Part One: Parrots, Flight, and Humans

The conversation about companion parrots and flight has been ongoing for over two decades now, the hallmarks of which have been radical bias and lack of information. In short, the discussion has been acutely dysfunctional and has done little to move forward in any significant way quality of life for the majority of parrots.  Choices about whether to allow a companion parrot to fly in the home are still most often based upon opinion and/or fear.

While I see evidence these days of greater open-mindedness towards the allowance of flight for parrots in the home, a wide-spread lack of information and understanding about flight persists and must be corrected. We must all set aside personal biases, with the recognition of two dichotomous facts: (1) flight is a parrot’s birthright, and (2) flight is not possible for all companion parrots in all homes.

Between these two extremes, there is much to discover and discuss. Flight is such a complex system of behaviors, both physical and mental, that I might spend two years writing about it before I felt that the subject had been sufficiently covered. That’s not practical of course, but I will need to divide this topic into a number of posts. This one will serve as an introduction to the discussion.

I do not believe that we can, nor should, attempt to discuss flight for our own parrots until we obtain some perspective about the real nature of flight for birds.

Birds and Flight

Birds are currently the only living creatures with feathers and most species have evolved to use those feathers as their primary means of getting from place to place. Given that fact, even those readers without familiarity with parrots might assume that feathers and flight would be of critical, primary importance to the life experience of any bird. 

In The Lives of Birds, Lester L. Short remarks, “…everything about a bird’s physical structure, and indeed much of its physiology, is affected to some degree by the constraints of flight.”  We could take Mr. Short’s observations one step further to rightly state that everything about a bird is affected by its need and ability to fly, including its emotional make-up.  A bird is flight, and to ignore this in our parrot keeping practices is to do them an injustice.

Feathers and Function

Feathers come in several different forms.  Smooth ones cover the body, fluffy ones provide warmth and insulation, and long, stiff feathers provide support for flight. An average-sized bird has several thousand feathers, which grow in feather tracts, with patches of bare skin in between.  The flight feathers have a central, spongy shaft, making the feather lighter and more flexible for flight.

Barbs extend outward, slanting diagonally from either side of the feather shaft. You can easily pull these barbs apart, then by pressing above and below the separation, zip them together again, the same way the bird does while preening.  From each side of the barb grow hundreds of barbules that overlap each other. Minute hooks on the barbules lock the branches together.  The “construction” of even a single feather is exquisitely complex. 

Feathers have many advantages.  They are light and are replaced regularly when worn or lost.  Each feather is individually attached to a muscle, which allows for greater maneuverability. (Poole, R. 1983) Feathers enable birds to fly thousands of miles a year, to fly at speeds of 100 miles an hour, to hover and fly backwards, and to fly for days at a stretch without stopping.

Other Accommodations

The bird’s skeleton has evolved in such a way as to keep flying weight to a minimum.   The skull of most birds is paper thin.  Many have hollow bones, which are filled with air sacs for increased buoyancy.  A frigate bird, whose wing span is seven feet wide, has a skeleton that weighs only four ounces, less than the weight of its feathers. (Poole, R. 1983)

Internal organs have evolved in such a way as to make flight easier as well.  The heart has become enlarged to include four chambers in most birds, in order to be able to remove impurities from the blood more quickly. 

In the respiratory system, air is pumped through a system of air sacs that branch off the lungs to occupy much of the bird’s body.  In some species, this system of air sacs extends even down into the legs.  In fact, in 1758, an English surgeon showed that a bird could still breathe if you completely blocked his windpipe, but made a small hole from the outside into a wing or leg bone. (Page, J. 1989)

The fusion of various bones in the skeleton has also resulted in decreased overall weight, and in some cases more flexibility.  The bones of the clavicles have fused into the “wishbone” or furcula.  Scientists have been able to view, with high-speed x-ray movies, the flight of a starling in a wind tunnel.  They observed that the furcula opens and closes with each wing beat, acting as a sort of spring or bellows.  This appears to assist the bird in breathing, pumping air throughout the respiratory system. (Page, J. 1989)

Flight and Migration

One of the most important functions of flight is that of migration.

Even tropical birds, who are not subjected to the extremes of weather, move with the seasonal rains and droughts, often across hundreds of miles. Certain examples of migratory flight almost defy belief.  Some shorebirds fly non-stop from South America to the coast of New Jersey.  This flight takes ten days to complete, a total of 240 hours of uninterrupted flight.  The motivating force behind migration is about finding food, rather than avoiding severe temperatures.  In reporting the migratory efforts of the short-tailed shearwater, a bird that covers over 18,000 miles in a single year, Weidensaul comments, “Migrations like this leave us staggered; we are such stodgy, rooted creatures.  To think of crossing thousands of miles under our own power is as incomprehensible as jumping to the moon.  Yet even the tiniest of birds perform such miracles.”

Flight Skills

During flight, a number of flight skills are demonstrated.  The bird must be able to gain lift.  Three factors affect lift:  the surface area of the wing, the wind speed, and the angle at which the wing is held.

Gliding is another important skill for a flying bird.  A bird will stop beating its wings, and thus begin to glide.  This results in a loss of speed, which enables the bird to land.  Gliding and hovering are necessary to landing. Powered flight requires more energy, and is achieved when the pectoral muscles drive the wing downwards. Birds must also be able to steer themselves once in the air.  They can do this solely through the use of the wings. This is achieved by altering the angle or shape of one wing. 

Flight and Humans

Aside from the importance it has to birds, flight has carried significance for humans since time began.  As Jack Page and Eugene Morton write in Lords of the Air, “We humans appear always to have been on the lookout for ways to understand ourselves and our world, and for most of our tenure here, we have rarely looked at any bird – say, a crow – and simply seen a crow….  In the first place, crows and most other birds fly, and flight has meaning. 

The crow is black, and black means something.  Feathers mean something, as do the eggs from which the crow is born.  For most people throughout time, these meanings have been as real as the bird itself, and perhaps more so, since the meanings were taken to be universal and eternal.  Flight means space, light, thought, imagination.”

Among the early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, the bird came to signify the human soul.  In ancient Egypt, the feather was one of the hieroglyphic elements that spelled such words as lightness and height. Wings have been seen as analogous to spirituality.  To the Greeks, they also signified love and victory.

While these are only a few of the fascinating facts related to bird flight, they underscore two major points.  First, every physical feature of the bird has evolved to facilitate flight.  Second, much of our fascination with birds is because they can fly.

A Subjective View of Feathers and Flight

I bred African Grey parrots for many years, back at a time when wing clipping was done by rote. Thanks to mentor Phoebe Linden, however, I understood the importance of the fledging experience. In the earliest years, babies enjoyed flight for two weeks before gradual wing clipping.

As I observed the astonishing gains to them from this experience, I made sure that they flew for three to four weeks before their clip. I was witness at this point to how young parrots use flight to reach important developmental milestones. After fledging, they first work on developing flight skills – landing safely, calculating the power of flight necessary to cover a particular distance, hovering, and more.

Once able to fly with skill, they then began to use this newfound ability to explore their environment. Finally, in their fifth and sixth week of flight, they turned their attention to the use of flight to communicate with each other and to build social relationships with each other and with me.

At this point, I made a discovery that completely changed my breeding practices and thinking about the importance of flight to a companion parrot. When I performed a slight wing clip on babies who had flown for a period of six weeks, I saw that this had a devastating impact on them. Flight had truly become who they were, and I had taken that away from them.

I had perpetrated a crime in my own ignorance and because, like so many, I had accepted without question the oft-repeated advice that companion parrots should have their wings clipped. Never again. From that point on, I quit clipping babies entirely, sending them to new homes fully flighted and trained to recall on cue.

We Destroy What We Value

Documentation of much of our own human behavior over millennia reveals how much we value birds and their ability to fly. Yet, we have been emotionally comfortable removing this remarkable ability from those in our care.

How do we reconcile this? Frankly, I don’t know. While the ability to fly has enchanted us on one level, we have been quick to prevent it on another.

Perhaps it’s our unquestioned conviction that we always know what’s best for animals in our care. Perhaps it stems from a need to have an experience with birds in our homes that is predictable and controlled. Perhaps it has been a too-easy acceptance of what others have pronounced to be true.

