Little Feathered Buddies

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BIRD INFORMATION:
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*General Info
 - Species profiles
 - Bird Psychology
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General Information

Bird Psychology

Everyone knows that dogs and cats have very different ways of interacting with humans. Birds also have a unique way of responding to us, and an understanding of bird psychology will help us have a better relationship with our little feathered buddies.

Dogs naturally live in packs under the dominant leadership of the alpha male and female, and respond well to human authority. Cats are solitary in the wild so they have not developed this kind of social order, and they do not respond well to attempts at domination. Pet birds are sort of in between: most species live in flocks so they are social animals who  enjoy positive human interaction. But these flocks do not have a dominance-based hierarchy, so birds do not understand the concepts of domination or punishment.

Birds are different from dogs and cats in another important way. Dogs and cats are predators. Birds are prey animals. Dogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, and to some degree this has changed their genetic characteristics and modified their natural instincts. Although humans have been keeping birds for thousands of years, it's only in the last few decades that we've really started breeding them instead of having wild-caught birds. So birds have had much less time for genetic modification of their behavior, and their natural instincts are largely intact. In many ways they still have the behavior patterns of their wild cousins.

This has  important effects on the way birds interact with us. As prey animals, they have an instinctive urge to be on the lookout for danger at all times. They are easily frightened, and we have to gain their trust if we want them to play with us. There is safety in numbers for wild birds so our birds have an instinctive desire to be part of a flock. Members of the parrot family in particular will easily form a flock bond with humans. This is what we want, and to make it happen we just have to make our birds feel comfortable with us. The companionship of the flock is very important to a bird's emotional well being so our birds need to spend a lot of time with their flockmates, whether human or avian.

There's only one way to gain trust and affection. Avoid doing things that frighten or annoy the bird, and focus on relaxed, friendly interactions where you do things that the bird likes. Use calm behavior and rewards like food treats to show a nervous bird that you're quite safe and downright nice to spend time with. It's much easier to destroy trust than it is to build it. But if your bird's overall experience with you is positive then an occasional negative incident isn't likely to do any lasting damage to the relationship.

Behavior modification

Give up on the idea of bossing your bird around the way you might do with a dog. The bird doesn't understand the concept of submitting to authority. Don't try to punish a bird for doing something you don't like, because the bird doesn't understand that either. Instead, the bird will see you as a flock member who's being aggressive, and will respond the same way it would in the wild: by trying to escape from the conflict or by fighting back. If your attempt at domination is strong enough the bird might even respond as if you were a predator, by flying away in fear. Your best bet for a good relationship is to be aware of your bird's feelings and to have a reasonable degree of respect for them.

This doesn't mean that you can't set any limits and have to let the bird have its way all the time. You just have to choose your approach wisely. If there's an unwanted activity that the bird really enjoys, your best course is to make it impossible for that activity to take place, because you can't make the bird stop wanting to do it.

You can also change the bird's behavior by making it want to do certain things (or not want to do them, as the case may be).  Positive reinforcement training (with or without a clicker) is an effective technique that uses food treats or other rewards to encourage desirable behavior. Unwanted behavior occurs because the bird is getting some kind of reward from it, so the way to reduce this behavior is to find out what that reward is and then remove it. For more information, see the sections on clicker training and dealing with problem behavior.

There are some behaviors that can't be trained. You can't teach a bird to act contrary to its natural instincts. You can't teach a bird to do something that it really doesn't want to do, or to stop doing something that it really does want to do.

Height dominance

The idea of height dominance used to be a popular parrot-keeping theory but it's outdated now. It was originally believed that wild parrot flocks had a dominance-based social structure, and a bird's rank in the flock could be determined by seeing how high it sat in a tree. Studies of wild flocks have shown that this is incorrect and all flock members are basically equal. There are squabbles within the flock of course, and birds with a more aggressive temperament might win more fights than the milder birds, but there isn't an overall flock leader.

But you still might see some behavior that looks like height dominance. Birds do like to be up high because it feels safe, and they might resist your efforts to make them come down. But it's not really dominance, they're just treating you like a flock member who's trying to take something that they want. If a bird that's higher than you is being uncooperative, you can often get an attitude adjustment by putting yourself higher than the bird. The higher position is usually more advantageous in a fight, so the bird feels less inclined to get sassy with you.

Moods and Relaxation

Birds are sensitive and alert to signals from their flock members. As a result, our moods can have a strong influence on our bird's behavior. If we are angry or nervous or agitated our birds will know it, and will probably be agitated too. The reverse is also true, and we can often calm down an agitated bird by acting calm ourselves.  This is a full-body effort: relax your muscles, breathe slowly, and speak quietly and calmly. Yawning is a calming signal.

The blinking method can be a very effective way to relax a bird. It involves making eye contact with your bird, and when you have his/her attention you start winking or blinking your eyes in a slow, relaxed manner. Squinting is also effective. What you DON'T want is a long, unblinking stare, because that's what predators do just before they strike.