The Reality of “Parrot Psychology”

I hear it a lot: “Parrots are sensitive to their owners’ energy.” “Parrots seek our approval.” “Parrots react to our disapproval and displeasure.” “Parrots are very good at reading facial expressions, and will instinctively understand that you’re upset.” The list goes on. Unfortunately, all of these statements are false, false, false! 

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these statements.

1. Parrots are sensitive to their owners’ energy. 
To our “energy”? Let’s ignore for just a moment the fact that this statement is largely based on superstition rather than science, and assume that parrots are somehow sensitive to “energy.” Why are they sensitive just to their owners’ energies? Why not to the energies of other humans? Or of the family dog? Do they see it? Smell it? Can they hear it? Or do they just “feel” it?

Now, let’s look at this statement for what it actually is: a misinterpretation of the completely natural behavior that prey animals (like parrots) exhibit when presented with quick, erratic, or exaggerated movement. As prey animals, parrots – especially ground foragers like Greys and cockatoos – are highly sensitive to movement of any kind, and this makes them fantastic at learning and accurately predicting our behavior based on past experiences. An angry or frustrated owner who moves quickly towards a screaming parrot, perhaps to cover the cage, will elicit an exaggerated response from the bird because of the quick movement, not because of some invisible “energy.”

By the same token, our parrots may become quiet when we are sad, but it’s more likely that they’re quiet because we’re often quiet and withdrawn when we’re sad, rather than some unseen energy.

2. Parrots seek our approval, and are sensitive to our disapproval and displeasure.
This one is based mostly on the ego of whomever first said it. Why? Because parrots are animals, and all animals (humans included!) are only influenced by and concerned with what’s in it for them. All animals learn, and make decisions on those learning experiences. Steve Martin, of Natural Encounters, is a world-renowned animal trainer, and he’s written a fantastic paper on this topic that you can read here

3. Parrots are very good at reading facial expressions, and will instinctively understand that you’re upset.
Again…what? Parrot faces don’t look (or function) anything like human faces. Even hand-raised parrots understand that they are parrots, will recognize other parrots, and will bond to other parrots if given the opportunity. So why has this myth stuck around?

Because, more often than not, this statement refers to parrots responding to hard eye contact – staring. Parrots will respond to staring from a human because parrots are prey animals, and predators make direct eye contact with their prey. Prey animals will instinctively freeze, because movement may attract the attention of the predator, or may single out an individual within the flock. After momentarily observing the predator, the prey animal will make a snap decision to flee to safety when the time is right. Since the vast majority of companion parrots have the ability to fly (flee) taken away from them, they will opt to simply stop moving. Some will then try to flee by moving away, some may become aggressive (the “fight” in fight or flight), and still some may offer appeasement behaviors like looking away, saying a familiar word, or attempting to touch your mouth with their beak.

There you have it – some common “parrot psychology” demystified! Are there other common statements you’d like addressed? Let us know and we’ll happily break them down!

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Feeding Your Flock: Part 4

So far, we’ve talked about pellets, grains, and “mash” diets, and why none of them are really very good for our feathered companions. In this post, we’re going to take a look at what Patricia Sund calls the “Chop” diet. Patricia is a fantastic blogger with lots to offer the avian community (she’s also the writer of BIRD TALK magazine’s “Memo to Parker and Pepper.”) Though I’ve never talked to Patricia, I must admit, it’s lovely to see someone who makes an educated effort to provide their birds with a healthy, whole-foods diet, and is so darned witty about it!

I’ve been feeding my birds some variation of what’s been termed the “chop” diet from the day I brough my first parrot (a baby weaned onto seeds and FruitBlend Zupreem) home. It seemed pretty intuitive to me, and I just assumed that everyone knew that parrots were built to eat real foods; that folks fed their birds these colored, fortified cereal-looking things as a treat or something. What a kick in the pants it was when I realized that pellets were being touted as “complete” diets by their manufacturers, or that it was recommended (by the manufacturers and vets alike) that our birds’ diets be comprised of almost nothing but these processed pieces that smelled like Froot Loops…and that people were listening to what they were being told. I wondered if anyone had ever actually read the ingredients on the packaging (even though I already knew from years working with dogs that most folks don’t bother to read the ingredients.)

Looking for information, I found “mash” diets. And they just didn’t seem right since, well, parrots can’t cook, and “mash” diets required a whole lotta’ cookin’ to create. After some searching, I found Pamela Clark’s Seven Layer Salad, which is essentially “chop” but put together in a much more formal fashion – by layering ingredients which are chopped or shredded by hand, and aren’t ever frozen. But it took me several hours each week to shop for, clean, chop, and layer the items “just so”….and I still ended up throwing a lot of it away, since it was stored in the fridge and got yucky in a few days.

So I just did my own thing with my little food processor, my freezer, and little to no cooking. And I got fantastic results. Then one day, I stumbled on Patricia’s blog and found that she – and loads of other folks – had been feeding what she refers to as a “chop” diet!

So what the heck is “chop”?

There’s no recipe. That scares a lot of people, mostly (I think) because people who care enough to be interested in “chop” tend to be people who want to do everything “right” by their birds. It’s a noble concept, but it’s one that I learned long ago to let go of. “Chop” is the avian diet equivalent of “going with the flow.”

