ABSTRACT: In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the popularity of keeping parrots as companion animals. These beautiful birds have stolen many hearts with their playful behaviour and their ability to physically bond with many owners. Yet keeping parrots in a captive environment can be extremely challenging and behavioural problems, such as incessant screaming, aggression and feather plucking, are not uncommon. This article problems and the importance of creating feathered friend to help him or her lead a happy and fulfilling life.

Parrots have been a fascination to humans for many centuries because of their beauty, flight, intelligence and the physical bond they share with many bird enthusiasts. Despite their growing popularity, for some birds the artificial captive environment has given rise to behaviours which owners find problematic. Performance of ‘abnormal’ behaviours can arise as a consequence of the restricted environment in which the birds are kept. Additionally, many normal' parrot behaviours – which are adaptive for a bird living in the wild –  can present a problem to their owners. This article outlines some of the more common behavioural problems seen in parrots and then goes on to discuss how these might be prevented.


Although in the wild parrots rarely show aggression to other flock members, aggressive behaviour is one of the most common reasons for referral to a behaviour specialist.

As in other species, aggression is a normal response when a parrot feels that it – or something important to it – is threatened; and whilst in the wild a parrot can simply fly away to remove the threat, in captivity this strategy is not possible where wings are clipped or the bird is confined or restrained.

Owners sensibly retreat from the threat of a very sharp beak, and the parrot quickly learns that aggression is the most successful way of removing a threat. Where the parrots attempts to perform a certain behaviour are thwarted and the bird becomes frustrated, aggression may be ‘redirected’ towards the nearest target (human or bird). This can often be triggered by the presence of other animals, unfamiliar people or unusual noises.

Another frequent complaint is that of ‘noisy’ birds. For many captive birds and their wild counterparts, vocalisation is performed during the hours of early morning and late afternoon and prospective owners should be made aware of this! This innate behaviour is commonly demonstrated by birds in the wild for social communication – for example, to attract a mate or alert flock members to threat. If this behaviour is reinforced by the response of their owner, parrots can easily learn that screaming is a highly effective way of getting attention.

Wild parrots have an active lifestyle, with approximately half of their day spent flying back and forth foraging for food. They also spend a significant amount of time engaged in social interaction with flock mates (30% of daily activity budget) and 20 per cent of their time preening.

These behaviours are clearly adaptive in wild parrots and, even though they are largely redundant in an artificial captive environment, parrots retain a strong motivation to show them and require an alternative outlet for their energies if problems are to be avoided. Many parrots kept as companion animals also live solitary lifestyles compared with their highly social wild ancestors who have evolved to live in large flocks, so their social needs should not be forgotten.

The inability to perform ‘normal’ behaviours and lack of outlets for these drives can result in maladaptive, or ‘abnormal’ behaviours, such as feather plucking. In severe cases, some birds not only chew primary feathers but also pluck other areas of the body resulting in complete baldness.

Behaviours such as pair bonding, courtship display, regurgitation, nest building and territorial aggression can be a problem. Abnormal sexual behaviour is more likely to be performed by birds that have been hand reared – because of imprinting to humans – rather than those that have been reared by parent birds.

These are some examples of parrot behaviours that many owners find problematic; but these and other problems can be prevented by providing owners with information about natural parrot behaviour and tips on how to fulfil their pet’s needs.

How to have a happy parrot

Parrots are an inquisitive and highly social species that require an environment that is both physically and mentally stimulating. As a veterinary nurse, you are in a position to provide owners with advice on how to prevent behaviour problems from developing by providing suitable housing and enrichment.


The cage should be large enough to allow the bird to fly, or at the very least to extend its wings fully – being cooped up in a small cage all day is no fun for any parrot. Providing an outdoor aviary will allow the bird the opportunity of flight and natural sunlight.

The location of the cage is also important. As long as the parrot is not fearful of people, placing the cage in an ’active’ room is likely to increase social interactions with human members of the household. However, parrots also need their sleep.

Parrots need between 10-12 hours in complete darkness, with no disturbance. Afternoon snoozes do not really compensate for a good night’s sleep, as birds only generally nap during this time.

Parrots are highly active creatures and love to climb, so providing different levels of perches will encourage exercise. Perch size is an important factor, the parrot’s feet should be able to go around the perch and grip it comfortably. Non-toxic tree branches – from apple, willow or hazel – make great perches and also provide enrichment, as many parrots enjoy shredding them.

