Defying The Myth of The Unmanageable Sexually Mature Male Amazon
By: Shari Beaudoin
Parrot Island, Inc.
Lt. Columbo, my male Double Yellow-headed Amazon, Amazona ochrocephala oratrix, is the perfect myth buster when it comes to discussions regarding unmanageable, sexually mature, male Amazons or what I call "THE USMMA's". Many people are of the belief that all or most sexually mature male Amazon parrots will ultimately become unmanageable, aggressive, biting screamers.
As of the date of this article, Lt. Columbo is 10 years of age, and sexually mature, yet he remains gentle, playful, vocal, outgoing, and friendly. He is not a one person bird, in fact he enjoys interaction with numerous people. So why is it that Lt. Columbo has not fallen into the "USMMA" category?
It is my belief that it is a comprehensive combination of many factors that have contributed to Lt. Columbo's indulgent nature. In attempt to better understand why Lt. Columbo is the way he is - I will discuss a number of what I feel are the most important of these factors.
In the case of either a juvenile or an adult Amazon parrot it is important that the bird is in good health and maintaining an optimal weight. Poor health is often the cause of many behavioral problems. All of these problems may not be fatal or disease related, but many may cause enough discomfort to cause a bird to become sedate, unwilling to play, and down right cantankerous. Lt. Columbo receives annual well bird exams by a qualified Avian Veterinarian. During these exams he has regular blood work done and his annual polyoma virus vaccine along with a crop swab and a fecal smear. I have chosen to have periodic x-rays (every two years or so) to establish a good baseline for what is normal for him. I also pay close attention to the bottoms of Lt. Columbo's feet. Amazon parrots are solid, stocky birds and therefore can be prone to foot sores. I prefer to use rope perches or Vet-wrap (a spongy tape that sticks to itself) to wrap around portions of natural wood perches. I am especially careful to make sure that the perch he sleeps on (usually the highest in his cage) is soft. Wooden dowel perches, cement, or any perches that are rough on top or lack any variance in diameter, are very hard on an Amazon's feet. These perches force the bird's feet to remain in one position causing constant wear on one area of the foot. The feet can become almost raw on the bottoms. Often times when I talk to people with parrots in their teens and above (I have seen Amazons that are not even 5 years of age show foot problems), one of the first things I ask about is the condition of the bird's feet. I often wonder if some of these birds' feet have become so sore and arthritic that it is painful for them to move around, causing them to become sedate and aggressive when asked to do so.
Determining A Healthy Weight
Amazon parrots are prone to obesity making it very important to determine the individual bird's optimal weight. Once you and your veterinarian have made this determination, your bird's weight should be monitored at home weekly with an accurate precision gram scale (accurate to within 1 gram). It is a good idea to check your scale against your veterinarians to ensure its accuracy. As a general rule of thumb, a rapid weight gain or loss of 10% or more of an adult birds' total body weight should be brought to the attention of your Avian Veterinarian immediately. As an example, Lt. Columbo's optimal body weight is 500grams. If I were to weigh him and find his weight at 450 grams or less or 550 grams or higher in the matter of one or two weeks, I would have cause for concern. My concern would be greatened if there had been no change in his diet or general eating habits. Dramatic weight loss can be an indication of illness. Weight gain can be as well, but can also be a contributing factor to reproductive (hormonal) problems, which I will discuss later in this article. Your veterinarian should check your bird's cholesterol and triglyceride levels during the annual exam. A healthy bird's cholesterol level should be 200 or less. There are many young and old parrots with cholesterol levels in the high hundreds and even thousands. These high levels can lead to heart, kidney, and liver disease. As for your bird's weight, please do not assume that you will be able to feel or see a difference of 10% body weight on your bird. A 10% variance is virtually impossible to notice, even for a veterinarian, without an accurate gram scale.