Essentially, “chop” is made with whatever fresh foods you have available to you at the time that you make it. It’s limited only by your imagination (and your budget), so there’s no need for a recipe. It’s just crazy enough to be fantastically useful while at the same time driving some people mad.

Like Particia, I find recipes to be limiting and cumbersome. If a recipe calls for an ingredient that is out of season or otherwise unavailable, some folks may choose to substitute one item for another. Others may choose to not make the recipe at all. But for many of us, if you say “use what you have, and make the best of it”, we’ll take that and run!

Making “Chop”

Patricia does presentations on making “chop” and I’ll be the first to admit that they look like more fun than what I do in my kitchen once a month. That being said, making “chop” is cheap and easy, once you get the hang of it.

To make “chop”, you’ll need a food processor of some nature. Or, at the very least, one will come in incredibly handy. I have this KitchenAid 3-cup processor – it works well, but it can be a pain when making large batches.

The last batch that I made was sadly lacking variety, since it’s winter here in New England (albeit one of the warmest ones I can remember) and fresh, in-season produce is relatively scarce. (I went months without seeing dandelion greens in my local supermarket!) If I remember correctly, it contained some combination of kale, collards, parsely, beets (greens, too), carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, and a frozen mix of green peas, corn, and green beans. It sounds like a lot of food – and it is – but remember, it takes me an average of two hours to clean and process all this food, and then I’m done for the month! Plus, it costs me under $20! (If I factor in the sprouts, supplements, and other things I offer my birds, it comes out to about $35 a month to feed all four of my birds.)

It’s about time I made “chop” again, and if I’d had a little more forethought, I’d have planned this blog around making it so that I could have included pictures. Fortunately, Patricia has a lovely picture of a batch of her “chop”, which you can find here.

Along with the greens and veggies, I offer fresh sprouts every day, with several supplements (like ground flax seed, Fresh Addition, coconut oil, and palm oil) on alternate days. You’ll notice, however, that I don’t include fruits in my chop. Most folks don’t, simply because fresh fruits are very watery and make the thawed chop a little too mushy. But…I do dehydrate my own fruits, and I’ll add some of these to the mix to absorb some of the extra moisture, especially in the winter when fresh, organic fruits are pretty limited. Otherwise, fruits (along with some other fresh veggies) are skewered and hung in the cage for foraging opportunities.

Ample Opportunities for Enrichment

Some folks scoff at the idea of a diet that consists primarily of “wet” foods based on the reasoning that parrots “can’t” forage for these foods in their cage. And to that, I say…pfft! With a little creativity, our parrots can eat their delicious and nutritious “chop” from something (anything!) other than an open bowl.

Fugi – a Lesser Jardine’s parrot – was my first bird, and she taught me a lot (not the least of which was the value of stainless steel skewers!)  Hollowed fruits and veggies make great edible foraging vessels. I’ve used apples, cucumbers, zucchini, squashes, artichokes, just about anything that can be eaten raw, with no complaints from my parrots. The other upside is that I can shove things like pine nuts and shelled almonds into the flesh of many of these foods for added foraging.

In addition to using fresh food as foraging devices, there are several acrylic and plastic foraging devices on the market that do the job well, along with the almighty stainless steel food skewer. Jungle Talk makes two of my favorites – the Find-a-Treat and the Carousel. Both of these toys are made of a tough polymer that even Miss Dolly the (Un)Cape hasn’t been able to break, and they’re washable and reusable. Caitec also has a whole line of acrylic foraging toys and we’ve used several of these (though Miss Dolly has been able to break several of these toys, so use caution – they’re pricy and could pose a threat if broken.)

With all of these “wet food foraging” options, there’s no excuse for offering our birds the “good stuff” in a dish and making them work only for the dry stuff!

“Chop” is a healthy, fresh, biologically appropriate diet that, with a little effort, can be foraged for. When done right, it provides a wide variety of nutrients, and plenty of enrichment. The ideal diet!

Feeding Your Flock: Part 3

In our last few posts, we disected popular pelleted diets and examined why feeding a grain-based diet isn’t the best route to follow for your parrots’ health. In this post, we’ll take a look at the downfalls of “mash” diets.

“Mash” diets

So-called “mash” diets take many forms, but they all have one thing in common: they’re based on cooked legumes and grains. The typical mash diet is comprised of 30-50% cooked grains and legumes (usually recommended in a two parts grain to one part legume ration for a “complete protein”), 40-50% veggies and fruits, and the remainder is various amounts of pellets, dry or sprouted seeds, and supplements. They’re touted as healthier and in some cases, complete diets that provide birds with important enrichment that they’re just not going to get with monotonous pelleted diets. And it has always been recommended that mash diets be finely chopped – preferably in a food processor – so that birds can’t pick out their “favorite” bits.

We already know that grains aren’t the best choice for your parrot’s base diet, but what about cooked beans? And what’s all this about “complete proteins” and making sure our birds get them at every meal? What about monotony?!

It’s probably fresher, but it’s not necessarily healthier.

