A parrot is an iconic part of a pet store; many people have strong memories of visiting pet stores as children and being amazed by a big red macaw, or delighted by flocks of colorful lovebirds. Even now, many companion birds are bought after a visit to a store that sells everything from dog beds to fish food — not from specialist breeders, or even after consultation with expert staff.
When I was younger, it was still legal to capture birds from the wild and sell them as pets through pet stores. In fact, my first parrot, an African grey named Captain who lived with me in my San Diego college dorm, almost certainly made his way into my life this way, as did Sydney, an older parrot with serious behavioral challenges who was one of my inspirations for becoming a parrot behavior consultant.
Although the laws have changed now and domestic breeding is the only source of companion parrots, what happens to them when they leave the breeder — whether they end up going straight into a home or to a pet store, and whether they have what they need to live rich, full lives — is still a lottery.
I’m trying to change that, at least in my local area.
The problems with pet stores
After Captain suddenly passed away, I found myself adopting a succession of birds with various behavioral issues. Captain had been remarkably relaxed and happy, so I quickly realized I had a lot to learn if I wanted to help these new additions to my flock. It was apparent as I learned more and more, especially in the LLP online group with Dr. Susan Friedman, that very few bird owners and next to no bird sellers knew much about birds, especially about their behavioral health and welfare. Cages were very small and inadequate, food choices were limited, toys were almost non-existent. This may be hard to believe now for newbies who are accustomed to bird store walls covered with toys of every conceivable size, color, and design, and a wide variety of cages and enclosures available in many different sizes and configurations.
Information for new bird owners was severely lacking at that time, and there was nothing in pet stores about training or behavior. New bird owners were given a list of things that would make their bird “dominant” over them — everything from being allowed to refuse to step up to being allowed to sit higher than their human family, and we were encouraged to use force. It was the bad old days of “Grab ‘em, wrap ‘em in a towel, and hold ‘em until they stop struggling,” “Push your hand into their belly to make them step up,” “If they bite you, yell ‘no’ and grab/hold their beak,” and perhaps worst of all, “Take the bite. Don’t react!”
Dietary advice was also both incomplete and potentially unhealthy; most pet stores recommended seed diets, maybe with pellets once in a while, and little to no fresh foods.
Some behavioral problems this advice can cause
Birds in pet stores generally come either directly from the breeder (whether the breeder parent-raises or hand-feeds, and raises to weaning or the store finishes weaning), from a hand-feeder who has either raised the bird to weaning or the bird is weaned at the store, or as owner surrenders, which can happen for a wide variety of reasons.
Each of these sources can lead to different problematic behaviors when the bird finally goes to their new home. The most common behavior problems that I believe are caused or at least worsened by a poor quality of life in some pet stores are screaming for attention and extreme pickiness in diet. I used to also see a lot of hand-shyness, likely related to aggressive handling techniques, but overall the standard of handling has improved a lot in pet stores, so this is a less common issue now.
A good pet store environment can actually be beneficial for a young bird. From what I have observed, birds weaned in store seem to be better adjusted to new things including noises, colors, and novel things (wheelchairs, canes, different clothing including hats, facial hair, scarves). They are more likely to deal with changes in a positive way with less fearful behavior and much less stress.
Helping pet store owners improve their parrots’ welfare
When I was starting out, I had to be creative in how I approached pet store owners. Although the majority of them did care a lot about all the animals they housed, a lot of the information I wanted to give them went against everything they thought they knew — everything they thought they were doing right for their birds. And, my suggestions would require changes be made, staff be retrained, and new things be bought, so I always kept in mind that I was asking for an investment.
To help make this investment smaller, I’d bring in in fresh food — veggies and fruits donated from a small local grocer from their “scratch and dent” boxes. The finches, canaries, budgies, and cockatiels were usually thrilled with the fresh greens — they simply swarmed over the leafy green stuff! The other store birds got fruit, veggies, etc. mixed in with the regular store diet. It was a huge improvement. Prospective and current owners also got to see the nutritional enrichment as well. Win-win. I also provided some toys for birds that had none. Over time I convinced store owners to add things to the cages as well.
To help convince pet store owners that this approach would lead to happier, easier to handle, and more saleable birds, I would go in and offer to train some of the store birds in basic useful behaviors. I have used store birds as an example of the benefits of using positive reinforcement instead of force. I successfully trained a turaco to recall and return to her cage at the end of the day — replacing the “catch her with a net” strategy they used. I taught a very shy African grey to step up, without having to grab him in the dreaded towel. Worked with an “aggressive” Amazon — they would hold a towel in front of him and shake it so they could access his food/water dishes to change them. I taught him to station without using any aversive measures.
I have also done free workshops on occasion, to get store owners interested and let them see how many people want more education — that was a big help in at least one bird store. Currently, nearly all the bird stores and pet sellers I am familiar with are on board with more positive methods. Many have classes and/or workshops, either through bird clubs or private individuals. That’s a great improvement over what was available when I first got into birds.
My most popular presentation and workshop is basic behavior and training. That seems to be the area where most current and new bird owners want information. There’s so much information out there now due to the easy availability of online sources, and so much of it is contradictory, that bird owners don’t know where to begin. Knowing more about behavior helps keep birds in their homes; that’s why I start with the basics.
I also have workshops on environmental enrichment, including a hands-on toy-making and foraging class, a myth-busting workshop (“All I Know About My Birds I Learned on the Internet”); a workshop on protecting the flock from fire, theft, natural disasters; one on getting our birds to eat what we want them to eat (“You Want Me to Eat WHAT!?!?); and one on legislation, which is an area that is vitally important in recent years, with many animal rights organizations trying to make animal ownership a thing of the past.
