I have had quite a few conversations this last month with people regarding parrot behavior. Why do they do what they do anyway? In the most basic sense, it comes down to one thing – Instinct. Okay, so what exactly is that? Technically, it is inborn behavior patterns and responses to stimuli (including reflexes). Kind of boring sounding isn’t it? But, it’s why parrots do certain things.
Whether parrots are in the rainforest, the plains or your living room, they have the SAME instincts. Parrot instinct is hard wired behavior that we need to learn to work WITH, not against. Working with parrots and understanding their instincts will help you develop the mutual trust that is necessary for a good relationship with your parrot.
Instinctual behavior is not the same as learned behavior. For example, parrots have certain calls to communicate, however, they learn to scream for attention. Parrots are master manipulators when it comes to learned behaviors, they respond to your actions and emotions and can easily figure out how to “push your buttons” but I’m going to stick with the basics in this article.
Prey vs. Predator
The most important thing to remember when interacting with parrots is that they are PREY animals. Dogs and cats are PREDITORS. Parrots are always on the lookout for something that might eat them. This prey mentality is to keep them alive. Predators are fast, parrots must be faster to live.
This is why their eyes are positioned on the sides of their head and their neck can turn so they can see almost 360 degrees around them. It’s the same reason that fast movements usually scare them or put them on guard. (Might be a hawk coming for lunch!)
Here are a few common behaviors and the parrots underlying instincts:
Fight or Flight
You have probably heard of the fight or flight before, it’s never been more true for parrots. I am sure they prefer to flee from danger but can, and will, get nasty when flying away is not an option. When parrots sense danger the first response is to get away. Alex, my African Grey is a prime example of this one. I call it the “fly first ask questions later” behavior. If anything startles him he is off and flying. If cornered, he will actually growl or get in a striking pose.
April, my Umbrella Cockatoo, has a slightly different strategy. She also flies when threatened but she does so while screaming at the top of her lungs to warn the other members of her flock. If she is cornered, her first response is to “poof out” all her feathers and open her wings and tail out fully. This is to make her look much larger and more intimidating. Then she will rock back and forth hissing loudly. Ok, it works. Don’t mess with her now.
Being wary of predators is also why parrots prefer high spots. A curtain rod or top of the cage, among others, make favorite spots. This way they are in a better position to spot potential predators. If you had to worry about being someone’s lunch you would want to see them coming first to get out of the way.
Parrots need interaction with a flock. The flock in our homes is either other birds, humans or a little of both. Parrots are social animals and count on each other to survive. One bird can alert hundreds to danger. And the mass movement of a flock of birds taking flight confuses predators, etc.
In our homes, parrots need attention from their human flock. If they don’t get it, they will find ways to get it that are not particularly pleasant to us humans. Parrots will get lonely, self-destructive and can develop behavioral problems if not given enough attention. They NEED to be talked to, played with and interact with other members of their “flock.”
Parrots are very “tuned in” to their flock. It’s true, if you have high energy, are in a bad mood or are sick and not feeling well, your parrot companion will interact with you in different ways depending on what they “sense.” Some say they are almost physic.
Flying is THE most natural behavior for a bird. It’s hard to imagine how many companion birds never really fly. Even if a bird has trimmed wings, they can still fly to some extent. Flying to VERY important to both the physical and mental health of parrots. Parrots need the exercise – it’s what their bodies were designed to do! Parrots that are flighted are usually more confident and comfortable. I won’t get into the safety issue of clipping or not here, but I switched sides years ago and will never clip a birds wings again. That’s my personal opinion.
Seeing the world a little more through a parrot’s eyes, it’s easier to understand where you can make some small changes to your own behavior and enjoy a better relationship with your bird. Remember – TRUST is the key! When there is mutual trust, both of you can let your hair down a bit and enjoy each others company more.