Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What to expect when being owned by a parrot: The good, the bad, and the poopy

Owning a parrot (or more accurately, being owned by one) is no small matter! For what it's worth, parronthood does come with a ton of perks. Yet for all their charm, parrots can also be very difficult, sometimes, because they want to be, but more often, because some traits are simply ingrained in their biology. Here are some of the things one can expect when one starts living with a parrot!

1. EVERYBODY POOPS! 

Since this one was already part of the title, I figured that I would rip that bandaid off nice and quick. Everybody poops, and birds are no exception. Birds, however, do poop a lot more frequently than humans, or any other mammal would. This is quite simply because most birds have a higher metabolism than most other animals. This means that in order to fuel a bird's daily activities, flying, climbing, playing, and what have you, a bird needs to constantly eat. Naturally what goes in, must come out, and a bird that constantly eats will inevitably also, constantly poop.  I have often been asked if it is possible to limit a bird's mealtimes to just 2 or 3 times a day (how one might do with a puppy or a cat) so as to control the number of poops he/she makes, and while that has certainly been done before, I most certainly would NOT recommend it for the sole reason that it just wouldn't be very healthy to essentially starve an animal that needs constant supplements of food items over the course of its day. The good news, however, is that pooping does not have to be a nightmarish affair and can in fact be manageable. Some birds can be potty trained and while not all birds take to training immediately, many eventually pick up some semblance of a schedule or other.

Most parrot stands and playgyms can be fitted with, or fitted over, a poop collecting tray that may help limit the area of mess when a bird spends time out of his cage.
Potty training a bird begins by taking note of a bird's bowel movements. Most birds have to go once every 15-20 minutes or so. They also tend to do a little "poopy" dance or squatting motion before it happens. This means that over time, the parront can recognize the tell tale signs of incoming poop and bring the bird over an appropriate pooping spot while uttering a simple, yet recognizable command. "Good poop" is one of my personal favorites. This act of pooping, followed by the verbal affirmation of "Good poop" should always be supplemented with a treat. Over time the bird learns to associate the command with a positive reinforces and can be "asked" to poop at regular intervals over an appropriate receptacle to avoid any accidents anywhere around the house. A fully flighted bird may even fly over to her toilet without being asked, but such instances are admittedly rare. Despite being potty trained, however, it is important to note that accidents can, and often do, happen anyway. Bird poops, however, do not smell (if your bird's poops smell bad there's something wrong and he/she needs to see a vet!) so that IS some small consolation. 

2. THERE GOES THE BOOKSHELF!!! 

Chewing is an integral part to any parrot's beak and mental health and should not be denied to them entirely.
There is no easy way to put this. Most parrots can and most often will be very destructive little creatures. It's just so much a part of their behavior! A parrot, however, very likely does not intend to be destructive. Rather, he or she, is simply giving in to their natural curiosity and exploring their environment the only way they know how! Birds, as everyone knows, do not have hands. For naturally inquisitive birds like parrots, this can be quite an issue. A parrot's zygodactyl legs (two toes pointing front, and two more pointing back) let's a parrot grab and manipulate a great many objects in its environment, but there is nothing for a parrot quite like biting into an object to really get a "feel" of it. Bird's beaks are also in a constant state of growth and so a parrot needs to constantly chew on hard objects in order to keep its beak in trim and healthy condition. Unfortunately there is almost no way to "train out" chewing behavior in parrots but chewing can be directed towards bird approved chew toys and wooden perches instead.  Some people, myself included, may also choose to take the lazy way out altogether instead and quite simply not own any wooden furniture that a curious bird might sink his beak into! Of course because of their propensity to chew on objects, birds also frequently get their beaks on things that they should not (by which I mean objects that are harmful to them). Playtime out of the cage should therefore, always be supervised, typically when one lives with a bird that seems to have developed a particular appetite for table-legs!!!

