Raising an Independent Parrot

Parrots are, by nature, very social creatures. Being flock – and prey – animals, they are programmed to crave nearly constant social contact with their flockmates for safety, and are only rarely seen alone in the wild. But for our companions, especially those who live in single-bird households, the need for social contact can become troublesome.

Fugi, our Jardine’s parrot, was our first bird, and she fit right in from the day we brought her home. Jardine’s, along with the other Poicephalus parrot species, are generally capable of entertaining themselves while you’re busy or away, and she was no different. She didn’t seek constant visual or vocal contact with us, and was about as low-key as a six month old parrot could be. That is, until, I brought home a young Hahn’s macaw who had been neglected, tossed from home to home, and likely abused.

That tiny macaw came with all sorts of behavioral problems, including almost non-stop screaming, an intense fear of hands, blankets, towels, and anything else made of fabric, a “seed addiction”, and an inability to play or otherwise entertain himself. He was a DNA’d male, and testing showed that he had severe liver disease, which likely accounted for some of his behavior problems.

Jax was “vet grabbed” and “toweled” as punishment in the past, and while that accounted for his fear of hands, physical contact with humans, and any cloth items, it did not account for his inability to entertain himself. He had a fantastic vocabulary, and would say things like “Hey baby!” and “I love you!” to get my attention, and he was a master at making kissy noises, so I knew that he had been well loved at some point, likely as a very young parrot. That was also likely why he hadn’t learned how to play with toys, but knew that screaming and talking would get our attention in a snap.

Jax, my 2-3 year old Hahn's

When purchasing a baby parrot, you often hear one of two very different things. You’re either told to be careful not to “spoil” the bird with “too much” attention, otherwise he will come to expect all that attention all of the time; or you’re told to dote on your new baby and give him all of the attention and affection he desires. What you’re not told is that neither of these two choices are really “the right one”, and that you really have nurture your baby while teaching him to be confident and independent. (Moms out there will recognize this concept!)

Baby parrots are doted on by their parents in much the same way that baby humans are. They are fed by their parents for much longer than they are typically fed when hand raised for the pet trade, and adult parrots will continue to feed their babies, even after fledging and weaning occur, seemingly for comfort. Hand-raised babies rarely have this same opportunity, and will often beg for food or otherwise seek comfort in their human caretakers, even after they are weaned and eating enough food on their own to maintain a healthy weight. If your baby is frightened or bothered by something, by all means, make an effort to make the situation better and comfort your baby! Baby parrots deserve the same comfort and attention in captivity that they would receive in the wild, and they are programmed to need this attention for survival.

However, when a baby parrot never learns to be independent, and to occupy its time appropriately, it will develop behavior problems – like screaming for attention – in the future. As parrot owners, we have an innate desire to coddle baby parrots and keep them with us constantly, but this doesn’t serve our parrots well. There are several things that parrots in captivity need to learn that do not suit their wild nature, and those things include spending time in a cage and entertaining themselves. We can teach them how to enjoy these things by ensuring that all of their needs are met. Even if your baby is weaned and eating enough on its own to maintain weight, offer it a warm, nutritious meal either in a dish in its cage, by spoon or syringe, or by hand periodically. A youngster with a crop full of warm food is more likely to explore new foods and play with new toys than one that is hungry, just as humans who eat a nutritious meal perform better than those that are hungry.

Blue Fronted Amazons eating "mash" from a spoon.

Foraging is an important part of life for all parrots, but it is especially helpful for teaching baby parrots to be independent. By incorporating food into toys, parrots learn that playing with toys pays off. Studies have also shown that parrots presented with the opportunity to forage will choose to work for their food, even if the same food is available in a dish, so foraging provides the dual benefit of keeping your parrot busy filling his crop while he plays with toys. You may need to show your parrot that there is food in the toys, and keep things simple, at first, but as your baby grows, gains confidence, and learns to play, his toys can be made more intricate and difficult.

It took my little Hahn’s, Jax, a month to try new foods. It was almost another months before he played with a toy – a food skewer with apple slices and coffee filters filled with small amounts of seed and pellets, twisted into small “packets” – but once he got the hang of it, he was swinging around and tearing his toys apart, even if he didn’t always eat the food items he found. He had learned that toys were fun because sometimes, you got yummy food out of them, and his screaming lessened considerably as his ability to entertain himself increased.

Sadly, Jax passed away from liver disease in June of this year. Though he was only with me for four months, I have no doubt that he taught me even more than I taught him. Most importantly, I think we both learned that giving up just isn’t an option. Even a clingy, fearful parrot who screams incessantly when their favored person is away can learn to be more confident and independent!

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