Parrots and Neophobic Behavior

Photo courtesy of Nyla Copp

I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time that a parrot’s owner has told me that she had given away a playstand or toy that her parrot didn’t like. We’ve all had this experience, right? We bring home a perch or new toy, excited to introduce it to our bird, only to find that she won’t go anywhere near it.

Too often, when seeing this reaction, we assume that the parrot doesn’t like it. Thus, today I want to discuss yet another aspect of parrot behavior that is largely misunderstood – neophobia.

What Is Neophobia?

Neophobia can be defined as an extreme or irrational fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar. Parrots, generally speaking, display neophobic tendencies. This is why they so often reject new things – not because they don’t like them.

This is often blamed upon the fact that parrots are prey animals. However, this assumption is incorrect. This same behavior has been observed in virtually all species of mammals and birds,  including some raptors. (Greenberg, 2003) Many animals show an aversion to novelty.

Neophobia is usually observed in adult parrots. Young parrots tend instead to be neophilic – they eagerly explore new items in their environment. (Greenberg, 2003) When I used to breed African Grey parrots, I often thought of those babies as learning machines. They immediately and joyfully investigated anything new.

Factors Influencing Neophobic Behavior

This behavior has long been observed and studied across species lines, including fish and amphibians among others. However, investigations have been conducted by both psychologists and behavioral ecologists, each from a different perspective. Due to these different orientations, both fields have gathered conflicting results. (Greggor et al, 2015)

That said, however, one conclusion recurs in the research – the level of novelty to which a young parrot is exposed during its early developmental phases has a direct impact upon that same bird’s willingness to accept new things as an adult.

A study done with Orange-winged Amazons confirm this. Interestingly, this study found that exposure to the baby’s parents (parent-rearing vs. hand-rearing vs. co-parenting) had no impact upon later neophobic behavior. It was the level of novelty to which the birds were exposed in early life that had the biggest impact. (Fox, & Millam, 2004)

Another study found that species that typically inhabit more complex habitats, such as the edges of forests, tended to accept novel items more quickly. ( Mettke-Hofmann, 2002 ) Yet another concluded that neophobic responses tended to be lower in wild-caught birds. (Crane, 2017) These findings both underscore the impact of exposure to novelty in early development.

Ramifications of Neophobia for Companion Parrots

This is an important topic because your reaction to your parrots’ neophobic behavior has a big impact upon the quality of life that she will have in the future. If you give away a toy or playstand every time your bird reacts to it with fear, the amount of enrichment she has available will shrink and she will have fewer options for interaction. Fewer choices result in a decreased quality of life.

This can’t be allowed. Now only does it narrow a parrot’s future choices, but anecdotal experience would indicate that having this natural fear response reinforced may create more fear responses in the future. Your parrot will enter a behavioral tunnel.

Further, we have evidence that, once the initial fear response toward an item has been overcome, animals engage in just as much exploration of it as those who showed no fear initially. (University of Lincoln, 2017) This indicates how valuable it can be to a parrot if we are willing to engage in just a little bit of training.

The Necessary Approach

We know that the initial fear of a novel item tends to diminish with exposure. However, it is not acceptable to simply put a new item near to a parrot and expect him to “get over it!”  Using this approach is not ethical and is a form of flooding. As defined by Friedman, “With flooding the subject is presented with the highly feared object or situation which is not removed until the fear diminishes. The response that is prevented in this case is escape.” (Friedman, 2002)

Have you ever heard of The Five Freedoms? This concept was proposed by the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in order to establish guidelines that could be used to assess quality of life. It states that “animals should be free (1) from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, (2) from discomfort, (3) from pain, injury and disease, (4) to express natural behaviors, and (5) from fear and distress.” (Rodríguez-López, 2016)

This was written to be used for farm animals; a similar set of guidelines for companion parrots might be more complex. However, it is of note that freedom from fear and distress has been included along with freedom from injury, pain, and hunger.

It is a primary right of all animals to be free from fear and distress.  Thus, we must use methods other than direct continued exposure to new things without regard for the parrots reaction. Thankfully, we have more ethical, scientifically proven, methods for behavior modification that will help our parrots to overcome this aversion to new things.

