Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Encouraging Sociable Behaviour In Your Pet Birds

Pumpkin pumpkin, and Cookie cookie stuff007-1.jpg

He he!  The bird message board that I use to belong to held a competition a few years back for "Halloween costumes" for the contributors' pets - and this was my entry!  Yes that's suppose to be a pumpkin and a muffin!  Of course the birds weren't really dressed up, and as a family we don't normally acknowledge Halloween, but it was cute all the same to see what other people did with their pets - the best and funniest by far, was a dachsund that had been turned into the filling in a hot dog, complete with sauce and onion rings!
 Now, we don't keep our pets just to enjoy making them look cute, but it is always rewarding when they do something adorable, or you manage to get a picture of them that looks really sweet.   It's part of our need to nurture that means we enjoy caring for our pets and get pleasure from interacting with them, and having them share our homes and lives with us.  One of the most popular topics on the message board - and indeed on any website that you visit about pet care for any type of domesticated animal - is that of "taming".  Obviously, a tame animal is more rewarding to care for and interact with - but how tame should they be, and is it really desirable - or even appropriate?

Personally, I don't like the concept of training an animal to be tame.   Instead, I prefer the concept of guiding a pet, through encouragement and positive reinforcement, to be sociable but to retain the innate behavioural characteristics that define it as the animal that it is - even if these characteristics are not necessarily very attractive to us humans.  To me, trying to alter an animal's behaviour through conditioning so that it behaves in a way that may not necessarily be natural for it, is a violation of this innate, God given character.  Now I don't mean by this that I think we should allow the animals that we invite into our homes to roam about, uncontrolled and unregulated, like the wild creatures they would be were they not domesticated.  That wouldn't be kind - either to us or the animal - but I do mean that I personally feel that any behavioural modifications that we introduce for our pets, should be designed so that they take into account the natural behaviour of the animal, and work with it, rather than against it, so that the animal's character is complemented, rather than manipulated or even suffocated, by our interventions.  I truly feel very strongly, that we as human caregivers, who have invited these animals, at our whim - not their's - to share our homes with us, should learn to work alongside our animal friends, not against them.  In fact I feel that rather than us trying to teach our animals how to behave, they should be teaching us how to care for them - through learning what their natural behaviour is.  If we don't understand or appreciate what their natural behaviour is, and recognise this, then we will never be able to socialise them, and we will never be able to give them a truly happy home.

I have learned this through experience.  When we got our first 2 pet birds - the 2 that you see in the picture above, I really didn't know a whole lot about cockatiels.  I'd read books and visited websites, and had prepared their new home carefully, choosing a good sized cage, plenty of toys, perches and other features that I thought would make their lives as pleasant as possible, and ensured that they had the right food.  I made sure that they were covered up at night (birds should be covered completely, for 12 hours a night.  If they aren't, they will suffer stress and become vulnerable to illness and other problems) and that they had plenty of time outside their cage to explore freely and if they wished, fly about.  But I didn't really know much in detail, about how cockatiels actually behave.

Through my research, I learned that like most birds, cockatiels are flock animals.  Their native environment, the glasslands of Australia, is hot and dry.  They are extremely strong fliers and apart from when they are feeding, which they do on ground, they prefer to be in the treetops or moving about, rapidly, in large flocks.  They feed mostly on a wide variety of seeds, grasses and small insects.   They mate for life, and share the responsibility for brooding and rearing their young equally.  They are mature at about 18 months old, and if cared for properly can live in captivity until about 25 years.  However, one thing that the books didn't tell me, is that birds are extremely intelligent.  They have excellent memories and as prey animals, they rely a lot on the senses of hearing and sight, which means that if they hear or see an unfamiliar sound, their instinctive response is to be afraid of it.  If you move the toys around a cockatiel's cage, it will be afraid of the new arrrangement until it becomes accustomed to it.  Whenever our birds hear a strange sound - especially that of a human voice, or a piece of music, they will "flock call" to each other, to warn of the percieved danger.  This  ability to remember and recognise things audibly and visually means that they have quite a broad capacity for learning.

One of the first things that you are advised to do when you get a new pet bird, is to "train" it to "step up" onto your hand.  The theory goes that if you do this, the bird will become familiar with the command "step up" and learn to do it at your will, when you want it to go into its cage or carrier.  It also means that if you want to teach it to do tricks, imitate simple whistles or a few words and such, you will stand a greater chance of conditioning it to respond to your instructions.

