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The myth of the 'one person' bird

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

This article originally appeared in the Parrot Society of Australia's 'Parrot News Magazine' Sept-Oct 2020 Edition.

It isn’t uncommon to hear people warn you when you get a parrot that eventually they will only like (or love) one person. It is a well-circulated ‘truth’ amongst most companion parrot keepers. Yet this is not really correct, in reality, most, if not all, parrots should be able to maintain friendly, social relationships with all of the members of their household and even visitors/outsiders.

You only have to watch a flock of parrots in the wild to see how social they are. For a large part of the year you will find flocks flying, foraging and roosting together. In fact some species even travel in mixed flocks! Here in Australia it isn’t uncommon to see Galahs, Corellas and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos foraging in backyards and on the side of the road together. A short time observing a flock of Corellas will show you many and varied interactions between different members of the flock. It is clear from these observations of wild parrot behaviour that parrots are highly gregarious and social animals who thrive on the varied social relationships they share.​ Some people believe that because parrots ‘mate for life’ that this inclines them towards becoming ‘one person birds’. This is not entirely true. Many parrot species may be socially monogamous, that is to say, that they have a partner and that partner is who they spend most of their time with and raise chicks with, but they are not always ‘sexually monogamous’, meaning they will have trysts with other parrots of the opposite sex. In fact, in some species it is common for males to often end up rearing some chicks that aren’t his own. To top this off, parrots will also sometimes change partners between seasons, this ‘parrot divorce’ could occur for many reasons but is usually related to finding a better prospective partner. This is well documented in a number of studies on various parrot species. Parrots will also re-pair without issue after the untimely death of a mate. So where does the myth of the ‘one person bird’ originate and why do so many people experience problem behaviours that limit socialisation between their parrots and family members? The cause of the issues that many companion parrot owners see in their birds, which are labelled and attributed to parrot monogamy are fairly easy to identify - there are two primary contributing factors, the first is a lack of appropriate early socialisation, the second is inadvertently creating or encouraging a pair bond between parrot and person. It is only very recently in our care of dogs that we have become more aware of the significant need for proper early socialisation, what this entails and the fallout that occurs when we do not adequately socialise them. So it is not surprising that we haven’t really begun to scratch the surface when it comes to socialisation in our parrot companions and that it isn’t yet fully understood or implemented in our relationships with them. A lack of early socialisation with conspecifics and humans can lead to a number of issues including neo-phobia (fear of new stimulus), a bird who doesn’t really know it is a bird and poor social skills. Good breeders will ensure that their chicks are not only hand-raised but are exposed to plenty of new, novel stimuli throughout their raising, this should include meeting and interacting with new people and other birds of the same species at minimum. Socialisation with conspecifics and flock weaning is important as this allows the hand-raised birds to learn ‘how to bird’ and ensures they are not solely imprinted onto humans. This part of the parrot's socialisation ensures that the bird learns to communicate with others, forage, play independently and empowers them.

Once the newly fledged and weaned parrot goes home to their future human flock, it is vitally important that the bird is not just socialised with the primary carer but also regularly, equally and in a similar fashion socialises with all members of the household. Missing this critical period for bonding will lead to the bird not being comfortable socialising with everyone down the track. It also fosters a codependent relationship between the parrot and it’s primary caregiver. In some cases the myth of the one person bird compounds this particular issue as many new parrot owners believe that in order to bond with their bird and ensure they are that birds ‘one person’ they must first and foremost socialise it to themselves and not to others. So they take on all duties related to the bird and discourage interactions with other members of the household. ​ In the wild the period immediately after fledging would be the time when young parrots begin to socialise with other members of the flock outside of their siblings and parents. This is a time when they are forming social bonds, learning about how to be a part of the flock and developing lifelong relationships not just with potential mates but with all flock members. It is essential we recognise this and implement a socialisation strategy that ensures we meet these social needs with our companion parrots. The other primary contributing factor is inappropriate relationships/pair bonds between primary caregivers and their parrots. This is one of the leading contributing factors to a number of behavioural issues we see in our companion parrots. By inadvertently developing a ‘mate’ like relationship with our parrots we trigger innate behaviours that birds would exhibit in the wild during the breeding season, this includes defending a perceived nest site from potential interlopers and defending their mate from potential competition. Often other family members are misconstrued as one of the above and our parrots then naturally engage in normal breeding season behaviour. This is exacerbated by other environmental factors that lead to extended breeding flushes in our captive parrots, with some captive parrots engaging in breeding behaviour all year round! It is critical that captive parrot caregivers do not develop an inappropriate pair-bond relationship with their parrots for a number of reasons including behavioural and medical issues that may arise.

This can be achieved by reducing touching/petting in areas that are sexually stimulating for parrots, reducing high carb/fat foods, providing only the amount of food required on a day to day basis rather than an abundance of food, reducing access to cavities that could be regarded as potential nest sites, increasing foraging/enrichment / independent play activities, increased socialisation with other humans/parrots, introducing or increasing training activities, increasing overall exercise, getting the bird outdoors ideally in an aviary but any outdoor time is beneficial, monitoring sleep patterns and adjusting accordingly - these changes need to be made with consideration of the individual bird and its species, as no one size, fits all. The myth of the one person bird is certainly a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy in many situations, by believing that parrots will choose one person to the exclusion of all others, companion parrot owners engage in keeping practises that are more likely to lead to this outcome. If we change this common misconception and begin to implement proper socialisation and relationship strategies with our parrots we are significantly less likely to see this problem arising. In turn, we will then see a more harmonious, flock relationship blossom amongst all members of the family.

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