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
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 MDPI, 8(7), 110. https://doi:10.3390/ani8070110
19 thoughts on “Parrots in Bird Rooms”
I think we also need to address the ideology of how clipped parrots are currently managed in this overall increased progression of better management strategies. I’ve been posting about trying to address the betterment of how to work clipped parrots and instead am met with that all I want to do is clip parrots when I’m trying to improve parrots. I’m an advocate for better welfare of parrots, no matter their physical condition, hoping to likewise better that condition as well.
I myself try to set up clipped parrots to not be “stuck” as perceived in your piece in a locomotor isolation set up. Most clipped parrots should have their places designed for them to climb as well as break toys, eat, drink. We also need to be aware that possibly the bird on the perch wants to be moved and be the person to move them.
This leads me to telling people who choose to clip that it’s actually MORE work for the human to deal with that bird than one that is flighted. Often, the misnomer is that clipping allows us to control and train a parrot “better”. “Better” being an awful construct of the real word which means, force our desire on them easier…which leads to fallouts we already know about with severe bites, learned helplessness and things associated to “typical clipped parrots”.
It is sad how people do not address clipping itself to addressing the owner to make that decision an active one. One based on reason. One based on training the animal to accept the behavior vs. just forcing it. One where we now must be the birds’ locomotion, yet, also realizing that our bird is not immobile, either. That they can still fly, but with far greater effort. This is also not addressed well as people assume birds can’t fly when clipped and take them outside without a thought without training, without understanding outdoor dynamics.
Then, the bird room. I have one bird room and one office that has become a bird room. I agree with you that a stagnant, cage only room full of cages of birds remanded only to the cage is not the ideal or best situation. I have, I guess by needing to change the definition, not a bird room, then? An indoor aviary where they are all let out of cages and interact or not as they please.
In the same light, I have seen fall out of parrots being unable to sleep properly and the subsequent screaming of always being in areas of full stimulation all the time. We’ve observed siesta times when they can be afforded in the wild. Usually right after “the big lick game” when talking about Tambopata. So, they need the big social events and then the down time as well. A fine balance of both.
Just like we need. A balance of outings to see new places and things. Of having our more secure places we want to go to sleep at night. Of having things that keep us occupied at home. Yet, ability to gain comfort and confidence. All very dynamic.
That is why I started Flight Club Foundation to help this dynamic process be realized for people’s pet parrots. That has been met with criticism as well. That we are just meeting up for people and for our own selfish purpose when I’ve seen massive positive behavior shifts that participate. Like the satisfaction of going out in the big event to come home and also be secure they do in the wild…
Thank you as always for your insight. I definitely agree with you on all merits you bring up. Let me know your thoughts on mine.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate hearing from you. I have been aware of the ongoing discussion that developed after your post on clipped birds. I don’t envy you:) Please don’t take the criticism seriously. I get my share of hate-mail also. However, if we truly love parrots, then we have to dialogue about them. You won’t always be right. I won’t always be right. They won’t always be right. However, by embracing courage and having the conversation, we will all get closer to the truth over time. It’s hard work, but it’s the right work.
Debbie, you just made me realize something very important about a member of my flock, Charlie, a twenty-something-year-old Senegal.
He was clipped, very short, when I got him just over a year ago, and I have learned from direct contact with his previous long-term caregiver that he was always kept clipped (with good intentions, “for his safety”). I, of course, am letting him grow and keep his full feathers.
My house is a tri-level. The entry-level floor is about 1,000 square feet of open space, with skylights, picture windows, and a vaulted ceiling. The (open) “rooms” are the dining, living, and kitchen (the hub). My three birds live on that floor, as a bird room (indoor aviary). Each bird has two cages, which are always open, 24×7, for over a year. Because he is clipped, Charlie has three cages, not quite attached by externally mounted perches. He moves about, from cage to cage, inside or out, always his choice. Again, the cage doors are never closed. He has about twenty perches, inside and out, too. That is his “world” for now.