Myths about Flight in the Home

How often have you heard that we must clip our parrots’ wings to keep them safe? To protect them  from flying into windows or onto the hot stove? To keep them from drowning in toilets? Some veterinarians still espouse this advice by rote.

In truth, parrots are learners. If they can learn to keep themselves safe in the wild, they can (and do) learn to keep themselves safe in our homes. True, accidents can happen. However, accidents happen all the time to parrots who can’t fly as well. That is our purview – to anticipate possible problems and make changes to the environment to prevent them, no matter the state of flight feathers.

The real question is this: Can companion parrots enjoy complete physical, mental and emotional health without flight? And, if the answer is “no,” then where do we go from here? How do we learn to live successfully with a parrot who flies?

Future episodes of the blog will explore the benefits of flight to companion parrots, how to determine whether your bird is candidate for flight, how to set up the home for flighted bird, and how to live successfully and safely with flighted parrots.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resources

Short, Lester. 1993. The Lives of Birds. New York, NY. Henry Holt & Co.

Poole, Robert M. ed. The Wonder of Birds. Washington D.C: National Geographical Society. 1983.

The Gift of Birds. 1979. National Wildlife Federation.

Page, Jake and Morton, Eugene S.  1989. Lords of the Air: The Smithsonian Book of Birds. New York: Smithsonian Institution.

Weidendaul, Scott. 1999. Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. New York: North Point Press.  

Perrins, Christopher. 1976. Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Siljan and Dorris

Occasionally, I am gifted with an experience that is mind-blowingly remarkable.

Siljan Anna Jørnsdatter Nikolaisen contacted me on December 1, 2018 with a request that read as follows:

“Hi! I was sent here to you by Barbara Heidenreich, and I really hope you can help me with the issues I have with my parrot. I am from Norway, so my English isn’t so very good, but I hope you will understand. I have seen several training videos by Heidenreich about positive reinforcement and clicker training, and I have also read some in my own language, but i feel still cant start doing this in practise with my own bird. Her name is Dorris, and she is a 9 year old Indian Ringneck. The problem is, she wont even give me a chance to start training her. She is flying all over the place, and wont stay still a second. (She is NOT wing clipped, and i absolutely won’t do it) so I feel I cant start with anything. She is a fast flyer, and i’m pretty afraid that there is no hope for Dorris, my crazy bird at all, before I have even tried. Anyway, I have problems with understanding english when people speak to me, so if we could only write, I would be very happy about it.  I really hope you have the opportunity to help me with some tricks, one way or the other. Best regards Siljan and Dorris!”

Challenge Gladly Accepted

And so began the journey of helping Siljan to train “crazy” Dorris through email correspondence from over 4,000 miles away.

Siljan is 36 years old and lives in the small town of ​Bodø in northern Norway. She adopted Dorris 6 years ago. Before that, she had a Jenday Conure who passed away at the age of 31. She had never trained before.

At the time that Siljan wrote to me, Dorris would not consistently step up. When she did, wouldn’t stay on Siljan’s hand for long. Thus there were times, such as when visitors arrived, when Siljan needed to use coercion to get Dorris into her bedroom or back into her cage. This had broken trust and explained some of Dorris’ behavior. As Siljan wrote: “Then I sadly sometimes need to pick her up and put her inside the cage against her will, and that is awful.”

Finding Reinforcers

During initial sessions, Dorris was not particularly motivated to earn food reinforcers. We needed to clean up her diet. She was already eating pellets, but also got nuts and some types of table food. Raspberry jam was a favorite. Dorris, like most parrots, prefers foods that are high in fats and carbohydrates. And Siljan, like most bird owners, loved to treat her to these to make her happy.

We eliminated these treat foods, refining her staple diet down over time to just pellets and vegetables. Dorris could still have her treats, but she was going to have to earn them. This change produced the motivation we needed. We simply took the treats she used to enjoy for no reason and used them in our training.

Initial Concepts

As we began our work together, I offered an analogy: “Building behavior is like building a brick wall. You have to lay down the first course of bricks, put the mortar between them so that all cracks are filled, then let it dry before you lay down the next course. You have to teach the simple things before you can teach more complex ones.  And, you absolutely must first have a trusting handling relationship.” Thus, our first step was to teach Dorris to step up reliably and then to stay on Siljan’s hand instead of flying off.

We got a strong start, but then our efforts had to be put on hold when Siljan went to visit her mother over the Christmas holiday.  She took Dorris with her, but she had to be confined to her cage during this time. This hampered our ability to make progress on what we had begun, but we simply shifted our focus.

Targeting Through Protected Contact

Siljan purchased a GoPro video camera for recording training sessions. I suggested that she begin to work with Dorris on targeting. She could work with Dorris from outside the cage while Dorris remained inside.  

Very early sessions

This is called working “through protected contact” and is a great way to begin training fearful or aggressive parrots, as well as those who will not step up at all. None of these issues applied to Dorris, but this was a type of training that was possible during this period of physical restriction. Further, targeting is a behavior that assists in the training of other behaviors so we could use this skill later once learned.

Our Real Work Began

By January 9, 2019 Siljan was back in her own home again and our real work began.

Since Dorris often flew away when Siljan approached her, we began with some CAT training. This too is a training strategy that works extraordinarily well with fearful and aggressive parrots. While typically referred to as Constructional Aggression Treatment, in this case it might be more correctly called Constructional Aversion Treatment.  My instructions were:

  • Stand as far back from Dorris as you can, given the physical arrangement of your house. 
  • Begin to slowly walk toward her, one step at a time. Don’t talk to her.
  • As you do, watch her body language for any sign of movement. Go slowly and take your time.
  • At the very first sign of discomfort on Dorris’ part, stop where you are and stand still. (Signs of discomfort might include standing up straighter, eyes wider, feathers held tight against the body, leaning or moving away from you.)
  • After you have stopped, watch for signs of another (hopefully more relaxed) behavior. For example, she relaxes her position a bit, her feathers puff up or she turns her head – anything that looks less tense than before you stopped.
  • As soon as you see any behavior indicative of less stress, turn around and immediately walk away, back to where you started. (Try to find a behavior that will allow you to retreat within just a minute or less.)
  • Approach again and continue to repeat the process for up to 15 minutes at a time. 

Once Siljan could walk all the way up to Dorris without her flying off, we began to work on teaching her to step up with greater compliance. It was only a few days before Dorris was stepping up readily. By the time another few days had elapsed, she would remain on Siljan’s hand for extended periods since she knew that was the place where the goodies appeared. Soon after, Siljan was able to walk with her slowly around the apartment, offering reinforcers frequently for continuing to stay on the hand.

Our work together began to take on a rhythm that continues today. Siljan films her training sessions and sends the videos to me through a file sharing service. I respond with tips on how to improve her technique and suggestions on when to move to the next approximations. This system has been remarkably successful and demonstrates just how much can be accomplished at long distance, even with a bit of a language barrier.

The Human Side of Training

Siljan has frequently expressed anxiety and doubt over her own ability to perform the training correctly, even in the face of obvious success, and this has become an underlying theme of our work. As she voiced one day: “This is a little bit exciting, i’ll try not to be too disapointed if it doesn’t work at first try. I am actually a little bit nervous to fail and not make it work at all, but I would never give up trying, because I know Dorris can do it!

Her expressions of self-doubt always surprised me. I saw no reason for it. She made amazing progress with everything I asked her to do. Our exchange often reminded me of James Clear’s words: “Successful people start before they feel ready.” Consider the timeline below:

  • By January 24th, Siljan had taught Dorris to willingly get on a scale to be weighed.
  • By January 28th, Dorris was flying back and forth between two perches when cued to do so with the target.
  • By February 3rd, Siljan was teaching Dorris to fly to her hand using the target stick. Within only a day or two, we were able to fade out the use of the target so that Dorris was flying to Siljan’s hand on cue.
  • By February 4th, Siljan could transport Dorris into her bedroom when people came to visit and to get her back into the cage without any use of force.
  • By February 8th, Dorris was flying a good distance to Siljan’s hand and was learning to fly back to the perch instead of being carried back.
  • By February 20th, Siljan had taught Dorris to turn around on cue and was preparing to phase out the use of the target as a lure.
The beginning stages of teaching Dorris to fly back to the perch
  • By February 8th, Dorris was flying a good distance to Siljan’s hand and was learning to fly back to the perch instead of being carried back.
  • By February 20th, Siljan had taught Dorris to turn around on cue and was preparing to phase out the use of the target as a lure.

