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!

The Education of Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Like an eager elementary student, Star leans forward on the perch next to her mom waiting to touch the target stick that will earn her a treat. Star, a six-month-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is learning how to acquire treats from me by touching a target. She is a quick and enthusiastic learner.

Star is parent-raised. She lives with her mom and dad, Bebe and Flash, in a spacious outdoor aviary. My goal for Star is to have her become a trained free flying cockatoo like her parents. She is well on her way by utilizing every bit of the 40 ft. x 20 ft. confines of her aviary as she develops her flight skills and strength.

Time Line of Development

Let’s exam her progression from a youngster barely able to hold and crack a sunflower seed to the more masterful cockatoo that she is today. Before explaining the teaching goals I have offered Star, here’s a timeline of her development and accomplishments thus far:

  • Star hatched on May 26, 2019.
  • 8 weeks of age: Star fledges, leaving the nest box for the first time.
  • 9 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me near her aviary.
  • 10 weeks of age: Holds and eats an Avicake; flight and foraging skills are improving.
  • 11 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me in the aviary.
  • 12 weeks of age: Still is fed by her parents, but eats more often on her own; flight skills are progressing to an adult level.
  • 13 weeks of age: Comes down to the training perch on her own when I’m absent and eats from the attached bowl.
  • 14 weeks of age: Comes to training perch and watches as I hand feed treats to Bebe on the perch.
  • 21 weeks of age: Not eating from my hand yet, but eats willingly from a handheld bowl.
  • 22 weeks of age: Takes treats and an almond from my hand; whimpers endearingly while waiting for the treat.
  • 23 weeks of age: Targets and takes a treat!
  • 24 weeks of age: Eats mostly on her own while occasionally begging and receiving food from her parents.

From the timeline, notice that the more Star becomes self-sufficient with her feeding ability, the more engaged she becomes with me on the training perch. She still shows caution and is anxious if I move too fast or do something out of the ordinary, but she recovers quickly. This little one is on her way to learning what people are all about.

Star’s Progress

The family after a bath

A typical school day for Star consists of watching what her teachers – her parents – do.  From them, she learns where to forage and what foods to eat. She practices her preening skills on each of them and learns cockatoo etiquette, as well as proper Bare-eyed vocalizations. Crucially, she learns how to be a successful and well-adjusted Bare-eyed Cockatoo.

At six months of age, Star exhibits significant mental and physical confidence. For example, when I put up new foraging enrichment, she immediately tries to puzzle out how to get the goodies. She either figures out solutions on her own or watches closely as Bebe or Flash tackle the problem. Learning from observing her parents is immensely helpful for Star, as it is for youngsters of all species. She is absorbing skills and behaviors from them that help her become a normal and mentally- balanced cockatoo.

The following is a striking example of acquiring a skill through observation. I made foraging wood blocks with holes drilled in them to hold hidden almond pieces. I strung the blocks together and hung them from a perch in the family’s aviary. The blocks could be accessed either by climbing down the string or sitting on the perch and pulling the string up.

Star flew to the foraging toy the minute I hung it. I watched as she climbed down the string of blocks and struggled while it twirled around as she was trying to get the almond from the wood. She quickly let go and flew off.

Next, Flash came over to the blocks and nonchalantly pulled the string up with his beak and foot as he sat on the perch. He could now hold the block of wood and quickly tear into it for the almond. The entire time Star watched him intently.

What I observed next solidified for me the importance of parental influence. After Flash left the string of blocks, Star started to pull it up, just as Flash had. Of course, she wasn’t as physically coordinated with this new skill, but she was successful nonetheless.

People Socialization

Over the last weeks, Star has made steady progress becoming more people-friendly or at least tolerant and I attribute her advancing people skills once again to her parents. Both cockatoos were parent-raised and socialized to people here at Cockatoo Downs. They’ve had extensive positive training encounters with a variety of people who visit here or come to our training workshops. All their training has been with positive reinforcement.

Not raised to be ‘snuggly’ cockatoos, Bebe and Flash exhibit natural Bare-eyed Cockatoo behaviors while maintaining a positive connection with people. They’ve learned that interacting with folks will bring them good things to eat and they rarely pass up a training session opportunity.

