I have to assume that anyone reading this blog has, has had, or intends to get a parrot. Those of us with previous experience can attest to the fact that they are nothing like the other animals we have in our lives. Because the human race has such little understanding of a bird’s behaviors, we spend a lot of our time time trying to second guess them. We often fall into the trap of assigning human traits to our birds because it is the only way we know how to make sense of some of the things they do.
I spoke recently with someone who was concerned that her parrot had “anger issues” because it regularly attacked and destroyed its toys. (I explained that while this would be cause for concern in a human child, it was perfectly healthy behavior for a parrot.) Someone else once told me that she was certain her parrot purposely pulls the keys off her computer keyboard just to get back at her for some past transgression. (I explained to her that her bird certainly does do this on purpose, but that it has nothing to do with pay back.)
With this post, I ask you to step back and look at a parrot’s behavior from a different standpoint and to change your line of thinking to one that doesn’t include viewing your birds as humans with feathers. Further, unlike cats and dogs, they have not been subjected to thousands of years of domestication. They have not had traits bred in or out of them so that they might fit in more nicely with human society, or bred for single-minded focus so that they can perform tasks for us. Most of the larger parrots might only be 2 or 3 generations from the wild. They are birds, not dogs, not children, and we can’t expect that they will behave in ways that are familiar to us.
If you were to study wild birds, you would find that they live in elaborate social structures. They have very defined ways of communicating with one another. This language is very clear, should you happen to be another bird. It is much less clear to we humans. Imagine being a parrot trying to communicate its wants or needs to to a human being. It is a frustrating process for us both. We want to understand, but we often do not. The parrot tries in the only ways it know how, and sometimes that involves biting and screaming. These behaviors are simply a form of communication.
In the case of a parrot that bites, this is about as clear a message as your bird can send out. “Don’t touch me.” “Keep out of my cage.” “I don’t want to do what you are trying to make me do.” It is rare that a bird will use biting as a first resort. It is much more likely that the human missed all the warning signals, the attempts to communicate, that preceded the bite. With some species of birds, it is not hard to make those mistakes.
Screaming, too, is a form of communication, albeit a difficult one to comprehend at times. A screaming parrot might be saying: “come here” or “go away”. It might be a generalized way of saying: “something is wrong”, leaving you to figure out what that “something” might be. When a parrot begins to scream incessantly, it is surely the result of not being understood. The smart parrot will, over time, learn to use biting and screaming as a means to manipulate its owners actions.
Perhaps we shouldn’t even be referring to biting and screaming as “problem” behaviors, but instead regard them as breakdowns in communication.
When a parrot makes your hands, or ears, bleed, it is difficult to step away and look at things intellectually. It’s very easy to come to the conclusion that it bites because it hates you and screams because it is unreasonable. The fact is that everything your bird does serves a purpose. When it makes the decision to take a certain course of action, it only has itself in mind. It will scream to call your attention to something it wants or needs. It will bite to get you to back off. It will destroy the furniture to satisfy its need to chew. A bird’s motto is: me, me, it’s all about me.
Try to be understanding in that your bird has a self-serving nature, and be patient with it. Remember that it is we who took them out of their natural environments to live with us, a species totally foreign to them. Try to appreciate them for their attempts to communicate with us in the only ways they know how. This might help you to overcome the turmoil you feel as you bandage your wounded fingers and hurt feelings. When you get past your emotional reactions to their behaviors, you will see a clearer path to the solutions to the “communication breakdown” you are both experiencing. They are birds. We are humans. This isn’t supposed to be easy.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.