Parrots, Flight, and Play Behavior

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Kids were on the school playground as I rode by on my bike recently. Seeing them run and jump and hearing their screams of excitement made me happy. I remember vividly the days of my youth when running, chasing, playing tether ball, and other physical play activities were paramount in my life. Is it so in our parrots’ lives?

It certainly seems to be, as I’ve watched two generations of parent-raised cockatoos grow up at Cockatoo Downs. As the fledglings did before her, Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (17 weeks old) zooms around the aviary, catches a boing on the fly and twirls with great glee. Her parents sometimes shed their serious demeanor and join her in brief flights of joy.

The Functions of Play Behavior

Why is it that humans and non-human animals, especially young ones, partake in physical play activities? I don’t have specific answers to that question. Even with extensive research on play, it is not yet completely understood by scientists.

However, the majority of findings conclude that play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected circumstances, helps recover from stressful situations, and aids in the development and training of physical and motor skills.

There are different types of play such as social play and object play, and I will be focusing on physical play. Physical play is a combination of activities that gives young animals, including humans, the chance to develop gross motor skills, learn and practice physical abilities, promote and develop strength and coordination, all while happily expending large amounts of energy.

Flighted Fledgling and the Adult Parrot

Parrots were not built to sit still. In the wild, they spend most of the day flying from place to place in search of food, nesting opportunities, and partaking in social interactions.

Supplying toys to young companion parrots to engage and play with can help expend energy to take the place of wild activities. However, creating an environment for the young parrot to play and fly affords the youngster the ultimate in energy expansion while promoting coordination, skill, exploration, and confidence.

Physical exercise for our adult companion parrots is very important for their health and welfare. Giving a fledgling parrot the opportunity for vigorous physical play sets the stage for the continuation of energetic exercise into the youngster’s adulthood.

Feeling comfortable and safe are key ingredients in promoting play activities in animals. The type of play activity that takes place is influenced by what the animal can physically do.

Regrettably, most hand-raised parrots are clipped as fledglings. A clipped youngster may experience a loss of balance and fear of falling which certainly hinders the parrot’s motivation to physically play, which can limit the parrot’s development.

Play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected situations and allows versatility of emotional responses to help recover from averse situations. Because clipping fledglings limits their play opportunities, as adults they may have less proficiency in dealing with situations such as changing or stressful environments or handling successfully social interactions.

I am always dismayed when I learn that some breeders clip the wings of their fledglings before the birds take their first flight or soon thereafter. To be transparent, I, too, practiced that when I started breeding cockatoos. That was what was preached back in the day.

I finally did see the light and I let my fledglings fly. With that came displays of the exuberance that is inherently contained in a young cockatoo. The babies would develop their physical skills by energetically flying back and forth in the house as they learned to navigate and land on ropes strung across the ceiling. Play vocalizations such as loud screams echoed throughout the house as the fledglings’ confidence and skills grew each day.

Ropes were invaluable in advancing their motor skills. Losing their balance on a wobbly rope didn’t dissuade them because all they had to do was open their wings and fly off. Falling wasn’t a concern as it is for clipped parrots. I often wonder if flying birds even have a human concept of falling. To me, falling means loss of control and eventual pain as I hit the dirt. With a flighted bird, there is no loss of control when “falling” as she just opens her wings to fly.

It’s obvious to spot adult parrots who were clipped when young and did not have access to robust play exercise using their wings. Generally, as there are exceptions, they turn into perch potatoes with little to no motivation to move around or explore. They show dependency on their human caretakers to move them from place to place. They may be more sensitive in stressful situations and they can be more fearful of changes in their environment. And the list goes on.

I believe allowing parrot fledglings to keep their fully functioning wings is a welfare issue. Young parrots play if they are healthy, well-fed, and safe; but not if they are under stressful conditions or in a stressful mental state which a clipped fledgling may very well experience.

Watching a newly fledged parrot try to fly for the first time with clipped wings is truly a heartbreaking vision. A vastly important part of avian physical play has now been shut off for the youngster. An open door that would entitle the young companion parrot to a healthy mental and physical development has been rudely slammed in her face.

Even though scientists have yet to completely understand play behavior, we shouldn’t let our parrots be deprived of physical play; if for nothing else, it seems to be just plain fun for parrots to do. Just ask Star!

Star Update

Star is expanding her social circle and skills. Avian trainer and good friend, Kathryne Thorpe, came to visit Star recently. She spent time in the aviary feeding Star’s parents yummies. Star came down to the perch after giving Kathryne the once-over and preceded to eat from the treat bowl with Kathryne continuing to feed a parent. Comfortably accepting a new person in her aviary was a big step forward for Star.

Morning Coffee with Ellie

Ellie, my adopted Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is making great strides with the new behaviors she is learning. The newest is learning to fly to my hand. In the video, you will see the steps I took over several days to get to our goal behavior of flying to my hand. The important thing to remember is to make small steps towards any goal behavior. (The video has been shortened because of length.)

References:

Play Behavior in the Nonhuman Animal and the Welfare Issue, Ana Flora Sarti Oliveira et al; published online, June 10, 2009, Japan Ethological Society and Springer, 2009.

Social Play Behavior, Marc Bekoff, The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, Animal Studies Repository, 1984.

So You Think You Know Why Animals Play, Linda Sharpe, Scientific American, May 17, 2011.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


The African Grey Parrot: Data and Deliberations

It’s a daunting task to write an article about any companion parrot species without relying too heavily upon the anthropomorphic or the generalization. It’s worth the attempt, however, in the case of the African Grey. While one of the most popular pet parrots on the face of the earth since biblical times, I believe it remains one of the most misunderstood.

My Life with Greys

My life with greys extends back almost three decades.  I specialized in breeding them for several years. I successfully trained them for free flight. I’ve rehabilitated more than a few, solved the problems of many as a behavior consultant, and cared for more than I want to remember as a veterinary technician. 

I’ve been publishing information about them since 1998.

There is no parrot species I love more and these days I share my home with a gang of six – three females and three males.

Timnehs and Congos

What you will read below will apply most specifically to the grey parrot known as the Congo African Grey or the Red-tailed Grey. Until recently, it was believed that the Timneh and the Congo Greys belonged to the same species, and were categorized as the sub-species, Psittacus erithacus erithacus and Psittacus erithacus timneh. They were finally designated as two separate species in 2012, although many sources continue to reflect the older designation. (Seibold-Torres C, 2015)

I felt vindicated when the 2012 news was announced because my personal experience of both had convinced me that they are not much alike at all. Not only do they come from completely different areas of Africa, their coloring is different, as is their behavior. When it comes to behavior, Timneh greys are more similar to Poicephalus parrots than they are like the Congo Grey.

