One of the things I often get asked by friends and family is, ‘Doesn’t your bird hate your musical instrument?’ It is, after all, very loud. And it takes my attention away from them.
As a musician, I find that my parrots have come through necessity to relate to my music. I had to find a way to turn my own practice time (which is of vital importance to me) into a fun time for them, too. Otherwise I’d simply get no peace. Some of them – my Senegal and parrotlet – have even begun to mimic what I play.
At least one member of the flock hasn’t always loved the tones of my viola, though. Our neurotic cockatiel used to lose it when I’d go in to practice – she’d hiss, shriek, and generally throw a fit. We had to desensitize her pretty quickly.
This became a lesson in training in multiple ways. One, it was about desensitizing her to something scary. But there was another training lesson for us in there, too, as we had to figure out ways around this problem for all our birds. Every one of them was different.
We used the same method you can use to desensitize any parrot to any object.
First, we let her sit on us within about five feet of the instrument while we humans projected an air of calmness. We used her body language to gauge whether she was comfortable. Our cockatiel was capable of leaving, but she didn’t, so we’d reward her content body language with her most treasured treats (in this case, millet). These sessions would last maybe five minute a day, maximum. We probably stared out for a few seconds or so, gradually increasing the amount of time.
Next, when our cockatiel was comfortable with simply being near to my musical instrument, we moved on to me playing something in another room. My partner would quietly reward her for being calm, or playing with her toys.
Finally, I moved into the same room. I made a fool of myself then, playing and dancing – making it look like I was generally having the best time ever. Mishka grew to appreciate this. Another key aspect of her enjoyment was our canary’s enjoyment. If you’ve seen my intro post, you’ll know that our cockatiel loves our canary – although the feeling is not mutual. When she saw how the canary enjoyed singing along, our cockatiel was fast to join in. Parrots hate being left out. (Learning by example is a fantastic way to teach a bird something.)
Music is also an instinctive thing for birds – just look at songbirds like our canary. It’s how they attract and impress potential mates, signal their feelings (such as happiness or contentment), and in many cases have fun – like with the scream session.
Our Umbrella Cockatoo, Bobo, absolutely loves music time (once he got used to the sight of me with an instrument), and often makes up his own harmonies and tunes to anything playing in the background. This is a great hands-off enrichment opportunity.
Our cockatoo’s singing is a different example of the importance to music to birds – Bobo instinctively knows to associate the word ‘la’ with many different notes and tones. I even have a video of him singing his theme-tune (the Imperial March from Star Wars). In it, he does some perfect harmonies. And while our other birds aren’t necessarily as creative, they appreciate shouting and dancing to the music in the house.
If you or someone in your family plays an instrument, how does your bird react? Did you need to condition your bird at first, or did they instinctively love the noise and joy that comes with music?
Sarah Stull is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a photographer, violist, and violinist who has plans of opening her own avian sanctuary on the east coast of America.