The Introduction of New Things

First, I will say that the methods discussed below should be used to introduce items that will create a better quality of life for your parrot by allowing an increased number of choices for interaction – playstands, perches, foraging options, toys, travel carriers, outdoor aviaries, etc.

Other items, not necessary to quality of life, are best avoided. Just don’t bring the helium balloons home. If you must bring a ladder into the house, put the parrot into a different room first. If your friend comes in wearing a baseball cap that scares your parrot, ask him to take if off. Don’t paint your fingernails bright red if you don’t normally wear nail polish. Believe me, none of these things will matter to you in 10 years.

The methods that work best for teaching acceptance of new things are (1) a combination of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC) and (2) Constructional Aversion Treatment. Anyone can learn to use these techniques to successfully introduce new enrichment items, all the while allowing the bird to maintain a distress-free experience. All that is required are patience and persistence and the ability to read body language.

Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC) are usually used in combination with each other. However in some cases, such as the introduction of a new toy, desensitization may be all that is required.

Systematic desensitization is training during which your parrot is exposed to an item at a level at or below which fear is displayed.   In other words, “the bird is slowly presented with tolerable amounts or durations of the feared object or condition. The bird is never allowed to experience a high level of fear.” (Friedman, 2002) For example, the distance between the parrot and the object might be decreased as the parrot’s body language suggests that the closer proximity of the item no longer elicits fear.

Counter conditioning is used to change the parrot’s attitude toward a feared item by pairing it with something of value, such as a preferred food. In other words, through this pairing the bird learns to regard the new item as something that is desirable. The result of this training is that the previously fearful response is completely resolved and your bird will continue to interact happily with this item in the future.

Example: Introduction of a New Toy

You have a new toy that you want to hang in the cage, but as soon as your parrot sees it he leans away, obviously scared of it. You can use desensitization to introduce it successfully:

  • Hold the toy no higher than about chest height where it is visible to your parrot and move far enough away that he shows no signs of fear.
  • Slowly walk toward him, one step at a time, carefully observing his body language.
  • At the first sign of alarm, stop approaching and take one step backward.
  • Put the toy somewhere at that distance, at a level below your parrot’s typical perching height, so that he can easily see it. (A TV tray works well for this.)
  • Every day or so, move the toy a little closer to your parrot. If you ever see a sign of alarm when you do so, put the toy back at the last distance and allow your bird to look at it a little longer at that proximity.
  • When you’ve been able to move the toy right next to the cage, hang it on the outside of the cage down low.
  • Move it up to the middle of the cage, still on the outside.
  • Move it up to the height at which you would like to eventually have the toy.
  • Move the toy inside the cage.

It is vital that you observe your bird’s body language carefully during this process and that you use the information you collect to adopt a “red light, green light” approach. Any sign of distress from your bird serves as a red light – you go back to the last proximity. Comfortable body language is your green light to leave it at that distance.

This is an example in which counter conditioning may not be necessary. If your bird regularly plays with other toys, we might assume that he would accept this one for interaction once he is comfortable having it in his enclosure. At this point, interacting with the toy itself would be reinforcing.

Example: Introduction of a New Playstand

Desensitization to a new playstand can be accomplished in the same manner, if space limitations allow for this. In other words, you would move the stand closer and closer to the cage as your parrot’s body language allowed you to do so.

Photo courtesy of David Hull

If they did not, you must still begin by having the stand in the same room for a period that allows your parrot to become comfortable with its appearance.

If you were able to gradually move the stand right up next to the cage, as in the toy example, counter conditioning can be quite simple. You can place interesting toys, along with a variety of highly valued food items, on the stand and simply allow your parrot to explore it on his own. At this point, you should be able to locate the stand anywhere and have the ability to place your parrot onto it. (As an aside, travel carriers can be introduced in the same way.)

