Time Well Spent With Parrots


The 1960s were known as the “we” decade, while the 1970s and 1980s were known as the “me” and “greed” decades, respectively. It would appear that the 1990s have evolved into the decade in which we all go into isolation, nurse our wounds, re-read “The Road Less Traveled,” and attempt to make sense of the chaos caused by three eras that were completely incompatible with one another. Since the downturn in the real estate market has left us way too broke to see a therapist, we have no choice but to keep reading self-help books in order to cope with our problems. It is not possible to deny that our vocabulary has been influenced by the over consumption of vast quantities of pop, psych, and literary works. People are prone to assume that their somewhat depressed neighbor is suffering from clinical depression “sociopathic, codependent, and misogynistic, this individual also suffers from an eating issue and has a negative opinion of themselves. But well, maybe I’m just reading too much into it.” What exactly does any of this have to do with feathered creatures? One of the ideas that has surfaced as a result of everyone turning their attention inward as a group is the notion of “quality time.” (The idea of quality time came about because so many of us were spending so much time analyzing our lives that we had very little time left to actually live them, which led to the conception of quality time.) As a behaviorist and someone who formerly directed a parrot adoption facility, I get asked the age-old question about psittacines all the time: “How much time do I need to spend with my parrot?” My standard (somewhat facetious) response is, “Ask them; I won’t comment.”

Generalities

There are not many hard and fast rules when it comes to the behavior of parrots. When dealing with an animal that is possibly smarter than the person living next door to your neighbor (just think about what I just said for a second), you will find that generalizations do not apply nearly as frequently as they do apply. Having said that, let us acknowledge the generalizations that will follow for what they are: the product of experience and a reasonable starting point for determining the requirements of your specific companion animal. Your bird’s social requirements can be met by a combination of direct, indirect, and ambient forms of interaction with other people and animals.

Direct Attention

You and the bird are the only ones paying direct attention. If your bird is attached to you, regardless of how easily it can be handled or how tame it is, the bird need your undivided attention at all times. This might be anything from just standing near the cage to hugging your bird under your shirt. However, it should just be the two of you, with a lot of talking and lots of looking at each other. This implies that you are not allowed to read, watch television, or talk on the phone all at the same time. You and Tweetie ought to make a point of making the most of this time together. Now is the moment to strengthen your bond with your bird and to ensure that it always feels protected and comfortable. It ought to be a period on which he may rely completely.

When it comes to my Moluccan, there are two distinct times that require my undivided attention…

It was up to me to choose one, and he chose the other. He preferred the mornings. He let me know in his own stealthy manner, as only a Melanesiac can do, that he liked to get some scratching in first thing in the morning rather than anything else. This does not mean that I pull my sleepy butt out of bed at the same time every morning and cuddle him till my hand cramps up. Rather, it means that I do not do either of those things. I would guess that nine out of ten days, some time between seven and ten in the morning, I will enter the room where the birds are kept and scratch Hitchcock for two or three minutes. That sums it up nicely. But this is the way that he prefers to begin his day, and he enjoys the fact that he can count on me to be there for him. My wife approves of the fact that I like to start my day with a shower because it’s my personal preference to do so.

Evenings were part of what I contributed to all of this. Hitch will probably want to head back to the cage sometime around the time the sun begins to set so that he may gallop back and forth on top and call in the flock. After this has been going on for approximately ten minutes, he will then eat, groom himself, and slumber until I come in. We spend ten to thirty minutes at ten or eleven o’clock at night, when the room is almost completely dark, hugging, scratching, and gently conversing to one another, and most importantly, we break up those annoying new feather shafts on his head. The fact that our session had to be cut short due to his being completely exhausted causes him to be grumpy in the mornings, even though this is an extremely crucial time for him. Because it reaffirms the breadth and depth of my dedication to this animal, it is of the same significance to me as the other things.

And no, I don’t take it too personally on those times when, just a couple minutes into our session, he climbs into his cage and shuts the door behind him. I’ve learned not to take things too personally. Hey, there are times when he’s too tired, and there are moments when I’m too exhausted. That is how life is. “Is that all there is?” I hear you weep. To answer your question, yes, it is in terms of the direct focus. On some days it takes 12 minutes, while on other days it could take 30 minutes, but on average it takes between 15 and 20 minutes in total. But keep reading.

Indirect Attention

Providing attention indirectly is sometimes referred to as “killing two birds with one stone.” You can relax here by reading, watching TV, shaving, swatting flies, or pasting S&H Green Stamps into the hundreds of little books that are required in order to obtain some kitchen equipment that you will never use. (I am aware that they have been out of business for a number of years. You’ve probably never heard of regression treatment, have you? You will have to give up the use of one hand to the bird, but you will be free to use the other for the rest of your life. In the case of birds that are less responsive to touch, this entails keeping them perched close by and dividing your attention and eye contact between them, as well as the other duties you are performing. The scratching of one bird with each hand is acceptable in this location.

Now, here is the particular example of the general rule: The combined amount of time spent paying Direct and Indirect Attention each day should be approximately 30 to 40 minutes. That sums it up nicely. Is there possibly more? If your lifestyle allows you to carry your Umbrella Cockatoo on your breast from five in the evening till nine o’clock at night, then by all means, do so. But don’t even think of leaving town, getting sick, passing away, or ever having another human relationship because you haven’t exactly reared an independent animal by any stretch of the imagination. Is there a lower price? Sometimes, although most likely not on a consistent basis. To be sure, the miles or requirements of each bird will be different, but in order to satisfy every bird’s wants, he or she must form a link with another creature and spend quality time with that other being. Even if your bird appears to be so “independent” that he only wants to be left alone, there is a good chance that he is not getting what he needs. This is likely the case because he has not developed a relationship with you that is sufficiently trusting to allow for the level of intimacy that he desires. Hobbes, our Severe Macaw, was hand-raised by his parents, and when we initially got him he wouldn’t even let us be in the same room as him. Now, he stalks us throughout the home while chanting “Up. Up. Up.” When we initially received him, he required the same amount of contact as he does today; the only difference is that he now understands that it is safe to obtain it from us.

