My last blog post concerned risk factors for feather damaging behavior, specifically lack of both liberty and control. The bigger consideration, of course, within this conversation about why parrots would damage the very things they need for survival, is quality of life.
In that last blog, I included a quote from Lauren A. Leotti and her co-authors: “In the absence of other stressors, however, the removal of choice, in and of itself, can be very stressful. It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress. It seems that the aversive effects of captivity may depend upon the extent to which behavioral choices have been reduced relative to what could be performed in the natural environment.” (Leotti, 2010)
Simply put, if captive parrots are unable to perform natural behaviors, the effects of captivity are going to result in serious behavioral and physical problems, which is exactly what we are seeing. Problems with biting, screaming, fear, and feather damaging behavior are all around us, as are growing numbers of parrots dying from atherosclerosis.
A New Paradigm
I’ve given this issue – the allowance of natural behaviors – a great deal more thought since I published that last blog post. While I did include in that post some strategies for supporting natural behaviors, this will be a deeper dive into that topic. I may repeat myself just a little, but we can’t hear this stuff too many times, right?
I suggest this model, the encouragement of natural behaviors, as the new paradigm for the way in which we care for our parrots from this point onward. In the past, our parrot-keeping efforts have been shaped by other concepts and models. Let’s take a moment to examine those in order to understand what may still be shaping our thinking as we attempt to move forward
Older Models for Parrot-Keeping
Dominance and Control
One of the most historically destructive models for the parrot-human bond has concerned that of dominance. In 1992, the following appeared in a popular magazine in an article about cage dominance: “To have a well-behaved parrot, owners must establish themselves as the dominant partner in the pair or flock bond…. As the bird establishes dominance over its cage, it becomes dominant everywhere.” (Blanchard, 1992)
In 1996, this message about the need for the human to be dominant was in the process of being softened and was now called Nurturing Dominance. “By establishing a relationship of nurturing dominance by teaching and consistently using the four basic commands, you can successfully demote your parrot from its perceived position as head of the flock.” (The four commands were: “Up,” “Down,” “No,” and “Okay.”) (Wilson, 1996)
In 1999, these “principles” of dominance and control were formalized in book form, with yet another name change to Nurturing Guidance. An entire page was given over to the concept of height dominance.
As it was explained: “People who have not established Nurturing Guidance will have trouble with height dominance, but they will most likely also have trouble with cage aggression, excessive screaming, biting, and other behavioral problems. I find that when people are having behavioral problems with their parrots, establishing non-threatening height dominance is the only way owners need to work with their birds.”
In other words, you won’t have behavior problems if you keep the bird down low and establish your own dominance. (If you need a really great counter argument to the myth of height dominance, read trainer Steve Martin’s article Understanding Parrot Behavior, Naturally.)
It is a sure sign that a behavioral “principle” has no validity if you need to keep morphing the concept and the name to make it more palatable to your readers. Moreover, if there is a dominant member in a relationship then, by definition, there must be a submissive member. Is that really the best we can do for the birds we love – to make them submissive so that they will behave?
In reality, there is a natural science of behavior that has been studied for over a century and has produced a set of fundamental principles, now known as applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA can both explain why behavior occurs and provide ethical methods for behavior change when this is desired.
Unfortunately, those concepts of dominance and control are like the film on the bottom of our parrot’s water dishes, pernicious, insidious, always in the process of establishing themselves yet again. In the past two weeks, I have talked to new clients who expressed concerns about their parrot being up too high. It is scary how persistent this concept remains in the minds of parrot owners.
Clipping Wings Keeps Parrots Safe
Wing clipping has been practiced with almost religious fervor for decades in this country. This concept has been so well embraced that it was not even questioned for years, despite the fact that we were depriving a living animal of moving around normally. In large part, this practice has been established and maintained as the right thing to do by those doing the clipping – veterinarians and groomers.
Unfortunately, in all cases I have found, those writing about the dangers of flight have never lived with a flighted parrot in their lives. While well-intentioned, they do not understand flight and the manner in which flight skills develop, nor what can be done to ensure safety for flighted parrots.
Further, in my experience as a veterinary technician, no owner ever came in and requested a wing trim so that her bird would be safe. Instead, these requests were made because the bird was getting “uppity” now that it could fly. “Uppity” translates into being uncompliant and/or beginning to bite
Thus, in reality, wing clipping has been used in large part as just another way to maintain control of our parrots – limit their ability to move around and keep them down low. In other words, take away their feelings of safety so that they are less likely to resist our “commands.”
A myriad of other well-established concepts exist, of course. These persist because of their authority borrowed from the reality that “everyone does it.”
These practices include keeping parrots in cages for most of every day, keeping parrots indoors at all times, cuddling parrots, cramming cages into a small room to contain the mess and noise, purchasing dome-topped cages, feeding seed diets…and the list goes on. We can always find someone else who does exactly what we do in order to validate our own choices.
A New Paradigm
We have before us a new decade. Let’s allow it to inspire us to shed the old skin of outmoded and destructive ideas and adopt a new paradigm for parrot-keeping. Should we do so, I would propose that we include as the most important criteria:
- The provision for every parrot of as many natural behaviors as possible in each living situation.
- To embrace the science of behavior, specifically the strategies of (1) arranging the environment for success, (2) antecedent change, and (3) positive reinforcement, to live harmoniously and cooperatively with our birds.
