Sunday, October 2, 2011

Living with the enemy

I've been thinking about writing a post like this for quite a while, ever since I realized how many people were finding my blog by doing searches on phrases like "I hate my macaw."  This just breaks my heart, and I hope that those who would bother doing such searches are looking for ways to improve their relationship with their parrot.  Maybe this post can help.  There are no easy answers or quick fixes, but with the dedication of all of the humans in the house, I truly believe that an solution that is amenable to everyone can be found.

As anyone who's read more than a few entries of this blog knows, I live with a severe macaw who prefers my husband and wishes he could drive me out of the house so the two of them could live happily ever after.  I know my husband won't leave me for a macaw, so Rocky and I needed to figure out a way to live in harmony.  This duty would fall mainly on me since I am the human.  And, much as I wish it were otherwise, you can't really reason with a macaw.

Over the years, we've worked out a system that works incredibly well.  The steps I took are ones that can be helpful in solving most parrot behavior issues.  These are not necessarily in order, or even in order of importance.  But I do believe they are all important, and if I try to craft a perfect entry, this will never get posted.

1. Changing my attitude.  As I've written before, since I had a fair amount of parrot experience before adopting Rocky, I felt confident that I'd be able to win him over and make him equally tame to both of us.  As it became clearer that Rocky was an extreme one-person bird intent on driving me out of the flock, I began to despair.  None of my tricks were working!  He'd rather bite my hand than take his favorite food from me, even if he was hungry!

It made me question my fitness as a parrot-owner, and it made me start to have negative feelings toward him.  Ultimately, I realized this isn't fair to Rocky.  He is a wild animal and shouldn't be in captivity.  In the wild, he'd need those skills to drive off competitors for his partner's affection.  It wasn't anything personal, and parrots aren't good judges of character.

Additionally, I realized that parrots are experts at picking up on our body language.  If I didn't like him, he'd know, and that would just feed into our disagreements.  I'd decided to bring him into my house, and it was my responsibility to give him the best life I could.  Plus, there's a good chance that he could be with us for much of the rest of our lives.  Since we were committed to him, I could live out those years angry about the way he treated me, or I could get over it.  I chose the latter.

That's not to say there aren't days when I want to strangle him and wonder what I was thinking back in 2006 when we brought him home.  But, overall, changing my attitude and looking at that quirky little guy with a mixture of bemusement and love has really improved things.

2. Adjusting my expectations.  As I've mentioned before, I was so confident that I'd win him over and that he'd be tame to both of us.  After all, Max had, at one point, started to prefer me, but we worked through that and now she liked us both.  Surely the same thing would happen with Rocky!

Except, that didn't happen.  He, like many severe macaws, is an extreme one-person bird, completely immune to my charms.  I realized that Thomas and I would never have the same relationship with Rocky.  And that would be OK.  Over the years, I've forged my own relationship with him.  It's hard to explain, but, in some way, he considers me part of his flock.  He'll scream if I leave the room as he wants us to be together for dinner.  He'll sing to and dance with me.  He likes to be near me when Thomas is gone.

I must add that most birds are not as extreme one-person as Rocky is.  But, just as we humans have different relationships with different people (I have a far different reaction if my husband, or a stranger, or someone I don't like tries to hug me!), it's only natural the same might apply to parrots. 

3. Being observant. Most parrots are very demonstrative with their body language.  I've found this to be particularly true with the new-world species: macaws, amazons, caiques, etc.  For me, the greys and cockatoos are a bit harder to read, but their body language can be learned through careful study and experience.

Quite frankly, if Rocky bites someone, it's pretty much their fault for ignoring his warning signs and pushing past his comfort zone.  Note: this does not apply if he were to leap at someone.  I mean, how much clearer could he be?
I really want to bite you!  Look how big and scary I am!!!

I really recommend that people who have parrots with aggression issues should keep a journal (or blog!) of their experiences, which can help make patterns show more clearly.  Then, you can use that knowledge to arrange the environment for success (see below.)  Armed with a journal, you can notice patterns.  Or, if you have a good memory, you may not need a journal.  For example, Rocky will even bite Thomas if Thomas wears certain clothes, tries to pick him up in the hallway, or if Rocky's just in a bad mood and giving off warnings.

4. Arranging the environment for success. Although I am a proponent of flight for captive parrots, this is not always possible.  Rocky is allowed to fly now, but he's been clipped in the past for jumping me.  Armed with your observations (see above), you can begin figuring out ways to arrange the environment for success.

I will give some examples of what we've done in our house.  Since Rocky tends to stalk and attack my feet unless I have a stick in my hand (he steps up on the stick, averting an attack, I don't beat him with it!) he's not allowed out of his cage when I change foods and waters as my hands and mind are otherwise occupied.

Speaking of sticks, that's another example.  I needed to have a way to move Rocky around and to thwart an attack.  We stick trained him and I always keep a stick near me.  If he's coming to attack, I just have him step up, which diffuses the situation.

