When people contact us about problems with their birds, one common (and notable) element is that most people are very surprised to learn that their relationship with their bird isn’t what they thought it was. They explain their once friendly and interactive relationship and now, suddenly, their bird wants nothing to do with them. They are always reluctant to believe you when you assure them that none of this happened suddenly.
No matter what bird sites you frequent, you hear over and over to watch your bird’s body language for indications of what they are thinking and feeling. There is a very sharp learning curve to navigate when you are trying to read the body language of another animal species. It is questionable as to whether we read the body language of other humans well. You can count on the fact that we make numerous mistakes while we learn about our birds.
Most birds graciously ride out that storm with us forgiving us time and time again for our failures with them, most of which we are unaware of. (I like to think that if we knew we were botching things up, we would do our best not to.)
Fortunately for us, birds are impressively patient and apparently see their human caretakers as worth the effort. But eventually, if things fail to improve, even the sweetest tempered bird will get fed up and reach the breaking point. This is the “suddenly” that bird owners see – the day their bird snaps and issues not a warning, but an actual bite that is intended to injure you.
Before this day, everything seemed like business as usual. Some days the bird was not wanting to play, but that was easily explained away as an “off” day or grumpiness over not being allowed to eat the TV remote. But other than that everything has been normal…except for the times he moved away from you to the back of the cage or lunged at your hand when you came by to take him out. Oh and the “hormones”, there’s that… The blame and excuses fly everywhere and no one is looking for an actual problem.
If your bird “changes” overnight you should consider it a health emergency and get your bird to the vet. But unless there has been a major incident that has deeply distressed your bird, nothing happens suddenly from a behavioral standpoint. Things change in incremental stages and there are warning signs all the way – catching them is the hard part.
It is fair to expect your bird will have an “off” day every now and then. It is reasonable to expect your bird to be upset with you when you take away something they want. Some birds are less tolerant than others, but “moodiness” is not part of a bird’s nature.
Here is a comparison: if you deny your child a candy bar while checking out at the supermarket, you can expect some pouting in the backseat on the ride home, right? But if your child were still upset over the event days later, wouldn’t it cause you to question why your child isn’t letting it go? It’s the same with your bird – if he is holding grudges, there is something much larger going on.
Before you ever get to this point, learn to see the warnings signs that will tell you that your relationship is strained. One of the earliest and easiest to spot signs is in your bird’s step up.
When a finger or hand is presented by a trusted human, the step up is practically reflexive. They will step up eagerly and confidently.
If you notice even the most brief hesitation, take it seriously. It is your bird deciding whether or not stepping onto your hand is a good idea. That hesitation is doubt and it will tell you that your bird questions whether you are safe to be with or can be trusted to take him to some place he wants to be. Somewhere, somehow, something has happened to make your bird be uncertain of your intentions.
When this small hesitating issue is not recognized and addressed, the next stage is a refusal to step up at all. This will cause most people to be persistent. In their mind they are trying to coax their bird onto their hand, but it is pushy and disrespectful from the bird’s point of view.
Eventually the bird will move deeper into the cage when your hand comes in, even turn his back to you. When your “demanding” hand does not get the hint, biting becomes the only course of action left. Your bird has been trying to avoid this conflict all along using body language, which appears to have been ignored, and now you are viewed as an abusive human that cannot be trusted.
Don’t let it get to this point. That fraction of a second that your bird pauses before the step up can tell you about months of suspicion about you. Make sure your hands are bringers of good things and carry your bird to good places. Make sure they are never forceful and that they pay attention when your bird is reluctant to interact with them.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.