In the wild, parrots have many relationships. These are predominately either as parents, mates or friends in a flock. Social relationships are so important to the life of a parrot, that it is the theme of our 2015 calendar.
Some parrots live in large single-species flocks, and rarely mingle with birds of other species. They will fly, eat and sleep in large single-species groups. These are predominately Old World parrots from Africa, Australia and Indonesia – like African greys, cockatoos, cockatiels and parakeets.
The New World parrots of South and Central America – like macaws, Amazons, conures, pionus and quakers – will mingle with other species while foraging in the same area, such as the clay licks, or while roosting for sleep. They will also mingle in large groups, but tend to spend lots of time in smaller family groups as well.
Buracas das Araras, Brazil. Photo by Kevin Blaylock
So what kind of relationship should we have with the birds in our homes? It is helpful to know where your parrot species originated, because this can provide some clues about their innate behaviors. For example, macaws and Amazons will often develop human family relationships with one primary person. Cockatoos and conures, which tend to group in larger flocks, will often be more sociable with a wider range of people.
Regardless of the species, parrots in the wild always have other birds of their species for constant companionship. As prey animals, it is dangerous to live alone, because that makes them vulnerable. Does your bird live alone most of the day, or is she sequestered in a room by herself? This type of living arrangement can be very stressful for a bird.
Phoenix and Nutty, greenwing macaws. Photo by Paul M. Howey
Every parrot is an individual, so we never want to label them in a way that may restrict their possible relationship opportunities. This includes avoiding labels like “just likes women” or “doesn’t like men.” People often make these judgments based on very limited interactions; however, birds are extremely resilient and adaptable. They usually adjust quickly to a new environment, and will respond positively to those who earn their trust and treat them with respect.
Regardless of who has a relationship with the parrot in your household, you can be assured that the she is watching everything that happens around her, and is learning from everyone in the family. Like all living creatures, birds learn who they can trust, or who might require them to be defensive. They watch and learn how the others play with toys, or what everyone is eating (human and parrot).
LEARNING VIA SOCIAL ACTIVITIES
One way to teach a bird a new behavior is to be a good role model. As highly social animals, parrots are very attentive to what others are doing. If you like broccoli, or enjoy having fun, your bird is likely to as well. This type of learning serves parrots well in the wild, as watching what other birds do can be a successful tool for survival.
Our parrots see details that we often miss. For example, they see color in full spectrum, which we can’t even imagine. They see things at a much faster speed than we do, this helps wild parrots avoid predators and make a quick escape. It is likely that birds sense things about us such as our moods or physical condition. When we are communicating with our parrots, it’s good to remember that our physical actions are supremely important, probably more than our vocalizations. Consider how fast you move, or what mood you are in as you approach your bird to interact. Are you talking one way and acting another? Do you expect them to understand your words while giving them unclear body language signals? Birds often communicate with simple subtleties such as posture, change in feather position, eye pinning, movement of a foot, opening of a beak or color on their face patch. Get to know your bird’s body language so you can appreciate and respect the information they are giving you about what makes them comfortable or what gives them concern. These details will help you develop a more positive long-term relationship.
Do you allow your bird on your shoulder? Some birds enjoy this position so as to be with us, other birds may simply prefer a position of height and safety. Others just want to minimize uncomfortable hand touches. If you allow a bird on your shoulder, make sure you already have good two-way communication and understand your bird’s body language very well.
Larry Cromwell and Duke. Photo by Jackie Garcia Photography
MATE OR FRIEND?
Almost every parrot will develop a drive to mate and reproduce, once they reach sexual maturity. It is very hard to avoid this natural desire. What we can do is make sure that they do not develop a mate-like relationship with us. We don’t want to give our birds the wrong signals because this can cause many possible physical and behavioral problems. For example, if you stroke a bird below the neck, especially under the wings and down the back, you are giving that bird very “sexy” signals. This can cause a bird to eventually prolapse (where the sex organs fall out of its body) or more commonly, to scream for your continued attention. Neither outcome is positive, so avoid these kind of misplaced signals.
Some birds, especially males, may become more demanding when they want to mate with another bird or be with their perceived human mate. Female birds may start to lay an excessive number of eggs. Both of these problems can be significantly reduced if you don’t give your birds the wrong impression about your relationship, and minimize physical over-stimulation.
Tee Underhill and his adopted Meyers parrot, Virgil.
The most positive social relationship for humans and parrots is that of friendship. Birds like to have fun, just like us. They also enjoy a good meal, and they certainly need regular showers. These are all things we can do with our birds in a companionable way. In the wild, birds are also traveling long distances to find food or a safe place to rest. So giving our birds lots of time out of their cage, room and/or the house can be mentally and physically enriching as well. These are all things that we can enjoy with our parrots, and don’t require us to give them the wrong “signals” about our relationship. And since most parrots are long-lived, it’s in everyone’s interest to create long-term, sustainable and positive social relationships.
Thank you so much! I am learning as I go with 2 male Senegals! One I’ve had since he was 3 weeks old and hand fed. The other is a rescue and has been in our home for 6 weeks. He needs rehab! We are trying and he trusted my husband fast and not so much me. He has still bitten both of us, and we both remain committed. All information is greatly appreciated. Thank you
Hi Dawn, for more information about how to avoid bites, which we highly encourage, you might invest in Jenny Drummey’s book called Biting Matters. You can find it on helpingparrots.com and it’s a very handy book to have on your shelf! Ann
Great article that deals with little talked about mixed and single species flocks. Also, how can I order Biting Matters?
Hi Pat, thanks for your comments. I think this is an important topic as well and agree it’s not discussed enough.
Biting Matters is a terrific read and very helpful. A good book for everyone to have on the shelf. You can find it at helpingparrots.com or this quick link: http://tinyurl.com/bitingmatters