What can I do to make his parrot hate me less?
December 23, 2012 6:33 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to make his parrot hate me less? Some details within.

My partner inherited a 24-year old Amazon parrot about a year ago. She loves him to pieces. He can hang her upside down by her tail, swing her around, it doesn’t matter what he does to her, she loves it. Ditto when he scratches her, which makes her lower her head and shut her eyes in avian bliss.

She’s hugely entertaining. While she’s not much of a talker, she loves to sing. And if anyone laughs, she joins right in, albeit mirthlessly, which makes it even funnier. And she has this absolute thing about laundry. Left to her own devices, she will perch on the laundry hamper for hours, and if the washer or dryer are running, she’ll stand in front of them clucking. Open the dryer and she’s inside instantly, fluffing the clothes.

But here’s my problem: she’s fearless and a bully. When she’s in the laundry area, for example, she “helps” my partner fold clothes, etc., but were I to be so foolish she attacks with tail feathers fanned. Even if I’m just standing nearby, it is not unusual for her to climb down from the hamper to waddle over and bite my shoe, as if to say, “Remember, I hate you.” She’s the same with the dogs and the cat, who all have learned to steer clear of her when she’s out of her cage.

I long ago learned to keep my hands and arms far away from her beak, because if she can reach skin, she will bite. Hard.

There are two times she never bites: when I offer her a pistachio, which is apparently parrot crack, and when she’s quickly deposited on my shoulder. In which case she goes silent and starts figuring out how to get off and back to her beloved. And she’s vocally responsive when I “chat” with her, though I suspect that when she says, “Hello,” she means fuck you.

So, my question: what if anything can I do to get her to tolerate me better and not think that she needs to attack me given half an opportunity?

I should perhaps add that I cannot fully participate in feeding and watering responsibilities, because I’m routinely away for several days a week. And while this AskMe about an African Gray comes close, after a year of treat bribes and hanging around unthreateningly, we’re still at square one.
posted by Short Attention Sp to Pets & Animals (8 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not an expert, just a long time parrot owner, but is not uncommon for parrots to choose one person in the family as a sort of mate, and protect that person from other family members. My partner and I had a Moluccan cockatoo that was supposed to be his bird, but it chose to fall in love with me. Although he took primary responsibility for feeding and watering the bird, and it would play non touch games with him, it would never accept him handling it in all the years we had it. Not to be discouraging, just to say that even if you do everything right, this may not change as much as you might hope.
posted by not that girl at 9:01 AM on December 23, 2012

I'm in your sweetheart's position in another avian love triangle... which is not so dire, as the other foot just commented over my shoulder that "the bird and I have an understanding." and bird just squawked indignantly.
How have these two orthagonal pair bonds reached a semblance of detente?
One thing to understand is that the bird believes it has primacy over your partner's attention and affection, such that if you try to horn in on special laundry time* or engage with your partner while the bird is on or around him, you're violating what she sees as her territory. I'm not sure you can ever convince the bird otherwise on this, so I'd just avoid these scenarios.
With that in mind, that the bond between your partner and the bird are immutable... do you ever spend time with the bird without your partner around? Just talking, singing or whistling to it while she's hanging out in her cage or otherwise unoccupied? I would suggest not while she's hanging out on the laundry hamper or monitoring the machines, because that sounds like some pretty important parrot business. If you can build an interaction with the bird that's independent of your partner, you won't be constantly running afoul of her territorial defense mechanisms.
Try to spend some time alone with the bird, so that you have some interactions that are independent of the partner/bird bond. Hopefully the bird will be less aggressive when the partner's not around to defend.

* my bird's pair bond agression extends beyond humans to inanimate objects, namely my hairbrush, which supplants his perfectly adequate allopreening of my hair. He hates that thing with a voluminous passion, and does a little birdy haka of rage while I'm brushing.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:14 AM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

I really like Sally Blanchard's book for some reason. There are some really good suggestions and ideas in there. There is a parrot game she calls "warm potato" that may help you. Also, a consult with an avian veterinarian may help.

