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Parrot Behavior Guide: Who’s the Boss?

Parrot behavior at the beginning of your relationship is strongly linked to that question. Parrot behavior in a new home may be quiet and withdrawn or
parrot behavior guide
Every family has a boss one boss. Even when it seems the family headship is being shared, there comes a time when one person must make a decision. That person is, at least for that moment, the only boss. When a parrot is introduced to its new family, an immediate question arises for the parrot. 
Who’s the boss here?

Parrot behavior at the beginning of your relationship is strongly linked to that question. Parrot behavior in a new home may be quiet and withdrawn or loud and aggressive. It is, however, an attempt to find out who will be the boss.

Jousting for Position

When a parrot enters a new home, things change for all concerned.

⟹ The parrot, transplanted from the place where it hatched, will make an effort to adjust its surroundings. Its natural instinct will be to make the new home conform to the one it left. It will try to make everyone in the new home conform to what it knows to be normal human behavior.

⟹  The humans will make as strong an effort to make the parrot conform to their home. They will want it to exhibit what they consider normal parrot behavior.

The problem is that each wants to be king or queen, but only one can wear the crown. The parrot behavior and human behavior that result are both geared toward victory. Both may try to cajole or punish to train the other.

How to Win

Your parrot needs time to adjust. Don’t force companionship or training. Natural parrot behavior in the wild would be to take flight if it is uncomfortable in its surroundings. A caged parrot does not have that option. As humans, it knows only one option other than flight – fight. It resorts to biting to convince you to leave it alone.

To overcome such parrot behavior, take action to make it as comfortable as possible in its new surroundings.

⟹ Place the cage in a corner, or drape half of it with a cloth to reduce exposure to only 2 sides. Keep the cage room relatively quiet for now.

⟹ Move slowly when approaching the cage. If the parrot tenses or flutters, back off a few steps to calm the bird. Then approach even more slowly. If the bird has all its needs met, wait until the next day to approach it again.

⟹ Be sure the parrot has enough food, water, and toys at all times.

⟹ Talk to the parrot in a kind voice. Reassure it.

⟹ Accept the fact that, once your parrot has adjusted, negative parrot behavior will gradually fade.

From Adjustment to Enjoyment

Your goal will be to change the parrot’s behavior from adjustment behavior to enjoyment behavior. Once it relaxes, you will see parrot behavior that invites you to approach the cage. You will be able to take the bird from the cage and show it to other parts of the house. You will be able to introduce it to strangers.

Parrot behavior modification may be necessary if the bird remains hostile or withdrawn. Our article, “How to Train an African Grey Parrot – Part 1″ gives an introduction to parrot behavior modification. Click here to read it.

CASE STUDY: The Non-Phobic "Phobic"

Parrot Behavior Consultant

Several months ago, I received a call from a local woman named Angie, who said she had a behavior problem with her parrot, Chico. The bird was, she said, severely phobic. When I asked what species it was, I was quite surprised to hear it was a Yellow-naped Amazon, since, in all the years that I have been doing parrot behavior work, I had never even heard of a phobic Yellow nape. With great interest and anticipation, I scheduled an in-home consultation.

Clarification is needed here, because this is not a case study about the first recorded case of a phobic Yellow nape, since this bird was not phobic at all. However, this indeed did turn out to be a fascinating case, and I learned a great deal from it. One of the most important things I learned was how difficult it can be, sometimes, to differentiate between phobic and non-phobic behaviors – and how incredibly important it is to be correct.

Arriving at Angie’s house, I was ushered into the living room and looked around – couple of budgies, but no nape insight. Angie explained that the patient was upstairs and she would bring her down whenever I wanted. I requested that we talk first, and we sat down.

Taking a Behavioral History

First, we discussed in painful detail various management issues such as diet and hours of sleep, etc. After all, management has a great deal to do with behavior. For instance, just like with kids, lots of sugar in the diet often means lots of hyperactivity in a parrot, and that hyperactivity often manifests as aggression – in the form of biting or excessive noise. 

So why are you feeding all those grapes and apples every day? Certainly not because they are nutritionally good for the bird! And don’t you just love all that screaming??) Once that was done, I then began the more difficult part of the interview – endeavoring to get a detailed, coherent history of what had happened with this bird.

Taking a behavioral history is painstaking work and I again ask extremely detailed questions. I struggle valiantly – not only to understand but also to get a reasonable timeline of the progression of events.