The Data

The African Grey is an Old World species that originates from the equatorial region of Africa. Although notoriously difficult to study for several reasons, they have been observed congregating in dense rainforest, forest edges and clearings, gallery forests and mangroves. They are also seen in cultivated areas and gardens. They most enjoy roosting in tall trees over water.

Their social lifestyle in the wild could not be more unlike that of our favorite New World parrots, such as Amazons, conures, and macaws. Greys live in large communal roosts of up to 10,000 individuals. Smaller groups will break off to go on foraging expeditions, traveling as far as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) for the purpose. (Valla, D, 2019) Several hundred pairs may breed in one geographic location, although each monogamous pair takes possession of a single nest cavity.

From Back in My Breeding Days

It is reported that the young fledge at about the age of 12 weeks (a fact I can corroborate) and that their parents feed them for up to four to five weeks after that. Once eating independently, they remain with the flock and receive further care and education from the older members of the flock. The young birds stay with their family groups for up to several years. (Holman, R, 2008)

Greys are extremely vocal in the wild, generating a wide variety of sounds that include the mimicry of other birds, bats and mammals. They are nosiest in the early morning and again at dusk. Vocalizations occur both when perched and in flight. Typical sounds include whistles, shrieks, and screams, described as “high-pitched and penetrating” that often embody an eerie quality.

Wild greys forage both in the canopy and on the ground, feeding on oil palm fruit, flowers, seeds, berries, tree bark, snails, insects. While on the ground, they ingest mud, grasses and other low-growing plants. One visitor to Africa with whom I spoke many years ago confirmed that they have also been observed feeding upon carrion, although the literature does not corroborate this.

The Deliberations

Why are African Greys such popular pets? Talking ability is always the first reason cited. Their much documented level of intelligence comes in second. Research Associate Irene Pepperberg has not been the only one to document how scary smart these birds really are.

And, while words are rarely put to this aspect of living with a grey, their discerning personalities and ability to remain attune to their owners’ emotions and body language rank right up there with the other reasons why this species is one of the least likely to be relinquished to rescue and adoption organizations. The depth and quality of their interactions with their people make them such favorites.

Their Vocal Nature

Everyone loves a talking bird and greys seem to have special ability in this area. Many are the anecdotal accounts of those who use the English language in correct context, order from Amazon using Alexa, and seem to understand all that is said to them. You can’t visit YouTube or any other social media outlet without stumbling over an account of a talented grey.  

No doubt this is, in part, attributable to their wild tendency to vocalize often within their large flocks. It is in their DNA to express themselves vocally in order to solidify flock bonds. And it is true that their skill at mimicry is unparalleled. Often their repetition of sounds is so exact that it can be difficult to tell the difference for instance between the bird and the doorbell.

I have seen first-hand the pleasure they take in vocalizing back and forth to each other. When I was breeding greys, I had five pairs who were all wild-caught. These parrots knew their native language and they taught it to their babies and my adult companions. Every evening, I relished in the eerie, yet exquisitely beautiful, symphony that filled the air as the pairs outdoors communicated to those indoors and those indoors responded.

I believe that an individual grey’s extreme talent with human language can also be, however, a reflection of isolation as they live out their lives as captives in single-grey homes. Greys are often kept as single parrots and most live with clipped wings, which creates an additional level of isolation.

Given their innate need to communicate with their flock and documented talent at mimicry, coupled with their imposed physical isolation, is it any wonder that so many become such good talkers?

I have often said that “Greys who can’t talk, greys who can fly.” None of my greys who have grown up with other greys and who live a flighted life choose to speak English very often, although they have the ability, which they display at times. They are too busy moving about from place to place and rely instead upon communicating in the more natural grey language of shrill beeps and whistles. 

People often assume that a grey who chooses to talk a lot does so because she is happy. Don’t be too sure about that.

Their Social Nature

Greys and Us

I would describe Congo greys as discerning, well-attuned to the emotions and body language of other creatures, and having a keen sense of humor. I also think of them as the chess players of the parrot world, quite capable of manipulation. Granted, this is anthropomorphism at this best, but this is my experience of them.

A Sweet Little Meyer’s Parrot with No Feet

During the same time period that I was raising baby greys, I was also intentionally engaging in the rehabilitation of surrendered parrots. I had approximately 30 at a time, so had my own “behavior lab” of sorts.

I would frequently look up while I went about my daily work and observed a difference in the way that the various species related to me. Most of the parrots would be engaged in their own business of foraging, bathing, sunning, playing. The greys, however, would most often have their attention on me and my activities. This bordered on spooky. Greys watch us intently and get to know us in an intimate way.

Gretel Ehrlich once wrote the following: “What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we’re finally ourselves.” That describes perfectly the Red-tailed Grey.

My Marko

Greys are described as monogamous and as often forming a pair bond with a single human in the home. While the latter is often certainly true, my experience of them is that they form relatively loose pair bonds. While I have frequently helped clients whose Amazons or cockatoos were displaying fierce aggression toward other family members, I have never dealt with such a problem with a grey.

Greys and Other Species

Grey seem to get along best with other Old World parrots.

This doesn’t mean that such mixing of these species will always be successful, but I have seen routinely that my greys get along much better with my cockatoos and the occasional visiting Eclectus than with my New World parrots.

My grey Marko is absolutely intolerant of my two Amazons and once attacked my Blue and Gold macaw. I have had to segregate Old World and New World parrots physically in my home as the individuals have gotten older.

This doesn’t mean of course that you can’t have both greys and New World parrots who cohabit peacefully in a home, but don’t expect them to be friends and be careful with introductions. Avoiding conflict may need to be the primary goal.

Greys and Other Greys

I have always lived with multiple greys with little trouble among them. This would not be true if I were speaking about cockatoo or Amazon species which, in my experience, form much stronger pair bonds that often lead to aggression toward others.

Congo Greys in captivity seem to have an affinity for other Congo greys. This news should not come as any surprise, given how they live in the wild.

When I was breeding greys, I removed the babies from their parents after two to three weeks and brought them into the house. They lived in the great room in the middle of family activity.

Six-month-old Grey with a Younger Baby

I was astonished to find that the older greys eagerly chose to climb into the box of babies to spend time with them. This reflects the wild observations about how older grey flock members also care for young parrots. Two of my adult grey companions took responsibility for schooling, and even feeding, the babies.

