Parrots Forever
Sanctuary & Rescue Foundation
   Home      HAVING EMPATHY WITH YOUR PARROT August 30 2015

Misconception: I feed and spend time every day with my parrot, so I understand my parrot’s needs, feelings, and emotions.
Fact: The fact that you are home every day to feed and acknowledge your parrot does not create a bond of any significance. Simply being present and fulfilling basic needs does not necessarily instil a sense of safety, security, or confidence in a parrot. Without proper time, care, and attention, a companion parrot will never develop a strong bond with their caregiver in any significant way. When that happens, the psychological state and condition of the parrot manifests in behavioural problems. In situations where the parrot has little or no attachment or respect for the caregiver, any kind of interaction with the parrot is difficult. Just because you profess to love and care for your parrot does not mean you have empathy.
Being present but not in-tune (physically in one place with your mind being in another place) is being emotionally absent. Most people assume that just being physically present is enough to convey that they are there for their companion parrot and that they care. I’m sure everybody has experienced this un-in-tune, emotionally unavailable physical presence from people they are supposed to be close to. This is the feeling you get when either your caregiver, or someone you are close to, is physically present with you but their mind is somewhere else.
Everyone has done this to others at some point in their lives. It happens with people you barely know, to friends and family, and to your significant other. Depending on the relationship, it can be done intentionally or unintentionally, seldom or often. Being physically present but emotionally absent is called proximal abandonment by psychologist Dr. Allan Schore.
Most abuse, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, is caused because of ignorance. This is due to a lack of understanding about the impact one can have on others when one is distracted, preoccupied, in a rush, disinterested, or simply can’t be bothered. It is due to the marginalization and minimization of other’s concerns. Some people are just indifferent to others and lack the empathy and understanding it takes to see what others are experiencing and feeling. But that does not make them a sadist (people that go out of their way to hurt others).
Then there are the people who say they care, want to care, want to do right, but are unable to do what is necessary and take the steps that are needed to give of their time, effort, and commitment. These are the ignorant ones who speak of a higher moral ground and wish to do right by their actions, but are incapable or unable to do so. They do not truly understand the effect of their non-actions and non-attunement on those they care for or interact with.
Of course nobody is perfect. You don’t need to be a perfect caregiver all the time. However, for the caregivers who want to provide good and healthy care physically, emotionally, and psychologically, being emotionally present is essential. You need to have the discipline to wait, to be open, inviting, and patient with your companion parrot. You need to show that you are there to enjoy interacting with them and their individual personality. You are not there just to make demands of them.
You have to take the time and let your companion come to you. You have to have a positive and inviting demeanor, not one that transmits a time limit for interaction or a “hurry-up, I’ve got things to do” attitude. Being impatient with your companion is more about you and what you want from them than it is about your parrot and what they want or need from you as a caregiver. The amount of time you spend with your companion is not the only barometer, and is a poor measure. The quality of time you spend with your companion is much more important. This is true whether you are with your parrot or with anybody else.
Without being open, and committed to being wholly there for their companion parrot, caregivers are just putting in the time and waiting for the miracle of bonding to happen. They expect this to happen without their participation in communication and acknowledgement of the subtle signals the parrot gives. That’s like you having someone talking to you, and while you’re hearing everything, you are not listening. You are preoccupied and thinking of something else. It is no wonder that people don’t even understand each other’s point of view even though they speak the same language.
To understand your parrot’s needs, you must first understand that they have needs, and that these needs have to be fulfilled by the caregiver. Parrots are flock animals and they are always looking to others for interactions. The others could be mates, other parrots, or the caregiver. Members of a flock want to eat together, preen together, play together, and just be together. And I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But do you understand what that means to the parrot?
It is part of their being to be with someone all the time. It is in their telos to have company, to have a companion to interact with throughout the day, every day. Forever. They need to have a relationship with their significant other, whether that is their parents, their mate, or the caregiver. When parrots are young, their urge to bond is with their parents or with the human caregiver they look to as their parent. When mature, they look to their mate, or their human caregiver as their mate. They are expecting a certain amount of bonding, respect, interaction, commitment, caring, playing, comforting, and just being there for them every day.
The best way to explain not being in-tune with your parrot (physically in one place but with your mind in another place), or being emotionally absent, is to give a real-life example. I have a parrot named Merlin. Merlin’s personality is not always pleasant or agreeable. In fact, he can be a bit of a jerk. He likes to be aggressive with certain other parrots and attack them while they are sitting with me. It got to the point where I stopped picking him up in order to spend time with him with other parrots. Merlin didn’t seem to mind not being picked up to spend time with me. He went on his merry way, barking at the people outside and being a bully to other parrots when he got the chance. So I thought, “If he wants to be miserable, then so be it. He certainly doesn’t seem to need me like I thought he did.”
