Ask The Behaviorist
Birds: Sally Blanchard
Please be aware that
the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 12, 1998 | previous set | next set
Our 17-year-old Greenwing Macaw is demanding more attention, since we are retired and at home more. But it seems the more time we give her the more she wants. When we are not giving her our total attention she will scream so loudly that the dishes rattle. What can we do to stop her from screaming? She even gets worse when we have company, she is like a spoiled child. We have tried covering her but she will remove the cover, putting her in another room, and spraying her with a mist bottle—some things work for a while but the screaming continues. Please help...thank you.
(name witheld by request)
Response from Ms. Blanchard:
The "quick-fixes" you describe, such as covering the cage, putting her in another room or shooting her with a water bottle are only temporary distractions. They will not be effective in teaching her not to demand more attention of you by screaming. Despite the fact that you are home more now, is your Greenwing really getting more attention? Perhaps she is getting more "ambient attention" with you in the room talking to her from time to time or "casual attention," sitting with you while you watch television, but is she really getting enough "focused attention?"
Often, spending about 15 minutes a day with your macaw "in your face" where all your attention is focused on her will help her sense of security enough to curb much of the screaming. The best way to stop a bird from screaming is to figure out why they are screaming and to work with the underlying cause of the screaming rather than the screaming itself. Parrots are highly social animals who are in constant communication with the members of their flock. When we keep them as companions, we are their "flock" and need to do our best to satisfy at least some of our parrots' social needs. Most companion parrots will make sociable contact calls to their flock before they start screaming. If we pay close attention to these quieter noises or body postures and say something to the bird like, "Hey, how are you doing? Are you having fun? Go ahead and play with your toys," we can often avoid the screaming attention-getting tantrums. The worst thing you can do with a screaming parrot is to give it attention when it is screaming. Most parrots see this as a reward and enjoy the dramatic yelling and posturing we do when their screaming gets to us. Parrots are naturally verbal animals. It is only when they scream to manipulate us that their screaming becomes a problem. As long as your Greenwing is rewarded for screaming, she will continue to scream.
I have just acquired a cockatiel that appears to be an adult, though I'm not sure how to tell how old or what sex it is. The bird is happy, healthy, chirpy, and friendly, but it does have one weird habit. It bangs on the wooden bookcase like a woodpecker. Not all the time, just occasionally. I think it's funny, but would like to know what it means.
(name witheld by request)
Response from Ms. Blanchard:
If your adult cockatiel is a normal gray one and not a mutation, you will be able to tell what sex it is by just looking. The male is more colorful, with a yellow face and a very bright orange cheek patch. The female has yellow tinting and some orange but it is not as obvious or as well-defined. The female has horizontal striping on her tail which the male does not have. Many pet birds bang on wood with their beak—it is not really more than weird a habit. It probably comes from the fact that a common food for wild parrot-family birds is grubs and insects found in the bark of trees. Banging on the tree bark disturbs the grubs and insects and makes them more accessible. The beak contains many nerve endings and parrots may grind their beaks, rub them on objects, or bang them on wood simply because it provides physical stimulation and feels good.
My friend has a blue and gold macaw, 20 years old, which she has had for 14 of those years. Last week, for the first time the macaw laid an egg. Since then the macaw has laid three more eggs, which my friend has been removing from her. Prior to this happening the macaw has been doing some rather extensive feather picking on her chest, belly and back. The bird is apparently in good health and my friend has really good knowledge of the macaw's dietary, physical and emotional/psychological needs. In addition, since the feather picking situation developed my friend has consulted two different vets who also said that the health of the bird was not at issue and thought that the feather picking was due to sexual isolation or trauma. My friend did go through a period of time when she had two jobs and the macaw was left alone more than usual, so she believes the trauma thing might have been valid.
Also, the macaw has torn up a carpet in her efforts to provide nesting material (I guess) and has chosen a particular place in the home that she keeps returning to lay the eggs. Is it rather late in the game for this bird to start laying - that is, what is the reproductive life-span for macaws? Or, does all this behavior point to some health problem that is going unnoticed? Or, should she try to acquire a mate for this bird? Should she allow the bird to keep the eggs or remove them? She is not interested in becoming a breeder, but is mainly concerned with what is best for this bird, and in understanding more about it. She's mainly concerned about the age of the bird in association with its reproductive or sexual life span - e.g. is it normal for a macaw to begin laying at this age, and/or is the macaw, at age 20 too old to introduce a mate?