I have over the years introduced many adult greys to the others already living in my home and, with few exceptions, they always get along well. The “social hierarchy” may take a bit of re-ordering, which is usually accomplished through a bit of snarking at each other, but things always calm down with everyone getting along. I have also assisted numerous clients in introducing a new grey to an existing one, with similar positive results.

I have observed in repeated situations an odd social phenomenon. While female greys tolerate and perhaps enjoy each other, two males will often form a close bond with each other.

Phoenix and Boston (both males)

This can take the form of a pair bond, complete with the display of mating rituals. Over the years of living with greys, I have regularly seen two males pair up, preferring to hang out with each other rather than with any of the females.

I sometimes board for periods of time a male grey named Chuckie. He settles right in as soon as he gets here and renews his acquaintances with my guys, often flying over to perch with them.

The last time he was here, his behavior was different. He seemed happy enough, but was a bit less vocal and exuberant than during previous visits. He obviously wasn’t ill, but seemed a tiny bit “off.”

He’s back now for another visit and this time is his typical funny, relaxed, social self. What’s different? Last visit, my male greys were living outdoors in the aviary. This time, they are back inside and I have finally realized that Chuckie very obviously prefers their company to that of the three females that I have.

Granted, these are all anecdotal observations. However, my experience is deep enough in this area that I would suggest that if you are seeking to adopt an African Grey, consider bringing home two of them so that they have each other as well as you.

And, in a last word on this subject, there is a tiny bit of scientific evidence to support this advice. Telomeres are the caps on certain chromosomes that control chromosome stability. Telomere length tends to decrease in length with the age of the African Grey. However, one study found that greys who lived singly had significantly shorter telomeres than those that were housed in pairs. ( Aydinonat, D. et al, 2014)

Their Physical Nature

Greys suffer from some pretty serious physical and medical problems in captivity, some well-known and some not.

Atherosclerosis is the most recently recognized threat to the health of greys, who seem to be especially disposed to develop this disease process. This is clearly a lifestyle disease, the development of which is related to diet and lack of exercise.

Greys are prone to developing both vitamin A and vitamin D deficiencies and display a widely-recognized tendency toward hypocalcemia (low calcium levels). The latter results in neurological symptoms, such as seizures, in adult birds. In the young, this manifests as osteodystrophy (defective bone development).

Seed diets have been implicated in the development of atherosclerosis, as well as the vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, there is more to the story.

One study demonstrated that the provision of UV-B light increased serum ionized calcium, independent of the levels of calcium and vitamin D in the diet. The hypothesis is that, since greys in the wild live in low shade areas and are exposed to high levels of sunlight in the wild, they may need UV-B light in order to have adequate vitamin D levels in the body. Since vitamin D regulates calcium absorption, this may be one reason, in addition to diet, that greys so often suffer from calcium deficiencies.

I found this especially interesting because of an observation that I made back during my rehab period. I had at that time four outdoor aviaries and regularly made observations regarding the behavior of the different species when in them.

Generally, the New World parrots spent very little time in the direct sunlight, while the greys remained there for much longer periods. In fact, one day I found one female on the bottom of the aviary with her wings spread. After I recovered from my shock, I realized that she had only been sun bathing. To this day, my greys will choose to sit in the sun more often than in the shade.

While the above medical issues deserve serious consideration, we seem to be most often more distressed by the feather damaging behavior in which so many greys engage. This is a very complex problem, typically due to the presence of several risk factors.

The reasons may include, but are not limited to poor early beginnings, lack of foraging or bathing opportunities, insufficient exercise, no exposure to natural sunlight, limited time out of the cage, no learning opportunities, over-dependence upon the owner, and malnutrition, in addition to medical causes.

Chronic stress is also a probable component and is often incorrectly blamed as the sole cause of a given problem. In fact, one study revealed that there is an association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite secretion in captive grey parrots. (Costa, P. et al, 2016) This makes perfect sense, since the risk factors identified above can all contribute to increased stress.

I have specialized in resolving this problem for clients and have good success. However, the longer I do this work, the more I come to believe that liberty, time spend outdoors, and balanced social opportunity are primary factors that contribute significantly to a grey’s mental health.

More than one grey has been returned to a fully feathered state by being placed in new conditions that allowed for frequent flight and interaction by choice with both conspecifics and people who use positive reinforcement to provide learning opportunities.

My Grey Conclusions

I offer you the following thoughts aimed at helping you to have the most successful grey experience:

  • Consider keeping more than one grey companion in your home.
  • Feed the best diet possible, incorporating a high quality pellet supplemented with plenty of vegetables high in betacarotene (yellow, red, orange or dark green).
  • Provide plenty of foraging and learning opportunities.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Set up an outdoor aviary that allows for sunbathing whenever the weather permits.
  • If you get a baby, adopt one that has been parent-reared or that has had exposure to several adult greys. If you can’t find one who fits this description, walk away and adopt an older bird.
  • Do not clip wings if your grey parrot has flight capability.
  • Use care in arranging for your absences. Never leave a grey at home alone with a caregiver who comes in just once or twice a day.
  • Allow as much time out of the cage as possible and encourage liberty and choice-making.
  • Never get into a battle of wills with a grey bird.

Final Words

I am reluctant to end this piece, but understand that it is overly long as it is. There is just so much more I would like to tell you about them.

African Greys are complex birds. Many of us who have had the privilege of sharing our homes with them feel that, should we be able to keep only one parrot as a friend, it would be a grey.

The gifts they have to share are exceptional but will be received in full measure only when we are exceptional in our relationships with them. We must honor their innate timetables for early development, allow them to develop physically, mentally and socially into the incredible creatures they have evolved to be and honor their sensitivities in our care practices.

Wait! Don’t Leave Yet…

I’m excited to announce that I will be giving a one-of-a-kind live webinar on screaming (and any other problem noise) on Thursday, October 10 at 11:00 am PDT (2:00 pm EDT). Unlike other webinars, this experience will provide you with a complete plan for solving any screaming problem. Attendees will receive a workbook, supporting materials, and a special offer for on-going support. Please don’t miss it!

