Having a parrot as a companion animal is a unique experience. Because so many families have dogs and cats in the home, many people are familiar with the behavior of these animals. But parrots are a bit different. Even though most companion parrots live in our homes, they still behave in ways we see demonstrated by their wild cousins.
This means it is important for people who live with birds to learn about the natural history of the parrots in their lives. For example, those who share their home with a cockatiel may have noticed their birds like to spend time on the ground or that these birds prefer certain types of food items for training, such as millet spray. If we were to look at wild cockatiels, we would see that foraging for grass seeds is a normal behavior for them, and it would help explain why cockatiels in the home show a preference for being on the ground and eating millet spray.
I was fortunate to work with a very unusual parrot named Sirocco. Sirocco is a kakapo, a rare parrot found in New Zealand. Even though kakapo are parrots, they are very different from other species of parrots. Learning about kakapo natural history became important when it came time to train Sirocco. Here are some things I learned about kakapo and how that knowledge affected Sirocco’s training.
Kakapo are nocturnal. This means they are active at night. Because of this, training sessions with Sirocco did not happen until the sun went down.
Kakapo are solitary birds and do not preen each other in the wild. This meant we would not be able to use head scratches to reinforce desired responses from Sirocco. To him this would not be a fun experience. Instead, we focused on using his favorite food items.
Kakapo are flightless. Even though they have big, beautiful wings, they do not fly. Instead of training for flight we focused on things like targeting, step up, and walking alongside us.
Kakapo can eat large amounts of food. Just before breeding season, the males put on a lot of weight so they can focus on calling for females instead of foraging for food. When I was working with Sirocco it was at the time of year when the males are gaining weight. Sirocco was very interested in food, and our training sessions could go on for a long time. This meant I needed to have lots of preferred food items with me and have lots of ideas for behaviors to train during a session.
Kakapo are excellent climbers. They like to roost in trees in the daytime. Remember, kakapo can’t fly, so they have to climb to roost. This means they have powerful legs and a strong grip. For some of our training we wanted Sirocco to stand on a platform or station. This meant we had to build something that was easy for a kakapo to climb.
All the facts I learned about kakapo were helpful to know when it came time to train Sirocco. You’ll find that the same is true with your own parrot. Pick up a book about wild parrots and study the species in your life. If you can, go outside and watch parrots in the wild. There is so much information you can learn about wild parrots that will help you be a better caregiver and trainer to the feathered companions in your life.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training consultant specializing in exotic animals. She consults worldwide working with zoos, universities, veterinary professionals, and conservation projects. She has worked onsite with over 80 facilities in 27 countries. She is an adjunct instructor at Texas A & M University. She has authored two books and contributed to four veterinary textbooks. She is a coauthor of two Fear Free Avian Certification Courses. Much of her work focuses on training exotic species to cooperate in medical care. Barbara is an advisor for the Animal Training Working Group and the Parrot Taxon Advisory Group for the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has provided her expertise to conservation projects The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.
Published July 4, 2022