Every now and again, people write to me complaining that they have seen a photo of me with a bird on my shoulder. People tell me that I shouldn’t allow this. I’ve also had some negative feedback about perch location in some of my aviaries. Some of my perches are above my eye level. I am told that this is a terrible idea and very dangerous.
Now you’d think high perches and having a bird on your shoulder are completely different topics? I’m grouping them together because the reason for the complaints is identical. People tell me that having a bird on my shoulder or having it above my eye level gives the bird a superiority complex. Apparently my bird will think it is the boss of me? I’m told at best, the result will be that I have a difficult to manage bird; at worst I can expect to get badly bitten?
These people mean well in their warnings but they are using an animal behavioral theory that I would never apply to a bird. What they are referring to is ‘dominance theory’. It is a theory that is commonly used when training dogs. I’m sure you’ve all seen the “Be a pack leader” training articles floating around. In a nutshell, the theory is that there is a hierarchy in a wild dog pack. Your dog’s family essentially takes on the role of its pack. If you want to control your dog – you need to be the top dominant dog. Training is conducted accordingly.
If you saw parrots in the wild on a daily basis, you’d understand why I have trouble applying that theory to a flock. When you have 300 parrots together pulling up grass on a football field, believe me when I say there is no alpha male or alpha female. If there were, the alpha birds would have to constantly fight to maintain the hierarchy. It just wouldn’t work. There are only so many vicious fights, that they’d physically be able to cope with. Birds simply aren’t that stupid. They’re not going to take on 300 other birds just to be boss. The flock is pretty even in stature.
There are some roles within a flock structure that can sometimes produce behaviors that could be interpreted as ‘dominant’. There are adult vs. juvenile relationships. There are relationships related to mating (both bonded and sometimes competitive). In terms of a wild flock there may also be one or more birds acting as a lookout while the flock feeds or sleeps. The lookout role will rotate, so that the entire flock gets a chance to feed and sleep. Sometimes as humans, we’re tempted to classify behaviors relating to these roles as ‘dominant’ because a bird appears to gain an advantage with these behaviors. That temporarily bossy bird however, may well be the next lookout – it doesn’t mean that they think they’re the boss.
I think people try to apply dominance theory to birds for a number of reasons. We do see what can be interpreted as dominant behavior in our pet birds on a regular basis. Birds happily clonk each other over the head to get something that will fill a basic need. A high perch provides a feeling of safety and they will bite to maintain that feeling. Similarly, a shoulder can seem to be a safe and difficult to reach spot. They can choose to bite to stay there.
That’s where the danger comes from. If you are in a situation where you think it could be difficult to remove your bird from your shoulder or a situation that might frighten your bird, I’d be very wary about having that bird on your shoulder. My birds are only allowed on my shoulder when I am sure they are happy and comfortable and I know that I can get them off safely.
As it happens, I do have a bird that is very likely to bite me if it stays on my shoulder for too long. I’ve talked before about how birds use light to communicate. My little musk lorikeet Otto goes through lightning fast colour changes, which are often too fast for me to catch. He does not seem to understand that I do not have a 360-degree range of vision like him. If he is on my shoulder, I can’t clearly see him and will miss seeing his colour changes that are warning me that something might be frightening him. His level of agitation increases if I miss (or from his perspective ignore) his signals. In that instance he’ll bite to stay on my shoulder (where he feels safe) or bite to make me move somewhere where he feels safe. Needless to say, I prefer to handle Otto on my arm so that I can see him more clearly and monitor any colour change.
One person wrote to me that their avian vet has warned them that if they encourage their birds to be on their shoulder then this will cause their bird to become hormonal and uncontrollable. That did confuse me for a while, as it was a well-respected avian vet that they were talking about. I suspect that it isn’t quite what the vet meant though. I don’t think the vet meant that sitting on a shoulder is the cause of the behavior; I think he just meant it’s not a safe place for a hormonal bird to be managed.
A bird could find a shoulder a desirable location to perform unwanted hormonal behaviors simply because that is a difficult location for the human to be able to remove them or interrupt them. The bird feels safe and for want of a better way of putting it – the bird goes for it. The human will undoubtedly get bitten if an over-enthusiastic bird is interrupted. That could be dangerous and so I’d caution against allowing a hormonal bird free reign on your shoulder.
I don’t feel guilty for putting photos of myself with my birds on my shoulder out there for anyone to see. I don’t believe my birds think they’re the boss of me as flocks aren’t hierarchical. I don’t believe the practice triggers hormonal behaviors in my birds. That said, it doesn’t mean that I always think it is safe to have them there, as there are occasions when any bird will bite to stay on a shoulder or on an above eye level perch. The real trick is to learn when it is and isn’t safe.
If you have issues with birds biting or with hormonal bird behaviors I’d encourage you to do some training with your birds. Do the research on bird biting, do the horrormones course. This will give you the building blocks to communicate with your birds and interact with them safely. Learn the real triggers for those behaviors and learn your bird’s signals. Bird behavioral theory and dog behavioral theory are different for a reason.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.