Soon after Star fledged, I invited people to come and engage with her parents in short training sessions of targeting. From afar, Star observed Flash and Bebe’s training sessions, which set good examples for Star to emulate in the future.

Star’s Training

It’s impossible to rush Star’s training as she will respond simply by flying away. Flighted birds make us better trainers because we learn quickly that taking micro steps toward our training goals is essential. If we push or ask for too much, our student will fly off with an “I’m-outta-here” retort.

The goal of Star targeting and taking a treat from my hand was accomplished in stages. First, she learned to eat from attached feed bowls on the training perches with her parents. This enabled her to understand that the training perch was a source of good things.

Step One: Star learns to come down and eat from bowls on the training perches.

Next she learned to stay on the perch while I was feeding her parents. She watched closely as her mom and dad took treats from my hand. When I offered my open hand chock full of sunflower seeds and pines nuts to Star, she responded with a big fat “No way!” and off she flew. It took several sessions for her to become desensitized to the scary hand.

Step Two: Star learns to stay on perch while I feed her parents from my hand.

I accomplished it by taking a step backwards and offering her a “safer” option which was to eat from a handheld bowl. That did the trick as she became comfortable with seeing my hand near her, but didn’t have to deal with the frightening (eek!) possibility of touching it.

Step Three: Star learns to eat from a bowl I hold in my hand.
Step Four: Star learns to take treats from my hands.

Soon Star was eating from my hand. She progressed rapidly to taking a treat calmly from my fingers to—ta da!—touching a target.

Step Five: Star learns to target!

Slow Going?

One could argue that, at six months of age, a hand raised cockatoo would be weaned, be super people -friendly, stepping up on the hand, learning recall, and other behaviors we expect in our companion parrots. I would counter that with, at what cost to the young parrot and her parents? Please read my previous blog post that compares hand-rearing vs. parent rearing and the impact of each on their offspring.

It makes me sad to think of the critically important education hand-raised parrots miss growing up without their parents. So much of what gives Star her success in life so far has been taught to her by Bebe and Flash. It’s because of hand raising’s short- and long- range detrimental effects on both parents and chicks that I have chosen to parent raise Star.

So what if it takes longer to socialize and train her? We have all the time in the world. It’s the journey I’m taking with Star and her parents and what I’m learning from them that makes this so worthwhile.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots

As we begin to search for favorite soup recipes and pull out that beloved afghan, our parrots also change their behavior in response to colder weather and darker days. My own become a bit more obsessed with getting into the bathroom or being on the floor somewhere. I may need to fish one of them out of the closet occasionally.

Today I want to say a few more words about cavity seeking. I did cover this topic in my blog post Companion Parrots and Reproductive Hormones, but I think that a single focus on this topic is worthy. At this time of year especially, we can begin to see an increase in this behavior, which can be both puzzling and aggravating.

What is cavity seeking? I get that question a lot, usually right after I use the term as if everyone knows what it means.

When I did a Google search for these words, I got a lot of information about oral cavities. So, I had to  wonder…am I the only one using this term to describe a particular aspect of parrot behavior? I highly doubt it.  However, while the behavior is as common as parrots vocalizing loudly, the name for this behavior and it’s ramifications are not well-recognized.

What Is Cavity Seeking?

Cavity seeking is behavior sexually mature companion parrots attempt to pursue with the goal of establishing a potential nesting spot (in their perception at least). This appears to be a very strong drive and may occur independently from the presence of any perceived “mate,” although the two usually go hand in hand.

It is typically regarded as cute, slightly quixotic, and harmless. It can also be reinforcing for us when parrots engage in cavity seeking because it keeps them occupied for long periods of time, leaving us free to pursue our own tasks without worrying about the need to provide enrichment.

The Many Faces of Cavity Seeking

What does cavity seeking look like?

The answers to this are extremely diverse, which is why I want to focus exclusively on this topic today. The fact that it so often goes unrecognized is a problem, since it so often leads to an increase in the production of reproductive hormones, which in turn results in resource guarding (territorial aggression), increased vocalizations, and can set the stage for feather damaging behavior (FDB).

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a photo of one of Chris Shank’s cockatoos. It looks like innocent play, doesn’t it? It’s not. This bird is cavity seeking – checking out a small, dark space even when he has the entire property to explore, being a free-flighted parrot. This same cockatoo often jumps into Chris’ washing machine if he happens to be indoors and the lid is open .

