French Version

The autonomous parrot

by Johanne Vaillancourt

Translated by Marlène Picard (Mooghie)


Conure is a very autonomous parrot.

My parrot screams as soon as I leave the room and it no longer sees me .... My neighbors complain that my parrot shout for hours when I leave the house ... My parrot will not stay near its cage. It constantly wants to be in my arms, otherwise it screams like hell until I take it with me ... My parrot does not want to play alone with toys. I always have to play with him or it will throw its toys on the floor ... My parrot will only accept new foods if I hold it with my fingers ... and blah, blah, blah... I think my parrot lacks autonomy...!

That is "LE" subject, the one that is very present, the one people write to me or tell me about when talking about their parrots. At this point, I do not know if the term autonomous is appropriate ... In all the cases above, I think the parrot is very autonomous and knows exactly what it wants and how to get it. What it wants is your company or at least to know your location at all times and if possible, to bring you back to him.

The word autonomous comes from autonomos, "that is which is governed by its own laws" of nomos "law". Philosophically, autonomous is defined by "the right of the individual to freely determine the rules to which it submits" (Petit Robert). So, a parrot that behaves in this manner certainly does not lack autonomy. He misuses it, which is quite different. If it has not learned to occupy its time alone with periods of play, if its only interaction with humans have always ended in being held or being cuddled, if it has never had the opportunity to explore, be it food or other items related to its environment, its level of emotivity will be very, very low - it will inevitably cling to what it considers safe, to what is known, trying not to move out of a pattern that suits him perfectly, that is by refusing all that is new, in any form or shape whatsoever.

The parrot is unfortunately not a seer and nothing in its genetic makeup will prepare it to act or react appropriately in an environment that is not that of its ancestors. It can only interact with you as it would with a companion of its own species in the wild. A parrot that behaves in this way is simply governed by a very basic gregarious instinct and its actions are confirmed by the responses of the human. The need for a presence, a constant companion is not an abnormal behavior in the parrot, the issue of species excluded; it is programmed to be with another or a group, but never alone. This is not a lack of autonomy, but the genetic programming. It is the lack of socialization which is sorely missing.

Parrots are gregarious and want to interact with you.

This is why the bird will need guidance to develop properly in its captive life: it must learn to become a good pet bird (the role it is destined to play for the rest of its life) in adapting to the human environment in which it will evolve. If it does not adapt, it will spend its life in confusion and develop behaviors that will seem to work for him but will cause immense concerns to its human.

There is a lot to gain from a parrot that is "lucky enough" to understands its environment and knows what is expected from him. The problem is when our actions exceed its capacity to understand. That is the beginning of problems. However, it is not difficult to soothe a parrot. Your involvement will be critical in its socialization, you will have to teach it (so it grasps your explanations) what is actually happening in its immediate environment, whether it is with nutrition, with accessories, (toys) hanging in its cage, the actions of its social group (family), and to accept the constraints that come normally with life in captivity, including that in the human world, the concept of constant companionship is impossible (very, very difficult) but that there are alternatives.


My parrot screams when I leave the room

The parrot is not programmed to live alone. It is a gregarious animal that works in pairs or groups and depends on its social group to survive. It is normal for the parrot to panic when it looses eye contact with the member or members of its group (in this instance, you). If it cannot see you, it will use a contact call to create an auditory contact. You can answer the call by: "OK, everything is good. I'm here!" to reassure him. That's good, but where is "there" for the parrot? In many cases, it will then call louder to try to locate you. Because in its mind "here" is not an effective response and it still does not know where you are. In the wild, parrots call each other (contact calls) and the partner's response is often sufficient to offer reassurement. That is because in their natural habitat, parrots know their territory and can locate almost exactly the location of the companion or the rest of the group.

African grey parrot in a domestic context.

So, in a "domestic" context, it is essential for your bird to recognize its territory (your home). To do this, you will need (at a minimum) to introduce it to the house, show it its territory piece by piece by naming (in human language, the only language that you will both be able to understand): the living room...the bathroom...the bedroom...etc. and to encourage the parrot to join you. You must repeat this ritual every time you enter a room. Later, when you come out of its field of vision and your bird calls to try to locate you, simply reply: "OK, everything is good. I am in the bedroom or living room, etc". The bird, in many cases, will be satisfied with that concrete and clear answer and above all accurate (since the arbitrary sound "living room" will have acquired meaning to it). It knows where the bedroom or living room are, and it now knows its territory (since you have taught it by walking and naming rooms) and, if it wishes, it will simply find you ... as long as it, of course, wants your company and has the option to join you (it is not locked in its cage or has severely cut flight feathers). Did I already say that a parrot that can move easily is less likely to scream?


A parrot that screams, shouts and have lot of voice, the sun conure!