For the remainder of this blog post, I will be focusing on the provision of natural behaviors for our parrots, for there is much still to explore in this area. I have already written several posts on the second criteria of behavior change strategies, and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.
For now, I will leave you with the thoughts of trainer Steve Martin: “When you give an animal a voice through its body language, and place that voice in higher regard than your own, you are on the right path to successful training.”
Natural Behaviors to Encourage
Natural behaviors for wild parrots have been described as flying, foraging, bathing, roosting, socializing, vocalizing and breeding. However, there are others we might explore from the perspective of the companion parrot’s status in our homes. Some of the latter may attain a greater level of importance, given the often narrow scope of decision-making granted to them.
Two things: (1) First, this is an initial attempt only to explore this topic and my hope is that we can all brainstorm together from this point onward, and (2) I could write a separate blog post about each of the sections below, but in the interests of reasonable length, I have elected an introduction of each idea in most cases. Where I have important details to offer, I have done so.
A word about rights before I continue: If parrots enjoy certain activities in the wild, then would we not be correct in describing these same things as birthrights?
Showering is important as a form of exercise and enrichment; it also serves to encourage normal preening. Opportunities most commonly involve taking the parrot into the shower or misting with a spray bottle. Other options should be explored in the interests of introducing variety.
Some parrots love to leaf bathe. Try offering a bunch of Swiss chard or fresh branches soaking wet and tied to the side of the cage or placed in a shallow dish. Both small and large parrots enjoy this activity once they are used to it.
Some parrots prefer bathing outdoors in an aviary, either in the spray from a hose or when it’s raining. Perhaps a water feature could be installed in the aviary?
We also have some exciting new products available – the unique creations by John Langkamp.
John creates bathing stations in all sizes that allow birds to bathe at liberty – when they feel like it. He also produces platform perches in a myriad of designs, play stands from the simplest table-top perch to two story sands, and “balconies” for cages that have no play tops. All of his products support the parrot’s engagement in natural behaviors.
Parrots relish in fresh water. Mine eagerly drink from a freshly filled water dish, even though a moment before it still contained unsullied water. It has always struck me as wrong to limit a parrot’s access to water to drops coming out of a bottle. Wouldn’t you find it frustrating to have to lick droplets one at a time in order to drink?
Aside from the ethical problem of restricting a parrot’s access to water to this degree, water bottles can be risky. When water stops flowing, it becomes stagnant. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for certain bacteria species, such as Pseudomonas. (WHO, 2003)
When you wash out a parrot’s water dish, you will notice a film on the bottom. This is called the biofilm and is a coating in which water-borne bacteria grow.(Univ. of Ill, 2018) To adequately clean the water dish, you need a scrub pad.
With a water bottle, the water remains in the bottle for a longer period, thus enabling this biofilm to develop often for days. Refilling the bottle with fresh water does nothing to clean off the biofilm. Other risks involve bottle malfunction, which has resulted in the loss of parrots from dehydration.
My suggestion is to ditch the water bottles and let your parrot have a dish of water. Cleaning it twice a day should be sufficient, even for the messiest of parrots. If it gets poop in it, move it to another place in the cage up higher.
This has become the new buzz-word in the world of parrot enrichment, for good reason. However, we can expand our thinking even further. Parrots who naturally forage on the ground should be provided with opportunities of this nature. Grass mats for birds like budgerigars, cockatiels, and kakarikis are often eagerly accepted after just a few days.
Another great option is to place papers over the grates in the bottom of cages. There are several advantages. The birds get to go down onto the papers to forage for what they have dropped. I don’t have to scrub the cage grates. Changing papers is easy because all I have to do is to pick up the top later of paper; no need to pull out that heavy tray except for once a week. Many imagine that this will just result in poop-covered feet. It’s not appropriate for all parrots, but try it! You’ll be surprised.
Foraging for natural plant materials can be provided in aviaries. Raised beds can offer millet, sunflowers and other edible flowers, greens and other vegetables to encourage a more natural foraging experience.
Fresh Air and Sunshine
There is no other single thing you can do to provide enrichment that will reap as many benefits as setting up an outdoor aviary. The benefits are now widely recognized. Parrots are exposed to those necessary UVB rays. They wear themselves out and come back into the house calm and relaxed at the end of the day. They have access to different enrichment and bathing opportunities.
If you need some ideas, ask to be a member of the Home Aviary Design group on Facebook. It’s a private group, but is generous in accepting new members. The group has good participation and provides information about everything from design, to wire type, to rodent control and more.
Height and Alternate Perches
Parrots feel safer when perching up high. This is a birthright and a great way to provide enrichment. They also need to move around. “In this respect, most parrots are neither sedentary nor migratory but mobile within a geographical area that provides for all of the bird’s needs, but not necessarily all at once in one locality.” (Parr, 1998)
This observation of wild parrots can inform our own choices when creating an environment. Both flighted and clipped parrots can be provided with (and taught to use) free standing play gyms, hanging perches and other adornments to the environment that support more natural movements.
Lorenzo, the Double Yellow-headed Amazon in the photo was just adopted into a new home; he eagerly took to the trapeze they had prepared for him before his arrival.
I have published six blog posts on indoor flight for companion parrots. I am a passionate advocate for the allowance of flight, while also recognizing that some older parrots will not be good candidates for this experience.