A Healthy Well-Balanced Diet
Amazon parrots can be prone to vitamin "A" deficiency and should be offered high vitamin "A" vegetables and fruits daily. Every morning while we are cleaning our birds cages they are out on their play gyms eating their fresh foods. Their mixture consists of what organic produce is available at the time. Usually it will contain raw dandelion greens, bell peppers, jalapenos, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, mango, papaya, kiwi, pomegranate, cantaloupe, etc. Any uneaten fresh food is always removed within two hours to prevent bacterial growth. Fresh foods should never be left in the cage all day. It is rare that Lt. Columbo will have any left after 1/2 hour! None of my other birds eat with quite the gusto of Lt. Columbo. From the wonderful sounds he makes as he eats to the dance of his eyes when he sees the food - he is completely enthralled. In Lt. Columbo's cage his food bowl contains a diverse dry diet consisting of a mixture of four high quality non colorized, low fat formulated diets (pellets), an organic whole foods mixture of dehydrated vegetables and fruits, herbs, nuts and seeds (We limit the seed and nut portion of an Amazon parrots diet to 1 - 2 sunflower seeds, 1 - 2 pumpkin seeds, a few flax seeds, a few safflower seeds, 1 - 2 different nuts - such as almond, brazil, macadamia, walnut, cashew, pecan, and filberts, alternating them each day). They should also have a clean bowl of fresh water that is changed at least twice a day. Amazons love to eat and in the wild they would eat mostly moist foods, so it is important to have an open water bowl so that they can to soak their dry foods. I do not use water bottles as they can harbor bacteria in the tip (which is notoriously difficult to clean), but also completely eliminates a birds ability to soak their dry food.
After Lt. Columbo eats his fresh foods, it is off to the sink or the shower (depending on if we are at work or home) and does he need it! He has usually enjoyed his food so thoroughly that it is plastered all over his face. We place a suctioned shower perch either in the sink or on the shower wall and up he goes. I fill a pressurized mister with purified water that lets out a fine mist of clean water. Lt. Columbo bobs, weaves, hangs upside down when he can, and sings most of his favorite songs. I quickly found from the time Lt. Columbo was young that bath time was definitely the best time to teach him songs. He is usually at his most exuberant during his bath and enthusiastic to practice new vocalizations. He especially enjoys his bath when it is warm enough to go outside. There is nothing as exciting for Lt. Columbo as water and sunshine outside (I always make sure his wings are properly trimmed before any outdoor excursion). He loves to talk to all the neighbors, especially the children. When I have him outside he is under constant supervision and I never leave him in the direct sun for more then the time it takes him to dry (about 15 minutes). After his bath it is off to his play gym to dry off, preen, and play. Once he has had time to dry and preen it is time for some morning exercise.
Exercise for Amazons, and for all parrots, is a key contributor to their overall good health and wellbeing. Cardiovascular exercise is essential for any bird to maintain their optimal weight, gain muscle mass, and keep their cholesterol and triglycerides in normal range.
How To Exercise The Trimmed Parrot
I choose to keep Lt. Columbo's, and all of my birds, wings trimmed for many different reasons, the main reason being their own safety. It has become my opinion over the years, as well as in talking with many people, that a trimmed bird is less likely to become seriously aggressive. Whether or not to keep your parrot trimmed is a personal decision that should be well thought out depending on your lifestyle. In my opinion, it is rare for a free flighted companion bird (in a home setting) to fly enough to get a good cardiovascular work out. I am talking about the kind of workout that burns off that extra energy and leaves them huffing and puffing. They usually will fly only as much as they have to, such as to their cage or a favorite perch. I certainly do not know of any Amazon parrots that are likely to fly laps around the house simply to keep their weight and cholesterol levels in check.
Assisted Flight Air-o-bics is a technique that I developed and have done with our birds for many years. I believe it is one of the key contributors to Lt. Columbo's overall health and good-natured personality. Assisted Flight Air-obics is an excellent way for you and your parrot to have a lot of fun and get a good cardiovascular workout as well. Your bird actually lies gently in your cupped hands and flies full out while you walk or run behind. I lightly cup my hands under Lt. Columbo and he does the rest. He holds his feet back as a bird normally would during flight and flaps his wings for all he is worth. We do several laps around the house or Parrot Island before I bring him to a landing on his play tree. When he lands he is full out panting and breathing hard. Not only is this good physical exercise but it also seems to be an excellent stress reducer for birds and is very helpful in minimizing some of the hormonal build up that comes at certain times of the year.
