Petrie, a Timneh African grey, had a lot to teach his caregiver Cathy Coleman.
It’s not easy being a parrot … especially a rehomed one. Confusion and
fear often cause a lot of problems for a parrot that finds itself in yet another
new household. Sadly, some parrots turn to self-mutilation to try to cope with
their anxiety. [Ed note: If your bird is self-mutilating or feather picking,
confirm with your avian veterinarian to determine if there is a medical cause.]
And then there are those parrots who decide to take matters underneath their
own "wings,” adopting the motto of "Bite first, ask questions later.”
"Wanna be my boyfriend?” Petrie, my tiny Timneh African grey inquired. He was cheeky
and adorable… and looked completely innocent. In retrospect, it was a well-orchestrated
scheme to get out of his too-small cage. His plan worked. Once free of its
confines, Petrie wasted no time chomping onto my finger with the sole intention
of severing it from my hand. Before I could wrestle him back into his cage, the
pint-sized piranha scurried up my arm, and with lightning speed, latched the
vice grip attached to his face tightly onto my earlobe. I don’t even remember
how I got him off of my ear, but I do recall that he promptly regurgitated a
wad of "Wanna be my boyfriend” on my shirt in celebration of his new-found "friendship.”
From Petrie, I learned five very important lessons about living with a
small parrot that came with big baggage:
Don’t Be Fooled By A
A lot of emotional turmoil can hide beneath the most
beautiful, well-feathered parrot. I could tell that Petrie really wanted to
connect with someone, but he was going about it all wrong. He would never find
another loving home that way…and who in the world is going to adopt a bird who’s
first … and second … reaction is to bite?
Well, hello there, that would be me.
Petrie had been abandoned, abused and "returned” numerous times in his
young life. All that uncertainty only helped establish a pattern of fear-biting.
I was bitten when asking him to "step up.” I was bitten when offering to
scratch his head. How was I going to help this little bird understand that I
truly meant no harm?
Turn A Negative Into
Hawks are predators. Humans are predators. Parrots are
prey animals. Most parrots instinctively know that other creatures on the
planet would like to eat them. This instinct allows them to fight or take
flight if they suspect their life is in danger … real or imagined. Petrie did
not know what to expect from me, so biting was his first response to everything.
It was time to turn that around.
Instead of bringing my hand into Petrie’s personal space, I decided to try
something different and ask Petrie to come into mine. I placed my hand palm
down on the counter near where Petrie was perched, and asked, "Wanna go watch TV?”
I was surprised when he quietly walked over, stepped onto my hand, and sat
there looking up at me. Everything started to change from there.
Take Off The
Prey animals do not respond to continuous pressure: to
them it is like being stalked by a lion. They never know when the lion is going
to pounce, but they have a pretty good idea it’s gonna happen. For a prey
animal, allowing them to take two steps back often makes it easier for them to
take two steps forward.
If you want your bird to understand that you mean no harm, one ways is to respect his boundaries and let him approach you on his own terms.
Touching Petrie? Hello gunfire and Band-Aids. Petrie’s
gunfire imitation was clearly a "warning shot.” Proceeding past that signal put
him on the defense. Someone was going to get hurt … and it wasn’t going to be
him. I wanted to try a similar approach/retreat method that I use when working
with unconfident horses. Horses are also prey animals. They build confidence
when they can approach something fearful on their own terms, retreat when
necessary… then repeat the process over and over until they are no longer
One night, while Petrie was sitting on the back of the
couch, I looked over at him and said, "Petrie, you wanna a little scratch?” I wiggled
my fingers above the couch a few feet away from him. Petrie walked over to
where my fingers were, bowed his head, fluffed up his feathers and closed his
eyes. He quietly allowed me to scratch his head. After a few minutes, he moved
away. A few minutes later, he approached my hand again and was rewarded with
Petrie went from "bite first, ask questions later" to a bird who has acclimated to his home.
It can take years for a parrot to acclimate to a new home and the people
in it. The parrots that we bring home are usually not the same parrots down the
road. It takes a while for them to feel safe, to let their guard down, and
allow us to love them.
Answer All Questions Honestly
Many adopted parrots come into our lives "As
Is” and we are left to try and put the pieces of their lives together on our
I turned around to look at Petrie. He sat there,
expectantly waiting for an answer. It had been almost a year, and that was the
first time Petrie had spoken. I felt a sense of sadness for my cavalier little
gunslinger. When someone… even a parrot… asks a question, they deserve an
"I don’t know where Robert is, Petrie. But you are here
now and I love you very much.”
Petrie studied me intently for a moment, digesting the
words. He bobbed his head up and down, and puffed out his feathers. I took that
as an acceptance. I smiled and turned back to my work. I heard Petrie say in a
quiet voice, "Oh…OK. Good bird.” I knew then that Petrie understood. He never
asked about Robert again.
I’m a big believer in Karma. Karma puts us where we need to be. Karma
brings others in to change our lives …but sometimes Karma puts us in place to
change the lives of others … even parrots. We need to continue to remind
ourselves that we are not the only intelligent creatures on this planet … not
the only ones that "feel.” To assign such a belief only to ourselves further
dulls our senses and consciousness to an already hardened world.
Love Them For Who They Are ... Not Who We Want Them To
The parrots living in our homes did not ask to be brought into the world
this way. They did not ask for a caged life. They did not ask to be separated from
their loved ones as tiny babies. And yet we expect so much from them, when they
ask so little from us.
My relationship with Petrie has been one that requires constant
patience and understanding … but that dedication has been continually rewarded
with seeing a once fearful parrot blossom into a talkative, mostly-adjusted,
happy bird. I know that a bite from time to time is probably still in my
future. I accept that. I don’t expect Petrie to be perfect. I accept him for
who he is. I love him for who he tries to be.
10 Things Your Bird Needs From You
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