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Paco, The Untouchable Parrot

Follow these tips to work with a pet bird that doesn't like to be petted or handled.

By Mattie Sue Athan

For every parrot that enjoys snuggling, cuddling and petting, another probably couldn’t care less if it was ever touched. This is natural behavior, as wild parrots have seldom been observed touching any other bird except mates and, occasionally, rivals when threatened. The tendency to enjoy tactile interactions changes as people mature. Remember how your first child just loved to be held and cuddled? Remember how that changed slowly, as he or she grew older? Remember how you would get a goodbye kiss before kindergarten and a hug before grade school, then you endured avoidance and grimaces by junior high school?

Some parrots, even those that were carefully nurtured and hand-fed, prefer other forms of interaction to touching by the time they reach adulthood. That doesn’t mean that the bird that doesn’t like to be touched or doesn’t like to interact. It merely means that interactions might include coy looks, peek-a-boos, dancing, singing and indirect attention.

Paco, The Untouchable Amazon Parrot
When her beloved African grey, Jaco, flew away, Lynn learned through the neighborhood grapevine that her parrot had been safely found. She was never able to discover who exactly had Jaco, and he was not returned. During the course of her search, however, Lynn found a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot. After serious contemplation, she decided to accept the serendipitous turn of events and do her best to provide for the mysterious parrot now residing in Jaco’s cage.

This Amazon parrot, Paco, was thin but sturdy and in good health. The veterinarian commented on his beautiful colors and feather condition as she trimmed his wing feathers, noting that Paco was obviously mature, had an import band and might have even been a breeder. Although Lynn advertised extensively in local publications and on the Internet, she was never able to find anyone who knew anything about Paco. She knew no more than the schoolyard and circumstances in which he was found. 

Period Of Adjustment For Paco
Paco wanted nothing to do with people, especially their hands. This was quite unlike Bubbles, Lynn’s playful, young red-lored Amazon. Bubbles loved to sit on anyone’s hand, where he repeatedly fluffed his feathers, wagged his tail and trilled with delight. 

Although, he didn’t appear frightened or attempted to bite when he was being fed or having his cage serviced, Paco made it a point to be as far away as possible whenever anyone came near the cage. As Lynn approached, Paco slicked his feathers down, gripped his toes hard around the perch, lengthened his body and leaned away. If Lynn touched the cage, he moved to the farthest point on the perch. If she put her hand inside the cage, he climbed to the back bars, ruffled the feathers on the nape of his neck, spread his wings and fanned his tail. Sometimes, he narrowed his pupils, flashed the golden iris of his gleaming round eyes, opened his beak and leaned toward her with obvious intent to bite.

Private Playtime For Paco
Lynn set Paco up for his quarantine period in a room with glass doors in sight of her other Amazon. Once the birds could see each other, loud calls subsided to a more tolerable level. The parrots fell a daily routine. Bubbles assiduously hanging from, banging and dismantling toys; Paco preening, chewing branches, vocalizing and resting. Lynn knew that inactivity was stressful for pet birds and could contribute to weight issues and related short-life expectancy in Amazons.

Paco rarely moved when Lynn was in the room. If he was unaware of being watched, he could be a different bird entirely. Although Paco ignored the toys provided, he was well enough acquainted with living room life to entertain himself, for the most part. He spent a huge portion of his time preening, but he also chewed on branches and occasionally tested cage bars with his tongue and beak. When he heard stimulating music (and sometimes when no apparent music played), Paco bobbed and rotated his head to the beat and sang along (sometimes in Amazon language, sometimes not).

At a certain time of day, as natural light progressed across the room and fell on his cage, Paco would notice his shadow, often with great drama,  and begin to dance, posture and otherwise interact with the moving silhouette on the wall. As the light moved away, he ended this performance with resonating vocalizations into an empty food dish, literally, saying “Bye-bye” in alternating high and low voices; one from inside and one from outside the stainless-steel bowl.

Twice daily, he would climb circles around the cage: up the front, across the top, down the back head first, across the grate to the front and repeat and repeat, etc. This redundant ritual was accompanied with much trilling, clucking, tail flaring and eye flashing. When he wasn’t involved with climbing in circles, he might hang upside down, sometimes swinging from one foot. Occasionally he’d cluck, shift his feet and flip his wings while sitting on the perch. And, of course, he continued his naps or quiet meditation throughout the day.

Noncommital Interaction For Paco 
Paco surely loved to play. He simply didn’t know how to play with people or toys. He could amuse himself with virtually no tools or individuals; a sign that he expected and/or had no experience with either. On the other hand, it seemed after a few weeks that he was trying to interact with Lynn.

The first positive response to her attempts at communication were his obvious understanding and enjoyment of morning and evening greetings and being told that he was a “pretty bird!” Now, his tail fanning and trilling had been joined by twirling around on the perch; his behavior was no longer threatening. These displays had now become solicitations for attention! 