The first – though not the most obvious – problem with these “mash” diets are that they’re too high in phosphorus, especially if fed as the sole diet, the base of the diet, or as part of a diet based on grain-filled pellets. Parrots need a calcium to phosphorus ratio of 1:1 to 2:1. So if you’re feeding a “mash” diet comprised of 50% cooked mixed legumes and grains, 30% veggies, 10% fruits, and 10% pellets and supplements, you’ll have to convince your parrots to actually consume 1-2 times the amount of calcium rich foods for every bean they eat – if he eats a tablespoon of carb-rich beans, you need to make sure he actually consumes 1-2 tablespoons of calcium rich greens (or the equivalent of an avian calcium supplement.) Not an easy feat for the average bird owner.

The second problem – and by far the most obvious one – is that mash diets are based on cooked grains and legumes, and in case anyone didn’t notice, parrots don’t cook. They couldn’t even if they wanted to. Parrots can’t eat dry beans because of trypsin-inhibitors and other “anti-nutrients.” So why feed them a diet based on cooked foods that are wholly unnatural, and potentially toxic to them in their raw form?

Bean-based diets also have a skewed protein and carbohydate ratio, with an average of 8-12 grams of protein in every half cup cooked serving. A quarter cup of mixed cooked grains has an average of 4 grams of protein. So one cup of mixed cooked beans and grains contains about 14 grams of protein. If you mix equal portions of spinach, collards, broccoli, and green peas to make an a total of 2 cups, you’ll have added about another 7.5 grams of protein, for a grand total of about 11 grams of protein in a cup.

It’s my understanding that birds are capable of consuming 15-20% of their body weight daily, and it is generally accepted that parrots need 10-15% of their daily calories from protein, depending on a variety of factors including species, age, activity level, and reproductive status. As an example, a 400 gram African Grey will consume up to 80 grams, or just under 3 ounces, of food each day. That’s about 5.5 tablespoons. There are about 16 tablespoons in a cup, so this 400 gram Grey will consume about 1/3 of a cup of food each day. If half of that 1/3 cup is beans and grains, than 1/6 of a cup of our prepared bean/grain/veggie mix, there will be approximately 4 grams of protein.

We know from studying human nutrition that a gram of protein contains 4 calories, a gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, and a gram of fat contains 9 calories. That 1/6 cup of cooked beans and grains is going to contain about 30 grams of carbohydrates or about 120 calories just from carbs, with a measley 12 calories coming from protein, and a whopping 36 calories from the 3 or so grams of fat contained in the bean/grain mix. Just to clarify, 3 grams of fat is about 5% of the recommended daily allowance for fat in a 2,000 calorie diet for an adult human. 30 grams of carbohydrates is about 10% of the recommended daily intake for an adult human on a 2,000 calorie diet.

A 150 pound human weighs approximately 67,950 grams.  Assuming that this human is an average 5’5″ female in her mid 20’s, she would need appriximately 2,000 calories to maintain this weight. See where I’m going with this?

Companion parrots – biologically designed to consume large amounts of raw foliage and fruits – rarely have the opportunity to fly in captivity, and even those that do have the opportunity don’t fly anywhere near as much as their wild counterparts, burning far fewer calories by default. And we, thinking that we’re doing the best by them, fill them with unnatural, carb and fat-rich cooked foods, clip their wings, and wonder why they “misbehave.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, an abundance of calorie-rich foods has been demonstrated to induce breeding behaviors, and since so many of us are in the habit of providing them with a no-work-required dish full of warm, calorie-dense food (far more than they could ever consume at once), we leave them in a constant state of arousal with a strong desire to find a mate.

Are you still wondering why so many companion parrots are fat and angry?

Now, cooked whole, human-grade foods are without a doubt fresher (and healthier) than highly processed pellets made from cheap fillers loaded with synthetic vitamins and table sugar. But they’re still not the diet that nature intended for parrots to consume every day.

In our next post, we’ll talk about feeding our birds the way they’re meant to eat – with whole, raw foods – on a budget!

Feeding Your Flock: Part 2

We all know that seed-based diets are harmful for our parrots, and in our last post, we took a look at two of the  most popular pelleted diets for companion parrots (Zupreem & Harrison’s brands); in this post, we’re going to discuss why those foods – and other grain and soy based pelleted diets – aren’t the best choice for your bird’s staple diet if you want them to experience health and vitality.

Feeding a diet based on soy and grains is asking for problems in the long term.Why? The vast majority of parrot species did not evolve to eat grains, and there is no species of parrot that evolved to eat the modern, lab-created genetically altered and hybridized grains we have now. Soy isn’t a natural food source for parrots, and is toxic to all monogastric animals when fed raw. Soy must be processed using high-heat to be edible by most species of animals, including humans and parrots; in short, it must be processed to death in order to even be edible! There’s also significant evidence that soy hinders assimilation of important nutrients, like calcium and protein, among other things.

The Granivorous Myth

“Granivorous” parrot species include Budgies, Cockatiels, and some cockatoo species, and some species that evolved to eat a diet consisting mostly of nuts (like the Hyacinth macaw) are also considered granivorous. But even amongst the species considered to be granivorous, the diet still consists of 20-50% foliage, leaf buds, flowers, fruits, berries, and insects. Most importantly, the grain-seeds that these species have evolved to eat are not the same as the grains we offer them in captivity; domestic grains are different in nutritional content – and have completely different DNA – than wild grains, and many are more difficult for parrots (and some humans) to digest.