References:

Aydinonat D, Penn DJ, Smith S, Moodley Y, Hoelzl F, Knauer F, et al. (2014) Social Isolation Shortens Telomeres in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). PLoS ONE 9(4): e93839. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093839aa

Costa P, Macchi E, Valle E, De Marco M, Nucera DM, Gasco L, Schiavone A. 2016. An association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite excretion in captive African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) PeerJ 4:e2462 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2462

Griffin, Jenny (13 February 2012). “Species Spotlight on the African Grey Parrot”. Brighthub. Retrieved 1 March 2016. https://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/20670.aspx

Holman, R. 2008. “Psittacus erithacus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 24, 2019 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Psittacus_erithacus

Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998

Lafeber Company. 2019. African Grey Parrot. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/species/african-grey-parrot

Stromberg, Joseph. 2012. African Grey Parrots Have the Reasoning Skills of 3-year-olds. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/african-grey-parrots-have-the-reasoning-skills-of-3-year-olds-15955221

Sanford, Michael, BVSc, MRCVS. 2004. The Effects of UV-B Lighting Supplementation in African Grey Parrots. Selected Papers from the International Conference on Exotics 2004. ICE Proceedings. Exotic DVM, Vol. 6.3. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9fe6/40ea0111eb22183a877a25d16bbbf0d809a5.pdf

Mikolasch, Sadra, Kotrschal, Kurt and Schloegl, Christian. African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) use inference by exclusion to find hidden food7Biol. Lett.http://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.0500

Reuell, Peter. 2017. Discerning Bird. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/12/harvard-researchers-test-intelligence-of-african-grey-parrot

Seibold-Torres C, Owens E, Chowdhary R, Ferguson-Smith M, A, Tizard I, Raudsepp T. 2015. Comparative Cytogenetics of the Congo African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) Karger Cytogenetic and Genome Research. 2015;147:144-153. doi: 10.1159/000444136. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/444136. Accessed 9/23/19.

Valla, Daniela. 2019. 5 Surpising Facts About African Grey Parrots. https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/blogs/5-surprising-facts-about-african-grey-parrots

Morning Coffee with Ellie

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Learning is a change in behavior due to experience. Teaching is to cause someone to learn something by example or experience. Offer these two activities together daily for your companion parrot and you can create a powerhouse of an education both for you and your bird.

But, you may say, you don’t have time to train (teach) daily. I will counter with— but you do! If I can do it, you can do it. Listen, I’m lazy. Well, maybe not lazy so much as I procrastinate. Sure, I have good intentions. I make daily to-do lists, but most of the do’s don’t happen until the next day or the day after that or maybe the do’s fade off into oblivion.

No Schedule Needed!

Then how does making time for training my cockatoos work with my proclivity to dawdle? I do enjoy training, and I’m not good at making time to fit it into my day. My solution is to forget about trying to create a scheduled time for training.

Instead, I now go with the flow and simply use my daily encounters with the cockatoos as opportunities to train. And you can, too. This no-schedule schedule really lightens my mental have-to load and eases the pressure to train which oddly enough allows me to train even more.

Every interaction we have with our companion parrots is a teaching moment whether we think so or not. Don’t be fooled into thinking our companion birds are not paying attention to every move we make, especially when it comes to our behavior towards them. So let’s make those actions good things that our parrots look forward to.

Simple Solutions

Here’s an example of what I mean. We may think that taking the food bowl out of our parrot’s cage is merely a daily chore and not an opportunity to train. Your parrot, however, may find it’s a perfect opportunity to train you not to take the food bowl away. He does so by lunging at you just as you open the food bowl door.

Our typical reaction is to snap our hand back from the door and that’s exactly what he wanted. Your parrot has just trained you to go away when he lunges. You may not have thought this daily task is a teaching opportunity, but your parrot has certainly discovered that it is.

The food bowl removal takes very little time to do and occurs daily. So why not use that time to do some teaching? You can start by teaching your parrot to target away from the bowl while he is in his cage.

Or you can simply hand him his favorite treat on the opposite side of the cage from the food bowl. While he is munching away, out comes the bowl. After doing this over several days, voila, you’ve just schooled your bird to stay away from the bowl door when you service it. And if your parrot is polite about bowl removal, you can still do some targeting which, no doubt, he will look forward to.

I won’t go into more examples because I know you are savvy enough to understand what I mean. We can take simple interactions with our parrots and make them teaching moments. No training schedule needed. When I say moment, that’s pretty much what I mean. A couple of minutes of training here and a couple of minutes of training there add up to a surprisingly effective strategy.

Enter, Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo

Ellie came to live with me about three months ago. Although she is a charming cockatoo, we had some things to work out to let our relationship grow in a positive manner. (See my blog posts Commentary on Free Flight: Part Two and Lessons from Ellie for more information on how Ellie came to live with me, the behavior challenges she presented, and our on-going training.)

We have accomplished many things towards that goal. Her flying at me in an aggressive manner has decreased dramatically; her step-up behavior is now good and absent aggressive behavior; her foraging skills are improving daily and foraging options are met with enthusiasm.

I’m proud of us both and want to continue expanding her behavior repertoire. I want to train her to go into a travel crate. Ugh, now I have to block out a time each day for that. No, wait, go with the flow, right? Here’s what I do instead. I have coffee with Ellie in the morning.

Each morning I have my cup of coffee while sitting at the kitchen island where Ellie joins me. It’s a relaxing time for both of us. Ellie and I are waking up and gathering a bit of energy before we face the day. What better time to tackle a training project.

I’ve put the carrier on the kitchen island right in front of me and my cup of coffee. As I sip it, I observe Ellie as she walks around  the island  exploring. She sees a strange new object, the carrier, sitting in front of me where I have her treats (and my coffee) at the ready. The training starts the instant she looks at the carrier. When she does, she gets a treat.

In the beginning of our training time she was suspicious of the carrier, but after countless treats over several days, she came to understand that interacting with it means that good stuff happens.

Over a few morning coffee times together she has learned to walk in the carrier almost immediately on her own volition. My next step is to start closing the door while she’s in it, then moving the carrier slightly, picking it up, etc. What a lovely time for us both this has turned out to be. I still get my coffee and she gets her morning treats and learns a new skill to boot.

Another morning coffee project is having Ellie step on a scale. As with the carrier, the minute she looks at the scale she gets a treat. I feed her several times when she’s near the scale so that she knows the scale is where the treats show up. Then she learns that when she approaches the scale, she gets a treat. Finally, she figures out that stepping on the scale opens up my treat hand to a bounty of yummies.

A go-with-the-flow teaching moment outside of our morning coffee is when I ask Ellie to step up. I’ll proceed that request with a cue to touch a target. This is a very easy behavior for Ellie to do. She never hesitates to do it. When she touches the target she gets a treat. I’ll do this at least two times in a row. Then I’ll ask her to step up. Stepping up is a behavior Ellie is not 100% on board with. Sometimes she’ll refuse and sometimes she’ll even become aggressive.

