The parrot and owner bond is complex and often intense. While it is hard to explain what a healthy bond with a parrot feels like, the same way it is hard to explain what a good friendship feels like, there are definitive ways that parrots and owners bond. You and your avian friend might have different understandings of what that looks like, but one thing is universally the same; when a parrot enters your home, you become family.
How do Parrots Bond?
What that family can look like varies. Some owners and their birds develop remarkably intense bonds. Parrots have a tendency to pair bond — a relationship that is more intense than one that you would normally have with family members, and is commonly reserved for mates. Parrots in the wild prefer to pair bond with a member of the same species and the opposite sex. Because this is such a high order social need, however, parrots will pair bond with whoever is available, be it birds of the same sex, birds of another species, owners, or even other pets. A parrot’s secondary social need is that of a flock, which is comparable to how we think of family. Though the pair bond satisfies an intense need, birds, like people, need more social interaction than just one individual to satisfy these needs.
Where you fit in to your bird’s family system depends on you and your parrot. Sometimes if a parrot is already pair bonded, it is hard for them to create another one — which is why you want to get the pair if the seller knows they’re bonded! Otherwise, your parrot might bond to you. Some owners are comfortable with this, and enjoy the depth of the bond they share with their parrot. For humans, it can feel like having a close friend or adding a member of the family, especially since parrots are so intelligent and expressive. However, some parrots will display territorial behaviors that owners find undesirable or aggressive. The bird that’s pair bonded to the owner may screech at other humans or shy away from them, giving everyone else the “cold shoulder” or outright being aggressive. This can be shifted in a couple of different ways. If you aren’t comfortable with your parrot’s pair bond to you, you can try getting another bird of the same species, and see if your parrot’s bond shifts to the more appropriate companion. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. If it does shift to the other bird, then the owner takes on more of a flock member role, which can be more comfortable.
Another way to mitigate this behavior is to socialize other people in your life to the parrot’s flock. It will help to have those people consistently around, and to show your parrot that they are not a threat to you or them. Maybe even have your friends and family devote time to talking with your parrot for a little while each day. It is also recommended that each person has a specific task for your parrot that they can perform regularly; one person could feed the parrot, another could clean the cage, a third could participate in play time. Over time, your parrot will come out of its shell and start being comfortable if not friendly with your other human friends. Plus, the more socialized your parrot is and the more secure a flock it has, the happier your parrot will be!
Parrot’s Aren’t Humans — And They Aren’t Like Other Pets
Because parrots are intelligent, sociable, and have a tendency to make strong parrot and owner bonds, they are susceptible to being anthropomorphized. It’s not necessarily bad to think of your bird as human-like, but it’s important to make sure that that mentality doesn’t go too far. A common example of damaging anthropomorphism is forgetting that parrots require a different diet — some human foods are damaging to avian friends, and the quantity of food should also be monitored. Parrots are small, so it’s very easy to over feed them. Another example is to think that birds “punish” their owners when they’ve been gone for a long time. This is reminiscent of a child or teenager giving you the silent treatment when they’re mad at you. In reality, a parrot’s lack of interaction or aggression is likely due to having not been social with you for a while, especially if you just went on a long vacation. It could also be expectancy bias — if you expect your parrot to bite you after you’ve been away, that’s what it’ll learn how to do.
There’s a fine line to walk here, though, because you don’t want to try to treat your bird like other animals, or in a way that ignores their intelligence and emotional capacity. Common mistakes include flock leader mentality, height dominance, trimming feathers, and laddering. A flock leader mentality is when you believe that your parrot needs to think of you as the group leader to respect you. Birds are more communal than we typically think of wolf packs or other dominance related structures. If you try to be a “flock leader” to dominate your parrot, you might wind up scaring them instead. Height dominance is the idea that a bird flying above your head is trying to assert its dominance or disobedience. If a parrot is flying above your head, it is likely because it finds it rewarding up there, and you haven’t established recall. Parrots can be trained to return to you when they fly high above — just look at free flight shows!
