Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pet sitting the parrots

Dear Labby,
I'm pet sitting two parrots, and one of them doesn't like me! What can I do to make friends?

Pecked At

Dear Pecked, 

Tabby has her own opinion about how to deal with birds, so Labby just chased her up a tree so I could give you some more practical advice! The parrot at the top is Poncey, an Amazon, that I have been taking care of for seven years. His new rommate, Tooki (second photo), came on the scene about six months ago. I clean their cages every week. Poncey and I have never been close friends, but he puts up with me. Tooki, on the other hand, is downright aggressive. Last week he bit the housekeeper on the lip while I was at the house. 

I figured they didn't like me much because I show up every week and tear their cages apart, stealing their seed, running a vacuum cleaner, and just generally upsetting their routines. Poncey always settles down happily when I give him his fresh apple slices. Tooki pecks at me, bobbing his head and squawking the entire time I am near his cage. He will retreat to the top of his perch and continue posturing until I leave. I ignore him. 

Parrots, Amazons especially, are one-man birds. They will bond with their owner or mate, and never accept anyone else. Sometimes, if they start to bond with you, they will reject their owners! Robin, the housekeeper, tried to make friends, thinking if she spent time petting and cuddling with the birds, they would accept her. That's not how parrots think. Tooki was probably trying to protect his owner, Richard, from the threatening stranger.

Parrots are wild animals (even captive-bred ones), and will not ever be totally socialized like a dog. Think of them as wolves; no matter how domesticated, there is still that wild animal in there that will surface when you least expect it. People who own breeding pairs of parrots generally do not handle their birds much, so the birds will bond to each other and mate.

So what does this mean to you as a pet sitter? You can safely care for parrots and other large birds if you are careful and respect their personalities. The owner can guide you, but don't expect them to know everything there is to know about bird behavior. Large birds like Cockatoos and Macaws can be extremely dangerous, and can do some serious damage with that huge beak. So here are some guidelines:

• Don't take the bird out of the cage. How the heck are you going to get him back in there if you can't handle him? Your pet sitting insurance may not cover you if you let the bird out and something happens, just like if you let a dog off-leash while in your care.

• Don't put the bird on your shoulder or near your face. When threatened, he will fight back with his only line of defense, his beak. You could easily be maimed or lose an eye. (Why does the pirate wear an eye patch? Because he once had a parrot on his shoulder...)

• Learn to read bird body language. A fanned-out tail or puffed-up body is a sign of fear or aggression. The bird is trying to appear larger to scare away an intruder. 

• Biting is not really aggressive, it is a natural behavior. As a prey animal, the bird will strike out to defend himself. A very young bird can be cuddled, but once it reaches maturity, at about two years old, expect the personality to change, especially if it is a male. Males are much more hormonal. 

• Gloves can protect you, but might scare a bird, escalating a situation unnecessarily. Wild-caught birds are usually handled with gloves, so this can bring back bad, frightening memories of the trauma when they were captured.

• Use your body language so as not to threaten a bird. Don't corner him. Face away from the bird, standing sideways so you don't seem so large (This also protects your face). 

• If you have to pick up a bird, put a towel over him to give you some protection and make him easier to carry. Be aware he can still bite through the towel.

African grey parrots are easier to deal with, and often will talk to you and mimic your voice. Amazons don't usually talk. 

A friend of mine is a pet sitter that won't take care of birds- she is terribly afraid of them. Nothing says you have to accept every type of pet as your client. Find another pet sitter who does like to care for birds and refer your calls to him or her. People will appreciate your help!

Labby and Terry (We'll let Tabby contribute next time!)

To learn how to identify different types of Amazon parrots, check out this web site: 


RockArtist said...

HI Labby: This is VERY good advice. I personally have been bitten three times by a parrot that was given to me by a "friend?"...and I tried for nine months to get this beautiful bird to bond with me. To no avail. She hated women, period! The minute a man would enter the house, no matter who it was, she would totally change her demeaner, start talking and cuddling with them, sit on their fingers, walk up their arm, just loving it. Sorry I couldn't change my gender so I had to find her a new home where she could be happy. I believe she was traumatized at one point by a woman and feared all women from then on. They never forget anything. I don't either...and will never own a bird again, although I love them from a distance.

Lynn Erckmann said...

Overall I think parrots appear to be one-man birds, although I belive that Cockatoos often like a lot of people, and I've also seen Greys that I thought
were totally one-man birds decide to cuddle up with someone who kind of looked like their owner (like a man with a beard...)

I don't know that males are more hormonal - maybe you have a good reference for that. Generally I've preferred males to females.

My personal experience is that Greys are not especially easier to deal with than Amazons - having cared for 2 female greys and having one of them remove a piece of my finger. My own grey bit me on the lip as well-real bummer.

And last, Amazons can be great talkers, as good as greys. When we were researching parrots I recall that the two top talkers were greys and yellow-naped or blue-fronted Amazons.

You're right on about parrots being wild animals. They just haven't had the thousands of years of domestication that dogs had, and it shows. They are not pack animals, and they don't have leaders. As far as I can tell they are equals, even in groups. I do feel that a lot of their aggression is tgerritoriality regarding their cages (their space). Some birds that are nasty in the cage can be fine once away from the cage, but I definitely wold not recommend a pet sitter remove a bird from the cage, as you pointed out. Too much can go wrong too fast.