I have had numerous conversations with parrot people who have misunderstood their birds’ reactions. If a parrot resists complying when asked to step up, people often assume it is because the bird is afraid. This is particularly true if the pet bird runs away, but fear might not always be the issue. Your parrot might be resisting a certain act, not the hand itself.
A client of mine was constantly trying to pet her parrot, whether it wanted to be stroked or not. As a result, the pet bird learned to dash away from the hand when it approached. Another client used to bathe her parrot in the sink every morning right after eating breakfast together, and the bird disliked baths quite emphatically. As a result, the parrot learned that stepping up from the breakfast table meant it was going to get drenched, so it also learned to evade the owner’s hand.
If your parrot steps up sometimes but seems to be afraid of hands at other times, look at your actions to see what may be causing the change.
How can you differentiate if your own parrot is resistant to what hands might do, instead of actually being afraid of hands? By keeping a diary, you might notice that your parrot is only "afraid” of hands during certain times of the day. As with my client, her parrot only acted fearful about hands in the morning right after breakfast, which made perfect sense when she realized that was the only time when she tried to give the bird a bath.
Another client was sure her parrot was "phobic” (a label that gets persistently misused) about the man she was dating, but the bird-and-boyfriend combo did fine if they went for a ride in the car. My response was that I have arachnophobia (a reflexive fear reaction to spiders), and my fright response does not change depending on the environment in which I encounter one. Even a magazine photograph of a spider can trigger an uncomfortable reaction.
Is Your Parrot Really Scared Of Hands?
One easy way to differentiate is to see if there are times when the bird does not act fearful of hands. For instance, will your pet bird readily take a special treat from your fingers? If so, it’s illogical to think it is afraid of your hands. Some birds avoid hands except when they wish to leave a situation they are not comfortable in. Parrots that avoid hands on top of their cages are often eager to step onto the hand to get a boost to a higher and safer perch if they accidentally land on the floor.
If the apparent fear behavior is situational, you can do some further analysis to figure the motivation for the behavior. Once the motivation is identified, then you can decide how to adjust things to make the bird more comfortable. In the case of the bird and the boyfriend, the behavior was more likely related to territory (i.e., resource guarding), not actual fear. The boyfriend could spend time doing things the parrot enjoys in a neutral area, such as feeding special treats and playing fun games, to teach the bird to take pleasure in his company. Once their relationship has become more positive and away from territorial pressures, they can start interacting in less neutral areas.
Parrots that avoid hands only when they are in the step up position have a negative association with action itself, not the person’s hands. Whether this is a result of overly aggressive training or an aversive connection (such as the bath immediately after breakfast), owners need to desensitize their birds. By so doing, they can transform that negative perception into something positive. While working to alter this assessment, people may find that changing their hand positioning can temporarily alleviate the problem. Parrots that avoid a hand offered with the palm held vertical might be perfectly happy to hop onto the back of a hand that is held flat, with the palm facing down.
To improve the shower-hating parrot’s perception of stepping up from the breakfast table, the owner needs to teach her parrot that stepping up from the breakfast table means special treats, not a bath. Once the bird has learned that lovely things happen when it steps up from the table, then she can reinstitute bathing while also working on ways to make bath time more fun for the bird.
Caretakers of parrots that don’t want to be petted need to re-evaluate their assumption that parrots are supposed to like this. Many of them don’t, and that is certainly their prerogative. Parrots are not dogs with feathers. My husband doesn’t like being petted either, but that doesn’t damage our relationship in the least. When I want to pet something, I search out one of my cats to see if she is in the mood.
Reward the behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don’t want. If your parrot acts frightened of something, don’t make a fuss or try to sooth it because you could accidentally reinforce the fearful behavior. Lavishly reward the bird for acts of bravery and quietly ignore the fright responses instead, but under no circumstance should you ever punish a bird for acting frightened.
Instead of jumping to conclusions as to why our parrots do things, it behooves us to scrutinize each situation to gain greater understanding of what is actually going on. Things are likely to look very different from a parrot’s point of view.