One day, some years ago, we received an urgent visit from the pastor of a local church. One of Chris’ cockatoos had flown down the chimney, apparently investigating it as a possible nest cavity.

This is a topic that Chris and I often find ourselves discussing. For someone like Chris, who free flies her birds outdoors, this behavior can be dangerous. It causes the birds to fly too far afield and stay gone too long. During a few months of the year, her birds are not allowed their typical free flight schedule until this seemingly overcoming urge diminishes. For me, it is more frustrating than it is dangerous for my birds.

Modal Action Patterns

There may be research about this aspect of parrot behavior, but I was unable to find it. As I said, everything that came up was about dental health.

However, I believe this behavior to be a modal action pattern. A modal action pattern is an innate behavior or chain of behaviors that is triggered by a particular stimulus. (These previously were referred to as fixed action patterns, but most are now moving toward the terminology of modal action pattern.)

Adult parrots are undeniably and obsessively attracted to small, dark spaces, round “holes,” and small spaces with darkness behind them. A companion parrot’s interpretation of a suitable nesting site can be pretty broad. Two dimensions can suffice, although a dark surface or dark background adds allure.

Cavity Seeking Examples

A few days ago, I allowed my grey Marko to be in the bathroom while I was in there. She began cavity seeking in a most unexpected way. I have a four-year-old granddaughter and happen to have a toilet seat her size which fits over the standard seat. When not in use, I have it on the counter. The oval shape was stimulating enough for Marko that she immediately began to investigate. No doubt, she would have jumped into the middle of it if I had allowed it to continue.

Many parrots become obsessed with getting into cupboards and drawers. This is often seen as amusing by owners and, therefore, is often encouraged. I once knew someone who had emptied out her kitchen cupboards so that her large macaws could play in them.  My own Marko will sit for hours atop my sock drawer if I leave it open a crack. She stares into that dark slit and chews on the top edge of the drawer.

She was also responsible for the need to replace my closet doors. As you can see, they originally had slats that allowed her to see the darkness behind the doors. Her flight skills were good enough that she could land on the outside of the doors and cling to them as she chewed. Before too long, she had remodeled things to her liking and proceeded to guard the site until I replaced the doors themselves with a mirrored substitute that did not allow for chewing.

Other Examples from Real Life

One client had an exceptionally aggressive little conure. When I visited the home, I immediately recognized conditions that set the stage for her biting behavior. Her cage was located in the dining area with an adjoining kitchen. She regularly got to spend time up on top of the refrigerator. There was also a dark wood bookcase with which she was fascinated. And, she often crawled between the dog kennel and the back of the bar top for seating that separated the kitchen from the area that housed her cage. Once her access to these spots had been eliminated, we were able to make good progress with a behavior modification plan.

Another client regularly allowed his Umbrella Cockatoo to sit in the drawer in his office next to him while he was at work. When I dictated this as “off limits” behavior, he provided her with a playstand.

He reported progress a couple of weeks later, due to the fact that she had begun staying in a corner of the office, chewing on the woodwork. I had to break the news to him that this too was nesting behavior and that he really needed to teach her to remain up on the playstand, as we had agreed. Although the two or three dimensions seen here wouldn’t lead us to think about it as a suitable site for nesting behavior, it was for this parrot.

Many of my clients regularly (until they speak to me at least) provide cardboard boxes for their parrot to play in. Seems harmless, right? Enrichment is good, right? Not in this case.

Such play should never be encouraged. I suggest that anyone reading this should stop this practice immediately. It’s much healthier, from a behavioral standpoint, for a parrot to perch on a well-designed playstand and interact with enrichment there.

Another problem can be the provision of toys and “sleeping huts” sold for birds that encourage cavity seeking behavior. If a parrot spends time in these during the day, I suggest their removal. They are not necessary and can be a real problem.

If your parrot spends any time in a place that results in what we typically call “territorial aggression,” access needs to be prevented. In other words, if your parrot darts out suddenly to bite you from a favored spot, it is likely that she regards it as a potential nest site, no matter how you view it.

Training Solutions

As any of us know who have tried to keep parrots where we want them to be, this can be a struggle. Training/teaching is necessary. Always when we want a parrot to stop a behavior, we must replace it with another, incompatible behavior.

