I’d like to address a question that is often asked by those who have birds.
Should birds be allowed on shoulders?
Steve Martin, renowned trainer and president of Orlando-based Natural Encounters, wrote about it in a paper actually. “To
put it bluntly,” he said, “height dominance does not exist in parrots.”
Talking to those in the know – ornithologists, field biologists, and wild bird behaviorists – there is no such thing as an alpha parrot. Aggression between wild parrots is brief, and a parrot that loses in one confrontation may very well win in the next.
A frustrated bird owner may question that. “Well, of course my bird gets dominant when he’s up high. He bites me every time I try to pick him up from somewhere high,” that person may say.
My response to that? Let’s do a little behavior analysis and look at a scenario that bird owners frequently use as an example of their pet showing ‘dominance’. Butch – a macaw – is on top of his cage playing with a toy when his owner, Suzy, needs to put him into his cage. She reaches for him and when he steps up, ‘without any warning’ (as is often described) he nails her.
Let’s look at some potential things that could be coming into play here.
• Birds are more comfortable stepping up. However since Butch is up high, unless Suzy gets on a chair, more than likely he is needing to step down to her and may even catch his long tail on the cage. Not very fun for Butch.
• Butch was perfectly happy playing with his toys. His past experience of stepping up for Suzy when he’s playing with his toys is that the consequence of his stepping up means he goes into his cage more often than not. And being inside that cage is just not as fun as being on top of it. (He’s at least taken away from doing something that he was enjoying doing.)
• Before Butch actually bit Suzy, he tried to show her he didn’t want to step up by pinning his eyes or other body language but she ignored or didn’t pay attention to it. Therefore biting her is the only behavior he can do to get the message across that he really does not want to step up at this time.
So, now, is this really a case of height dominance or is the bird simply behaving to escape something negative from the bird’s point of view?
Now back to the original question. Is it okay to wear your bird on your shoulder?
Well, there are a number of factors to take into consideration with regard to that decision. None of them have to do with height dominance.
• What is your relationship with your bird? Does your bird reliably ‘step up’ onto your hand?
• One problem with having your bird on your shoulder is that you can’t see his body language. Therefore you can’t effectively allow your bird to communicate a fear or aggressive response, thus you may be setting both of you up for a possible bite. Greg Glendell, companion parrot behaviorist in the UK, pointed out an aspect of body language that can be easily overlooked – foot pressure, which allows you to tell if your bird is wary or fearful of something in the environment. You can more easily feel feet tighten when it is on your hand.
• Another consideration is that, while it’s fun companionship to wear shoulder birds it’s healthy to offer a variety of enriching activities for your pet that encourage independent play, foraging, and more. Encouraging your bird to stay perched in one place for long periods of time limits the time he could be learning and playing in different ways.
I do want to just mention that if it is a goal of yours to wear your parrot on your shoulder, a good first goal would be to teach a reliable ‘step up’ behavior.
And, please remember to put your bird back into its cage or in another room behind a closed door BEFORE opening a door or window to the outside. It takes a quick second for a bird (even a clipped bird) to escape.