Nevertheless, I continued to receive Siljan’s input about her own emotional experience. No matter how much she achieved, she continued to experience anxiety. She would send me a video, believing that she had done a terrible job and I would watch it, thinking that she had done extraordinarily well.

The funny thing about training is that it creates a new world of intimacy between the animal and the trainer. It also creates greater intimacy between trainer and coach.

When I questioned her self-doubt, Siljan quite openly explained that she suffers from mental illness and severe self-injurious behavior to the degree that she once spent 16 years in a mental hospital, 9 of them in a high-security ward. She has never been to school or held a job. She has improved now to the extent that she can live independently, in a building with others who also have behavioral challenges, with staff on-site who can look in on them to make sure that all is well. She has important goals for the future.

In Siljan’s words: “I have a mental ilness, and my days can be rough and long, but Dorris is the one to get me trough it. After I met you, I have now become so much closer to Dorris, and for me, it opened a whole new world when I started to train her. With hard work, everything is possible!” 

A Graceful Gift

Every once in a while, we have the rare gift of stumbling upon greatness. Often, it shows up in the most unexpected of places. I wrote to her not too long ago: “What makes greatness is attitude, compassion, acceptance. You have them all, Siljan. I’m happy to know you.”

Her response: “And, who would believe that I should be an inspiration to others? That. That is amazing…”

Written with full permission from Siljan and Dorris.

(We did, however, have to bribe Dorris with a pomegranate.)

Credit for all photos and videos goes to Siljan Nicholaisen.


Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!

Remember to Say “Thank You!”

This is a bit of a follow-up to my last post, Avoiding Aggression with Start Buttons, because I think there is more to be said about aggression in parrots. Prevention is truly the key and there is one other important step to avoiding this problem. I mentioned it briefly in my previous post, but it deserves more focus. That is the need to say “thank you.”

Biting problems, once they develop, can be resolved. But remember this: A behavior that an animal exhibits can only be suppressed through behavior modification efforts. It cannot be completely eradicated from the bird’s “behavior repertoire.” Thus, a bird who used to bite can always begin again if the social and environmental circumstances support the reemergence of that behavior.

Because of this, we need to center our attention on preventing aggression in the first place. Biting parrots aren’t a lot of fun to live with; I don’t know anyone who loves the thrill of never knowing when the beak might strike next. Plus, aggressive parrots often lose their homes. We need to help each other learn how to live with our parrots respectfully, so that the problem never develops in the first place.

This simple goal is easier said than done. Using start buttons to clarify communication and being mindful to pay attention to body language will both go a long way to preventing a biting problem. However, there is an even more essential ingredient to our social relationships with our birds. It is vital that we remember to say “thank you” to them when they comply with a request.

The Importance of Concepts and Language

Let’s deviate and talk for a minute about the language we use when we talk about training parrots.  When discussing behavior, I often bring in comparisons from the dog and horse training worlds and will do so here as well. I have two reasons.

First, behavior is behavior is behavior. What does that mean? It means that the same behavioral principles apply to the training (teaching) of all species. The most effective methods for training dogs aren’t any different than the most effective methods for training birds. There is a science of behavior that has been in existence for a century now. That’s a whole lot of data on how behavior works that we have at our fingertips.

Second, the training concepts and language used in dog or horse training tend to infiltrate conversations about parrot training.  A person who took their puppy to obedience school learned certain concepts from the individual conducting the classes. Many of those concepts might not be valid, depending upon the education and experience of the class leader. Many popular dog training practices are rooted neither in scientific theory, nor ethics.

They are nothing more than concepts. A concept is “an abstract idea or general notion.” It is not a proven fact or reality. Nevertheless, many of these concepts are pervasive and extremely resistant to break-down. Language reflects concepts, so let’s take a brief look at some of that. Why? Because the concepts we hold to be true and the language that lives in our heads can inform our own attitudes when we aren’t paying attention.

Is It a Command or a Request?

It is still most common for people to use the word command when it comes to describing a training cue. I would like for all of us to get this right. When we ask a parrot to do something, it is NOT a command. It is a request, a cue.

We don’t actually have the ability to command a parrot to do anything. A parrot’s beak puts him on pretty equal footing with us when it comes to that. The word command means to “give an authoritative order.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been successful in giving an authoritative order to any of my parrots. So, let’s call it what it is. Words matter. When we ask a parrot to do something, we are giving a cue…not a command. It is a request – nothing more.

Courtesy or Dominance? Your Choice.

It’s not any different than when we make a request of a family member. We usually get the best results if we preface it with “Would you please….” Most of us then make sure to remember to express gratitude for the favor done by at least saying “Thank you.” If a stranger holds a door open for us, we say “Thank you.” If the UPS driver hands us a package, we say “Thank you.” These good manners are deeply ingrained in us because we have been taught to be courteous. Why should we be any less courteous with our animals?

I think it has been different in our animal-human relationships because of that ever-lurking idea that we must have dominance over them. But it should not remain so. Our goal has to be that of building reliable, cooperative behavior. It’s hard enough living with parrots if we can’t get them to cooperate or if we get bitten every time we try. It’s time to cast aside invalid notions and focus on what works.

Crazy Thinking Gets in the Way of Effectiveness

Let’s go back to the idea of saying “thank you” to our parrots. This is also an area where language and concepts born in the dog training world infiltrate our own parrot community. Specifically, there is much confusion about the use of positive reinforcement and training “treats.”

A quick Google search brought me face to face once again with some of these invalid ideas. One website states that using food treats could foster dependence in an animal. “If you use treats, and only treats as a reward, it may happen that your pup always wants a tasty reward for a job well done or an acceptable behavior.”

What is wrong with that? Expecting a reward doesn’t mean that the dog won’t perform the behavior. It just means that he’s a bit disappointed when the treat doesn’t appear.

In reality, there is nothing wrong with an animal expecting a “thank you” in those circumstances. Moreover, just because he expects a treat doesn’t mean that we have to deliver one every time. Usually, it is best to reinforce every time, but there can be valid reasons reasons for not doing so. An example would be if you are putting the behavior on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.

This same website warns readers to always also provide positive reinforcement through the use of affection and praise. That’s fine, but only if the dog is motivated to earn praise and affection. Most parrots couldn’t care less about praise and if you have a parrot who bites, I wouldn’t recommend using affection as your primary reinforcer.

A last caution raises the issue that the trainer might not demand respect if relying solely on using training treats. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. You can’t demand respect, even from dogs.

Teaching New Behaviors is Good

Most of my blog topics arise out of conversations that I have had recently with people. I’ve had a lot of them lately that have to do with training. Most people I talk to balk at the idea, envisioning the need to set aside a block of time each day in their already-busy schedule to teach specific behaviors.

That type of training is wonderful and there are a great many benefits. Teaching new behaviors creates greater trust between parrot and owner. It increases the bird’s quality of life. It frequently causes the owner to appreciate the bird in a whole new way. The bird becomes easier to care for. Having regular training sessions can help to resolve some problem behaviors. Training improves communication between us and the animal. Pursuing training teaches us to be more observant.

Daily Habit Training Is Better

However, an even more important type of training takes place on a daily basis, whether you are cognizant of it or not. Parrots are always learning. Every single interaction you have with your bird is a learning moment for him. This means that you are constantly teaching, whether you choose to be aware of this or not. The truth: You get the behavior you reinforce, not the behavior you want.

The need to pursue training of any sort is a relatively new idea in our “parrot world.” Some have embraced this enthusiastically, posting video after video of parrots with impressive skills. But for most, it is still not a common practice to use positive reinforcement on a daily basis throughout the flow of life with our birds.

The Gist of Positive Reinforcement

So, here we are again – talking about the use of positive reinforcement. Those words may sound like mumbo jumbo to some. So, let’s break that concept down. Here are the steps to using positive reinforcement (making a request and saying “thank you”):

  • Know your parrot and what he wants most – whether that is a food treat, head scratches, or a bottle cap to play with.
  • Ask him to perform a behavior, such as stepping up, going back into the cage, or stepping down onto a perch. (The Request.)
  • Immediately give him the item he wants, if he performs the behavior as asked (or close enough). (The Thank You.)