Gluten grains – like rye, barley, and wheat – are difficult to digest and put an enormous strain on the digestive systems of humans, so one can only imagine the havoc they can wreak on the sensitive systems of parrots, who have, with few exceptions, evolved to consume a diet rich in living greens and phytonutrients. Gluten intolerances and allergies have been linked to several health problems in humans, including depression, chronic indigestion, and chronic Candida albacans (yeast) infections. In parrots, yeast infections are fairly common and can result in a bird that is listless or “depressed” and likely over-preens or plucks it’s feathers.

Grain-based pelleted diets are also likely much higher in protein and fat than most species are designed to consume, since commercially available diets for parrots aren’t based on the little that we know about the diets of wild parrots at all – instead, these diets are based on what we know about the poultry industry!

Yes, you read that right: diets formulated for parrots are based on ultra-high protein and calcium rich diets designed to help chickens grow abnormally fast (reaching more than their normal adult weight by about 8 weeks old) or to lay an abnormal amount of eggs (laying hens reach the end of their lives by about 5 months of age; chickens can live an average of 7 years.) If that weren’t enough to make you think twice, consider this: chickens have large ceca (or “pockets” in the intestines that contain bacteria that help with digestion), parrots, on the other hand, don’t have ceca at all! (PDF)

Parrots aren’t chickens, and they shouldn’t be fed like chickens!

Rather than grain-based diets, Carolyn Swicegood of Land of Vos advocates for a diet rich in fresh, raw foods with an emphasis on leafy greens…and I agree! Why?

  • All wild parrot species’ naturally consume a raw diet of greens, berries, fruits, and other living foods.
  • None of our captive parrots are more than a few generations out of the wild (with the exceptions of cockatiels, parakeets, and lovebirds), so slective breeding hasn’t yet domesticated them (though that’s a topic for another day.)
  • Tamed, but otherwise wild, animals have identical digestive systems as their wild counterparts.

Common diet related ailments amongst captive parrots include vitamin A, vitamin K, and calcium deficiencies. With that in mind, consider this – leafy greens are:

  • Loaded with natural, easily assimilated vitamin A.
  • Packed with natural (and non-toxic) vitamin K
  • Full of important phytonutrients that help prevent heart disease, cancer, and other health issues
  • Richer in calcium than cow’s milk
  • Contain folic acid, magnesium, and potassium, among other vital nutrients!

(This article, written by Carolyn Swicegood, explains the importance of greens in our parrots’ diet in far greater detail than I could ever hope to.)

I have personally seen a great difference in my adopted parrots since switching them to a greens-based diet. My Jardine’s, who I’ve had since she was about 6 months old, hasn’t eaten a grain-based diet since we brought her home. She was immediately switched to a diet consisting of fresh, live food, raw leafy greens, veggies, fruits, and nuts, and remains the best looking Jardine’s parrot I have seen in captivity. Blood testing also shows that her vitamin and mineral levels are perfect.

The birds I’ve adopted – a Senegal, a Cape parrot, and a Hahn’s macaw – were not as lucky and their behavior and appearance made it obvious.

My adopted Senegal was fed a diet consisting of about 85% Harrison’s High Potency pellets, with the remaining 15% of the diet comprised of Harrison’s Power Treats, bits of apple, pasta, and junk food like bread, pretzels, and chips. This diet was at the recommendation of his previous owner’s veterinarian – that the bird be fed a diet consisting of a minimum of 80% Harrison’s High Potency, and up to 20% “treats” (which the owner interpreted as human junk food.) The feathers that he still had were dull, and had a lot of stress bars. His feet were always red, flakey, and inflamed-looking; he was underweight, listless, and aggressive in and out of his cage. Is it any wonder that this poor little bird developed gout and over-preened, plucked, and mutilated himself?

My Cape parrot was fed a diet consisting almost entirely of cooked white pasta (with frozen corn, peas, and carrots, thrown in every once in a while), sunflower, and safflower seeds. She was deficient in nearly every vitamin and mineral you could think of, was about 60 grams underweight, and her feathers looked horrible. She was a “mild” plucker, and her feathers looked ragged, worn, and dull. Some of her feathers were orange or white (when they should have been green) from follicle damage caused by plucking, and from a lack of nutrition. Her beak was flakey and slightly over grown, her feet were dry and scaley, she was physically weak (unable to move about her cage or grip a perch properly) and she was always sleeping and irritable. She is about 11 years old, and even after 8 months with me she is still recovering from 10 or so years of poor nutrition – her feathers are growing back slowly but surely, though they are brittle and break easily, and she is up to a normal healthy weight.

The little Hahn’s that I shared my home with all too briefly did not fare as well as the other two. At barely two years old, he had liver disease so severe that it killed him. He was weaned onto a diet consisting nearly entirely of sunflower and safflower seeds – which would have caught up with him, eventually – but what did the damage was that his previous owner thought it was “funny” to give him alcohol. During the three months that he lived with me, he screamed nearly constantly, was incredibly fearful and aggressive, and refused to eat much of anything besides dry seed. Surprisingly, he was not a plucker, but he did over-preen and was covered in damaged feathers and stress bars. He came a long way in a short time, but his life was cut short because his humans made poor decisions.

