Home > Pet Parrots > Eight myths and half-truths about parrot behavior

Eight myths and half-truths about parrot behavior

There’s a lot of great information out there about parrots in books, magazines, and the internet.  Even so, many misunderstandings about parrot behaviour and training have been passed around. Quite often, misunderstandings are based on legitimate observations of parrot behaviour and the parrot’s motivations for displaying the behaviour have just been misunderstood or misinterpreted.

So, here are eight statements about parrot behaviour I’ve seen that are either based on misunderstandings or aren’t true for every parrot. Some of these are about clicker-training, or rewards-based training in general.

1) A parrot that bites when he’s perching in a high position does so because he feels he’s dominant.

This is because, in wild parrot flocks, the bird at the highest position is the most dominant one.

In some animal groups, a “dominant” animal will have priority access to certain resources, such as mates and food.  For example, in most (not all!) groups of wolves, one pair of animals breeds, and the subordinate animals do not.  These subordinates often help raise the pups of the breeding pair.

However, flocks of wild parrots do not have hierarchies such as this.  Even in animal groups with something resembling what’s often referred to as a dominance hierarchy, the dominant animal is never one who happens to be standing in a higher position than the others.  In most wild wolf packs, the “dominant” animals are typically the parents of the rest of the animals in the pack.  Thus, what people have labeled the “alpha” pair are not animals that brutally fought their way up a hierarchy – they are simply the parents or oldest animals in the pack.  In other species, a “dominant” animal is one with a very bold, aggressive personality and other animals have simply learned to avoid confrontations with that animal.  Wild animals actually can have very different personalities, manifested by varying degrees of willingness to fight or investigate new things, and this has been demonstrated in creatures from guppies to large mammals.

Where did this idea of height dominance come from? I think it came from the fact that some parrots will bite or refuse when they are asked to “step up” onto a hand from a high position. This could be because a lot of parrots prefer to perch in a high position.  When given a choice of perches, a wild or captive parrot often goes for the highest one.  A bird may not want to step on a hand if he’s content where he is.  Additionally, some parrots are a bit clumsy when stepping down (rather than up) and may have trouble stepping down from a solid perch onto an unsteady hand.  Always place a perch or hand a bit above the bird’s feet when asking for a step up.

Additionally, parrots can indeed be taught to come down from a tall position.  If a parrot has been trained with positive reinforcement, he may realize that he gets treats or praise if he comes to his owner from a tall position.  My birds are all target trained and will come down from a tall perch to touch a target. I’ve even taught some birds that most people would label as “extremely aggressive” to come down from a tall perch.

2) You have to convince a bird that you are the “alpha” or dominant person in order to control and train him.

No. This isn’t true, and the idea that one must “dominate” an animal to train it is simply not very useful. How can one dominate a parrot without frightening or provoking him?  Parrots and other animals learn best when good behaviour is rewarded right as it occurs and unwanted behaviour is not rewarded (to put it simply). There’s no need to act domineering.

This is true for dogs too, by the way.  It’s a very common misconception that dogs have some vague, innate drive to “dominate” their owners.  They do not.  If a dog displays a behavior people don’t like (jumping on people, eliminating on the floor, growling, etc.) there is going to be a more concrete reason behind the behavior than some vague desire on the dog’s part to “dominate” the people.  The dog could have learned that jumping on people gets a reaction he likes or a dog may growl at something he’s afraid of because he’s learned that growling makes things go away.  Rather than teaching a dog (or parrot) what you don’t want through force, teach him what you want through rewards and kindness. For example – don’t want your dog to jump on you? Teach him to sit on cue and that you’ll pet, treat and greet him when he does that.  Want your parrot to step up on to your hand? Don’t push and poke him until he does it (how annoying!).  Reward him for any movement towards your hand, then start rewarding him for putting a foot on your hand and then finally reward him for stepping on your hand.

3) Using operant conditioning (or “clicker training”) to teach a parrot new things requires depriving him of food.

Some experienced trainers of certain animals in zoos, marine parks and other places where exotic animals are trained will give out part of their animal’s daily rations as rewards during training.  The animals are not food deprived and do get all the food they need.

However, it is absolutely not necessary to limit a pet parrot’s food intake to train him, especially if he’s not obese.  I enjoy clicker training my parrots and I do not limit the amount of food in their bowls.  I will often time their training sessions so that they don’t occur right after the parrot has eaten.  I also use food (nuts, seeds, or dried papaya) that they don’t have freely available as rewards.  Since birds have fast metabolisms, I absolutely don’t recommend pet owners limit a pet bird’s food intake to train it, and I’ve noticed that good, professional trainers tend not to recommend that either.

4) Rewards-based (positive reinforcement) training is bribery!

Properly done, it is not. The rewards (treats, praise, etc.) come immediately after (not before!) the wanted behavior has been executed. It’s hard to bribe animals (unlike kids) because you can’t tell them, “behave properly and I’ll give you a treat.” You have to teach them that certain behaviors will be reinforced.

Sometimes, food may be used as a lure, perhaps to entice a bird to step up on a stick. However, food lures are best used sparingly and should be phased out as soon as possible.

5) If a bird suddenly bites his owner, he may be trying to get him to flee from something dangerous. Birds will bite their mates to get them to run away from danger.