The incompatible behavior for cavity seeking is stationing on acceptable perches. This is not difficult, but it takes consistent, daily effort over a long period of time. It is not nearly as quickly accomplished as training specific behaviors like targeting, for instance.

If your parrot regularly walks on the floor and engages in cavity seeking or regular chewing on baseboards or other wood in places there, he has established a relationship with that dimension of your home. He finds significant reinforcement in that physical location.

Therefore, the solution must be to establish a relationship with the perches you provide. That takes time, so don’t despair. Just keep doing the right things for long enough.

I work on this on a daily basis and see continued improvement. I put walnut pieces in my pocket every morning. I keep these in front of my coffee maker so that I don’t forget (habit stacking).

Every time I walk through my living area where the birds are located, I offer a walnut piece to those birds who are perched where I want them to be (hanging perches, cages, playstands). Mine are fully flighted and have freedom to go where they want at all times, so have many choices available to them.

If they are perched on the refrigerator or the dog kennel door or the floor, they get nothing. You would be amazed at what I have accomplished. Almost always, they are all perched where I want them to be.

Synopsis

As I have said, the real problem with this behavior is that we fail to recognize it, don’t understand the ramifications of allowing a parrot to pursue this activity, and so often accommodate it because it meets our needs.

As an example, I just spoke with a new client whose two greys have “nests” all over the space where they spend their days – cardboard boxes in which they spend time, trash cans, etc. This has never been viewed as a problem. They enjoy this activity and it has appeared to be a good way for them to spend time.

However, the problems to be addressed in this case include screaming, aggression and feather damaging behavior – all of which result from such activities. It will be impossible to address these until this behavior is replaced with the behaviors of perching up higher and interacting with enrichment in those places.

It is never happy to find yourself in this position. So, let’s clean this up right now before things get worse! I would love to hear from you. Is this something that you struggle with? Let’s all share what we know about this problem and help each other to find more solutions. Please provide a comment here on or Facebook, where you will find this post on both of my pages, Pamela Clark and The Parrot Steward.

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, as well as publishing information you can trust. 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!

Parrots, Flight, and Play Behavior

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Kids were on the school playground as I rode by on my bike recently. Seeing them run and jump and hearing their screams of excitement made me happy. I remember vividly the days of my youth when running, chasing, playing tether ball, and other physical play activities were paramount in my life. Is it so in our parrots’ lives?

It certainly seems to be, as I’ve watched two generations of parent-raised cockatoos grow up at Cockatoo Downs. As the fledglings did before her, Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (17 weeks old) zooms around the aviary, catches a boing on the fly and twirls with great glee. Her parents sometimes shed their serious demeanor and join her in brief flights of joy.

The Functions of Play Behavior

Why is it that humans and non-human animals, especially young ones, partake in physical play activities? I don’t have specific answers to that question. Even with extensive research on play, it is not yet completely understood by scientists.

However, the majority of findings conclude that play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected circumstances, helps recover from stressful situations, and aids in the development and training of physical and motor skills.

There are different types of play such as social play and object play, and I will be focusing on physical play. Physical play is a combination of activities that gives young animals, including humans, the chance to develop gross motor skills, learn and practice physical abilities, promote and develop strength and coordination, all while happily expending large amounts of energy.

Flighted Fledgling and the Adult Parrot

Parrots were not built to sit still. In the wild, they spend most of the day flying from place to place in search of food, nesting opportunities, and partaking in social interactions.

Supplying toys to young companion parrots to engage and play with can help expend energy to take the place of wild activities. However, creating an environment for the young parrot to play and fly affords the youngster the ultimate in energy expansion while promoting coordination, skill, exploration, and confidence.

Physical exercise for our adult companion parrots is very important for their health and welfare. Giving a fledgling parrot the opportunity for vigorous physical play sets the stage for the continuation of energetic exercise into the youngster’s adulthood.

Feeling comfortable and safe are key ingredients in promoting play activities in animals. The type of play activity that takes place is influenced by what the animal can physically do.

Regrettably, most hand-raised parrots are clipped as fledglings. A clipped youngster may experience a loss of balance and fear of falling which certainly hinders the parrot’s motivation to physically play, which can limit the parrot’s development.

