Adopting a Parrot by Bev Penny

Adopting a Parrot

So you’ve done it, you’ve adopted a parrot and you absolutely did the right thing by giving this amazing, intelligent creature a second chance but what now, what do you do now? You want to have the best relationship you possibly can with your bird but how do you do that? Well, it is surprisingly simple in that you will get out of this bird exactly what you are willing to put into the bird. What do you do now to ensure that you start off on the right foot or should I say talon? Parrots are usually dumped for one of three reasons, screaming, biting or destroying things. What can you do to modify/reduce/change these unwanted behaviours. The best way to do this is to start using the tools of Applied Behaviour Analysis as soon as your bird arrives in his/her new home.

I have 3 adopted birds. I adopted Zazu long before I knew about Applied Behavior Analysis and I can tell you that I lost lots of blood in the first three months I had her. She bit me every time I tried to pick her up. Even wrapped my hand in a towel and she would go up under the towel to bite me. That was 10 years ago. I adopted Gypsy in 2004. She is an ABA bird and I didn’t lose any blood which worked really well for me. As a matter of fact, the relationship I have with her is unbelievable. When I first brought her home, I realized very early, that Gypsy went immediately to the bite. Do not pass go, do not collect $200; just bite the hand that feeds you. Luckily for me, I had a new set of tools called Applied Behaviour Analysis and right from the start I set Gypsy up to succeed. You can read her story in “The Bird and the Bank Account”. My last adoption was in November 2008. Nikki is a 17 year old female goffin cockatoo. I was told she was a screamer and a biter. Those are labels or constructs and Nikki is neither of those. She is also an ABA bird. Nikki is a bird whose needs weren’t being met so she learned how to scream and bite. I also set her up to succeed as soon as she came to live with me and she is a wonderful, wonderful companion. I can’t imagine why anyone would not want her. For the record, I live in a 1 bedroom apartment, so you can see how excessive vocalization would be a problem for me but because of ABA, it is not.

I would like you to take a few moments to think about something; have you ever been in a place where you did not know anyone, I mean anyone. Most of us have and it feels uncomfortable, right? Now let’s say that the people in the room were all mean to you at one time or another. You would have to agree that this would be extremely stressful. I imagine it would be the same for your new bird so let’s make your new bird’s integration into your home as wonderful as I know it can be given the circumstances. If your bird came from a home where he was yelled at, where objects were thrown at the cage, or even physical abuse, he is not going to expect anything different from you. Make sense? Your job is to prove to your new companion that life for him is about to change for the better and it needs to start from the moment your new bird comes into your home.

The first thing humans try to do is have physical contact with the bird. I know you are really excited about finally getting your new feathered companion home but this is a huge mistake. That bird is not being dumped because it is a perfect bird. It has now learned some unwanted behaviours that got it dumped and it is up to you to work with your bird to change the behaviours that got the bird dumped in the first place, whatever they may be. The good news is that being bitten or having your ear drums blown out is not written in stone. These unwanted behaviours can be changed. That IS written in stone. If you do the things you need to do, unwanted behaviours can be changed to wanted behaviours. Just ask my birds. LOL

Another problem I’ve seen with rehomed birds that come from less than ideal situations is feeling sorry for the bird. Animals do not live in the past, people do. I’m not saying that the bird won’t carry baggage from the past but they don’t hold onto it like we do. From the moment, you bring that bird through your door, it is the first day of the rest of his life and you must move forward and teach him/her acceptable behaviours. For example, some vocalization should be expected; a parrot will not be quiet all the time. If you want complete silence, get a stuffed parrot.

Step # 1

Take your new bird to a qualified avian vet for a full work up as soon as possible and quarantine for 30 days to protect your own birds if you have any. The last thing you want to do is put your own flock at risk.