Though my little Hahn’s didn’t make it, my Senegal and Cape parrots are fast on their way to becoming vibrant, healthy birds, with vibrant, healthy feathers, and I owe it to a diet based on greens and raw, live food. They deserve it!

In our next post, we’ll take a look at “mash” diets, the nutritional needs of different species, and how to make feeding a fresh-food diet as easy as 1-2-3!

Feeding Your Flock Right

I admit it: I’m really particular about what I feed my birds – their regular diet doesn’t contain any peanuts or any dry seed, they get very little (if any) grains, are never fed anything containing soy, and (with the exception of my Cape parrot) they get very few nuts. The only pellets they recieve are Totally Organics and I don’t supplement their diet with any artificial vitamins or minerals.

I’ve been told, time and time again, that I’m too picky about what I offer them by everyone from fellow bird lovers to my co-workers at the bird store. But I don’t feel that way, at all. In fact, I wish more people were more particular about what they fed their birds, because what we offer them impacts everything about them from their appearance and health to their hormones and their behavior.

Now, hopefully, we all know that seed-only diets are bad news for parrots. But incase you forgot, I’ll explain why. Most seed blends consist primarily of  sunflower and/or safflower seed, millet, oats and/or oat groats, dried corn, buckwheat, peanuts, and dried peppers. Even if your parrot consumes every bit of food in the mix, this is not a nutritionally sound or complete diet, even if the seeds are “fortified”, because the “fortification” process involves spraying a vitamin and mineral mixture onto the seed hulls, which are discarded by your bird. Since birds don’t have saliva, they don’t actually consume much (or any) of the sprayed-on supplements.

Dry seed diets are notoriously lacking vitamins A and K, calcium, and other necessary vitamins and minerals. They’re too high in fat and lack protein. And regardless of what anyone tells you – including the manufacturers of these diets – absolutely none of the seeds found in seed blends are “natural” for your parrot to be consuming. There are no sunflower or safflower seeds growing wild in the jungles of South America, the rainforests of Africa, or the sand dunes of Australia. But the manufacturers of these diets would love for you to believe that there are. But is there a better alternative? These same manufacturers would also love for you to believe that the answer to all-seed diets are all (or mostly) pelleted diets based on modern, genetically altered cereal grains (which also aren’t available in your parrots’ native environments!)

But let’s take a look at some popular commercially available pellets, and how they can impact our parrots’ in more ways than one. To understand what those ingredient lists really mean, we need to first understand how to read them.

  • Ingredients are listed by weight (inlcuding water, even if the water is removed during processing)
  • Ingredients must be listed by their “common” name
  • Anything listed before the first named source of fat (or oil) make up the bulk of the diet
  • Anything listed after the first named source of fat (or oil) are present in significantly smaller amounts and generally either add flavor, function as a preservative, or are vitamin/mineral/probiotic supplements
  • “Crude” guarantees (minimum for protein and fat; maximum for moisture and fiber) refers only to the method of testing done to determine these numbers, not to the actual quality of bioavailability or digestability of the nutrient itself (A fantastic example from The Dog Food Project: A chunk of  meat and a handful of ground up feathers are both sources of  protein, chicken fat and discarded restaurant grease both  provide fat. Which would you rather pay for, but much more important – which would you rather feed your dog day in and day out?)

All of that being said, let’s look at what is arguably the most popular pelleted food on the market: Zupreem FruitBlend. (PDF)

The main ingredients of Zupreem FruitBlend are ground corn, soybean meal, and ground wheat, with the first fat/oil source being vegetable oil. Following vegetable oil are wheat germ meal and sucrose (sugar), followed by calcium sources, ground fruit, and artificial vitamins and minerals. It does contain ground fruit (bananas, oranges, apples, and grapes) fairly high up on the list of ingredients, but does not specify what parts of the fruit are used (whole fruit, skin/peel, etc.)

What this tells us is that Zupreem FruitBlend is, essentially, ground grains with vitamins, minerals, and flavors added. It contains both artificial colors and artificial flavors. It (along with most other commercially available foods) also contains “Menadione Sodium Bisulfate Complex“, an artificial source of vitamin K (“vitamin K3”) which has been linked to liver damage, irritation of the skin and mucous membranes, and immune system weakening, and has never been approved for long-term use in pet foods. It is banned as an additive or supplement to foods intended for human consumption because of it’s potential toxicity.

The other Zupreem blends – including the new Veggie and Nut blends – read much the same. It’s also interesting to note that the NutBlend doesn’t actually contain any nuts, but does list sugar quite high on their ingredients lists. Despite being a common and popular food, recommended by pet stores around the country, I (and many others) would not consider it a quality diet by any means.

What about so-called “high-quality” foods, like Harrison’s Adult Lifetime? Though the ingredients list contains some better ingredients than Zupreem, and there is no artificial Vitamin K, it is still a diet based on grains. The main ingredients are ground yellow corn, ground hull-less barley, ground soybeans, and ground peanuts (the first named fat source.) The remaining ingredients are reasonably good ones, including alfalfa, montmorillonite clay, and sea kelp (a natural source of vitamin K.) It is a significantly better food than Zupreem, but it is still mostly ground grains with items added for their flavor or vitamin/mineral content.

