stopped by curious bystanders who are surprised to see a parrot through the windows of your backpack so both you and your pet parrot will have the opportunity to expand your social network!
Vet visits: In the end, health is central to wellbeing and happiness. An annual physical exam by an avian veterinarian should be routine, during which you can discuss any behavioral issues with your vet and find solutions together.
Author’s (Marcello Schonmann DVM) personal experience as a parrot owner since 2010.
The Parrot Problem Solver. Barbara Heidenreich. T.F.H. Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-7938-0562-4.
Canadian Parrot Symposium. Managing Problems and the Future of Companion Parrots by Liz Wilson.
The African Grey Parrot Handbook. Mattie Sue Athan and Dianalee Deter. Baron’s Educational Series, Inc. ISBN 0-7641-0936-6.