by Heike Ewing Ott
To win back the trust of a parrot that has been abused is a long-term and often challenging proposition. Read the story of how one woman won over the trust of Buddy, a Mealy Amazon. If you are in the same position of trying to win the trust of an abused bird, this story is sure to inspire you.
Several years ago, when I first went to work for Dr. Setser the exotic/avian vet, I met a Mealy Amazon named Buddy. Buddy had been severely abused; in fact, his story will probably turn up on the Special Parrots home page eventually, as I intend to write it.
When I first encountered Budddy he had the largest vocabulary I’d ever seen in a parrot, and a deep-seated mistrust and fear of just about everyone. Most of the staff had to use a towel just to give him food or fresh water to avoid being severely bitten. He didn’t bite Doc, but only as long as Doc didn’t try to touch him.
With my usual stubborness, I set out to win Buddy over and rehabilitate him. I tried all the things that you all have been talking about, and got very limited if any success. (Not to say that all of these methods don’t work – they do – with a basically sweet parrot who is going through the terrible twos or an adjustment problem.)
At some point, I stopped and re-evaluated my basic strategy and assumptions. It was quite obvious that I could not make Buddy do anything that I wanted him to, unless HE wanted to. Sure, I could towel and physically restrain him, but that certainly wasn’t a step toward what I hoped to achieve. So, what did Buddy want? Surely he wanted a friend, and social interaction, but he was afraid of me and didn’t trust me. So, I set out to convince Buddy that I was a trustworthy friend and that he wanted to interact with me.
I began by talking to Buddy, whenever the opportunity arose, quietly and in a pleasant voice, which didn’t change no matter what he did. Then I began to bring him special treats that he got nowhere else, and give him baths, which he didn’t get from anyone else. After a few weeks Buddy didn’t scream any more when I talked to him, and took his treats from my fingers without biting the fingers.
The next step was “holding hands.” Often when I would put my finger in Buddy’s cage, he would try to grab it with a foot. At first he often tried to bite the finger he was holding, which resulted in me jerking it away, but as the weeks went by he stopped trying to bite me, and when I gritted my teeth one day and let that formidable beak slowly approach my finger, he only nibbled on it gently. Of course, 2 days later the exact same situation resulted in a severe bite!
Buddy now reacted differently to me than to anyone else in the clinic. He greeted me with “Hi, there!” whenever he saw me, and if I approached his cage he came towards me instead of backing away, and he often protested vocally when I walked away. I felt that I had now reached the point where Buddy wanted my attention, and that was something I could use as leverage.
The entire rest of my “program” consisted of one simple thing: whenever Buddy acted inappropriately, I put him away and ignored him for a while. Buddy seems to have a very long attention span; ignoring him for 5 or 10 minutes had little or no impact. But ignoring him for an hour or so – now, that made a difference!
Four months later I was able to routinely open Buddy’s cage and have him step up on my hand without biting, for which his reward was baths, special treats, and time out of his cage watching me work. Whenever he bit me, he was promptly and firmly (but gently) returned to his cage, after which I would totally ignore him for a while. Bites became more and more infrequent, until after 7 or 8 months Buddy bit me only if some other person frightened or “threatened” him while I was holding him.
Not too long after that I quit my job to breed full-time and open my own business. I didn’t see Buddy for almost two years, but when I went back to get shots for a new puppy, he acted as if he had seen me just yesterday, and his attitude towards me had not changed at all. Unfortunately, it doesn’t extend to anyone except me, and Doc who watched and copied my methods.
To this day, Doc and I are the only two people in the world that can safely handle Buddy. (A side note: I have tried several times to buy Buddy, but Doc won’t sell him – one of the few things he and I have ever disagreed about.)
Anyway, the point of all this is, I think you have to make your parrot want to do what you want, and think that S/HE is the one that wants it. Then, you have something you can take away for discipline. A parrot that bites you because it wants to be left alone will not stop biting because you ignore it – it’s getting what it wants!
The next time I have the opportunity to work with a biting bird, my first plan will be to set about convincing that bird that I am its best friend in the whole world, and that it WANTS to be with me, talked to, handled, and petted by me. When that is achieved, I will use removal of what it wants (my attention) to discipline the bird and stop the biting.
I know 4 or 6 months is a long time, but other birds may not take as long as Buddy, since his case was rather severe. But then, I think behaviour modification with parrots is always a long-term proposition, like with a child, as opposed to short-term like it can be with a puppy.