Even though Harrison’s is a higher quality – and far superior – diet than Zupreem, it is still far from an appropriate staple diet for our companion parrots.

Want to know why? Stay tuned – in the next post, we’ll discuss why a diet based on grains isn’t suitable for our parrots, and what we can do to feed our flocks right!

The “ABCs” of Behavior

In the last post, I talked about the dominance fallacy and how labelling your parrot as “dominant” does a great disservice to both your bird and yourself. Today, I’d like to talk about what’s really going on when your parrot refuses to step up off her cage top, chases and bites toes, and does other things you wish she wouldn’t do.

What are the “ABCs”?

“ABC” stands for Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence, and it is the basis for all behavior that our pets (and ourselves) perform on a daily basis. It is how animals (including humans) learn how to behave in any given scenario or context on a daily basis, just by interacting with their environment and the people in it.

An antecedent (A) is what happens immediately before any given behavior (B) occurs, and the consequence (C) immediately follows the behavior, either increasing (“reinforcing”) the behavior or decreasing (“punishing”) that behavior.

So, for example, if you ask your parrot to step up from his play stand only to place him directly in his cage, there are very strong odds that, over time, your parrot will learn that being picked up off of his play stand means going back into his cage, and he will likely begin displaying behavior like lunging and biting in order to avoid being put back in his cage. The problem (getting bitten) is a result of the consequence (going back to the cage) you provide for stepping up off of the playstand. To remedy the situation, you need to make it worthwhile for your bird to step up from the play stand for you.

Initially, you may need to give your parrot a reason to do as you ask. Offering a tasty treat to your parrot by showing him something he desires before asking him to step up will help you prevent a bite. When he complies with your request, he gets the food reward, but should also be randomly put back on the play stand (this is called a “double” reward) so that the association between stepping up off the play stand and being put back in his cage is broken.

Though it is generally more complicated than this, these rules apply to every scenario that boggles and frustrates parrot owners, and that makes it much easier to work with and reverse undesirable behaviors than does labelling a bird a “dominant” – and therefore “bad” – and leaving it to be someone else’s problem.

We play a major role in our companions’ behavior, but that’s a topic for my next post!

Dominance in Parrots: Fact of Fallacy?

Dominance is hotly debated topic in the animal training world, and it’s one that I encounter daily in my consulting practices with both dog owners and parrot owners alike. But does it hold any merit? Behavior science says no.

A common misconception regarding companion parrots is that parrots possess an innate desire or personality trait that drives them to try to dominate their owners, and that their owners must establish and strongly enforce a higher rank over their parrots to maintain control. This idea seems to have a life of it’s own, despite not having any basis or backing in behavioral science.

Religion, education, the military, and corporate organizations all have one thing in common: they instill a sense of linear social hierarchies in us. From them, we learn to give commands to those “below” us, take orders from those “above” us, and constantly vie for a higher position. This life experience makes us prone to something known as “observer expectancy bias”, which means that we see (or think we see) in other species that which we expect, and this accounts for relentless idea that dominance is what causes a parrot to refuse to step up off of it’s cage.

The concept has been applied to any and every scenario in which a parrot might not do as asked, and that is especially true if the parrot displays any sort of aggression or fear response. “Height dominance”, “floor dominance”, “cage dominance”, “shoulder dominance”, and other concepts all revolve around the idea that it is an inherent trait in all parrots that causes them to have behavior problems like these ones.

What does science say?

Even scientists can’t decide on one definition of the word “dominance.” Though the technical definition usually involves any given animal’s access to valued resources like food, shelter, and mating rights, science does agree that there is no real way to measure, quantify, or define social dominance. Barnett (1981) states the following in Modern Etology:

“Dominance should be distinguished from an animal’s superiority resulting from its being in its ow territory. Dominance should also be distinguished from being a leader.” (p. 633).

Another aspect not typically considered is that several other factors – including prior learning experiences, motivation, and contexts – and these are the main basis for all behavior.

There is no evidence that suggests that wild flocks of parrots of any species have any social hierarchies, and if any evidence does appear, there is no reason to believe that the same concepts concerning wild parrots would have any impact on the parrot-human relationship.

A self-fulfilling prophecy.

When people have certain expectations for behavior, they act differently and tend to get exactly what they expect, and since “dominance” is generally considered to be a character or personality trait – something inherently present in the bird – the concept is shifted into something much more ominous: the bird is labeled as a “bad bird”, and since dominance is inherently present, the bird is inherently bad. This results in a very convenient excuse for getting rid of the bird instead of taking responsibility for our part in the bird’s behavior (we do, after all, control every aspect of a bird’s life by definition.)

The concept of dominance also gives owners an excuse (and in some cases, a reason) to use forceful techniques to “counter dominate” their bird, and absolves owners from searching for causes for and solutions to behavior problems since the act of labeling any given problem gives us a false sense of closure by giving the problem a name.

