Guidelines for Children and Pet Birds




We receive many enquiries about the best parrot to get for children—ones that are ‘easy to tame’, ‘bulletproof’, gentle, well behaved, and don’t take much time to care for. The reality is that every parrot is an individual and, while they have general species traits, the behaviour of any companion parrot is moulded by the people guiding it. Unless the relationship is carefully managed by adults, children and parrots can be a volatile mix. This can lead to frights and injuries from bites for the child, and behaviour fallout, like fear responses and anxiety, for the bird. Remember, even adults can at times find it hard to give parrots the boundaries, training and care they need.

That said, having a parrot as a pet (if all goes well) can be an amazing experience for a child and build a profound connection with nature and animals that will benefit them for a lifetime. If you already have a parrot and want to help your child bond with it, or are thinking of getting one for your child, we have a few points to consider which will help the relationship to progress a little more harmoniously. A rule of thumb with children is that the smaller the species, the better—like a Budgie, which can cause less damage and requires less space than a larger species like a macaw. However, keep in mind that any parrot can deliver painful bites if they feel threatened.






TEACH CHILDREN TO RESPECT ANIMALS


Children learn by observing what adults and other people around them do. Since we are our children’s first and most important role model, it’s important for us to show kindness to all animals. This might mean reading books about animals’ natural behaviours, joining in on the annual Aussie Backyard Bird Count, or just not killing that bug which flew into the house. Children can also learn how to help wild animals in their own backyards by providing readily available clean water (put in a bird bath or two) and indigenous plants that flower at different times throughout the year. That way, your local birdlife will never go hungry or thirsty, and you can watch the birds and teach your child that joy from animals does not necessarily mean touching them. Visit your local zoo or pet store and explain to children about gentle approach, while watching the animal’s body language and what a contented bird looks like.

Children can also learn to make choices that don’t harm wildlife. Explain to children the risks to wildlife of certain types of rubbish, like plastic bags, and the importance of putting their rubbish in the bin. Spend some time at the park or beach picking up litter to show how individuals can make a difference. If you are trainingsavvy, you can even work together to teach your parrot a retrieve-and-drop behaviour and show your child that the bird is cleaning up too!

PROVIDE PET-RELATED RESPONSIBILITIES


Even the youngest of children can take care of filling up a water bowl or helping put together enrichment items. Make the process fun rather than a chore.

Spend time in the garden collecting fresh grasses and plants to offer the birds as enrichment. At the end of the day though, it is ultimately the adult’s responsibility to ensure the animal’s needs are met, so children should not be fully responsible for the care of a pet without supervision.

CREATE POSITIVE PARROT-CHILD ASSOCIATIONS


Just as it is important to teach your child to care for and respect the parrot in your family, your parrot can be taught that the child brings positive associations.

Young children’s behaviour is often unpredictable, which can lead to parrots and other pets feeling anxious and unsure when a child is near. Will the child bang on the cage, fall over, scream with joy, cry, or hand me a treat? Teaching your parrot that interactions with your child bring positive things, can reduce fear, and therefore potential fear-related aggression down the track. This could include supervised training sessions where the child teaches a hands-off ‘station’ point for a large yummy reward before removing food bowls for example.

We recommend using ‘protected contact’ training for all children and new trainers.

Protected contact means there is some sort of physical barrier between the bird and the child/trainer. In this case, it would be the bird in its cage and all training is done from the outside. Even though we’re working through the bars, there are behaviours we can train and this fosters those positive associations your parrot has with the child as the relationship develops, while protecting both bird and child.

When both the bird and child are ready to move to hands-on training, focus on willing step-up and step-off training for lots of high-value treats for your bird. If your child can learn the importance of asking the bird to interact, rather than pushing at the bird to step up, trust will be built and you can progress to moving around with the bird calmly on your child’s hand— again for lots of rewards. Stay focused on the bird, steady your child’s hand if needed and always walk with the bird facing forward. Make this into a training session by pairing it with their favourite food item. Take one step, watch for ‘relaxed’ loose feathers, stand still and reward. Continue on another step, and repeat the process. This will decrease the chances of the bird getting startled and potentially jumping off your hand.

Remember, every interaction influences your relationship, so we want to take our time and move at the bird’s pace.



 

SET YOUR FAMILY UP FOR SUCCESS


Fully flighted birds are generally more confident, contented birds. They have the choice whether to engage with their human friends, thus creating a positive association, especially if paired with one of their favourite reinforcers. They can also escape your child if the interactions are getting a bit much for them.

Young birds can get overstimulated when playing with their human flockmates.

They like to mouth things including little fingers. Offer lots of foot toys and novel objects for your birds to play with, making the right behaviour easier to do and more rewarding for them. Invest in a natural play stand or T-perch so that your bird has somewhere to go when they are out of the cage. This will encourage independent play and help avoid overstimulation through too much hands-on contact.

Some guidelines and explain to your child why they are important. 

• No running, please. When animals see children running towards them, they could go into fight or flight mode which could have unpredictable outcomes. 

• No banging on the cage—this may scare the bird. 

• Inside voices. Minimise screaming and yelling around birds because they could get spooked and injure themselves. Alternatively, it could have the opposite ef ect and the bird gets overexcited which may result in a bite. 

• Supervise interactions. Birds can be very reactive if they feel threatened and should not be left alone with small children. Equally, small children can very easily injure a small bird without intending to do so or realising that they have. 

• Teach your child how to identify body language between the bird and ourselves. Teach them how to approach the cage so that the bird stays relaxed—approach slowly, not directly from the front but with shoulders turned sideways, so the parrot does not feel trapped or nervous. 

• Everyone has the right to say ‘no’— adult, child and bird. If the child is in a bad mood or is not listening well, this may not be a good time for interacting with a bird. The child may feel nervous and not want a bird sitting on their shoulder. Teaching the bird a ‘station’ cue or some hands-of novel behaviour (like waving or turning around for a treat) will allow you to gauge their motivation level and willingness to participate in a training session. 

• Touch is a privilege and should only occur if the bird trusts the child (and you trust the bird with them!) Patting and grabbing are not okay. Show the child how cool it is to have the parrot fly to your hand for a treat, and replicate this with the child if all parties are willing. 

• Keep play sessions under 20 minutes, then put the bird back in its cage with a favourite food item or toy.
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