It is not ethical to remove an animal’s ability to move around at will. As behavior consultant Jim McKendry once said, “If a dog gets out of the yard and bites the postman, we don’t cut off his legs. Instead we build a better fence.”
We must work towards the day when anyone breeding parrots must provide for a full fledging experience and then send that baby home without a wing clip. From that point onward, the new owner must learn how to live safely and cooperatively with a flighted parrot. We must also educate our veterinarians regarding a better way of thinking.
Imagine, just for a moment what your relationship might be like with a parrot who trusted you this much:
You should never get a second parrot because of the assumption that it will make the first happier. But, if you want to get a second parrot, my heart will be happy at the news. Having always lived with multiple parrots, I see how each bird gains just from having other feathered creatures in the home.
This is true even if the two parrots never interact physically. No other companion animal moves the way a bird moves. No other animal vocalizes like a bird does. No other animal reacts like a bird does. Just having another set of feathers in the house is enriching on multiple levels for a companion parrot.
The Unobstructed View
What effect might it have for a parrot to live his entire life within four walls? Perhaps none. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware of my own reaction when I get outdoors. It’s not just the feel of the breeze or sunshine, or the smell of nearby plants, but the fact that I am not confined. Finally, there is no barrier between me and the natural world.
How might we erase those walls, other than to get the parrot outdoors into an aviary? A Wingdow perch is of great appeal to many birds.
Wood, Branches and Bark
We don’t really know fully how parrots interact with the natural plant materials in their environment when that activity occurs outside of foraging for food. We do have some clues, however.
Donald Brightsmith and other researchers who have taken samples from the crops of wild macaws still in the nest have identified a percentage of bark chunks in the crop. Chris Shank and I have observed her free-flighted cockatoo parents foraging outside the aviary for bark and then returning to feed it to their young.
My own parrots love to strip the bark off of fresh branches. We don’t understand the purpose of these behaviors. However, I suggest that providing fresh branches for perches and chewing enrichment may well be necessary for quality of life.
There has been much written about the dangers of bacteria and fungus on plants taken from the outdoors. However, these come under the heading of “imagined” dangers.
Advice for “disinfection” stems from washing with vinegar to baking them in the oven. I believe, based upon anecdotal evidence, that these measures are unnecessary. If you are worried about “germs,” give the branches a good blast with your hose to dislodge anything suspect.
A great way to bring fresh branches into the home for your parrots’ enjoyment is to first create a “vase” for them. Purchase PVC pipe that is 4 to 6 inches in diameter, then cut a length about four feet long. You can paint this green for aesthetic appeal. Put this into a large Christmas tree stand and tighten in place. When ready, shove the branches down into the top of the pipe and replace as needed.
If you choose actively growing branches with the bark intact, there is little danger. Simply stay away from branches where the wood looks old and the bark is falling off of it, for fungus could be growing under the bark in those cases. Just allow common sense to prevail.
If unsure of the safety of certain trees, you can refer to this website. If you are unable to identify a tree species, you can take a sample into a garden center for identification.
The Keys to Change
It is human nature for most of us to reject an idea when we first hear of it, especially if it means more cost, inconvenience, or work…as most of those above will.
However, do you remember my point in that last blog about how our own behavior harm us? If we fail to appreciate that many of our practices for keeping companion parrots either do not meet their needs, may harm them, or even meet the definition of unethical, yet we insist on maintaining our own positive self-image, discord results – internal and external.
Let’s begin by deciding to be a bit more open-minded to the ideas above. Remember that you don’t have to help anyone else see the light. You just have to help yourself to see the light.
You can choose to stay away from opinionated discussions on social media and instead do your own research to find information from reputable sources. Then, if you get to the point of being convinced that you can make some improvements, just brainstorm to see what might be possible. Things don’t have to be black and white. You can start small.
Blanchard, Sally. “The Importance of Cage Dominance.” The Pet Bird Report. Sept/Oct 1992: 4-7.
Blanchard, Sally. The Companion Parrot Handbook. Alameda: PBIC, Inc., 1999.
Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998.
Leotti, Lauren A., Iyengar, Sheena S., Ochsner, Kevin N. (2010) “Born to Choose: The Origine and Value of the Need for Control.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 14.10: 457-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001
Luescher, A. ,ed. Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2018. “Model to show how bacteria grow in plumbing systems.” Science News. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180329190849.htm
Wilson, Liz. “Nurturing Dominance: What It Is and How and Why It Works.” The Pet Bird Report. October 1996: 32-35.
World Health Organization (WHO). 2003. Heterotrophic Plate Counts and Drinking-water Safety. Edited by J. Bartram, J. Cotruvo, M. Exner, C. Fricker, A. Glasmacher. Published by IWA Publishing, London, UK. ISBN: 1 84339 025 6. https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/water-quality/guidelines/HPC4.pdf?ua=1
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. 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.
34 thoughts on “Encouraging Natural Behaviors in Captive Parrots”
Well written and many thanks. I have an 18 yr. old female M2 and always trying to keep her entertained. Very challenging as I live in a condo, but do my best. Also have three Cockatiel males too. The branch idea is awesome and has worked well for me. When I work they are in their cages, so being creative to diversify the environment is tough at times. Will have to try the paper on bottom of cages again. This would help to stop so much cleanup everyday for myself. Appreciate all information you shared.
