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Treating Parrots As Birds, Not Mammals

by Greg Glendell, Director, BirdsFirst


This article looks at the importance of ensuring pet birds can fly.


For many millions of years parrots have gone down a very different evolutionary path to mammals and have developed very different ways of living. Unfortunately many parrot owners are not told about these major differences. As a result, we may, inadvertently, treat parrots very poorly in captivity. My "default mode" with parrots is to use our knowledge of wild-type behaviour, conditions and requirements as my guide.


This relates to all aspects of being with parrots; how they are raised in captivity, social interactions, how they feed, sleep, play, learn new things and learn to cope with new situations and how they move about. The key to all this is understanding the bird's natural behaviours and behavioural needs and to accommodate these whenever possible with birds in captivity. This method, I feel, is about as fail-safe as we can be, given the limited information we have at present on most parrot species.


So, for a concrete example, take a bird's mobility, and remember how important height is in a bird's world. Since birds unlike most mammals can fly, they have an extra "dimension" in terms of how they move which relates to the height of all things in their world. Birds have no concept of barriers such as walls, ceilings, windows, mirrors, etc. These things do not exist in their world and they have never evolved to understand such things innately. So, they have no innate behavioural repertoire to cope with such things. If introduced carefully to some of these alien things most (but no all) birds do learn to accept them, at least to a degree.


Now, happy healthy birds, properly raised in captivity should be able to fly as part of their normal means of getting about, every day of their lives. Indeed, they should be encouraged to fly and to fly with all the skills of an ace aeronaut that parrots are. We should not see flight as a "problem" to be "solved by wing clipping. Instead, it is so fundamental a part of being a bird, that flightlessness should, in general be deemed to be unfair on a creature whose whole being has evolved around its ability to fly. So instead of thinking of wing-clipping as the "default mode" to adopt when keeping parrots, we should reverse this, and think of clipping as a last resort, not a first or presumed action to take on companion birds.


This, of course, has major implications for how we keep birds as companions in our homes. You need to encourage birds to develop their flying skills during their natural fledging period which occurs in the weeks and months just after they have left the nest. Certainly there will be crash-landings and accidents; just as a human toddler falls occasionally as she learns to walk. If you panic, and clip the bird's wings at this stage, it will make things even harder for the birds to land safely. A bird's wings operate as both propellers and air-brakes, depending on the way they are employed. Removal of any flight feathers doesn't just reduce a bird's ability to gain height. It also reduces a its ability to apply the brakes. Most people who clip birds wings, including many avian vets, and breeders have little knowledge of aerodynamics or even basic information of moult sequence and flight feather replacement in parrots; despite the fact that such information has been around for many decades. So, when birds are clipped, it is hardly surprising that many suffer both physical problems such as broken blood feathers, or behavioural problems such as a frustrated escape response*. These can easily result in frustration or pathological behaviours such as self-plucking, self-mutilation or repetitive screaming. This is not to say, of course that all clipped birds will suffer in this way, only that one should not be surprised when they do.


To live with a full-winged bird means you must, of course, still have good control over it. Fortunately, working with a parrot's innate intelligence this is easily accomplished by basic training in obedience, including flight commands. Such commands can usually be taught in a few days. It has always surprised me that, given the proven intelligence of parrots, most parrot owners do nothing more than teach birds to step or down, then think they have a fully-trained bird. Parrots can learn dozens, possibly hundreds of commands. Stepping up and down is just the start of the process. When done properly obedience training will give you excellent two-way communication with the bird, which is the reason for training anyway. So, to return to living with a bird as naturally as possible from the bird's point of view. I would generally advocate that we maintain flying birds and teach basic flight commands.


This necessitates taking precautions about some obvious matters such as open doors and windows, removing mirrors and ceiling fans, and teaching birds about the invisible barriers of windows. You will also need to instruct the bird in where it can perch and where it cannot within the rooms it has access to. In general, all high perches are off limits and birds should be taught this.


As UK avian veterinarian Neil Forbes says, the more a captive bird's natural needs and "freedoms" can be exercised, the better the bird's ability to cope with living in captivity. Many of the large cockatoos cannot cope with living in captivity at all, and serious aviculturists should review the concept of keeping such birds in captivity. The problems for birds in aviculture have, it has to be said, been created by us. Therefore the onus is on us to be actively involved in making major improvements with regard to how we treat parrots and indeed to teach other less informed parrot people how to treat them better. This is what I mean about the need for a new kind of aviculture or way of keeping birds.


* Escape reflex. All flying birds have an instinctive escape reflex action to any danger, whether this is a real or merely a perceived danger. At the sign of this, birds take to the air to fly above the source of danger. This enables them to feel much less threatened. Birds which cannot gain height as and when they need to (because they have been clipped) may become extremely frustrated since a prime behavioural safety reaction has been denied them. At this point (and not surprisingly) many birds develop deviant or so-called "phobic" behaviours. It is far easier to prevent these than have to resort to curing them.


Copyright © 2001 by Greg Glendell, BirdsFirst.