Play behavior apparently promotes the ability to handle unexpected situations and allows versatility of emotional responses to help recover from averse situations. Because clipping fledglings limits their play opportunities, as adults they may have less proficiency in dealing with situations such as changing or stressful environments or handling successfully social interactions.

I am always dismayed when I learn that some breeders clip the wings of their fledglings before the birds take their first flight or soon thereafter. To be transparent, I, too, practiced that when I started breeding cockatoos. That was what was preached back in the day.

I finally did see the light and I let my fledglings fly. With that came displays of the exuberance that is inherently contained in a young cockatoo. The babies would develop their physical skills by energetically flying back and forth in the house as they learned to navigate and land on ropes strung across the ceiling. Play vocalizations such as loud screams echoed throughout the house as the fledglings’ confidence and skills grew each day.

Ropes were invaluable in advancing their motor skills. Losing their balance on a wobbly rope didn’t dissuade them because all they had to do was open their wings and fly off. Falling wasn’t a concern as it is for clipped parrots. I often wonder if flying birds even have a human concept of falling. To me, falling means loss of control and eventual pain as I hit the dirt. With a flighted bird, there is no loss of control when “falling” as she just opens her wings to fly.

It’s obvious to spot adult parrots who were clipped when young and did not have access to robust play exercise using their wings. Generally, as there are exceptions, they turn into perch potatoes with little to no motivation to move around or explore. They show dependency on their human caretakers to move them from place to place. They may be more sensitive in stressful situations and they can be more fearful of changes in their environment. And the list goes on.

I believe allowing parrot fledglings to keep their fully functioning wings is a welfare issue. Young parrots play if they are healthy, well-fed, and safe; but not if they are under stressful conditions or in a stressful mental state which a clipped fledgling may very well experience.

Watching a newly fledged parrot try to fly for the first time with clipped wings is truly a heartbreaking vision. A vastly important part of avian physical play has now been shut off for the youngster. An open door that would entitle the young companion parrot to a healthy mental and physical development has been rudely slammed in her face.

Even though scientists have yet to completely understand play behavior, we shouldn’t let our parrots be deprived of physical play; if for nothing else, it seems to be just plain fun for parrots to do. Just ask Star!

Star Update

Star is expanding her social circle and skills. Avian trainer and good friend, Kathryne Thorpe, came to visit Star recently. She spent time in the aviary feeding Star’s parents yummies. Star came down to the perch after giving Kathryne the once-over and preceded to eat from the treat bowl with Kathryne continuing to feed a parent. Comfortably accepting a new person in her aviary was a big step forward for Star.

Morning Coffee with Ellie

Ellie, my adopted Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is making great strides with the new behaviors she is learning. The newest is learning to fly to my hand. In the video, you will see the steps I took over several days to get to our goal behavior of flying to my hand. The important thing to remember is to make small steps towards any goal behavior. (The video has been shortened because of length.)

References:

Play Behavior in the Nonhuman Animal and the Welfare Issue, Ana Flora Sarti Oliveira et al; published online, June 10, 2009, Japan Ethological Society and Springer, 2009.

Social Play Behavior, Marc Bekoff, The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, Animal Studies Repository, 1984.

So You Think You Know Why Animals Play, Linda Sharpe, Scientific American, May 17, 2011.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


The African Grey Parrot: Data and Deliberations

It’s a daunting task to write an article about any companion parrot species without relying too heavily upon the anthropomorphic or the generalization. It’s worth the attempt, however, in the case of the African Grey. While one of the most popular pet parrots on the face of the earth since biblical times, I believe it remains one of the most misunderstood.

My Life with Greys

My life with greys extends back almost three decades.  I specialized in breeding them for several years. I successfully trained them for free flight. I’ve rehabilitated more than a few, solved the problems of many as a behavior consultant, and cared for more than I want to remember as a veterinary technician. 

I’ve been publishing information about them since 1998.

There is no parrot species I love more and these days I share my home with a gang of six – three females and three males.