Nowadays, most pet stores are much more knowledgeable about the health and welfare needs of the birds they house, so my relationships with local pet stores are much less about challenging preconceptions and more about expanding their knowledge and skills even more.
For example, we have a new wonderful pet store that recently opened in our area. (It’s as local as anything is for us — we live about an hour away from just about anything.)
I went in and took a look around at the main floor areas, the animal enclosures, the shelving and supplies, including how clean things were. It was very nice and clean, and the animals all looked healthy and comfortable, with toys, enrichment opportunities, and signs to warn humans not to get too close, and to ask before handling animals.
I met the owners a week or so later. They are very invested in doing the best possible job for the animals and their current or prospective owners, so I talked about who I was and my workshops. I was invited to do the first workshop recently and it was very successful! They are already planning more, and we are going to set up a bird club for the area.
They had a one-year anniversary day a couple weeks ago. I brought my umbrella cockatoo CasperToo, who is one of my most amazing birds. He came out of a very bad situation, and took three years to even begin to trust us. He still has some issues, but has worked through them with us. CasperToo went from offering no body language — a “bite first and ask questions later” strategy — to a very interactive and creative bird. He was interactive with the store employees and with customers, talking and asking for petting. I’ve taught him to target to my palm with the top of his beak, so I can monitor when he is stressed or tense.
He’s an awesome teacher and a great example of how positive reinforcement works, and how time and patience are vital to the bird-owner relationship.
The ideal life for a pet store bird
Although conditions for pet store birds have undoubtedly improved, there are still a few things that I would like to see more of. First, I would like to see more enrichment (toys, chewables, noisy toys, foraging) in the cages and on bird stands. This should include lots of foot toys and playthings not attached to perches. One bird store I visited in San Diego used “flats” instead of cages. These consisted of a large 4-foot by 2.5-foot table on thick legs with wheels, with a border to keep shavings/litter from falling off. On the flat part, there were play stands and perches of various types, including wood and rope, with various toys including foot toys. Food was offered (for the juvenile birds and some adults) in flat, heavy dishes. It is important to realize that safety is always an issue, so for those considering this setup I’d suggest adding a plexiglass barrier to prevent easy thefts (which sadly are becoming more common).
Most pet store birds do get a lot of enrichment from potential owners and “lookers,” or at least they did in the store I worked at. For some species (budgies, cockatiels, finches/canaries), cages might be the safer option. A flight area (large flight cages) could be useful for the smaller birds.
Beyond appropriate living environments, I’d like to see LIMA-based training programs for pet store birds, particularly focusing on practical, useful behaviors that will make the bird successful in his or her new home. Training a recall that’s well proofed against distractions and functions whether the bird is walking, climbing, or jumping around is easy in an environment like a pet store. “Step up” is another vital behavior that helps with caring for birds and showing them to potential owners, as well as being useful in their eventual home. I’d also like to see conditioning to basic handling of the feet, wings, head, and beak, and some veterinary husbandry behaviors such as opening the beak for exams.
And of course, I’d love to see lots of reinforcement in the form of treats, scritches, talking or singing, and laughter from all the staff and everyone who comes into contact with the birds.
We also need to remember that these are not absolutes, not requirements, nor are they all possible in all store environments. There are only a certain number of hours available, and various essential jobs (cleaning, washing dishes, feeding, and customer service) must be done during the day. So even a few minutes of directed attention, perhaps a trick training session for a minute or three, or step up/off training can be valuable, without taking away from other daily tasks.
I’d also really like to see more pet stores actively providing information from local parrot behavior consultants, including their contact details and ideally some handouts and links. This could include the basics of reading body language, teaching basic behaviors like recall and target, and conditioning to a harness.
I’d also encourage parrot behavior consultants to consider offering services to new bird owners before they’re needed! Especially for families who have never owned birds before, making sure they have a source of good information (you!) instead of Google is really important. There’s still a lot of misinformation out there — I have found that the vast majority of bird owners are very interested in keeping their birds in their homes, but often have no idea where to turn or what to do when behavior issues like biting or screaming arise. Partnering with a pet store to funnel new bird owners to a workshop, class, or consultation where you talk about training and enrichment can help you develop new client relationships as well as probably saving you from being called to address much more challenging issues with that bird in the future!
Overall, I have found from both working in a bird store and visiting many stores (some great, some good, and some not-so-good) that overall, they want to do a good job, for both the bird and the new owner. It doesn’t do anyone any good if the bird cannot adjust to a new environment.
My goal is the continued improvement of animal welfare and owner education. As we learn more and more about behavior, biology, nutrition, and the need for enrichment, I hope to help expand the information base for pet and aviary bird owners in my state, to enrich the lives of both birds and their owners. With more resources becoming available, we must make sure we are providing the best possible science-based information, and the best possible care for our birds and other animals.
Animal ownership should be a fun, enriching, and interactive experience for animals and people — long gone are the days of a single budgie or canary sitting in a too-small cage with a dish of seeds.
That’s why I do it.
Adrianne is a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant through IAABC, a mentor in the Living and Learning with Parrots online group. As an active member in the American Federation of Aviculture, the Avicultural Society of America and other avian organizations, Adrianne dedicates most of her time to education and policy development and reform. She regularly speaks at conferences for several bird groups and clubs on a variety of topics including behavior, training, understanding parrot body language, nutrition, legislation and more.