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The Optimal Environment

Copyright Pamela Clark February 2001. All rights reserved. Parts or whole may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.

By Pamela Clark

Keeping companion parrots …doing everything possible to insure their happiness and health…is an art. Further, no aspect of parrot keeping is as important as providing the optimal living environment for the companion bird. The specific aspects of the environment we provide, as well as the quality of experience we provide, will most likely determine whether we have a successful experience or an unhappy one. Yet, we often "skip over" this truth, focusing on the specific species we want, and then later…the avoidance or solution of individual behavior problems, such as screaming, biting or feather picking. However, the truth is that behavior problems are often the direct result of inadequate or unsuitable environment.

In my behavior consulting practice, the majority of problems I see have, at their root, deficient environmental provisions and/or a poor or inappropriate diet. Environmental factors that can create problems include unsatisfactory diet, exposure to toxic elements, improper caging, unwise cage placement, lack of opportunities for exercise and showering, boredom due to lack of stimulation, a stressful social "climate", a schedule that is "out of sync" with a parrot’s natural rhythms, and lack of or change in the amount of attention received, among others. Accordingly, the solutions to those same problems most often lie with making the changes necessary to improve these aspects of the parrot’s environment. How much easier it is to prevent those problems from occurring in the first place!

However, the practice of living with parrots while learning to provide an optimal diet and superior environment can be a challenging one. The principle reason for this lies with the difficulty of understanding their intrinsic nature, and the problem of divining what their needs truly are. Additionally, we must attempt to understand the essence of their innate differences from us. If we do not, we will go astray when attempting to interpret their reactions to what we have provided.

Driven by Instinct

Essentially, parrots are instinctive creatures…creatures driven by instinct. True, they often appear capable of reasoning and logic, but this is not their first response to any challenge. A parrot’s first reaction to any challenge will be instinctive. And, this is the genesis of many of the problems that occur in our lives with our parrots. An animal that lives by his instincts is out of place in our world. That’s simply a fact. We are a domesticated species by any definition of the word. Our best and most effective reactions to stimuli depend upon our ability to think logically and to reason out our difficulties. It is within this dichotomy of thinking that our misunderstandings with our parrots are born. The difference between the way we react (based upon our thinking) and the way our parrots react (based upon their instincts) creates vast misunderstandings when we are attempting to interpret the behavior of our companion parrots.

What this means in practical terms is that we need to be very careful about the way we interpret our parrots’ behavior. Our tendency is to use our own "measuring stick," or our knowledge of our own way of responding, upon which to base these interpretations. Nothing could possibly lead us more astray as we seek to understand our birds. A good example of this phenomenon occurs frequently in the area of diet. We provide a new, nutritious food choice. The parrot instinctively is suspicious of anything new and won’t touch it, even when it is provided over a period of days. Most frequently, the parrot owner concludes that his bird "doesn’t like" that food and he discontinues offering it. However, the more accurate and appropriate conclusion would be to assume that, because of his instinctive nature, the parrot needs more time to get used to the new food and that it should be offered over an indefinite time period.

Further, we tend to interpret our parrots’ behavior based upon our own psychological "make-up". I’ll give you an example. I had a client once who had an African Grey that needed help. Based upon the history I took, I recommended that she bring the bird into the bathroom with her in the morning. The bird was not getting enough time relating to her in a social manner because of her work schedule. Since "preening" in the bathroom is a social activity, I thought this was a good idea. She informed me that she couldn’t put her bird near the bathroom mirror because he hated it. I asked her how she knew this. The answer came, "…Because he bangs his beak against it!" Many of us know that this beak banging is a sign of satisfaction in a Grey…a sign he is having fun. When I see my Grey do this, I usually am tempted to admire his maleness…his presentation of his own authority and power in this way…and his obvious admiration of himself in the mirror. My psychological make-up led me to interpret his behavior this way, and luckily in this case I happened to be more correct than not. Perhaps this woman tended to me more timid in her own personal life. I don’t know. However, I do know that her own emotional make-up caused her to misinterpret her bird’s behavior and deprive him of a satisfying experience in the process.

