The topic that Sally Blanchard discussed during her April 9, 2000 seminar, sponsored by Parrot Island was her analogy of the "status quo". What she meant was that every day parrots are constantly making sure that everything is the same. Why they do this and how it effects our day-to-day interaction with them is what this article is all about.
In a parrot's natural environment every day can bring on changes in their flock's activity. Each parrot in the flock has his or her own job, so to speak, as to how they interact with each other and what is expected of them. Each flock has a "flock leader", the other being flock mates, each having their place in the flock hierarchy. There are many dangers in the wild that can bring changes to this such as illness, death by predators, etc. This can be easily described by watching a flock of geese in the park. As some of the geese graze and rest one or two of the flock members will be on watch. These geese are on constant alert to warn the rest of the flock of any potential danger. If a danger confronts them they will warn the flock and the flock will leave as a group (a bird's natural fight or flight response). Another good example is during migration when you can look up and see the "V" formation in the sky, their basic flight pattern. It is easy to pick out the leader in the front followed by several flock members angling back on both sides while others bring up the rear. Members of the flock determine each day and probably several times during each day that their role is the same. What happens if the flock leader becomes ill or dies? The flock needs to determine who will lead them and all other jobs in the flock may change as well.
A parrot living in captivity is going to be constantly determining his or her place in the flock, in this case the people and animals that live with them. This is why it is so critical that our birds always view us as either the flock leader, or if another family member is the viewed leader, at the very least a higher-ranking flock mate. It is only when a parrot determines that he or she is the flock leader that we run into trouble. Remember that there is nothing natural to a parrot about living in captivity. Leading a flock in captivity would be like you or I being responsible to lead a wild flock of birds through the rainforest, to feed, keep off predators, and roost. The happiest companion parrot id one that knows his place in the flock and is confident in his leaders ability to make sure everything is okay.
We see our job as flock leader throughout our parrot's life but none so much as the first few impressionable years. Just like with a young child the seeds we plant in the early years form the base understanding of how we interact as a family group or "flock". This is why baby birds test, as they get older and why they continue to test throughout their lives. They need to, for their own survival, determine that the flock leader is able to continue to do what is best for the flock. This is why people who are submissive with their parrots or show any hesitation if the parrot tests are often determined unfit to lead the flock and are quickly looked upon as a subdominant flock mate. In this case the parrot determines it is his or her job to take on the role themselves. When we raise our young parrots with confidence and consistency we see much of this behavior lessen through the years as the bird becomes more confident in our leadership abilities. This is why consistency is key when working with companion birds.
One way and probably the most important is to always let our birds know what we are going to do. How do we do this? We tell them what is going to happen next such as "Okay Chirpie step up it is time to come out for your bath now." Or "step down it is time to go back to your cage to go to sleep." Another critical time is when we see our bird is unsure or nervous about a particular situation. We teach the bird self calming techniques, such as "it's okay, you're fine, that is only an airplane outside. Once we have our bird knowing our voice and what we are telling them is calming they can begin to calm themselves in the same way when we are away. Our birds actually self calm each other that is really neat. Have you ever put your bird to bed at night and heard him or her go over your night routine saying it himself? This is a bird that feels very secure in his environment and has been taught to self-calm by parroting our techniques.
Keep in mind that your bird is that in tune to your every day ways and mannerisms, what happens when one day we are different? A little stressed out from work, not feeling well, arguing with another family member? A bird's reaction to this naturally is - "I need to check the Status Quo" is everything the same or do I need to take on a new role in the flock. Pay attention the next time your bird tests you, and it is not the bird I mean to pay attention to, but yourself. What are you doing different? Sally Blanchard talks about self-calming herself first as being key to her interaction with any bird. Birds are incredibly sensitive to the slightest changes in us. Don't think you can fool them by pretending you are the same either - it doesn't work, they are much to smart for that. Remember, in the wild their survival and that of their flock depends on it.
Always pay attention when you work with your bird and expect that your bird testing you from time to time is the rule, not the exception. It is up to you to reinforce that everything is the same and okay. Well-adjusted birds will do less and less of this as the years go by when brought up in a consistent and secure environment. You will often hear Terry and I say that the most unhappy companion bird is the one that thinks it is in charge. In their natural habitat, the rainforest, open savanna's, etc; they are designed to have the potential to lead. In captivity it would be as foreign to them to be in the position of leadership as it would be for us in the rainforest. It is these birds that unfortunately become pushed off to the side by owners that are afraid of them and eventually are given up or end up in an adoption agency. All of this could have been avoided had their owner been able to maintain the "flock leader " position.