Timnehs and Congos

What you will read below will apply most specifically to the grey parrot known as the Congo African Grey or the Red-tailed Grey. Until recently, it was believed that the Timneh and the Congo Greys belonged to the same species, and were categorized as the sub-species, Psittacus erithacus erithacus and Psittacus erithacus timneh. They were finally designated as two separate species in 2012, although many sources continue to reflect the older designation. (Seibold-Torres C, 2015)

I felt vindicated when the 2012 news was announced because my personal experience of both had convinced me that they are not much alike at all. Not only do they come from completely different areas of Africa, their coloring is different, as is their behavior. When it comes to behavior, Timneh greys are more similar to Poicephalus parrots than they are like the Congo Grey.

The Data

The African Grey is an Old World species that originates from the equatorial region of Africa. Although notoriously difficult to study for several reasons, they have been observed congregating in dense rainforest, forest edges and clearings, gallery forests and mangroves. They are also seen in cultivated areas and gardens. They most enjoy roosting in tall trees over water.

Their social lifestyle in the wild could not be more unlike that of our favorite New World parrots, such as Amazons, conures, and macaws. Greys live in large communal roosts of up to 10,000 individuals. Smaller groups will break off to go on foraging expeditions, traveling as far as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) for the purpose. (Valla, D, 2019) Several hundred pairs may breed in one geographic location, although each monogamous pair takes possession of a single nest cavity.

From Back in My Breeding Days

It is reported that the young fledge at about the age of 12 weeks (a fact I can corroborate) and that their parents feed them for up to four to five weeks after that. Once eating independently, they remain with the flock and receive further care and education from the older members of the flock. The young birds stay with their family groups for up to several years. (Holman, R, 2008)

Greys are extremely vocal in the wild, generating a wide variety of sounds that include the mimicry of other birds, bats and mammals. They are nosiest in the early morning and again at dusk. Vocalizations occur both when perched and in flight. Typical sounds include whistles, shrieks, and screams, described as “high-pitched and penetrating” that often embody an eerie quality.

Wild greys forage both in the canopy and on the ground, feeding on oil palm fruit, flowers, seeds, berries, tree bark, snails, insects. While on the ground, they ingest mud, grasses and other low-growing plants. One visitor to Africa with whom I spoke many years ago confirmed that they have also been observed feeding upon carrion, although the literature does not corroborate this.

The Deliberations

Why are African Greys such popular pets? Talking ability is always the first reason cited. Their much documented level of intelligence comes in second. Research Associate Irene Pepperberg has not been the only one to document how scary smart these birds really are.

And, while words are rarely put to this aspect of living with a grey, their discerning personalities and ability to remain attune to their owners’ emotions and body language rank right up there with the other reasons why this species is one of the least likely to be relinquished to rescue and adoption organizations. The depth and quality of their interactions with their people make them such favorites.

Their Vocal Nature

Everyone loves a talking bird and greys seem to have special ability in this area. Many are the anecdotal accounts of those who use the English language in correct context, order from Amazon using Alexa, and seem to understand all that is said to them. You can’t visit YouTube or any other social media outlet without stumbling over an account of a talented grey.  

No doubt this is, in part, attributable to their wild tendency to vocalize often within their large flocks. It is in their DNA to express themselves vocally in order to solidify flock bonds. And it is true that their skill at mimicry is unparalleled. Often their repetition of sounds is so exact that it can be difficult to tell the difference for instance between the bird and the doorbell.

I have seen first-hand the pleasure they take in vocalizing back and forth to each other. When I was breeding greys, I had five pairs who were all wild-caught. These parrots knew their native language and they taught it to their babies and my adult companions. Every evening, I relished in the eerie, yet exquisitely beautiful, symphony that filled the air as the pairs outdoors communicated to those indoors and those indoors responded.

I believe that an individual grey’s extreme talent with human language can also be, however, a reflection of isolation as they live out their lives as captives in single-grey homes. Greys are often kept as single parrots and most live with clipped wings, which creates an additional level of isolation.

Given their innate need to communicate with their flock and documented talent at mimicry, coupled with their imposed physical isolation, is it any wonder that so many become such good talkers?

I have often said that “Greys who can’t talk, greys who can fly.” None of my greys who have grown up with other greys and who live a flighted life choose to speak English very often, although they have the ability, which they display at times. They are too busy moving about from place to place and rely instead upon communicating in the more natural grey language of shrill beeps and whistles. 

People often assume that a grey who chooses to talk a lot does so because she is happy. Don’t be too sure about that.

