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  The Importance of Cage Dominance
by Sally Blanchard (reprinted with permission of the Companion Parrot Quarterly (fka -- Pet Bird Report)

''If your parrot is the boss of its cage territory then it will be the boss everywhere.''

The Household Territory

IIn the wild, parrots can be quite territorial during breeding season, establishing well-defined boundaries that they defend with their mate or flock against intrusion. Just as the wild parrot established its territories, a caged bird instinctively establishes its territory in the cage and/or household environment that is provided by its owner. The defense of this territory by a companion parrot can become a serious problem for its owner if he or she does not understand some important basic concepts about parrot behavior.

I hear similar comments over and over from confused bird owners:

  • ''My parrot used to be so good. Now he only comes out of his cage when HE wants to!''
  • ''My parrot is so aggressive. He strikes at everyone when they walk by his cage.''
  • ''Every time I try to put my African Grey back in his cage, he screams and bites me!''
  • ''My bird seems terrified to come out of his cage. I don't want to cause him any problems so I just leave him there.''
  • ''I just can't understand why my sweet baby hates me now. What happened?''
  • ''I have such an incredible hassle about putting my parrot back in her cage so I just leave her out.''
  • ''I know I have to work with my parrot but how do I get him out of his cage without losing my fingers?''
  • ''In the morning when I am in a hurry to go to work, I have to chase my parrot all over the outside of his cage. I don't have time so I either don't let him out or just leave him out.''
  • ''He's only six months old and already all he does is strut around the top of his cage!''

We Share The Cage Territory

In my endless pursuit of knowledge about parrots I have often read that a "parrots cage is it's castle" and that we, as parrot owners should never "invade or disturb the sanctity of our parrots cage." In my work with problem parrots, I believe that this mistaken concept about bird behavior has caused endless problems for pet parrot owners. With a basic understanding of their behavior and bonding, the fallacy of this belief is immediately evident. A parrot becomes tame and trusting with its owner when that person has worked to encourage a bond between them. If a bird is bonded to its owners, that means it accepts those people as its parents, mate or members of its flock. The common sense deduction here is that if the parrot and owner are bonded, then they share the territory, which in the case of a pet bird is the cage and its surroundings. Therefore, a truly bonded bird should have little, if any, territorial imperatives with its owner. Ideally, the owner should have no trouble handling the parrot in or on its cage.

The Dominant Partner In The Pair Bond

Most behavioral problems in human-raised parrots are not an indication of what was done wrong as much as a sign of important work that just was not done. To have a well-behaved parrot, owners must establish themselves as the dominant partner in the pair bond or flock bond. If owners establish and maintain a "Nurturing Dominance" with their parrot by doing a good job of parenting, setting rules and providing guidance, the bird will recognize them as dominant. Understanding the need for this foundation and working to achieve it will insure that the owner has dominance over the cage territory. This means that a parrot will readily step on the owner's hand when the owner reaches in and request it to with the "UP" command. The bird will also allow the owner to put it back into the cage and will readily step on its perch with the "DOWN" command.

Not A ''Bappy'' Forever

When a parrot is a "bappy" (baby parrot), it usually allows it's owner to handle it readily. As it matures, it develops it's own personality and begins it's "struggle for independence". Owners who have not created the groundwork for "Nurturing Dominance" may start to lose control of their parrot a little bit at a time until the parrot is totally running the show. Often, the first sign of this a willful parrot that refuses to come out of the cage at the owner's choice. At first, it will come out when it wants to but will start to play games, nipping and playing "tag" when the owner tries to take it out.

Eventually the bird can be quite aggressive about not coming out of its cage for its owner. When the owner gives up and retreats from the cage, the bird has triumphed. If it happens often enough, it becomes an established pattern.

Often, the confused owner just gives up trying to maintain control of their parrot around its cage. This is usually the beginning of the loss of all hand control with the parrot and eventually will seriously damage the parrot/human bond and the young bird's pet potential. The result is often a cage bound parrot that spends all of his time in or on top of his cage.

Pushing Away What It Needs The Most

The tragedy is that through no fault of it's own, the parrot will no longer receive the absolutely necessary handling and touching that it needs for psychological well-being. The "alien" environment in which a pet parrot lives can be very confusing. This is especially true for a parrot in control of it's own life. Because of this confusion, these parrots have no idea that they are actually rejecting the very attention that they desire and need the most. The owner's loss of cage control is probably the major reason that so many domestically raised macaws lose their pet potential. As the bird establishes dominance over it's cage territory, it becomes dominant everywhere. The owners become more and more insecure about handling their bird as it becomes more territorial and aggressive. As time progresses, the bond between the person and their companion parrot is seriously compromised or destroyed. The owners certainly lose affection for a bird that seems to hate them because it attacks whenever they come close to the cage. Without the bond that makes a parrot such a desirable pet, the pet potential decreases as the bird matures. These are often the "problem parrots" that end up languishing for sale in pet shops or listed by the hundreds in the classifieds throughout the country. Only a few may be lucky enough to end up with owners who have the knowledge, ability and/or inclination to work with their behavioral problems or with breeders who will take proper care of them.