My parrot screams when I leave the house

Same pattern again. No eye contact, auditory contact search ... no answer = panic! For your parrot, you disappear completely when you leave the house, and it cannot accept being abandoned. The parrot wants to understand what is happening in its territory and within its social group. When you leave the house, the bird does not know where you are or if you are gone forever. It is worried because its survival and security are directly related to you.

Fortunately, unlike dogs, parrots have some sense of time and all they want is to be informed of the duration of your absence. There is no need to explain to the bird that you are going to the grocery store because there is no more sugar in the house and you need to bake a cake. It is indifferent to this kind of detail. It does not need to know where you are going or why. It wants to know how long you will be out of reach and it wants to be sure to see you again. It is therefore necessary to introduce the bird to a simple notion of time that it will understand and will provide the reassurance of your return.

Parrots can anticipate known situations (which have been repeated several times before). You leave for a short time (for about a half an hour), and you say, "Bye, coming back soon". This statement means that he can hope you will return soon. On the other hand, if you go to work or shopping all day, you would say: "Bye, see you later." This statement means that you will be absent for a long time and that he should not worry, even if it is a long time, you will come back. You do not have to use the words I suggested (soon / later). What is important is to always use the same statements in the same situations and stick to them. If you tell your bird that you are coming back soon (within half an hour), do not drag your feet and end up going out for a coffee with a friend. This is the best way to lose the trust of your bird. Parrots are not known for their flexibility. If it is white, it is white, not yellow. Coming back soon, means soon, not later... If you do not follow through, your parrot will learn not to trust you and will risk developing a lot of anxiety.


My parrot always wants to perch on me... and yet it has plenty of toys and a large cage

We certainly cannot say this is lack of autonomy. The parrot knows what it wants and has already set its priorities: the couple that you form with it. It needs your presence and knows how to communicate it. For the parrot, it is not natural to stay alone. In its natural habitat, most daily activities involve two or more parrots. It simply transposes this inborn trait of its kind in a different environment. This is not a whim! If that need is not met, it will communicate this in the most effective way it has learned to do this while in contact with humans: by screaming.

In most cases, it is easy to identify a lack of socialization; the bird will demonstrate a low level of emotivity. In such a case, if it does not understand what the purpose of the colored dangling stuff in its cage, if those objects are unfamiliar, it may fear them and not want to approach them. A poorly socialized parrot has not developed its curiosity (or creativity) because of a lack of exploration and stimulation, and therefore it has no idea how to play and / or keep busy on its own, it is fearful of venturing and refuses absolutely to explore anything new.


this African grey is not waiting any more.

Waiting is not part of the parrot vocabulary

To wait and keep busy alone is not part of the genetic background of the parrot. It is not a natural behavior for it (read "immediately"). It must try to integrate these unknown and unexplored situations into its being as a very gregarious animal. It will definitely need your involvement to integrate these contexts, to adapt its innate attitudes + + gregarious, that are contradictory to these concepts.

The bird will not develop the ability to organize its activities by itself. In the wild, a parrot is always interacting with other members of its group and never waits for anything. If it wants something or wants to get somewhere, it is immediate. It does not know how to wait!

"Captive life" means spending most of your time alone, in a waiting mode. Waiting to be taken out of the cage, waiting to be fed, waiting for attention... Waiting, waiting, waiting.... So the least we can do is to teach our parrot how to do it in a joyful and happy manner.

As the notions of solitary activities or waiting modes are (naturally) unknown to the parrot, every time we ignore it or do not have the time to interact, it does not understand and, ultimately, will take it personally. It will then use vocalizations to try to get some attention. If the bird has not learned to keep busy on its own, if it does not know how to wait, this behavior will be normal (and correct) for him. It has learned that the best way to attract attention is to scream and it is the human that by its attitude has justified this behavior. What is needed is to help Paulie learn to manage its autonomy, to wait, to keep busy on its own, and this, without taking it personally.... Whew!

First thing, learning how to use toys. It is not enough to place an object with the bird for it to understand how to use it. We must introduce the new toy in a play fashion, in having the parrot touch it, chew it and by teaching it how to play (in case of a complex toy). As soon as it will understand the principle, it will know how to use it and with experience (that we want to be positive), it will develop a healthy curiosity for other toys or objects that you introduce later and it will cultivate its appetite for learning.


A simple concept: I'm busy

Now that it knows the use of a toy as entertainment, it must now learn to do this on its own during those (numerous) moments of the day where you will not be available for direct interaction. If you need to do something and you do not have the ability to physically take care of your bird (which inevitably happens as far as the parrot is concerned, every time it wants some attention), you must prepare it to keep busy on its own with its little belongings.

