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!
28 thoughts on “Parrots and Start Buttons”
Our formerly no-touch Amazon would scratch his chin and look a bit like he wanted scritches. So I would scratch my chin and move my hand toward him slowly above his head. If he turned his head up, I backed off. If he put his head down I would give him scritches. So now he can scratch his chin and put down his head and he can also say no later (lift his head and gape) if he changes his mind. Also a lot of steps in between. But now we can ask each other about scritching and it’s helped build trust and communication. I also like it that he made up his own cue for me.
I like it too! Thanks so much for sharing this.
Thank you Pamela! This a wonderful and timely article for Leroy and I. I love that used the example of Harpo. I was wondering if he was still with you. I remember the first time I met Leroy. He and Harpo were playing together on harpos cage. I went over to them to say hello and Harpo ran toward me lunging his beak at me I jumped back and the two double yellow headed Amazons began laughing histerically. I also had to laugh at this unexpected scene. Thorne two were hilarious together. Now it’s been 20 years that Leroy is with me and we’ve been through many changes. We now live in Switzerland and I have two very lively human children. Leroy is coming up on 25 years in April and has become much more opinionated. This displays in frequent agitation and agressivity. Now that the kids are in school I have a bit more time to put into training and I absolutely love your approach to creating autonomy and a bond of friendship and trust. Thank you Pamela.
Your article was spot on! My severe macaw decided a couple years ago that my fiance was not going to “eat” her. She follows him every where! He works nights, I work days. We share days off. Pickles, of course, always wants to spend time with Paul. If I tried to pick her up with Paul around, a very painful bite ensued. When he is sleeping or at work, I can still interact with my bird with no painful bites. I have resigned myself to the fact she loves us both but loves Paul more when he’s awake (much too his chagrin). Start button… awesome phrase… thank you!
I ask my parrot Gracie if she wants to sit on her perch which is outside of her cage. If she lifts her foot I know she wants to, if she doesn’t I leave her alone. If I need her to come out of her cage I have to use a peanut but she comes.
Thanks so much for sharing this. You have a start button! Nice. One suggestion: Try offering a favorite food treat EVERY time she steps up, no matter where she is. Think of it as a “thank you” for doing as you asked.
Hello Pam, Patrick is my 8-month-old African Grey. He used to step up every time he would see my 2 fingers coming toward him but now he bows he head down every time so I will pet him. I need him to step up at times too but he will not. I need help.
With animals you get the behavior you reinforce, not the behavior you want. You have very successfully taught him not to step up. You ask him to step up, and when he doesn’t do so, you reward him by petting his head. To fix the problem do this: figure out what his favorite treat is. Don’t give him that food anymore except for when he steps up. Go to him, show him the treat, and ask him to step up. If he does, give him the treat right away. If he doesn’t, don’t ask a second time. Instead, walk away without a word and DON’T PET HIS HEAD. Come back a few (3-5) minutes later and do the same thing again. Eventually, he will learn that he doesn’t get the head scratch or the treat until AFTER he steps up. For the rest of his life, reward him in some way when he does step up and you will never have this problem again. If you need more help, please think about registering for a Sunday Q & A Session by going to the “”Products” tab on my website at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.
Love your article. I need to enforce it more on my spoiled Chuckie. We do a lot of the start buttons. I didn’t know they had a name.
Thanks, Bonnie. Tell me about them when I see you next. Hugs. Pam
I found this article extremely helpful. I have recently adopted a 25 year old African Grey and I am working on learning his start buttons. I have noticed that with more respect I give him, more respect he seems to give me. So far I think I am doing well, as his biting has all but disappeared. I know when he says “no” and when he says “yes” for stepping up. Unfortunately, the rest of his body language is quite cryptic and could mean one thing or the complete opposite.
I’m so glad you found the blog helpful. Sounds to me like you’re doing a great job with him. Greys can be tricky to read, but they do make themselves clear if you pay attention. They are very discerning as a species, so what you said about respect, I too have found to be true. Enjoy each other!
I have a lot of trouble getting my 2 yr old African grey bk on her cage it takes me ages of going up and down where ever she lands. No matter how long she is out for it’s never enough. I put my arm out tell her to step up she dies then she flies off. I used her favourite treat which worked amazingly for the first week. So as I put her bk in her cage I praised her and gave her her favourite treat, but now she’s started the behaviour again. I have even tried fooling her by putting her on her outside perch or to sit on her play stand just so she doesn’t think she’s getting put away every time I ask her to step up but it’s not worked . I use to remove her cage into the hallway before I put her back in but brought a much bigger one for her so am unable to do it now. When I put her cage in the hallway she would go in no problem . I’m lost and don’t know what else to do!!!! I stay calm all the time so she doesn’t pick up on my frustration any help would be much appreciated.
Thanks so much for writing. This isn’t a simple problem and a start button won’t be of any use to you. While it may seem self-serving, my best suggestion is that we do a behavior consultation. There isn’t any quick advice that I can give you here that would solve your problems. If you are interested, the information about my consulting services is on my web page on the Consulting Services tab at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. If doing a consultation isn’t possible financially, the next best thing to do would be to sign up for one of my Q & A sessions. Right now, there aren’t many people attending so I could probably spend several minutes just helping you. Other than that, I suggest that you work on teaching her to station. Instructions for doing so are on my website on the Resources page.
Please don’t depair. The solutions are not difficult. They just are a bit too complicated for me to go into here.
I have found your blog extremely interesting. I am new to parrot keeping & about 8 weeks ago rehomed a 22 year old African Grey.
He has chosen my husband as his favourite but is showing real aggression towards me which makes things difficult for when my husband is away as he bites me or attacks my feet if I try to get him back in the cage.
