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Parrot Play

Playing with your pet bird can build trust and strengthen your relationship.

By Sally Blanchard

In the November 2009 issue of BIRD TALK Magazine, you learned how play is the way to build a lifelong relationship with your parrot. Now learn more about how play builds trust between you and your pet bird.

If a tame parrot bites, we have to take the responsibility of figuring out what situation caused the bite. Usually, it is based on the parrot’s confusion and even a perceived betrayal of trust; perhaps we moved too quickly or were in a bad mood. It is also possible that some distraction occurred that momentarily threatened the parrot.

A situational bite should be taken for just that and not as the start of a pattern. It will only be the start of an aggressive pattern if the person takes the bite personally, punishes the parrot aggressively or changes his or her behavior toward the parrot because of a lack of trust. For example, if a tame parrot bites, we have to take the responsibility of figuring out what situation caused the bite.

Play Or Aggression?
A year or so ago, I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, who is the director of the National institute for Play. I had never heard about such an organization but was fascinated with the interview.

One of the stories he told was about a dog sled team in Canada that was tethered for a rest. A polar bear lumbered up toward the sled dogs, while a nearby photographer took photographs of the scene. The presumption was that the dog was going to be lunch.

However, the dog showed classic play behavior. The polar bear understood the dog’s message and the two wrestled playfully for close to a half an hour. Anyone who has ever lived with a dog has seen it initiate play with them, but how often do we confuse our parrots’ invitation to play as aggression.

Early Socialization
The very first parrot family bird that I ever met belonged to a woman who raised him like a puppy. This was unique because, back in the 1970s, many people I knew kept their wild-caught parrots in cages and some never came out to be handled. Among other behaviors, the blue-and-gold macaw retrieved wadded up paper, rolled over, shook hands and went for walks on a harness and leash. He enjoyed showing off for strangers and would climb into your lap for a head skritch.

A few years later, when my hand-fed baby double yellow-headed Amazon, Paco, came to live with me (more than 33 years ago), this macaw set a wonderful example for me. I started out playing several interactive games with Paco just like I had played with my puppies over the years. We wrestled and played “keep-away” with a stuffed animal. She ran after a string with a toy on the end of it that I dragged along the floor. She even learned to climb stairs chasing after the toy. I tossed a small waffle ball across the bed and she would run and get it and bring it back to me. We had a lot of fun together. She is a bit more sedate now, but so am I.

Early socialization is so important to the development of a young parrot’s sense of security. Once they start to explore, we want to do everything that we can to encourage that curiosity and playing fun games is essential to insure their proper physical, emotional and intellectual development.

Hands-On Games
Another game I played with Paco helped her develop her balance skills and also made her see a towel as a fun toy. We played this on my bed in case she fell. I took a towel and twisted it into a “rope.” With her on my hand, I held it with both hands and lifted one hand up to encourage her to climb onto the towel. I slowly moved one hand up and then the other so the towel became a secure tightrope for her to walk on. After a few trips back and forth, I would release the towel from one hand and dangle her back and forth. As she became used to this, I would swing her on the towel a little bit more each time.

Even though my slender-billed conure was more than 6 months old and quite nippy when she came to live with me, I used the same towel game with her and having me swing her around is still her favorite game. Our playful interactions have virtually nipped her nippiness in the bud, and she has been very sweet to me ever since.

My caique, Spikey le Bec, came to live with me more than 20 years ago, and he has not mellowed much as he has gotten older. He loves hands-on physical games the best, especially cuddle wrestling. He trusts me enough to do just about anything with him. He is still very acrobatic and loves to do somersaults in my hand. He doesn't hop quite as many times as he used to when I wind him u and have him hop across the table.

Building Trust
When Whodee, my grey, first came to live with me when he was 3 or 4 years old, he had a reputation for being a biter. The first time I took him out of his cage; I slowed down my energy and placed my hand in front of him. He clamped on to my finger with his beak, but I took a deep breath and left my hand there. He looked up at me and stepped on my hand. I really do believe that because I trusted him not to bite me, be trusted me enough not to bite me.

Bongo Marie was particularly afraid of water, and squirt bottles terrified her. Again, I played silly games with her to teach her that water was not a bad thing. I stood across the room with a loaded squirt bottle and would squirt myself in the face with the spray and laugh. She learned to laugh very quickly, and eventually she wanted to be part of this silliness.

I gradually got closer to her cage with the squirt bottle but she still didn't like it, so I put it inside my blouse with the nozzle sticking out and sprayed a mist near her but not at her. We played this game for awhile until I could bring the squirt bottle out and actually mist next to her. I patiently won her over by playing games and laughing about it all.

In a few months, she went from being terrified of the squirt bottle to playing “I’m gonna getchew!” I hid the squirt bottle behind my back and walked up to her. She wasn’t fooled and exclaimed, “I’m gonna getchew!”

I brought the bottle from behind my back and squirted her, and she exclaimed, “Pow Pow Pow!” After playing this game for several months, she would add, “Oh Oh, Ya got me!” It wasn’t long after that when she started to initiate play by telling me, “I’m gonna getchew!” so that she could get a shower.

Clearly, if I had just squirted her with the squirt bottle with a just “get used to it” attitude, she never would have learned to trust me when it came to giving her a shower. Within about six months my frightened little parrot was full of curiosity and adventure because of the many games we played together. We had fun together for close to 25 years before she passed away.

Parrots are naturally curious and playful. There are so many benefits from play for both people and parrots. It encourages the mutual trust needed for a positive relationship. Interactive play creates a “buddy bond” rather than the problematic sexual bond that excessive physical affection can create.


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