Introducing a feathered friend to your home can be most exciting. Bear in mind however, that like us, birds come with baggage, trauma triggers, and oftentimes undesirable behaviour. Having the grit to work with that bird, through the good and the bad, can make all the difference in changing its life for the better. Animal behaviourist, Lizelle Britz-Chapman, has a few tips for those who decide to foster or adopt a rescue bird.

“Accept the bad, hope for the best” 

Doing so will ensure that you will not set yourself up for a failure. If you think about a bird that has been abused, for example, then you already know it will not be an easy task. However, you may be surprised. Some birds adapt faster than others, meaning that its rehabilitation may not be so challenging after all but do be prepared for potentially long journey.

 

Getting to know your bird

 Birds are perceptive enough to hide what they are feeling. This is understandable, as if they express stress or anxiety in the wild, they make for easy prey. In that case, take what you observe with a pinch of salt. Your bird may appear relaxed, but this may not be the case. Give your parrot around 5 days to properly ascertain how it responds to you.

How to settle in your parrot 

Before you bring your parrot home, ensure that you have everything set up. A week before the bird arrives, make sure that the cage is in place, if possible. Ensure that food and water are in place just before you place the bird inside. This means that you can avoid sticking your hands in the cage within the first 12 to 24 hours. Setting a precedent of respect for your bird’s space can make all the difference – especially if it has been abused or neglected in the past. 

You do not need to ignore your bird, however. Talk to it, put on a radio or TV for some ambient noise that may soothe the parrot and allow it to adjust to the normal, if not softer, sounds of your home. 

Toys 

People are usually so excited to adopt their birds that they hang every toy they’ve bought up in the cage – and it’s the worst thing you can do, as it is extremely overwhelming. Have one or two toys that aren’t extremely bright in the cage to begin with. Getting a parrot used to engaging with toys is part of the rehabilitation process. Parrots should be able to entertain themselves and not always be dependent on human interaction. 

Make sure that they have space to move around and up and down as they like. Depending on the bird that you have, different types of toys are more suitable. Larger birds will need larger wooden toys as their large beaks can destroy toys more easily. Smaller birds can enjoy toys with popsicle sticks, smaller wooden blocks, and paper for example. Foraging is important for all parrots and can be introduced slowly while they learn how to forage. 

In the same way that there are different big cats, there are also different parrots. There are “old world parrots,” such as African Greys, Macaws and Amazons, and “new world parrots,” such as cockatoos and those that live in close proximity to humans. Old world parrots are typically scavenging birds. They enjoy being on the ground, gnawing on things, tearing them apart. Let this guide your decision to provide toys that they can chew such as wood or scavenger boxes.  As your bird acclimatizes, you can begin to add more toys. 

New school parrots are natural problem solvers. They require things that they can pick at, forage and solve.

Pictured Left/Above: A common mistake among fosters is overwhelming the parrot on the first day or week. We recommend leaving cleaning to once the bird has settled and is calm. Cleaning the cage on the first day can overwhelm the bird and lengthen the recovery process. This doesn’t apply to a situation where the cage is a so severe that it is a risk for the human or bird’s health. 

Diet 

Many rescue birds have been deprived of a healthy diet, and some forced to survive only on seeds or nuts. The first thing Lizelle wants people to remember is that it can take months to get a bird on a proper diet. There are also birds that will never be 100% converted. If you aware of a history of an only-seed diet, don’t pull out the seeds immediately, as the bird will not eat. In that case, seeds and a portion of pellets mixed together may do the trick. Additionally, you can add in a food that has a nice smell to it, such as pineapple or apple, something tangy. Sprouted seeds are also a healthier version of seeds that can help parrots’ transition to eating healthier foods. Other ideas to help transition a parrot include making a veggie mash and hiding the seeds in it and offering the vegetables in different ways (chopped fine or given in larger chunks, cooked or raw). 

Give it time and be persistent. As the parrots becomes accustomed to being in your home, you can introduce more foods. Remember that variety is crucial. There are also many calming teas (such as chamomile) that you can add in the water if need be.

Biting 

All bird owners share this burden. Biting is, to some degree, inevitable, no matter how friendly your bird is. Parrots bite for various reasons – such as fear, nervousness, or simply desiring more attention from you. Luckily, there are some techniques to avoid those nasty bites. 

When it comes to this, it is important to know that your bird won’t bite without cause. An attention seeking bite is the worst kind, as it has developed into a routine and the parrot actually has to learn some manners. 

Nervousness and fear can be worked with, using target training and positive reinforcement, during which the bird will build a bond with you. 

In her experience, Lizelle advises those to deal with biting birds by placing them on the ground immediately after the incident. A bird on the ground is vulnerable, it will then understand that if it bites, it is not high up anymore, nor protected. 

A parrot will give you a sign before it bites, either puffing up its feathers, diluting its pupils or even hissing. If you respond to a bird that is puffing itself up by walking away, you are communicating with it, and subsequently that bird will learn that it doesn’t need to bite you. 

You can also work on your relationship by respecting its boundaries, especially if the bird is not happy to be handled, in the following ways:

  • Give the bird space
  • Give it treats through the bars
  • Talk to it

 With a bird that is biting for attention, you may have to get someone in to come and start training the bird. There is no quick fix for that, and it may be a behaviour that might remain. You can have a perfectly trained bird, and it may still bite.

 They are unpredictable, but you will learn how to read that bird as you go along. 

Lizelle warns bird owners to not put birds back in their cages when they bite. If you do, they will learn that biting and the cage share a negative connection, in terms of space. Birds will be unwilling to return to their cages after some time. It needs to be their safe space. 

Give them a few seconds after you put them on the floor, while keeping an eye on them, of course. See what they want to do, if they come to you, it means that they consider you a safe place.

Touch and handling 

Pointing fingers are very intimidating for a bird. It is overwhelming. Similarly, hand games are a no-go if you want to keep your fingers intact. Rather get a ball with a bell, and roll it around with your bird. Your hands are there for handling, and to work with the bird. 

People also need to be extremely careful about where they touch their bird. Never touch your bird on its backs or wings. When you scratch their back, stomachs, wings and tails, you are actually enticing a mating behaviour – which leads to bad behaviour, biting, and frustration. Touching the head and the feet is safe in terms of working on a bond with your bird.

 

Avoid trauma triggers 

Avoid quick movements. In the wild, this means they are in danger. Don’t surprise your bird by walk up to it from behind, for example. Make sure they can see you coming, or talk to them before you reach them. 

Pay attention to the story that comes with the bird. If your bird is aggressive towards men, or people with specific hair colours, you will need to keep this in mind to avoid inciting further trauma. You will need to pin point these triggers, which is why is the first few days are so crucial. Carefully observe their body language.

Be prepared for noise 

Bird owners will know all about loud noises. Screaming can go on for hours. This is why the method works as an attention seeking behaviour. People will get frustrated, neighbours may complain, so in most cases, one will relent and go and fetch the bird.

 The bird will, therefore, understand that it can manipulate you in this way. If you find this to be the case, the best tactic is to divert its attention. Give it something to do as spoken about by the topic of toys. Parrots love noises and colours. Putting on a children’s movie, or something with movement is a great way to entertain your parrot. Once your bird is calm, you can go and fetch it. 

In the beginning, it is hard. Try to ignore the behaviour as best you can. Sometimes the bird may just be having a tantrum. People tend to forget that parrots have the mentality of toddlers, and do not have the capability to understand when they are in a time out, for example. 

Therefore, you must communicate accordingly, and let go of the notion that you can reason with your bird in simple ways.

*Article by Fern Bamber*