By asking Ellie to touch the target two or three times before cuing the step-up, I’m creating behavioral momentum. Behavioral momentum is the use of a series of high-probability requests (in Ellie’s case, targeting) to increase compliance with lower-probability requests (Ellie stepping up). It’s amazing the change this training technique has made in Ellie’s willingness to step on my hand. Even her emotional response has changed to a calm, non-aggressive attitude.

Of course, more complicated or out of the ordinary behaviors may require some scheduled time during the day. For instance, teaching my cockatoo to fly through hoops requires using an area that has enough space to fly and accommodate perches and hoop stands. So for that I do set a block of time aside.

I want to reemphasize that simple short teaching sessions can take place whenever we come together with our parrots. One piece of advice is to have cups of treats in different places that are readily accessible to you when you interact with your parrot. Still another idea is to wear a treat bag or simply keep treats in your pocket. Using the no-schedule training method is a breeze to incorporate into your and your parrot’s daily routine. Give it a whirl. You’ll be glad you did!

Star Update

Fledgling Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (16 weeks old) continues to make progress in her people-are-good-things education. She comes readily to a training perch to sit next to her mom or dad as I feed them treats out of my hand. In fact, a parent can act as an assistant trainer, meaning I give the parent a treat and the parent then gives that treat to Star when she comes close. What a team!

I also put food in the bowl fastened to the perch. While a parent eats from my hand, Star will eat from the bowl. I am slowly moving my treat hand closer and closer to Star as the parent eats from it. Star is staying put while I do this. She watches my hand, but is also focused on her food bowl and will not fly off as I make my micro movements towards her. Such a brave Star-bird!

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


Early Beginnings for Parrots

Phoebe Greene Linden was ahead of her time. Back in 1993, 26 years ago, she published an article that talked about Abundance Weaning™, a term she coined and trademarked. The latter fact is amusing today; it’s not like hordes of breeders since have tried to steal the term. They remain mired in their practices of force-weaning (also called deprivation-weaning) baby parrots.

Phoebe began a crucial conversation, one that remains unfinished today. She brought an ethical focus to the rearing of baby parrots that took into account also the well-being of the breeding birds themselves. Her concerns were both ethical and practical.

Her ideas flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom of the day. According to Phoebe, breeding parrots should have large enclosures and plenty of enrichment. Baby parrots must be fledged and allowed to develop excellent flight skills. Flight ability should never be removed from a parrot all at once. Fledglings needed to be abundantly supported as they developed their independent eating skills and provided with lots of enrichment to encourage their desire to explore.

I recently did a Google search for the term “abundance weaning” and found websites describing this method, without any reference or credit to Phoebe. In addition, they have bastardized the initial ideas that Phoebe developed. Unfortunately, a full description of this process is not within the scope of this post, but this is a word to the wise. Abundance Weaning™, as Phoebe developed it, incorporated a great deal more than simply allowing baby parrots to wean when they were ready. (Linden, 1993)

As Phoebe writes:  “Abundance weaning is a segment of a process of nurturing that begins with hand-feeding and should not end in this lifetime for our feathered companions. Abundance weaning contributes significantly to the well-balanced psychological development of the young parrot: it provides innumerable opportunities for owner and baby to bond deeply in a spirit of trust and plenitude, it encourages the development of physical skills in a non-threatening environment, it is the cornucopia from which springs fullness and peace. Would that every creature on this earth be given the abundance we can provide to our special feathery messengers.”

Phoebe was my mentor when I reared African greys back then. I emulated her practices with excellent results. The greys I produced were different from those of other breeders. They were bold, eager to engage, confident and coordinated.

I wasn’t the only one who put into practice what Phoebe taught.  There were other small breeders who bred parrots purely for the love of the species and the ability to do a really great job fostering their development.

However, our ethics got the better of us. We were all small breeders, a lot more in love with the birds than the money. Gradually, we came to see that no matter how well we screened adoptive homes, things often did not turn out as we might have wished for our offspring.

My own experience included babies who were lost forever outdoors, those who gradually spent more and more time in their cages and began to destroy feathers as a result, those who did not receive the guidance I had taught their new owners to provide, and those who suffered due to the insensitivity of those who adopted them. I learned that, when screening potential adopters, you never really get to see what is truly bedrock in the person.

Most of us who were colleagues back then stopped breeding as a result of similar experiences, leaving the field open to production breeders and those for whom the money is more important than the ethics.

I have often quoted avian specialist Dr. Brian Speer: “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.” If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, I don’t know what will…that is if you love parrots like I do for their innate qualities.

We humans are incredibly slow sometimes to recognize the truth… slow to learn and slow to change. Chris Shank’s last blog post revealed some profound comparisons between what her fledgling Star is learning and the more typical experience baby parrots have today at the hands of breeders. Essentially, Chris brought up the same conversation that Phoebe began 26 years ago.

It always kills me that Facebook posts and those on other social media sites are so full of parrot love, and yet the manner in which we breed and rear baby parrots withstands no real scrutiny at all. No one seems to care how our baby parrots are produced, as long as they are there for our consumption when we want them.

The only exceptions to this come from a few like Phoebe, Dr. Speer, Chris, and others like them who occasionally toss out a verbal or written volley in hopes of keeping the conversation alive and refocusing our attention on what is most important.

Is the manner in which we rear parrots in captivity really important?

Do methods really matter?

There is abundant research that documents both developmental and behavioral abnormalities in a large number of hand-reared species, indicating that early conditions for animals are of critical importance. Feenders and Bateson discuss several conclusions previously reached by other researchers:

  • “In humans, poor parenting and adverse experiences during early development are associated with impairments in adult cognitive ability and an increased risk for developing psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and psychoses.”
  • “In rats, Rattus norvegicus, maternal separation produces long-lasting changes in emotional behaviour and impaired responses to stress. Maternal separation induces reduced neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus and consequential impairments in learning and memory.
  • “In rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta, removal from the mother followed by peer rearing or rearing by mothers experiencing variable foraging conditions produces adults with more reactive stress physiology, increased anxiety, impulsivity and aggression and behavioural abnormalities such as motor stereotypies.”
  • “Adverse events during early development have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing abnormal behaviour, and specifically motor stereotypies, in a range of species. For example, animals removed from their mother at an earlier age, and animals born in captive as opposed to natural environments, show a higher incidence of stereotypic behavior.”
  • “In birds, there is some evidence that manipulations that involve elements of hand rearing affect the adult phenotypes similarly to the effects observed in mammals.”

