Sarah Stull | BirdTricks | Parrot Training Blog

How to Prepare Yourself for Rescue Work

 November 20th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
Birds' Arrival 244

Senegal Parrot waving “hello.”


If you dream of opening your own parrot rescue or sanctuary (and let’s be honest, it crosses the minds of a lot of us once we’ve seen how birds suffer in the wrong environments!), the most important step of all is to get yourself ready. Many owners find that they are not suited mentally, physically, or emotionally.

What is the difference, first of all, between a parrot rescue and a parrot sanctuary? A rescue typically rehabilitates an animal before placing it in a new “forever” home with the perfect family match. I put “forever” in quotations because a lot of rescues dislike that term. (Even with the best of intentions, most parrots can’t stay forever in one place due to their longevity. Better to avoid that label.)

A forever-home parrot sanctuary provides a permanent place for parrots to live in. These are far more difficult to maintain without accidentally tipping into hoarder territory, and the residents tend to be emotionally scarred parrots who can’t live in human homes. Sanctuary owners have to know how to say “no,” even when there is desperate need.

So how can you make sure you’re one of those special people who can handle the stress, pressure, and emotional rollercoaster of parrot rescue work? Can you build yourself up to it?


Pensive African Grey at the IPS.

I found that, of course, the first step is to involve yourself with an organisation that you like and admire. Everyone has a different way of running their rescue. Right away, too, you’ll learn if the sight of an abused or sick animal shuts you down, or if it ignites something inside you that you can channel into helping the bird.

The first time I stepped into the Island Parrot Sanctuary, I was very upset to see or hear about the conditions some birds were recovering from – but the owners explained that the parrots can sense this. It was hard to stifle my sadness. Yet it was also important, because my emotions affected the birds I was working with.

Step two is to visit as many different rescues as possible. This helps you see how other people manage emotionally and with the astronomical cost of running one. Networking is critical. I’ve met some amazing people in the bird world, and all of them have valuable advice.

Note that you don’t have to start out purely in parrot rescue. I am a working student at a farm. This has taught me some valuable skills – including balancing feed charts and medication, maintaining detailed log books, arranging vet visits, caring for and monitoring multiple animals, and more. All of it can transfer to a sanctuary. So you could theoretically get creative and look for (farmhand) working student positions in your area.’


Hanoverian horses at the farm where I work.


Step three is to get the travel bug out of your system. Whatever your age, if you wish to see the world, do it. Live your life, because soon you’re going to be tied to your work. Rescue workers don’t get to take many holidays – nor do working students, mind. I work six days a week because the animals can’t feed themselves. It’s good preparation for a sanctuary.

Step four, adopt or foster if you have the time and funds. (You know the motto: “Adopt—don’t shop!”) Go through the process of working with a special-needs bird…or birds. If you find that you can’t handle one emotionally volatile bird, or perhaps one with physical handicaps, you may not be able to handle dozens of them. Parrot sanctuaries fill up fast with those who can’t be placed in normal homes. Fostering provides a different kind of experience to adoption.


Loud Umbrella Cockatoo


Step five: Educate. And by this, I mean blog or start a personal journal! This is actually an important step, as it lets you decompress and purge your emotions in a healthy way, get your name out there, document your journey, say what you feel is important, and make real-world connections. Social media is actually a big part of most parrot establishments. Check out your favourites and see how they reach out to their supporters.

Step six: Research. This teaches you everything you need to know about funding, loans, grants, etc. What do reputable rescues do that you like? What do disreputable rescues do? Where is a good place to open a rescue/sanctuary? How do you gain support in the community? Do you build year-round aviaries, or use a building?


The Island Parrot Sanctuary in Scotland

Consider this also: How many birds qualify as too many? The answer is always individual. You can identify a hoarder by the condition of the animals: unclean, underfed, and neglected. I have heard many a story about a well-meaning “sanctuary” that finds itself overwhelmed.