But I do have to agree with not that girl, it may not resolve. You should try, though. Good luck!
posted by bolognius maximus at 9:23 AM on December 23, 2012

Not that girl has it down pat.

You're a competitor for his affection in the parrots mind.

Been there and has the scars to prove it…
posted by Rabarberofficer at 9:25 AM on December 23, 2012

Birdtricks.com has a lot of good info buried on it. I am not affiliated with them in any way and unfortunately their website looks like one of those high pressure sales sites, but the information behind what they do is sound and there is a lot of good information in the free videos and blog posts. My brother has a Red Tailed Black Cockatoo (a rare very large Australia Parrot) that had behavioral issues like your parrot as it had bonded with his wife so closely. Because it was so rare and he wanted it to be able to be handled by other people in case it was needed for breeding purposes.

The idea is right now the parrot is training you by communicating with you the only way it knows how. I can't tell from your post just what it is communicating, if it is fear or aggression or just seasonal hormones making things interesting (the fluffing the laundry in the dryer sounds a lot like nest making to me), whatever the reason it is getting you to do what it wants. If you work on training your parrot instead of it training you, you can establish more socially acceptable ways for your parrot to communicate.

Parrots respond amazingly well to clicker training, using all the same techniques as you would with a dog and there are a lot of clicker training videos out there for you to get the idea. You can do the training in 5 minute bursts here and there while you are home.

Work on getting the bird to step up calmly onto your hand to start with (or whatever else you want to be able to do) break the trick/behaviour down into small small pieces and establish one part before moving on. Remember reaching for the bird can be an aggressive signal to the bird, you are invading it's space or cage so go slowly rewarding the bird at first for letting you reach toward it, clicking and rewarding BEFORE it shows signs of reacting negatively and slowly work on moving closer to the bird. Parrots are super smart and learn this stuff fast.

The bird already knows you and once it realizes that you are respecting it's signals to you should become less reactive (ie bitey) if you watch closely you will see that most parrots signal with body language before biting.

Keeping the bird mentally and physically tired can help too, like a tired dog a tired parrot makes much less mischief. Is the bird getting a good long fly in a flight cage or around the house every single day? Lots and lots of toys to keep the brain active. Do you feed it once a day in one place or use lots (and I mean lots) of foraging and foraging toys to keep it active? Think about how much a parrot does in a day in the wild you want to keep that boy busy busy busy and make sure it is getting enough sleep too. Like toddlers tired parrots are crabby parrots, if you guys are up late with noise and lights and the bird is up late in the evening involved in everything that can mess with their sleep a lot.

Yes parrots bond closely to one partner, and tend to be protective of them but what a lot of people forget is that in the wild pretty parrots come together in flocks and so can be social to more than one other parrot/person. The parrot may never be as close to you as it is with your partner but you can both become friends or at least live in and around the parrot without being fear of being bitten all the time.

I am sorry if I've explained this badly, and that it is so long I am trying to get a lot of info out there and feel I've only touched the surface, a lot of stuff that I learned secondhand from watching my brother train his parrot to bond with him as well as his wife. He didn't find a lot of good info out there as most people seem to think like other responses her do, that's just how it is. He found that Bird Tricks site helpful as it gave him some ideas to work with and he used a lot of info he got from animal training books and from asking me how I handled our reactive rescue dog that has fear biting issues. If you have any questions feel free to memail me.
posted by wwax at 9:47 AM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

These responses are helpful! My main takeaway is that I need to set aside some friendly interaction time when my partner is not nearby. Up until now, I have interacted with her only when she’s on his shoulder or she’s guarding the laundry area.

> Remember reaching for the bird can be an aggressive signal to the bird, you are invading it's space or cage so go slowly rewarding the bird at first for letting you reach toward it

I have always figured that it would be best not to bother her when she’s feeling safe in her cage, but now, building on the one time when she will allow my fingers near her—feeding her a pistachio—my plan is to spend a few minutes a day seated near her (but not too near), punctuating friendly convo with a pistachio or three.