When you follow this pattern in your interactions with your parrots, you will find that the thank you guarantees the please. Your parrot will begin to respond willingly to your cues because he has learned that you will always say “thank you.”

This is an oversimplification of the process, but is not inaccurate. This type of training is simple – as simple as it gets. These types of interactions occur regularly throughout our days.  We are already using reinforcement with our parrots. The key is to be cognizant of what behaviors we are reinforcing and when we are doing so.

Great! One More Thing I Now Have To Do….

How many of you are now groaning, thinking, “Great…one more thing I have to remember to do!”? I sympathize. It took me the longest time just to remember to put a handful of sunflower seeds into a pocket in the morning, so that I would be prepared when those moments arose to deliver some well-timed reinforcement. Truly, the hardest part of all this is getting into the habit.

Make It a Habit

I have a pattern of living in my head, rather than being present in the moment. When I live in my head, I forget stuff. I’m working on this.

One trick I have learned is habit stacking. Habit stacking is a trick for developing new habits by linking them to existing ones.  For example, if you make coffee in the morning, you might put the jar of sunflower seeds next to the coffee maker. That will serve as a visual cue to you to put some into your pocket. Saying “thank you” effectively throughout the day means that you need reinforcers close at hand. By using this trick, I soon remembered to put sunflower seeds and/or nut pieces in my pockets in the morning.

This practice, however, did not help me to remember to actually use them to reward my parrots’ good behavior. For that, I needed punishment, which appeared in the form of my dismay when they all fell out onto the floor at night when I undressed. The experience of sweeping up sunflower seeds off my bathroom floor every evening soon helped me to be cognizant of the fact that they were in my pocket. That, in turn, led to my using them throughout the day. Granted, I can be a slow learner, but perhaps you can relate.

When you teach your bird to do things, or work to strengthen behaviors that are already in place, by using positive reinforcement, you are simply remembering to say thank you. If you use those simple steps on a daily basis, you will have an agreeable parrot who complies with your requests and never learns to bite…because he doesn’t have to.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!

Parrots and Start Buttons

Communicating with parrots can be tricky. Evidence of this rests in how often parrot owners receive bites unexpectedly from their birds. Social media platforms are full of talk about “aggressive” parrots and photos of bites wind up in news feeds too often. We have all seen them. Clearly, there is a lack of clarity about how to resolve aggression in parrots.

Change Antecedents and Consequences to Solve Problems

With the majority of behavior problems, the key to solving them lies in examining the antecedents (what happens right before the behavior) and the consequences (what happens right after the behavior) in order to figure out an effective strategy. (This is a bit of an oversimplification, but is generally a true statement.)

Sometimes we can change the antecedents. Sometimes we can change the consequences. Sometimes we can change both. Doing so effectively resolves the problem over time.

When your bird has a screaming problem, you can often change both the antecedents and the consequences for best success. For example, if your bird screams while you are trying to cook dinner, you might change the antecedent by bringing the bird into the kitchen before he starts screaming to sit on a perch for hands-off social interaction. You would also change the consequences by removing any previous reinforcement that might have been offered for screaming and instead begin to offer rewards for talking and other pleasant noises.

Antecedent Changes Only for Biting

Biting is different. The best strategy to resolve biting is to avoid it – identify the antecedents and change those. Many people will advise consequence changes, such as a time out, when a bird bites. This never works. For a consequence change to work, there must be contiguity. This means that, for a consequence to influence behavior, it must occur very quickly after the behavior occurs.

If you try to give a parrot a “time out” in the cage for biting, by the time you get the bird into the cage, contiguity has been lost. The consequence occurs too long after the bite for it to have any meaning to the bird. I just did a consult with a client who has been using time-outs for years and her bird was still biting frequently. By focusing on antecedent changes, the problem has now almost resolved.

Avoid the Situation and Build Behavior to Resolve Biting

If your bird bites you, you must avoid the bites by changing the antecedents. If your bird bites your earrings when on your shoulder, then don’t allow him on the shoulder anymore. If he bites when you try to pet him, then don’t pet him under those circumstances anymore. If he bites when you change out food dishes, then teach him to station on a perch in the cage or remove him from the cage completely when you feed. If he bites when you put your face close to him, then don’t do that anymore.

At the same time, you must also begin offering positive reinforcement for all cued behaviors. This helps to build compliance at the same time that you remove opportunities for biting. The combination of these two strategies works every time.

Just Read the Body Language!

People will typically advise you to change the antecedents by carefully observing your parrot’s body language. This is good advice, but often doing so is easier said than done.

If you don’t have years of experience with a variety of birds, it can be hard to recognize and interpret body language accurately. New World birds, such as Amazons, macaws, and conures, are often the easiest to read. Their body language tends to be more overt, if not dramatic. However, the African grey may only slightly raise the feathers on his shoulders to alert you that a bite is coming. His is not so obvious. Your cockatoo might chatter his beak, but whether he means to bite or have sex with you may not be immediately evident.  

Reading body language is a skill that develops over time. Just telling someone to “read the body language and you won’t get bitten” may be of little help. The ability to read body language requires a good deal of sensitivity and that level of sensitivity will likely take practice and dedication to develop. It has taken me years of work to be able to spot every message my birds are transmitting.

Most humans aren’t very good at reading the body language of other people, much less that of animals. Expecting them to be able to read their parrots’ successfully, even if it has been described to them, may be simply expecting too much. Further, many parrots learn to mask their body language before biting for one reason or another.

The Function of Aggressive Displays

Behavior has function. This means that your parrot does things for a reason. While some biting results simply from a heightened state of arousal, the function of most biting behavior is either to make us stop doing what we are doing or to get a reaction from us. However, biting is not a natural behavior for most species, and therefore most individuals will initially display some signs that a bite is on the way, as the grey above demonstrates. If the owner ignores these signs time and time again, the bird can learn to simply save his energy and go straight for the bite.

So, what if we did something even better? What if we developed a form of communication with our birds that allowed them to indicate to us when they wanted to interact – a sort of permission they could give us to forge ahead?

The Benefits of Start Buttons

We can offer them a Start Button. This concept is useful for any species. It is especially useful for animals who suffer from fear or aggressive tendencies.

A start button is a signal the animal gives to the owner/trainer that offers “permission to continue.” It allows the animal to have greater control over his social experience. It enhances communication between owner and parrot and allows greater trust to develop in the relationship.

There is a big difference between the parrot who merely tolerates what you are doing and the parrot who is an active and eager participant.  We should be striving for the latter.

The start button grants the parrot the ability to say “Yes! I’m all in.” Conversely, it also grants the parrot the ability to say “No.” In other words, it gives them the power of consent and requires us to respect this.

Start buttons also take the burden off of the owner to read that body language that immediately precedes a bite. It allows the bird to clearly tell us that he is ready for what we have in mind and eliminates any need for a display.

A last benefit:
Embracing this social technology just may allow us to put the final nail in the coffin that will bury the “dominance concept.” There is no excuse for using insistence, force, or coercion with our companion parrots any longer.

Below are three examples of instances in which start buttons have been useful in three different species:

Violet’s Start Button

A friend of mine, Chris Shank, has a donkey named Violet. Violet is not a well-socialized donkey and is fearful of hands and some types of human interaction. Chris wanted to teach her to wear a halter and I was lucky enough to participate in Violet’s training.

Chris developed a start button that gave Violet full control over whether she wanted to participate in the halter training. She would hold a hand parallel to Violet’s face a couple of inches away, which Violet tolerated quite easily. Violet eventually would move her head closer to the hand, which was her start button that signaled to whichever one of us was working with her that she was ready to begin.

If she gave the signal, we would proceed to touch the side of her face, then gradually move the hand upward until we were able to reach over her head to grasp the other side of the halter. It gave her total control over a process that could have caused her fear. (This was not accomplished all at once  of course – we used small approximations to be able to complete the action.)

Dash’s Start Button

My last blog post of 2018 described the training I had been doing with Dash, a previously very aggressive dog. If you missed it and are interested, you can read the post here. When I was using the Constructional Aggression Treatment protocol, I did not walk all the way up to him in the final stages. He was so reactive that I thought a start button would help us both to feel safer. So, at each approach I stopped about two feet away and waited for some sign that it was okay for me to come closer.