One of my hobbies is bird watching, and I’ve never seen a bird bite its mate in response to danger. If something startles a bird in a group, he’ll fly away and the others nearby will follow almost immediately.  Captive parrots usually bite out of fear or because they’ve learned it will get something they want.  They do not naturally bite because of an innate sense that it will make their partner flee from danger.

6) If a bird is to make a good pet, he must be taken from his parents and hand-fed from the age of ten days (or earlier).

This is the standard procedure for raising baby birds for many breeders. However, some breeders will allow parent birds to raise their babies a little while longer.  That way, the parrot chick won’t be completely sexually “imprinted” on people and will “know” he’s a bird.  This may prevent him from courting people as potential mates.  These birds left with their parents can make good companions later on if they are worked with by kind and patient caregivers.

I put “imprinted” in quotes because parrots don’t necessarily imprint on the first moving thing they see like goslings or ducklings do. However, they do learn that the species they should seek as a mate later in life is the one that they saw and were fed by frequently when they were young.  This is why a lot of hand fed parrots (especially those separated from their siblings and parents) will regurgitate food onto people or court them in other ways.  Some hand-fed parrots can eventually learn to take on a member of their own species as a mate if they are exposed to them later on.

Additionally, it’s not necessary for a person to hand feed a parrot to get it to bond to them.  I do not recommend buying unweaned parrots.

7) Parrots are as intelligent as five-year old children.

This one is very commonly repeated and it’s not true.  Now, as far as birds go, parrots are among the brainier ones.  They can learn fast, and because they live so long, they can learn a lot in their lifetimes.  One famous bird, Alex the African Grey, managed to learn concepts like “bigger” and “smaller,” and “same” and “different,” and he knew about fifty labels for objects.

However, even Alex the Grey’s vocabulary at age thirty wasn’t comparable to an average five year old human’s (which usually numbers over 1000), and most parrots will never learn to use words as well as Alex the Grey.  Expecting a parrot to speak as well as a child can is very unfair to the parrot.

The truth is, parrots aren’t children, they do not think like children, and they should not be expected to.  They are birds, and have a lot of their own unique traits and abilities that we should love and respect them for.

7) If your bird bites you, you should “ladder” him (get him to step up over and over again).

No.  I’ve seen this advice given in an article on the internet, and it really sounds like a good way to get your hand mangled. When a bird bites me (not often, despite living with several of them), it’s usually because I was handling him or her carelessly. I treat each bite as a learning experience: how not to handle my parrots! If I had ever grabbed a parrot who had bitten me and tried laddering him, I would have probably been bitten again, and far worse.

To avoid bites, owners should learn to read their parrots’ body language, train their bird well using positive reinforcement, and figure out what circumstances may provoke a bite. Punishing a frightened bird after a bite or “laddering” him may even make the bird want to bite more in the future! If he bit because he was apprehensive or nervous of the owner, he now has more justification for being nervous. The owner indeed is aggressive!

8 ) Training should always take place in a “neutral” territory away from a bird’s cage.

I would place this one in the “half-truth” (or even “mostly-truth”) category, because it’s usually fine and a good idea to train a bird away from its cage.  Some birds are calmer and more docile away from their cages and it is important to train a bird in a location where he seems most comfortable.

In the case of parrots with extreme aggression problems (e.g. the parrot flies at and bites people) I will, however, actually start training the bird while he is in the cage.  I had to do this once with a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo because he would attack me and I initially couldn’t really get him out of his cage without causing serious stress to the both of us.  I did lots of training with him while he was in his cage and he realized that I was predictable and trustworthy and didn’t need to be bitten and driven away.  Despite training him while he was caged, I didn’t force him to interact with me. His cage was big enough that he could have ignored me.  Later on, we moved up to training sessions away from the cage and he didn’t try to chase and bite me ever again.

On a side note, I’ve noticed that cockatoos can be a little less likely to bite hands that go near their cages.  A lot of pet shop cockatoos will let me scratch their heads, and only a few individuals of other species will.  Of course, most store cockatoos are juveniles, who can be less likely to bite.  However, a lot of mature cockatoos I’ve encountered or looked after are fine with people scratching their heads through the cage bards.

I’m not saying one should just stick their fingers in a cage at a strange cockatoo. I usually “ask” a bird if he’d like a scratch by calmly raising my hand to him and making a scratching motion with my fingers. If the cockatoo calmly lowers his head, I’ll take that as an invitation to scratch his head.

More Resources!

Of all these misconceptions, the one regarding dominance bothers me the most.  Here are a few more articles on this subject, as it applies to both parrots and dogs:

The Struggle for Dominance: Fact or Fiction?

-A .pdf of an article by Dr. Susan Friedman and Bobbi Brinker. For more about parrot behavior from Dr. Friedman, visit the BehaviorWorks site!

Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals

-A position statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour

Using “Dominance” to Explain Behavior is Old Hat.

-Science daily article about research that using “dominance” to explain dog behavior is not helpful. If it’s not helpful in dogs, why would it be in parrots?

Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs.

-Scientific paper about Arctic wolves. The findings imply that even wolves do not have a rigid, force-based hierarchy.


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