In short, there is no place for dominance in animal training. The concept is at best a flawed one since we are not parrots and parrots are not humans. If any such social hierarchies exist in wild parrots, they surely would not apply to companion parrots who live a very different life from their wild counterparts. Parrots do  not have hands or fingers, and don’t use towels, cage covers, “vet grabs”, or hitting to punish one another. Wild parrots can fly away from a conflict, whereas captive parrots usually cannot, and so learn to use their beak to gain a little control over their situation.

So if it’s not dominance, what is it?

In the next post, we’ll discuss the “ABCs” of behavior, and what’s really going on when your bird won’t step up off the top of her cage. Stay tuned!

Choosing a Suitable Cage: Part 2

Yesterday, I touched on the importance of choosing an appropriately sized cage for your parrot. Today, I’d like to discuss some other important factors that should come into play when choosing a cage.

Of course, the most important factor in choosing a cage for your parrot should be size – preferably as large as is feasible for your living arrangement. Another important factor is cage shape. Round (or hexagonal) cages aren’t suitable for parrots because they don’t provide the security of a solid wall to hide against when enxious, and it is extremely difficult to properly place perches, toys, and dishes in them. Parrots in round cages don’t have any point of reference for location and territories, which is essential for them to feel confident, secure, and safe in their own home.

Round or hexagonal cages also tend to be tall and narrow, which – as we discussed yesterday – isn’t appropriate for parrots. Square or rectangular cages provide a maximum amount of space, but there are several decent corner cages on the market that are suitable for birds ranging from cockatiels to cockatoos as well.

What other factors should you consider when choosing a cage? There are several!

  • Material – powder coated cages work well for most birds, but won’t necessarily last for your bird’s lifetime. Most will inevitably chip and rust, and eventually need to be replaced. For birds who chew their cage’s bars, stainless steel is the only way to go. Though the initial investment is pricy, a stainless steel cage will last a lifetime and then some!
  • Bar spacing – must be small enough that your bird cannot get his head through the bars. Bar spacing should be no larger than the space between your parrot’s eyes.
  • Bar thickness – be sure that the cage you’ve chosen has bars that are thick enough that they cannot easily be broken by your parrot. Use common sense here, and never underestimate the power of your bird’s beak. Larger birds (and birds with very large beaks, like Poicephalus) have very strong beaks capable of breaking bar welds or even actual bars. Know your bird, know your cage, and choose accordingly.
  • Ease of cleaning – the easier a cage is to clean, the cleaner it will be. Birds need a very clean living environment to stay healthy, and it’s important that you be able to clean both soiled papers and a soiled grate without ever opening the cage. This is especially important if you ever need to have someone else clean the cage for you.
  • Outside dish access – nearly all cages come with outside access doors for food and water dishes, and although I do not use the dishes that come with my birds’ cages, I know that should I ever need to have someone else care for my birds that both caretaker and parrots will be safer if dishes can be accessed without the main door ever being opened.
  • Make it escape-proof – parrots are intelligent, and a determined one can figure out how to open door latches just by watching you do it. Cockatoos and macaws seem to make up the majority of escapees, but my UnCape, Jardine’s, and Timneh all require cages with “bird proof” locks!
  • Dometop or playtop? – Playtop cages are great for folks with limited space who want to provide their birds with another place to hangout. I prefer dometop cages (or, more specifically “fan top” or “victorian top” cages) so that my birds get more natural light (and so that their artificial lighting is placed appropriately.) I just attach rope perches,  java perches, and grapevine “cage playtops” to the tops and sides of their cages, hang toys, and voila – instant play top cage! And I can change it around and mix it up as often as I like. With flighted birds, I especially find that the fold-down door on the fan top cages is essential during training, and being able to attach branches and toys to the top of the cage in any manner that I choose means that I can provide landing spots for the birds.

Once you’ve figured out what will best suit your bird and your lifestyle, shop around. Prices for various cages vary greatly depending on the seller, but expect to pay about $200.00 for a quality powder coated cage for a conure-sized bird, and several hundred for medium-sized birds. Stainless steel cages often range in the thousands, but are well worth the cost.

Choosing a Suitable Cage: Part 1

I’ve seen a recent trend towards so-called “space saver” cages; cages designed to be very tall, but very narrow. I’ve yet to see any of these cages that are appropriate for any bird, let alone the birds that they are marketed towards. Since parrots are, by nature, active, intelligent, and inquisitive creatures, housing them in such a small space is inappropriate and saddening.

This cage, for example. Dimensions are 27″ wide by 24″ deep. This is a decent cage size for a very small parrot – such as a lovebird – or for less active species, like cockatiels, but it isn’t roomy enough for any species larger, and certainly not large enough for a grey or Amazon. Although the cage goes nearly to the floor, at least the lower third of that cage is wasted since most birds will never venture down there, and anything placed in the lower 2/3rds of a cage designed like this will get covered in poop quickly.

Pyrrhura conures like Green Cheeks, though about the size of a cockatiel, need significantly larger cages due to their activity level. Phoenix Landing, a well known and respected avian rescue resource, recommends a minimum cage size of 32″x23″ for them – and other conures, Lories, and small Poicephalus – and I tend to agree. Unfortunately, most larger birds – like greys and Eclectus – rarely even get to live in a cage this large.