Other forms of exercise happen when he is banging around on his toys in his cage, tree, or gym. At home, we have several ropes and toys hanging from the ceiling in our birds' room. These ropes allow them to play and swing on a moveable perch to keep their feet and legs well exercised.
The actual 'living space' of Lt. Columbo's cage is 48" wide by 24" deep by 42" tall so he has plenty of room to play and bang around. We use full spectrum lighting over his cage and keep it on a timer. We recommend Amazon parrots to be kept on full spectrum lighting for no more then 4 hours per day during the regular daylight period. Lt. Columbo's light comes on at 11:00 a.m. and goes off at 3:00 p.m. every day. I try to have him in his cage during this time so that he can absorb the light and have an afternoon rest. For an in-depth discussion of how we recommend and use full spectrum lighting with our birds I would refer you to Terry's article entitled "The Necessity of Full Spectrum Lighting" that can be found on our website www.parrotislandinc.com or in issue # of Companion Bird Magazine.
A Good Nights Sleep
When it is time for bed at night, usually around 9:00 pm by Lt. Columbo's clock, he will stand on his play gym and begin to point his body in the direction of his cage. I ask him "Are you ready for bed?" and he usually answers "Well Yeh". He doesn't get off quite that easy though, I walk over to him and ask him to step on my hand and then I place him on the floor at the far end of our kitchen. Once on the floor he begins to waddle in that way that only an Amazon can - head down, toes over toes, back end swinging, all the way across the kitchen, through the family room, into his room, and up a ladder to his cage. Once he is in his cage and to his favorite perch he lets out a little "Woo Hoo". I wind his music box, turn on the night light and it is off to bed until another day.
I hope that through this article you are beginning to notice a pattern that is somewhat comparable to what could be happening during any given day in the life of an Amazon parrot in the wild. The Amazon parrot in the wild would wake in the morning and fly off to eat. This is in essence what we are doing when Lt. Columbo and the rest of our birds (his perceived flock) do when they are taken to their play trees to eat their fresh foods. The Amazon parrot in the wild may fly to a favorite place to drink and bathe, this is similar to Lt. Columbo going off for his bath after his fresh foods. The Amazon parrot in the wild may go to a special place to socialize, dry and preen. Lt. Columbo and the rest of our flock are brought back to their play trees to dry, preen, and socialize amongst themselves and with us. The Amazon parrot in the wild might rest for awhile in the mid-afternoon. Lt. Columbo will spend some quiet time in his cage resting, eating, foraging and soaking up the sun. The Amazon parrot in the wild may fly, socialize and forage. This is our hope with the Assisted Flight Air-o-bics and a variety of interesting toys, foods, and foraging toys. When the sun begins to set, the Amazon parrot in the wild will fly back to the roost for the night. Lt. Columbo will look towards his cage - I will set him on the floor in the kitchen and he will head towards his room and cage, up his ladder to his favorite perch for the night.
When I was first asked to write this article about Lt. Columbo I was very unsure of where to begin. I was asked to write about what I had done to create Lt. Columbo's gentle nature and to explain why I thought that he so blatantly defies the myth of the unmanageable sexually mature male Amazon parrot. My first thought was simply - because I respect him and he knows it. Then I realized that I had to put this into words and define exactly what that respect was and how it was achieved. For me it is an innate ability to understand his perception of any given situation - and to make sure he knows what is expected of him as well. This is very much the same way that I raised my son. For example, there are certain things that Lt. Columbo, or my son, Troy, would have to do, such as taking a bath. It would not be okay for them not to take a bath simply because they did not want to. It would also not be okay for my son, Troy, to live on candy or for Lt. Columbo to live on peanuts just because they liked them. It was up to me to make an informed decision that would be in their best interest and most importantly to consistently follow through with it. This is the case for either the parent of a child or the caregiver of a parrot. It takes a lot of patience but eventually will become a regular part of the routine.