Shoulder Tame - - Not Hand Tame

Clearly a parrot has more control when it is on your shoulder. The owner is not able to make eye contact and the clever parrot can easily escape their owner's grasp as he or she tries to remove the bird. In my consultations, I have often watched owners lean up against their bird's cage to invite the parrot onto their shoulder where it stays until the owner has to try to put it back. This can turn into a real "comedy of errors". I have watched owners squirm around in their clothing, writhe around on the floor and practically disrobe from the waist up trying to gain control of their stubborn parrot. It may seem quite funny to watch an owner try to "wipe" their parrot off their shoulder and onto its cage. Unfortunately, this loss of control may be the beginning of more serious problems. Owners that do not have control of their parrots and allow them to spend a great deal of time on their shoulders may eventually sustain aggressive and disfiguring facial attacks.

The Cage Is Necessary

Some parrot owners just resort to leaving their birds in their cages all of the time while others leave their birds out all of the time because it is too much trouble to try and put them back. Many people think of the cage as a "prison" and feel it is cruel that captive birds have to be caged. I hate to see cages used as punishment when an immediate and assertive "Evil Eye" and "UP" command to establish dominance works so much better as a discipline for misbehavior. Perhaps the word "cage" is not the correct term for the habitat we provide for our pet parrots. Unfortunately, the term has a variety of meanings to different people. In reality, the cage should be thought of as just another room in the house - the parrot's room where he feels safe and comfortable. As a behaviorist, I think that it is very important that a parrot's cage is a large happy space with a readily available variety of nutritious foods and lots of toys and climbing possibilities. A cage should be a comfortable place of security in a social location that is shared with the owner. Companion parrots should also be a part of the family and spend some time on stands or play gyms or with their owners away from the cage. Balance is very important in creating a well-behaved parrot. It is my belief that to encourage independence, parrots should spend some time each day inside of their cages playing with their toys and entertaining themselves even when their owners are home. I recommend using a verbal command like saying "CAGE TIME" to let your parrot know that he has to entertain himself while you are busy.

Rules For Establishing Cage Dominance

Establishing cage dominance with a young parrot should be simple if the owner follows a few basic rules. The first is to establish the "UP" and "DOWN" commands. With a young bird, this is as simple as saying the words every time you pick the "bappy" up or put it down. The most important rule involving the cage is to always reach in, present your hand to the parrot, use a decisive "UP" command and bring the bird out of it's cage.

Never allow the bird to come out of its cage by itself without your initial contact when you open the cage door. If you let your parrot play on top of its cage, it can go in and out as it chooses once you have placed it on top. When it is time for the parrot to go back in its cage, place it on the perch inside the cage with a clear "DOWN" command. After the bird obliges, give it praise -- "What a good bird!" If it is in the open cage and you are going to shut the door because you are leaving or it is cage playtime or bedtime, it is helpful to reinforce the commands. Reach in, use the "UP" command and bring your parrot out for a hug. Then place it back on the perch with the "DOWN" command. At this time you can tell your bird "BYE BYE", "CAGE TIME" or "GOOD NIGHT" depending on the situation. Using clear commands consistently that communicate that you are in control will make you the accepted 'master' of the cage territory. There will be no reason for your parrot to be aggressive to defend its cage from you if you are the dominant partner in the pair bond.

The ''Neutral Room''

If you already have a bird that either thinks it is the head honcho or KNOWS that it is the boss, there are ways to regain control. This is essential to having the kind of pet parrot that you wanted in the first place. Retaming cage dominant birds that have become aggressive by reaching in and saying "UP" makes as much sense as putting your hand in the garbage disposal. It is important to get these birds away from the cage and into a "neutral" room where they have not established their "territorial imperative". There many ways to do this depending on your bird and its tameness and depending on your bird and its tameness and previous training. If the bird has been trained to step on a stick or branch, use this to get it out of the cage. Some tame birds may refuse to step up from inside the cage but will not bite their owners for any reason. Cage bound cockatoos will usually grasp the cage bars or perch as if their feet have been super glued. Often with these birds, it is possible to gently pry their feet loose to pick them up. Your shouldn't have to worry about hurting their feet as it would be a very rare bird that would allow its owner to break its toes before loosening its grip. Always use gentle persuasion. Some birds will allow you to pick them off of their cage once they are out. This is often much easier if you use a step stool. You are suddenly taller than the stubborn little "brat" and it is confused for just long enough to behave for you. Although it is not good to establish a pattern of allowing the bird to come out without bringing it out with the "UP" command, it may be necessary to do this the first few times to be able to take your bird to the "neutral room" where you can work with it safely