Looking to the Wild

The best tool we have for accurately interpreting a bird’s behavior is to look to the wild…to the behaviors they exhibit there. This provides us with two reality checks. First, an understanding of wild behaviors and activities can allow us to better understand the needs of our companion parrots, and assist us in making better choices in the first place as we work to create the optimal environment for our birds. Second, knowledge of wild behaviors can help us to more accurately interpret the behavior we see in response to what we have provided in the domestic environment.

This article will be the first in a series, in which we will take a closer look at many aspects of the art of providing an optimal environment for the parrots we love. This series will target and attempt to answer questions regarding diet and nutrition, appropriate caging and auxiliary play areas, activities for keeping parrots busy, creating an outdoor habitat, creating a superlative social environment, and the "finer points" of parrot keeping.

However, before we discuss specifics or the "how to" of providing a superior environment, let’s take a look at what we hope to achieve when we provide an environment for a psittacine bird, along with the general concepts which must serve as the basis for the choices we make.

Again, if we look more closely at the nature of the life parrots live in the wild and how this evolved, we are better able to provide for them in a manner which will guarantee success. We must always begin with the oft-stated truth that parrots are not domesticated. They are, at most, only one or two generations out of the wild, and have a full compliment still of wild instincts and behaviors. Our beloved companions in our homes are no different than their cousins still existing in the natural world. We must never lose sight of this when providing for them.

Therefore, we should and can create an environment and provide activities for our birds that will at least mimic aspects of the existence they would have enjoyed in the wild. Doing so will deepen their sense of satisfaction with their existence, while at the same time prevent some of the more common behavior problems. For instance, our parrot may not be able to fly freely from place to place outdoors, but we can make sure that he has ample opportunity to perch in different areas of the house, enjoying different "views," on different types of perches, which will provide additional challenges to him and different physical sensations for him to experience. Further, we can make sure that these very social creatures have opportunities to share with us in our social customs of eating and bathing.

Second, we must take a long hard look at the fact that parrots have evolved every instinct, every conscious thought pattern, every feeling, every physical feature and every physical ability in connection with the natural physical world. Not so for us humans, who long ago parted company with nature. We must guard against allowing the complacency, which goes along with our place in space and time, our domestic existence, to blind us to the importance of physical and social environment to our parrots.

Evolved for Exploration

The beak, the feathers, the ability to fly, the tremendous capabilities for play and exploration all evolved in connection with and in reaction to the physical world. The connection between the natural world and the bodies, minds and spirits of parrots is so intimate it is hard to see the division at times. This truth does not change merely because we snatch them from the physical world and place them in our homes to share our much more meager existence…at least meager in terms of the stimulation afforded by wind, rain, sunlight, streams, trees and vast expanses. An understanding of this leads us directly and quickly to the conclusion that the choices we provide for our parrots are not inconsequential…. They matter…to the point of dictating the quality of our experience with them.

Third, it is appropriate to remain mindful of what we are attempting to replace, or compete with…the stimulation inherent in the environment in which they have evolved to excel. As most readers know, I raise Congo African Grey parrots. The babies fledge at about 10 weeks usually and fly to their heart’s content until the time comes when they must be partially and gradually clipped back. Prior to that first flight, these babies have demonstrated exceptional curiosity and an enthusiastic drive to explore. Once flying and landing have become effortless, their energy, enthusiasm and delight in exploring know no bounds. Nothing is safe from those busy beaks, and I am often struck by the sheer happy silliness they display as they discover their environment. They love the world and they love themselves in it.

When I begin to clip their wings gradually, this does not at first do much to put a damper on their desire and ability to continue exploring their environment. It slows them down just a bit. Once their wings are clipped partially, I begin caging them for longer and longer periods of time. This is, for me, the saddest phase of their development in my home…for it is abundantly clear that spending time in a cage goes against their intrinsic nature. I make amends for taking away their freedom by providing more new toys, fresh branches for chewing, etc. And, this then becomes the "trade-off" for the rest of their lives. It becomes incumbent upon us, as caretakers, to provide the most varied of diets and experiences in order to make up for the fact that what we can offer them is so much less than what they have evolved to experience. We must never relax in our commitment to provide them as many opportunities for freedom of choice and movement as possible.