He understood and began to offer a sit – a behavior he already knew well. The sit behavior became his start button. As soon as he sat his butt on the ground, I came forward and was able to deliver a treat. He had total control over whether I came closer or not.

Harpo’s Start Button

My Amazon parrot, Harpo, is a happy bird in all ways but does not want much physical contact. However, he does enjoy an occasional head scratch. So, I allow him the ability to decide when I touch him. I approach when he isn’t busy and wiggle my index finger, asking “Do you want a scratch?”  If he does, he fluffs up all of his head feathers. The act of fluffing those feathers is his start button that tells me it’s okay to offer a scratch. He has total control over whether he gets touched or not.

Begin with a Social Duet

Developing a start button requires a willingness to enter into a bit of a social duet. How did we know that Violet would turn her head? We didn’t. How did I know that Dash would sit? I didn’t. Instead, we waited in each case for the animal to offer some type of action that we could turn into a start button.

Harpo and I developed his start button years ago, before I ever understood that it had a name. I just never wanted to force myself on any of my birds, and certainly wanted to avoid any biting that might occur if I did force contact. I’m sure that many of you may have already been using communication like this with your own birds too.

Start Buttons for Stepping Up

If you are not, please consider embracing start buttons to clarify communication at times when biting might happen. For instance, if your parrot bites at times when you ask him to step up, I might suggest  one of two different start buttons.

Instead of offering your hand close to the parrot’s chest when you ask him to step up, instead give the cue clearly, but hold your hand back a foot or so. Wait for your parrot to say “yes” by raising his foot first. That is a start button. An alternate approach is to place your hand several inches away and ask the bird to walk towards it to step up – another sign of acquiescence on his part.

If you don’t see that foot raise, try leaving and coming back a few seconds later. Always reward your bird immediately with a treat when he does comply.

Better Communication Brings Greater Trust

If we all embraced this sort of communication with our birds, biting and other forms of aggression would be a lot less common. Each and every one of us can teach our birds to give us “permission” for interaction. It is merely common courtesy for us to give them a say in what happens to them.

Have any of you seen the videos of Keen, the African Grey parrot who understands his deaf owner’s sign language? This bird not only understands, but answers questions by lifting a particular foot to indicate that he is ready for whatever his owner is suggesting. That is a more sophisticated use of a start button that should inspire us all to wonder what else might be possible!

There is no need ever to be bitten by your bird. It is not just a part of living with parrots.

Yes, we do need to develop greater sensitivity to their body language so that we can understand them better. However, if we worked just a little harder to be respectful, granted them autonomy and the ability to communicate choice by using start buttons where we can, their quality of life would be greater and we too would be happier.

Please let me know how you might be using start buttons with your birds. This is an area that deserves greater exploration and we can help each other to identify what works!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Until next time!

Parrots in Bird Rooms

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the LIMA Hierarchy? LIMA stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” I am a LIMA behavior consultant, which means that I will always use the behavior change strategies that are least intrusive and minimally aversive with working with you and your parrot.

If a client wants to teach his parrot to step onto his hand, we have a choice between the use of positive or negative reinforcement. He can offer a valued item to “reward” the behavior when it occurs (positive reinforcement) or he could hold an aversive item near the bird to encourage him to get onto the hand and then withdraw it when he does (negative reinforcement).

Both tactics will accomplish the goal, but one is preferable to the other. The use of positive reinforcement improves the parrot’s quality of life and builds trust. As a result, the parrot often voluntarily exceeds the effort necessary to perform the task. The use of negative reinforcement can both break trust and cause unnecessary and detrimental stress to the parrot. The obvious and best choice is to use positive reinforcement to teach or strengthen behaviors.

The LIMA Hierarchy

The LIMA Hierarchy is also known as the Humane Hierarchy, and provides an ethical structure for behavior consultants and others (that’s you) when it comes to selecting training and behavior modification tactics. As the illustration below suggests, the very first step when attempting to change behavior is to examine conditions that support the parrot’s wellness.

Poor diet, unmet or inappropriately met social needs, and other poor practices or limitations in the environment will set the stage for behavior problems to develop. In other words, if the parrot is not getting his primary needs met, he will be more likely to display problem behavior. (Please note that “getting his needs met” does not equate with “getting what he wants.”) Conversely, if these areas are not corrected, reversing problem behavior will be either more difficult or impossible.

Thus the first step when solving behavior problems, consistent with both the LIMA Hierarchy and simple good sense, is to examine the diet and environment and make changes that will create wellness, increase quality of life, and support improved behavior.  

Deal Breakers in Parrot Care

I have come to think of some environmental conditions as “deal breakers.” My definition of a deal breaker in this instance refers to environmental conditions that are so detrimental to the parrot’s welfare that, should they continue, they make resolution of the behavior problem either extremely difficult or impossible.

For example, feeding a high fat, high carbohydrate diet is often a deal breaker. If the parrot is so full of fatty foods that he isn’t motivated to work for reinforcers, new behaviors can’t easily be taught. Further, a high-fat diet produces more energy for the parrot, which often is channeled into increased noise and aggression. Therefore, if the diet is not improved, behavior change becomes unlikely and malnutrition will be the continued result.

Another deal breaker can be excessive daily cage time. I am convinced that caged birds need at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, and that this needs to be broken into two sessions. If a parrot receives less time out than this, the pent-up energy and boredom that result will, at the very least, be reflected in increased noise, and at the worst, cause the development of stereotypical behaviors. Thus, this problem must be corrected before we can effectively implement behavior change strategies.

Bird Rooms Can Be Deal Breakers

This brings me to the topic of the bird room. Bird rooms have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. In fact, I was gob smacked when I searched online using the phrase. Pinterest, apparently, is the home of all good bird room ideas.  Make some popcorn! You could spend an entire day there and still not read it all. The only point not discussed is their unsuitability for the parrots who live in them.

A bird room can obviously be a huge benefit to owners because they help to contain the noise and the mess. When company arrives, you can shut the door to the bird room and socialize in peace. That closed door also hides the poop you didn’t get cleaned off the floor, the papers that your grey just pulled out of the cage onto the floor, the sweet potatoes on the wall, and the chewed woodwork. In other words, a bird room allows you to appear a bit saner to your friends who are inclined to visit.

But, does your bird room meet your parrot’s needs? Before I go further, allow me to provide one caveat. There are bird rooms and there are Bird Rooms. I have seen entire rooms designed for the parrot’s enriched existence in mind, with perches running the entire length of the room and lots to do and chew. The parrots get to be out of their cages all day in this type of bird room. There is usually also a comfortable spot for the owners, making it their room as well. This type of indoor aviary stands a much better chance of meeting the birds’ needs and does not factor into the discussion that follows.

For the purpose of this post, the definition of a bird room is a bedroom or office that contains the cages for all the birds in the household and little else. It is the room where the birds stay in their cages most of the time. A bird room like this often sets the stage for the development of behavior problems and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve them. The following discussion outlines the problems I see with this more typical type of bird room.

Disadvantages of Bird Rooms

Decreased Quality of Life: Many studies have concluded that one criterion for good quality of life for captive animals (this includes your companion parrots) is to afford the animal control over its environment. (Wolfensohn, S. et al 2018 ) This manifests within the practice of giving the parrot as many choices as possible. The typical arrangement for birds who live in bird rooms is to provide playstands for the birds in the common area; when the birds get to be out of the room, they perch on these stands.

However, most playstands offer little to do for the parrot. Most don’t even have toy holders. When the birds do get to join their owners for some social time, it is most often to perch in one place only.

Environment matters a lot to birds. They thrive when their “home” is placed in our living area. It’s important for them to be able to behave socially in a normal (or as close to normal as we can support) manner when living in our homes. Clipping wings cripples them from behaving normally in a social manner. Confining all movements to a simple playstand when out of the bird room, adds to this “invisible confinement.”

Increased Physical and Emotional Isolation: Keeping parrots in a bird room cannot possibly result in anything less than increased isolation. We may entertain the goal of getting the birds out into the living area to visit twice a day, but this plan often gets put on hold during the busier times of the year. While some household parrots bond strongly to each other, most do not. They enjoy the presence of the other birds in the home, but their primary bonds remain to us. This artificial separation, then, increases the stress already inherent in living in captivity.