How long ago did the behavior start? 
Did any event seem to initiate it? 
Does the bird act differently with different people? 
If so, who, why, and how? Etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum). Needless to say, I don’t charge by the hour when I do consultations!

Chico’s History

According to the information Angie had received from the nape’s previous owners, Chico was a 12-year-old female who loved the husband and hated the wife. Since they had unwisely allowed her full flight (NOT a good move with an aggressive bird), she was flying and attacking the woman, who was not pleased with the situation. Consequently, they sold her to Angie three years ago.

Once settled into her new home, Chico initiated the same aggressive patterns toward her new flock – she adored Angie’s husband Frank and detested Angie. When the bird started flying at her six months later, she had the wings clipped. Two weeks after being groomed, Chico jumped off her cage at Angie in yet another murder attempt, but this time she crashed to the floor. 

Chico started changing her behavior after that incident. Instead of detesting Angie, she started acting afraid of her. As her fear behaviors grew, she then stopped snuggling with Frank and became more and more apprehensive with him as well. Within a couple more months, she had become frantic whenever she saw either of them, throwing herself around her cage in an effort to escape.

Thinking that she would settle down around her own kind, Angie sent Chico to stay with an amazon breeder, where she remained for almost a year. Nevertheless, Angie brought her home 6 months ago, when the breeder told her the nape was not doing well in her environment. It seemed that Chico acted terrified of the other amazons as well, screaming and thrashing around in her cage.

Back Home Again

Back in more familiar territory, Chico’s strange behaviors continued to worsen. She began to hurt herself as her condition disintegrated, damaging her wingtips as she flailed, making them bleed repeatedly. 

Angie finally put her cage around the corner in a guest room, on the floor behind a bureau so she could see no one – this was the only way to keep her from screaming and throwing herself around, and further injuring herself. Chico’s bizarre behaviors had been getting progressively worse over a 2-year period; then Angie called me.

The Meeting

After much discussion, I asked to meet Chico. Based on her experience with the bird, Angie went upstairs, wrapped the screaming amazon in a towel, and brought her down. Sitting on the couch with her small bundle, she softly talked and soothed the bird until the nape relaxed and stopped growling.

Angie then placed her on the living room rug as I requested – I didn’t want her falling and re-injuring herself. Doing my best to get as low as possible, I laid down on the floor on my stomach and tucked my hands out of sight. Phobics are frequently terrified of human hands and I wanted to be as non-threatening as possible. Angie unwrapped her a couple of feet from me, and Chico was free of restraint.

Instead of running away screaming, Chico looked at me steadily. Talking softly to her, I looked down and away quickly, then tilted my chin down a little and looked up at her. I was using my body language to tell her I was not a threat. She stayed put, but her body language relaxed a tiny bit. I moved slightly but she didn’t bolt. 

I uncovered my right hand, then my left [which is generally the scarier of the two, perhaps because more humans are right-handed] and she stood firm. This was definitely not a phobic bird! The owner was as startled as I was, saying that in the last 2 years, she’d never seen the bird not be afraid of someone. (But then, not too many people had approached her on their stomachs, I thought.)

Moving very slowly and talking quietly the entire time, I slid my hand over to her on the floor. Amazement filled me as Chico put her head down in an obvious solicitation – she wanted her head petted! Chico and I communed for a few minutes, and then Angie joined us, also on her stomach. Angie was totally confused by the difference in the bird, and frankly, so was I. To Angie’s total delight, 

Chico responded the same way to her – no flailing and screaming, head down for scritches. As they interacted on the floor, I sat back and watched and wondered. The only time Chico showed any sign of fear was when Angie offered the side of her hand to have the bird step on. Chico scrambled away, growling… then allowed herself to be approached again. Angie tried the same maneuver again with the same result and I wondered more.

Eureka!

We then allowed Chico to just wander around a little on the floor, and I watched her walk. Something was wrong with her gait! Lumbering along… but slightly different from the rolling waddle I expected from an amazon, she reached the ladder to her play stand. When she began to clamor slowly up the ladder, I realized what was different about her movements. 

Her feet were flat, with toes extended stiffly – she was climbing the ladder flat-footed. Calling Angie’s attention to this, I suggested that this was not a phobic bird.