Merlin was still let out of his cage with all the other parrots. He had all the freedoms like the other parrots, with his toys, special snacks, and all the freedom to be his own bird. The only thing that was missing was the one-on-one time with me.
Well, after 8 to 12 months of not picking up Merlin for one-on-one attention, he started plucking. As soon as I noticed this (the first day), I started picking him up and spending time with him, and made a point of doing so every day. I noticed right away that although I picked him up and had him on my shoulder every day, it did nothing to alleviate his anxiety, and his plucking continued. It was frustrating over the course of the next 6 to 8 months trying to figure out what would get Merlin to stop plucking.
Although there are several valid reasons for a parrot to pluck, it is more rare for these reasons to be the true cause than most people think. No, it is not hormones (Merlin had been dealing with his hormones for the last 10 to 11 years), or inbreeding (if it were inbreeding, this would have started within the first or second year when he first started preening), or something genetic in his DNA (then it would have started as soon as he could preen), or his diet (we did go over that and it was not his diet), or something physically wrong with him (we did take him to see Dr. Gordey and did blood work: no skin condition, no organ pathology, nothing obviously wrong).
Merlin is 13 years old, and something happened that drove him to inflict pain on himself within the last 12 months. Plucking and self-mutilation in parrots is similar to what people do to relieve stress, to feel sensation, to feel alive, to feel something. Anything! Some people who are dealing with severe stress or emotional issues will start cutting and inflicting pain on themselves. They might resort to negative addictive habits like smoking, drinking, overeating, or drugs. They do this to feel something or to cover the emotional pain that they harbor from decades past. If you look back in their history, you will usually find the answer. It’s not hormones, genetics, or diet. It is emotional pain that expresses itself in unhealthy ways through some type of addiction or self-mutilation (like over piercing, over tattooing, or branding oneself).
I kept at it with Merlin, giving him his one-on-one time every day. When I picked him up and then sat down with him, I flipped open my laptop to deal with e-mails and to unwind from work. I started to notice sometime in the last 3 months that Merlin would get anxious and moody when sitting on my shoulder. I realized that, although I was with him, and he was sitting on my shoulder, I was also looking at my laptop. I focused on what I was doing and not on Merlin. Although he was sitting right on my shoulder and looking at me, I was hardly looking at him, petting him, talking to him, and showing him I was there for him. I was just putting in time with him. This is "being in the present but not in-tune with him”. I was emotionally absent.
Now when I spend time with Merlin, I close the laptop, look right at him, talk to him, and offer to pet him WITHOUT looking away. That’s what he needs right now because he is hypersensitive to being emotionally tuned-out. And that is no fault of Merlin’s. Nor can that be reconciled with other things beyond my control, absolving me of any wrongdoing. The blame for this situation is squarely on me.
All too often when a parrot is plucking, biting, yelling, reserved, unfriendly, or just not what we expected or wanted in a parrot, we caregivers and owners blame the parrot or label the problem as behavioural! You know, kind of like what we do to children today when they become too much to handle or are not acting the way we want them to. (With children we turn to quick and easy solutions and drug them).
Neglect and marginalization are forms of benign abuse, and nobody wants to look at themselves as the ones who created the conditions that facilitated the development of symptoms of that abuse. Plucking, biting, yelling, becoming reserved, unfriendly, cage-bound, and any other stereotypical behaviors the parrot resorts to are symptoms of a larger problem that started long before the symptoms became obvious.
When companion parrots are not getting their needs met, the negative effects do not always show up after the first or second experience. Depending on the species, the parrot may stay quiet for a while, waiting for something to happen.
African greys, as an example, are for the most part quiet parrots. If you do not let them out of their cage and spend time with them, but rather just feed them and look at them once in a while, they will not raise a fuss like a cockatoo. They will make the odd noise for acknowledgment, but in the early stages of being neglected, they will, for the most part, just sit quietly and wait to be acknowledged. But over time, 3, 4, 5 months, sometimes as long as a couple of years, the parrot will get more stressed, angrier, and more upset with the situation. This will build over time, as explained in the “Tipping Point” of “Pain Parrots Feel”. This can start the parrot on a path to stereotypical and neurotic behaviours that are unhealthy for the parrot. Then one day, they snap and start plucking their feathers, or picking at their skin, become very aggressive when you approach their cage (because of being cage-bound), or start yelling and screaming. But unfortunately, the caregiver usually reacts to this like, "This is all new, and why is this happening now?"
