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animal instincts

Ahoy Thar, Matey!

Your shoulder could be just the place for a parrot

Ever thought of getting a parrot? It might be the greatest idea you ever had—but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Parrots live a long, long time, often longer than people, so you may have to include your parrot in your estate plans. That’s why it’s so important to be really sure before you commit.

Parrots are a handful. They are social creatures that demand attention. They also need to be allowed to fly around to be really happy. Flying is what parrots do best. A parrot with clipped wings is like a dog without a bone (come to think of it, a parrot is very much like a dog with wings). If you clip a parrot’s wings, rendering it flight-impaired, it will become depressed.

If, like me, you’re concerned with your parrot’s aerial freedom and allow it to fly around the house au naturel, then you have three problems to confront. First, the parrot might fly away, so you need to exercise great caution. Then there is guano (droppings)—mucho guano. It’s amazing how hard this stuff dries; someone should market it as stucco. Be prepared to scrub surfaces with parrot-droppings cleaner daily. It is possible to train a parrot to “go” on command and not to eliminate on people, but that takes time, know-how, and patience. Finally, there’s wood chewing. You can’t stop parrots from chewing, but you can try to supervise them when they’re out of their cages and provide more appropriate substrates for their busy beaks.

Other problems that parrot owners may face, especially if they don’t train their birds properly, are screaming and aggression. Screamers are usually inadvertently trained to scream for attention, while aggressive parrots may be spoiled by too much shoulder riding (position is everything in bird hierarchies). To modify these bad habits, owners should limit shoulder time and learn the punishing “finger wobble” technique. Wobbling your finger while the parrot is on it makes for an unsteady perch, which parrots don’t like.

Another behavior to watch out for is feather picking, which is usually caused by medical problems or inadequate care and can leave a parrot looking like an Oven Stuffer roaster. Confining a parrot to its cage for many hours leads to boredom, which leads to excessive grooming (because there is little else to do). Feather picking, most common in African Greys because of their anxious temperament, is similar to the human disorder trichotillomania, or hair pulling. Both conditions respond to behavior modification, environmental enrichment, and treatment with anti-obsessional drugs, like Prozac.

On the upside, parrots are beautiful birds—intelligent, interesting, and enormous fun. Like humans, they have moods, and can go from cuddling to clowning, flying to resting, play-combative to peaceful. It’s wonderful to come home after a hard day and have your parrot fly onto your shoulder to greet you. You may get a warm hello into the bargain. My yellow-naped Amazon parrot, Chickie, calls out our names, says “hello,” “peek-a-boo,” “Where are you?” “I love you,” “meow” (to the cat), and “woof woof” (when you say, “Where’s the doggie?”). She also whistles a few tunes, such as the theme song to The Simpsons and the Pepsi jingle.

You can have a lot of fun with a parrot. One Halloween, I put on a tricornered hat and answered the door to trick-or-treaters with my parrot (safely secured) on my shoulder. The kids were bug-eyed. The best time of all, though, is nighttime, when Chickie cuddles into someone sleepily and wants to be held and stroked.

For all their cozy domesticity, it’s important to remember that parrots are creatures of the wild. I once saw a Nature documentary that showed flocks of beautiful parrots flying high in the jungle canopy as Nature’s founder, George Page, described life in their natural habitat. The program ended with a pet parrot sitting alone in a cage, its breast bare from feather picking. Page’s rich voice intoned, “Sadly, in captivity, some of these magnificent creatures go completely mad.”

He had a point. Capturing parrots in the wild is a practice I believe should be banned, but some even argue against keeping parrots bred in captivity. If you decide to adopt a pet parrot, be patient, committed, and prepared to accommodate its natural behaviors. Just as dogs bark and cats scratch, parrots fly and chew things. If this is too much for you, get a goldfish instead.

One of the world’s most noted animal behaviorists, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. He is the editor of Puppy’s First Steps: The Whole Dog Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Puppy, which was published by Houghton-Mifflin in April. He is a pet expert for Time Inc. and Life magazine.

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