If I have a request of Lt. Columbo, I always use his name first to get his attention. Then I tell him what we are going to do. This gives him the chance to know that I am talking to him and to slow down and listen. It also allows him to understand what will be happening next so that he is prepared (an example of showing him respect). He is not forced to step onto my hand with the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen next. I believe this has also helped him communicate his needs and wants to me. If for example, Lt. Columbo wants to come out of his cage, he will either say, "Can I come out?" or "Let me out". He has learned that when I ask him to come out that he will be coming out of his cage. If at all possible I try my best to honor his requests to solidify my respect for his needs and my understanding of what he wants. If it is a time that he cannot come out, I tell him why and he is generally satisfied. I believe this is because enough of his time is spent out of his cage to keep him happy and I have taken the time to acknowledge his request. My definition of respect in regards to Lt. Columbo is best seen through my efforts to determine ways to keep him healthy and content in his daily life. I also guide him in ways that make it reasonable for me to do these things, not only today, but also for the rest of my life.
Usage of the Beak
It became very apparent to me when I first began working with parrots what an important tool their beak was. Not only is it used to eat, preen, and chew out nest cavities, but to just plain get around. Watching a parrot climb from perch to perch using their beak is much like how we would use our hands. It seemed logical to me that we must allow a parrot to use their beak when they interact with us. What was important - was to teach them how much pressure they could use and how much was too much. Lt. Columbo is very aware of the "be gentle" phrase that we use when he is playing a bit too rough. Often times I will roll him on his back on the bed and tickle his stomach and play with his feet or file his nails. When he has decided he has had enough it is perfectly okay for him to take my hand in his beak and pull himself to an upright position. It is not okay for him to apply enough pressure to cause physical pain. I found very early in our relationship that he could identify between "be gentle" and "no biting". Lt. Columbo's "Amazona Vampira" period lasted from about 6 months to 11 months of age. This is when he began to test and determine how far he could push things. Amazons are raucous, rough and tumble players, therefore it would not be wise to stick your hand in and grab them as they are bashing away at a favored toy (this is also an example of showing respect for the bird). If for some reason I had to get him out when he was playing I would first get his attention with his name and then ask him to step on to my hand. During play would be the common times for Lt. Columbo to push the envelope. He would decide he had a choice and attempt to bite. It was very half hearted and if I gave him a quick look in the eye and a "no biting" he would stop. If he made the attempt again it would usually be a quick fake bite and he would hang onto my finger. I would tell him "that's okay you can hold my finger but you must be gentle". He seemed to clearly understand the difference and would quickly become his silly old self. He would soon be hanging from my finger by one foot and all would be forgotten. I often allow him to pull himself off his tree onto my hand with this beak and then he brings his legs up to follow. I believe showing no fear of something very natural to him and teaching him to use his beak appropriately has been very important in his socialization. One of his favorite things to do is to hang by his beak or one foot on the corner of my front jean pocked while I vacuum. He just bounces around as I go back and forth and hangs on. It is amazing that he can do this without even puncturing my clothing. I have played with Lt. Columbo in this manner from the beginning because it is always what he preferred. He loves to wrestle around and play with toys and balls on the floor or bed with me. He has always preferred this type of interaction to any type of "cuddling". In fact, the only time that Lt. Columbo wants me to interact with him at all in this manner is at night before he is ready for bed. He will puff up his head and allow me to scratch the top, around his ears and under his lower mandible. Other than that he prefers all fun and games.
Sally Blanchard will often remind me of a time that she was visiting Parrot Island and a woman walked up to Lt. Columbo and picked him up off of his tree by his beak. Sally was absolutely astonished that Lt. Columbo did not seriously bite her. We do not allow people to walk up to our birds unsupervised and pick them up for several reasons. One being our concern that they have been handling other birds that could be potentially carrying disease, as our birds are at Parrot Island sometimes, they are more at risk as we never know where someone has been last. Another reason is that we do not want our birds being taught bad habits, or picked up by someone they do not know (this again shows respect for the bird). It is amazing that Lt. Columbo knew that he should be gentle and allowed this women to pick him up without so much as attempting to bite her. When I noticed the woman with him I immediately went over and placed Lt. Columbo back on his tree. I must admit he looked very relieved to be away from her.