Their Social Nature

Greys and Us

I would describe Congo greys as discerning, well-attuned to the emotions and body language of other creatures, and having a keen sense of humor. I also think of them as the chess players of the parrot world, quite capable of manipulation. Granted, this is anthropomorphism at this best, but this is my experience of them.

A Sweet Little Meyer’s Parrot with No Feet

During the same time period that I was raising baby greys, I was also intentionally engaging in the rehabilitation of surrendered parrots. I had approximately 30 at a time, so had my own “behavior lab” of sorts.

I would frequently look up while I went about my daily work and observed a difference in the way that the various species related to me. Most of the parrots would be engaged in their own business of foraging, bathing, sunning, playing. The greys, however, would most often have their attention on me and my activities. This bordered on spooky. Greys watch us intently and get to know us in an intimate way.

Gretel Ehrlich once wrote the following: “What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we’re finally ourselves.” That describes perfectly the Red-tailed Grey.

My Marko

Greys are described as monogamous and as often forming a pair bond with a single human in the home. While the latter is often certainly true, my experience of them is that they form relatively loose pair bonds. While I have frequently helped clients whose Amazons or cockatoos were displaying fierce aggression toward other family members, I have never dealt with such a problem with a grey.

Greys and Other Species

Grey seem to get along best with other Old World parrots.

This doesn’t mean that such mixing of these species will always be successful, but I have seen routinely that my greys get along much better with my cockatoos and the occasional visiting Eclectus than with my New World parrots.

My grey Marko is absolutely intolerant of my two Amazons and once attacked my Blue and Gold macaw. I have had to segregate Old World and New World parrots physically in my home as the individuals have gotten older.

This doesn’t mean of course that you can’t have both greys and New World parrots who cohabit peacefully in a home, but don’t expect them to be friends and be careful with introductions. Avoiding conflict may need to be the primary goal.

Greys and Other Greys

I have always lived with multiple greys with little trouble among them. This would not be true if I were speaking about cockatoo or Amazon species which, in my experience, form much stronger pair bonds that often lead to aggression toward others.

Congo Greys in captivity seem to have an affinity for other Congo greys. This news should not come as any surprise, given how they live in the wild.

When I was breeding greys, I removed the babies from their parents after two to three weeks and brought them into the house. They lived in the great room in the middle of family activity.

Six-month-old Grey with a Younger Baby

I was astonished to find that the older greys eagerly chose to climb into the box of babies to spend time with them. This reflects the wild observations about how older grey flock members also care for young parrots. Two of my adult grey companions took responsibility for schooling, and even feeding, the babies.

I have over the years introduced many adult greys to the others already living in my home and, with few exceptions, they always get along well. The “social hierarchy” may take a bit of re-ordering, which is usually accomplished through a bit of snarking at each other, but things always calm down with everyone getting along. I have also assisted numerous clients in introducing a new grey to an existing one, with similar positive results.

I have observed in repeated situations an odd social phenomenon. While female greys tolerate and perhaps enjoy each other, two males will often form a close bond with each other.

Phoenix and Boston (both males)

This can take the form of a pair bond, complete with the display of mating rituals. Over the years of living with greys, I have regularly seen two males pair up, preferring to hang out with each other rather than with any of the females.

I sometimes board for periods of time a male grey named Chuckie. He settles right in as soon as he gets here and renews his acquaintances with my guys, often flying over to perch with them.

The last time he was here, his behavior was different. He seemed happy enough, but was a bit less vocal and exuberant than during previous visits. He obviously wasn’t ill, but seemed a tiny bit “off.”

He’s back now for another visit and this time is his typical funny, relaxed, social self. What’s different? Last visit, my male greys were living outdoors in the aviary. This time, they are back inside and I have finally realized that Chuckie very obviously prefers their company to that of the three females that I have.

Granted, these are all anecdotal observations. However, my experience is deep enough in this area that I would suggest that if you are seeking to adopt an African Grey, consider bringing home two of them so that they have each other as well as you.

