Q: I rehomed a green cheeked conure (Byron) last week. The first few days were great! He was so sweet and really seemed to like me. A couple days ago he started threatening to bite me when I tried to get him out of the cage. What happened?
Jill B., Independence, MO
A: When a new bird comes into our homes, there is usually one of two ways they react to the event: either they are stand-offish and guarded, or they are compliant and eager to please. These are two starkly different behaviors with two different probable “psychologies” behind them.
The distant and unfriendly bird is behaving in a way that is much more typical for a parrot that has been placed in a disturbing situation. A prey animal, such as a parrot, needs to be very aware of its environment in order to remain safe and feel secure. The new and unexplored will cause most parrots to be wary, suspicious and defensive.
Curious, though still quite common, is the behavior of the bird who reacts to a potentially threatening change with friendliness. I have seen this behavior many times from birds that are very well-socialized and have had mostly positive interactions with a variety of humans. Because of this, they seem to be more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a complete stranger and behave in a way that indicates trust. It is often referred to as the “honeymoon period” in a relationship.
However, we must never forget that, at the end of the day, trust is earned. The good behavior of a few representatives of our species is not enough to cause a prey animal to have ultimate confidence in every member of our predatory race. This presumed trust is what causes new bird owners to make mistakes.
In our excitement, we might misread the signals that the bird is sending out. We mistake their willingness to participate in interactions for a want to participate and we push uncomfortably hard to bring the new friendship to a place that has not yet been earned.
My feeling is that the honeymoon period ends when the bird realizes that no amount of extra effort in good behavior from him is changing his level of discomfort in his new surroundings and I suspect patience wears thin at this point.
Of the two behaviors a bird might present when going into a new home, I prefer the disgruntled bird that lets you know up front that he is not pleased with his new situation– at least you know where you stand and you can begin work to earn his friendship without the presumption that one already exists.
The good news is that because the ending of the honeymoon period happens so early in the relationship, it is easy to correct. New relationships are usually on somewhat unsteady ground and neither party has formulated a strong opinion about the other. In your case, trust isn’t lost because it is yet to be established.
This is your starting point. The best way to earn trust is to be trustworthy – and the best way to prove yourself trustworthy is through repeated positive experiences. Training will get you from point A to B in the most effective way because you are working closely with your bird in an activity that is fun and earns rewards. With each session, your bird learns more about you and your intentions.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.