Prey Animals

Fourth, there is no truth of greater significance than the fact that parrots are prey animals. This simply means that their very existence, their sense of safety and security, depends upon the physical surroundings they choose for themselves in the wild and upon their connection with their other flock members. This too does not change merely because they are raised and placed in the domestic environment of our creation. This aspect of their nature leads parrots to imprint on the specific aspects of the physical environment in our homes, especially in the first home to which a hand-fed baby goes after weaning. This means that the quality of such a home is of critical importance, since it has the potential to influence, if not dictate, what that parrot can tolerate and feel comfortable with during the rest of the course of his life in our world. This is not an overstatement.

An Informal Interview

I have taken in my share of second hand, unwanted or abused parrots. Early on, one thing became obvious. If I could, by luck or keen observation, duplicate any aspect of the lives they once knew in their first homes, their reaction was immediate. Their satisfaction increased. They relaxed a little. They became more willing to trust. They rediscovered a sense of exuberance. It was no small thing. I quickly decided that the path to success in taking in "rescue" birds was to proceed with an informal interview…a patient, persistent offering of choices…of each bird when taken in…just for the purpose of discovering their preferences in terms of environment. Often these preferences defied reason, as well as standard wisdom in terms of parrot keeping, and it became evident that these preferences were still being dictated by life in a previous home.

It was experiences with these birds that allowed me to conclude that parrots imprint on their physical surroundings, whether optimal or not, to such an extent and degree that their future sense of safety will depend at least in part upon replication of those same physical surroundings. This is especially true for African Greys, who are renown for resisting cage changes. Greys are not the only parrots who resist change, however; they are only the most extreme examples of this common problem. Frequent are the stories of the difficulties we have with improving diet, introducing the concept of showering to a parrot who has not seen a bath in a long time, taking birds outdoors who have spent too long a time inside a home, leaving them when we go on vacation….

Lastly, we must acknowledge that, despite the common qualities discussed above, all parrot species are not the same, nor do they have the same dietary and environmental needs. Each species in the wild has it’s own unique habitat that dictates diet, bonding and breeding style, bathing method, etc. To attempt to provide the same diet and social environment for African parrots as we do for New World parrots will only lead us into muddy waters, and we will experience difficulties we don’t understand as a result. We must strive to continually discover the facts unique to each parrot species, then attempt to duplicate these as closely as possible in our homes.

All of this boils down to one, simple truth. The environment we provide when we bring a parrot home, and the social climate we create, is of the utmost importance. No aspect of this is trivial. I believe that striving for excellence in this endeavor is appropriate, in that it is a way of "making amends" for the fact that these birds no longer live a wild existence. For the fact is, nothing we can provide can begin to compete with the freedom and quality of life they would have enjoyed had their fate been to be born in the wild.

True, wild parrots live forever with the threat of early death at the hands of a predator. However, the quality of their existence while alive is such that parrots have evolved a natural exuberance. This exuberance displayed by a happy parrot is not an emotion that evolved while living in a cage eating a pelleted diet. Exuberance is an emotion that results from feelings of freedom and autonomy…the ability to choose what makes you happy and act on it. In fact, it is this innate exuberance that can be used as a "report card" for us as we seek to find those conditions which best suit our birds. If we have exuberant parrots, we can be fairly sure that we are doing the right things.

Stated simply, what we provide for our companion parrots should be "held up" in comparison to the freedom of choice and freedom of movement they have evolved to enjoy in the wild, and are best suited to. These are the two things of which their now-domesticated existence deprives them. Given that our domestic parrots are identical to their wild counterparts, this last statement holds true whether our parrot was imported or domestically raised. It doesn’t matter. Instinctively, they are equipped and prepared for an existence in the wild. Yet, what they receive is an existence in our homes, and the manner in which we provide that makes all the difference…both to them, and ultimately to us.

This article was originally published as a three-part series in the Pet Bird Report, Issues No. 46 (February 2000), No. 47 (May 2000), and No. 49 (September 2000).


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