Rebecca Fox comes to similar conclusions regarding parrots: “Abnormal sexual imprinting and a strong social preference for humans may cause behavior problems in pet parrots, which are probably more likely to inappropriately direct sexual behavior at their owners. Hand-reared birds may exhibit other behavior problems as well, most notably so-called “phobic” behavior.” (Fox, 2006)

Phoebe Greene Linden and Andrew U. Luescher provide a detailed comparison of observable behaviors exhibited by both hand-reared and wild Amazon parrots in Santa Barbara, California through all stages from hatching to fledging and the development of independent eating skills.

They comment upon the importance of fledging: “Sadly, the majority of psittacids raised for the companion market will not experience a true fledging process and may never actually fly because their environments are not provisioned for such development.”

“Space, time, and commitment limitations abound, and some aviculturists contend that fledging is unnecessary or extravagant. The question remains: Can a suitably developed psittacine companion who never flies remain a viable lifelong pet? That answer to that question depends, of course, on what environments shape the experiences during the time of development normally occupied by flight and after.” (Linden,P. 2006)

There you have only a taste of the research available, which documents the deleterious effects of hand-rearing on both mammals and birds. The conclusions are unanimous – the process of hand-rearing carries with it significant impact upon the developing young animals and will impact them throughout their lives.

Serving as companion to this body of science stands our own anecdotal evidence. Dogs and cats who were hand-reared are typically quite different, displaying abnormal and problematic behavior that often encompasses aggressive tendencies. I once had a bottle-fed black cat who would come up behind unassuming visitors and bite them hard on the back of the leg. That adorable bottle-feeding kitten evolved into an adult cat who caused a lot of problems.

So…yes. The manner in which our companion parrots are reared matters. It is critical to their entire life experience.

I often assist owners in locating adult parrots for adoption and during the transition once the parrot is home. I can state with certainty that well-reared parrots adapt very differently, and much more easily, to their new homes. (By “well-reared,” I am referring to hand-rearing that included Abundance Weaning™ and a full fledging experience, at a minimum.)  Further, if the previous home had included elements of deprivation, these individuals literally blossom when placed once again into more benevolent circumstances.

Further, I see behavioral similarities among the population of parrots who were weaned according to artificial time frames and whose wings were clipped before they ever learned to fly.  These include dependent and sexually-oriented behavior toward one person, a lack of foraging ability, and fearful behavior that is inappropriate to the environmental context.

I see these birds as permanently impaired and destined to a long existence in captivity that includes significant levels of stress. Often, the consulting process can improve their quality of life, but they will never be the birds that they would have been had they enjoyed a better beginning.

Chris’ blog post generated many comments on my Facebook page and a respectful discussion took place, although participants embrace many strongly-held and widely-divergent opinions. One breeder shared that she chooses to incubator-hatch her parrot eggs so that she can avoid the stress to the parents of having their babies repeatedly removed. Another disagreed with this approach because of the proven detrimental effects that accrue when babies are not allowed contact with their parents. My gratitude goes out to all who participated.

Chris Shank, in various episodes of her guest blog, has brought to our attention the necessary components to successful parent-rearing. However, she herself questions whether the time frames for taming and training the babies produced this way are realistic when breeding for the pet trade.

Co-parenting seems to be a more viable answer. This is the process during which babies remain with their parents, thus receiving all the benefits of a parent-reared bird, but also have regular positive contact with people for both play and supplemental feeding. For this to be a viable approach, however, the parent birds must themselves be friendly enough toward humans.

However, finding breeders who co-parent is next to impossible. Further, at this stage, just trying to find a breeder who is knowledgable about behavior, practices Abundance Weaning, and fledges her babies is also next to impossible. I know this first-hand.

Over the past two years, I have had several clients ask me to help them find a good breeder. We determine the species that they prefer to adopt and identify the geographical areas they can consider. We then identify potential breeders and I provide to the client a list of questions to ask the breeder to determine whether she really is a viable candidate. We then evaluate the answers together. Initially, I believed that to be an approach designed to ensure success.

I had a total of seven such experiences in the past two years and not one of them turned out satisfactorily. We found breeders who talked the talk, but that was as far as it went. One breeder agreed to fledge the baby parrot, but then clipped the wings without telling my client beforehand. She later explained that she was afraid the baby would hurt himself. She had said that she fledges her babies, but in the end clearly knew nothing about the process and did not understand the value.

Another breeder was unable to support the baby into becoming food independent and finally insisted that the owner come and adopt her unweaned baby parrot. (This bird was well past the age when independent eating skills could be expected.)

These experiences should never happen; yet, they are the norm.

The solution? If you really love parrots, then vote with your dollars. Simply refuse to purchase unweaned babies. Don’t purchase babies who can’t fly because their  wings were clipped before they ever had a chance to fledge. Don’t purchase a baby who is “weaned” at an age before they would have fledged in the wild. Don’t purchase a baby whose early beginnings are going to commit him to a life of dependence, fear, and behavior problems.

Educate yourselves and then drive this market toward improvement. We don’t want family members that have been reared by “farming industry practices.” That is the answer. You are the answer.

That will be solution enough until we can figure out an even better way of rearing baby parrots…until breeders realize that the market is demanding higher standards of them. My hope is that we will see a great deal more co-parenting and parent-rearing.

And in the meantime, consider seriously adopting an older parrot who needs a home. I can assure you that adopting a baby is no insurance policy against having behavior issues. All parrots will present you with challenges. There are so many adult parrots who need homes. If they come with problems, then get an experienced behavior consultant to help you. Problems can be solved!

Let’s keep this discussion alive, so that another 26 years doesn’t slip between our fingers, characterized by a lack of awareness and change. Captive parrots deserve better from us.

Addendum: If you are a breeder who co-parents or parent-rears and sends babies home fully-flighted, I would love to hear from you: pamelaclarkcvt@gmail.com.

References:

Feenders, G., & Bateson, M. (2013). Hand rearing affects emotional responses but not basic cognitive performance in European starlings. Animal behaviour86(1), 127–138. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.05.002

Fox, R. 2006. “HandRearing: Behavioral Impacts and Implications for Captive Parrot Welfare.” Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.

Linden, P. G.  1993. “Abundance Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report.  Issue #13. September/October 1993. Volume 3, Number 5. Pages 18 – 21.

Linden, P. G. 1994. “Fledgling Stress Syndrome.” The Pet Bird Report.  Issue #19. Volume 4, Number 5. Pages 42 – 44.

