Parrots Forever

Although parrots are kept as pets, and have been for centuries in various cultures, they are not domesticated creatures. Most parrots are still only a few generations from the wild. Parrots have been brought into our homes, not for reasons of mutual benefit as is the case with many domesticated and companion animals, but because parrots can talk, exhibit sociable behaviour, and are beautiful to look at. They are expensive, unusual, and exotic, and can be seen as a status symbol.
They do not choose to be our pets. They may be tamed, be taught to talk and to do tricks, to accept and even crave human contact, but they still possess their wild instincts and natures. These wild behaviors and temperaments become more apparent as the parrot ages and develops into a sexually mature bird. These changes can be unnoticeable or mild in a very small minority of parrots, but are usually very dramatic and can happen after years of successfully living together. The sweet, cuddly, tame bundle of feathers you know and love can turn into an aggressive, loud, destructive, and hate-filled bundle of raging hormones and wild instincts.
What do parrots instinctively expect out of life? Parrots are very social creatures. They expect to spend every minute of their life with their flock in visual range. They choose their mate and are monogamous. They spend all of their time with their companion. They are in constant contact, preening, playing, and arguing with each other for about half of their waking hours. They spend about 3 hours actively flying, foraging, and eating, 3 hours napping, and about 10 to 12 hours in sound sleep. For their entire life of 20 to 80 or more years, from birth to death, a parrot is never alone and always in visual contact with other members of the flock.
Parrots are tropical creatures, and they expect their day to be fairly evenly divided between light and dark. They are active during the light part of the day, go to roost at dusk, and sleep through the dark. Their body clocks are synchronized with the other members of the flock, and they enjoy a predictable routine. Parrots are prey animals, and the flock provides security from predators. Parrots live in a hierarchy, and they look to the strongest, most dominant member of the flock to make decisions about daily routines and safety.
Pet parrots may have their very basic needs, such as food and water, met with regularity, but the fulfillment of the rest of their needs is usually lacking or non-existent. People have busy schedules, and very few have the luxury of being at home all day. This means that many companion parrots spend their most active hours alone in a cage in a silent house. Parrots measure time very accurately and anticipate when an activity should happen and how long it will take. Waiting alone for people with very erratic schedules to come home causes stress and anxiety in parrots. Many parrots are kept in a separate room or away from the main living area. This means that even when people are home, the parrot is still alone waiting for attention and interaction. When they do get some attention, it occurs according to the person’s schedule, not the parrot’s, and is often unfocused, hurried, and of short duration and limited physical contact.
For an essentially wild creature, living a life so foreign to all of its instincts and unfulfilling of its needs is very stressful. Parrots living a lonely, boring, erratic life in an unpredictable environment can develop adverse emotional and neurotic behaviors. They become anxious and aggressive. They scream, bite, self-mutilate, and destroy things. They may withdraw and be depressed or exhibit bizarre behaviors. They can go stir crazy! The worse their behavior becomes, the less likely they are to be allowed to live the life that they need. They will be further ignored or even banished to some far off, dark corner to be forgotten. They will be sold repeatedly to homes that can’t understand them or tolerate their behavior. They are lost and unhappy.
Parrots have the intelligence of a 4- to 5-year-old child. They have the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old. They are intelligent enough to use tools, to solve puzzles, and to not just mimic words, but also to understand the meaning of those words. Parrots do not just exist in their environment; they want to influence, interact with, and manipulate that environment and the people within it. Parrots need to feel secure about their place in the flock.
They require an adequate amount of sleep and naptime every day. They need time to forage and eat and to play and be busy. They need a lot of physical contact and individual, undivided attention. Parrots need a predictable routine, but also interesting change and enrichment in their environment. Having more than one parrot certainly helps to create a more natural flock environment, but different species may not get along unsupervised and should not be caged together. Because parrots choose their own friends, even parrots of the same species may not get along well enough to be caged together. Having a cage which is larger than just adequate and well-furnished with interesting toys and various types and sizes of perches also helps to enrich the life of a parrot. So does constant access to a variety of foods and treats. If they must be alone through the day, having a radio or television playing and a window to look out alleviates some boredom and feelings of aloneness.
However, they still need physical, auditory, and visual contact with their flock—and that means with people. They need to be talked with, acknowledged, petted, and preened. This has to be a predictable and routine part of their day, and should be on the parrot’s terms in that we do not interrupt their eating, playing or naptime unless they are willing. This interaction should be counted in hours, not minutes, and spread throughout the day. All parrots are individuals with their own personalities, idiosyncrasies, likes, and dislikes, just like people. Parrots will display the common characteristics of their species, but there is also wide variation between individuals. They are not wind-up toys with predictable behaviors.
While it is not realistically possible for pet parrots to lead the type of life they were born for, and they certainly cannot be returned to the wild, they must be provided with the opportunity to live a rich, fulfilled, sane, and dignified life.
Parrots and humans have been living together for centuries, but parrots are not domesticated creatures. They may be tamed, but even captive-bred and raised parrots are only a few generations from the wild, and they retain their wild instincts. Parrots are very appealing with their bright, beautifully colored feathers, their ability to speak and mimic sounds, their playful natures, and soulful eyes. People make the decision to bring a parrot into their home for many reasons, but few take into consideration the true nature of these beguiling beings. And that is where the trouble can start, even in the most loving, understanding, and accommodating homes.
  • by M.L.Savoy, BSc, MLT, Parrots Forever, 2012
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