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Parrotlets: Small & In Charge

Find out how a parrotlet's wild instincts affect its behavior.

By Sandee L. Molenda, CAS

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I always say the smaller something is, the feistier it is. This is very true with toy dog breeds, some people and parrotlets, one of the world’s smallest species of parrots. Unfortunately, the instincts that have allowed parrotlets to survive for millions of years in the wild can pose a challenge to those who share their homes with them.

The most commonly kept species, Pacific parrotlets, originate in dry, desert-like regions located at the base of the Andean mountains. The area is well-known for its harsh conditions and competition for food and nesting space. It also has numerous predators that prey upon parrotlets. For the tiny 4-inch-long parrotlet, developing the skills necessary to survive in these rugged conditions has proved to be one of Nature’s success stories.

pacific parrots
Pacific parrotlets are one of the most common parrotlets chosen as pets.

Nature’s evolutionary adaptation has enabled these diminutive parrots to not only endure but thrive. Unlike many other species of parrots whose numbers are declining, parrotlets are increasing their numbers and extending their range. Indeed, they are becoming so numerous due to their ability to adapt that they are becoming pest species as they invade farms, towns and cities in their native countries.

Unfortunately, the skills that have enabled parrotlets to survive in the wild can be frustrating and often confusing to companion parrotlet owners. Owners often believe their parrotlets are being mean if they become territorial or aggressive when it is really a matter of wild instincts taking precedent over learned behavior.

Remember that these parrots must compete for food, shelter, nesting sites in a very harsh and unforgiving environment. They are not making conscious choices but rather are biologically hardwired to react in order to survive in the wild. It is possible to overcome or modify these wild instincts, but owners must understand the reasons behind the behavior in order to properly deal with their parrotlets.

Parrotlets: The Rap Sheet
Parrotlets have a well-deserved reputation for being territorial and aggressive when it comes to the cage. This is because parrotlets are found in regions where even spiders are larger than they are, and they must be defensive of their territory in order to protect themselves, their flock and their offspring. A pet parrotlet that has no fear of its owner will assert itself to protect its “territory,” (e.g., its cage) from a perceived intruder. Many owners misinterpret this action as being mean or that the bird does not like them. This is not true — it’s simply a demonstration of wild instinct influencing domestic behavior. The best way for an owner to remedy this situation is to teach the parrotlet to step up when cued. This way, the owner can immediately remove the bird from the cage before the instinct to protect its territory engages. 

Another common misunderstanding often happens when an owner first brings home a new parrotlet. Many times the parrotlet is cautious and fearful in its new surroundings; this is especially true of hand-fed, just-weaned young parrotlets. The bird might cower in a corner, ignore toys, avoid foods (especially fresh fruit and vegetables), refuse to interact with the owner by flying away, and it might even give a nip or two. This does not mean the breeder was negligent or the parrotlet hates the new owner; again, it is wild instinct taking over.

Make  Your Parrotlet Feel Safe
Parrotlets imprint on people through the hand-feeding and socialization process, which alleviates their natural fear and facilitates the bonding between owner and bird. When the parrotlet goes home with its owner, everything is new, frightening and potentially hazardous to the parrotlet. Its wild instinct instructs it to be hyper vigilant, as it no longer has its  flock to protect it from predators or help it find food and shelter.

It might take several weeks for the parrotlet to adjust to the point where it feels safe and secure. It is the owner’s job to provide a nurturing environment so the parrotlet learns that it is safe and there is nothing to fear. Speaking softly to the bird, as well as regular gentle handling, will help the parrotlet overcome its fear and begin to bond with its owner.

The parrotlet should also have daily training sessions of about 10 minutes at least twice a day. (Trimming the parrotlet’s wing feathers allows for easier handling when training.) Let the parrotlet perch on a finger and hold it over a couch or bed, allowing it to fly off if it wishes. Gently pick it up and let it perch again. Keep doing this over and over for the first few days when the parrotlet is removed from the cage. After a few days, the parrotlet should begin to overcome its fear and start to interact with the owner.

How Parrotlets Grieve
One of the most difficult situations for a parrotlet owner is the loss of a beloved bird. If the deceased parrotlet was part of a bonded pair, the survivor often becomes quieter, less playful and not as active. Many people believe their birds are grieving over the loss, and this may be true. No one really knows if animals feel loss in the same manner has people. However, when a parrotlet loses a mate or flock member in the wild, it is usually due to death — often by a predator. If that is the case and the parrotlet cannot relocate to a safer location, it will become quieter, less active and try to become inconspicuous in order to avoid becoming a meal.

Many owners, believing their bird is grieving and lonely, will replace the lost parrotlet as soon as possible. This can be a big mistake and can result in further problems. A parrotlet that is already feeling threatened will mostly not accept a new parrotlet as a mate or companion, and it might attack, injure or even kill it.

Refrain from replacing the parrotlet quickly to allow the remaining bird time to adjust. If the owner then wants to get another parrotlet, he or she needs to take precautions, such as housing the birds in side-by-side cages and allowing only supervised interactions until both birds are completely at ease and not exhibiting aggressive or territorial behavior.

I hope this gives some insight to the parrotlet owner who often does not understand his or her bird’s behavior. Parrotlets are not domesticated animals like dogs or cats and do not have the tens of thousands of years of selective-breeding to help overcome their wild instincts. Perhaps, in time, this will happen because we have seen it with formerly exotic species, such as budgies and cockatiels. In the meantime, it is our responsibility to understand, respect and work with these instincts in order to provide our parrotlets with long-term, loving homes.

Parrotlet Food Considerations
Try to feed the same type and brand of food the bird was eating prior to coming home with you. Do not try to change its diet until it has adjusted to its new home and is eating well. Purchase a scale, one that weighs in grams instead of ounces, and weigh the parrotlet prior to feeding each day to monitor its weight so that you can make sure it is eating enough and not losing weight.

Feeding fresh foods can be a challenge in the beginning, so serve thawed frozen peas and corn with some seed or pellets sprinkled on top. This will save your budget and help the parrotlet learn that this is food. The parrotlet will probably ignore it at first but, after a while, its natural curiosity will cause it to start playing and throwing the food around. Eventually, it will start nibbling and then eating the food, and it is at this time that the owner can add more variety to the diet. Parrotlets generally prefer vegetables over fruits, although fruit containing a lot of seeds, such as strawberries, melons, pomegranates and kiwi, are often consumed readily.


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Parrotlets: Small & In Charge

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Reader Comments
Great article.
Donna, St. Louis, MO
Posted: 7/23/2012 8:52:41 PM
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