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Cage-related aggression in parrots

Misunderstood ideas surrounding “height dominance” are prevalent in parrot culture, but there are simple steps you can take to reduce cage-related aggression and behaviour

There are many articles written to assist caregivers when making a choice about what parrot cage to purchase. These articles will generally advise on cage size, styles, composition, safety issues and ease of cleaning; however, it is concerning to read the articles which refer to something called “height dominance”. It was the use of this term that prompted this article.

The “height dominance” label is freely given to any parrot who is perched above the caregiver’s eye level and who displays aggressive behaviour towards the caregiver upon approach. Traditionally, when caregivers were aggressed upon by their parrot from inside the cage, they were advised never to allow a parrot to be able to perch above their eye level and to train the parrot to step up onto a hand or a perch on cue. This narrow view of parrot behaviour has become ingrained in parrot culture and it seems that this has potentially influenced cage manufacturers to make the cages the way they do, with many of them not high enough and not actually fit for purpose.

Labelling behaviours is never helpful as it often prevents us from understanding why the behaviour has occurred and it may be misinterpreted or not fully understood

Labelling behaviours is never helpful as it often prevents us from understanding why the behaviour has occurred and it may be misinterpreted or not fully understood. Likewise, training an action – in this case, stepping up – to prevent a behaviour (aggression) might actually intensify it because the reasons for the behaviour occurring in the first place have not been identified or addressed.

Reasons for displays of aggressive behaviour

Aggressive behaviour towards caregivers in parrots might be displayed when the caregiver approaches or enters their cage, for example putting their hands inside the cage. There are a few reasons why this sort of cage-related aggression can occur, detailed here.

Territory

In the wild, competition over scarce nesting sites, as well as competition over access to other limited resources such as food, social contact and water, is fierce. Their captive-living cousins are also hardwired for these behavioural traits; these are the parrots who may fluff up when you approach to clean their cages, when you place or remove an object, or when around food, and they may defend their cage from perceived intruders. Often these parrots have learnt that humans are not to be fully trusted around their cages, as things are changed or moved around: many species of parrots, such as the grey parrot, may be neophobic.

Often these parrots have learnt that humans are not to be fully trusted around their cages, as things are changed or moved around: many species of parrots, such as the grey parrot, may be neophobic

Safe space

Every species of animal requires chill time to relax, nap or simply switch off from the world. For many parrots their cages are their relaxing place, but then we come along and disturb them as we want them to come out and entertain us, or we want to add new toys or clean their cages. Or, sometimes, their cage may not feel like a safe space to them, despite what we think.

Fear and apprehension

In the author’s experience, the majority of caregivers who seek advice on how to tackle cage-related aggression issues have parrots whose underlying emotion for the behaviour is fear. The majority of parrots displaying caregiver-directed aggression in or around their cages are either fearful and/or apprehensive of humans approaching them. This might be because they have not been socialised properly with humans, have endured trauma when approached by humans or have not yet built up trust with a particular human.

The more that the behaviour is used and is successful, the more it is repeated, so the aggressive behaviour becomes established. Treating the behaviour using training will not decrease the motivation for the behaviour happening in the first place

A parrot will normally accept the approach of a feared human up to a certain point. But when the parrot is confined and knows that they cannot fly away, the aggression is normally exaggerated. So, although fear is motivating the behaviour, the parrot might use confrontation as a strategy to put distance between them and the caregiver: the parrot bites and the caregiver retreats. The more that the behaviour is used and is successful, the more it is repeated, so the aggressive behaviour becomes established. Treating the behaviour using training will not decrease the motivation for the behaviour happening in the first place.

So, how do we treat cage-related aggression initiated by fear?

In the first instance, we must take a robust case history which considers the following information:

  • Veterinary medical issues: if the behaviour has suddenly occurred, then a veterinary check-up is essential to rule out underlying medical issues
  • Cage positioning: parrots feel safer with their cages in a corner and away from the bustle of the household so that people may only approach on two sides
  • Cage height: parrots feel safer from unwanted approaches when they have a height advantage. Absence of this may cause them to be apprehensive
  • How the caregiver approaches the cage: parrots feel safer when caregivers approach their cages slowly, with head down and not staring directly at them
  • Weaning and socialisation history: parrots who have been raised by their parents with appropriate and positive exposure to humans are less likely to be fearful of them
  • Whether or not wing clipping has occurred: birds fly as a form of defence to escape predation, so parrots who have had their wings clipped are more likely to use aggression as a defence mechanism because flying – their first defence – is not available to them
  • Any details of negative experiences with humans around the cage: parrots are very intelligent and will remember previous negative experiences and, wanting these to not be repeated, might become defensive

Simple strategies to reduce cage-related aggression

Changes for the caregiver

Changing the parrot’s environment can be a good place to start. This might be changing where the cage is located, raising the cage or introducing new perches, for example. You can also change how you approach the cage: try approaching slowly with your head lowered and moving hands slowly. Giving your parrot a choice about whether they come out of their cage or not is another simple change that can help to reduce cage-related aggression.

Behavioural modification

Finally, you can use classical conditioning, desensitisation and counter conditioning to reduce cage-related aggression. Fear is a physiological response over which the parrot has no control. The only approach that may be utilised is to couple the presence of the scary stimuli, such as the person or a hand, with something positive.

Fear is a physiological response over which the parrot has no control. The only approach that may be utilised is to couple the presence of the scary stimuli, such as the person or a hand, with something positive

For this to work, no demands should be made by bribery or coercion for the parrot to approach the caregiver, to go to a certain perch or to perform any behaviour. It is important that during all stages the parrot remains calm and not fearful. Referral to a clinical animal behaviourist is sensible to assist the caregiver with the nuances of this specialist behavioural modification technique.