ADDRESSING THE ‘PARROT ON YOUR SHOULDER’ DILEMMA
In my many years experience with birds, I have found that the majority of bird owners, old and new, naturally allow parrots to perch on their shoulders. This generally leads to problems, especially if it is a baby bird or a bird new to you and your household. So, you may ask, “What’s the big deal about a bird on a shoulder?”
First, the best way to establish “control”, is to be able to make eye contact with a parrot. When the bird is on your shoulder, this is difficult without making your eyes and face vulnerable to making contact with a beak.
Second, parrots are very inquisitive and with little to do on your shoulder, they naturally find earrings, moles, hair, glasses, etc. most interesting. I have heard of many cases where birds performed dermatological procedures without a license to practice medicine!
When birds behave like birds and find interesting, although unwanted things to do while on your shoulder, owners instintively begin to admonish the bird for this behavior. Of course, birds love drama and now we have the situation where the owner is trying to get the bird off their shoulder so then can put them in their cage as a consequence for their behavior. First of all, the bird has no idea what he or she did wrong. They are enjoying the drama, while their owner is in the midst of reinforcing negative behavior.
What results is sometimes a bite from excitement overload. This quickly escalates into a game and the parrot learns to escape hands by hanging on the person’s back or other unreachable places. It is not unheard of for owners to have to resort to undressing in order to extract a bird.
Parrots who have been allowed to consistently perch on shoulders create more problems as they reach sexual maturity. As time goes by, the bond between parrots and owners becomes stronger and in the process, parrots become more territorial. Parrots in the wild perch on the highest branches because they have better protection up there from predators and are therefore in greater control of their surroundings. We can liken parrots perched on tree branches to parrots perched on shoulders. Up there, birds are more likely to defend their territory.
This is where a pleasant experience with a parrot on your shoulder becomes a problem. Birds instinctively defend their territory and you are part of that territory. In the wild, pairs of parrots defend their area by spreading wings, tails, crests and pinning their eyes. Both parrots participate in this posturing behavior. Our houses are not the rain forest but, birds are still hardwired to respond to their instincts. When a child, friend, dog, another parrot, etc. approach their “turf”, parrots expect you to also engage in defensive behavior. When owners nicely greet the “intruder” or do nothing, birds want to send owners a message that says, “I can’t defend our “turf” myself, so you have to go. BITE!
My philosophy when it comes to allowing parrots on shoulders is, “Never Say Never.” I do allow my amazon, Jose to be on my shoulder but under these guidelines. First, I place her there. She is not allowed to just wander up my arm. Second, I am in control of the commands of step up and step down. Third, if I know anyone will be approaching, especially my husband, I remove Jose from my shoulder.
There is also the case of the sweet cockatiels who naturally enjoy riding around on a shoulder. These birds are usually the exception to the rule. Cockatiels rarely cause problems while allowed on shoulders, other than an occasional ear nibbling. Other than ‘tiels, remember the shoulder rules and never forget that birds are not domesticated animals like dogs and cats – their instincts are strong and caution is always the best policy.