If space limitations do not allow for this type of introduction, you can quite easily counter condition your parrot to accept the new stand, as long as your parrot steps up without reserve. Try it this way:

  • First, make sure that the stand is located far enough away from your parrot that he shows no fear of it.
  • Ask your parrot to step up and offer a highly valued food item that is small in size (no bigger than about the size of ½ pine nut or smaller).
  • After he eats it, take a step closer to the playstand and watch his body language carefully.
    • If he reacts in any way that indicates distress, move back to your initial spot and spend a few more minutes at that distance, simply offering one treat after another.
    • If he shows no distress, spend a minute or two there, offering treats.
  • Take another step closer and repeat this process until you can get all the way up to the playstand. (This will likely not occur all in one training session, but that’s fine; simply pick up where you left off the next time.)
  • When you have been able to walk all the way up to the playstand, you can begin to teach him to step onto it. At this point, you may find that your progress slows a bit; this is natural – stepping up onto it requires more from your parrot than simply walking towards it!
  • Hold your treat at a point such that your parrot just has to lean over the stand in order to reach it. Do this enough times that you see no hesitation at all to perform this behavior.
  • Next, hold the treat at such a distance that your bird has to just put one foot onto the stand in order to reach it. Again, repeat this enough times that your parrot is 100% comfortable.
  • Now, move the treat just enough that your parrot can’t reach it unless he has to step onto the stand with both feet. As soon as he does, allow him to come right back to your hand – don’t expect him to spend any time there yet!
  • Now begins another phase – making sure that he’s comfortable staying there. Some parrots might immediately be quite comfortable on the new stand; others may take a bit of convincing.
  • Therefore, gradually ask your parrot to spend first one minute, then two, then three…and so on, standing on the new perch. Use your “red light, green light” approach. Feed reinforcers the whole time he stays there.
  • At some point, your parrot will happily step onto the new stand and enjoy spending time there.

Congratulations! What you have accomplished is huge! Your parrot now has one more location in which to comfortably perch, a really big improvement in his quality of life.

Constructional Aversion Treatment (CAT)

I mentioned this training technique previously, in my blog post about Dash, an extremely aggressive dog. This approach was originally called Constructional Aggression Treatment, but is equally effective for the resolution of fearful behavior.

From the few resources I find, I might conclude that it is still not widely recognized for the incredibly fast results it can produce when implemented correctly. I include it here because it is so incredibly helpful in a wide variety of contexts to fairly quickly make significant progress. I have very successfully used it to address fearful behavior toward the owner herself, fear of hands, fear of new toys and fear of new perches.

One caveat: it may be best if you seek the help of a behavior professional before attempting to use this strategy. It requires more sensitivity to and accuracy in reading body language, than the methods of DS/CC explained above. I have consulted remotely with clients in using this and found that some struggled due to difficulties reading body language. This was corrected when they provided videos for my review. Another pair of eyes was necessary for success. Thus, your best chance with this is to have a coach.   

Example: Introduction of a New Toy Using CAT

  • Hold the toy in a spot where it is clearly visible to the parrot, but lower than she is perched. Make sure that the spot you choose elicits no signs of distress in your bird toward the toy. If you do see a fearful reaction, move back until this dissipates completely.
  • Take one step toward your parrot and observe body language.
  • If she looks completely relaxed, take another step.
  • Continue in this way until you do see a reaction. The goal is to be so observant that you catch the earliest signs of alarm – perhaps she stands up a little straighter or looks a bit more intensely at the toy. (If she moves away from you, it’s likely that you missed earlier signs.)
  • When you see this reaction, stay put and don’t move but continue to observe body language.
  • Watch for any sign of increased comfort – an eye blink, turn of the head, more relaxed body posture or feather position.
  • When you see this, immediately turn and walk back to your original position.
  • Approach again, using this same technique, repeatedly during a single training session. If you are doing this correctly, you will find that you are able to approach closer with each repetition or two, while your parrot remains distress-free.
  • When you can walk with the toy right up to the parrot, you will likely be able to simply put it directly into the cage.

Example: Introduction of a New Playstand Using CAT

  • This might, on the surface, appear similar to the counter conditioning approach described above. However, the significant difference is that no food reinforcers are used.
  • With the parrot on your hand, begin at a distance from the perch at which your bird shows no signs of concern.
  • Approach slowly, one step at a time, carefully observing body language.
  • Stop at the very first sign of alarm.
  • Watch for any slight indication of reduced distress/ more relaxation and immediately walk back to your starting position.
  • Repeat using the same technique until you are able to walk all the way up to the perch.
  • At this point, you can begin to use reinforcers to teach the parrot to step onto it, as described previously.

