French Version

About Parrot Psychology

by Johanne Vaillancourt

Translated by Marlène Picard (Mooghie)



Parrots are highly intelligent creatures, with great sensitivity... and we often tend to forget, with a range of natural behaviours designed specifically for the environment in which they evolved, a parrot habitat, that of their ancestors. Behavioural interventions with parrots must always reflect these innate attitudes, custom built in those charming birds...

To intervene in the "psychology" of a parrot living in captivity is similar in many aspects to ethnopsychology; the discipline stemming from anthropology, sociology and psychology.

When speaking of parrots, the term ornithopsychology, despite sounding a bit unusual... would certainly be more appropriate.

In this unusual field, we will consider the status of the bird (as a prey animal), his sociological environment (in captivity; our families and homes), and we will joyfully stir ethology and psychology.

The ornithopsychology would resort to interdisciplinarity in that it considers key concepts of ornithology (ethology) and psychology, in order to intervene in situations of communication dysfunction or of behavioural disorder identified in our companion parrots.

If we ignore the innate behaviours of our birds, any intervention will inevitably be doomed to fail. We will at the most influence the natural attitudes of our parrot while attempting to help the bird adapt (as well as he can) to the social requirements of a domesticated life. However, we will be unable to invalidate them completely and will be resigned to contend with them, and this for the psychological well-being of Coco (and incidentally of our own).

As I have often stated, our parrots are neither dogs nor cats, let alone humans! They are parrots living in the company of humans and they need to be socialised to an environment that could not be more strange to them. As well, all attempts to apply training techniques used (often wrongly) for dogs with our parrots will result in as many bitter failures and may risk causing great harm to the bird; and this at many levels.

The parrot for his part must make use in some way of ethnopsychology to try to understand us, humans, and our strange environment. We have our codes, our modes of expression and our rules, which must often seem very strange. Living with parrots is somewhat like the shock of the cultures, as much for them as for us.


Coco in therapy?

The behavioural and cognitive "therapies" used with parrots (and their humans) follow essentially the same patterns and the same order as those used for humans by humans:

  • Functional Analysis
  • Goal Setting
  • Implementation of a program
  • Assessment of results


It is important to understand that a human wishing to undertake a behavioural "therapy" with his/her parrot must acquire the open mindedness and the coherence and constancy necessary as prerequisites for this adventure.

The functional analysis allows the identification of various interventions depending on the environment, the parrot's temperament, including the characteristics of his species, and taking into consideration his own problematic. It aims to identify key problems, their origins and their corollaries.

The key problems are, in a pragmatic approach, those that are most likely to be resolved positively. The solution of which will influence, or reequilibrate the environment and subsequently, Coco's nasty behaviours.

The modifying actions to be taken will most of the time (and in fact almost all the time) focus on the factors of retention of the behaviour/problematic. Indeed, in most cases, if the disturbed behaviour is the residual echo of past traumatic events (hetero-specific imprinting to humans, inadequate or early weaning, lack of socialisation, communication dysfunctions, physical or psychological abuses), this behaviour will have over time, acquired other meanings, other functions within the organisational structure of the bird. Often these remnants perpetuate the behaviour.

As well, in several cases of real behavioural disorders in parrots, the key problems are also often associated with environmental problems, the results causing psychological and interpersonal difficulties that foster dramatically excesses (plucking, self-mutilation, anxiety, stereotypical behaviours, aggression, etc.).

From an empirical point of view, functional analysis is done through interviews with the actual humans (bird owners), research with previous humans (owners, including the pet store or the breeder) and ideally - though not always possible - field analysis: observation of the bird in his environment (at home, his interactions with his social group (human)), in addition to the review of his history, the methods previously used and the detailed review of previous failures. All of this allows us to define objectives and key obstacles.

It is essential to obtain the most complete cooperation of the human to identify properly the problem-behaviour: changes, loss of control, compulsions, frequency and duration of crisis episodes, etc... 

Furthermore, it is important to take into account the psychopathology that is associated with the behaviour: anxiety disorders, phobias/panic, affective and emotional disturbances, etc... and disorders such as: plucking, self-mutilation, stereotypical behaviours, etc... Aggression and hypervocalisation are more often than not learned responses associated with specific situations and stem more of a dysfunction of communication (easily correctable with some good will on the part of the human) than a real behaviour problem.

It is understood that the deficiencies, interruptions or discontinuities in parental care in hand-reared parrots during the first-year of life of the bird, contribute more than significantly to the development of real behaviour problems - not only early in the life of the parrot but also later. At this point, the individual responsible for the intervention has different possible options that need to be discussed with the client, including:

The cognitive approach - a learning approach allowing for the modification or the control of the behaviour. It has a finality of adaptability; to teach the bird to change a behaviour. Cognitive activities affect the behaviour and can be modified. 

The behavioural approach - a series of actions/reactions designed to have the parrot react (to a situation) in a progressive manner. It is a stimulus (event) that affects the bird and causes a response that will result in a positive or negative consequence (reinforcement). This is not to be understood as the use of a series of predetermined recipes, each case being different, but to establish an individual strategy for each parrot based on his temperament, his history and his own problematic.

The rest of the adventure depends on the willingness of the responsible humans to offer coherence and constancy, and in most cases, we can expect to obtain rapidly some encouraging results. A hopeless parrot ... I have never met

"Once solved, a problem is surprisingly simple." Paulo Coelho


© Johanne Vaillancourt 1996 to 2009



Pepette, cacatua alba, Maggy Costa
Molly, anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, CAJV
Kiwette, ara auricollis, CAJV
Elmo, ara macao and Molly, anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, CAJV
Jade, pionus menstruus, Jean-Luc Robichaud