Using The Towel In A Friendly Way

There are many methods of working with towels. Some are deplorable and are based on "breaking the spirit" of the bird. If a towel is used properly in a non-aggressive manner, it should not create problems and can actually be used in playing and nurturing. Sometimes you can play "good and, bad hand" by approaching your parrot's cage from the side with one hand wrapped in a towel and then quickly rescuing it with the other hand. Actually capturing a parrot with a towel may be necessary. Many birds are frightened of towels because they have been swooped down from above and/or handled roughly in one. Chasing your parrot around its cage with a towel is usually counterproductive and can cause more problems than it solves. However, if you can plan your action and approach the bird quickly, it is possible to towel a bird in its cage non-abusively. First, make sure that all toys and paraphernalia are out of the way of you approach. Calm yourself down and smile, greeting your bird as you would in a friendly situation. This will help keep the bird from feeling threatened by your fear and uncertainty. Then "just do it"! With the bird facing you, reach in quickly with the towel, wrapping the towel around the body of the bird from the front. The top of the towel should overlap so that the head is also covered. Keeping the bird covered in the towel, pick it up with your hands around its wing - your thumbs on its bank and your fingers cradling its belly. Bring it out of the cage and quickly take it to the "neutral room".

Another method is to roll or carry the cage in to the "neutral room", let the parrot come out by itself or bribe it out with food. In several cases, I have taped a well-loved treat to a T-stand and placed it in front of the cage door and then taken the T-stand into the "neutral room". With smaller cages, it may be possible to turn the cage upside down (after removing food, water, etc.) and take the bottom out. It is natural for most birds to climb to the highest point. Once the bird comes out, take or roll the cage out of the room where it is out of the parrot's view.

Establishing Dominance

It you are working with a phobic parrot that is afraid to be out of its cage, just bring it out near the cage and let it scramble back the first few times. Establish the words, "You're OK, that's OK" as a soothing command meaning that you won't let anything bad happen. Each time take it a little further from the cage until the parrot becomes accustomed to being out before you start working with it in the "neutral room".

Working with a bird away from its territory is usually easy if it is bonded to you in any way. Usually the bird is uncomfortable in the new room and automatically looks to you as the most familiar "thing". It is best to work with your parrot alone; especially if it is mature and strongly bonded to you, so that it does not feel compelled to defend you from an "intruder". This is also an effective way for the "outsider" to work with a "one-person bird".

Place the parrot on a T-stand or the back of a chair. Look it squarely in the eye with a friendly yet decisive expression. Present your hand to the parrot assertively by pushing the ridge of your index finger into the area of its lower belly/upper thighs. Say the word "UP". If the bird has ever been hand-tamed, it will have little choice but to comply. It is important to do this with authority. If you are a "wimp" about it, the parrot will not be getting a clear message. Transfer it to the other hand, using the "UP" command in the same manner. Then place the parrot back on the perch with a firm "DOWN" command. Repeat this process until the bird responds readily to the command. Don't overwork the bird in these sessions. Transfer the bird from hand to hand about a half a dozen times before placing him back on the stand. Keep the pace casual -- the purpose is not to work the parrot's little legs off! End your training sessions on a positive note with you in control. Most parrots are intelligent enough to learn these commands after only a few short lessons. Repeating the exercise a few times a week can help to maintain a positive guiding control of your parrot.

When it is obvious that it understands the meaning of these commands, gradually move the T-stand closer to the cage asserting your dominance with the command "ritual" each time you work with your parrot. Once the T-stand is next to the cage, use the up command for it to step on your hand. Place the parrot in the cage (with a cleared path) on the perch with the "DOWN" command barely giving it time to step down before you say "UP" and bring it out. Repeat this process to pattern your parrot to accept the "UP" and "DOWN" commands from its cage.

Only As Good As The Last ''UP'' Command

Once cage dominance is established, the owner must maintain it with the consistent use of verbal commands. With most people these commands become second nature. An intelligent curious parrot will take advantage of its owner's lapses by retaking control. The first signs of this are difficulty in getting the parrot to come out of its cage on command and increased cage aggression. That is the time to start working with your bird using verbal commands consistently to regain control again. Remember that your relationship with your parrot is only as good as your last "UP" command!

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