Of all of the mistakes we make with our parrots there is one that stands out over the rest. It is something that we often do unconsciously, but sometimes very consciously. Sometimes it happens just because we don’t understand not to do it.
Unfortunately, it is one of the most damaging mistakes we make, and creates problems that are some of the hardest to fix: in a word, it is inconsistency.
It doesn’t sound terribly evil, does it? Actually, though, it is among the worst of all our sins we commit with our birds. Allow me to explain…
Birds are very observant. In a flock setting, they learn from every member of the flock. They learn from the older, more experienced birds what to do and how to do it. They learn what is dangerous and how to keep safe. From the younger members of the flock they learn, through play, about limitations, both physical and societal, and about what is considered acceptable and when to back off. Things are no different with our companion birds- they will learn what we teach them.
Inconsistency causes two problems:
1) It creates confusion. It is unfair to expect your birds to deliver the behavior you want when you keep changing the rules. When you react one way to his behavior on Monday and do something different on Tuesday, your bird will never know what to expect from you. Not only is that an awkward and unstable way to live, your expectations will never be clear and your bird will never be able to meet them to earn your approval.
2) It leaves you vulnerable to bullying by your bird. Inconsistency teaches your bird you can be manipulated by their behavior.
Here’s is a real life example for you:
In a blog post from last week, I went into detail about a behavioral problem I was having with my female goffins cockatoo, Theo. The short version is that I had to move her into my bedroom between April and July because my male umbrella cockatoo, Linus, chose this year to react to having a female share the room during breeding season. During her stay with me she developed some behavioral problems which I am now having to correct.
As I explained in the post, Theo would scream the minute the lights were turned off for the night which would start Linus screaming in response. Because I live in an apartment, I couldn’t have two cockatoos screaming after bedtime hours. I had no choice but to give into Theo’s demands to sleep perched on me all night knowing I would have to pay the price later. (This, by the way, is a dangerous thing to do. There have been many parrot deaths reported after owners rolled over on them in their sleep. Believe me when I tell you that I got almost no sleep for the duration.)
As soon as Linus started showing signs that his hormones were dialing back, I moved Theo back into the room with him. But as you may have guessed, my actions have put me in a precarious situation with Theo. I have told her with my recent behavior that when she screams, I will respond. Her screaming gave her exactly the results she was hoping for.
I had no reason to expect anything other than what followed. When I put her back in her cage in the other room, she did what any intelligent bird would do – she screamed to get what she wanted – it had worked so well before! But since the cockatoos were now corralled into one room, I now had a place to go after I darkened their room and put them to bed early enough that their screaming wouldn’t wake anyone up.
There are two things that have worked to my advantage:
- I caved really quickly when the screaming started. Of course, there was the fact that I HAD to in order to spare my neighbors, but I also realized that I wanted to leave Theo with the smallest possible feeling of victory. The more occasions that I ran to Theo to stop her screaming, the more powerful the message of the benefits of screaming would be. So I quickly took any reason to scream out of the picture. I knew I was losing the first part of the battle, but I was preparing to minimize the overall damage.
- It has been my practice all along to NOT buckle under pressure with my birds. I have had cockatoos for a long time and I am mostly unfazed by their volume and their behavior. I think one of the reasons I am successful with them is that there isn’t much they can do to break me. But there are circumstances that arise, such as this one, where you have to break your own rules. However, if you have been consistent with your birds all along, it is easy to keep things on track. They may notice your faltering, but as it is uncommon, they are less likely to assume they can get one up on you.
It is exactly one week later, and the problem is mostly solved. I say mostly solved because Theo did get noisy for a short time last night and then again this morning before I got up – she’s not going down without a fight. But this is a battle I WILL win. When she goes in to her cage at night, nothing short of a tornado will get her out again. The message is slowly becoming clear to her. As I consistently don’t respond to her screaming, it will eventually be abandoned as a means to manipulate me.
The lesson here is simple – without being consistent, we have no right to have any expectations from our birds. If you shoo your bird away from your plate on most nights, but every now and then let him share your meal, what does that say to your bird? Won’t he ALWAYS try to get to your plate when this might be the night you allow him to? If it isn’t permitted, it must NEVER be permitted.
Our birds can only know what they have been taught, so make the lessons clear – even when it puts you out for a while. I took a stand with Theo and dealt with with one week of screaming so that I won’t have to experience a lifetime of it.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.