As with most disorders, stereotypical and neurotic behaviours are symptoms of a larger problem. A problem that started days, weeks, months, or even years ago.
Not being there for your companion parrot in a way that instills security and confidence, and that establishes emotional connection, will have negative effects that will play out in many ways. These negative effects will ultimately result in the parrot being labeled as having behavioural problems. These problems may stem from a lack of self-confidence, which will manifest as fear aggression, anger aggression, and/or the inability to regulate moods and responses to what is happening around them. In short, neglected companion parrots become hypersensitive to their surroundings and react accordingly. They have no healthy coping mechanisms to draw from, and are no longer secure and confident in their surroundings, their relationships with their caregiver(s), or themselves. They are fractured and traumatized.
Think of it this way. You are in a relationship that has lasted, say 10 years, and you have a lot invested in it. Your significant other starts pulling away (subtly) from you or starts doing or not doing things around you that you don’t like or take offense to. What is most people's first reaction? Usually, trying to understand what’s changed in that person, what’s going on and why. It could be that they are stressed at their job; maybe they are not feeling well physically, mentally, or both. The point is, the first reaction most people have is NOT to pull out their hair and have a fit. They try to understand why this is happing.
Over time, they try to wait it out to see if things will go back to normal. Only after it become obvious that your significant other is not only disinterested in you, but also has little or no respect for you. They are indifferent to you, and this behavior and lack of attention is of no concern to them. Only once this becomes impossible to ignore will you finally end the relationship and move on. Everybody is different; everybody has his or her own breaking point. Some will only take so much for a very short time, and some will let things like this linger for weeks, months, or years. But in the end, you as a person have the freedom, the right, and the ability to say, “I’ve had enough and I’m leaving.”
Because companion parrots cannot just pick up and leave, they are trapped. This can produce Fear Aggression, as stated by Ron Hines DVM PhD:
Aggression, self-mutilation and screaming are just the tip of a larger iceberg.
The problem underlying all those behaviors is that domestically bred parrots are not (yet) domestic animals. I deal with injured wildlife, zoo and performing animals; so I am not at all surprised at what can happen when you take a highly social wild creature, designed by God to fly free with its own kind in tropical forests, and confine it in your home. Normal domesticated animals are trapped in their youth with respect to man. Their genes have been manipulated by us to make them fit comfortably into our human family. This is not the case with most large parrots – their genetics are still wild and they have social demands that can be quite hard (but not impossible) for you to satisfy.”
Many fear-biting parrots are second or third hand birds - parrots that have moved from place to place resulting in broken bonds, insecurity and fear.
All fear-biting parrots become better pets when they realize that you will not hurt them. That can take a long time and it requires considerable patience on the part of the owner. However, these parrots rarely if ever become the loving companions that bird with early, positive human exposure do. But they need homes too and for some people, they make fine pets
Abuse will cause fear biting, but I have not known it to cause aggressive biting. Aggressiveness and confidence go hand in hand."
Pets and most children don’t have the luxury to be able to make life-changing choices to improve their situations. Most dogs and cats at least have the ability to run away from home. But many parrots are subjected to being locked up in a cage for days, weeks, months, years, and decades on end without ever being let out. Most companion parrots sit silent and wait. And because most will sit and wait and wait, the caregiver thinks that, because they are not putting up a fuss, they are just fine. Due to the fact that the caregiver is not in-tune with their companion parrot (understanding when they are sad, lonely, stressed, wanting, and needing something other than just food and water), the parrot’s needs and stressors go unrecognized and unacknowledged by the most important companion that the parrot has: their caregiver.
So, if your life is overly busy with everyday distractions like watching TV, movies, hanging out with friends, or just having so much responsibility that you are unable to give your companion parrot the time and attention they need, then you should really think long and hard about why you want a companion parrot at all. After all, is the parrot there for you, or are you there for your companion parrot? To look at it in the most illuminating way, are you purchasing a companion parrot for what you perceive the parrot will give you, or are you accepting the responsibility of caring for a companion parrot for what you can and are willing to give them? Remember, regardless of the reason or reasons you want or already have a companion parrot, they depend on you for everything, all the time. Forever.
Everyone gets slighted, minimized, ignored, marginalized, taken for granted, and just plain treated badly at some point in their life. But we don’t live in a cage! We as adults have the right and the ability, to say “I’m NOT putting up with this any longer” and leave. Companion parrots do not have that right or the ability to leave a situation that becomes unbearable. They are forced to live with it! Possibly, forever!