Natural Behaviors and Their Effects on The Companion Amazon
An Amazon's perception of any given situation may be (and usually is) colored by their natural instincts. These "hard-wired" behaviors developed through the generations to keep them alive in the wild. They can cause our companion birds to view situations in a very different way than we do. For example: a loud voice is necessary when attempting to communicate with other members of the flock across the vast distances encountered in the rainforest. We must teach our companion birds more tolerable ways to communicate with us (we are their flock in captivity). This is best done by giving them alternatives like speech, songs, tricks, etc.. that we ALWAYS respond to in a way that our birds view as very positive. Another example would be the defense of the nest site territory or their mate in the wild. This is necessary in order to successfully form a reproductive bond and to produce offspring. In the home the cage and its' surrounding area can be perceived by the bird to be a nest site and a territory that needs to be defended. Your bird may also have a chosen family member that he perceives to be his mate. It is very important, as we have always done with Lt. Columbo, to have several people interact and be involved in the day to day life of a companion Amazon. Lt. Columbo does not have a play area on top of his cage and he is not allowed on shoulders as we feel either of these situations is likely to lead to him potentially believing that he has a nest site and mate. We have also never seen anything positive that a bird receives from either of these things - the positives seem to be ones of convenience for the owner. People enjoy (unless they are being bitten) having birds on their shoulders and it is less costly than buying a good sized play gym - the cage companies market the idea of the "space saving" cage-top gym at the owner who actually spends the money - not at what is best for the bird or its' relationship with the owner. I can not imagine Lt. Columbo ever being content enough to stay on top of his cage or my shoulder for any length of time. He needs more to keep him busy then either of these can offer. I attribute this to the development of independent play and his overall good physical condition. The more that a bird (or any of us) sit around without regular exercise - the more we all want to continue to be inactive. In the case of Amazon parrots this is especially a problem to be concerned about (as mentioned above).
Juvenile Amazons (all juvenile companion birds) will eventually begin to mature which will involve glandular changes and the development of their reproductive systems. Generally speaking most male Amazon parrots (there are some exceptions) are reproductively capable from the time they are 1 year old (females usually are 3 to 5 years old) until they are 35+ years old. I know of one healthy female Amazon who actively bred until she was 44 years old when the owners decided to stop any future attempts at her reproducing to prevent any potential health issues. So why do we regularly hear about the supposed "terrible two's" or the often heard variations on the notion that "if you can just make it until they are 10 it will stop - when the reproductive years are so much longer? I feel that this is the tendency people have to want an easy answer or a quick fix. We have found that a long-term outlook is best when living with animals that have a similar healthy lifespan to our own. Just as we develop into what we are through our entire lifespan - so do our companion Amazons. We are different as infants, toddlers, pre-teens, teenagers, adults, etc. - I believe our parrots are as well. Be patient (something I will mention repeatedly) and have a realistic outlook on what your Amazon's life should be - everything will develop more smoothly for you both. For a more in depth description of how we interact with Lt. Columbo (and all of our birds) through their reproductive years, I would refer you to my article entitled "Sex and the Psittacine" which can be found on our website at www.parrotislandinc.com.