I have never trained any of our birds to "step up".  I haven't ever felt the need to.  Instead, I have learned, through watching their behaviour and interacting with them, what is the best way to encourage each bird individually to respond to me.  Our oldest bird, the one pictured on the right above ("dressed" in his muffin "costume"!) is a very territorial, quite stubborn bird who dislikes any kind of physical interaction.  He will respond immediately by hissing, "beaking" (opening his beak in threat, as if to bite) and edging away from me, if I reach out to touch him.  However, he loves being talked and sung to, and especially likes it if I spend time talking just to him, without any of the other birds nearby.  I will whistle to him and say "pretty polly" and such, and he will imitate me.  If I wait patiently, he will come up to me and preen my hair, try to nibble my jewellery, and enjoy being close to me, but not actually touched.  And when it is time to go into the cage at feeding time each evening (I feed the birds their main meal of seed, just before I feed us humans!), I will wait patiently by the cage, talking gently to him, and he will happily, at his pace, go into the cage and quietly down to eat.

Contrast this with our newest little guy, who isn't at all bothered about who picks him up or handles him, and is into absolutely everything, like a naughty toddler!  He has learned to pick up the spinach leaves that I place on the top of the cage each day, and take them to the edge of the cage where he can drop them overboard and wait for me to pick them up!  He especially enjoys dropping them onto the other birds, if they are feeding down below on the floor of the cage where there is always a bit of dropped seed and some oystershell.  He likes the interaction with me in a totally different way - it's still on his terms, but he doesn't need to be loved and admired like our senior guy.  Instead, he wants me to play with him.

The third male that we have is a rescue bird and he is extremely sociable and loves any kind of interaction.  His favourite perch is on my head!  It makes everyone laugh when he flies over to me and lands there.  He will always talk and sing to me, as soon as the cage is uncovered every morning.  He knows that what comes next is the roof of the cage being opened and he's always the first out of the cage.  He's a confident, friendly bird who loves people and other birds and would be extremely unhappy if he had to live alone, especially if his caregivers were away from him all day at work or studying.  He needs a lot of interaction, but he'll soon tell me if he doesn't want to be handled or played with - he flies away and goes off to do something else instead.

The female birds are generally much more sedate, and not so interested in socialising with me in any way.  They aren't bothered about being picked up but they don't really enjoy it either, so I don't pick them up unless they need to be.  Instead I like to sing and talk to them, and let them explore my fingers - I wear several rings, with jewels, and they adore these, like magpies!  They can't leave my hands alone.  They're much more placid and gentle than the male birds, and even the least tame of our female birds is easy to handle.

What I am trying to show here is that the most important thing I have found in working with socialising our birds, is to work with them, and let them guide me in how they want to be handled.  They all have different personalities, and they all have different preferences.  Some aren't very sociable, and never will be.  Others are very friendly and thrive on the contact they get from all the family.  That's just as it should be, as far as we are concerned.  We don't want our birds to perform to commands.  It may seem cute when you see them sing or whistle or dance, but it isn't necessary for their happiness.  They are just as happy when they're allowed to be as nature made them - whether that's how we want them to be, or not.   And despite not having hand tamed any of our birds - they all, every single day - go happily into their cage when they're ready to each evening, regardless of what I do or don't, to encourage them into it.

God made man in his image, not animals, and it's important to remember this.  Animals aren't humans, and to me there's something a little pitiful about trying to treat our pets as if they are equal members of the family - like another child.  Growing up on a farm, I perhaps have a slightly less sentimental view of the role of pets in our lives - but I still definitely love our birds, though not as I do my children!  To me, there are wonderful rewards and pleasures in caring for our pet birds, but the role of reponsibility I have for their care and wellbeing, is not comparable to my God-given role as a wife and mother - and that must always be my priority at home.

However, with this in mind I can't finish this post without also adding that there is another element which helps to encourage sociable behaviour in animals - well know to us mamas, and that is a good routine.  Without it, pets feel insecure.  They need the reassurance of knowing that at the same time each day, they will be given food.  They need adequate sleep, every single day, and of course plenty of exercise.  And they also need time alone, just to be them.  If you can establish a firm routine with your pets you will find that their behaviour improves naturally, just because they are reassured by the order and consistency of the care that you give them.  In this sense, it is no different to the way in which our children respond to the routines that we have as parents.  Without some kind of structure and regularity to their days, they will be confused, and will misbehave.  It is so with our pets also.  I do feel that this is just as important as the time that we spend actually interacting with them.

As I write, all 6 of our sweet birds are sitting happily on their perches, dozing and preening gently.  You would not believe it perhaps, but it is absolutely silent in the room.  Not a single tweet or peep or whistle!  Now that I think is definitely the sound of well behaved pets!

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