Encouraging Natural Behaviors in Captive Parrots

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)

Photo courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

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.”

Other Models

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?

Bathing Options

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.

Drinking Water

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.

Foraging

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.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

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)

Photo courtesy of Maha Tahiri

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.

Liberty Flying

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:

Video Courtesy of Lee Stone

Others’ Feathers

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.

Photo courtesy of Mandy Andrea

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.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

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.

Two such “vases” with pine 2 x 4s on either side as chewable perches.

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.

Resources:

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.

Published by

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.

10 thoughts on “Encouraging Natural Behaviors in Captive Parrots”

  1. 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.

    Like

    1. Dear Pamela,

      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.

      Warmly,

      Pam

      Like

  2. REVISED COMMENT:
    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

    Like

    1. 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.

      Best,

      Pamela

      Like

  3. Pamela,

    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.

    Thanks again!

    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” >

    Like

    1. 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.

      Warm regards,

      Pam

      Like

  4. 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!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 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!

      Pam

      Liked by 1 person

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