In the end, not everyone is cut out for rescue work. There are, however, lots of roles to fill: there are owners, and then there are volunteers. Some volunteers run the social media and organise events to raise donations; some clean cages and prepare the food; some run the front office; some drive to do the actual rescue work; some do the donating! Besides all that, you don’t have to stick to the norm. I would like to open a sanctuary that takes in mostly small species, like budgies, cockatiels, conures, or parrotlets. Lots of places focus on cockatoos, and macaws. The littles tend to be forgotten when there is a psychotic cockatoo rampaging around!


Cockatiel enjoying a veggie skewer

I guess my point is that even if you’re not ready to open your own place, you can always help. Learning how to start a parrot rescue or sanctuary is a lot of work, but worth it when you realise that there are “20.6 million birds in 6.9 million U.S. households, as reported in the 2013-2014 American Pet Product Association National Pet Owners Survey” (, and few parrots are easy to live with. Your average parrot sees multiple homes in the first few years of his life.

What parrot rescues and sanctuaries do you admire?



Five Quick Tips for Handling Animals with “Group” Mentality

 November 6th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull

Macaw flock at the Island Parrot Sanctuary


Evolutionarily speaking, gathering in numbers is advantageous for everyone. Predators don’t know who to munch first unless their prey is noticeable, and thus, the fittest animals survive while the weak and sick get eaten. Parrots, dogs, and horses all find security in their groups, and tend to not like being separated from them.

I work on a farm with 1,500lb horses who all have the capacity to kill me – even though they are all wonderful animals. As with parrots, understanding their body language and behaviour is important to my wellbeing. Despite their differences, I’m able to draw many connections between training horses and parrots. A lot of us start out with experience with some other species of animal (dog, cat, or horse, usually), and while parrots are a far cry from these, you can use your knowledge to help you.

Summer 017

German Shepherd dog doing recalls


1)      Herd animals find safety in numbers – always! Parrots and horses will feel safer in a group. You may notice herd-bound horses who panic when separated from their friends. It’s the same with most parrots, who will often scream until they are reunited. What’s important here is the result. Separation = anxiety. It takes trust and a lot of consistent training to teach them that separation isn’t the end of the world.

2)      Short training sessions are best, large or small. Parrots, dogs, and horses all thrive with training. Short bursts give you the advantage – everyone gets the benefit of the training, without leaving time for bad experiences to even think about happening.  Sometimes, a single interaction is enough.

3)      Trust them to be themselves. Trust a parrot to be a parrot and a horse to be a horse. You may have an extraordinarily well-behaved and gentle individual, but in the end, you can’t expect it to be anything other than what it is. A bird will bite if it feels cornered and frightened; a horse will spook and run if something scary pops up. Understandand anticipatethe instinctive behaviour of the animal, and you’ll be a lot safer.


Horse listening for his herdmates


4)      Food! Animals love the ones who feed them. A well-timed treat can also make your life very simple. Example – popping a mint into the bottom of a grazing muzzle, or offering up a piece of nut to a quietly playing parrot who has a screaming problem.

5)      Consistency. It doesn’t matter what you’re teaching your animals, if you don’t do it the same way every time.  A horse who gets away with running you over one day will do it again the next – because if you let it happen without correction, how is he or she to know that isn’t acceptable? A parrot who is allowed on the couch just one time because you’re super busy getting ready for work quite simply isn’t going to understand that he isn’t always allowed there. He was allowed last time, after all! If you set and enforce boundaries, your relationship with your animals will benefit.

Should You Change Your Parrot’s Name?

 October 23rd, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull

Senegal Parrot “Mavi”


Can you change your pet parrot’s name – yes; should you change it – my opinion – no, not under ordinary circumstances.

If you haven’t yet watched the Cornell Lab of Ornithology video entitled “How a Parrot Learns its Name in the Wild,” you should definitely take the time to look it up. There is a growing amount of research into the science of parrots’ names, which is pretty cool.

Personally, I won’t change my birds’ names. Whatever they come with is there to stay, particularly if they seem attached – e.g. repeating it lots, or responding positively to me calling to them.

