Why You Need To Socialize Your Bird

As with dogs and cats, your bird needs to look up to you as a teacher.

You have to be your bird's teacher, but don't always expect a well-behaved student!  Via Gina Cioli/Lumina Media
You have to be your bird's teacher, but don't always expect a well-behaved student! Via Gina Cioli/Lumina Media

In the wild, socialization is the process by which baby parrots learn their social and survival skills. If they don’t learn their lessons well, it’s unlikely that they’ll survive. They learn these skills through observing their parents (and, with some parrots, other flock members), and they follow the examples set for them.

As intelligent animals, parrot behavior is a complex combination of instinct and learning. While some of their behaviors are instinctive, much of what they need to know is learned. For example, it is most likely that flying is instinctive to some degree, while the finesse of flying is learned and developed through parental supervision and guidance. Eating is a natural behavior, but fledgling parrots learn food choices and the gathering and manipulation of that food while foraging with their parents and other members of the family group/flock.

Although some of the lessons are quite different, socialization is also essential for companion parrots. It is the way that young companion parrots learn the skills they need to live their lives with us. Socialization is extremely important not only to teach our avian companions positive behaviors, but also to help them get past the confusion caused when their instinctive behaviors are in conflict with their lives in our homes.

Many concepts of socialization should continue throughout their lives. Just as wild parrots learn from their parrot parents, we need to be our parrots’ teachers and establish positive behavior and good coping skills through instructional interaction.

Instructional Interaction

This type of interactive play can be fun for you and your bird. Beyond having fun with your parrot, there are several benefits to socialization through instructional interaction. Playing games with your parrot establishes you (the caregiver) as the teacher/flock leader so your parrot looks to you for guidance. It helps keep your parrot tame and loving and provides her with a sense of security.

Interactive play also builds and maintains the mutual trust that is extremely important in a positive relationship between a parrot and a person. Interactive play can also help form a nonsexual “buddy bond.” Parrots that are just cuddled and stroked can form a sexual bond with their primary caregivers, and this can lead to serious behavior and health problems. With play, we establish positive behaviors with our parrots.

One aspect is teaching parrots a few playful behaviors by using cues and praise. For example, one of the simple behaviors to teach is what I call “Eagle Boy/Girl.” When you see your parrot spread her wings, spread your arms and say “Eagle Boy/Girl.” With some repetition and consistency, your parrot can be patterned to spread her wings when you say the cue. This is a fun game, but the real benefit is being able to change a parrot’s negative behavior by pre-teaching a positive behavior and distracting the parrot with the cue for the new “trick.”

Teaching your bird this simple behavior is a way to “change the parrot’s channel.” Your parrot can also use a simple behavior like this to get your attention instead of screaming.

Once the bird does the new behavior, it should receive lots of praise. While giving a food treat may work in some training exercises, I have found that most companion parrots respond better to praise from their favorite person. My caique, Spike, did many tricks and his reward from me was always praise, and he really loved applause from the audiences when we traveled to give programs.

Another significant benefit is that the more secure a parrot is, the more likely she will be to entertain herself. In play, we establish positive behaviors with parrots. If a parrot learns to entertain herself, the people in her life rarely experience a problem with manipulative or excessive screaming — or for that matter, most of the behavioral problems that parrots exhibit in homes where they have not received guidance. Companion parrots that are just cuddled and receive no guidance will survive, but they will not have a good foundation for their lives with us. While cuddling is OK to a point, it needs to be balanced with more in-your-face instructional interaction.

Blue-throated macaw
One of the key things to socializing a bird is simply playing with your bird.

Help Socialize Your Bird

How do we socialize or teach our parrots the skills they need to live as contented human companions? To some, the concept of socialization is based on the number of people a parrot meets, but that is only one of several lessons that a parrot needs to learn. For others, the concept of socialization sounds like work but teaching through interaction and play can really be a lot of fun.

I bird-sit a wonderful, well-socialized umbrella cockatoo. When I first talked to her caregiver about what a great bird she is, the woman seemed puzzled and said that she has never really worked to socialize her. She just played with the cockatoo a lot, which is the key to quality socialization. I can’t walk in the room without the umbrella putting her head behind a toy and saying “peek-a-boo.” Teaching important lessons shouldn’t be work — it should be fun and sometimes even silly.

One parrot breeder I knew years ago had a checklist of things and situations that her babies needed to experience before they went to their new homes once they were weaned. As soon as the babies reached the stage where they were full of curiosity, they were hand-fed and handled by as many people as possible. These people were of various appearances and, for the desensitization lessons, they wore baseball hats, glasses, red fingernail polish, jangly bracelets and other things that might cause a bird fear in a new home. Because they were previously introduced in a safe way, the birds were used to many shapes, colors and textures.

The babies were also taken around the nursery and house and introduced to all sorts of things going on there. These babies were rarely, if ever, wary or frightened of changes in their new homes. They were also fed a wide range of fresh foods, some seeds and some pellets so that they were used to just about everything their new family might feed them. Parrots have a natural sense of curiosity. Safely introducing them to new adventures when they are babies and continuing this throughout their lives encourages that curiosity and playfulness. Without this type of early socialization, this curiosity can easily be squelched and they can become very wary or even frightened in new situations.

