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Aggression in Black Headed Caiques

Victoria is a graduate of Morehead State University where she received her degree in Applied Sciences - Veterinary Technology with honors.

This is Jack.  He's a Black Headed Caique.  He's a beautiful bird and a great companion.

This is Jack. He's a Black Headed Caique. He's a beautiful bird and a great companion.

I'd like to introduce you to Jack. He's a twenty-year-old black-headed Caique that has been a frenemy of mine since I met him when he was nine months old.

Parrots are interesting and entertaining pets, but it needs to be noted that not all species have the same temperament.

When Jack and I met, I was enchanted by his beautiful coloring. I have worked with exotic animals and birds before, including parrots, so I was already familiar with their general requirements and upkeep. Twenty years ago, Caiques were a newly introduced species of parrot. I wasn't aware that certain parrots tend to display behaviors that others don't. This has proved to be true with the Black-Headed Caique.

Two important issues about these parrots are:

One: They tend to suffer from fits, or seizures, and

Two: They have a bi-polar personality.

This information is good to know before starting a long-term relationship. Caiques have an average lifespan of 29 years in the wild; in captivity, they can live up to ten years longer.

Jack and I have spent 20 years together so far, and I hope we will be together 20 more. Even so, our relationship could have suffered less friction and drama with a bit more knowledge about these birds; how they behave and any health conditions they may have.

Off and on throughout the years, Jack has earned his nicknames, some of which are too inappropriate to share. Two of milder ones are Pit Bull and Demon Spawn. This is because he has the tendency to act like a Calico cat; "Yes, you may pet me three times. The fourth time I'm going to bite you." He also had the tendency to bite when he became excited about something new and different. There were also times when he bit you for no apparent reason at all.

When we first got Jack, he was young and loving, but when he reached adolescence, he developed a nasty habit of what we referred to as "vulturing". This is when he would take the posture of a vulture, head down, wings raised and fluttering ever so slightly. He would sit like that, rocking back and forth a bit, until you came into range; then he would pounce. The pouncing isn't so bad, but he would also bite, latching on to any bit of skin he could find, then grind his bottom beak in a scissoring motion for good measure. When you tried to remove him, he would not let go. This is how he earned the name of Pit Bull.

We let him roam the house freely at first, even after he started practicing his "vulture" technique, but the behavior got worse. He started practicing the vulture in combination with the sneak attack.

Jack demonstrates his "vulture" pose.

Jack demonstrates his "vulture" pose.

For the sneak attack, his favorite place to land was on the neck, where he did seem to be searching for an artery to open. In these instances, you could shoo him off into your hands, where he would then follow-up with the pit bull bite. This vampire-ish behavior earned him the name of Demon Spawn. Poor Jack ended up spending years confined to his cage, where he would pounce at any sign of a finger, and vulture whenever you attempted to clean his cage or remove his food dishes.

Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, he stopped behaving like a velociraptor, and became a loving bird again.

As it turns out, this aggression appears during mating season, and the majority of the aggression is directed towards the person they spend the most time with, but in Jack's case, he was determined to clamp down on anybody. No one could handle him. Had I known more about it then, it's possible I could have gotten help by taking him to a veterinarian; some medications can help with this kind of aggression. Jack spent that time in lock-up.

For years after that, Jack and I were the best of buddies. He would ride on my shoulder even when I drove to school to pick up the kids. Then I set up my home office, so I could freelance, and this is when more drama started. Jack insisted that he had to be with me while I was working.

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This play area was set up in the same room as my office.

This play area was set up in the same room as my office.

I set him up a play area nearby, and at first he was happy with this new arrangement. As you can see in the picture above, he acquired the laundry basket for himself, to be his own little hide-away. He created an opening big enough to fit through, then arranged the contents to his liking. He would stay in the laundry basket for hours, cooing and renovating.

Jack in his little hidey-hole.

Jack in his little hidey-hole.

After a while though, this no longer satisfied and Jack ticky-tacked across the floor to visit me at my desk. This was a little dangerous for him. I worried my chair might roll over him at some point when I wasn't paying attention. I attached a stiff rope from his play area to the desk, so he could walk across and visit, which he often did throughout the day. He started being distracting, much like a cat, by sitting on my keyboard and demanding attention. Then he would explore and investigate the materials on my desk. After a while, he decided he wanted to take over one of the pigeonholes in my desk for his own. I didn't see any reason why not.

Jack's Lair: One of the pigeon holes in my desk. He's filled it with the long strips of paper he likes to use to style my hair.

Jack's Lair: One of the pigeon holes in my desk. He's filled it with the long strips of paper he likes to use to style my hair.

It wasn't long after this that Jack started to bite again.

Being a Veterinary Technician, I have learned to control my reactions when animals bite, because most animals do it out of fear. An animal can often sense when you're being nonthreatening and will stop biting when they realize you aren't trying to hurt them. When Jack started biting again, I let him. He didn't let go. Instead, he took the opportunity to peel the skin off my finger like a grape.

The finger in the picture has been greatly enlarged to emphasize Jack's grape-peeling technique.

The finger in the picture has been greatly enlarged to emphasize Jack's grape-peeling technique.

Jack regressed to become the notorious Pitbull Demon Spawn we had grown to fear in the past, and I was heart broken. After all this time! I remembered: He would ride with me to school, where he so enjoyed singing his encouragement as he watched the marching band practice in the parking lot. He would climb up onto my shoulder and tuck long strips of paper behind my ear; this was his adorable way of expressing that he didn't like my new haircut. After all the days we had spent together, every day for years, Jack once again became imprisoned within the confines of his main cage. He was confused and unhappy about this sudden change of events, and so was I.

I decided to take Jack to see the vet; perhaps there was something we could do about the issue. As it turns out, there was. It turns out the whole situation could have been avoided altogether. I had committed a dreadful, heinous mistake in parrot husbandry. Most people who work with animals know this; in truth, I should have known better. I got a serious lecture about this from my veterinarian.

It wasn't making any sense to me though. I was mystified about why this event hadn't been occurring every year from the time I started spending a lot of time with him. The veterinarian explained, and I realized that this year was the first year I set up the play area where he could stay with me all day long.

What was the worst thing I did wrong? I let the bird build his nest on my desk.

To rectify this error, the whole set-up in my office has been cleared away and re-created downstairs, next to his main cage, where I spend the least amount of time with him. He still has his laundry basket and other accouterments to play with, but the main source of the problem has been removed; that would be me.

The moral: Birds need to have their own established area to call their own.

The moral: Birds need to have their own established area to call their own.

He remained aggressive towards me for about a month; the other members of the household were able to handle him briefly to let him in or out of his cage. Once my fingertips were healed, I started making attempts to handle him again. It wasn't easy at first; I had developed some trust issues of my own, but now we are back to being the best of friends again. The difference in our relationship now is that we spend less time together and have established separate territories.

The moral of the story is: Black-Headed Caiques will bite for no reason, but if you want to prevent the issue from happening more often, don't spend an excessive amount of time with the bird you bond with. Is there something you should never do? Yes. Never allow them to build a nest that you can (sort of) live in together. It's confusing to them and becomes increasingly frustrating when their human bond mate isn't available to them for activities that occur during certain times of the year.

This might be good advice to take for owners of all types of birds, but it has an increased application to the owners of the Black-Headed Caique.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2019 Victoria Ratcliffe

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