There is one circumstance where I will break this rule, and that is when a parrot’s name causes it distress. It’s something I’ve seen and heard about in some rescue cases. One person I know of had a parrot who would melt down at the sound of its name. She changed it completely, and the bird was able to move on from its traumatic past.


Foraging parrotlet often pipes his own name when excited


When I read about parrots naming their babies in the nest, I think about captive-raised babies who were deprived of parent interaction. Some birds are lucky enough to be raised with human-given names. But I worry most about the ones who aren’t, the ones who are never named – particularly hand-reared babies who are bred to become pets, but not named until long after they’ve weaned and moved onto their new homes. As people, we identify very deeply with our names. What kind of neural connections and mental developments are missed when a nestling isn’t named?

If you’ve adopted a parrot with a name you just can’t stand, consider changing it to something similar-sounding instead. For instance, Pluto to Plato. I find that it also works to make up a nickname, such as Maverick to Mavi. And if your bird suddenly reveals itself to be the opposite sex, you don’t necessarily have to revert to a different version. Honestly, the birds don’t care. Their names are more important than getting the gender pronoun right. My cockatiel, Mishka, turned out to be a male – but we referred to “him” as a female all her life. It would be very confusing if someone started calling me “Harry” instead of Sarah, so why would I do it to my birds, who – while not human – are still very intelligent?

Flying parrot

Flying male cockatiel


What do you think about naming your pets- change the name, yes or no?

When Do I Re-Home my Bird?

 September 25th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull

Cute Caique

The question of when to re-home a bird is an extremely difficult one. It’s not as simple as just giving up the bird to ensure its happiness, because the very act of re-homing will cause the bird emotional trauma.

Here’s how parrots function: When you move them from home to home, they grieve for their people, their flock. It’s not like giving a dog a new home. After a short period of time, a dog will often be overjoyed with attention; they tend to recover much faster emotionally. Parrots are built to function in flocks, and those flocks are like family. They depend on social bonds for security. With each subsequent new home (a parrot has, on average, seven homes in the first five years of its life), it becomes harder for a bird to trust and move on. They remember their past experiences.

When you make the decision to re-home a bird, please, make sure that it is a last-resort on your behalf.

Re-homing is not (always) a failure. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Can this situation be changed, re-worked, or helped with time?
  2. Is the bird suffering, and if so, can I fix that?

If it is a matter of an aggressive or phobic bird who is not getting what it needs in terms of attention or socialisation, this can be worked on! I would encourage anyone who is thinking of re-homing their pet to give it three to six more months. Training is one thing that takes time to work, so setting yourself a time-limit can actually be detrimental to your goals — but if that’s what it takes for your own sanity, do it. Instigate a short daily training regime, get your bird on a good diet (which can help behavioural issues all by itself), and put in the work required.

I have seen many owners too quick to give up. I have also seen a great deal of families who struggled through a difficult time and trained their bird to become the companion they dreamt of. It’s all down to you.


Scarlet and greenwinged macaws in their aviary at the Island Parrot Sanctuary

You may find yourself with a human baby on the way, wondering if you will need to find new homes for your flock. But I know plenty of families who survive in harmony with a flock and children in the same home. Just look at Jamieleigh and Dave! They take safety measures (because parrots and kids can’t just be let loose together and expected to both be happy), and have aviaries so the birds can get vital sunlight and enrichment out of earshot. She has lots of tips on her blog!

Another all-too common situation that may test your sanity: Your bird has suddenly turned on you,  choosing another family member after months or years together. (A similar version of this is a bird who turns on the whole family save for yourself, causing serious injury.) Again, training is your solution, which will take time and effort. Training works by creating a positive and engaging interaction between the two of you. It can even be done through the bars of the cage. You can even stop screaming with the right training regime. Plucking is another problem that upsets many owners, and I think that needs to be saved for a post of its own.