The idea of socialization takes into consideration just about everything that happens to a baby parrot as she matures. If we stop and think ahead about how a young bird will react to a new object or situation, we can come up with a way to encourage and protect our parrot’s emotional growth. For example, some parrots are more threatened by new situations in and around their cages. For this reason, just putting a new toy in the cage may cause them concern, but introducing the toy to the bird in another room will make it less threatening. Make it into a game by playing with the toy yourself and then dragging it along the bed or couch. Let it be your parrot’s choice to approach the toy instead of just presuming that she will get used to it. This way, it will be familiar enough to her that it is unlikely a problem when you put it in her cage.

The foundation that is established from the time the parrot is a baby and as she matures will make a tremendous difference in her potential as a companion. But the concepts of socialization should be continued throughout the parrot’s life to keep her tame. No one gets a parrot with the idea that they will just keep her until she starts to have behavioral problems. New parrot caregivers need to realize that without the proper guidance and socialization, their adorable, cuddly, sweet baby parrot may not stay that way. It is really easy to prevent most behavioral problems by setting a positive foundation with instructional interaction and guidance.

Deal With Behavioral Problems

Through my almost four decades of working with companion parrots, I have found that if a parrot has one behavioral problem, chances are she has several. Usually the cause of a true behavioral problem is a parrot in control of her own life and doing a bad job of it. Parrots that have a good behavioral foundation with quality socialization and guidance rarely develop serious behavioral problems. This is particularly true of the two most common problems, which are biting and screaming.

I think that biting is the easier problem to solve, but screaming can also be worked with to make a difference. With biting, the most important factor is that it is not natural for a parrot to be aggressive unless she is being threatened. With screaming, people need to realize that most parrots scream, and it is not really a behavioral problem unless it becomes manipulative and excessive. Companion parrots are not usually “actors” — they tend to be reactors and are usually reacting to the people in their lives. Without realizing it, many people actually teach their parrots negative behaviors when it is just as easy to teach them positive behaviors.

For example, if people run over to their screaming parrots and scream at them just as loud, they give the birds drama rewards. This gives the parrots even more of an investment in screaming. If people respond aggressively to being bitten, they amp the bird up even more, and the more this happens the more aggressive the parrots become. So how should these problems be dealt with to stop them from happening?

Both screaming and aggression can be caused if a parrot is in “overload,” so the first step is to walk away and slow down your energy. Wait to approach your bird again after you both have slowed down. Some parrots will nip or bite if we approach them in a scatter-focused manner. If we don’t really focus on the parrot, it can create confusion and aggression.

The most important thing a parrot caregiver can do is to accept complicity in their parrots’ negative behaviors and take responsibility for changing it. There is actually not much a person can do to make a difference after the screaming episode or the bite, except to try to figure out why it happened.

The key to genuinely changing these behaviors is not a series of ineffective, punishing quick-fixes. The most effective way to stop these problems is to start interacting with the parrot in a positive way by guiding her behavior as well as setting a foundation for good behavior. By teaching positive behaviors through instructional interaction and play, people can teach their parrots “tricks” to distract them from negative behaviors.

I had a favorite Amazon friend whom I had taught to lift his foot and “slap” my hand with it when I said, “Gimme four.” When he got wound up and started to go into overload mode with me, I would give him the cue and he would raise his foot for me. It was as if I had changed his channel.

My caique, Spike, would occasionally act like a brat. All I had to do was have him do a somersault in my hand and praise him for it, and he was back to being sweet again. If he started being vocally obnoxious, all I had to do was whistle one of his favorite tunes and he would start a duet with me.

There are many simple tricks or behaviors that people can teach their parrots to distract them from negative behaviors, but people have to teach them as a foundation for positive behaviors. It may take a little time, but when people change their behavior and become patient and consistent about teaching positive behaviors, their parrots will change their behavior in return.

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Another reason why a parrot bobs their head could be a precursor to aggression.

“The red-fronted macaw that I work with does it when he is amped during sessions or he is frustrated that he didn’t get what he wants,” Black said. “The behavior causes those less in tune to offer attention and then he takes advantage and becomes destructive, aggressive or vocal.”

One way to decrease this behavior is to put the behavior of head bobbing on cue. I first learned about this technique by reading the fundamental Karen Pryor book “Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training.”

If you train an animal to do a behavior on cue and never ask for that behavior while going through their repertoire in training sessions, that behavior will likely decrease due to the fact that there is no longer a reinforcing consequence associated with that behavior.

“The macaw I mentioned now does a dance behavior and typically only offers it when asked because outside of session it loses its reinforcement value as he gets ignored or redirected when he head bobs,” Black explained.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Cinde Fisher, President of Aloha Hawaiian Parrot Association, in Honolulu, Hawaii reminded me that head bobbing can be a sign of non-aggressive excitement. “Cockatoos are well known for this,” she said. “Head-bobbing is also common in birds that enjoy music and bob to the rhythm.”

Take a look at the infamous Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo that has over 10 million views.

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Birds

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