Monday, November 30, 2009

Natural Birdsmanship: An important article

About a year ago, I had read this article, which reaffirmed some of my thinking on the lives we give our parrots, and which made me consider changes we might make. I resolved to read it every few months as a refresher, and then promptly put it away and forgot about it until I stumbled upon it last night. I really think it is the most important article I have ever read about keeping captive parrots, and highly recommend it.

Last night, as I was rereading, I kept interrupting Thomas to read him a line, and I thought how I wanted to write about this on the blog. I apologize in advance for the long entry!

The article discusses different roles parrots take in their flocks in the wild. This part made me think of Max, and how she'll often go off and explore the kitchen instead of staying with us in the living room:
"It is necessary for some members to venture outside the safety of the flock territory and look for new resources...A few pet birds that have been allowed to develop the social maturity and self confidence necessary to assume this role will begin to show this tendency...[the bird] will actually move away from the owner to find new areas to explore."
Our goal has always been to try to raise her to be self-confident and self-reliant. To accept responsibility for her own happiness instead of relying on Thomas and me to provide it.

Moving on to Rocky, the article next discusses reproductively active birds:
"In the case of most species, the male does most of this nest building while the female guards the nest territory. When the nest is ready, they switch roles and the female stays in the nest while the male assumes the guardian and food-acquisition role"
In our case, Rocky (the male) chips up wood and destroys newspapers, building a nest for he and Thomas (the female) to share. After chipping wood, he'll frequently try to feed Thomas's feet.

I could quote almost the whole article, but I'm trying to stick to only the most pertinent parts:
"Another manifestation of the phenomenon of human/bird mate bonding is the territorial aggression that is sometimes seen in the human/bird flock...In the flock, there are intraflock boundaries that are set into place based on the dominance hierarchy...The bird does not usually "hate" the injured human, as is commonly thought, but rather is just doing its job. In fact, the human usually is a needed part of the bird's flock who simply does nit understand these rules."
This! In our minds, Thomas and I are the bonded pair, but in Rocky's mind, he's in a mate relationship with Thomas, though Thomas does try to discourage this. I've written before that Rocky and I have a very unusual relationship -- one that, though I think about a lot, I haven't quite figured out.

Rocky will often act as though he doesn't want me around, but then he'll scream when I'm in another room and only calms down when the entire flock is together again. He'll climb up on the couch and want to be near me, though if I tried to touch him, he'd bite. He'll follow me around the house, usually with his wings spread, threatening me, though not inflicting any real damage (or even trying to) -- just warning me. He has certain games that he plays with me, like fetch or copying the noises I make.

He also knows that Thomas will not tolerate any violence against me. Every time he's attacked me, Thomas has been in another room, or his back was turned. Last week, Thomas and I were reading the paper at the kitchen table and Rocky was walking around the table. He walked to the end of the table, inches away from me, spread his wings, and swayed slightly. Trying to threaten and intimidate me. Thomas told me to just ignore him to see what he did. He got frustrated that his threats weren't working against me (I stayed at the table), so he started swaying more and saying "Hello!" Finally I acknowledged him, and then he went back over to Thomas. The entire time, he was well within striking range and could have bitten me, but didn't.

On the topic of excessive screaming (a problem with Rocky):
"In the human/bird flock, communication is still a necessary activity. If the bird is confident and the flock is stable, this vocalization is usually limited to a short round in the morning and again in the evening. In the case of the bird that lacks self confidence and a feeling of security, vocalization becomes more frantic as a means of calling for the safety of the human flock members."
While we do the best to instill self confidence in our parrots, I think they are still affected by their previous experiences. Rocky was 19 when we got him, and had previously been quite neglected and shut away from all other beings. He almost never screams when the entire flock is in the same room. He also becomes very frantic about saying "Bye bye" when we leave the house or when we go upstairs, so I think this is a major issue with him. I think it will just take time, and hopefully if he's able to develop flight skills, that will also help with his self confidence and feeling of security.

On flying:
"If the author's pet severe macaw flies to a location he knows is off limits and refuses to obey the "off" command, he will get gently pushed off the location, forcing him to fly to a location that he is allowed to occupy. When he shows acceptance of this situation, he is rewarded for this acceptance with attention. It obviously would not be fair or appropriate to "discipline" naturally in this way unless the bird is a master flier."
We do this with our greys, though as he said, we didn't do it with Stella until she became a competent flier. We would do this with Beeps, but he only perches on acceptable perches.

I could quote many more parts of this article, but just hope that interested parrot owners will read the article as I'm missing much here! However, I did want to quote a paragraph in his conclusion, as I feel it is an almost perfect summary, and what we try to achieve with our parrots:
"Key to the successful resolution of most behavior problems are the following: understanding the natural instincts and the basis for flock and individual behaviors; allowing and encouraging the development of a higher degree of parental independence and self confidence through flight; and developing a healthy natural flock social environment by establishing a structure of authority with mutual trust and respect."
Obviously, if you've spent any time reading my blog, we're not there yet. In fact, since owning parrots is not a destination, I don't know that we'll ever be "there." But we're heading in the right direction, and thanks for joining us on this ride!

EDIT: Oops! Beloved Parrot pointed out that I didn't even mention the author! It's written by Dr. Michael Doolan, DVM, and here is a link to the pdf of the article.


Beloved Parrot said...

Oooh, what a great post. Can you give us a link, or tell us the author and/or title??

Beloved Parrot said...

Thanks, Mary!

Would you happen to know when this was published? Bibliography is mainly 1990-2000, with 2005 being the latest reference. One reason I ask is that the "dominant" parrot theory has since fallen out of favor, which doesn't discount the article, of course, but . . .

Mary said...

I think it was published in 2006, but the link is not working right now, and I left my paper copy at home, so I can't double check.

My interpretation was not that he was advocating any kind of dominant theory -- more that we need to study how parrot flocks interact in the wild and try to replicate some of those interactions in our house so that we don't confuse parrots into thinking they're our mates.

And also it's important to have rules and to teach the parrot acceptable behavior (which is mostly on the human to understand natural behavior and adapt their expectations) in order to have a long, happy life with the parrot.

I didn't touch on this in my synopsis, since it doesn't affect me personally, but I think one of the major reasons so many parrots are surrendered is as the article stated -- people have unrealistic expectations about what living with a wild creature is like, so they get turned in to a rescue when they hit maturity.

Starting to babble again...

Beloved Parrot said...

You are absolutely correct -- too many people think they've got a dog with feathers.

As I read more of the article it became clear how he was using "dominance."

Thanks again for the link!

Mary said...

BP -- I'm glad you got back to me on this because your first comment had me worried I'd missed something in the article!

One thing I am curious about is he talks about the different roles that parrots play in their wild flocks, without specifying which types of parrots were studied. Are the flocks/roles similar for greys, macaws, toos, etc.?

It was so fascinating to talk to the biologists that worked with the scarlet macaws when we were in Costa Rica and I'd love to talk to biologists who study caiques and greys, too. Maybe someday!