Linden, P. G. 1995. “The Developmental Impact of Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #20. Volume 4, Number 6. Pages 4 – 10.

Linden, P. G. 1995. “Eating Skills for Recently Weaned Chicks.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #23. Date unknown. Volume 5, Number 3. Pages 38 – 45.

Linden, P, G. with Leuscher, A. 2006. “Behavioral Development of Psittacine Companions: Neonates, Neophytes, and Fledglings.” Manual of Parrot Behavior.  Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.

Meder, A. (1989), Effects of hand‐rearing on the behavioral development of infant and juvenile gorillas (Gorilla g. gorilla). Dev. Psychobiol., 22: 357-376. doi:10.1002/dev.420220404

What Needs to Be Said

What needs to be said is that no matter how hard we try to provide the right environment when hand raising parrots, we can never provide every essential thing chicks need to grow into well-adapted and well-adjusted psittacines.

Star with one of her parents

I hand-raised cockatoos in the distant past and I now advocate for letting parrot parents do the job. I realize my advocacy is like telling a screaming parrot to be quiet, as this is usually ignored and the screaming continues. 

However, I will press on to champion for the right of captive parrots to raise their own offspring. Watching Star, a fourteen-week-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, flourish under her parents’ care underlines for me how important it is for young parrots to be educated by their parents.

Let’s look at some contrasts I’m finding between parent-raised and hand-raised cockatoos using fledgling Star and my own hand-raised birds as examples.

Foraging

Before cleaning the cockatoos’ aviaries the other day, I put up various browse for Star and her parents and the hand-raised cockatoos to forage upon.  I was amazed at the length of foraging activity Star and her parents displayed. The full two hours I cleaned, they were actively engaged, ferreting through the offerings finding leaves, seed heads, or berries that suited their fancies.

Star forages on garden-grown millet spray.

In the “hand raised” aviary there was initial interest in the browse, but that ended quickly as the interest was instead focused on me by landing on my shoulder or by watching what I was doing from a perch. The only bird who kept at the job of foraging in the hand-raised flock was Ritzie, who was parent- raised.

This diligent foraging activity of the family certainly shouldn’t be unexpected or surprising; after all, we are all primed by our evolution to forage for food. Even though parrots and people are endowed with an inherent drive to search for food, we must learn to how to successfully do so. Having models to learn from is the easiest and most efficient way to develop and master foraging skills. In Star’s case, her teachers are her parents.

Star forages on rose hips with her parents.

And it’s just not parrots who learn from their parents, as the following example shows. Dr. Courchesne, a veterinarian, who teaches biology at Northern Essex Community College explains:

Late August is high time for harassment [of people by gulls],” she said, “because the young have fledged and their adult parents take them to foraging spots, which include beaches and boardwalks, to find food and to teach them the ropes. The gulls, like the humans, bring their whole families. They’re being so pushy for food because they’re such committed parents,” she said.[i]

While people at the boardwalk have learned to forage for their food from snack bars (and are, no doubt, teaching their kids to do the same), gulls have learned how to forage on the food people carry away from the snack bars. Thankfully, Bebe and Flash are not teaching Star to swoop down and steal a sandwich from me, but they are certainly teaching her which foods are tasty and where to find them in the aviary.

Most hand-raised fledglings are at a disadvantage when it comes to foraging. They typically do not have an adult conspecific or even a parrot of another species to model foraging behavior; or, if they do, the adult parrot may not have learned all the fine skills of foraging or developed the motivation to search for food other than from a food bowl.

I found many common refrains on foraging and the companion parrot with a quick online search that reflected the following: Be persistent! Pet birds often require repeated encouragement until foraging becomes a way of life. In fact, many hand-raised bird will give up relatively easily when they cannot find food right away.

I personally have experienced the above statement with my own hand- raised birds. I was lax at enriching the fledglings’ environment with browse or toys many years ago and, as a result, those adult birds illustrate a lack of foraging interest today. Some of the flyers don’t bother to seek foraging opportunities even when out free flying.

The free flyers forage in the garden.

That said, the cockatoos are intelligent and inquisitive animals and over the years some have learned foraging behavior from interacting with foraging toys or from finding sunflowers and millet grown in the garden. Here, though, it must be said that they take a lot of their cues from watching the parent-raised flyers raid the garden.

Socialization

When one thinks of a socialized companion parrot, usually what comes to mind is a parrot who is nice to people; that is, she is a friendly, malleable bird who is not fearful of us or our environment. The parrot has been taught to behave in a manner that is acceptable in our human community and way of life. On the whole, hand-raising a parrot does accomplish those goals, if done with skill and compassion.

Socialization, the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, does take place with the parent-raised parrot of course. However, it is a socialization of another sort, in that the parents are teaching their young to behave in ways that are acceptable to parrot society.

Unfortunately, many hand-raised parrots miss out on this opportunity. The effect of this missed education sometimes manifests in a parrot who is afraid of other psittacines, or shows no interest in parrots, or may not have a clue as to how to behave successfully with others.

In Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance states: “…organisms are especially likely to learn a particular kind of behavior at one point in their lives, these stages for optimum learning are referred to as critical periods.[ii] With that in mind, my goal, with her parents’ help, is to teach Star to be successful in both human and parrot society at this critical period in her development.

As always, it is engrossing watching Bebe and Flash teach young Star how to be a proper cockatoo. And they don’t always use positive reinforcement methods when teaching Star about correct cockatoo etiquette. For example, Bebe will quickly give Star a strong bop with her beak if Star muscles in on food Bebe doesn’t want to share.

Star forages alongside her neighbors.

Star is further taught about cockatoo conduct by the cockatoos who live in the next door aviary. Even though they do not physically interact with Star, no doubt she is learning much about cockatoo socialization from observing the behaviors the others exhibit. For instance, she has become quite comfortable munching beak to beak (separated by the aviary wire, of course) with her neighbors as they all take advantage of a picnic of browse that is offered them in the same locale.

On first look this may seem inconsequential, but indeed learning to be near other non-familial cockatoos provides important lessons. Not only is she learning that other cockatoos can exist together amiably, she may pick up a new tip or two by watching how they forage.

At this juncture in Star’s life she is learning how to behave in cockatoo society, but not yet in human society. At Star’s age, a hand-raised cockatoo would be far advanced in knowing how to succeed with people. My goal is to teach Star how to succeed in my community and, with the help of her parents, in her community. This education will give Star effective skills for navigating both worlds.

