Communal Housing 1: Parrots Like People

As the title will hopefully show, this is the beginnings of a series of writings that will eventually be collated into a single page on the rational parrot page. However, I’m not currently in a mental or physical state to sit down and write it all at once, and I like the feedback, so I’m going to do blog posts first, refine my ideas, and then create an easy link for those who want to share it.

This information is based on science (studies will be linked in later articles), observations that I’ve done, observations that other people have done, and ethology (wild behaviour). This is, at the heart of it, my opinion, based on what I have seen and what I have learned. As with anything else out there on the internet, please take this with a grain of salt, and take from it what applies to you and what resonates with you. I will, to the best of my ability, back up my opinion with the sources and realizations that created it and continue to refine it.

The topic of this writing is a controversial one, specifically, the idea of keeping parrots in pairs or flocks in our households. Once upon a time, and to some degree still, many people said that a parrot who had another parrot that they lived with would not want to interact with people, that they’d lose their relationship with them.

This is true. And false. There’s two pieces here that I’m going to address separately.

1) Parrots who are empowered to choose otherwise frequently seek out people who are rewarding to interact with.

Here’s a few interesting pictures and videos that make my point better than I could, with some explanations.

This is a picture of a flighted parrot who lives in a large aviary with multiple other parrots flying to me.

Although I do not personally desire to free fly parrots (and please, do not do so without phenomenal amounts of training and preferably a mentor), the fact that parrots regularly can fly away and do not makes my point for me.

Watch this video of wild parrots interacting with Mark Bittner in San Francisco. These are parrots who live and thrive in an urban environment who have plenty of food and plenty of opportunity to avoid people and who chose not to in this case.

Nearly all the videos of Hookbill Aviary in Seattle show this exceptionally clearly. These are birds who live a hugely enriched life and yet still want to interact with people.

Dana McDonald’s video of her insane but wonderful household. All of the parrots in question are flighted and thus have choice to leave and yet clearly are enjoying themselves (as are the people involved).

Cockatoo Downs has an enormous number of pictures of free flighted birds that make my point better than I can.

The grey on the head of this charming man is Bandit, who spends every meeting of the York Region Parrot Club visiting all the people in the room… and he’s not the only one

I could go on for weeks with similar pictures and similar stories. There are many, many examples of parrots who, when given the choice to choose otherwise, desire to interact with some specific people.

There’s two big pieces there that a lot of people miss that are really really key.

a) EMPOWERED TO CHOOSE OTHERWISE.

Every single one of those parrots above is flighted. They can leave if they wish. Giving animals the ability to choose whether or not to interact is one of the most important ways to build a relationship with them, and one of the things humans tend to take away the quickest. Sometimes, it’s for safety (leashes, clipped wings, harnesses, doors, cages, etc), sometimes it’s for our own comfort, sometimes it’s just easier.

There’s a number of ways to empower parrots who are not flighted for various reasons — flight is just an easy, obvious signal that they can, should they wish it, leave.

b) REWARDING TO INTERACT WITH.

When I first started owning parrots, there was a lot of discussion of dominance and a great deal of coercion in interacting with parrots, and at the same time, a lot of people were told that they couldn’t ever have two parrots because they would no longer want to interact with them.

Does this surprise you at all? If a parrot has the choice to interact with a similar species companion and a person who is constantly associated with punishing, aversive situations, why on earth would they want to interact with the person? In that situation, the only reason that parrots do is that they’re often more forgiving than we are… and because they have no other choice for social behaviours.

Whereas, people who are fun, who play games with parrots, who offer them toys and enrichment and food, they’re rewarding and reinforcing to interact with. People who are respectful of the individual parrot’s desires, and who refrain from using fear or force to get their way. They are the people that parrots seek out even when they have similar species options. They’re the ones that parrots drop from the sky to hang out with because they’ve built a relationship based on trust and respect.

Links for thought:

Articles on Behaviour Change at Behaviorworks.org by Susan Friedman”

Natural Encounters articles on behaviour”

And with all that true, here comes the false.

2) The relationship that most people seem to want with their parrots is very similar to the relationship between mated parrots… and parrots don’t always give that same sort of relationship if they have other options.

Go to any parrot forum that’s ever existed, and search for ‘cuddly’. You’ll find a thousand questions about which parrots are the most cuddly, which parrots want to be touched the most, which parrots want to snuggle and cuddle and do all those very mammalian things.

Now, go watch some videos of wild parrots. Here’s a full length video on Australian Parrots if you need a start.

How many of those parrots are lying around and cuddling? Now, go find a video of lions or tigers or wolves or sea lions or any other group of social mammals, and see how much time they spend cuddling. Mammals, in general, seem to enjoy skin to skin contact very much, and it does not always appear to be sexual in nature.

If you want some real entertainment, hit up google images for wild parrots cuddling, and count how many pictures you find of parrots having sex. I found three on the first page — parrot porn! :)

In the wild, from every video I’ve seen, parrots will regularly preen each other on the head (a body part they can’t easily reach themselves) and do some very intimate preening with their mates, frequently as a precursor to mating.

Some parrots will do some very specific physical interactions as part of play (macaws frequently beak wrestle from the videos I’ve seen), but they’re still usually head-based things.

What does this mean for a parrot who has a companion? If you’re looking for the super cuddly, mate based behaviour, and the parrot has a more suitable option, they will probably reserve that behaviour for their parrot mate.

It weirds people out regularly when I tell them that I generally don’t touch my birds. With the exception of them stepping onto and off of my arm or shoulder, I regularly go days without touching any other of their body parts. Tlalli, the greenwing macaw, loves to beak wrestle and lick fingers, so she gets touched on the beak more than any other parrot, but I still don’t tend to touch her body much at all. Usually, my interactions with them are vocal (calling back and forth), physical mirroring games (I do this, you do that, repeat), and training (you try to guess what I want, when you’re right, I give you a treat or a head scratch or a particularly exciting sound).

In fact, the most people-centric of my parrots are really good at teaching other people to play these games with them. Every time anyone comes over and my macaws are out, the macaws end up encouraging them to play mirroring games with them without me saying a word.

I go to some lengths to discourage mating behaviours between me and my parrots because, simply put, I don’t want to have sex with them and I give them other options for sexual behaviour should they wish to engage in it. My parrot pairs (of which there are three, and I’ve had five total in my lifetime) range from ‘occasionally grumpy interactive roommates’ to ‘we mate non-stop in the spring and do all levels of indepth mating behaviours’.

And yet, all of them have been willing to interact with me when given the power to choose otherwise and when I’ve made interacting with me worthwhile.

Does this mean that all parrots want to interact with all people? Absolutely not. Behaviour is, to quote Susan Friedman, a study of one, and behaviours have been built on past experiences. Parrots who have had bad experiences with people, parrots who have been made to fear people, parrots who have never interacted with people in a respectful, positive way do not necessarily want to do so.

However, I think they’re a lot less common than people think. I have a number of parrots in my house with less than ideal pasts, and all of them want, in some fashion or another, to interact with people. It’s my job to teach them the way that I want them to interact with me, and my job to learn the way they want me to interact with them… whether that be a single parrot living alone, or a group of ten budgies in a huge aviary.

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  1. Pingback: Communal Housing 2: Parrots like other parrots. | Rational Parrot Blog

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