Rebecca K. O'Connor
You thought you had found the partner of your dreams. She is sensitive, romantic and thoughtful. There is just one little problem: her parrot.
You thought there was no way a bird that weighs less than your shoe could put a wedge in your relationship. But now you are starting to think it’s either you or the parrot.
This is not an uncommon scenario. According to the National Parrot Relinquishment Research Project, a report published in 2003 by Cheryl L. Meehan, Ph.D., on behalf of The Gabriel Foundation, 572 of the 5,391 reported relinquished parrots this year were given up because they were not compatible with family members.
Compatibility is frequently cited as a problem; in fact 51 percent of these parrots were given up because they weren’t compatible with lifestyle, other pets or family members. Compatibility has a tremendous amount of impact on whether a parrot stays or goes. Unfortunately, the parrot has no way of knowing this.
Incompatibility may not be as obvious as aggression, either. In the nationally syndicated column Ex-Etiquette, by Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharyl Jupe, the problem of parrot incompatibility was recently addressed with humor. A new couple living with the boyfriend’s African grey parrot discovered that even the parrot can bring baggage from the last relationship. The new matriarch of the house had a real problem with Rufus the parrot saying "Michael, I love you,” in the ex-girlfriend’s voice. In fact, the new girlfriend wanted "to kill this bird.”
This scenario is a humorous one for the average reader, but the outcome for the parrot is unlikely to be funny. If Michael really loves his girlfriend, he needs to address the problem or end up having to choose between her and his beloved grey parrot. When a couple argues over a parrot, in the end it is the bird that is mostly likely to lose.
Parrots do not choose whether to be good and fit in or to be bad and get kicked out. In fact, parrots have no way of knowing how to fit in to a human household. It is our job to demonstrate what is and is not acceptable in our homes.
Pointing a finger and blaming humans in the house is not a good strategy for fixing the strife either. Everyone is probably already upset, whether they are being told the parrot has to go or being irritated by the bird. Placing blame will only exacerbate the problem.
Empathy in situations like this goes a long way. Behavior problems are often a perfect storm that everyone plays a small part in creating. However, it is unlikely that anyone meant for them to happen. So instead of figuring out whose fault this is, try to appreciate everyone’s feelings and find a solution.
If your partner is at his or her limit with the parrot, actively listen and try to understand his or her position. Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage stated that "If the couple is determined to work together to solve this problem, I’m sure they can do it. It’s when they get hurt feelings, are jealous or possessive and act like little kids that marital troubles result.” She also stated, " that both members of the couple are smarter than the parrot, and have more resources, so the problem is solvable if there’s the will to solve it.”
The people in your life deserve just as much respect and love as your animals. No one deserves to be attacked, even if it is just by a tiny Senegal parrot. No one deserves to be laughed at and told to "get over it,” to have to listen to screaming or an ex’s bedroom talk. Your best strategy is to say, "I understand. Now let’s figure out how to fix this.”
The first thing you should work on is agreeing on what would be an acceptable scenario in your household. There should be a reasonable goal to work toward. Sit down with a notebook and figure out what a more livable situation would be.
Make sure that everyone agrees that they are willing to do the work to get there. It is not fair to just dictate what a perfect living arrangement would be and then figure that one person can make it happen. It is also not fair to think that things will be fixed overnight. Figure out what the perfect scenario would be and then hatch a plan to get there.
You must understand that when you are working on extinguishing or shaping behaviors that everything a parrot does repeatedly has been rewarded. Behaviors that are not rewarded will eventually cease. Of course, some behaviors such as aggression can be self-reinforcing. Figuring out how to explain to a parrot what your expectations are entirely involves whether the parrot gets your attention, a treat or some other thing she likes or whether it doesn’t.
The simplest solutions often involve agreeing on which behaviors get rewarded and which get ignored. Maybe you agree that all aggressive behaviors get ignored or avoided. Then you also agree that only body language that is non-aggressive deserves attention. This sets ground rules for how to work toward expressing to the bird what is expected.
If the parrot is lunging at someone when it is in its cage, then no one pays attention to it. If the parrot is sitting quietly, even though the person he dislikes is in the room, then his favorite person could give him a treat or scratch his head. Ignore the unwanted and reward the good. If the problem is a vocal behavior, then the phrase or word that is unappreciated can be ignored and other vocal behaviors rewarded with attention. Eventually the parrot is going to offer noises that get it rewards instead of those that get no reaction.
Avoiding the bad behavior all together is also handy. This is especially important with aggression, since getting in a good bite is reinforcing all on its own. If being within 2 feet of your husband causes your parrot to attack him, then until you have a handle on the behavior you should not allow the two of them to share close quarters.
Another simple training option is to train something that is incompatible to the behavior that you do not enjoy. This means that the parrot cannot present the bad behavior and the good behavior you are asking for at the same time. If your parrot has a phrase that you wish it would stop saying, train it to say something else. Teach it something new and offer it a treat when you hear him saying it. Better yet, teach him several new things that get him rewards.
If your parrot gets on the floor right before he goes to attack, train him to go to his play stand on cue for a reward. When you say, "playstand,” if your parrot goes to it anticipating the almond you are going to give him, he will no longer be thinking of or in the position for attacking. Climbing and attacking cannot be done at the same time.
However you decide to work out a plan to bring peace to your home, you will be creating a higher quality of life for all involved, parrots and people alike. Having empathy will improve your relationship with your spouse and having a training plan will improve the day-to-day interactions with the parrot. All relationships are challenging at times, but the rewards of putting in the effort to get through bad times are worth the work.
What if my partner won’t participate?
What happens if you’ve figured out a plan for abating the parrot’s bad behavior, but you are the only one who will do the work? Shaping behavior requires everyone in the household’s participation. If your partner complains constantly about the parrot, but is not willing to meet you halfway when you work toward a solution, you have a bigger problem than the parrot. It might be time to have a real heart-to-heart or go to a relationship counselor.
Dr. Tessina said, "There’s always the unhappy possibility that the couple are expressing other resentments through the struggle over the parrot, which, of course, is disastrous.”
Want to learn more?
Hello Love! Bye-Bye Birdie?
Restart Your Relationship With Your Pet
10 Facts About Living With Parrots