The innate, the acquired... and the parrot
by Johanne Vaillancourt
Translated by Marlène Picard (Mooghie)
The parrot, what a charming, mesmerizing and...so annoying animal! Indeed, if we listened attentively to the comments of many of the people who live with parrots, we would believe that this latter is an unpredictable belligerent, disagreeable animal...a real Pit-Bull of a character!
Indeed, we humans are used to live with dogs and to use as a reference point their behaviour and their socialization skills, and to apply this to others pets, and when our animals do not behave like a good doggy, the words "behavioural problems" emanate from all sides.
It is at that moment that people contact me, as soon as the so-named "behavioural problems" manifest themselves.
Personally, I work with parrots, using methods appropriate for parrots. It has nothing to do with dogs. Besides, I do not know how to work with dogs; my dogs do as they please and enjoy my sad attempts at authority; my parrots are evidently much more disciplined!
... and all the attitudes of the bird that are appalling to you neither are. The parrot possesses a multitude of innate processes that humans have some difficulty accepting and that often, are downright judged unacceptable in a "domestic" pet. But you see...the parrot is NOT a "domestic" pet...
Most of the physical or emotional needs of parrots are not adapted to cohabitation with humans, because... they (quite simply) never had the chance to evolve this way. Therefore, these behaviours, designed specifically for their natural habitat, when present in our human world are in the majority of cases, categorized as behaviour problems.
Using this label, my clients describe to me almost all of the
natural behaviour of the parrot: from biting (nipping), to
communicating (screaming), to flying, gnawing, destroying,
sexual behaviours, etc. To top it all, even defecating would
seem to apply to the category of "behaviour problems" of the
We will see in the pages of this website that none of these behaviours are abnormal. We will understand that the parrot is a logical and flexible animal that does not want to rock the boat. To survive, it has to conform to its social group and not confront it. As a logical animal, it reacts according to the social order of the individuals who surround it, precisely to avoid troubles and risk a rejection by its community. We will explore the concept that if the parrot, congruent in its approach, acts appropriately taking into account the responses of its group, it is the responsibility of its group (human or the social group) to offer appropriate answers best suited to its understanding, so that it is capable of producing the social behaviour expected from it.
There is a very important interaction between the innate and the acquired. The more an animal possesses instinct, the less it is dependent on its ascendants or on its social group, and in general, we will say that it is because it needs to learn less. According to Jean-Henri Fabre, precursor of ethology: "Instinct is, on one hand, perfectly suited to the situation that triggers it, but, on the other hand, terribly limited by its lack of flexibility".
Instinct results from internal stimulations (endogenous): physiological such as hormones and appetite. These innate behaviours are found in all the members of a same specie, the individual differences (temperament, personality, environment, etc.) have no effect on these types of behaviour. These conducts, present at birth, allow the animal to perform certain functions without the need to learn.
Instinctive behaviours in specie will depend on the development of the central nervous system of this specie, of its psychic level. Thus, the instinctive behaviours (innate - natural) play a greater role in the species with a weak development than the superior animals.
The innate attitudes are opposite to the acquired attitudes and
require no prerequisited learning.
For example: all the individuals of a same specie have identical sexual conducts arising from responses determined by their genetic characteristics.
In evolved species, such as our parrot, most of the instinctive information is supported by a very high capacity to learn, which makes them highly adaptable.
This wonderful skill to learn and to adapt is what we call the acquired.
Contrary to the innate, the acquired depends on external stimulations (exogenous); that is, stimulations that are outside of the bird, that comes from the environment. The acquired is the product of informations, learning and experiences accumulated during the development, from the fertilization of the egg to the end of a parrot's life. It includes all the intelligent and reasoned behaviours as well as the conditioned reflexes.
What is acquired is personal to the individual. Acquired attitudes allow our parrot to adapt itself to many situations or environment, new and differents. That is what forms its potential to become an excellent pet. All of the social learning falls into the category of acquired behaviour.
The most common learning approaches use observation and imitation as well as trials and as much errors. The successful behaviours will be repeated, while those with less benefits or without interest, or worst those disagreeable will be quickly abandoned.
Learning by trial is often the result of fortuitous and accidental situations, that is, the parrot acts without purpose, and integrates or rejects it according to its result: pleasure, disagreement or... absolutely nothing! It will learn from successes, but also enormously.... from mistakes! In both situations, one fact remains... the bird will retain (good or bad behaviours) according to the responses (consequences) it will have received.
Observation and, naturally, imitation of the protagonists who are in its immediate environment will ensure that the parrot will try to recreate behaviours that will seem appropriate and effective. It can reproduce immediately a behaviour by acting simultaneously with the model (imitative learning), but it can also reproduce the observed behaviour much later, when a similar situation will require it (vicarious apprenticeship).
The parrot's behavioural directory is constantly evolving; conducts previously adopted are abandoned at every stage of the development based on the response generated by the behaviour. It is there that the part of others is integrated...
Your parrot will be a reflection of its environment, and of what it acquires in your presence.
In spite of the fact that our parrot is part of the class of the "evolved" animals, it possesses at birth a number of pre-programmed attitudes, related to its survival, that will appear when needed and commensurate with its maturation.
And notwithstanding the fact that it has many acquired conducts, it is not an entirely a programmable entity. It comes to the world with "basic software" called "instincts" that will govern its entire life. It is important to note (to reassure yourself and for Polly's happiness) that an innate behaviour never disappears (and it is useless to try), the parrot can only learn to adapt its instinctive attitudes to the constraints and the requirements of the environment in which it evolves. The human and the bird will have to deal with this fact all their life.
It is vital for the equilibrium of the bird that it be supported by a good tutor who will know how to guide it and help it reconcile its innate behaviour with the constraint of its new environment (your home) and will guide it in the acquisition of the required social behaviours (acquired) so that it can meet the requirements of this environment (your objective).
It will be mainly with good supervision of activities, of experiences and because of your responses that your bird will learn - what is good as well as what is not good - it is up to you.
© Johanne Vaillancourt 2003 (french) - 2012 (english) Johanne Vaillancourt 2003
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Chiko, blue and Yellow Mackaw (ara ararauna), Sylvain Richard
Edgard, Jardine's Parrot (poicephalus gulielmi), Jeanne Bessette
Arianne, Mollucan cockatoo (cacatua moluccensis), Christine Cadoux
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