Instead, I theorized that Chico had a physical problem and was reacting to pain. Angie admitted that she was always trying to get Chico to step onto her hand, and the bird would scream and fall back to avoid her. Watching the bird use her feet, I suggested that Chico’s physical impairment (whatever it was) was making normal responses impossible for the bird. 

When asked to step up, she couldn’t grip Angie’s hand with her feet so she would fall. When she fell, she hurt herself – and that repeated pain had gotten connected in her mind with the humans in her flock – hence the fear response at the sight of a person.

"So that is why she stopped sitting on the perch in her cage!" Angie exclaimed. "She just stands on the bottom of the cage, and that’s been going on for over a year."

Call the Vet!

The next obvious step was to get Chico to an experienced avian vet, to start the slow and probably expensive process of trying to identify the physical etiology for her progressive behavior change. Suspecting from experience that this case would probably be extremely difficult to diagnose, I warned Angie of the likelihood that the vets would not be able to give her a definite diagnosis – but vetting was clearly needed.

Idiopathic Condition = We Dunno

Angie called me a couple of weeks later to say that the avian vet agreed there was a physical problem with Chico, but radiographs and bloodwork had given no answers. Chico’s screaming and flailing episodes were getting worse, and Angie was seriously concerned about the bird’s quality of life and beginning to consider euthanasia. I asked that she keep me posted, and to talk with me again prior to making such a final decision.

Ten days went by and I thought often of Chico. Then, Angie called back with an amazing report. She’d met again with the avian vet, and broached the subject of euthanasia. As a last-ditch effort, the vet suggested instead of trying a psychoactive drug. Having no idea whether it would help at all, he shrugged and said, "What have you got to lose?" 

So Angie agreed and they started Chico on haloperidol (Haldolä - Schein). And a miracle happened – or at least, it certainly sounded like a miracle! Angie sounded understandably ecstatic when she said, "I have my bird back! Chico is climbing around, perching, and playing. "Chico was acting like a normal amazon!

Huh???

Disconnecting Angie’s call, I immediately phoned her avian vet, whom I knew personally. I was completely baffled. According to Ritchie, Harrison, and Harrison’s AVIAN MEDICINE, Haldol was used to treat obsessive, compulsive behaviors in people, and avian medicine uses it with parrots in some cases of feather damaging and self-mutilation. Chico was neither a plucker nor a self-mutilator, and I was totally confused.
"I didn’t realize that Haldol was a pain killer," I said when I got him on the line.

"It’s not," the vet said.

"But why would it cause any improvement in this case?" 
After all, this was a parrot who had an apparent physical problem that evidently causing extreme pain – this made no sense to me!

"I don’t know," the vet said. Over the phone, I could almost hear his shrug and rueful grin. "Makes no sense to me. But it’s working, so I’m not quibbling."

Wise words.

Follow-Up…

Six months later, Chico is still acting like a normal amazon. She started feeling good enough to resume her aggressive behavior with Angie. A quick call to me and Angie began training Chico with nurturing guidance, thereby establishing herself in a position of higher rank. 

This caused Chico to back down with her murderous tendencies, and gradually she and Angie built a relationship of mutual, if grudging, respect.

So is Chico still on haloperidol? Last I heard, yes. Can she stay on the drug forever? Probably not without serious side effects such as toxic changes to the liver. The vet tried to wean her off the drug a couple of months ago, but Chico’s strange physical and psychological behaviors resumed shortly thereafter. The drug therapy was resumed, with hopes of trying again to wean her off in the near future.

"Chico’s quality of life is more important than anything to me," said Angie on the phone. "As long as she’s happily eating and playing, I’m grateful. I’m so glad to have her back!"

…and the Moral of the Story

A dramatic change in a parrot’s behavior always necessitates a visit to the avian vet FIRST to rule out the possibility of an underlying physical problem. Too frequently, a physical problem remains undiagnosed and untreated when the assumption is made that the problem is behavioral in etiology. 

In this case, evidence of what appeared to be phobic behaviors did not automatically mean the bird was phobic. Angie’s assumption was that Chico had a behavior problem, so she did not seek veterinary advice – and unintentionally allowed the bird to suffer unnecessarily for a prolonged period. 

This complex case also stresses the necessity of careful observation and history-taking from an experienced lay parrot behavior analyst.

And as an aside, avian medicine certainly does not have all the answers, any more than human medicine does. But often, avian vets can make an incredible difference – even when they don’t know why!