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our parrots may become quiet when we are sad, but it’s more likely that they’re quiet because we’re often quiet and withdrawn when we’re sad, rather than some unseen energy.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