I got Lizzy (5 year old sun conure) when she was just a baby. We were inseparable for the first 4 years, but last year I got a new job that has me traveling several times a year. While I’m away, my husband and son take care of Lizzy for me. When I get back she treats me like a stranger – she won’t step up and sometimes bites me– I feel like she hates me! It takes weeks for me to win her back to being MY bird again. We go through this every time I go away. What can I do?
-Justine K., Canoga Park, CA
We hear about this all the time: people go away for a vacation and come back to find that their bird has disowned them. It is heartbreaking, especially for the owner that pined for their bird throughout their trip. Your situation is a bit more challenging, though, because it is ongoing.
First, let me explain a little bit about flock dynamics because it is very relative to your situation: A flock is a structured society in which each member plays a valuable role and is committed to the well-being of the flock as a whole. Birds, wild or captive, have an innate understanding that their survival depends on the strength of their flock – their sense of security comes from their knowledge that their flock is operating successfully.
A captive bird comes to regard the humans in the household as flock members and they rely on them to fulfill their duties to the flock. Quite simply, that just might mean physically being there – many flock members means many eyes on the look-out for predators.
Secondly, let me assure you that your bird doesn’t hate you when you return home. It’s more likely you have been demoted in status within the flock. Your frequent absence might be a statement to your bird that your commitment to the safety of the flock is questionable.
Usually, when a person goes on a vacation and comes home to a dejected bird it is easy to make amends. However, from your bird’s point of view, your unreliability is flagrant and you are continually leaving your flock in the lurch.
One part of your letter gave me pause: “It takes weeks for me to win her back to being MY bird again.” As I mentioned above, much of a bird’s sense of security is derived from its flock. When you are away, your bird looks to the rest of the family for security. Upon your return, you expect your bird to revert its loyalties to you, only to leave her again, thereby forcing her to reconnect with your husband and son.
Over time, this will take a toll on Lizzy and you might begin to notice behavioral problems cropping up. The kindest thing you can do is to help Lizzy nurture a permanent relationship with your family and take a back seat yourself so that she can be stable and feel safe.
This doesn’t mean you have to completely forego a relationship with Lizzy altogether, but you should leave to the majority of her care to the people who will be supplying her needs in your absence. It may hurt not to be her number 1 anymore, but you can feel better knowing that you have given her a chance for a happy and emotionally settled life.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.