Response from Ms. Blanchard:
The blue and gold you mention is certainly nowhere near the end of her reproductive life span, especially if she has received good care. Through my years of working with parrots, I have actually known of several "teen" or twenty something hen macaws who have started laying eggs for their owners. Usually external situations have stimulated these birds to lay eggs. In one case, a person was redecorating their house and had rolled up an area rug and placed it on a table near the Scarlet's cage. I believe the bird perceived the dark hole in the middle as an opening to a nest and was stimulated to lay eggs. In macaws, the onset of feather picking may have something to do with sexual behavior but I would still encourage your friend to check more thoroughly into the possibility of medical or environmental influences. I am convinced that health problems, diet and lack of bathing opportunities are still the major causes of feather picking. Feather picking, in itself, is not evidence that a parrot is not contented as a human companion. Your friend's hectic schedule could very well have something to do with the new behaviors in her macaw. Hopefully her life has settled down now and she is able to provide the bird with some focused attention every day.
Many of the people I have worked with have hen parrots who lay eggs—some even lay eggs in their owner's laps. The fact that a parrot is laying eggs or behaving in a sexual manner does not mean the bird wants to be a breeder or a mother—it is simply a biological response to physical stimulation. Your friend could leave the eggs until her macaw loses interest in them or she could take them away after a few hours. As long as the bird gets good exercise and is on a nutritious diet with adequate calcium, egg laying should not cause her health problems.
It does not appear from your question that either veterinarian is pushing your friend into breeding her macaw. Unfortunately, this seems to be the most common advice given for this type of behavior. The blue and gold is probably very strongly bonded to her person and would not appreciate being put in a breeding program or even the introduction of a mate. I would advise trying to figure out if there is a specific environmental reason that stimulated the macaw to lay eggs. These can include a bookcase next to the cage, access to a closed in area which would be perceived as a nest, or even handling, which the bird could perceive as sexually stimulating. Most of the time, people are able to pet their parrots all over, but when they are being hormonal, full body petting, beak wrestling, petting under the tail, and encompassing the body may be perceived by the bird as sexual.
Someone found a Quaker Parrot and after deciding they couldn't keep him (he BIT) they gave him to our avian vet. He gave him to me (after the bird BIT everyone in the office). The bird talked (only to me, not anyone in the vets) and told me his name, and also used some vulgar and abusive language. It has taken me almost 4 months to gain his love. However, sometimes he will only accept petting with one hand. I mean only the left some days, some times only the right. AND, sometimes he REALLY BITES HARD YET. When I first got him he cringed whenever you reached for him. The vet says he was probably loose outside all summer because of the size of his thighs. My question is: is there anything I can do to help him be more trusting and happy? I KNOW in my heart he is not a BAD bird......just afraid. I have some WONDERFUL scars that my physician is not happy with because I am diabetic. He does not say the vile language anymore. He seeks me out when he wants company, but sometimes it is like he goes crazy.
Fort Wayne, IN
Response from Ms. Blanchard:
It does take a great deal of time and patience to win the trust of a bird who has been abused, but bird bites are not a good thing for a diabetic. You need to figure out a way to handle your quaker that will keep you safe from being bitten. It is hard to know exactly what will work for you because different things often work in different situations. One of the most important things you can do is to start to pay very close attention to his body language. I would recommend keeping a journal with extensive notes about when he bites. It may be the time of day. Just like people, some birds may be "morning birds," and others may prefer attention in the afternoon or the evening before bedtime. It may be what you are wearing. One of my clients, who kept a journal, noticed that her bird always bit her if she wore a headband but never did so otherwise. Do you have jewelry on one hand or the other that may either frighten him or excite him? It may have to do with whether he has eaten or not. Does he bite you if you are holding him and your attention becomes distracted by the television or someone else in the room? Sometimes it helps to handle a parrot only when you can focus totally on him. Does he only bite you when he is near his cage or someone else is in the room? It always helps to handle a biting parrot in a "neutral room" where it's not used to being and can not see his cage. What is your energy like when you try to handle him? Are you calm and relaxed or in a hurry? Parrots are very empathic and reflect our energy, so if you are nervous or upset, he may bite you because he reflects your energy and becomes uncomfortable with you. If you keep good notes, you will most likely begin to notice a pattern to his biting and you may be able to control it by creating a better situation for handling him.
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