Ambient Attention

When we practice ambient attention, rather than focusing our attention on the bird, we allow the bird to focus its attention on us instead. In its most basic form, this is removing the bird from its enclosure (by placing it on a perch, playtop, or gym), placing it in the path of foot traffic, and allowing it to see and hear us going about our business. This has two purposes: first, it provides the bird with some type of stimulation, and second, it helps the bird feel more a part of the family. It’s not something that can be avoided entirely, but every once in a while you should give the bird a scratch, ask about its health, or feed it some of its favorite morsels. It is very important that you bear in mind that while though this form of attention requires the least amount of effort on your part, it is just as vital to your bird as direct or indirect attention, and it is even possible that it is much more significant. Birds are highly intelligent and sociable animals; therefore, even if you buy them all of the toys in the world, they won’t be satisfied if they only get 40 minutes a day to interact with other birds.

The daily allowance of ambient attention recommended by experts is three hours. If your bird is going to be out of its cage on a gym, perch, or play area for any significant amount of time, you need to make sure that it has access to fresh water and food. This is something that needs to be kept in mind.

More Rules

  1. You ought to set up a fundamental pattern for these tasks, but you shouldn’t strive to institutionalize it to the point that it becomes a ritual. When something disrupts your daily schedule, such as when you can’t make it to your hugging session at 5:42 every day, a ritual will make you feel insecure, whereas a routine will make you feel more at ease.
  2. If you have a bird that is well cared for and has good socialization, you shouldn’t be scared to go on vacation, go out once or twice a week, or leave the bird in its cage all day if you just can’t handle it anymore. It’s okay; this sort of thing occurs to all of us, and we don’t want a pet that prevents us from having a life of our own. If, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who has days when they say “I can’t cope” more than once every few months, or if you are someone who travels constantly for work, or if you are someone who spends their evenings looking for love in all the places, right or wrong, you should think about getting a house plant instead of a bird. However, you would be amazed at the number of calls that I get from folks who believe that having a job with regular hours makes it impossible to have a happy parrot. It doesn’t.
  3. Do not give in to the temptation of purchasing a “starting bird” in order to determine whether or not you actually have the time to complete the task. Cockatiels require and are deserving of the same amount of attention as macaws. What actually winds up occurring is either that they discover that they do have the time and go out and get the bird that they wanted in the first place or that they discover that they do not have sufficient time and the tiny bird winds up being neglected, or something even worse. Take a sober, realistic look at your schedule, determine what you want from a companion animal and what you are willing to contribute to the relationship, spend time with birds and with people who have them, and consult avian experts who are not motivated by financial gain when you have questions about getting a bird as a pet. No life, no matter how insignificant, should ever be the subject of an experiment.
  4. To continue a little bit with the previous thought, do not let yourself be misled into believing that a Cockatoo is any more time consuming than an Amazon, Pionus, Poicephalus, or any of the other birds that are supposedly “low maintenance.” Even if this is not a practice bird, do not let yourself be fooled into believing that a Cockatoo is any more time consuming. ALL HOOKBILLS REQUIRE YOUR COMPANIONSHIP IN ORDER TO CONTINUE LIVING IN TEMPERANCE AND JOY. If you try to reduce the amount you spend on maintenance on an Amazon, he will boost the premiums you pay for your health insurance. Do not be fooled into thinking that Amazons, Greys, and other similar species do not need as much “contact” as other species, such as perching on your hand, talking, head preening (yours or theirs), and lots of eye contact. The fact that the needs of most cockatoos and macaws for direct attention are more tangible (scratching, cuddling, wrestling, and preening) than those of other species does not mean that they do not. The notion that cockatiels and budgerigars are content to spend their lives confined in cages is another urban legend that has no basis in reality. In point of fact, when left alone, smaller birds have a greater propensity to lose their tameness more quickly than larger birds. They may not be able to bite as forcefully, but it does not imply they do not desire to do so. It is quite obvious that they have a tremendous ability for interaction because of the fact that a budgerigar is the best talking bird in the world (he beat the previous record holder, a grey, all the way back to Ghana), so the evidence is pretty overwhelming.

Your choice of exactly what bird to purchase should not be based on how easy it is to care for, as this is not a characteristic shared by any of the breeds that are available to you as options. It is not required that you give your birds your whole attention during every waking minute of the day. If you are able to include the majority of the activities that require Ambient and Indirect Attention into your typical routine, then the only time you will truly need to set aside for Direct Attention will be just a few minutes, several times throughout the day. Now, lest you take this to suggest that parrots are “…the easy care pet of the 1990s…” as one article in another magazine referred to them, let me assure you that this is not the case. Parrots require a lot of attention and care. In point of fact, the amount of dedication required to maintain the health and happiness of a parrot is significantly higher than what is required for any other type of companion animal that is typically kept. On the other hand, you can have a regular life and still have a bird as a pet, presuming that you were already capable of at least some degree of normalcy before you got the bird.

Because of this, it is now possible for all of us to let out a collective sigh of relief because we do not need to give up our jobs in order to make sure that our birds are content. Given the diet of my birds, it’s possible I’ll need to have a second job just to ensure they always have access to blueberries. Of course, if I were to take on a second job, I would have very little time to devote to caring for my birds. It’s possible that they’ll pen a book about it, entitled something like “Birds Who Love People and the People Who Abandon Them” or “I’m Okay, You’re Cuckoo.”

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