African Grey enjoying a stretch

There are ways to work through lots of difficult situations. Say, if you find yourself in a financial crisis, there are money-crunching options to help your wallet in the meantime — like making your own toys, or cutting costs in other areas of the home. I’ve had to do this myself. If you find yourself moving, take your flock with you – I imported mine overseas with me, which was a huge amount of work, but SO worth it! If you suddenly have to work late, implement a foraging routine while you’re out, invest in fresh toys, and go straight to interact with your bird until his bedtime when you get home. Getting home really late? Move your birds’ bedtime up, or wake them earlier so that you can spend valuable time together in the mornings.

If you find that your parrot is tearing apart your home because of its behaviour (screaming, biting, or generally being a terror), there are ways that you can temporarily regain your sanity before you tackle the issue. Hire a trusted bird-sitter and take a two-day weekend away, work on training with your bird, mix your routine up. Always persevere. Life with a parrot can be extremely challenging, but your health and well-being are just as important. Without you, your bird has no one.


Parrotlet sitting in my hood

When to re-home your bird:

  • IF a bird does not, cannot, or will not get the attention or care it needs
  • A bird is suffering and/or not suited to life in a human household
  • You are suffering because your bird is causing you physical or mental anguish, and you have made attempts to remedy this
  • You have been working on a situation for several months, and it just isn’t improving
  • Other unchangeable circumstances that come up in human lives (such as a forced move, or chronic illness)

Parrot ownership is about sacrifice. You can work through many situations by getting creative and giving it time. Just remember, again, that re-homing isn’t about failure as long as you make it about what’s best for your bird as well as your family.

P.S. If you are thinking about bringing a parrot into your home, please consider adopting. There are thousands of homeless birds who are just as loving and unique as a baby parrot, and not all have ‘issues.’ A good rescue will help you find a perfect match — and guess what? You may well miss out on the worst years of parrot hormones!

When Is it Time?

 September 11th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull

We don’t ever forget the animals we’ve lost


This is a very difficult and delicate post to write, and one that brings a lump to my throat just considering: The question of when a pet’s time has come, and whether to consider euthanasia, is easily the most difficult part of animal ownership. Ending needless suffering is a responsible thing to do. It’s difficult because no one wants to do it too soon – or ever.

I have had many pets in my lifetime. For most, there came a time when putting them to sleep was a kinder option than allowing them to live and suffer for my sake.

If you are reaching a time in your parrot’s life when you may need to consider this, just ask yourself: ‘What is my bird’s quality of life like right now? Is he suffering and not ever going to improve? Am I keeping him here because I’m not ready?’


Fife Canary “Charlie”


That’s what I’ve had to ask myself in the past. In many circumstances, medication can give a pet a wonderful quality of life for a number of weeks or months — and then that tends to wear off. As heart-breaking as it is, you have to know your pet, and know when he is no longer able to lead a good life.

Growing up, my family was owned by a beautiful and loving applehead Siamese cat, ‘Ming.’ She the cat who did everything with the family, including follow us around, sleep at our feet, and generally act like a dog. A typical Siamese, Ming led a long and wonderful life, but due to her polydactylism (28 toes!), she had joint deformities that caused her a lot of pain in her old life.

Medication only worked for so long. As her health began to fail her, compounding with even more issues, we were all left agonising over when was the right time? Too soon, and it feels like you’ll rob them of precious days. Too late, and you may cause them pain that you wouldn’t let them feel at all, if possible. But when is right?


Moluccan Cockatoo, ‘Friday,’ a very special cockatoo who recently passed away


I know Hospice nurses who say that a palliative patient often has one absolutely great day before it’s their time, a final burst of life. This applies to most pets, too, I’ve found. We knew when Ming suddenly had a good day where she jumped and played and snuggled as if all was normal again. It was a gift, a beautiful moment to say goodbye.

The day after, as Ming showed us it was time, my family made the best but most painful decision. Two things gave us comfort: She was surrounded by her people at the end — which, if you can stand it, please do this for your fur and feather babies — and she had led a long and happy life. I have endless happy memories of my pets’ time with us. That’s what counts.

