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How To Make Your Bird Part Of The Family

Setting boundaries and understanding your bird’s body language will lead to a successful human-parrot relationship.

Chris Davis

Bare-eyed cockatoo with family

Birds are extremely intelligent, interactive, complex and wonderful beings; however, those same characteristics can contribute to negative behaviors, which can eventually destroy our relationships with them. Why are some birds absolutely wonderful companions, while others are not?

The overwhelming number of problem behaviors seen in our avian family members are not naturally occurring, but are usually due directly to how we interact with them. It is always easier to stop the development of problems than it is to correct them after a long period of repetition. Even if a bird is currently misbehaving, try paying attention to what she is trying to tell you, rather than simply focusing on how you want her to change. Then, by implementing the appropriate alterations to her environment, interactions or schedule that make her more comfortable, most behavior problems will stop after a relatively short period. It is important that everyone in the home be equally consistent in maintaining all of the changes.

Why Do Some Birds Misbehave?
All baby birds are wonderful. Cute, adorable and cuddly, each has the ability to charm her way into the hearts of her human family. Over time, a parrot’s behavior will change appropriately for various periods in her life. The infant becomes a toddler; evolves into the equivalent of a grade-school child; morphs into adolescence; and then coalesces into the maturity that prepares her for adult flock interactions.

These stages of development are normal and, although people worry about their birds becoming aggressive or difficult as they mature, most birds, like most humans, turn out to be just fine. A few rocky periods may occur, but are usually temporary, especially if problems are addressed soon after they appear.

Occasionally, however, some birds’ behaviors will alter in a negative and persistent manner. Addressing those situations immediately and appropriately is important because quick action can literally determine whether or not the bird will continue to have a loving home, or if she will eventually be re-homed out of sheer frustration.

Problem behaviors are not a natural occurrence and can usually be avoided by assuring that your bird feels safe and secure and by setting appropriate boundaries from the very beginning. In most cases where the undesired behaviors have already developed, by understanding and addressing the causes of some of the most common problems — especially as they relate to where the bird happens to be in her development — they will simply disappear.

Consider Your Bird’s Perspective
It is important to consider the world from the bird’s point of view. Every single necessity in a baby bird’s life is provided by her people. Like a human baby or toddler, she cannot convey exactly what she needs to be happy and she depends on us to provide it. Crying, nipping or fearfulness in previously happy birds are all signs that something is wrong. Babies do not know how to tell us what they don’t even know they need. In almost every single case where a very young bird began to exhibit negative behavior, it was a desperate cry for help and she was just fine once her needs were understood and met.

For example, if screaming, nipping or repetitive odd vocalization is displayed in a very young bird, she may not be getting enough to eat or she may feel threatened by a busy and exposed cage location. This is usually seen when people who are new to birds adopt a recently weaned youngster, not realizing that the stress of her adoption into a different environment has caused her to regress, requiring temporary supplementary hand-feeding, or relocation to a quieter spot in the home.

Regardless of a bird’s age, negative behaviors can also be a result of many things. Maybe your bird is not feeling well or not getting a good night’s sleep. Maybe she’s hungry, or has been pushed beyond her tolerance limits by friends, family or strangers wishing to hold her or because of problems her people may be having. Any intelligent youngster — human, chimpanzee or parrot — will "misbehave” when subjected to those same situations!

What Is Your Bird Trying To Tell You?
Pay attention to what your bird’s behavior is saying. Is she frightened, hungry, cranky or noisier than usual? If so, what has changed in the environment? Have there been physical changes of any kind? Are seasons changing and is light entering into her area at a different time, or from a different direction? Have the family schedules changed, or are there houseguests that are keeping her awake longer than usual, or who have taken over the room where she usually sleeps quietly at night?

Sometimes, the problems are not physical in nature. For example, are there changes in work or school schedules, or have children gone away to college, or gotten married and moved away? How are the relationships between the people in the home? Have they become strained, or is there arguing or even silence where there once were normal and healthy interactions between everyone?

Has a member of the household or a close relative recently died? Has another companion animal in the home died? Birds will mourn the loss of those they love and even those animals and people that they seldom interacted with or whom they may have disliked.

Most companion birds are prey animals and, as such, changes of any kind can mean danger. Even subtle changes may indicate that things are no longer safe and predictable, and that the bird has to "watch her back” and be more vigilant and reactive to everything in her environment. By addressing a few simple basics, the chances of a bird misbehaving can be dramatically reduced.

