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Behavior of Parrots and other Hookbills

by Tina Mischke (1 June 2002)

A hookbill is a bird such as a parrot, lovebird, parakeet, cockatiel that is often purchased because of its ability to speak. Unfortunately, they soon lose interest in the bird.

There are several key behavioral points about hookbills that any potential owner should know about before making a purchase.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Problems when people purchase birds as pets

There are often problems when people purchase birds as pets, because they don't understand enough about the bird's behavior traits.

Impulse purchase

Scenario One: You are at your neighborhood pet store picking up your monthly cat food supplies and see a large white cage on your way to the cash register. You hear a childlike voice say "hello" as you walk by and you stop to take a closer look. In the cage sits a very handsome African Grey parrot who seems to be saying with his eyes, "take me home, please." Before you know it, you are standing at the register with an $800.00 purchase more than you were planning when you walked in to the store.

Later lose interest

Scenario Two: You and your friends are sitting in the living room trying to watch your favorite weekly TV show and visit. There is a constant obnoxious screaming coming from the next room that escalates louder and louder the more you ignore it. One of your friends can't stand it any longer and walks into the darkened room to check it out.

Cage not cleaned

In the corner sits a small cage that hasn't been cleaned in weeks. There is dried white bird poop covering everything, spoiled food flung on the nearby walls, and a water bowl 1/2 full of stagnant, dirty water.

Unhappy bird

Sitting on a solitary wooden perch in the center of the cage, rather hunched over because the top of the cage isn't quite tall enough, sits the African Grey, his feathers sticking out in odd places and matted with poop, his eyes dull and oozing something from one of the corners, his beak broken off in one place and brittle-looking. He doesn't talk anymore he only screams and picks his feathers out of frustration.

Need to understand behavior

This would never happen to me, you say, but bird rescue shelters, such as Fine Feathered Friends in Auburn, California are full of such throwaway pets. The purchase of a hookbill (parrot, lovebird, parakeet, cockatiel) cannot be an impulse purchase but sadly, often is. There are several key behavioral points about hookbills that any potential owner should know about.

If you have already purchased your bird, these points will help to enhance your pet-owning experience and make it more pleasant for both of you. If you don't have a hookbill but know someone who does, PLEASE pass this information on. The worst thing that can happen to one of these intelligent, sensitive birds is to be misunderstood, abused, and/or abandoned.

Behavior traits

Hookbills scream to communicate, use their bill to bite, need plenty of attention, and may never talk.

Screams to communicate

All pet birds are wild animals and use screams to communicate. They are not domesticated like the cat or dog, or even the hamster or guinea pig. Because these birds have been taken out of the wild as late as the 1970s, we must understand their wild behavior in order to live with them.

Scream is a natural call

In the wild, a flock of birds, upon arising, will look for food and call to each other. The flock will do the same thing in the evening before retiring for the night. All pet birds will call loudly in the early morning and at dusk (many hookbills have a scream as their natural call). If you are sensitive to loud sounds, live in an apartment, have a baby at home, or any other reason why you would not be compatible with very loud noises in your living situation, don't purchase a cockatoo or macaw or any of the larger hookbills.

They cannot change the way they communicate and no amount of behavioral conditioning will change this early morning and evening calling routine.

See if it fits

By reading up on behavioral traits for the different species, you can determine which hookbill will fit the bill in your living situation. A recent article in Bird Talk Magazine described the different volume levels for various species. The finches were described as little tiny Mercedes Benz, beep, beep, beep, all day long. The lovebirds were described as not-too-annoying but constant elevator muzak. And some of the larger birds were described as construction jack hammers or jet engines taking off. Yelling at your bird, covering him up during the day, or throwing something at him will not teach him to keep quiet.

One of my lovebirds is bonded to me and likes to ride around on my shoulder during the day when I am doing chores. If I am talking on the phone or to someone else, she tries to vie for my attention by screaming in my ear. If she decides she wants to keep in touch with her cage-mate and see what he's up to, she screams out calling to him. She is only 5" high and her vocal level is deafening. My ears will ring for quite a while afterward and I am sure that I have suffered some hearing loss. Imagine that same scream with your rose-breasted cockatoo on your shoulder. Now imagine it for about 4 hours per day!

