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The Fearful Parrot

By: Mattie Sue Athan

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Some parrots fear nothing. Even the tiniest birds may challenge huge rivals over territory. Others fear almost anything - falling or flapping in panic if a shadow crosses the ceiling.

Where does fear come from? And what can you do about it, especially when it's you he may be most afraid of?

Caution and fearfulness are part of the equipment that allows birds to survive in the wild. In a challenging situation, a wild parrot's first instinct is to fight or flee. Pet parrots don't have those options, so they develop others. A fearful bird may bite a human, a cage or a perch (the fight part of the equation). Or he may throw himself to the floor or cage bottom (attempting to flee). Other signs of fear include repeated calling, inability to regrow tail or wing feathers – and even feather-chewing.

A Vulnerable Parrot Is a Fearful Parrot

Like most baby animals, young parrots have a little clumsiness to them. A cage that is too large or difficult to climb can contribute to repeated falls. Nails and wings that are trimmed too short - combined with perches that are too large or too hard - can also cause a young bird to fall a lot.

A parrot whose wing feathers are just growing in tries to protect his wings by avoiding situations that stimulate flapping. He may refuse to come out of his cage because he can fall easily. As he becomes more evasive, he may automatically jump or thrash when he sees a human. This sets up fear of falling and fear of humans. To restore the bird's confidence, try tricking him into choosing to come out by removing the cage tray and grate and turning the cage upside down.

A parrot that repeatedly knocks his feathers out may develop fear associated with pain, feather cysts and an inability to regrow those feathers. If your parrot repeatedly knocks out his feathers, take him to the veterinarian for a check-up.

The development of a confident relationship with even one human can be a breakthrough for a fearful bird because he may then develop more confidence overall. While young parrots learn more quickly, even a mature bird's behavior changes as new responses appear and are reinforced into habits and old behaviors become obsolete. Every parrot goes through periods of trying new behaviors. By the time he's 6 months old, a healthy parrot is curious, active and exploratory.

Birds that don't play are likely to be increasingly introverted, skittish or fearful. Additionally, a parrot kept in a poorly designed or poorly located cage with insufficient light, inadequate diet or insufficient sleep may revert to fear.

Most behavior programs require readjustment - gradually establishing small changes to achieve long-range goals. Several cycles of evaluation, adjustment and reinforcement may be necessary to bring about noticeable improvement.

Playing With a Fearful Bird

Pet parrots benefit from early patterning, such as step-ups and towel play. If your parrot learns early that the towel is a cozy, safe haven, you can use it to calm him, providing a sense of security when he gets scared.

On the other hand, some parrots don't tolerate physical contact with humans at all. Pattern these birds with eye games, body-language games and other types of passive play. Silliness is important here.

Eye games include:

  • Mimicking each other's blinks
  • Peek-a-boo
  • Always keeping one eye closed

    Body-language games include:

  • Crouching low or covering your head
  • Hiding your hands
  • Hiding your face
  • Never looking directly at your bird
  • Freezing absolutely still at an unexpected moment
  • Mimicking your bird's body language

    Sound games include:

  • Mimicking
  • Tapping from across the room
  • Calling softly around corners

    Other interactive games include drop-the-toy-and-pick-it-up or letting your bird steal toys (such as specially designed bird-safe buttons or jewelry) from you. If your bird will take food from humans, give him as much warm food - a parrot's equivalent of comfort food - as possible.

    Find a cooperative human, pet or bird that loves to be hugged, touched and petted and demonstrate these joys for your bird. This stimulates competition for human attention.

    New Experiences = A Braver Bird

    Outings can stimulate attitude changes toward familiar humans in unfamiliar territory. Sometimes just taking your bird for a ride generates noticeable improvement - even if your bird never leaves his carrier. Your bird will enjoy new experiences and, when he comes home safely, his sense of security will improve.

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