Preventing Early Aggression
As I mentioned above, Lt. Columbo began to show signs (such as a young teenage boy might) of sexual maturity between 6 and 11 months of age. During this time it was very important that I guided him toward seeing me as a higher ranking flock mate or parental figure. As I was Lt. Columbo's main caregiver it was natural for him to attempt to see me as a potential mate. Some of the early signs of this would be him trying to regurgitate to me when he was sitting on my lap or hand. When he did this it was important that an immediate correction was made. I would give him a quick look and tell him I was not interested in that - get up and place him back on his play tree. Other signs, such as him trying to half-heartedly fake bite my son, Troy. Troy would ignore his behavior and often times pick him right up and have him do a trick such as hanging by one foot. Troy would then walk away as if nothing had happened. We would all spend time on the floor with a blanket and a lot of foot toys. This established a group or "flock activity" involving the entire family flock. We would roll balls back and forth and to Lt. Columbo and he would play. Each of us in the family would spend time talking with him and teaching him tricks. Much of the time when we were watching television he would just play on his tree and observe what was happening. As he got a bit older he would attempt a little more seriously to drive away my son, Troy, or my husband, Terry. Troy has always been great with Lt. Columbo and has never allowed him the upper hand. He has basically kept him in line much as an older brother would with a younger sibling. Lt. Columbo has always understood that Terry was probably the flock leader in our family. It is quite funny, when in an attempt to impress me, Lt. Columbo will watch Terry walk past his tree and just as he has passed and can not see what Lt. Columbo is doing, Lt. Columbo will glance at me to see if he has my attention and then take a fake jab at Terry. He does not actually touch Terry as Terry has already walked by. Lt. Columbo will quickly look at me as if to say "Look I just drove off the competition". It is very important that I have already turned my head so as to pretend that I did not see Lt. Columbo do this. It is very hard not to laugh because he does try very hard to impress me. The best reaction for this is no reaction at all from me. Sometimes, if Terry notices Lt. Columbo attempting this, Terry will turn around and ask Lt. Columbo to step up. He always obliges and then Terry walks off with him and they spend some time together in another room watching television or working on some tricks. The neutral room has been very beneficial for Lt. Columbo and all of my companion birds. It is a safe place to focus on the relationship with a certain person and a calm environment where the bird does not feel the need to be exhausting himself defending his territory. We always make it fun and enjoyable. It is very important that any of these interactions end positively for the bird. I am sure that all of you have an understanding of the benefits of the "Neutral Room" concept from all of the years that Sally has written and spoke of its importance. For more information on Sally's concept of the "Neutral Room" I would refer you to Sally's Companion Parrot Handbook and previous issues of the Companion Parrot Quarterly and The Pet Bird Report.
Another thing that has helped immensely in Lt. Columbo's socialization is his ability to go back and forth with us to Parrot Island each day. He is kept very busy going to the store and home again. There are various perches and cages in both locations. Often times when he comes home at night he prefers to sleep in his carrier in our room. Perhaps one of the reasons he has not become overly territorial is because of the different places that he spends time in. All of our birds travel back and forth with us and are kept very busy. We also have the luxury of a wonderful group of well-informed customers that visit our store that our parrots really enjoy seeing. I think this makes it easier for our birds to be well socialized than the average bird in a single home. We supervise anyone who visits with any of our birds and ensure that they handle them properly and with respect. Lt. Columbo has many special friends that come to visit him regularly. He has learned from an early age that as long as he is with us that whatever we are doing is okay. When driving in the car he loves to look out and say hello to all the people going by. When he was young I noticed that he appeared nervous when a large semi-truck was approaching. I quickly pointed at the truck and said "Look - here comes a big truck Columbo - Do you know how the big truck goes? It goes VROOM". Now each time he sees a truck coming he will say Hello and VROOM. Our birds are as comfortable in any given situation as we are. It is up to us to teach them that they are safe. Truly the most nervous birds I meet have the most nervous owners. Give your bird the opportunity to explore new things that are safe. The busier you keep your companion Amazon the happier and healthier he will be.