Though trimming feathers is recommended by many professionals, and is done at your discretion, it is important to think about why you are limiting your parrot’s range of motion. If your parrot has an inability to fly long distances, it could develop anxiety at its loss of freedom. Laddering is also a problem with lack of freedom; this is when a parrot is forced to step from one hand to another repeatedly until it relents. Ultimately, this teaches your parrot to be exhausted and confused around you and decrease trust and damages your bond.
What Are the Best Ways to Bond and Train Parrots?
So how best to bond with your parrot? The key is to slowly garner your parrot’s trust. This can be done in a few ways, keeping your parrot’s needs in mind. One is to feed your bird food they’ll love. Flocks in the wild share meals, so if you share (parrot safe) food with your bird, it is likely to start understanding you as part of its flock. Talking, singing, and dancing are encouraged! It might feel a little silly, but parrots communicate mainly through song and body language, so if it sees you trying to communicate, it’s likely to try to communicate back! Petting is also encouraged, but try to stay away from the back, under the wings, and under the tail. Stick to head pets — parrots like nuzzling, so focus touch there — and make sure that you get consent. If your parrot doesn’t want to be touched, don’t force it! If they want to be affectionate, they’ll come around.
If your parrot is experiencing behaviors you’d rather it didn’t, or you’re trying to train your parrot, don’t shy away from conditioning. Make sure that desirable behaviors are rewarded and reinforced, and you can give them a different behavior to do in place of the one that you don’t like. Though it is done by many professional trainers, operant conditioning is actually easy to do. You encourage your parrot to do a behavior step by step, and reward them with a treat (safe food you know they like) every time they complete a step correctly. Eventually, you’ll be able to reward them only every two steps, and finally only when they’ve fully completed the behavior. Parrots also appreciate social rewards. For example, if you tell a parrot to stop a behavior and they do, you can speak in high, happy tones and congratulate the bird for doing something right. This works especially well if your parrot already understands that “Good!” means “I’m doing well!”
Parrots as Family
None of this demeans a parrot’s intelligence or capacity to interact with humans in a deeper way. Parrot’s ability to mimic and understand language and body language is one of the primary reasons that we keep them as companions. We develop special connections with pets and they develop special connections with us. Especially because parrots are so long lived, it is easy to feel like they are comparable to human friends and family members, which strengthens the parrot and owner bond — and that’s not bad.
Though we know that parrots experience the world differently than we do, and don’t know if they experience emotions the same way we would describe them, a parrot’s bonds to their owners and other pets are clear. Birds are known to experience behaviors that we attribute to grief at the death of a beloved owner or flock companions. They can become muted, anxious, or lethargic, the same way that humans do when a loved one dies. Most owners reciprocate this, and experience the same symptoms of grief when their parrot dies that they experience at the death of a close relative. I mention grief because it is a more extreme and measurable behavior. Equally, parrots and humans experience reciprocal feelings of enjoying each other’s company, having fun, feeling ill, and even something we could describe as love. Parrots could even take on a role you could attribute to a sibling — annoying but loved. Even if they push a mate off a perch or squawk just because they enjoy watching you jump, that doesn’t mean that they are any less loved by you or their avian companions. Perhaps it makes them even more lovable.
It’s hard to describe the relationship that you have with your parrot. It’s hard to describe your relationships with other people — how do we even begin to explain the depth of love between us and our pet? Human bonds with pets tend to be ones where we fold them into our family dynamics, and that can be easier to do with our brainy and charismatic bird friends. They tend to fold us into their flocks too. The bonds we feel can be intense or casual, human-like or more trainer and performer. Maybe it just feels like your bird “gets” you, the same way your best friend does. Whatever it is, it’s important to us, and deserves to be cared for and preserved.
Bird Street Bistro wishes you and your feathered family well! Leave us a comment or your opinion on your bond with you fid. We would love to hear from you.