You place your parrot in an area where, preferably, it may see you, and you surround it with favorite toys (to snack, to forage or to interact), you look closely at your parrot in the eyes and say, "Now you are going to amuse yourself, I (your name) am BUSY" with emphasis on the word busy. Then you turn and you go about your business. From the moment you said the word BUSY, you do not hear or see the bird. Whether it screams, it comes towards you or it tries to hold onto your pants, you do not give it any attention. You gently bring it back to its toys, without looking at it in the eyes (which is a powerful form of attention). You repeat: "I'm BUSY" and you return to your work.

Parrot learning to occupy itself through its own activities.

The first time you are BUSY three minutes, then the next time five minutes, after that ten or twenty minutes. Then, when you finish what you had to do, you return to Paulie and say "OK I'm done" and you start to play with it, talking to it, in short, you give it attention.

With the consistency in the statements and repetition, the parrot will learn very quickly the meaning of the word BUSY, and he can anticipate that after this is over you will go back to it. The message it will receive at the time will be: "I do not have time to play with you, but because I exclude you does not mean that I abandon you." If the parrot understands what is happening and what is expected, it will see himself as a full member of its social group and will accept this approach as something quite natural.

Then, when you are certain that the bird really understands the meaning of the statement BUSY, you can begin to have auditory contacts (talking to it) or visual contacts (watching it), without having it expect physical contact with you (take it on you or cuddles). As it understands well the situation, it will not be frustrated. For him, it is a new form of interaction and it just feels completely comfortable with the concept. At that time, you can interact remotely using games that do not require direct contact.

Autonomous African grey playing with a color toy.

Ex: If the bird can recognize colors, you place several toys of different colors on the table and, at a distance (while you are doing other things), you play: go get ... the red toy... the green toys... All this while verbally encouraging it. You will have your hands free to do other things, while giving Paulie the impression that you are giving all of your time.

Guiding your parrot in its learning (both social and play) will always be a positive aspect of your relationship. It is not uncommon, when I am working at my desk, to see my birds working on color schemes or forms, alone or with another parrot while interacting with me, or at least with my voice. Often a simple bowl and a ball will keep a parrot busy in a game of furious basketball, without me having to touch the ball once, and two bowls and a few small plastic beads can occupy a bird for almost an hour with a verbal request such as "take and put" the beads from one bowl to another. At that time, the parrot "takes" the beads in the right bowl and puts them in the left bowl. Upon completion of the task, a reward (a cheer and a happy face) on my part and we start again, from the left bowl to the right, and vice versa .... You are giving your parrot an ambient attention without having to do much and everybody is happy!


My parrot will only eat new foods if I hold the food in my hand

The "domestic" parrot does not know immediately what is edible or not and in many cases it does not even know what this new colored item is that you have put in his bowl (in nature, young parrots learn through imitating the parent who chooses and eats the food). Therefore it is normal that when presenting new food it will need a little help from you - eat it in front of it (you will be a model), give the food to your child or your spouse, which they will of course accept heartily (the bird receives an indirect reinforcement) and then offer it to your parrot who through imitation, may also want to try eating it. However, once the food has been tasted, enjoyed and appreciated, there is no reason to continue holding the food in your fingers so that the bird will eat it. A known food has to be left in a food bowl so as not to create bad habits.

This kind of behavior is not exhibited by parrots only, many pets do so if we let this type behavior be established. My mother's little Maltese refuses any kind of food that is not offered by its favorite human hand, including pleasant smelling foods such as meat and poultry...

Caique tasting a new food.

It is important to encourage the bird to eat different foods, of varied textures and colors as soon as possible upon arriving in your home, regardless of age. It will learn to be bolder with new things and eventually will develop a healthy curiosity about all the new foods that you will present to him. If the experience was enjoyable (and tasty), it will be more willing to try new and unknown flavors.

It is important that the bird learns to integrate well in a habitat that is so human and so foreign to that of its ancestors. Autonomy requires an understanding of its environment and adaptation to it. But remember that it will be impossible to achieve without your help.

Human have to consider its parrot as a being of intelligence and of autonomy that is worth to be slowly and patiently socialized to its environment. He will bring it to live exciting adventures, some pleasant and some not, and to learn to anticipate certain situations. In addition, he will feed its sense of security, by helping it develop its curiosity while respecting its instinct.

The parrot needs to understand the world in which it lives, that is fundamental. Remaining ignorant, means living in fear. And fear will expose the parrot to the risks of developing unwanted behaviors due to anxiety. It should be normal for a parrot to feel comfortable in its environment, its house.

A parrot too dependent physically and emotionally from its human will not flourish. It will tirelessly repeat the same behaviors, leading us to believe that it has serious problems. It will not be for lack of autonomy. It will be because it does not instinctively know how to express itself in the human world.



Related article
My parrot screams


© Johanne Vaillancourt 1998 to 2011


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