She’s already on her way by learning that people can offer her good things. She watches as her parents get goodies on their training perches from me as well as from people they do not know.

Star looks on as her parents accept treats from visitors.

I interact with her parents daily. She sees the calm behavior her parents exhibit when I’m with them and that is a valuable visual lesson for her. I’m excited by the progress she is making as she is getting physically closer to me each time I am in the aviary.

Star eats on the training perch quite near to Chris, following her parents’ example.

Star’s learning and behavior development and comparing that progression with the behaviors of my hand-raised cockatoos is a fascinating, stimulating, and humbling journey that I invite you, the reader, to continue to join me on as I discuss more observations and dichotomies in my next blog.

[i] James Gorman, In Defense of Gulls, New York Times, 8/24/2019.

[ii] Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth, 2003) pg. 434.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

 

Contradictory Cockatoo Behavior

The most fascinating thing about watching Bebe and Flash Bare-eyed Cockatoo raise their chick, Star, is that their behaviors change as does the growing inventory of Star’s exploratory actions. Let’s look at some examples.

The Power Struggle

In my last blog episode, I mentioned the power struggle that exists between Flash and Bebe, first over who would brood the eggs, then feed the chick, and now feed and stay near the fledgling, Star. I’ve consulted with an experienced cockatoo breeder in Australia about what is, in my eyes, unusual behavior. He could not give me an answer.

He did mention, though, that in captive breeding situations cockatoos can be quite difficult, as some males show intense aggression towards their mates before going to nest. I was aware of that conduct, having bred cockatoos myself. What I haven’t observed before is anything like this constant changing of who’s “in charge” of Star.

I’m thinking that this may be a natural behavior, distorted by captivity. In the wild, while one bird broods the egg or chick, the other would typically be out for some length of time finding food. When the far-ranging mate returns, the length of time has been such that the at-home mate is ready to leave the nest box, thus letting the returned cockatoo take over brooding duties.

In the aviary, food is conveniently only a few wing-beats away. When one mate leaves the fledgling’s side, the other swoops in to take over, regardless of whether enough time has elapsed.

This is all just conjecture on my part and may well make no sense at all. I could not find detailed descriptions of wild Bare-eyed Cockatoo nesting behavior, so this is the best explanation I can come up with at this time. If anyone has any other ideas or information regarding this behavior, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

Feeding and Foraging

Star, at 13 weeks of age, is still being fed regurgitated food by her parents, so whoever is on Star-watch will feed her. When I fill up the food station, the controlling parent at the time will not allow the other admission to it.

Again, I ask “Why is this?” How does this relate to cockatoo behavior in the wild? Do paired cockatoos keep their mates from accessing food in nature? Most likely not, since there is probably food readily available elsewhere.

That there is an “argument” between Flash and Bebe over food access in the aviary is probably due to limited availability, since there has been only one feeding station. Providing only one food station in a captive environment can cause resource guarding. We may see it between two companion dogs when they are fed their dinner. We can see it in a group of horses when fed communally in a paddock. I answered my own question by providing one more feeding station and the resource guarding ceased.

Free Flying Behavior

Another change in parental behavior involves Flash and Bebe’s free flying. While the pair was brooding the chick and continuing  until a few days after Star had fledged, it was typical that both birds would go out to fly when I opened their door. Off they’d go, sometimes at great length and other times just for a short stretch of the wings.

Star flies down close to Chris for the first time to forage.

While her parents were out flying, Star would sit quietly tucked in or behind the birch tree that grows in the back of the aviary. At this time of her life she did no exploratory flying in the aviary on her own.

When I offered Bebe and Flash an opportunity to free fly one morning not too long ago, neither took me up on it. Okay, that wasn’t too unusual. What was unusual is that in the weeks following, going out to free fly wasn’t part of Flash and Bebe’s agenda.

Sharing fresh millet spray with Father Flash

As Star’s exploratory behaviors have increased, so too have the parents’ intense surveillance over her. In other words, as she becomes more independent, the parents’ concern about her whereabouts grows.

It seems that it should be the opposite; that is, as Star’s independence grows, so should the loosening of parental apron strings. Again, I’ve come up with another hypothesis.

Even though Star is becoming quite competent at negotiating the aviary by flight, she has not acquired adult capabilities. Her flying is not as physically robust as her parents. Even her ability to walk on a perch is not up to adult standards yet. However, she doesn’t hesitate to fly about the aviary with as much gusto as she can muster.

The Awkward Star

I compare this extra Star attention by Flash and Bebe to human parents whose baby is learning to walk. Once some competency has been achieved by the toddler, parents are more acutely aware of her movements, as she can quickly get herself into a pickle from her new walking ability. So it may be for Star’s parents, while she is in her “toddler” stage. In the wild, her new flight skills could easily lead her into dangerous situations.

Raptors are keenly aware of juvenile birds. Fledgling parrots have all the characteristics of defenseless youngsters. Fledgling vocalizations sound different from their adult parents. Their flight skills are certainly different from those of mature birds. Their size may be different. Their mannerisms may be more awkward and so on.

Raptors pick up on these youthful characteristics with ease and understand that an effortless meal is available for the taking. Hence, Flash and Bebe watch Star even more closely during this “toddler” stage of her development, even though she is safe in the aviary.

Behaviors I see displayed by Star and her parents are no doubt colored by their captive environment. However, observing Flash and Bebe raise Star is fascinating in and of itself, regardless of where it’s done.

Latest News About Ellie

Ellie continues to settle into life at Cockatoo Downs. She seems to have grown fond of having the flyers visit her while she is in her aviary on the deck. She shows excitement and watches intently as the small flock gathers around her aviary.

Ellie Foraging

The flyers and Ellie eagerly take treats from me as we all hang out together. When they fly away, she calls after them, which I take as a healthy sign that she is becoming a bit more cockatoo- oriented, rather than just people-focused.

Just for Fun at Cockatoo Downs!

Alex Collins is a young man who attended our Exotic Bird Rescue workshop we held a few weeks ago. When I saw Alex work with a couple of the cockatoos at the workshop, I was impressed by his skill and demeanor around the birds. I invited him back for some one-on-one training time with me and the cockatoos.

Alex is calm and focused around the birds and pays attention to their body language. When there is a misread, he doesn’t get flustered and is ready to try again. Alex spent some time working Flash and Bebe in the aviary while Star watched from her perch. Bebe was all about Alex, but Flash, not so much. But with Alex’s calm persistence, Flash came around and was soon targeting and taking treats from him. It was a good day.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.