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I have a male M2 and couldn’t agree more. Providing enough enrichment for large cockatoos is a tough challenge. The papers on top of the grates has worked great for me for many years. When I heard about the idea, I was skeptical. However, they only poop in certain areas of the cage and tend to avoid those when down on the bottom. I just put many layers of paper down and pull up the top later once a day. Saves me a ton of work.
Help me see the light here, please. :] I dislike the idea of putting paper over the cage’s bottom grate. I have seen this practice at a rescue. It shocked me!
Then, my first parrot, Grady, a Timneh, had an open wound on his foot when I got him, and he was being kept in a cage (23″ x 23″) with paper over the grate. Of course his wound was infected! Geometry dictates that a 10″-long bird in a 23″ cage is going to encounter his poop. So, the infection necessitated antibiotics, which kill good gut bacteria in the process. Ugh. Grady got foods rich in pre- and probiotics after that (raw sauerkraut, raw ACV, and bits of raw cheese).
Aside from stepping in poop when the grate is paper-covered, I’ve seen birds drag their tail feathers through it. Should they be preening their own poop from their feathers? Does this contribute to FDB? What about the bird dropping food as they do, onto the paper, it coming in contact with “poop”, then scavenging the food later?
Lastly, why not remove the grate to expose the paper-lined tray below, versus covering the grate?
Thanks so much for the comment. I had these very concerns when the idea was first suggested to me! However, I have found that it works exceptionally well for some parrots, especially those that forage on the ground in the wild.
Parrots typically only poop in two or three places in their cages and then avoid this when going down to collect dropped food. This applies to adult parrots. Babies are awkward and will probably walk through their poop, but my older parrots never have. Further, people to whom I have suggested this report a similar experience – the practice gives the birds the change to forage a bit more and keeps the grate clean. I’ve never seen a parrot pick up a poop-covered bit of food to eat it.
Nevertheless, we always say that “behavior is a study of one.” If you have a parrot who drags his tail through droppings or walks through them, then this probably would not be a good idea, However, for the vast majority of parrots it works very well and makes husbandry easier for the owner. This is important too. A friend of mine once said, “Cleaning cages is not nearly as much fun the second decade.”
A great article that’s spot-on. In my opinion however the one area that was totally lacking which is very important for all birds in captivity is a high-quality diet that would best replicate the food they’d consume in their natural habitat. Fact is, that there are stress factors for all birds in captivity and the degree varies depending upon the time of the year and if they’re also lacking any one or more of the items mentioned in the article. The feeding of the very best foods, raw and organic if possible plus being GMO, herbicide, pesticide, preservative, synthetic vitamin and mineral-free diet on a daily basis while supplementing a super, high-quality, avian-specific probiotic blend named Avi-Culture-2-PLUS on their favorite foods!
Learn more at: Avi-Culture-2-PLUS.com
Thank you for your comment, Donald. I have written many times about the need for a good diet in captivity. However, I disagree that we want to replicate the diet that they would eat in the wild. The energy expenditures of a wild parrot are vastly different than a parrot living in captivity. Moreover, I was writing about the ACTIVITIES that a parrot might enjoy in captivity. That is why I wrote about foraging, rather than the diet that they might consume. Foraging is the activity of locating and accessing food, rather than the food itself.
I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you did not just write to me to advertise your product. I have visited your websites and have many questions. You state that you have used the “very latest advancements in biotechnology.” Can you explain what those are?
You also claim that birds who consume your product will “live longer, more productive, healthier and happier lives.” What evidence do you have to support this? Have any scientific studies been done on your product?
You state that your product “meets or exceeds the criteria for a top-quality probiotic?” I was not aware that such criteria exists. You also claim that your products are “species specific.” What studies have been done to establish which specific probiotics are best for each species? As a veterinary technician, I am well aware that each company with a new product makes such claims, but these are usually baseless.
At this time I would discourage anyone from reading this exchange to purchase your product until you can provide more evidence that your claims are supported by research. An excellent product for parrots is apple cider vinegar, which has been shown to prevent and treat quite effectively small numbers of gram negative bacteria and budding yeast in the gastrointestinal tract.
Pam, I commend you for allowing the posting of opinions that differ from your own. It is rare; It is helpful.
“I disagree that we want to replicate the diet that they would eat in the wild. The energy expenditures of a wild parrot are vastly different than a parrot living in captivity.”
This statement seems to indicate thinking that we need to regulate the parrot’s intake. That popular wisdom is as the root of America’s struggle with obesity. (Portion control, willpower, etc.) I lost a lot of weight by adopting a healthier, more natural, and sustainable viewpoint: stop disrupting my appetite regulation–and eat as much as I want.
Our diets are laden with appetite dysregulators (toxins, phytoestrogens, refined sugars, etc.) and devoid of basic nutrients found in natural, whole foods. If we “clean up” our diets, eating only clean, nutrient-dense foods, we will enjoy satiety as our natural regulator for appetite. Our modern ability to eat highly processed foods, devoid of bio-available nutrients, leads to our minds and bodies craving more calories (containing micro-nutrients), because the ones we gave it were “empty”. We could all eat a “pint” of our favorite ice cream. Try eating the equivalent quantity of brisling sardines. Your brain will shut down your appetite well before you eat that equivalent. Why? Because our gut-brain connection works to signal satiety, with no disruption or dysregulation.