Lynn made it a point not to loom over Paco like a hungry predator. Instead, she began spending more time in a big easy chair across the room reading and interact passively with the bird. She usually held a book or newspaper in a manner that blocked eye contact. Sometimes she’d peek around the book, blink and return to her reading.

At first, Paco avoided looking at her but, within a few days, Lynn would catch a glimpse of him looking back when she looked at him. By the time he was comfortable making eye contact, Lynn would sometimes put her book down and just look at Paco and close and then open her eyes to make  a long blink. Within a very few more days, Paco was blinking back, which was a sign of increasing trust between the two of them. Of course, Lynn provided many encouraging phrases, such as “Good bird” and “Pretty bird,” which were well received.

Lynn began saying “Peek-a-boo!” when looking over the top of her book. By the time she’d done it half a dozen times, she was noting physical response, sometimes just a head bob, but sometimes Paco would point his beak straight up and spin in a circle on his perch! She began tapping on the door before entering the room so that Paco would know she was coming in. Within a few days, if she tapped and didn’t go into the room, she’d hear vocalizations from the lonely bird.

Birdie Fetch
By the end of the quarantine period, when Paco was overcoming his inactivity and interaction, he still rejected the food that Bubbles consumed with great enthusiasm: a pelleted diet supplemented with daily sprouts and fruits and vegetables in season. Although Paco eagerly consumed nuts, grapes, corn and sprouts, more nutritious fare, including pellets, were completely ignored, sometimes brushed or even thrown to the floor as he emptied the bowl looking for his favorite yummies.

Initially, Paco wouldn’t even accept almonds, his apparent favorite treat, from Lynn’s hand. However, she could drop any of the few foods he preferred into his bowl, and he would eat them once she’d turned her back or left the room.

One day, Lynne was standing beside the cage when Paco, apparently accidentally, dropped his almond. It fell outside the cage, beyond his reach. Knowing that it was his favorite nut (and that it cost big bucks these days!) Lynne picked up the almond and offered it back to him. And he took it! This was the first time Paco had taken food from Lynn’s hand. But the fun wasn’t over yet. Paco looked Lynn straight in the eye and dropped the almond again! It fell outside the cage. Lynn retrieved it and handed it back to Paco. Imagine her surprise when Paco flared his tail, pinned his eyes, spun around and dropped the almond again! They were playing fetch, in the parrot way: the bird drops or throws the item and the human retrieves it. He had initiated an interactive game!

Respect A Parrot's Space
A bird’s body language says a lot about its mood and its opinion of you. A bird that doesn’t want to be picked up will usually display body language that says just that:

1) It moves to the opposite end of the perch or far corner of the cage when you approach.

2) The bird shifts its body back when you move your hand toward it.

3) It turns its back to you when you enter its space.

What you choose to do in response to your bird’s preference for non-interaction can mean the difference between a bite and a bird that eventually accepts your company. Not all parrots enjoy petting and cuddling, and many bird owners have found a balance that both they and their birds can happily live with. Nonphysical interaction might include talking and whistling back and forth, sharing meals or simply spending time in the same room. Don’t give up on a bird that is shy and timid. Sometimes this be a slow progression over a span of months or years.

Above all respect your pet bird’s wishes.

The Ouch Game
Paco wasn’t afraid of the screams of others. In fact, he often pretended to bite Lynn, bopping her on a hand or shoulder or even tugging her hair as she changed the papers at the bottom of his cage. He seemed quite pleased, pinning his eyes with great delight, when she flinched, jumped, or screamed.

This behavior is common in such a surprising number of companion parrots that it has a name: the drama reward. It’s a behavioral payoff rather than a food reward. If a bird learns that it can get the reward (make a human scream or flinch or jump) without having to go to the trouble of biting or pretending to bite, then the behavior of not biting replaces the behavior of biting.

Set it up like this: If the bird is hanging to the side of the cage, turn your head so that you are looking at it with one eye. Blink, and if the bird blinks back or otherwise indicates that it is not threatened, then slowly reach toward one of the bird’s toes and pretend to touch it. Just before reaching the toe, jump away and scream “Ouch!”

A parrot that has been biting, nipping or bopping for that drama reward will catch on to the game immediately. Later, most parrots will allow quick, gentle touches anywhere you wish; tail, the beak, toe or tummy, when accompanied by that “Ouch!” 

My military macaw likes to play this game with his tail, and, if I don’t initiate it, he might turn around, running his tail across my face or any part of my body he can reach. If that doesn’t work, he might start playing by touching his own leg and screaming “Ouch!” or bopping a toy and screaming “Ouch!”


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Paco, The Untouchable Parrot

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Reader Comments
I had an adopted Blue-Front Amazon that absolutely delighted in trying to kill me on a daily basis. His favorite was to see my feet each day, and if they were bare, he would climb down from his cage and begin the chase. When I'd jump on a chair, he would cluck and bob, knowing that he 'won'. Everyone in the house was wise to the game, but I could not break him of that. He has since passed away, and I miss that game of his so much!
Cyndi, Chicago, IL
Posted: 2/24/2012 8:00:45 AM
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