The Older Amazon
Rascal - Sally Blanchard's 29 year old male Double Yellow-headed Amazon can be very difficult to work with, especially when he is with Paco, Sally's 30 year old female. When I first met Rascal and Paco, I was absolutely taken aback by Rascal's beauty. He reminded me exactly of what Lt. Columbo would become over the next 15-20 years. Paco and Rascal shared a large outdoor aviary. When I first stepped into their aviary it did not even occur to me that I could be bitten. Both Paco and Rascal where talking, pinning, and flaring their tales, but I was too awed by their beauty to be concerned. I just stood there for a minute and looked at them. They are both beautiful Amazons, but I must admit that it was Rascal who absolutely took my breath away. I walked to the back of the aviary to him and told him what a beautiful bird that he was and how honored I was to meet him. He cocked his head and seemed to be intently listening to me. I watched him do a few impressive spins along the aviary bars to show me every amazing feather. It would not normally be wise to pick up any Amazon in this situation, but I somehow knew that we had come to a silent agreement and it would be okay. I asked Rascal if he would please step on my hand and his foot came out and he obliged immediately. Sally came outside about then and couldn't believe I was standing there holding Rascal! I seriously think she was wondering how quickly she should be dialing 911. The truth is, I had no preconceived notions of what Rascal would or would not do. I did not know that I should fear being bitten so I had no fear. It was then that Sally told me that he typically could not be handled without a stick, especially in the presence of Paco. So there I was inside the aviary with Rascal on my hand and Paco right next to me -Great! I made sure that I remained calm and kept talking to Rascal. I brought him out of the aviary and into the house and set him on his play tree the entire time watching him closely and talking to him. Our relationship grew over the time that I was staying with Sally and he spent a lot of time in my room with me. He allowed me to play with his feet, teach him Assisted Flight Air-o-bics, and wrestle with him on his back. It was very obvious when Paco was around that he was much more defensive of his territory. I believe that the main reasons that I was not bitten were as follows:
1.) I had no fear of him from the beginning or any preconceived notions of what he may or may not do.
2.) I clearly was much more interested in him than Paco (making me no threat to his mate). Most people that spend time with Paco and Rascal are much more prone to spend time with Paco because she is naturally a less intimidating bird.
Rascal was a well socialized Amazon that Sally had reared and hand fed from the time he was a baby. For a short time Sally had to have a friend care for Rascal and Paco and they ended up mating. This was when they began to bond with each other and Rascal's attitude towards Sally and Paco changed significantly. I am still amazed by one evening when we were sitting with Rascal in the room that I was staying in at Sally's house. Sally decided that she was going to try and handle him and he stepped up for her right away. She had taught him a special trick some 28 years ago - and she asked Rascal to "Give Me Four" and when she asked him to his foot immediately popped up. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I tried this trick with Rascal later and even when Sally was not in the room - but he would not do it for me. It was clearly something that they had shared together that remains something between the two of them.
Curly - a 20+ year old male Yellow-naped Amazon who was adopted by some close friends had been in his new home for a little over a year when I first met him. Although our friends had made progress with him in gaining his trust - he still could have been labeled by some to be a great example of the "USMMA". He was however, a bird with a questionable history who lacked proper early socialization and had spent most of his life in a tiny cage. He lacked the confidence and trust that a well socialized Amazon parrot would have developed. Curly was fortunate enough to be adopted by people who had no unreasonable expectations of what he would have to become or how quickly he would need to change into it. When I first met Curly he now had a large cage, many toys and a great diet. He had progressed to the point of being willing to leave his cage on his own to climb onto a short play tree placed directly in front of his cage door. He was still unwilling to be handled and would bite anyone who attempted it. He would allow our friends to occasionally pet him on the belly through his cage bars while he was eating a favorite treat just before going to sleep. Through close observation of Curly I was able to determine that he was less frightened of me than intensely interested in the fact that I was interested in what he was doing - and that I did not seem to be afraid or nervous while around him. I could plainly see that he wanted attention and interaction (all flock animals do) but that he did not understand how to achieve it. His earlier life (before our friends had adopted him) apparently caused him to think that through appearing intimidating or acting aggressively (including biting) he could cause things that were frightening him or simply making him nervous to stop. It was also obvious that he had not been getting a significant amount of exercise because of his self-imposed limitations on leaving his cage. It seemed that a good way to break through Curly's barrier of not knowing quite how to interact with me (or others) would be to take the next step for him. Remember, through observation over a period of time it was quite apparent to me that he was not afraid of me at all - in fact, it was more apparent that he might bite me than that he would panic or become afraid of me. In this situation I feel that Sally's technique of calming myself and lowering my energy level was crucial in preparing to handle Curly. I was also prepared for the possibility of being bitten and that my reaction to that potential bite would determine much of how Curly would begin to relate to me. I waited for Curly to come out onto his tree then asked him to step up while nudging him softly in the belly just above his feet. He growled at me and attempted to bite me - but as I followed through with my upward nudge he stepped on to my hand. At this point I just wanted to keep him busy thinking and doing other things rather than continuing on with his past routine of biting. Since he was on my hand already I decided I would attempt to fly him - just like I do with Lt. Columbo. Surprisingly, though he had never done this before he flapped his wings immediately and began to fly while laying on my hands. He could not go far before becoming thoroughly winded (this was a good thing since my friends live at a high altitude in the mountains in Colorado I was short of my usual energy). I then brought him back to his tree, where I knew he would feel safe and praised him extensively. He seemed very pleased with himself and stayed out on his tree rather than retreating into his cage - which was his preferred method of dealing with anything unusual in the past. Over the next few days we walked around the house seeing everything together, spent time just sitting together - and eventually I was able to bring him outside on the deck several times to enjoy the sun before I had to leave.