The warm potato game won’t work, at least not yet, because offered (empty) fingers get bitten 100% of the time. Still, I have ordered the Blanchard book to see what other strategies she might suggest. And I’m prepared for her never to like me if that’s where this ends up.

We, too, think the laundry obsession is about nesting. In the spring she’s going to get a “laundry nest” in her cage to see what she does with that. And I agree that she is communicating something: to date, I think this is, “I’m a big bully,” but we’ll see.

> The bird already knows you and once it realizes that you are respecting it's signals to you should become less reactive (ie bitey) if you watch closely you will see that most parrots signal with body language before biting.

Agreed. I’m going to work on this. True confessions, I have not been above teasing her a little bit in the laundry area, because her reactions are so darned entertaining, but that stops now. And we’re going to get her more toys, especially some foraging toys (first time either of us have heard of them).

> The parrot may never be as close to you as it is with your partner but you can both become friends or at least live in and around the parrot without being fear of being bitten all the time.

That’s my goal! Thanks!
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:15 PM on December 23, 2012

I don't know all that much about parrots specifically, but training animals to not do something (training a negative behavior, rather than training for a behavior) is notoriously difficult. Instead, it's usually easier to train (shape) an "incompatible behavior". For example, the Shamu article mentions a bird trainer who didn't like his birds landing on his head. Instead of trying to teach them to not land on his head, he taught them to land on a specific mat. Landing on the mat is incompatible with landing on his head, problem solved.

It might take a very long time for commands to become reliable enough that she follows them even in a stress situation (like if she feels you're seriously invading her territory), but you can definitely head off some of the low key, every day misbehavior.

Further reading: operant conditioning.
posted by anaelith at 4:14 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

The laundry incident especially is similar to nesting behavior. My African grey does that with laundry too, and then if anyone except me touches him, they get bitten. My husband is the "flock leader" and my parrot loves him, but my parrot wants me to be his mate and he gets bite-y if my husband gets too much attention from me.

It takes years for a young-ish bird to get over not attacking everyone but their favorite person usually. It's been my experience that it's mostly only Australian birds that tend to just love everyone, whereas African Greys are often scared of everyone but a select few people until they get over it, and Amazons are just pretty mean to nearly everyone until/unless someone helps them get over it.

This bird is 24 and inherited. She is old enough to have been moved to a new "flock" with your partner, and leaving the "flock" she was used is generally not a great psychological experience for a bird. She has instincts to fight to try and find and keep a position in the social hierarchy of the flock and will feel anxiety when her position feels unstable, and she will not like being put at the bottom of the hierarchy -- which, unfortunately, she needs to be eventually, because you have to be above her in the hierarchy. She likely recognizes your partner as the flock leader and/or a potential mate, which means she feels inclined to fight you in particular.

So this is going to take time. A LOT of time. Years, in all likelihood. Seriously.

Here are some things you can do, while being extremely patient:

* Make sure you never attempt to scratch the back of her head, as this is a blind spot in prey animals. It freaks them out and you will get bitten. Your partner may be able to scratch the back of her head as I am able to scratch the back of my African grey's head, but that's only possible when the parrot has utmost trust in someone.

* Speak gently and soothing (not bright and peppy, which can cause anxiety!) to her, especially when asking her to do something like step up on your hand. If it's not vital that she do something, don't force her, as it will just make her resent you. I mean, think of it from her perspective: you're moved to some new place with people who try to make you do stuff. You probably resent it a little by default. Are you going to like the people if they force you to do stuff? If they respect when you don't want to do stuff?

Birds are like people in this respect. If they feel like you're just making them do stuff because you can, they will resent it. If they feel like you mostly let them do their own thing until sometimes something seems very important to you, they'll be miffed but they'll let it slide and get used to the exceptions.

* When it's vital that she do something she doesn't want to do, have your partner come and explain in soothing tones that she is to step up on you, and when she does, both of you tell her what a good bird she is.

* Do not ever yell at her. It will just make her think you're awful and she won't want to cooperate, and she will feel anxious and have little control over lashing out. Birds really can control their emotions and reactions to some extent, it just takes practice for them.

