A Small Warning Sign That Precedes Big Behavioral Problems

A Small Warning Sign That Precedes Big Behavioral Problems

 July 19th, 2015
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Military macaw

Military macaw

When people contact us about problems with their birds, one common (and notable) element is that most people are very surprised to learn that their relationship with their bird isn’t what they thought it was. They explain their once friendly and interactive relationship and now, suddenly, their bird wants nothing to do with them. They are always reluctant to believe you when you assure them that none of this happened suddenly.

No matter what bird sites you frequent, you hear over and over to watch your bird’s body language for indications of what they are thinking and feeling. There is a very sharp learning curve to navigate when you are trying to read the body language of another animal species. It is questionable as to whether we read the body language of other humans well. You can count on the fact that we make innumerous mistakes while we learn about our birds.

Most birds graciously ride out that storm with us forgiving us time and time again for our failures with them, most of which we are unaware of. (I like to think that if we knew we were botching things up, we would do our best not to.)

Fortunately for us, birds are impressively patient and apparently see their human caretakers as worth the effort. But eventually, if things fail to improve, even the sweetest tempered bird will get fed up and reach the breaking point. This is the “suddenly” that bird owners see – the day their bird snaps and issues not a warning, but an actual bite that is intended to injure you.

Before this day, everything seemed like business as usual. Some days the bird was not wanting to play, but that was easily explained away as an “off” day or grumpiness over not being allowed to eat the TV remote.  But other than that everything has been normal…except for the times he moved away from you to the back of the cage or lunged at your hand when you came by to take him out. Oh and the “hormones”, there’s that… The blame and excuses fly everywhere and no one is looking for an actual problem.

Alexandrine parakeet

Alexandrine parakeet

If your bird “changes” overnight you should consider it a health emergency and get your bird to the vet. But unless there has been a major incident that has deeply distressed your bird, nothing happens suddenly from a behavioral standpoint. Things change in incremental stages and there are warning signs all the way – catching them is the hard part.

It is fair to expect your bird will have an “off” day every now and then. It is reasonable to expect your bird to be upset with you when you take away something they want. Some birds are less tolerant than others, but “moodiness” is not part of a bird’s nature.

Here is a comparison: if you deny your child a candy bar while checking out at the supermarket, you can expect some pouting in the backseat on the ride home, right? But if your child were still upset over the event days later, wouldn’t it cause you to question why your child isn’t letting it go? It’s the same with your bird – if he is holding grudges, there is something much larger going on.

Before you ever get to this point, learn to see the warnings signs that will tell you that your relationship is strained.  One of the earliest and easiest to spot signs is in your bird’s step up.

When a finger or hand is presented by a trusted human, the step up is practically reflexive. They will step up eagerly and confidently.

If you notice even the most brief hesitation, take it seriously. It is your bird deciding whether or not stepping onto your hand is a good idea. That hesitation is doubt and it will tell you that your bird questions whether you are safe to be with or can be trusted to take him to some place he wants to be. Somewhere, somehow, something has happened to make your bird be uncertain of your intentions.

When this small hesitating issue is not recognized and addressed, the next stage is a refusal to step up at all. This will cause most people to be persistent. In their mind they are trying to coax their bird onto their hand, but it is pushy and disrespectful from the bird’s point of view.

Eventually the bird will move deeper into the cage when your hand comes in, even turn his back to you. When your “demanding” hand does not get the hint, biting becomes the only course of action left. Your bird has been trying to avoid this conflict all along using body language, which appears to have been ignored, and now you are viewed as an abusive human that cannot be trusted.

Don’t let it get to this point. That fraction of a second that your bird pauses before the step up can tell you about months of suspicion about you. Make sure your hands are bringers of good things and carry your bird to good places. Make sure they are never forceful and that they pay attention when your bird is reluctant to interact with them.


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10 Comments on “A Small Warning Sign That Precedes Big Behavioral Problems”

Laurence  07/19/2015 6:11 pm

Thanks a lot from a total newbie! I haven’t even bought my first bird yet, which will be one then probably a second cockatiel (i live in an apartment and these little guys seem the most beginners-friendly of the bunch) and i’v been literally devouring each and every one of your videos and blogs. Very helpful and informative!
Thanks again from France 🙂

Danielle  07/20/2015 12:20 pm

I have a suggestion, Roisin! First, if there is a favorite treat your lovebird wants when it comes time to put her back in the cage, put a couple in her food bowl so she can see it. This makes it a positive experience for both you and your fid 🙂 also always ask to step up not tell. They are sensitive creatures and I believe they know the difference. On too of all of that, make sure she is getting enough out of the cage time. I feel like if a bird is getting enough play time out of the cage and they have fun toys and yummy food in the cage waiting for them in the cage after a fun play session they aren’t as reluctant to go back in later overall. I know I’m not the person you’re asking advice from but hope this helps! Good luck 🙂

Roisin  07/20/2015 12:21 pm

Good advice, thanks!

laura  07/20/2015 12:48 pm

When the birds “favorite” person is in tje room or home our bird gets aggressive towards me and will not step up. The bird is very protective of it’s favorite person.

Lydia  07/20/2015 6:25 pm

Super as usual Patty.:)

tom jones  07/21/2015 3:25 am

I agree they learn your routine me grey would always fly to top perch on play cage, when I went towards cage except first thing on morning before I went to work or if I was having T as he knew I would stess at him however ho only do this once then step stiaght back on my finger and go in cage with loads of cuddles of me.

jim  07/21/2015 8:52 am

Not sure I agree with this. I have a citron cockatoo, that some days jumps at the opportunity to step up, and other days just wants to do his own thing. He is always lovable either way. Oh, and he’s been this way ever since I got him many years ago.

Paula  07/22/2015 1:20 am

Good article. I’m trying to be a more patient and trustworthy bird parent to my 13 year old cockatiel who is a rescue. I’ve had him for 11 months now.

Izzy loves getting head scratches. I approach him in a certain way and wait for his signal that says, “yes, you may now have the honor of giving me head scratches”. This works anywhere – in his cage, on my shoulder, etc. (And I definitely know when his signal say, “no head rubs, please”.) However, when he is in his comfort zone (which includes my living room, his cage, and my shoulder), he will absolutely not allow my finger anywhere near him to get him to step up. The only time he allows it is when he in not in his comfort zone, like on the floor or in a different, unfamiliar room.

I would like him to step up so that getting out of his cage is more pleasant for both of us. (He loves to be in his cage and has no problems going back in.) How is it that fingers coming at him up top doesn’t bother him, but fingers below make him freak out? I have tried using a perch instead of my finger, having my finger covered in a towel, and bribing him with treats, but so far nothing works. I have also tried faking him out by doing a head rub with one hand and slowly using the other to step up, but Izzy is too smart to fall for it.

Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas for me?



Kelli Zussman  07/22/2015 5:15 pm

My macaw steps up great, and I always vary the time he is out of the cage. He will be one in August, and he loves unsalted crackers. So now I say cracker(or he does) and we know it is time to go back into the cage. I give him a small piece and he is happy with that. Took me awhile to find an easy non aggressive way to get him in his home, and he has become so much gentler.

Rachel  08/08/2015 2:47 pm

I believe I read somewhere that parrots will only step upward, not downward