Increased Stress: I think of parrots, even the smaller species, as having large personalities. Large personalities result in a sense of territory. If you watch a group of parrots who are able to be at liberty all day, you will see that they keep their distance from each other most of the time, even if they are the same species. They interact socially, but don’t perch side by side unless they share a pair bond. 

My own experience has convinced me that cages for medium to large parrots should be no closer than four or five feet from each other. This allows each parrot to have their own “sense of territory” and reduces the stress that parrots feel when crammed in next to each other in a single room. When cages are closer, you will often see hyper-excitable behavior and increased “territorial” aggression in parrots who live full-time in a bird room.

Increased Frequency of Undesirable Behavior: When our birds are located in a bird room, you wind up in the position of more frequently reinforcing problem behavior. If you hear a blood-curdling scream, you don’t have the advantage of being able to see that this jungle sound was the result of playing with a bell. Instead, you have no choice but to dash in there to see who’s been injured. Since the birds live in relative isolation, your entrance can be a powerful reinforcer. When you show up as a result of noise, you are teaching your bird room birds to scream.

Amplification of Reproductive Hormones:  I have no proof for this next statement, so you will just have to take my word for it. Having a number of parrots in a bird room can amplify the impact of reproductive hormones in a phenomenon similar to contagion. It’s much the same thing as happens when you have to hospitalize an angry cat in a veterinary clinic. You may have three nice cats in the clinic. When you add the one angry cat, guess what? You now have four pissed off cats with which to deal. 

Beyond that, I also believe that one trigger for the production of reproductive hormones is a degree of “sameness” to the environment. If you want a budgie to stop her chronic egg-laying, one useful (albeit inconvenient) strategy is to move the cage into a different room of the house every day. If you want to decrease hormone production in a larger parrot, you will see the reflective behavior decrease when you offer more exposure to new situations – trips out of the house, an outdoor aviary, etc. If you want a bunch of really “hormonal” parrots, keep them in a bird room 24/7.

Less Available Enrichment: While we remain relatively unaware of this, our own movements and behavior provide a good deal of entertainment to our parrots. They enjoy watching and predicting our behavior and looking for opportunities to interact with us. They are deprived of all this enrichment when they remain in a bird room. Their bird room life also allows us to remain out of touch with their need for enrichment, as well as their reaction to enrichment.

Less Passive Flock Bonding: A study of parrot behavior reveals that they use body language as a way to solidify alliances. Bonded parrots will preen each other’s heads, feed each other in a form of social duet, and mirror each others movements.

A group of parrots lacking pair bonds still use body language and behavior to solidify looser flock bonds through the performance of parallel activities. They will all preen at the same time, roost as one, or forage together as soon as a meal has been delivered. These more subtle behaviors may seem insignificant to us, but they are extremely important to quality of life and a sense of security for our birds.

Due to their amazing adaptability, they include us in these activities when they are able to do so, while we might not even notice. They may go to the food dish when we sit down to eat. A parrot may choose to roost when we sit down to read a book. Many parrots preen when allowed to accompany their human into the bathroom for the morning routine. Parrots in bird rooms are deprived of this vital manner of creating connection.

Inability to Resolve Behavior Problems: As detrimental as the combination of all these factors can be, the worst thing about bird rooms from my perspective as a consultant is the difficulty of resolving behavior problems.  If your birds live most of the time in a bird room, you have a greatly diminished ability to influence their behavior.

To successfully resolve a behavior problem, you must take a constructional approach. This means that you must build (teach) other behaviors at the same time that you work to remove any reinforcement that might be present for undesirable behavior.

For example, if you want to solve a screaming problem, you can’t just ignore the problem noise. No one ever solved this problem simply by ignoring it. Instead, you must teach the bird to make pleasant sounds instead, through the use of positive reinforcement. If you want to solve a biting problem, you do have to modify your own behavior that results in the biting, but you also have to use positive reinforcement to re-establish a mutually trusting handling relationship.

Well guess what? You can’t change behavior that you can’t see. Thus, if your birds stay most of the time in the bird room, it is this reality that likely contributed to the development of the problem in the first place and will delay or make impossible its resolution.

Author and meditation expert Sharon Salzberg once said, “We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us – vs. – them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations.”

It struck me, when I found this a few days ago, that it applies exceptionally well to the topic at hand. If we can learn to practice fierce compassion towards our parrots, then we will develop greater appreciation for their unique qualities – flight and their distinctive social nature. Should we do so, we must then deconstruct practices that create isolation or deny freedom of movement for our birds. We must find a way to establish community with them in our homes in a manner that does not physically isolate them.

Doing so will, as the quote implies, lead to difficult situations. No matter. We have tools. We can use training and antecedent arrangement to solve these minor issues, rather than relying on practices that enforce that us vs. them approach to parrot keeping.

I agree with avian veterinarian Anthony Pilny that we need a new captive parrot paradigm. If you don’t like living with parrots, then why have them? If you do like living with parrots, then why have a bird room?

I would love to hear your comments. I’m sure this post has been unsettling for more than a few of you and perhaps upsetting to some. Please understand that I mean no judgment. However, some of the conditions under which companion parrots live make my heart hurt. It truly is time to examine the care-giving practices established in the 20th century and create together that new captive bird paradigm.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Photo Credit: Featured image photo is by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash.com

Resources:

Friedman, Ph.D., Susan. 2008. What’s Wrong with this Picture: Effectiveness is Not Enough. Good Bird Magazine. http://behaviorworks.org/files/articles/What’s%20Wrong%20With%20this%20Picture-Parrot.pdf

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. IAABC Position Statement on LIMA.

Wolfensohn, S., Shotton, J., Bowley, H., Davies, S., Thompson, S., & Justice, W. (2018). Assessment of Welfare in Zoo Animals: Towards Optimum Quality of Life. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI8(7), 110. https://doi:10.3390/ani8070110

Your Screaming Parrot and You

I posted a short survey on Facebook several weeks ago, asking readers to express interest in one of three future webinar topics. I was surprised to find that almost as many people asked for a webinar on screaming as asked for one on feather destructive behavior. I was surprised because screaming is actually one of the easiest behavior problems to solve.

Resources are Readily Available

There are a number of very good articles and webinars already in existence that outline the steps for solving a noise problem in a parrot. I published three of them myself in 2018. The formula is fairly straightforward. Remove any reinforcement for the problem noise (ignore it) and increase reinforcement for other behaviors that are more desirable – pleasant vocalizations, interacting with enrichment, etc. If you would like a refresher, read my blog post from 2018.

So…What’s the Problem?

So, why do we have so much difficulty? Could it be because a screaming parrot brings us face to face with issues we might rather not examine? Could it be that our own stinking thinking gets in our way?

I’ve given this a lot of thought recently because I live with a 42-year-old Moluccan cockatoo. Cyrano is a wild-caught parrot who arrived in the United States as a young bird. I adopted him when he was 20 years old. He’s a great parrot. He is not aggressive and, in general, isn’t very loud – unless a particular trigger is present.

I live at Cockatoo Downs, where free-flying cockatoos are a frequent sight. When they are outside flying, Cyrano loses his mind. He screams the entire time and none of the antecedent changes I have tried have been effective. No amount of enrichment can take his mind off of the fact that he can hear them clinging to my window screens.

A few days ago, he was being about as loud as a Moluccan Cockatoo can be in reaction to their proximity. I found myself for the first time actually feeling a bit frantic. I finally understood in the moment how so many of my clients have felt and just how desperate ongoing noise like that can make a person feel.

I’m a pretty even-tempered, patient person, but even I in that moment was pushed almost to the point of doing something. Only my knowledge that any action on my part could reward the behavior allowed me to remain calm and instead do something else to help myself.

As someone wrote on Facebook recently, “I just stick something in the beak to make it stop.” Yes, in the moment it can seem that we must make it stop. So, we take action. We put the parrot into another room. We cover the cage. We walk out of the room. We offer a toy. We spray water. We do whatever it takes to make it stop.

The problem with this approach is that these “solutions” that make the noise stop in the moment most often reward the behavior so that it increases in the future. By using interventions like this, we actually teach our parrots to scream. However, in our desperation for quiet, we really don’t care in that moment.