If your parrot can lead a good quality of life, if he seems happy and not in pain for the majority of the time and is able to play and interact with the world, then yes, this is not the time. If your bird is suffering, absolutely unable to do the things it needs and wants to do despite your best efforts, however, you may have to do the brave and heart-breaking thing.


Dog Behaviour vs Parrot Behaviour

 August 22nd, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
Chickadee at the feeder

Wild birds like this chickadee can teach us a lot.


I have been involved in my dogs’ training since I was old enough to walk. It has always been a fascination of mine –  animal psychology and behaviour are my passions. Due to some really wonderful trainers, I was taught what to look for in canine body language. Parrots, of course, were the only ones to teach me about avian body language. There simply is no book or person that can do it for you. If only!

Here are some basic behaviours of each, and how they really compare. Remember that body language is down to circumstance and the individual. There is no manual because it truly varies per bird, per species, and per instance. Dog and parrot behavior – from watching my birds and wild flocks – couldn’t be more different. I love watching wild birds. They have a lot to teach us.


Power play between my German Shepherds.


A dog standing over another dog or human.

This is dominance, pure and simple. A dog who either puts another dog on its back, or who places its snout across the back of another, is saying ‘I’m bigger and stronger, back off.’

A human standing over a parrot – or a parrot above a human.

A human standing over a parrot is a threat. They often perceive it as looming – after all, if you are a handful of grams, would a great lumbering human not seem a little scary? Hands in particular can be scary even to a tame bird. It is polite to ask to scratch your bird by holding your hand in front of it, by the beak, rather than above, for instance. Coming at our birds from above can be frightening.

A parrot who is above a human has found what he considers a safe place. When he refuses to come down, it is because he feels secure there. A parrot is a prey animal, and therefore always on the lookout for threats.

Esther at the Island Parrot Sanctuary


Dogs who lick their humans – particularly the mouth and face – are being submissive, and saying ‘I will be good.’ In wolves, this is a way of begging for food.

Birds who lick their humans, or other surfaces, are taste-testing – their tongues are a method of exploration for them, kind of like a human toddler exploring with their mouth! This is why it’s so important to avoid chemicals in our homes. You can initiate communication with your bird by tilting your head to one side and opening your mouth with your tongue extended. This is a expression of interest.

Mavi discoveres tangerines.

Sorry for the quality – trying to snap a motion photo with a phone doesn’t always work out. Mavi is super interested in this tangerine.

On the back.

When a canine rolls onto its back, it is being extremely submissive. Usually they roll over and show their bellies, their most vulnerable part. It tells another dog or human that they are not a threat. It is also a trust thing.

A parrot who lays on its back is potentially doing one of three things:

  • It can be defending itself, in a feet-up position – a sort of last-resort posture.
  • Playing.
  • Or showing the ultimate trust in its owner.

Birds who play on their backs are extremely comfortable in their environment. Many parrots – such as the ever-goofy macaws, or Senegal parrots – instinctively flop over backwards during play time. This can be a very easy behaviour to put on cue, too! And if your bird trusts you enough to sleep on its back near you, that is a very special thing.



A dog who charges you could be greeting you in play, or it could be defensive. The dog who runs at the front of the pack, ahead of the others, is being dominant – so rushing in front of you means he thinks he’s hot stuff!

A parrot who charges you with the intent to attack may be having a surge hormonal of energy – and the behaviour is a result of not knowing what to do with that. Fixing it is as simple as playing with his diet, and making sure your bird gets enough exercise.

Or a charging parrot may be defending someone or something. In the wild, they will drive off a threat to a mate, but if this doesn’t work, a bird will actually turn on its own mate until he or she leaves.

Fun fact: Some birds, such as geese, fly in a V shape. The bird at the head works the hardest, while those at the rear of the V experience the least resistance from wind. They take turns this way so that everyone gets a break.


Notice how one is rushing ahead of the other. The dog who is falling behind THINKS she is dominant, but he is showing her who really has the power.