Simon - a 20+ year old male Blue-fronted Amazon was brought home from a local adoption agency by a customer of our store. The new owner had come in to our store in order to purchase a cage for him. While I was delivering the cage I had the opportunity to meet Simon and his new owner began to tell me about the difficulties she was having handling him. She related to me that he was "extremely aggressive" and that his behavior was affecting (she actually said "winding up") her other birds. She was unable to get Simon out of the cage without him lunging at her in an attempt to drive her off by biting. He would usually end up on the floor, retreating under her furniture where she could not get to him. At this time she had Simon in one of our medium sized acrylic carriers. She was very worried about how she was going to get him out of the carrier and into his new cage. I was immediately enamored by him - he was a huge, beautiful Blue-front and it was clear that he was (as Sally says) "full of himself". His new owner asked me what I thought about trimming his wings as he was fully flighted and would literally fly and attack her. She said he was terrified of towels. Again, after observing him for a couple of minutes and talking to him calmly - I simply opened the door of the carrier and asked him to step up. He hopped right on and I set him on top of the carrier where he began to sing and vocalize. I then asked him to step up again, which he did and I placed him on my right knee as I was sitting down. I spoke to him calmly letting him know he was OK. It seemed from his reactions so far that I could potentially trim a few of his flight feathers quickly while he was on my lap - thereby avoiding his fear of towels. I was able to do this - which astounded his owner! When I left I felt that she had a much better understanding of him as well as a sense of security now that he was not able to fly in an attempt to bite her. Sadly, I later found out that this bird was returned to the adoption facility who then sent him to a sanctuary after having determined that he was "not fit" to be a companion bird. To this day it upsets me to think about Simon and what his life might have been in different circumstances.
My intent in discussing these three birds, all of which could be perceived to be examples of the "USMMA", was not to claim that I have any "magic touch" but to show clearly that this generalization (as most generalizations are) is a myth. Some may think that Lt. Columbo's potential was greater because he was a well-socialized baby - it may be true that everything went easier because of this - but I believe it actually was the day in - day out application of all of the above mentioned factors that continues to create the companion bird he is still developing into. Also, I would like people to realize that even a older Amazon can be a great companion if the owner is patient and dedicated enough (there can be no time-limit or unreasonable expectations) to consistently do what it takes to create a trusting, respectful relationship. Although the above examples all showed marked advances in these birds' reactions towards me - this is not usually the normal progression - it generally takes time to change the ideas a bird may have developed over any number of years. It is very likely that if I were to have spent a much longer time around any of these three birds - and did not continue to apply the above principles - that I would soon have been facing the same difficulties that their respective owners were.
In conclusion, the reason that Lt. Columbo, and all of our companion birds are good natured, and gentle is because we actually do what we say we do. I invite anyone at any time to stop in to Parrot Island and meet our birds. All of the above factors take place normally and consistently each day throughout our bird's lives. Many people will try these things intermittently or simply give up too soon. Amazon parrots and all parrots are comparable in every way to their wild counterparts, therefore it is unrealistic to expect them to automatically live in our world with little or no guidance on how to do so. Quick fixes, punishments, or simply letting a parrot do whatever they want, will eventually lead to both you and the bird being unhappy. Consistency, structure, and respect will help ensure that you too can defy the myth of the "USMMA".
July 1, 2005