Step right up, feathered friend: Understanding the behavior of your bird helps the relationship soar

CINCINNATI - Up until now my columns have focused on dog behavior, but I know there are a lot of parrot owners in our region too--myself included--so, from time to time I’ll write about the behavior of our feathered friends.

This week I wanted to talk about a fairly common question myth: That birds will be dominant if allowed on your shoulder.

This is an argument I have heard before: “Well, of course my bird gets dominant when he is up high. He bites me every time I try to pick him up from somewhere above me.”

Hmm. The side of me that studies animal behavior has to question that. It is important to not rush to judgment when it comes to the reasons behavior is occurring without looking at the behavior in the context of its environment.

I’ll use an example. Let’s say Arnie is on top of his cage playing with a toy when his owner, Susan, needs to put him in his cage. She reaches for him and when he steps up, "without warning" (as it is often described) he nails her. She says it is because he is being dominant.

Let’s look at it from some other angles.

1. Birds are more comfortable stepping up. However, since Arnie is up high, unless Susan gets on a chair, more than likely he needs to step down to her and may even catch his long tail on the cage. Not very fun for Arnie.

2. Arnie was perfectly happy playing with his toys. His past experience of stepping up for Susan when he’s playing with his toys is this: Stepping up means he goes into his cage more often than not. And being inside that cage is just not as fun as being on top of it. (He’s at least taken away from doing something that he was enjoying doing.)

3. Before Arnie actually bit Susan, he tried to show her he didn’t want to step up by pinning his eyes or other body language, but she ignored or didn’t pay attention to it. Therefore, biting her was the only behavior that gets the message across: He really does not want to step up at this time.

4. Another consideration: Is there an underlying medical reason for Arnie to respond this way?

So, is this really a case of height dominance--or is the bird simply behaving to escape something negative from the bird’s point of view?

Talking to those in the know – ornithologists, field biologists, and wild bird behaviorists - there is no such thing as an "alpha parrot."

In the wild, parrots do not live in dominance-related hierarchies. They live in pairs or family groups. Birds will climb higher, not to dominate, but to find safety. Aggression between wild parrots is brief, and a parrot that loses in one confrontation may very well win in the next.

In captivity, however, biting typically occurs because our body parts are where they should not be (too close to a beak), and we have missed the bird’s body language warning us to back off.

So, it is okay to wear your bird on your shoulder?

There are a number of factors to take into consideration with regard to that decision. None of them have to do with height dominance.

  • What is your relationship with your bird? Does your bird reliably "step up" onto your hand?
  • One problem with having your bird on your shoulder is that you can’t see his body language. Therefore you can’t effectively allow your bird to communicate a fear or aggressive response, thus you may be setting both of you up for a possible bite.
  • Another consideration is that, while it’s fun companionship to wear shoulder birds, it’s healthy to offer a variety of enriching activities for your pet that encourage independent play, foraging, and more.
  • Encouraging your bird to stay perched in one place for long periods of time limits the time he could be learning and playing in different ways.

I do want to just mention that if it is a goal of yours to wear your parrot on your shoulder, a good first goal would be to teach a reliable "step up" behavior.

About Lisa Desatnik

Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. Check out her blog and website.  You can also connect with her via the So Much PETential Facebook Page, and follow her on Twitter and Google+. 

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