Monday, January 3, 2011

Of Horses and Parrots

Some of you may know that I am a horse woman as well as an aviculturist. I have found that many bird people are horse people too. It is so much fun to talk horses and parrots with customers! I believe many of the approaches and philosophies in training horses also apply to parrots. After all horses and parrots are both prey species that exist in a flock/herd. Parrots and horses both have “sentinals” in their groups that keep an eye out for danger. If one of those sentinals begins looking alert, you can bet the rest of the group comes at attention very quickly!

Both parrots and horses look to their caregivers for guidance – especially in situations where they are uneasy. Whenever I bring something by my birds that makes them nervous (such as a large box), I tell them “it’s okay” and put myself between the bird and the scary object and keep moving. I don’t make a big deal out of it. Same goes with horses. Anyone who has ever worked with horses can tell you the worst thing you can do with a horse that is scared of something is to make a big deal out of it. Punishing the horse for “spooking” or making the horse go up to every object he is scared of tends to make the horse more wary and nervous. This goes back to their natural instincts. Remember the sentinel? If we say it’s okay, and just keep going, our birds/horses pick up on that and think “well she’s not acting afraid, it must be okay”. In contrast, over- reacting and/or comforting an animal while it is under stress tends to make the situation worse. In fact it can even contribute to phobic behavior. 

Now of course, if a situation comes up where you know your bird will be very frightened (such as a Halloween party where people are wearing costumes, etc.) I recommend removing the bird from the situation before the event. A little stress is okay for our birds and they need to get used to different situations. But exposure to new things must be made gradually and in a positive way. You should never overwhelm your bird by immersing him in a stressful situation and expecting him to just deal with it. I tell my customers when they pick up their young birds from me that the best thing they can do is expose their bird to as many people and situations (safe of course) as possible. I tell them to buy a small travel cage so they can take their birds safely with them on small outings like picking up the dry cleaning, visits with friends/family, picking up the kids from school, etc. I find when birds are exposed to different situations on a regular basis, it really improves their personality overall. They are more social and outgoing. In comparison, we do this with our horses too. We call it “seasoning” in horse terms. A “seasoned” horse is one that has been taken to different arenas, trails, etc. and exposed to different things. After a while, horses learn to ignore all the distractions and focus on their rider.

I have a customer who has a parrotlet she purchased from me. She takes this little bird everywhere with her. Because of this, her bird’s personality has blossomed. She lets anyone hold her, and is even gentle enough to be held by small children. And she is as bold and fearless as they come! She is a true ambassador for parrotlets!

In an upcoming article, I will compare different species of birds to breeds of horses. It will be fun!