I thought I might try using a start button but the problem is that he will bite my finger rather than take a treat from me so I don’t even know where to start to try to build our relationship.
Any advice would really be appreciated. Thanks.
Thanks for writing. This is not a situation where any start button is going to help you. Without knowing more, my guess is that this bird had a pair bond with a male in his previous home. He has now transferred this to your husband, making you the “outsider.” It’s a bit of a myth that parrots “choose their people.” This oft-repeated statement simply stems from a lack of knowledge about how parrots form relationships. Parrots like best the people who are most reinforcing. If all people in the household are equally reinforcing, the parrot will favor all equally. When a parrot shows a strong preference as your grey goes for one person, it’s almost always because they had a pair bond with a person of that gender in their previous home. This pair bond should be evolved or you will always have trouble. So, this is actually a more complex problem than you may perceive. It has solutions, but not any that I can share in a quick message like this. My recommendation would be that we do a consultation. If interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about my consulting services is on my website at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com on the “Consulting Services” tab.
Thanks for giving that bird a home! I hope to hear from you.
I have only had my blue and gold macaw for about 3 weeks and we at working on building trust. The only times she has stepped up have been by accident, when she was distracted by something else. She really doesn’t want me to touch her. Except we have a new routine where she lifts her leg backwards and lets me hold onto to it for a short period of time. I immediately reward her with a treat. We are also doing clicker/target training. I am going to take her permission of me holding her leg and try to turn it into step up. What are your thoughts?
Thanks for writing. My first reaction is to say that I don’t think that is likely to be the best approach. Whenever we want to teach a parrot something, we must first set up the situation so that it is physically easy for the bird to perform the behavior. For example, if we want a bird to fly to us, we should make sure that he is facing us directly. If he’s facing to the side, it will be more difficult for him to take off and then straighten out his flight pattern. Parrots like to step forward and upward. Thus, teaching her to lift her leg backward and step up from there will be much harder for her. If you have trouble making progress, please consider a consultation. It’s difficult to provide much good advice without knowing more.
Hello. I am new to parrots and have a sun conure. I tried to get her to wear a flight suit with a leash but she is terrified to have it put on. I went through all the introductions to it and the desensitization before trying to put it on. I lost some of her trust but have since been able to get her to come back to me and cuddle. It was a major fail in our relationship. Things are getting back to normal. Do you have any suggestions on how to use the start buttons process to move towards letting me put the suit on?
Thanks so much for your question. A start button can’t be used for a purpose like this. A start button is a signal that the bird gives you that she is ready for an interaction of some type. It is a voluntary action that the bird offers. If she is afraid of the flight suit, she’s not going to give you a voluntary signal that she’s ready for you put it on. I am opposed to the use of flight suits because parrot’s don’t enjoy wearing them. You can desensitize and counter condition a bird to wearing one, however. It just takes a long, long time to teach it. If a parrot is afraid of something, you first have to begin with simply desensitizing them to the sight of it. Once they accept it being very near to them, then you have to begin pairing reinforcers with the item using very small approximations. If you are new to parrots and training, this may be a bit too difficult and challenging to attempt at this time. However, if you would like to do a consultation, I can work with you to teach her to wear it. It just won’t be a fast process.
My cockatoo is so cheeky. He will put his head down so that I can scratch it the he will lift his head up quickly and try to bite me. I am not sure if he really has any read any start buttons. I am trying to figure him out, but he is such a jokester.
I was going to share your article, but stopped when I saw the suggestion to bring the parrot into the kitchen which I would never do while I am cooking.
I wonder if you could change that to a safer suggestion?
“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.”
No. I do not plan to change that recommendation. The advice to keep parrots out of the kitchen is an old bit of mythology. People have been repeating that ad infinitum for decades. In reality, there is nothing inherently dangerous about a kitchen for birds, any more than there is for any other room. A parrot can quite safely sit on a perch while the owner chops vegetables or performs other food preparation duties. If you are not comfortable entertaining that level of “risk,” that’s okay.
I found your blog when looking for sources on reading parrot body language to try and better understand my lovely little parakeet who is the best bird I’ve ever had. Thanks for some great resources! But as I was reading this, I started thinking about my mom’s Amazon that hates me.
My mom has a 35 year old Amazon that seems to love her, and her sisters, and that’s it. It acts aggressively to anyone younger than my mom and that’s got me worried since my mom’s not getting any younger and this parrot will be going to me when she passes. I spent an entire year after graduating college to try and get on good terms with this bird. The most memorable events were when my mom and I would sit down at a table together. The bird was her shoulder. As we talked, the bird climbed down and charged at me across the table to bite me. It seemed like it wanted to get me away from my mom. She never let him bite me, and I’d sit just far enough away from the table that he’d have to jump to get to me.
The last time I tried to get to be friends with this bird was when he was chewing on a treat and dropped it. He was calling for someone to come pick it up for him, so I grabbed it off the ground. As I brought it back up to him, instead of taking the treat he bit me. After that I’ve just avoided that bird.
Do you think the bird will tolerate my presence? Is it something my Mom, as his person, has to address or is there anything I can do?
The behavior that your mom’s Amazon displays toward you is indicative of a pair bond with your mother. I recommend that you read the post titled “Avoid the Pair Bond: Social Relationships with Companion Parrots.” The information will look very familiar.
The good and bad news is that this parrot will do his best to transfer his pair bond to you when you inherit him. This means that he will drop his aggression toward you. The bad news is that he will then become aggressive toward those that you care about.
The best thing for him would be to do a behavior consultation at some point. The problem can be solved now or later.