I have had a challenge with Charlie where as soon as I interact with him, he would get a hold of me, to step up, even when I was not offering. I visit him to hand him a treat, or scratch his head for a moment, and in an instant, he had a hold of me (like a feathered magician) with one foot, in a tight grip, and he was trying to “step up”, with no intention of letting go.
What you made me realize: I am a key part of his mode of locomotion. I was always thinking “Charlie is Velcro bird; he always wants to be on me.” I now realize, there are surely times where he just wants to move beyond his cages, to be mobile, which I do offer him, but not as much as he’d probably like, or at the exact times he would like.
The other two birds are flighted and move about at will. I was thinking Charlie was set up well and content, because he has multiple cages, and I am on the same floor of the house as him the vast majority of the time. However, he is missing out on a key aspect of life, the moving about at will as the flighted birds do.
Please notify me when you upon a location near me, on the central, east coast! :]
I have lived in a tiny house for over three years and in cold weather my birds cannot be in their outside cages, so two Congo Greys, two cats, one Doberman and myself get along quite well.
Pamela, thank you for writing this important article regarding the problems with bird rooms. You’ve stated everything so beautifully. You’ve delved into a deeper level of sensitivity and awareness that is crucial to parrot wellness. It’s a topic that is mostly not addressed and it should be for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned.
While I can understand that it may not be possible for some people to completely abandon the bird room setting, you provided solutions to make the bird room arrangement more humane and enriched.
Thanks so much for the comment. I love your last paragraph! That’s exactly it. If we have to keep up a bird room, we can realize that it isn’t optimal (rather than kidding ourselves otherwise) and instead work a bit harder to provide other experiences that will provide greater balance for the birds – like outdoor aviaries!
I’d love to read the Friedman article listed in the resources. Link is broken.
Thanks for the message. I’m sorry about the link. I tested it, so don’t know what happened. At any rate, if you go to the IAABC page through that link, Dr. Friedman’s article is incorporated in that page. Otherwise you can go to http://www.behaviorworks.org and click on “Written Works” and then on “Learning and Behavior.” All of her articles, including that one, are on that page.
This was an interesting read. Near the end, you asked if someone likes having parrots, then why have a bird room? My answer is, safety! I have 2 dogs whom have never met, nor will they ever meet, any of my 6 conures. My second bedroom (and before that the Florida room of my old condo) were converted into “bird rooms” so that my flock would have a safe place to play and roost. I also keep spare cages and play stands throughout the house for when my dogs are outside, or at doggy daycare for the day. My flock enjoys flying thru the house and following me around while I do my housecleaning (chemical free, non toxic, bird safe cleaning of course!)… but when my dogs are home, or if I have company (in which the door outside will be opening and closing) the birds remain safe in their room. I also installed French Doors with glass windows so that the flock can still see what is going on in the living room, without having to worry about someone flying out the front door. They are also trained to fly back to their room if someone knocks on my door while they are out. I clap my hands loudly and say “Everybody home!” and they return to the safety of their “aviary”. They are not locked in their cages, unless someone gets a little too hormonal and needs a time out. They spend their day swinging from rope swings, climbing ladders suspended from the ceiling, chewing on bird safe plants, and playing with various toys hung all over the room. I realize that you said rooms similar to mine do not “factor” into your comments, but I just wanted to answer the “why” in why I have a bird room.
Dear Missy Toby,
Thanks very much for your comment. Safety is an important concern to be sure. In cases like yours, I counsel clients to do what you have done – try to find a balance in which all species get their needs met. First, I don’t assume that any particular dog is going to be a threat. Many are fine with birds. In addition, dogs can be taught to station in the presence of birds and dogs can spend time in crates also when the birds are out. Dogs can be trained using counterconditioning to leave birds alone, even if they start out being a little “too interested.” The important thing is balance – so that no one’s (animal or human) rights are subjugated for the sake of another’s!
Brilliant, Pam! Train the dog, too. :] Some of us humans seem to think, “Well, the dog was here first.”, so the birds have to fully accommodate the dog(s). Or, we think that the only way to protect the birds is to isolate them. Clipping is an extension of that thinking. My clipped bird is the most vulnerable. I largely prefer flighted birds, having lived with both for a year.