So, maybe this isn’t the easiest behavior problem to solve in a parrot. The information on how to do so is out there, readily available. So, what is getting in our way? Why can’t we simply follow directions and then live with a quiet(er) parrot? Why is this so hard?

Flaws, Delusions and Messy Bits

Actress Hattie Morahan once said, “I am fascinated by people’s flaws and delusions: all the messy bits of human nature we all try to pretend we don’t have.” I would agree. I love behavior consulting because it is such a very human endeavor, one during which these “messy bits” often come to light. And I believe it is our flaws and delusions that get in the way of achieving that goal of the quieter parrot.

I think there are five primary ways that we undermine our own best intentions and get in our own way, when it comes to solving this problem.

#1: We Believe Our Own Stories

First, we tell ourselves stories about what the parrot wants, what he intends, and how he feels. We love our parrots; it’s natural to try to interpret their communications. But, by allowing ourselves to indulge in this pastime, we often deprive ourselves of information that would point to a better solution. 

I worked with a couple who had a very loud African Grey whose favorite sound was a car alarm. We worked together for a couple of months and achieved success – the obnoxious noise was gone. Several months later, they requested a second consultation. Noise was again the issue. These folks thought they had a new problem because it was a different noise. They were telling themselves a story. The solution was actually the same as it had been the first time.

Let’s say that your parrot screams and you tell yourself, “He wants out of his cage.” That could very well be true. However, if you go let him out of his cage you will be rewarding the screaming. If you tell yourself, “He’s probably hungry – he hasn’t had dinner yet,” and you feed him, you will be rewarding the screaming.  Lots of people reward the very behavior they hate out of a misguided belief that the parrot needs something and they have to respond in that moment or they won’t be a good caregiver.

Telling ourselves stories about the parrot also allows us to take the screaming personally. I spoke to one client a few years ago who tearfully proclaimed, “He’s trying to get to me.” True, it can seem that way. However, believing this only allows us to remain stuck in a victim-like mentality that can’t even begin to grasp the details of a solution.

To solve the problem, a more dispassionate approach is required. It may feel good to us to think that we have identified and met a need our parrot has. However, this feel good moment only increases the problem in the future. The parrot isn’t going to be harmed if we don’t open that cage door or miraculously appear with dinner.

Instead, it’s necessary to examine the antecedents that set the bird up to scream and the consequences that may be maintaining the screaming, and then change those. That is the only way to solve a screaming problem. Reading the parrot’s mind doesn’t even begin to factor into the solution.

#2: Does Our Own Behavior Set the Stage for Quiet?

Second, we often don’t realize the impact of our own behavior on the parrot. It was a very amusing moment when I was talking to a couple who live with a loud Umbrella Cockatoo and they realized that their own noise levels influenced their bird. Bostonians with a tendency to become very animated when speaking to each other, they themselves were loud.  When they were loud, their bird became loud. A loud house will beget a loud parrot.

Try asking yourself if your own home supports a quiet parrot or a noisy parrot. It may be that the people living with the parrot need to quiet down and calm down themselves.

#3: An Anxious Parrot Is Often a Loud Parrot

Third, many of us have a difficult time recognizing anxiety in a parrot. We focus on the noise, oblivious to the accompanying body language. Anxious parrots can be very loud.

In using the word anxiety, I am referring to parrots whose body language indicates a lack of comfort in the environment. They do not often settle and roost. They may circle in their cages or pace back and forth along a perch for extended stretches of time. Their feathers are slicked down tightly against their bodies and they stand up tall. They move often and may vocalize shrilly in a repetitive fashion as they do so.

If you have an anxious parrot, no amount of behavior modification is going to be completely effective, because it’s necessary first to make changes that allow the parrot to relax. A careful study of the environment is necessary to determine what triggers might be responsible for this heightened state of alert in the parrot.

A more comfortable parrot will likely be a quieter parrot. Perhaps the cage needs to be moved out of a traffic pattern. Perhaps the window blinds need to be drawn. Perhaps a couple of large houseplants on either side of the cage would provide a greater feeling of security.

#4: We Live too Close to the Emotional Edge

Fourth, a screaming parrot will reveal cracks in our own equanimity and emotional stability. In my experience, there is nothing like a screaming parrot to bring otherwise sensible people to their knees. If this is the case for you, it may be time to examine your own stress levels and self-care routines.

A friend recently asked me what I do when Cyrano screams. I think she found it hard to believe when I said, “Nothing.” I just ride it out from a place of acceptance. If it gets too bad, I go into my office or go for a walk, but I rarely find the need to remove myself. Yes, it’s unpleasant but it’s really not that big a deal. If you find yourself undone by a loud parrot, perhaps it’s time to find your center, gather your wits, and just do the work.

#5: A Screaming Parrot Widens Relationship Fractures

Last, a screaming parrot can also reveal cracks in our relationships with those with whom we share a home. This is a much bigger problem than people realize. In many homes that house a screaming parrot, one person loves that bird a lot more than the others do. Often, those others are a lot more irritated by the noise.

This creates a bit of a hostage situation that always makes it impossible to solve the problem. The one who loves the parrot becomes charged with the task of keeping it quiet. This is an impossible task, so anxiety grows. Anger erupts and ultimatums follow. Already stressed relationships move just a little closer to the breaking point. Often, in these cases, the bird loses his home. Sadly, this occurred just last month with one of my clients. When explaining, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to jeopardize her marriage for the parrot’s sake.

Solving a screaming problem requires that everyone in the home is on the same page. Everyone must commit to the solution and support each other in doing the right things – following the recommended steps.

The inconvenient truth is that it is we who create screaming problems in our birds by both providing less than optimal environmental conditions and then responding incorrectly to the behavior we witness. The even more inconvenient truth is that, in order to change our parrots’ behavior, we often must change our own first.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Dashel: A Message of Hope

I am deviating from my usual parrot-related themes for this last blog post of the year. I want to tell you about Dash, a dog from whom I have learned a lot during the past nine months.

Dash was one of a litter of feral puppies found in a field. Initially placed with a foster family, he was adopted shortly thereafter. However, his first family returned him to the shelter less than a year later. They demanded that the group either take him back or they would have him euthanized. At this point, he was underweight, dirty, and had fresh wounds and a large burn on one side.

Carla and Laurel found him online, were attracted by the look of this presumed Kelpie Mix, and drove to meet him at a PetSmart adoption fair. Dash was not handling the experience well, having evacuated his bladder and bowels upon arrival. He was timid and reluctant to be handled, even offering to bite at one point.

However, Carla and Laurel walked with him around the store for some time. By the time they got back to the rescue group, were able to gently pet him. They decided to adopt him and gained the agreement of the shelter staff. They had no idea what to expect once they had him in the car, recognizing that aggression was a very real possibility.

Dash’s early days with them were challenging. He appeared to have no prior training, was very nervous about new situations, and exhibited a prey drive that needed to be handled carefully as he got used to sharing a home with multiple cats. However, with patience and a lot of training on basic behaviors, Carla and Laurel eventually developed a trusting relationship with Dash. Before I ever met them, they had succeeded with him to the point where they could even trim his nails at home.

However, when they took Dash outside the house, he vigilantly watched for strangers and reacted violently if they got too close, barking and lunging savagely with teeth bared. When they tried to access any drive-thru window, he behaved fiercely there as well. His reactivity and aggression were strongest when physically next to either Carla or Laurel. When he nipped at one of their friends, they became very worried about what he might do if given the opportunity.

Dash’s “public outfit”

Realizing a greater need for safety measures, they used positive reinforcement to train Dash to wear a basket muzzle. When out in public, they were careful to maintain a safe distance from people, preventing any opportunity to bite. Dash also wore a bright red leash and collar, both bearing the word “CAUTION” in large black letters – a warning to other dog lovers.

When visitors were due to arrive, they made a comfortable place for him in an upstairs room and escorted Dash up there, providing a stuffed Kong for entertainment. Nevertheless, even away from the stimulus of the strange person, Dash would put his nose to the heating vent and bark non-stop. In his vigilance, he never settled down during these times.

I met Carla and Laurel due to an online posting of my own, offering services for dogs. Having just left my job as a veterinary technician, I was in the middle of deciding in which direction my career would go and was casting about a bit for income.

