Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why does my macaw hate me?

I like to see what searches bring people to my blog. This helps me to see what topics people are interested in, and I try to write entries reflecting that, on occasion. A few weeks ago, someone found me via a search that I find heartbreaking: "Why does my macaw hate me?"

I'm not sure if that person is still reading, but I couldn't get that question out of my mind and decided I wanted to write a post about it. As always, let me disclaim that I in no way consider myself to be an expert. I do have quite a bit of experience dealing with difficult parrot relationships up at the rescue where I volunteer, read and analyze pretty much everything I can find about parrot relationships, and currently live in a home with a macaw who usually acts as though he wishes I weren't around. Truthfully, I'm not all that interested in the science behind the behavior -- I'm a humanities lady! I'm more concerned with the application of techniques that work (so I do read the scientific stuff but usually skim quite a bit of it!), and I anthropomorphize a lot in my relationships with parrots.

First, it is important to remember that every macaw, every parrot, is an individual. They have likes and dislikes, and that includes choosing to whom they bond. In my mind, adding a parrot to your house is more like adding a roommate than adding a pet. It's like getting assigned a roommate in the dorms at college. I was lucky in that I got along really well with mine, but I know many people (including Thomas) who weren't so lucky. At least that relationship only lasts the school year and both parties have the liberty to come and go as they please. A parrot is stuck, subject to the whims of his roommate.

That's why I think the absolute best way to add a parrot to your house is to adopt an older bird, a bird that chooses you. I know I could fall in love with any parrot that loved me; it's not that easy making a parrot fall in love with any human that loves her! Volunteering at a good rescue is the perfect way to help other birds while waiting for that special spark with a bird. Over the years, scores of birds have chosen Thomas or me; obviously we couldn't bring everyone home, but if the parrot is interested in you at the beginning, you're setting your relationship up for success.

There is a lot of misinformation out there, although more people are speaking up now to disprove this, that you need to buy a baby or even handfeed a baby in order to get a bond. That is not true at all! In fact, the opposite may happen. The bird may see you as its parent and then turn against you when he reaches maturity. After she matures and her true personality is known, it may not be at all compatible with yours. And that's not even considering the fact that the bird may be killed or maimed by improper handfeeding techniques. I know a lady with four parrots; three she purchased as babies and one she got when the bird was in her teens. She can only handle one of her birds now -- the one who was an adult when she adopted her.

Of our six parrots, only one (Max) was purchased as a baby; the rest were mature when we acquired them. One or both of us has fantastic bonds with every parrot in our house.

The above information won't help the person who already owns a macaw that hates her, but I'm hoping it may be helpful to someone.

So, what to do when you live with a macaw that hates you? Change his mind! This may take time and patience, but acquiring a bird is a lifetime commitment, and you may see results quicker than you expect.

The vast majority of parrot behavior consultation we do at the rescue is more about modifying the behavior of the human rather than the bird. After all, parrots are wild animals reacting to their environment.