I am now realizing that integrating a parrot into my life takes more time than I thought, mainly because I am left to figure it out on my own. Please author a book titled “How to Integrate a Companion Parrot into Your Home and Life” with all the steps, dos and don’ts! :]
I moved house and took my birds from an indoor aviary set up to a bird room. They were miserable and I didn’t get to spend time with them. The lounge has now been converted into an indoor aviary and we are all back together. Even if I pop into the kitchen to make tea, we can see and hear each other.
Thanks so much for the feedback. It’s wonderful that you found a way to create a shared living space once again.
I frequently find your posts to be both insightful and communicated in a friendly accessible manner — not always an easy combination. So I was a little surprised by this post. I wonder why you elected to burden the term “bird room” with guilt that is better attached to the real problems (which you go on to note): isolation, crowding, unintentional reinforcement, etc… And while I get that these elements can converge in a room that houses bird cages, I feel that we too frequently demonize concepts like “bird room”, rather than making the extra effort to focus on how the concept works, as well as potential pitfalls and how to avoid them. Isolation, crowding, unintentional reinforcement are problems for most living things in a large variety of situations. Recognizing how they may develop is of meaningful use. And of course, there are good and bad examples of everything. I would like to think that we can continue to use the term “bird room” to denote a room designed for the safety and enrichment of our birds, and for our enjoyment of our time with them, much like children have their rooms, tailored more specifically to certain of their needs, and families still enjoy common spaces.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I can understand why you might have been taken aback by the post. Might I assume that your opinion is based upon having instituted for yourself a bird room, in the most benevolent sense of the term? I thought that in my post I differentiated well between a “typical bird room” and those more like an “indoor aviary.” My own position is rooted deeply in my experience as a behavior consultant. As I said in my post, this is one of the most frustrating challenges I face as a consultant. Problems develop primarily BECAUSE of the bird room, and then I am asked to solve the problems with the stipulation that the birds STAY in the bird room. (The majority of people who have “bird rooms” have a small to medium-sized room with cages and not a whole lot else, so that the birds get to come out on stands in the living area.) As I said to one client recently, “I don’t have a magic wand.”
My own experience also supports my views. I have over 40 years of experience living with parrots and have done it all kinds of ways. I will always believe that, as much hassle as it is, we and they belong in the same living area for all kinds of reasons.
Thank you for this – I can see many things I do wrong.. and understand many behavior issues now. I spend most of my time outside in the garden nursery, my home is also my workplace a garden nursery with a shop. Clients coming in and out. My Parrots have a bird room, but with a glass sliding door to the outside garden nursery with outside play area and aviary. Parrots can see me most of the day, for the parrots safety I created the birds room -many poisoning plants – we have a problem with crows.. My home is small and I dont have another choice, no space to fit cages. I will definitely change a few things. Thank you
Thank you for your comment, Karlien. Even in situations like yours there is usually a way to “protect” a parrot from outside influences that cause fear or distress.
From what I have seen in person and in videos, parrot “rescues” (or, should I call them adoption centers? https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2013/09/01/changeourlanguage/) are prone to the problems of “bird rooms” you are addressing here. Their practical challenges are quite different than the “forever homes” where the parrots hopefully end up; however, the people adopting those birds are adopting birds that came from a “bird room” setup; so they may have to deal with the behavioral consequences to some degree, depending on how long the bird was there, or how many times it was returned. Even if it is not easily changed, the setup at “rescues”, it would be helpful to acknowledge it and prepare those adopting for the transition from it.
Perhaps the “rescue” is where adopters first see it, and subconsciously gravitate toward replicating it within their homes.
People choose to have bird rooms for two reasons: (1) Everyone does it, and (2) it contains the mess. This, however, applies only to those bird rooms – not indoor aviaries. It is true that some birds, when going into a home after being in rescue, have behavior problems related to that experience that need to be managed.