Domination Behavior In Parrots True Or False?

“Every now and again, someone must say, “Now is the moment to pause and assess what we know.” Without such pauses, epistemology—the act of knowing—becomes a bargain basement, with consumers fighting and yelling as they grab a garment that fits and is now fashionable.” Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing

I have steadfastly adhered to the old tenet that allowing them the “high spot” would be detrimental to their eventual behavior patterns and thus to the evolving relationship ever since I became involved in keeping parrots, attempting to give advice about proper environments and building relationships. For some reason, all of the behavioral specialists, books published, and articles written were unequivocal about “parrot dominance behavior”: how it would harm the caregiver-parrot connection and how it must be avoided. Innocently and persuaded of this “truth,” I joined the mass in the lack of more definite knowledge. (However, in contravention of this “natural rule,” I always allow my birds to perch on my shoulder.) It simply appeared to make sense at the moment. Well, we were all mistaken!

In this situation, it seems that the behaviorist, who sometimes works with purely human interpretations and conclusions, is willing to infer something that could not be farther from the parrot’s thoughts. (I’m curious what else we’re incorrect about.) I’m not sure how this story came to be, but it was there and it made sense in a human manner. We most likely perceived aggressive conduct for an effort to dominate—there is little question about that. Individual territories, mating places, hormonal impulses, and perhaps even group loyalty may be the underlying reason in these wild birds. Fear, mistrust, or open disdain for a human or another parrot are all valid grounds for aggressive behavior.

The sophisticated and survival-driven flock behavior patterns of these clever and sensitive birds are continually being examined, and new conclusions must be developed that are congruent with the findings of professional avian scientists’ study. One thing seems to be certain: there are no “flock leaders,” and members of parrot flocks do not consistently exhibit domineering behavior. Based on flock composition, lifestyle, and size, this idea is no longer applicable. It no longer makes sense. There will always be a need for height, particularly when a danger is detected or when it is time to roost for the night. The rationale is self-evident: relative safety.

These flocks seem to function as a single unit, with each bird relying on the others for life. That is why body language is so important, and why our parrots are so perceptive and intuitive. A perceived danger from the outside, as well as individual flock members’ brief violent behavior pattern, are relayed in this way and are promptly recognized and appreciated as indications of caution. We must accept that these clever and perceptive animals are unlike any other companion animal we are likely to meet. Their reactions to external stimuli are motivated by both instinct and logic. A parrot does not act without a cause, even though it is often beyond our intuitive and emphatic understanding.

The lack of improper conduct motivated by a desire to dominate, on the other hand, does not exclude the existence of several other possible causes—eliminating one does not preclude the others. It may make understanding our feathery companions a bit simpler, but it does not make our lives with them any less potentially problematic.

Mr. Wonderful has been known to bite many a parrot caretaker when perching on their shoulder. The fact that it was not caused by domination made it no less terrible. The issue with parrots on the shoulder is one of control and warning. Peripheral vision makes it incredibly difficult to discern body language, and the bite occurs very rapidly. So, unless you truly know your bird and are ready to take a risk, the rule remains “please, not on the shoulder.”

Furthermore, the old saying that the “high perch” might lead to dominance behavior is still somewhat true—if the term “aggressive” is substituted for “domination.” It all makes perfect “bird sense” now: “The higher I can sit, the more safe I feel, and hence the more emotional freedom I have to be violent. If I end myself on the floor for any reason, or if I am brought into a strange area or scenario, my first goal is to regain my sense of security. My priorities are clear, and as a prey bird, my first goal is safety! After that, I have some other difficulties to deal with, such as mating, feeding, and allopreening, or teaching a teenaged flock etiquette!

Once we’ve formed trusting connections with our birds, the sense of security follows, and the “high perch” loses its significance to the bird. Now he/she feels comfortable on all levels; yet, this does not rule out the possibility of isolated incidents of violent behavior—but then there’s the body language that says, “Please leave me alone, I have a headache!”

There is a very essential conclusion that we must reach. There can be no flock leaders everywhere if there are no flock leaders in the wild. As a result, any effort to model our connection with our birds in that fashion is certain to result in tension, friction, and, eventually, trust loss. “We must consider ourselves as benign and patient instructors as opposed to being “in control,” said Sally Blanchard.” That is a completely human idea that obviously does not apply here. (At this point, I’m curious what goes on in the head of a parrot in a human flock “governed” by a highly dominating human.) Another, equally crucial lesson is that we aren’t as brilliant as we believe we are!

I am grateful to bird researcher James J. Murphy for offering inspiration and guidance in his work “Aggression in Parrots, “Flock Leaders,” and the Above Eye-Height Position Revisited.”

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