After a vet visit to rule out any physical reason for the behavior (especially important with a change in behavior), it's a good idea to look at the physical environment of the bird and make changes. Sometimes something as simple as increasing the hours a bird sleeps makes all the difference! These include:
  • Is the bird getting 12 hours of dark, uninterrupted sleep? (This seems to be of more importance to the New World species like amazons, macaws, and conures, and less important for greys, who may be fine on 10-11 hours; each bird is different).
  • Is the bird eating a good diet? With as little processed and chemically-dyed food as possible? And a good variety of interesting, fresh food? My parents' quaker used to become really aggressive whenever he ate any white flour. It may be helpful to experiment and keep a journal to track this.
  • Does the bird have a big enough cage, with enough interesting things in there to keep him occupied? Although this is different for everyone, the rule of thumb in our house is at least 4 different kind of perches, at least 20 toys inside the cage, and at least 10 toys outside the cage, with the toys being varied: destructible, foraging, beads on leather, noisy, etc. A bigger cage might be needed if there's no room for the bird after that!
  • Is the bird receiving enough physical exercise? I know I get squirrelly after a day of inactivity and have lots of pent-up energy. Preferably involving wing flapping/simulated flying/flying. We get all of our birds panting at least once a day.
  • Is the bird receiving enough mental exercise? Does she have to look for any of her food, or is it all given in the same dish every day? Does she have a job? I particularly like clicker training as a method to make your bird's mind more active.
  • Is the bird receiving enough human attention? Since birds have rather short attention spans, it seems to work better if you give them short bursts of attention rather than longer ones. Just acknowledging them and maybe dancing, or giving them a few head pets, or singing them a song for even 20 seconds several times an hour seems to make a huge difference in their happiness.
Once these things have been considered, you can move on to the next level of winning your parrot over. Once again, let me put in a plug for clicker training. I have yet to meet a larger parrot (my budgie is the only bird I can think of) who doesn't love this! In addition to exercising their mind, as discussed above, it helps you to understand their body language, which is very important in a successful human-parrot relationship. I've read that one of the main causes of human divorce is a lack of communication between the partners. Is there any wonder that so many human-parrot relationships fail when we're trying to communicate with another species? A species who, despite the ability to talk, expresses itself the vast majority of the time with body language that is often too subtle for humans to understand?

Put yourself in the place of your parrot. Really try to understand his body language and respect his wishes. Offer him as many choices as possible so that he has more control over his own destiny. I have written before that we have a personal responsibility philosophy with our parrots. If they're upset about something, it's on them to change things so they're happy. That's not to say that the parrots should be able to do anything they want to! We have rules about what is and is not acceptable, and their choices have to be made within those guidelines.

I'm already getting quite long and I know I'm leaving stuff out, but it's really important to remember to have fun with your parrot! Parrots, especially macaws, are silly, fun-loving animals. They don't want to live a dull, severe existence. They love to dance, to hear you talk to them in silly, high voices, to throw their toys around, etc. Use this to your advantage! Engage you parrot in fun!

Take time to appreciate her for who she is. Maybe make a list of the things you love about her and why you decided to bring her into your house. You may have to revise your expectations of the type of relationship you have with your parrot, as I have done with Rocky. Parrots are master-body-language-readers; interpreting signs we don't even know we're giving off. If I approach Rocky with a bad attitude because I resent him for the way he treats me, he'll pick up on that and it will only encourage his dislike of me. Instead, if I approach him with a fun, positive attitude and love him for his quirks, he'll start to warm up and make overtures to me!

In summation, I try to make every encounter with my parrots a positive one, even more so when the parrot in question doesn't really like me (Rocky). I want them to associate me with good things.

Changing a parrot's behavior towards you can be done, mostly by changing your behavior towards him! It probably won't be quick or easy, but I think it's worth it. My relationship with Rocky has grown by leaps and bounds during the 2 1/2 years we've had him. Is it perfect? Nope; we're still working on it. Will he ever love me as much as he loves Thomas? Extremely doubtful. Have we found an arrangement that works for us? Yes; it can be done!


Beloved Parrot said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent -- as always.

Beloved Parrot said...

Thanks for the link to Superiorparrot. I put a link to you on Superiorparrot. IF I don't hear from you, I'll know it's okay to leave the link. Otherwise, if you'd rather not have the link just me know. Thanks!

Beloved Parrot said...

Thanks for the kind words! Wanna learn piano -- go for it! Just do it. I have a Yamaha keyboard with all kinds of bells and whistles which I know nothing about -- but that's what I practice on. It sets on my dining room table with piles of papers and junk and bird pellets stacked around it (I'm a slob), so I can't ignore it. And it always reminds me I need to put my butt down and practice.

It's said to help your brain, and O keeps telling me it's my brain that leads my fingers -- and while I'm sure it does re-invigorate your brain, I still blame my fingers for pressing the wrong keys. ;-)

Sammi said...

I love reading your advice posts. I don't have a parrot right now, but I would love to one day. (These things are helpful to know!)

ps o hay look what I made! (I loved this picture and it just BEGGED to be lol'd.)