Establish Boundaries
Although it may sound too simple to be true, once a bird is given clearly defined boundaries, most behavior problems will not develop. Also, most of those that already exist will gradually subside.

If your bird has never been given clear and non-negotiable boundaries, she will believe that she can keep pushing limits whenever she desires. This can start very early and continue through all stages of her life and may worsen during heavy hormonal periods. This is quite logical when examining the world from her perspective, because the lack of boundaries has always been her (and your) idea of "normal.” In fact, she will not understand that you wish to change her behavior since you "trained” it into her in the first place!

Physical Boundaries
If a bird is allowed to wander all over the house, the entire area becomes hers, and she will need to keep everyone in line that happens to be there whenever she is present. Areas that belong to your bird also give her free rein to do whatever she wants. This can be seen by the presence of chewed furniture and whatever else happens to be in "her” area. Also, as she matures hormonally, she may desire to nest and will defend whatever area she has designated for that purpose. She may rush at people, "telling” them that they are encroaching on her property. If they do not listen and insist upon "violating” her territory, she will become more frustrated and she may become increasingly aggressive because no one is behaving as she wishes. This is exhausting for the bird and, frankly, completely aggravating for the people involved. Once the bird learns that the house actually belongs to her people, it removes the great responsibility of her having to keep them in line and she, as well as her people, can enjoy their lives together.

Clearly designate where your bird can and cannot go. Setting up moveable perches or playgyms, or using a particular blanket that signifies a "safe” area on the floor or bed or sofa, offers many options for playtimes in various areas of the home. The bird will eventually learn that she can play within those acceptable areas. Once she realizes that the rules have changed and that they are non-negotiable, she will usually settle down and enjoy her new position as a beloved family member instead of having to try keeping everyone under control. Frankly, it makes the lives of both the people and the bird much happier.

Behavioral Boundaries
Behavioral boundaries are just as important as physical ones. Some sexually mature birds believe that their favorite person is their mate and may become aggressive toward others to protect that relationship. Once the bird realizes that she is a beloved family member and not someone’s mate, this type of aggression usually subsides.

This is another situation in which we create the problem. For example, we snuggle our bird and walk away from our own mates or fellow family members in a misguided attempt to decrease our bird’s aggressive behaviors, instead of doing the right thing, which is to gently say "no,” set the bird down on a perch or in her cage and walk away for a few minutes. If your bird realizes that, when interacting with her favorite person, the object of her affection walks away from her every single time she displays aggressive behavior to others in the household — including other companion animals — she will quickly learn that her own behavior dictates whether or not she can spend more time with her favorite person and will choose to behave accordingly.

Be Clear With Your Parrot
We create problems when we ignore the bird while she is being good and only interact with her when she misbehaves. When your bird is behaving well (even if she’s just sitting on her perch quietly), she should be praised with a "Hi” or a "How’s my good girl?” When she is behaving badly, put her back into her cage or walk away. Your bird will gradually decide to do what feels good and gets her the most attention.

Always be kind and compassionate. Yes, you can "train out” many negative behaviors without ever discovering what your bird is trying to tell you is bothering her; however, is this the kindest and most compassionate way to interact with a friend? It’s your choice. In most cases, if you remove or alter the situation that is causing the bird discomfort, this will quickly get rid of the undesirable behavior by eliminating the stress created by that which is bothering her. Then, if desired, training sessions can be used to gradually desensitize her to those things that frighten her.

An artful application of behavior modification does not come from only repeatedly punishing a bird for misbehaving. It is a constant work in progress, in which the bird’s needs are provided and any fears, misconceptions or concerns are addressed in an appropriate manner.

By setting clear boundaries and praising or rewarding the bird when she is behaving, and gently holding her accountable when she misbehaves, she will understand that you have everything taken care of. Consequently, she can simply relax and enjoy being a beloved family member, as well as a true joy to those who love and care for her.

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Posted: November 7, 2014, 1:30 p.m. PDT

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How To Make Your Bird Part Of The Family

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Reader Comments
This article was helpful to me, but what do you do when there are guest in the house during the bird's bedtime, and it's not your choice to have people over at that time, but it's your spouse's friend, or it's a family member who needs you? Can birds adapt? Usually my bird will just nap more the next day, but I know it's stressful.
Debbie, Harrison Twp, MI
Posted: 11/12/2014 11:45:51 AM
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