The Myth Of One Person Birds - by Neil Abbott
When we first welcomed Pickles into our home and lives he was loving and trusting. It was August 2002, Pickles was 3 months old and both Georgi and I were thrilled with the way he responded to and accepted each of us. We owned and operated a fly shop at the time where he was quite at home interacting and socializing with customers. There was plenty of space behind the counter for Pickles and his stand.
That fall an incident happened in the shop. A large burly fellow had been coming in spending time at the counter thrilled with Pickles. Then one day, before we could react, this self-professed birdman went behind the counter, had Pickles, and was teasing him by grabbing at his beak. Pickles was running up his arm screaming and biting while the guy continued trying to grab at his beak. The episode only went on for seconds before Georgi was able to end it, however, since then Pickles exhibited a dislike and mistrust of men, including me.
In the beginning Georgi was the primary caregiver. She spent more time handling and playing games with Pickles than I did, yet, I was still able to care for, handle and interact with him. After the above incident he was withdrawn from me and often gave me nips as if disapproving of my interaction with him – not always – but there was definitely a marked change from his former trusting and cuddly nature with me.
In October I began working out of town, only returning 3 or 4 times a month for a night or two at a time. When I did return Pickles was genuinely thrilled to see me – going on about “daddys home, woo hoo!” – he wanted to be held, scratched or just sit with me. As the months went by – even though he still was thrilled to see me – he began biting me. I returned home full time the following April and throughout the summer the biting became more frequent and more severe. I was still handling Pickles a lot so not every opportunity led to biting. This was confusing to me since I couldn’t figure out what I was doing right when he didn’t bite or what I was doing wrong when he did.
During this time Georgi and Pickles had become fast friends. They played extensively and of course Georgi was rarely nipped and never hard. She tried to help me read Pickles, which I admit, I wasn’t doing a very good job of. She showed me how to talk to him when playing – telling him “gentle” and “good boy” – and being able to recognize when he was too excited or worked up for interaction. It’s hard to say how much headway was made other than I was attempting to change my behaviour. Although success was a long way off, the concept of changing my behaviour would be crucial to the eventual relationship Pickles and I would enjoy.
Again in October 2003 I would work out of town. I spent some time home during the summer of 2004 but was away again that August. Still Pickles was thrilled when I came home. Still Pickles was biting me. I wasn’t spending enough time with him to say I could read him or understand his body language. I might or might not get bit after setting him on a perch, offering him a scratch or handing him a snack. The bites were painful usually drawing blood. If I was home for a day or two it was unlikely I would escape without a wound or two or more.
Looking back, fear and uncertainty on my part had minimized contact between us. While I believe having a healthy relationship with me would enrich Pickles life he wasn’t living a deprived existence. He was enjoying a wonderful relationship with Georgi throughout this period as Georgi’s “Pickles Stories” would attest to.
Mid May 2005 I returned home for good. Pickles was now 3 years old and he had become a one person bird. I recalled an article I had read years ago. I don’t remember the magazine or the author but I’ll never forget the content concerning one person birds – specifically CAGs. She called it selfish and cruel. That birds should not be deprived of other humans in their flocks. That most parrots will out live their original owners and must be prepared to trust other humans. That if you have a one person bird you should look at what you are doing wrong and what your motivation is to cause the situation.
It was never our intention to make Pickles into a one person bird, however, circumstances had created the situation, and now with me home, Georgi and I were determined to make it right. It was about this time Georgi was involved with the BAS group over an unrelated behavioural issue. Through that experience we both gained a greater understanding of behaviour and positive reinforcement. We had never used discipline or punishment with Pickles but then we never fully utilized behaviour modification through positive reinforcement.
We developed a plan.
It was important that I would not replace Georgi. Enhancing my relationship with Pickles should not in any way diminish his relationship with her.
It was decided any contact I had with Pickles would be fun. Snacks, going for walks, bringing him to the dining room playstand on “party” nights. I would not handle him in situations that he may not view as absolutely positive such as putting him in his travel cage, putting him in his cage if we had to leave him alone or returning him to his cage on “party” nights. The idea was to reinforce that every interaction with me would lead to a reward. I would also become the primary caregiver. I would let him out in the morning, give him most of his meals, share bananas and clean his cage at night. He viewed me and my activities with curiosity at first yet as far as we could tell fully accepted my new role.
Even though I was handling Pickles more I was bleeding less. The only time I was getting bit was when we were playing. Georgi would coach me but I was still having a hard time reading him. I think part of it was getting past that just because he wanted to play didn’t mean he wouldn’t bite and just because he would turn his head to beak me didn’t mean he meant to bite. One night we were playing, he lowered his head for a scratch, I complied, as quick as he turned his head to my finger I pulled away but still got bit. Georgi asked me why I pulled away. Obviously because he meant to bite me I reasoned – didn’t the bite prove that? “No” she told me. “ When he’s in a mood like that there’s no way he meant to bite – it was you pulling your hand away that caused it.” It took a conscious effort to leave my hand the next time the situation arose. To my surprise he gently held my forefinger in his beak as he attempted to regurgitate food for me. I had seen him do this with Georgi but it was a first with me.
I had thought that was the turning point but in fact it had been weeks since he had bit me without provocation. He had learned to read my body language before I could read his. This had only taken a matter of weeks and I found the more I trusted him the more he trusted me. When he started playing rough Georgi taught me how to calm him by gently speaking. Some games he couldn’t be trusted around your hands – change the game and he could. Another thing was to be positive and happy. He picked up on that. If I was excited so was he – that could be good or bad. I learned to make confident, deliberate movements around him and to never force the issue if he showed any reluctance.
At one point we were getting along so well it was next to impossible to have him step down off my hand. His favourite snacks are pine nuts which we give him for reward, treats or most times he asks “wanna snack”. We withheld them and only gave them to him for stepping down. If he asked for a snack I would have him step up, do a brief walkabout, then give him the pine nuts after stepping down. In less than a day Pickles was back to stepping up and stepping down on command.
Last summer, after playtime on the couch he was reluctant to go “home”, knowing it was time for “lights out”. We devised a game. His bowl of pine nuts would be hidden in a kitchen cupboard. Then we’d go off on a snack safari, looking through all the cupboards, Pickles would stretch and cock his neck to search each one, shouting “THERE’S the snacks!” when the bowl was found. Satisfied he had uncovered his snacks he happily went back to his cage for the night.
Learning to “read” Pickles took some time. Georgi taught me to pay attention to his posturing and to not “push it” we he was edgy. I found it helpful to watch the progression in his mood and actions and look for signs of his comfort, trust, fear and excitement levels.
It’s been over a year now since I’ve been bitten – except for the odd accidental nip. Georgi’s relationship is as strong as ever with Pickles. While I believe she is Pickles favourite there are activities and games he only enjoys with me as well as words, phrases, and songs I’ve taught him illustrating the enrichment that comes from not being a one person bird. Having a second caregiver and companion Pickles enjoys not only twice the contact but by being exposed to another personality he is both challenged and rewarded.
If I had to say there was one thing that made our relationship work it was coming to the realization that Pickles behaviour would never change until mine did. Having a plan kept things on track. Perhaps more than anything is the wealth of knowledge available. From the start we had used positive reinforcement with Pickles however without BAS and Good Bird we would have never fully realized our potential as Pickles companions.