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Socialization And The Companion Parrot

Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant

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Major FreakOut

He is an African grey parrot named Dusty, and he is boarding with me again.

Over the two years that he's boarded with me, the reaction has always been the same. When I approach him, he screams and throws himself around his cage. I cannot reach inside for his food bowls without sending him into a paroxysm of terror.

In the case of a recently wildcaught adult parrot or for a bird with a history of terrible abuse, I suppose I would consider this to be somewhat understandable behavior. But Dusty is a three yearold domestic bred, handraised young bird who has lived for two and onehalf years with the same family. His human caretakers are experienced parrot owners whose other birds are consistently and lovingly controlled, and are delightful companions. Dusty's behavior is not just caused by the approach of a nonflock member such as myself, either - his owner can't get near him, either. How could a young parrot in a good home end up so horribly maladjusted?

Always the Owner's Fault?

In the past when companion parrots developed behavior problems, the owner was automatically assumed to have been responsible - and from my experience this has often been the case. Raised in an environment with no training and no controls, a headstrong young parrot will almost always get out of control and turn into a miserable expet, often ending up on consignment in a pet store.

Shared Responsibilities

However, we are now starting to realize that the owner may not be the only responsible party in this sad situation. The accusatory finger now points also at the aviculturists and pet stores that failed to provide these incredibly complex and intelligent creatures with a foundation of socialization long before they reached the pet market.

Socialization = Teaching

So what do I mean by socialization? Simply put, a parrot needs to be TAUGHT as well as fed. Proper socialization entails teaching a parrot such things as how to survive in the environment, how to cope with and enjoy variety and change, and what their position is within the flock.

Prolonged Learning Period

In the wild, most species of parrots stay with their parents long after they are weaned. During this period, they are learning volumes of information regarding food identification and location and the development of the manual dexterity necessary to procure food (once it is located), as well as predator avoidance and successful interaction with other members of their flock. Therefore, the parenting responsibilities definitely entail a great deal more than simply feeding their young until they are old enough to find their own food.

Little Info Needed to be a Hamster

Most animal experts agree that generally speaking, the more intelligent the animal, the less instinctive information the animal is born with and the more it must be taught by others. For example, a hamster is born knowing pretty much what it needs to know about being a hamster. Consequently, the mother hamster's responsibilities only entail feeding and protecting the babies until they are weaned. Once weaned, the young hamsters are on their own - the mothering instincts stop and the mother hamster does not even recognize them as kin. On the other hand, more intelligent lifeforms like dogs and cats have more extensive parenting responsibilities. In the wild, the offspring of canine and feline species stay with their family units long after they are weaned because they must be taught complex survival skills like hunting.

Wild Behavior Info Lacking

With parrots in the wild, behavior information is woefully incomplete - but we do know that many species stay together as a family unit for as long as two years after the babies leave the nest. During that time, the parents and other flock members are teaching the young priceless skills. Once these survival skills are learned, the adolescent parrot can safely develop independence from the nurturing protection of its parents and join the remainder of their flock as primarily a member of their peer group. Not long after this stage, they begin to achieve puberty and look within their peer group for a suitable mate.

Behavior Problems Develop

It is unlikely a coincidence that most of the problems we parrot behavior consultants encounter are in adolescent parrots. We theorize that the adolescent parrot, having been taught nothing in its life as a companion animal but reaching an age at which it would begin to be independent of its natural parents, somehow senses that its survival skills are lacking.. And in the wild, a parrot without survival skills is a parrot that does not survive.

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