Rocky has been known to jump me, but only when my back is turned.  He's a bit cowardly, but I'm grateful for that fact, as that just means I need to look at him to avert an attack.  This may involve walking backwards out of a room.

If I sit on the couch normally and he's out, there's a good chance he'll come over to attack my feet.  Solution?  I bring my legs and feet on the couch to safety.

I could come up with many more examples, but I think this might be getting old.  Basically, it is far easier for me to change (e.g. sit with my legs on the couch) than to change Rocky (e.g. train him not to attack my feet on the ground.)  He didn't ask to live with us (well, me at least -- he did instantly bond to Thomas at the rescue, but he had no idea what was in store for him by making THAT choice!) so at least I can meet him part way.

5. Being safe.  This encompasses many of the above comments.  When you live with a biter, the last thing you want to do is give him opportunities to practice biting.  As with anything, practice makes perfect!  I recommend figuring out ways to prevent attacks rather than reacting to them.  Watch body language, stick train, know where the bird is at all times so he can't launch a sneak attack, make sure all people in the home know the rules.

Speaking of that, at the rescue, I am amazed at the number of people who use one-person parrots as a weapon.  The bird only likes one person, and that favored person uses the parrot to settle scores with the unfavored person.  Ultimately, the bird loses.

But it doesn't have to be so nefarious on the part of the other person to have the same result.  Thomas and I now have a rule that if he's letting Rocky out, he's got to tell me.  I remember writing about this when it happened, but a few years back, I assumed that Rocky was in his cage as that's the last place I'd seen him and Thomas was getting ready for work, so I didn't think he'd let him out.  I was drying my hair in the bathroom with the door open.  Result: I couldn't hear the tell-tale "click click" of his talons as he traversed the floor looking for his prey (i.e. me.)  I first knew he was there as I simultaneously heard a scream of victory and felt his beak on my toes.  Luckily I have very fast reaction times, so no serious damage was done.

6. Developing our own routines/fun.  This is very important, and goes along with adjusting expectations.  I can't do most of the things that Rocky and Thomas do together.  Things that involve physical touch.  I can, however, do things with him that don't involve the possibility of getting bit.

For example, I put on his favorite music and we sing and dance.  We play fetch where I throw a toy for him and he brings it back to me.  We exchange fake coughs.  Every night, we spend several minutes repeating "Gimme a kiss! *kiss kiss kiss*" to each other.  He sticks his foot through the cage and I touch his feet.  Granted, he then fake bites his leg as he quickly brings it back in the cage and gives me an evil look, probably disappointed that my finger didn't go through the cage for a bite.

Over the years, we've developed dozens of routines and games that reinforce our bond, however different that bond is from the one he shares with Thomas, and however different from the bond I thought I'd share with him when we brought him home.

7. Get away, when necessaryMeg mentioned this, and it's important.  Anecdotally, parrots tend to do best with around 12 hours of sleep.  This appears to be less important with greys, but more important with the new world species and cockatoos.  Our birds are on a 7 pm - 7 am sleep schedule, which means that Thomas and I get a couple of hours every night to ourselves.  (We are ridiculous and go to bed at 9 as we wake at 5 every morning and need 8 hours of sleep!)

When we are home on the weekends for the entire day, the parrots, especially Rocky, tend to go into overload.  They are used to us being gone during the week, so a full day of us is a little too much for them to handle.  When it gets to that point, we put everyone in their cages and leave for a break.  This helps keep everyone happy.

When you're living with a difficult parrot, knowing that you will/can have a break can make all of the difference, which can help the time you spend together less stressful and even pleasant.

If anyone has any other suggestions of things that you've done to win over/happily live with a difficult parrot, I'd love to hear them, and it may be able to help someone else in a similar situation.


Meg said...

Great post! I am going to remember to send this to people regularly, it is a good first-hand experience of what someone may have to deal with.

The only thing I can think of of the top of my head is to make sure you take time-off from the parrot if you are feeling really angry. Get other members int he household on the same page, if you want to watch tv or read, cook, etc., in peace, then they should respect that. That way you can recharge, and make sure your next interaction is positive, or at least has a positive attitude on your part.

Mary said...

Great suggestion and I am going to add a #7 to talk about this. Thanks!!!

Beloved Parrot said...

This is a wonderful post, Mary. Thank you!

Best in Flock said...

This was both beautiful and hearbreaking. I love your attitude about Rocky and how you've adapted, but it pains me that people are googling "I hate my macaw" :(

Luckily you have other birds in your flock who adore you. I'm not sure I could handle it if I only had one bird and s/he hated me. (Although Stewie was a monster at the beginning, it didn't seem personal at all, since there wasn't another person he favored.)

Keep up the great job!

Saemma said...

What a great read! Thank you so much! Love reading your blog, however my favourite of your parrots is Rocky!

Saemma said...

What a great read! Thank you so much! Love reading your blog, however my favourite of your parrots is Rocky!