Ideally, a parrot’s diet should be the same. We should not need to micro-manage their caloric intake or their ratio of macro nutrients–if we only offer them clean, nutrient dense foods similar to what they would encounter in the wild. Are pellets that food?
Pellets, or “a formulated diet”, is a typically a cooked food, which is quite unnatural for a parrot. Cooking denatures proteins, for example. Further, pellets contain virtually no moisture/water. Water is the single most important nutrient for all living creatures. We can only go a few days without water, but we can go weeks without food. In the wild, birds get the majority of their water from food. I have tried re-hydrating pellets for them, but that does not repair the damage done by the heat of cooking. That is the reason pellets list so many vitamins and minerals in their ingredients–the cooking destroyed the naturally occurring ones. The quality and efficacy of those added vitamins and minerals should be questioned, as Donald alludes to!
Donald is correct that a pellet diet is still devoid of living enzymes, which were destroyed by cooking and not replaced. In the wild, every bite of “parrot food” would be rich with enzymes. I cannot attest to his product’s efficacy. His theory is spot on though.
I cannot imagine that any formulated-diet research compares it to a natural diet variant. So, even if their is research “for” pellets (I would love to see it.), it is likely “against” seeds, and I doubt it helps us compare pellets to a whole-food, wild-inspired diet.
I will read this soon.
A very important note about macro-nutrient ratios: we are overly focused on quantity when we should be at least equally concerned about quality! For parrots, most available seeds are damaged, badly damaged. They have been over exposed to oxygen, light, and ambient heat, all of which degrade them, making their fats rancid and lowering their nutrient value. This is not to mention the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. It is not fair or accurate to base the efficacy of a food in the diet on a “spoiled”, contaminated version of that food. For humans, this problem exists from high cooking temperatures of fats (potato chips) contributing to giving fats a bad name. Worse, we treat highly-processed vegetable-oil fats as if they are the same or better than animal fats–and, we do not distinguish between animal fats from animals that ate what nature intended (grass-fed cows) versus “feed”-fed cows (corn, soy, antibiotics, added hormones, etc.).
“Fat is a nutrient.” —Lee Cichanowicz :]
For most parrot caregivers, I do think “pellets”, or a formulated diet should be a significant component of the bird’s diet, because it is really difficult to offer a parrot the nutrient diversity of the wild from the supermarket on a daily basis. We should do our best though!
We should seek out better pellets, though. I am trying BirdTricks pellets right now. They are organic and cold-pressed.
I think an even better alternative to pellets is freeze-dried foods.
Freeze-dried food could still be a “formulated diet”–without the destruction of heat (enzymes intact) and easier to rehydrate as well.
You: “This statement seems to indicate thinking that we need to regulate the parrot’s intake.’ No so. But we do need to regulate the type of foods we offer. I have an article on my website about the relationship between diet and behavior. It is very real. There is little science about this, but an abundance of anecdotal information does exist.
Unfortunately, in the subconscious minds of many, “Food is Love.” (Thank you Geneen Roth.) It is quite common for caregivers to feed pasta, mashed potatoes, white rice, crackers, peanut butter-filled pretzels, handfuls of grapes, etc.) Caregivers need both education and guidance.
You: “We should not need to micro-manage their caloric intake or their ratio of macro nutrients–if we only offer them clean, nutrient dense foods similar to what they would encounter in the wild. Are pellets that food?” No one ever suggested micro-managing anything. My focus, as you know, is to offer a wide variety of healthful foods, in addition to pellets.
I’m quite sure that better formulations for “pellets” can and will be found. I look forward to the day they are available.
Of course, fat in a nutrient. I simply recommend that fatty foods are provided as reinforcers, rather than being found in the food dish. For the majority of parrot species, food resources that are high in fat are not readily available for most of the year, so it does not make sense to provide fatty foods ad libitum.
Everything that you have said is true and I have no argument with any of it. However, the quality of the food you offer is only one consideration. There is also parrot acceptance, caregiver ability and willingness to provide an all natural diet. I stand quite firm in my thoughts because they are based upon such abundant hands-on experience.
Yes, pellets are a processed food with all of the limitations that processed foods have. However, caregivers need a staple diet that can be poured out of a bag. That is going to be either pellets or seed mix. The latter is known to predispose a parrot to many heath risks. I am reassured, as I told you recently, by the fact that my birds have plenty of other foods yet still choose to eat their pellets. There has never been any force involved. I have simply offered them. I like to think that I can trust my own parrot’s wisdom in this regard.
Great article Pam. Maybe we can get you out to speak one of these days, depending on your schedule.
That is high praise coming from you. Thank you so much! Meeting you for a speaking opportunity would be wonderful. My animal care is dependent upon many contingencies, but we could certainly talk.
Love this! Thank you so much! It is on time for a situation Arthur (35 yr old Orange Wing) and I (70 yr old human) have found ourselves in. I adopted Arthur last Oct. One of the reasons I was attracted to Arthur was that his internet picture showed him to be fully flighted. I have not clipped wings since the mid-90’s and wanted a bird I could acclimate to a harness take with me. When I met Arthur he had been severely clipped (arrrrrrr) but I thought they would grow back. Well, they may grow back and they may not due to the fact that he keeps trying to fly and crashing to the ground. His situation now is that he has one good wing and one still missing feathers and growing deformed feathers. He failed to fly again yesterday – thud. At least he is landing on a rug now instead of the concrete floor at the rescue.