Conclusion

Neophobia is normal behavior for any adult parrot. Therefore, we should anticipate fearful reactions to new things.

That said, however, it is not difficult to introduce new toys, perches and other items to parrots if the correct approaches are used. Best methods always minimize the parrot’s stress levels during the process.

For ethical reasons, as well as those related to quality of life, we should never (1) force a new object into a parrot’s space when signs are evident that this is causing distress, nor (2) eliminate objects from the parrot’s environment if these have the chance of creating greater quality of life once accepted.

Systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, and Constructional Aversion Treatment are all effective methods for addressing the typical neophobia so often seen in parrots.  These methods can be used by anyone, but best success may be achieved with an experienced behavior professional guiding your efforts. If you want to go it alone, your success will be dependent upon accurate assessment of your own parrot’s body language and responding appropriately.

References:

Crane, Adam L & Ferrari Maud C.O. 2017. “Patterns of predator neophobia: a meta-analytic review.” 284. Proc. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0583

Fox, Rebbecca A & Millam, James R. 2004. “The Effect of Early Environment on Neophobia in Orange-winged Amazon Parrots (Amazona amazonica).” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 89, 117-129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2004.05.002

Friedman, Susan G. “Alternatives to Parrot Breaking.” Behavior Works. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/Alternatives%20to%20Parrot%20Breaking%202002.pdf

Greenberg, R. 2003. “The Role of Neophobia and Neophilia in the Development of Innovative Behavior of Birds.” Chapter 8. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/8197/85f5c7eb-2e6f-4cac-9707-e49215495ca6.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Greggor, Alison L, Thornton, Alex & Clayton, Nicola S. 2015. “Neophobia is not only avoidance: improving neophobia tests by combining cognition and ecology.” Science Direct, 6, 82-89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.10.007

Mettke-Hofmann, Claudia, Winkler, Hans & Leisler, Bernd. (2002). “The Significance of Ecological Factors for Exploration and Neophobia in Parrots.” Ethology, v.108, 249-272 (2002). 108. 10.1046/j.1439-0310.2002.00773.x.

Rodríguez-López, R. (2016). “Environmental enrichment for parrot species: Are we squawking up the wrong tree?” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 180, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.016

University of Lincoln. (2017). “Touchscreen test reveals why some birds are quicker to explore than others.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2019 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170710103435.htm

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots and offer behavior consultations to that end. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

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Pamela Clark, CPBC

I am an IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant who successfully helps parrot owners to resolve behavior problems and train their parrots. I also help determine the best diet, social and physical environments to help that individual parrot flourish.

9 thoughts on “Parrots and Neophobic Behavior”

  1. Pamela,

    Your methodical techniques are definitely useful for large items. But I have a very simple technique I use with my parrot for new toys and things: I put it on the floor.

    My parrot has free roam of the living room (when supervised). There is plenty of room to put new things out that aren’t in the way of our feet. The best place is actually directly in front of the gate that keeps him out of the kitchen. He LOVES trying to get through that gate if we leave it open for longer than a minute. So we put the new thing (perch, toy, etc) right at the gate’s threshold and leave the gate open. He is highly motivated to get over his fear, and yet he is in no way pressured at all to ever get near it. Sometimes for less important things we will just leave some peanuts beside the toy in a corner as motivation. But in this way we are completely hands off. He gets used to it on his terms and at his pace. Sometimes he will even push himself, getting fluffed and scared but voluntarily moving towards it regardless. I believe it fosters a stronger sense of independence, which we try to encourage as he can get needy, and is quite amusing to watch as he works with it himself.

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    1. Dear Leslie,

      This is brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing your ideas with us. I would agree that it fosters a strong sense of independence. There are many ways to introduce new things. As long as the parrot gets to make the choice to interact, any way that works is a good way.

      Pam

      Like

    2. Cool an excellent example of self generated positive generalization (the best kind) and of intuitive inter species communication development. Too often we micromanage and retard development. A well “socialized ” calm, competent, and confident critter can sort most of it out on their own🐣

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      1. Thanks so much! I think this area presents an on-going one for human education – no dominance constructs, no micromanaging. Only respectful and kind interactions in which we drop the outside noise and really focus on the creature in front of us.

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