Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Choice: Something We Often Overlook Giving Our Parrots (Guest Post)

We all know parrots are intelligent social creatures. That’s why we choose them as companions! But as smart creatures, they certainly do give up a lot of autonomy to be our pets. In the wild, they have lots of decisions to make and this stimulates their intelligence and creativity. But we control virtually everything in a companion parrot’s life: food or famine, light or darkness, where they go and what they do. Is it any wonder these birds “act out” for “no apparent reason”?

I am a firm believer in offering choices on a daily basis to my flock. I believe it makes a happier, healthier, more intelligent bird and a more harmonious household. But when I tell many people about the merits of offering choice to their parrots, many folks panic. They think “Chaos! Birds ruling the roost!”, and fear a lack of control.

I assure you, you CAN create room for choice and still have domestic tranquility. To that end, I offer a few tips- things we use here at Squawk Central.

So here are some tips to introducing healthy choices into your home life:

Food Choices:
While I want to control what my bird eats for optimum nutrition, there is flexibility as long as all the choice options being offered are healthy. Allowing a choice between two or three healthy options makes a bird feel good (and they still get good food to eat). Here are a couple ways I allow this to happen in my home:

“Pick from the Bin”: Often, I’ll create a bin of layered salad, dry items, or mixed foods and store it in a Tupperware for feeding through the week. While many folks also do this, they often plop the items in a dish, thereby eliminating choice on the part of the bird. Instead, try holding the bin up for the bird to see the contents and ask them to choose what they want. My birds get so excited about making a choice, they all clamor simultaneously onto one perch to get closer to the bin!

Mixed Dishes: I feed two flock meals (AM and PM out at the table with us) and also offer dried food in the cages at Squawk Central. Both wet and dry dishes always have a variety of ingredients in them, allowing the bird to choose the favored nugget of the day. I have found that when food is offered this way, birds don’t always go for the obvious (less healthy) option. My birds tend to cycle in what is the trendy food item du jour.

Interconnected Food Stands: My birds all eat flock meals together at the dining room table. There are meal stands on the table for them (perches with food cups attached). Rather than enforcing territorial boundaries, I allow them to hop from one stand to another picking and choosing what they eat and where they eat it. All the birds seem to like to “forage” in this way.

“Step Up” versus “Wanna Come?”:
Many people inadvertently bully their birds by commanding them to “step up”, even when all they want to do is invite the birds over for affection.  Personally, I only use the cue, “Step Up” when it is mandatory- and my birds comply with that cue.
But most of the time, I use, “Wanna Come?”. The difference between the two terms is one offers a true choice (“Wanna Come”), one means you MUST (“Step Up”). I truly give my birds the choice whether they want to be with me or not. Many times they choose scritches, but sometimes they don’t. I don’t allow my ego to be bruised if one decides they’d rather flap around on the atom gym than be with me.
Once I started offering a true choice, I found that my birds more often came over to me socially without invitation- and that was an unintended consequence, but it makes sense if you think about it- and it was a welcome surprise!

Flighted versus Clipped:
This can be a contentious issue for many folks, and I see the merits in both sides of the argument. Since this article is on choice, I am keeping my arguments for and against flight about offering choice. There are other reasons for and against flight as well, but that is for another article. I personally started out as an avid “pro clipper” for safety reasons. I have NEVER believed in clipping for behavioral or “training” reasons.)
I am now a situationalist on the subject- I personally have flighted parrots. I believe that being flighted is preferable to being clipped IF (and only IF) the human can provide for such a responsibility. (I bird-proofed my home and all humans are in on the project, so safety inside is not an issue. We have a door plan that involves using the back door (away from the birds when they are out) so that inadvertent escape is very unlikely. My birds are socialized and cooperative.)
Personally, I believe leaving a bird flighted is better for their self esteem, health, and offers choices that clipped birds don’t have. For example, I have several play areas in my interconnected living and dining room that my birds fly to and from while they are out. They can hang out with one another, get some alone time, fly to get a snack from a food cup, or get some exercise. All of this is within their reach- and all because they do not rely upon me to move them from place to place.

Play Areas versus “a stand”:
There are many products out there calling themselves “gyms” or “stands” or “play areas”. I have found that no one product is enough to meet the needs of my flock. So I have gradually accumulated and built more and more and have incorporated them into my birds’ landscapes when time, space, and money allows. When I only had one “bird tree” for each of my birds (and I kept them to their specific tree), I soon found them insufficient. Even loading them up with toys and rotating those toys did not alleviate boredom and stimulated their minds in the way I wanted that product to.

I stumbled upon the current way I do things organically- I kept getting more and more gyms, and rather than putting an old one away, I would just add to the mix of what was available for my birds. For space reasons at the time, I put hanging gyms directly above an existing floor or tabletop gym, inadvertently making an interconnected area where the bird could go up and down easily. BINGO! Without even trying to do so, I started to offer my birds choices and some freedom of movement.
The results were astounding- my birds are calmer, get along better and have less “territorial disputes”. In our last home, all the bird cages and gyms were in the same room (the living room), and we interconnected the cages with the play areas, so that the birds had more “real estate” to occupy. We found that leaving the cage doors open and allowing birds to travel them (as well as the gyms) freely did not cause arguments.

To the contrary, unlike many bird owners who report cage or gym territoriality, I found that the birds tended to see their own cages as “flock territory” rather than as a personal nesting site after I started opening the cage doors. We found that natural cross-species friendships were created and thrived. We also learned a lot about avian aesthetic and feng shui  preferences when all birds in the flock decided that Buddy’s cage was THE place to be. We jokingly called her cage the “dorm room”. This change in what a cage means symbolically has meant translated into no more egg laying in my hens as well. That was a welcome side effect!

Toys, esp. Manipulative and Foraging Toys:
Toys are more than just playthings. Parrot toys are tools that a human uses to harness wild instinctual behavior in a companion parrot and channel them into appropriate behavior that is suitable for a human home. To that end, there are many types of parrot toys: Foraging, Preening, Manipulative, Athletic, Interactive, and Destructible. And offering a complement of all types allows choice for your parrot. Specifically, I want to talk about Foraging and Manipulative Toys and how they offer choices to your parrot.

This post was written by the founder of Squawk and Howl. She is a parrot behaviorist, rescuer, and companion. 

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