I have almost accepted the dream of living with the whole healthy bird I anticipated. There is still a slight chance his wing could improve and if not, I’m still glad he is here.
I have tried to keep the Rescue up to date regarding his lack of progress in returning to a whole healthy bird without too much blaming (they do provide a much needed service to homeless birds) but his hidden disability will always be a challenge. I am going to post this article on several websites.
Vicki and Arthur
PS What is wrong with dome top cages? I was planning to get one thinking it would add more height.
On Thu, Feb 6, 2020 at 6:04 PM Pamela Clark, CPBC wrote:
> Pamela Clark, CPBC posted: ” My last blog post concerned risk factors for > feather damaging behavior, specifically lack of both liberty and control. > The bigger consideration, of course, within this conversation about why > parrots would damage the very things they need for survival, is” >
Hello Vicki and Arthur:)
Has he been to the vet? I would recommend that as a first step, Deformed feathers could be due to many factors, not just a wing clip. It might be a good idea if we did a consultation. Diet could be implicated in his poor progress in regrowing his flight feathers on the one side. So might feather destruction. And, his crashing to the ground is a real problem. It’s hard for me to advise you without more information. Usually, there is not a problem growing out flight feathers.
As to dome top cages, they have been touted as better than play top cages because they provide more room inside. (This is yet another myth that has been repeated umpteen times.) However, this is only a benefit if the bird spends most of his time inside the cage. I don’t like them because they limit choices. If you have a play top cage, there is just as much room up high – it’s just outside the cage instead of inside. Play top cages increase the number of choices the bird is able to make. He can eat up on top or eat inside. He can play with the toys up on top or the toys inside. He can choose to be inside or on top. And, the top of the cage itself can serve as a sort of play gym, which is not possible with a dome top cage. Birds aren’t really comfortable walking around on the top of a cage and there’s not anything for them to do up there. Lastly, if you have a parrot who climbs down from his cage, it’s much easier to teach him to station (stay put) on a play top cage.
I don’t like harnesses either. Parrots hate them due to the restrictions that they impose and getting an older parrot to accept one can be extremely difficult. When you put a harness on, you have to manipulate the wings. It’s not too terribly hard to teach a parrot to put his head through the harness itself, but when it comes to lifting up each wing to fit the harness around it, this can be really, really difficult unless you have a bird who likes to be handled a lot, even with sufficient training. You can’t just put a harness on a parrot without training. You will get the snot bitten out of you. The training process can take months.
Harnesses also can be dangerous. If the bird gets lose and flies up into a tree, the leash can get tangled on a tree branch or the harness itself can be caught on a branch, This means that the parrot is trapped, can’t get back down, and is a good bite for a predator. There have been several documented accounts of parrots dying this way.
Great article. I have 16 flighted budgies, my only pets. All rescues and I love observing their behavior and making new toys and new playing stations for them. I make clucking noises at them, each with an individual sound so they know who I’m addressing. They know their names!
I love it. Budgies are the best. Chris Shank and I often joke that “next time around” we’ll only have budgies and doves…another underrated companion. It sounds like your birds have a wonderful life with you. Thank you so much for creating such a fantastic environment for them!
Thanks for an excellent article and for reviewing the failed concepts of “dominance” and control. I well remember when those ideas were proposed. It is very important for our wonderful birds that positive concepts are presented and utilized. I am going to share your great information by referring bird owners to your blog. What you have written will make a big difference for the happiness of many birds and their owners.
Thank you so very much for your comment. Messages like yours keep me going when doubt creeps in.
Pam, I thank you wholeheartedly for sharing your thoughts so freely, with such clarity—and so well written—while inviting discourse. Parrots, rejoice! Both the details and holistic nature of your articles really get me thinking. For this article, my main takeaway is: offer my companion parrots even more choice in their daily lives.
I have really enjoyed their reactions to, and adjustments to, my ways of caring for them. One example is that I almost always offer them two different “treats” at once, with the goal of making it a tough decision for each of them. It was just meant to be a bit of fun for them; yet, I am the one enjoying their wavering a bit before taking one.
For another example, their cage doors have been wide open for over a year now. I like your word for this: liberty. I was a soldier in the Army. I fought for the liberty of America’s human citizens. Now, I am focused on liberty for, albethey captive, parrots. Granting that liberty to three parrots (two fully-flighted and one in recovery from clipping just before I got him) has been very interesting for all of us!
It comes with a great deal of responsibility, in preparation and throughout. It comes with some risk, too, of course; but, so does caging them.
I will start by creating some new landing spots for them, giving them more choice in where to spend their time.
Oh, this article made me think of “The Parrot’s Bill of Rights” by the late, great Dr. Stewart Metz. (I am surprised that The Indonesian Parrot Project does not have it on their site.) Perhaps you could post it on your site, then mention it, and link to it. Or, draft your own version.
Thanks for another great comment:) This has become my overarching philosophy, which is based upon science. The more choices and the greater ability to pursue natural behaviors, the better the quality of life. This then, however, must be balanced against more practical concerns dictated by environment.
I commend you for providing so much liberty to your parrots.