A main concern for caregivers is whether or not any given cage suits our home’s style, but there’s more to choosing a cage than just our personal taste in decor. Sure, we’d like for our birds’ cages to fit in with the rest of our furniture, but in order to choose a cage that will suit our birds, we need to see things from a very different perspective.

The cage we choose is more than just something that prevents our parrots from destroying the house. Their cage is their house, and just as much as we wouldn’t choose to live in small, cramped quarters if we had a better option, we should not force our birds into small spaces just for our convenience.

Companion parrots usually have the ability to fly removed via wing feather clipping, and unless an aviary is provided, even unclipped parrots in a large cage will not fly. Instead, they climb along perches, toys, and cage bars using their feet and beak. They move laterally – from one side to another – and being prey animals who have evolved to equate height with safety, they’ll spend the vast majority of their time in the “canopy” of their cage: the very top. For a grey in the 27″x24″ cage above, their home is going to consist of little more than a two foot cube, and considering that the average adult Congo grey has a wingspan of about 20″, this doesn’t leave much room for toys or wing flapping inside.

Some ground foraging species – like ‘tiels and greys – may venture down to the grate to explore, but are much less likely to do so if the grate is inches from the floor, or if the grate is level with the head of a predatory canine.

We already know that parrots aren’t like cats or dogs, but keeping a parrot as a pet also requires a lot more real estate within our homes than do cats or dogs who generally are happy with a sleeping area and a box of toys, and perhaps a crate or room for confinement during training. Parrots, on the other hand, require large, spacious cages, several play areas outside of and away from their main cage, and possibly a night/travel cage for sleeping in. For most people, providing appropriate cages and play areas is something they only think about (or are made aware of) after they’ve already bought a too-small cage from a untrained sales associate at a local pet store. Sometimes, it’s a matter of how much space they have available for a cage and play area. Sometimes, it’s the result of the bad (and incorrect) advice that a bird in a small cage will be more eager to get out of it when asked to step up.

Regardless of the reason, I’d love to see the trend swing towards providing roomy, fun-filled cage environments that are significantly longer than they are tall, and at least half as deep as they are wide. It’s important to remember that these are creatures born to inherit the vast expanses of the skies and the trees, and they deserve the best – and the biggest – that we can afford.

Our Thanksgiving Parrot Menu

Thanksgiving isn’t just for humans anymore. I’ve long been preparing meals for my four dogs, and I can’t remember a time in my life where the pets in my house didn’t get something “special” on Thanksgiving. So, when I got parrots, it was only logical that I share with them, as well. Obviously, parrots cannot eat everything we eat, and certainly not after we’ve added all the sugar, salt, butter, and other things that make it all so unhealthy but delicious, so we’ve come up with a few healthy treats you can use to spoil your parrots without compromising their health today!

Pumpkin Muesli

  • 1/4 Cup Bob’s Red Mill Old Country Style Muesli
  • 2 Tbsp. canned pumpkin
  • 1 Tbsp. Unsweetened almond milk
  • Dash of powdered cinnamon or a pinch of chipped whole cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a microwave safe bowl and heat until the grains are tender and let cool. Add pumpkin and/or almond milk to desired consistency – my birds like it thick and sticky, but yours may prefer it thinner. Provides essential vitamin A, calcium, and B-vitamins. For added nutrition, mix in fresh chopped greens. This will feed approximately four medium parrots.

Apple Delight

  • Four small apples
  • 2 tbsp. wheat germ
  • 2 tbsp. chopped raisins, dates, or figs
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts
  • Dash of cinnamon
  • Optional – Coconut oil and/or Palm oil

Core apples and place in a glass dish. Combine wheat germ, chopped fruit, chopped nuts, and cinnamon and fill cored apples. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes, or until desired tenderness. Provides several vitamins, including B vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. To increase vitamin A content, drizzle with Palm oil. Coconut oil is a fantastic skin and feather conditioner!

Sweet Potato Chips

  • One (or more) large sweet potato
  • Cornmeal or flour of your choice (my birds prefer millet or garbanzo bean flour)
  • Crushed red pepper or ground cayenne

Peel one large sweet potato and cut into 1/4 inch slices (or strips, if you’d like “fries”). Rinse under cold water, and coat chips or fried in mixture of cornmeal/flour and pepper. Spread over a foil-lined cookie sheet in a single layer, and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Provides essential vitamin A, protein, and various other nutrients depending on your coating choices.

Whole Grain Birdie Stuffing

  • 1 Cup Cubed 12 grain bread
  • 2 tbsp Fresh or sulfur-free dried cranberries
  • 1/4 Cup Grated carrots
  • 1/8 Cup Grated apples
  • Cooked or sprouted chick peas
  • 1/2 Cup boiling water

Mix cubed bread, cranberries, carrots, apples, and chickpeas (if cooked) together well. Add boiling water and let the mixture sit until all or most of the water is absorbed. If using sprouted chick peas, add them when the mixture has cooled to preserve their raw sprouted state. Provides vitamin A, B vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and protein.

These are just a few of the treats that my birds will be receiving today, along with millet flour muffins with lentils and greens, and their usual offerings which consist mostly of chopped greens and veggies.

We hope your birds enjoy them as much as ours do! Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

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