* If she bites you, don't react. Stone cold expression of disapproval, sure, but do not yelp or show pain. This takes practice, and it hurts, and you will bleed and get pressure bruises over, and over, and over. Get some tea tree oil to help your wounds heal quickly. Getting bitten on a fingernail is awful, and so is getting the pad of your thumb sawed open or your arms bitten. It just sucks and you're going to have to deal. You can say something sternly like, "No biting," but do not otherwise react. This will confuse her at first, because she won't understand why her bites don't work, and she will bite harder. When I was training my bird that he had to obey me, even though I was not the perceived flock leader, I got a scar from where he sawed through my hand as I made him step up.

But eventually she'll not put forth the effort to bite anymore because it does nothing and it makes her feel a bit helpless. That sort of sucks but it's the way you need her to feel about things that are vital, like not eating stuff she can't eat or needing to go in her cage at night or whatever, because she must comply for her own good. If there's ever a fire or any other emergency situation, you don't want her biting because she hates her carrier or something, you want her to feel like she just has to do what you want in those situations.

Also, lest you feel bad about making her feel helpless, know that birds feel anxious when they feel like they have to fight to be in charge. Once they accept the state of things, there is less anxiety. Once they realize that those in the hierarchy above them treat them kindly -- not forcing her to do non-vital things, giving her treats, snuggling her -- she will be happy and well-behaved. But she has to come full circle, because right now she has no reason to think being at the bottom of the flock would be the best position for her. She has to be forced there, then live there a while, before she'll like it.

* The first time your partner is out of town and you're alone looking after her, you will get bitten like a motherfucker because now the flock leader is gone AND SOMEONE HAS TO BE FLOCK LEADER OR NO ONE IS SAFE IT'S TIME TO KILL EACH OTHER. Do not take it personally, she will be scared out of her mind, and you need to put her in a position where she feels she isn't responsible for keeping you both safe, and where you know what you're doing to keep you both safe. He will have to leave several times, likely, before she's entirely comfortable being alone with you.

* After an incidence of biting, when you finally put her wherever you wanted her to be, don't act completely pissed and unforgiving. For example, when my parrot bites and I have to return him to his cage, I do sternly say, "No biting," but once he's in his cage and I close the door, I lean down and say gently, "I know you didn't want to go in your cage. Thank you for doing it. No biting next time but you're still a good bird." If there's anything contextual to explain, like I'm going to the store and I didn't want to put him up but I have to, I will say that. I used to think being nice after putting him up would just confuse him, like why would I say "no biting" and "good bird" so close together? But in reality, it just de-escalates things, and he doesn't hold a grudge while I'm gone like he did before I knew how to handle him.

Plus, the sternness follows directly after the bad thing -- "no biting!" -- while the gentleness follows directly after he does what I ask. I think remaining mad once I put him up made him uncertain what the hell he was supposed to have done, and he didn't know it was good to go to his cage. He just thought going to his cage sucked because I'd still be pissed at him.

Once that's established, you can begin cutting off the biting and protests ahead of time by using the gentle voice when you know she's about to bite. It throws them off a little, and then as far as I can guess they associate it with things not being so bad, and it can defuse them before you get bitten.

* Once you feel safe doing so, you can also defuse biting by gently saying, "Hey," and stroking the side of her beak. This works very well with my parrot. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, you'll have to intercept a bite to do it.

Stuff I don't recommend: spraying water, grabbing their beak when they bite, or unbalancing your hand when they try to bite you while standing on it. You'll see those recommended sometimes, and all these things backfire by making the bird resentful, as it SHOULD feel in those situations. We tried all those things in the past and our bird was miserable and screamed constantly and bit a lot. Now he's super snuggly and hardly ever misbehaves.

So the big thing is to change how you react, and react very consciously in the ways outlined above. Good luck! Older parrots are more set in their ways and harder to mold, but with patience I think you will be successful, especially since she at least likes your partner.
posted by Nattie at 6:58 PM on December 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

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