I knew Stewart fairly well and am very familiar with the Parrots Bill of Rights. I even got a copy to put in the avian exam room when I was working as a vet tech. I’ll think about drafting my own version. Thanks for the suggestion.
Pam, because you have offered so much here, I am breaking my replies up by sub-topic, in case there are replies to the replies.
I have only had parrots for 14 months. I was given advice based on the dominance models. There are generations of parrot caregivers who took interest early on in parrot behavior, but they have not updated their learning. If they own a rescue/shelter, volunteer at one, or visit one, they are influencing new parrot caregivers with outdated information.
While I was being cautioned of cage dominance and height dominance, I allowed my birds to spend time on their cage tops (aforementioned open-door policy)—and I allowed a flighted Senegal, Georgia, to take up residence in my pull-up bar that is 9′ off the floor. (It has parallel bars with diagonal braces. She perched there on day one, so I wrapped it in a towel for her foot comfort. She quickly discovered the inside “cavity” of the towel and made her home of over 6 months now.)
She quickly became territorial, and her chosen home gives her a great view. She was dive-bombing the other birds for a period as I carried them through her zone. I started guarding them better as I carried them through. Perhaps I wore her down, or something else changed, because she no longer dive-bombs us–but, she does look on with a very watchful eye.
This behavior has nothing to do with dominance. She is merely engaging in resource guarding because she is relating to that spot as a nest cavity. It is always best to discourage cavity seeking.
Interesting. Thanks, Pam. Why is it best to discourage it? Who is it best for? The bird, the human, the captive flock? I already confessed to the challenges of letting her do it–but, she loves being in there, crawling around, rooting around–it gives her purpose, it occupies her, and it is a natural behavior. (She is on her second towel, and will soon need another.)
:] So, in other words, you are saying, I should eliminate the behaviors of cavity seeking and nest-making?
“It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress.” (Leotti, 2010)
There are some natural behaviors that we should not provide for. In the wild, parrots spend a few months in a very “shut down” state in terms of reproductive hormones, to the extent that their gonads atrophy to make flying easier. At a certain point during the year, triggers in the environment support breeding, laying eggs, and rearing young. Those tend to be the presence of a pair bond, the ability to engage in physically affectionate interactions and enjoy significant time in close physical contact, access to nesting spots and food resources that provide more energy (fats and carbohydrates). In most homes, these triggers are present 24/7, 365 days a year. This is believed to keep the companion parrot in a frustrated state that decreases quality of life. From a medical standpoint, this is a dangerous practice because it encourages egg laying – also a natural behavior, but one that can put the parrot at risk for egg binding. Once these birds begin with chronic egg laying, it can be extremely difficult to get them to stop. From a behavioral standpoint, this practice contributes to decreased quality of life because the parrot loses independent living skills. When guarding the nest site, they are not foraging, chewing, flying, learning.
Please read the blog post “Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots.” Companion to that one are two others: “Reproductive Hormones and Companion Parrots” and “Avoid the Pair Bond: Social Relationships in Parrots.”
Wow–bringing Nature into captivity is complex! Thanks, Pam, sincerely. I will read your post on the topic.
In defining the boundaries of foraging, where does it end?
I read a lot about foraging as it relates to making otherwise-ready-to-eat food more stimulating to get to. Putting pellets in a plastic puzzle toy, for example. I find it more enriching (for the parrot and more edutaining for me) to give my parrots foods that are _not_ ready to eat. In the Army, we had the MRE: Meal Ready to Eat. That is important in a combat situation, where time is precious. I give my flock minimal MREs, because their time is too abundant. Pellets are the ultimate MRE, making it critical that the other foods offered are not MREs.
Yet, the most popular complement to pellets is “chop”; but, chop is usually chopped too small–making it an MRE, too. It seems counter intuitive to me to give a bird a food where we did, or outsourced to “industry”, the beak work it would require in its whole form. Then, we give the bird a “toy” for their beak work. For example, we give a bird chop containing zucchini, cut into tiny pieces. They gobble it with ease, then need a toy to occupy their free time.
Early on, I started offering my Timneh, Grady, whole salad ingredients *before* I put them to the cutting board. (Confession: I do not actually use a cutting board.) I first stood at his perch holding a whole zucchini for him, for quite a while, while he worked to get the right angle to break the skin, sample it slowly, react to the astringent juice, pause, then “dig” for more, sampling the textures and components along the way. Those are two very different eating experiences, fine chop versus a whole zucchini! I would call the whole food experience a significant component of foraging.
Of course, giving such large foods in whole form is not practical, but much bigger chunks, versus fine chop, are practical, at least for foods they like. I aim for chunks that are just big enough that they are a challenge to pick up and hold with their feet. I realize a strategy of chop is to bury the things they would not eat standing alone.
Perhaps a better example is giving Grady a whole pomegranate, on a skewer, or better yet, on a large countertop. He still has to forage to get the edible part. Is there a better term for having Grady extract the pistachio from the shell? Or is that part of foraging?
Having thought aloud, my main point is: reduce MREs for parrots. The beak work of getting the edible part and eating it would be a significant task in the wild, consuming time, calories, and thought process. We steal that opportunity from our parrots, without realizing it, and then we struggle with the behavior problems that are rooted in their having too much free time, not to mention the enrichment of the challenge of getting the pistachio out of the shell. I still enjoy watching them work. Their dexterity; the power and finesse of their beaks; their problem-solving natures; it all fascinates me. A bowl of pellets and a bowl of fine chop deprives them and me; plus, MREs contribute to behavior problems.