Birds use bill to bite

Hookbills use their bill as another appendage including biting. Birds do not have hands. When they want to climb up, open something, or investigate something, they use their beak. When they are frightened, they bite as a reflex action.

Don't punish

It is a very bad idea (doesn't train and is painful) to flick your finger on the bird's beak to try to teach it not to bite. Stop and try to figure out why your bird is biting. Is it a female who is protecting her nesting area? Does the bird have unsteady footing and is trying to hold on to something with his beak? Is the bird using his beak to protect himself from a perceived threat?

Teach your bird to "step up" either onto a stick or onto your finger when taking him out of the cage. This is fairly easy to do and you can find basic instructions in any bird-handling book or on bird web sites.

Reaching in cage

Do not reach your hand into the cage and chase the bird around. Many females will instinctively protect the area they feel is their nest, even if they aren't laying eggs. My female lovebird is a hybrid and is sterile, and yet, she loves to hide in her sleeping hammock or behind a pillow on the couch and poke her beak out at you when you approach. She reminds me of a small moray eel coming out of his cave. When I want to pick her up, I never reach my hands in to corner her. No matter how tame they become, you can't change an instinct.

Re-direct aggression

If you have an aggressive biter who has been taught to bite out of fear, you must re-direct his aggression. A pet bird, through love and proper attention, can be taught not to bite. But take heed, parrots are very intelligent and have long memories. You must have patience and a lot of it! My abused lovebird would bite any time she saw a finger or hand coming toward her. And she bit hard, drawing blood every time. After working with her for 1 1/2 years (that's 18 months!), I can now pick her up and cuddle with her without getting bitten. When did she start letting me pick her up? About two months ago. If I had given up on her after 2 months, or 6 months, or even a year, I wouldn't have the joy now of hugging my birdie to me and scratching her on the back of the head.

Needs attention

Most hookbills will become wild if not worked with every day. Remember that these are not domesticated pets. A hookbill must have personal companion time with you on a daily basis outside of the cage. A lovebird who is left alone for even two days can revert back to his wild state.

Read up in your books how to make a room safe for your bird, purchase (or make) a play gym, and make a point of letting your bird out every day. If you don't have time for one-on-one training, at least include your bird in the family activities around the house. Talk to him and let him sit somewhere where he can see people coming and going.

Note that he should feel safe and not be right out in the center of the room, he should not be near any drafts, and the kitchen probably has too many toxic fumes for him.

Some never talk

Many hookbills will never talk. If you are making this purchase because you think it is cool to have a talking bird, you are not making a wise decision.

There are a number of good talkers out there, the African Greys are one of the best, but not all birds are inclined to speak "human." To quote an article in Bird Talk Magazine, "do you have children because they will talk one day?" No, you have them because you love them just the way they are and because you want to nurture them and watch them grow, regardless of their talents.

Think before purchasing

Stop and think before bringing your bird home if this bird never does more than whistle, chatter in bird talk, and scream at daybreak and dusk, will you still love him just as much? If the answer is "no," then this is not the pet for you.

Summary

If you don't like noise, have a short fuse, can't take your bird out of the cage for one or two hours every day, won't love him as much if he doesn't talk, please think twice before bringing a hookbill home. Many hookbills will live for 20, 30, or more years. This is longer than most of us have dependent children at home. These intelligent, playful, rambunctious, beautiful, fascinating birds deserve the best we can give them and they will give back much more than that!


Learn about the bird's behavior


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

Natural Encounters - Information and instruction on training parrots, as well as shows featuring trained parrots

World Parrot Trust - British organization promoting parrot conservation and welfare

The Happy Hookbill Homepage - Stories about pet birds

Got Birds Online - Pictures of pet owners' birds

Behavior Resources

Books

Top-rated books on Parrot Behavior

Author

Tina Mischke, the owner of Furred and Feathered Behavior Consultation, lives in Northern California and has over 40 years of pet animal experience. She has been writing for publication since the 1970s and has a degree in Organizational Communication and Training.


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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