Their goal was to find a pet sitter. Living in the country with two dogs, four cats, and a flock of noisy ducks and geese, they knew they would need someone with animal experience.  They were especially worried about who might be able to care for Dash.

Our first meeting was at the local park, a place Dash associated with pleasant things. After a brief discussion, we decided that they didn’t just need a pet sitter – they needed a behavior specialist to guide their ongoing efforts. While Dash trusted them, he wasn’t comfortable with new people, dogs, or unfamiliar situations. After learning more about him, I really couldn’t see how I might ever enter their home safely to provide animal care without some long-term efforts at behavior modification first. It certainly wasn’t a situation of just “making friends” with Dash.   

Carla and Laurel readily agreed. They had recognized this for themselves, of course, and had already worked with one dog trainer without seeing any improvement in Dash’s behavior. I was touched and impressed by their commitment to this “misfit” dog and by how far he had come already as a result of their efforts. Thus, I began my work with Dash on March 24, 2018.

I was under no illusions. I knew working with Dash could be dangerous, but he wore a basket muzzle quite comfortably and I had worked previously with fearful and aggressive dogs. As a veterinary technician conducting behavior appointments, I had trained numerous resistant dogs to accept medical procedures in a fear-free manner.  

I began by structuring counter conditioning and desensitization sessions at the local park. While I stood quietly about 20 feet away, the distance at which Dash was below threshold, either Carla or Laurel would slowly walk Dash back and forth in a zigzag pattern parallel to my location, frequently cuing the behaviors he already knew and providing reinforcement. As they did so, they very gradually decreased the distance between Dash and my position. In this way, we paired things he values with my presence.

During these beginning sessions, I watched Dash’s body language closely for any signs of distress and was gratified to see that he appeared to be happily accepting of our work. I attributed this to using very small approximations, giving him lots of time to get used to me. He performed the cued behaviors without hesitation and eagerly accepted reinforcers. His sniffed the ground in what appeared to be a relaxed manner.

On the second session, they were able to walk him up to within 18 inches of me. At that instant, we all learned an important lesson about Dash.  Previously, this had gone unnoticed due to the careful distance they had always maintained around other people. Dash stood sniffing the ground, body relaxed, tail wagging slightly in a normal position, readily eating treats as they were offered. He went from this posture into a full-out attack on me within a split second.

We had been prepared for this possibility, of course. They immediately retreated with him, removing the opportunity to earn any more reinforcers in that moment. I had stepped back and was unharmed, although it took a few moments for my heart rate to return to normal.

A typical “ladder” of aggressive body language

Dash had apparently learned to mask early signs of aggression, as many animals do. Most dogs will display a linked chain of signals that lead up to biting, providing a clear warning before they resort to full-out aggression. Each dog is unique in his choice of signals, but for example, a dog might first lick his lips, look away, then focus intently on a stimulus, raise his hackles, shift his weight forward and growl, then crouch a bit, and finally lunge. If you punish a dog for these “warning” behaviors, he learns not to offer them. He simply saves his energy and attacks once close enough.

Would you pet this parrot?

Parrots do the same thing. If you ignore their body language that predicts a bite, they learn not to bother offering it. A lot of people claim that their parrot bit them with no warning. Sometimes this isn’t true – they simply didn’t recognize or register the warning body language. Sometimes it is true – usually due to this type of prior learning on the parrot’s part.  

Dash did offer some very subtle signs of course that I gradually learned to recognize. His eyes adopted a more intense look, although he didn’t stare. His weight shifted very slightly to his front legs. He would look away in some instances, although he did not offer this sign consistently. And he exuded a palpable physical tension that I learned to feel intuitively with my body before I saw it with my eyes.

We continued these weekly sessions, working in different outdoor locations to generalize our progress. We saw huge success. After a period of about three months, Dash would readily approach me and take treats from my hand with no signs of hesitation, nervousness or impending aggression. He was visibly happy to see me each week.

In early August, I shifted our strategy. During one session, Dash had taught me another lesson. While he was quite comfortable approaching me and taking treats, my approaching him was not something that he would tolerate.  I chose Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT), after seeing a video of Barbara Heidenreich using this with both aggressive and fearful zoo animals.

Beautifully described in the book Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly by Kellie Snider, this behavior modification strategy uses negative reinforcement to teach the animal to perform behaviors other than aggression as someone approaches. Used effectively, the ultimate result is that the animal completely reforms his original opinion of the scary stimulus. This method can cause stress for the animal, so initially I limited this work to 15 minutes at a stretch, with frequent breaks for short walks and fun behaviors in between. This worked very well.

As an aside, I would not typically choose negative reinforcement as a behavior change strategy because it can create some fall-out with the animal, causing distrust. However, in this case its use was acceptable. With a fearful animal, you often do have to start out using negative reinforcement before you are able to switch to positive reinforcement. And, the CAT approach results in success so quickly that a switch to positive reinforcement does not take long.

We worked first in different neutral outdoor locations. It took only two sessions before Dash welcomed my approach as I walked all the way up to him to offer a food treat. We then worked with Dash in the car. Previously, he had displayed violent reactivity if anyone walked toward the vehicle. In one short session, I was able to approach the car and even put my hand on it with perfect acceptance from Dash.

We then progressed to working on the gravel road right outside his home, the spot in which he had previously been most reactive. Within three sessions, I was able not only to walk up to him on the road, but could approach him on the pathway up to the front door, and then enter the house while he was in the living room. At all times, we kept Dash below threshold, so that he experienced no distress.

Pat approaching Dash on the walkway

We then worked to generalize his acceptance of any human’s approach by using different “helpers,” friends who agreed to approach him using the CAT protocol. (Many thanks to Chris Shank and Pat Anderson.) This work met with equally swift success. Within three sessions, Chris was able to walk into Dash’s home. Within one session, Pat was able to approach him on the front walkway.

This was the first time that anyone had been able to walk into the house with Dash in the same room. Not only could we come inside, he was happy to have us do so. He was even tolerant of two of us at once in the house for up to a few moments.

This was another beginning, however, rather than an end. While I could walk into the home, it was clear that Dash wasn’t comfortable with my presence there for any duration.

Taking Dash for a walk

Our efforts now shifted to conditioning him to my presence for longer periods within the home and the back yard. These sessions are ongoing and with each week, Dash grows more accepting of me. He rubs his head against my leg affectionately and recently welcomed a bit of scratching on his chest. When I sit, he will come and place his head in my lap. He allows me to hold his leash and walk him short distances away from Carla and Laurel. He happily goes into the back yard with me while they remain in the house. Last week, he and I spent time in the house together without their presence. We have progressed to taking his muzzle off for very short periods while I am in the house.

Outside the home, he has shown comparable progress. He is much less reactive in the car, and Carla and Laurel can now enter a drive-thru without high drama from Dash. He tolerates strangers who appear on the highway nearby or on their gravel road. He settles upstairs when visitors are present in the house, no longer barking insanely. He still wears his special leash and muzzle in public, of course. However, Carla and Laurel can now take him places with a great deal more ease.

Why did I choose to share Dash’s story today? Certainly not to highlight any skills I might have as a dog trainer. Any experienced canine behavior consultant will readily see that I made lots of mistakes. That I have been this successful is as much testimony to Carla’s and Laurel’s commitment and skillful training with Dash as my own.

I chose to talk about Dash today because his is a story of hope. This dog, initially deemed “hopeless” by his first family, now lives more comfortably in his world. His “accepted family” has grown and his quality of life is better. He initially presented as a difficult challenge, but with commitment and consistent effort and compassion, we have achieved what I wasn’t sure would be possible for him. And our work isn’t finished yet.

2018 has been a difficult year for many of us for many reasons. We have a madman at the helm of our country. Differences in belief and philosophy seem to divide us more severely than ever before; examples of hateful behavior assault us each day on social media and the news. Signs of climate change grow more real, while our government negates this and refuses to take action. Those of us who love the natural world are led to despair.

It is easy to feel dejected on a daily basis. However…

Feelings are not facts.

There is always hope.

Hope for Dash and other dogs like him.

Hope for me and hope for you. Hope for our country. Hope for the world. 

Happy Holidays, Everyone. I will see you in the New Year.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!