3.  OUCH!!!

Some parrots, like macaws, have exceptionally strong beaks that can do a lot of damage to human flesh when they want to while other birds like cockatiels have significantly less strength to their bite and often can inflict little more than a painful nip. This may be something you wish to consider when getting your first bird as disciplining will no doubt come easier if you are not constantly flinching in fear of that large beak!
It has often been said, that it is not about "IF" a parrot will bite you... but "WHEN". Of course this is not the absolute case as there are many parronts who have never been bitten in their lives though, I generally believe that their little angels are the exception to the rule. There are many reasons why a parrot might bite. Most commonly biting in young parrots is a result of a a "nippy" stage known also as "bluffing" whereby a bird seems to be particularly more bitey or aggressive than usual. This "bluffing" stage is in fact a very important learning period for young parrots as it is at such an age when young birds quickly learn to establish the pecking order in their flock. Other reasons for biting in parrots could be due to a combination of factors. A typical response to threat when being handled by an unfamiliar person is one of them. Cage aggression or possessiveness, another. Experts also believe that petting the bird in the wrong place (generally, everywhere that is not the head and feet) or cuddling with the bird too much, and a combination of other factors could lead to sexual frustration that results in more frequent bites. More usually, birds bite because they are playing and exploring our flesh the way they might explore anything else in their environment. They do not yet know their strength and what is okay, or not okay, when interacting with their parronts. This is where good socialization comes in. Parrot bites cannot always be controlled, fortunately, our reaction to them can! It is neither wise to scream, or cause a commotion when being bitten by a parrot. Your parrot, who may not understand your cues for distress, is more likely to interpret this as a sign of excitement and affirmation and is soon to proceed to do so again. Instead, stand your ground and tell him in a calm but stern voice that he has been bad and is not to do that again. You may choose to ignore him for a bit after so that he learns his lesson but I like to offer mine an approved chewable instead, followed by the command in the same neutral voice "chew this". When he picks up the appropriate chewable and starts working on that he gets rewarded with a more cheerful and affirmative "good chew". Birds can be very stubborn and persistent animals, though so a lot of patience and and persistence is necessary.

4. LET THEM SING TO YOU THE SONG OF THEIR PEOPLE

A sun conure is a small bird but has a voice that can often rival that of even the larger parrots in volume!
In the wild, a parrot may sometimes have to call its flock mates over large distances. A parrot's piercing, loud voice is therefore an asset to its survival in such a situation. In a household setting, however, a parrot's loud squawks may leave much to be desired. Noise level is definitely something that needs to be considered by every prospective parront when deciding on taking a bird home. Some birds like macaws can, because of their immensely loud voices, be unsuitable for apartment living while others, such as the green cheek conure is relatively quiet enough that many would have no problem adopting one into their homes if they were looking for something larger than a cockatiel or a budgerigar. Some birds, such as many lorikeet species (particularly, in my own experience, the chattering lory) may also vocalize noisily with more frequency over the course of the day than others. Different people I have met have had different ideas about how to work with screaming birds, but personally my approach is - if you have started with a young bird - to socialize it to indoor life by only communicating with it, and each other, using a level of noise that is appropriate to your lifestyle. Birds are vocal flock animals and young birds learn early on to mimic the sounds, calls, and even volume of their flock mates. In this way, a young parrot can be "taught" to keep his volume down because that is the way he is accustomed to "speaking" with his family. Despite this however, many birds will instinctively call loudly at dusk and at dawn as a way of waking up the flock in the morning, and making sure the flock is all gathered in the same spot to sleep at night. Despite many ways of training and socialization this is, unfortunately, something that most parrots will do regardless and something every prospective parront must be prepared to live with when the decision is made to adopt a parrot.

5. LOTS OF LOVE, HUGS, AND CUDDLES

When all is said and done, however, parrots do make up for all these traits with their intelligence, their affection, loyalty, and so much more!!! They truly are amazing companion animals and most often the question to ask is not "will a parrot be right for me?" but rather, "will my home and lifestyle be right for a parrot?"



photo source: wikimedia.commons

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