This seems to be yet another example of our need to teach a parrot an unnatural behavior (playing with pointless toys on a playstand, which my flock does), because we are depriving them of an important natural behavior (working to get the nutrients from whole foods). A parrot has 8 opposable thumbs and a unique craniofacial hinge with an independently-movable upper beak! If we rob them of the need to use their amazing foot dexterity, beak dexterity, beak strength, and bright minds on their meals, they will get even by using them on our homes and possessions. :]
The kitchen knife and the pellet bowl are the enemies of a “well-behaved” parrot. Put another way, why did my parrot chew my dining room chair? Well, because I “chewed” his food for him. Now he and I are even ;p
Thanks so much for your comments. I don’t see why, however, you see this as “either / or.” The good caregivers I know offer both chop (which does have several advantages for the parrot) AND foraging opportunities as you describe. Good caregivers don’t offer pointless toys. Instead they focus on providing foraging opportunities and plenty of materials to chew – both natural behaviors. Parrots don’t chew furniture because their food was chopped too small. They chew furniture because it’s fun. Their beak is the primary organ with which they explore the world.
I appreciate your thought-provoking articles and your entertaining my thinking aloud in response to them, Pam. I was pointing out the oddity of… denying, whether conscious or not, the opportunities for more natural foraging and beak work, versus artificial or contrived foraging and beak work.
I believe it is my job to offer Grady as much work-required food as I can, along with bark-intact branches, so that his environment is more appealing than a dining room chair. He will definitely not chew a chair for the long while he is hungry and has food available that is not ready to eat. :]
I don’t know anyone who recommends denying “natural foraging and beak work.” As I have said, as much enrichment (including natural branches) should be provided. Parrots in the wild do not always chew large things. They forage for small foods also.
I did not mean to imply that anyone _recommends_ denying “natural foraging and beak work.” I am saying that it seems quite common for that outcome just the same; Processed pellets and fine chop comprising the vast majority of a bird’s diet have that unintended effect–especially if both are offered in a bowl as is typical.
I think that, as a behavior consultant who always gathers information about diet in every case, I have a good sense of what the “average” diet is. Pellets and Chop are about as good as it gets. That is a terrific diet, compared to what is usually fed. Usually it is seed mix + fruit. Or seed mix + pasta + mashed potatoes + peanut butter filled pretzels. Most often, it’s a mix of seeds and pellets so that the parrot never eats the pellets. You have to realize what the “rungs of knowledge” are in this area. Is your idea about diet ideal? Of course! However, I’m in the trenches. If I can get a client to feed pellets and Chop and stop feeding dried fruit, human snack foods, chocolate and licorice, that’s a victory. You keep advocating for your diet. That’s awesome. For me, I strive for incremental change.
Hi, Pam. I apologize for failing to be clear, as I continued to think aloud. In short, I was trying to say that the mainstays of the captive parrot diet provide–even necessitate–very important, and seemingly easy, opportunities to incorporate much-needed foraging. It would be great to see that when pellets are recommended, it is also highly recommended that they are offered in a foraging arrangement (progressive homemade, or a “toy”). Further, when chop is recommended, that it is strongly encouraged to offer some larger pieces of the foods the bird likes.
I was not advocating for a more ideal diet. I was advocating the more holistic view that the degree of ease of consuming the diet is part of the “diet problem” with captive parrots.
I think the labeling of foraging “toys” makes foraging seem like some optional bonus that some lucky parrot might be offered. Foraging is as fundamental as flight, and not just in locating the food, but in the beak work of consuming it.
OW LOTS OF GREAT INFO AND ADVICE . LOOKING FORWARD TO MY NEXT CLASS CANT LEARN ENOUGH ABOUT PARROTS UNTIL THEY ARE ON BOARD IN YOUR HOME JUST LIKE A CHILD IT TAKES DAY BY DAY TALKING ENTERACTION AND FEEDING LETTING THEM KNOW THAT IM HERE TO SUPPORT NOT HARM IN ANYWAY
Hello Pamela! I have inherited a 28 yr old Blue and Gold. The girl has never flown in all these years!! She doesn’t know how. I started working with her just a little at a time because I noticed her breathing is raspy afterwards for a day. Then after 4-5 times of short practice rounds (like three times a week) her breathing is now raspy for a few minutes after. So I feel she’s getting stronger and adapting.
First, do you think at 28-30 years old it’s too late or too old to start flying?
Secondly, any suggestions or guidance you can give me is much appreciated.
Thank you so much for commenting and I apologize for taking over two months to reply. I have been recovering from surgery and have had to delay answering much of my email until now.
It may well be too late to teach your parrot to fly. Any training of this sort must be done by giving the parrot a choice. In other words, it’s uncool to launch a parrot into the pair by force when they don’t know how to fly. This is what most of the advice is about.
Of course, by now you are probably either terribly discouraged or have achieved some success. If you need further help, I can only suggest a consultation. Behavior is a study of one and teaching an older bird to fly can be tricky so I would need to work with you individually. There isn’t any generic advice I can offer, I’m afraid.
Thanks for ssharing this