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As with any species of animal, in order to understand how parrots behave as pets it is important to understand how they would behave in the wild. Parrots are naturally social animals that travel vast distances and use very complex behaviours to access food. This means that their lives as pets are often very different to their lives in the wild. Not only is their flight restricted, they are often kept alone and given inappropriate diets and foraging opportunities. All of these factors can lead to an unhappy bird whose ways of coping with an inadequate environment can be very destructive and noisy, which can also lead to an unhappy owner!
Most species of parrots are social in the wild, generally living and foraging in flocks but forming pairs and small family groups within those flocks. Parrots are a prey species and as a result can be shy or can react aggressively to things that they feel are threatening to them. In the wild they would feel protected in the flock, as there is “safety in numbers”, but they will also perch higher in trees to further protect themselves from any threat. Living with other parrots is therefore important for predator defence but it is also important for learning about complex learned behaviours like foraging, food handling and food processing from other flock members. Parrots also have to learn how to preen themselves properly. Their need to preen and maintain feathers will come naturally to them but they need to learn how to do it properly by watching other birds. Parrots naturally spend a lot of their waking day foraging, and regularly travel several miles between feeding sites. Some species of parrots have for example been found to spend on average 67% of their time in feeding and foraging and only 7% of their time resting. This time can be invested in searching for food or in processing it, for example they can spend a considerable portion of their time (and energy) simply exposing the edible portions of a nut. Another aspect of parrot behaviour that is probably related to their foraging behaviour is their inquisitive and destructive nature. Parrots need to exploit complex physical environments in order to access food and roosting sites; therefore, in addition to flight they show a number of physical and behavioural adaptations to their natural habitat. For example, they use their beaks and feet to negotiate treetops and unstable fruit bearing branches, traverse the underside of branches and climb vertical surfaces.
Unfortunately, because their captive environments are sometimes inadequate many birds go on to develop behaviour problems, such as abnormal repetitive behaviours (often referred to as stereotypies), feather plucking, aggression and separation anxiety. All of these problems can lead to the bird being rehomed or relinquished to a rescue centre. There are some obvious differences between the life of a wild parrot and that of a captive one. The locomotor behaviours they can perform are very much restricted by their cage or aviary and many pet parrots are rarely allowed to fly. Most pet parrots don’t have to travel between feeding sites as they would in the wild, they don’t have to select different foods to balance their diet and they have little opportunity to manipulate objects to obtain food. Pet parrots may spend as little as 30 minutes per day feeding. However, it is possible that pet parrots are still highly motivated to search for, access and process food items. And indeed they appear to prefer to perform some amount work for food even when free food is available. It appears that a lack of complex feeding opportunities is a contributing factor to the development of feather plucking, which is a common compulsive behaviour of captive parrots. Additionally, despite being highly social most pet parrots are kept alone. In fact ‘popular’ literature recommends pet parrots to be kept individually so that they form a strong emotional bond with their owner, rather than another bird. However, isolation from other birds may contribute to the development of undesirable behaviours. Chicks that have been hand reared from the egg are deprived of parental interactions needed to ensure mental well-being and many are forcibly tube-fed, which is likely to be painful, and subjected to forced weaning. All of these factors may lead to a depressed or frustrated bird that goes on to develop behaviour problems. For example, hand-reared parrots may become socially dependent on one person, triggering frustration as human bonds cannot fully satisfy their social requirements. Thus hand-reared parrots may develop frustration-related or attention seeking behaviours.
One way to improve captive housing is to increase levels of environmental interaction. Environmental enrichment can help prevent or reduce the occurrence of some behaviour problems and should be designed to facilitate foraging behaviours and increase the physical complexity of the cage. The presence of other parrots can prevent the development of some behaviour problems, for example, paired birds spend more time climbing, flying, walking and interacting with enrichments. This is because a pair mate adds a constantly changing element to the environment and provides opportunities for exploration and play. You should give your parrot toys that he can manipulate and deconstruct and work to feed methods should increase the amount of time and/or activity required to obtain food. Natural foraging behaviour may be simply imitated by scattering or hiding food in the enclosure, or a labour intensive puzzle may be used. Hanging food strings or kebabs are also fun for parrots and they need to use balance and precision to pull the strings up onto their perch in order to feed. Different types of food take different times to manipulate, for example sunflower seeds takes less than a second to get the shell off, whereas larger parrots will enjoy tackling whole macadamia nuts, brazil nuts or walnuts. The high-fat content motivates the bird to spend the necessary time to ingest them, however, these should only be given as treats as pet parrots do not expend a lot of energy. Over-tiredness is another risk factor for developing behaviour problems. Many pets have very long days and simply covering the cage is not enough to block out light and noise. Provide a more natural day length by putting you parrot in a room not used in the evenings. Ensure the cage is not exposed to potential stressors, including predators and irritant airborne substances. If it is not possible to remove feared objects you should consider seeking professional help from a behaviourist who will help you reduce your bird’s fear of unavoidable situations. They can also help you devise training programmes for your parrot that will replace some of the energy that would otherwise be expended in social interactions or foraging.
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