Some parrots will also welcome a roosting box somewhere for them to feel secure and rest undisturbed.

Exercise is very important and owners should be encouraged to let the bird out of its cage as often as possible. A bird- proof room is essential, avoiding electrical wires and metal (such as lead and zinc). Playtime will help to keep the parrot fit and provide opportunities for social interaction with people.

Environmental enrichment

Environmental enrichment can play a key role in reducing abnormal behaviours in parrots, and there are a number of ways in which owners can provide an enriched environment.

Most parrots will appreciate having access to toys in their cage, and there should be a selection from which to choose in order to stimulate their minds and maintain healthy beaks.

There are many different types of parrot toy – ranging from simple climbing toys, to more complex puzzle feeders (Figures 1a & 1b; 2a & 2b).

Figures 1a & 1b: Hanging toys made from a variety of natural materials

Figures 2a and 2b: Foot toys are a favourite for this cockatoo

It is important when selecting toys that they are the right size for the parrot, as large toys can be a little daunting to smaller parrots. With a little imagination homemade toys can
be devised at little expense – a small cardboard box containing newspaper and treats, for example, will allow the bird to chew and forage.

Rotating toys on a weekly basis and not overcrowding the cage will provide novelty and retain the bird’s interest.

Auditory enrichment can be provided by leaving the television or radio on – it is surprising how many parrots will sing along and they can even be given their own juke box!


Enrichment can also be provided in the form of training. Teaching basic commands using positive reinforcement will not only make handling easier, but also strengthen the bond between the owner and their parrot.

Training should be based on positive reinforcement – rewarding the desired behaviour. This can be achieved by rewarding with a favourite treat, praise or a much-loved toy. People wanting to try more advanced training techniques could even use clickers and there are lots of resources on the internet to assist with this. Parrots can learn very quickly and results may be seen within just a few days. Training nervous parrots may take a little longer, but is a great way of building their confidence around people.

Parrots should never be reprimanded for any bad behaviour. Punishing the parrot is likely to cause it to become anxious, which may result in additional problems, or even defensive aggression! Unwanted behaviours should always be ignored to prevent unintentional reinforcement through human attention.

A 'T‘ perch, is commonly used in training, although the back of a wooden chair is just as good. Owners should begin by teaching the parrot some basic commands, such as ‘step up’ (step onto hand) and ‘step down’ (step offhand) Figures 3a-3c).

Figures 3a, 3b and 3c: Teaching the bird the step up' and 'step down' command

1.   To begin with you can use a treat to lure the bird onto the perch. The first step is to show the bird its reward – a favourite treat – and encourage it to lean forward to reach the treat.

2.   As the bird reaches forward to the treat, place your hand near the bird lightly touching the belly and say ‘Step Up’ (note that the thumb is down), keeping the treat just far enough away that the bird has to climb onto your hand to obtain it. If the bird demonstrates aggressive tendencies, a stick perch can be used instead of offering the hand.

3.   Reward the bird with the treat straight away and give lots of praise once perched on the hand. The ‘step down’ command is simply pointing or touching the perch and saying ‘step down’.

Sessions should be short but frequent    three to five minutes is ample. Always end on a positive note, because training sessions should be fun and rewarding for both parrot and owner! 


Paula Baker BSc(Hons) Animal Science

Paula began her nursing career in Somerset and then worked for four years as a wildlife assistant for the RSPCA. She graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Animal Science at Bournemouth University. Paula now works as a research technician in the Animal Welfare and Behaviour Group at the University of Bristol. She has had a life-long interest in birds, in particular parrots, and shares her home with a Lesser Sulphur- created Cockatoo called Rumplestittskin and a blue-fronted Amazon named Tammy.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648 2012.00234.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 457-459

Additional reading

BRADLEY BAYS. T. LIGHTFOOT, T. and MAYER. J [2006] Exotic pet behaviour. Birds, reptiles and small mammals Missouri Saunders Elsevier

EVANS. M [2001] Environmental enrichment for pet parrots In Practice 23 596-605

GLENDEL. G [2007] Breaking bad habits in Parrots Surrey: Interpet Publishing

LUESCHER. A [2006] Manual of parrot behaviour USA Blackwell Publishing


Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 27 • December 2012 •