Loneliness And Solitude by Ron Hines DVM PhD:
"Some humans do well in solitude and self-contemplation – but parrots do not.
A few hours a day of interaction with their owners is not enough to satisfy their innate needs. One sees solitary eagles, finches and herons outside of their breeding and mating season. But one never sees solitary parrots. I spent much of my youth in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains of Tamaulipas - looking up at the parrots in the huge cypress trees along the rivers and the military macaws as they flew past on their way to their feeding grounds. I have never seen a parrot alone in the wild. There were always at least two of them. Parrots are so dependent on that for security and a sense of well-being. Most parrot owners not available to their pets 24 hrs. a day.
Grey parrots are particularly gregarious birds. They are also the species most prone to psychological crashes in captivity. In season, they form large communal roosts of thousands of individuals. We know little about how the parrots in these groups interact and probably never will. In September of 2011 a biologist from Johannesburg and an acquaintance of mine, journeyed upstream on the Congo River from Kisangani. Unlike on former trips, he saw not a single African grey parrot, nor had the local population had any success in trapping them. The birds had simply vanished, most likely netted and sold to the bird merchants of Singapore and Bahrain.
Confinement To A Cage; There is considerable individual variation as to how much cage confinement a parrot can tolerate. Placement and activity surrounding the cages is quite important too. But no well-adjusted parrot prefers being caged."
Being busy with work, school, cooking dinner, raising a family, watching TV, going out with friends or to parties, does not have to have a negative effect on your companion parrot as long as their needs have been fulfilled and they are respected as individuals. When you spend time with your companion parrot, it has to be obvious to the parrot that you are there for him or her and that the time you spend together is more about them than it is about you. You must put your companion parrot first when spending time with them, just as if you were spending time with you child, your friend, or your partner.
This quality time is needed for at least a continuous session of 20 to 30 minutes a day every day. Forever. This creates the commitment, security, confidence, reassurance, and stability that form a lifelong bond. This bond is resilient and won’t be easily shaken or lost over time. Of course, additional times together within the same day are still needed but don’t have to be for as long or as intense. Additional interactions throughout the day on some level are still needed so that the parrot does not develop feelings of abandonment.
It is unfortunate most caregivers assume that just because they purchased or received a companion parrot as a pet, they can expect, and maybe even demand, that the parrot respect them. They have the attitude that the parrot is there for their amusement. I wish these people could imagine themselves as a creature or even as a person, being owned and called upon by their caregiver to perform, to be obedient, to be respectful, and to be happy with their circumstances as well as with their caregiver, regardless of how they are being treated or cared for. Then add in the fact that you will never know what it’s like to have a mate, raise your young, and to be free. You will never have the freedom to choose, never decide whom you want to be with, mate with, live with, and fly with. This is slavery. No matter how gilded the cage may be, it is still a cage, and the parrot is still captive.
When you ask your parrot to step up and they comply, do they comply because they want to step up and be with you? Or is it because they are trained to and they are only doing so to obey you? Does the difference matter to you? If it doesn’t matter, then you really don’t care what they are feeling. You only care about your parrot obeying you for your own reasons, which have everything to do with you and nothing to do with your parrot. You have no empathy with the parrot.
Companion parrots as pets, locked up in a cage for most of their long-lived existence, is only acceptable and normal to us caregivers (owners), not to the parrots. Sure, they’ve been conditioned to rely on us because of being raised in captivity and really have no other choice. They wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild if let loose. But that doesn’t negate their telos, their urges and needs to be with their parents, their mate, their flock, their family. Forever!
I would also recommend reading the following articles on our Myths and Misconceptions page for more info about how best to care for your companion parrot:
For more on the subject of attachment and Proximal Abandonment, please watch Dr. Gabor Mate on Attachment and Conscious Parenting 13 minutes. He’s not talking about parrots as pets, but there are a lot of similarities to what is being diagnosed as behavioural problems with both children and many pets, including dogs, cats, and companion parrots.
If you are interested in more information on Attachment and Conscious Parenting of children, watch Human Nature talk with Robert Sapolsky, Gabor Mate, James Gilligan, Richard Wilkinson 33 minutes.
If you would like to understand more about trans-species psychology, click on G.A. Bradshaw, PhD, PhD, founder and Executive Director of The Kerulos Centre. There is a 26-minute video on Elephants, Us, and Other Kin and how Dr. Bradshaw describes her experience in Africa and the origins of trans-species psychology.
       Wesley J Savoy Parrots Forever Sanctuary & Rescue Foundation, August 30 2015
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