Step # 2

Leave the bird alone. This animal has just lost his/her home. It is a scary time for them so give them time to get used to their new home and new people. Now is not the time to be introducing new food or toys. What your bird needs now is time to adjust and in the same respect give yourself some time to get to know your new companion. This process should not be rushed just like you shouldn’t marry someone a week after you’ve met them. Just feed and water the bird for a little while; you can put treats (treat and retreat as it were) in a bowl placed in the cage specifically for this and talk quietly to the bird. Do not touch the bird. Did I mention “Do Not Touch the Bird”!!!!

Step # 3

Now is the time to work on making yourself extremely valuable to your new avian buddy. For example, if every time you saw me, I gave you $50, I’d become pretty important to you so that is now your task with your new feathered friend. If you have any background on the bird and know what his favourite treats are now is the time to use them with nothing expected in return. If you have no background, you need to learn what the favourite treats are and small pieces of any nut are a good place to start. Try anything and everything as long as they are healthy for your bird. Every time you walk past the cage, you drop a treat into a treat bowl. Check to see what your bird eats first and then you will know what one of the favourite foods is, then remove that particular food from the regular diet and use that in the treat bowl. This is pairing yourself with favourite foods so the bird will begin to associate you with being the bringer of all things good. Bird currency is the foods/praise/scratches your bird will work for. So you request a behaviour, your bird complies and you reward your bird, just like you get a paycheck for going to work. It is the same principle. You wouldn’t continue going to work if they stopped paying you, would you?

Step # 4

Allow the bird to make the move for first contact with you. If you allow your new bird to make choices in his/her daily life, it is a win-win situation. Do not stick your hand in your bird’s cage but if the bird comes to you and solicits a head scratch, you may do so but limit the time so that it leaves your bird wanting more. You may touch the bird but only if the bird is soliciting human contact and you might want to limit this contact to offering favourite foods/treats from your hand. Do not try to steal a scratch or tickle. The treat should come with no expectations from the bird. Eventually, your bird will learn that when you ask him to step up, good things happen. You become a powerful reinforcer as the bringer of all things good. This sets your bird up to succeed.

When asking your bird for a specific behaviour, always ask yourself “what is in it for my bird” or “why should my bird do this”. We all behave to get the things we value and our birds are no different. Pine nuts are the favourite treat at my place. Sometimes Zazu prefers a head scratch so figuring out what works for each bird is my job and over time I have worked out what that is. Every bird is different just like every human being is different. The wonderful relationship I have with my birds didn’t happen overnight. It took time and work but the rewards to me and my birds have been huge. If I had never learned about Applied Behaviour Analysis, I would never have adopted Gypsy or Nikki and as much as I hate to say it, I probably would have gotten rid of Zazu because of the biting. That is a difficult thing to admit but what is even more troublesome was the fact that I was the one who caused the behavioural problems in the first place and as Dr. Phil always says “you can’t change, what you don’t acknowledge”. I’m just so glad that I didn’t give up on my birds as so many people do. My life would not be as exciting without them in it.

My three adopted birds are just as bonded to me as the one bird I got as a baby so when someone tells you that you need to buy a baby bird in order for it to bond to you, that is complete and utter rubbish. As I said in the beginning, you will get out of your bird what you are willing to put into teaching your bird acceptable behaviours. I have said many times, there is no such thing as a bad bird, only a human being who does not know about Applied Behaviour Analysis. You can learn how to use ABA to get the behaviours you want from your bird and to modify/reduce/change the behaviours you do not want. The only thing complicated about it is the jargon used in psychology. Please, please, please take the time to learn about positive reinforcement. It will be the best thing you’ve ever done for you and your newly adopted bird.

Finally, to anyone interested in adding another feathered companion to their flock or even if you are adopting your first bird, please check with your local avian rescues. There are lots and lots of parrots out there needing good homes, so please don’t buy, adopt. Give a bird a second chance, you won’t be sorry!!!

Bev Penny
February 5, 2010

Permission given to repost by Bev Penny March 23, 2011

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