And, in a last word on this subject, there is a tiny bit of scientific evidence to support this advice. Telomeres are the caps on certain chromosomes that control chromosome stability. Telomere length tends to decrease in length with the age of the African Grey. However, one study found that greys who lived singly had significantly shorter telomeres than those that were housed in pairs. ( Aydinonat, D. et al, 2014)

Their Physical Nature

Greys suffer from some pretty serious physical and medical problems in captivity, some well-known and some not.

Atherosclerosis is the most recently recognized threat to the health of greys, who seem to be especially disposed to develop this disease process. This is clearly a lifestyle disease, the development of which is related to diet and lack of exercise.

Greys are prone to developing both vitamin A and vitamin D deficiencies and display a widely-recognized tendency toward hypocalcemia (low calcium levels). The latter results in neurological symptoms, such as seizures, in adult birds. In the young, this manifests as osteodystrophy (defective bone development).

Seed diets have been implicated in the development of atherosclerosis, as well as the vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, there is more to the story.

One study demonstrated that the provision of UV-B light increased serum ionized calcium, independent of the levels of calcium and vitamin D in the diet. The hypothesis is that, since greys in the wild live in low shade areas and are exposed to high levels of sunlight in the wild, they may need UV-B light in order to have adequate vitamin D levels in the body. Since vitamin D regulates calcium absorption, this may be one reason, in addition to diet, that greys so often suffer from calcium deficiencies.

I found this especially interesting because of an observation that I made back during my rehab period. I had at that time four outdoor aviaries and regularly made observations regarding the behavior of the different species when in them.

Generally, the New World parrots spent very little time in the direct sunlight, while the greys remained there for much longer periods. In fact, one day I found one female on the bottom of the aviary with her wings spread. After I recovered from my shock, I realized that she had only been sun bathing. To this day, my greys will choose to sit in the sun more often than in the shade.

While the above medical issues deserve serious consideration, we seem to be most often more distressed by the feather damaging behavior in which so many greys engage. This is a very complex problem, typically due to the presence of several risk factors.

The reasons may include, but are not limited to poor early beginnings, lack of foraging or bathing opportunities, insufficient exercise, no exposure to natural sunlight, limited time out of the cage, no learning opportunities, over-dependence upon the owner, and malnutrition, in addition to medical causes.

Chronic stress is also a probable component and is often incorrectly blamed as the sole cause of a given problem. In fact, one study revealed that there is an association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite secretion in captive grey parrots. (Costa, P. et al, 2016) This makes perfect sense, since the risk factors identified above can all contribute to increased stress.

I have specialized in resolving this problem for clients and have good success. However, the longer I do this work, the more I come to believe that liberty, time spend outdoors, and balanced social opportunity are primary factors that contribute significantly to a grey’s mental health.

More than one grey has been returned to a fully feathered state by being placed in new conditions that allowed for frequent flight and interaction by choice with both conspecifics and people who use positive reinforcement to provide learning opportunities.

My Grey Conclusions

I offer you the following thoughts aimed at helping you to have the most successful grey experience:

  • Consider keeping more than one grey companion in your home.
  • Feed the best diet possible, incorporating a high quality pellet supplemented with plenty of vegetables high in betacarotene (yellow, red, orange or dark green).
  • Provide plenty of foraging and learning opportunities.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Set up an outdoor aviary that allows for sunbathing whenever the weather permits.
  • If you get a baby, adopt one that has been parent-reared or that has had exposure to several adult greys. If you can’t find one who fits this description, walk away and adopt an older bird.
  • Do not clip wings if your grey parrot has flight capability.
  • Use care in arranging for your absences. Never leave a grey at home alone with a caregiver who comes in just once or twice a day.
  • Allow as much time out of the cage as possible and encourage liberty and choice-making.
  • Never get into a battle of wills with a grey bird.

Final Words

I am reluctant to end this piece, but understand that it is overly long as it is. There is just so much more I would like to tell you about them.

African Greys are complex birds. Many of us who have had the privilege of sharing our homes with them feel that, should we be able to keep only one parrot as a friend, it would be a grey.

The gifts they have to share are exceptional but will be received in full measure only when we are exceptional in our relationships with them. We must honor their innate timetables for early development, allow them to develop physically, mentally and socially into the incredible creatures they have evolved to be and honor their sensitivities in our care practices.

Wait! Don’t Leave Yet…

I’m excited to announce that I will be giving a one-of-a-kind live webinar on screaming (and any other problem noise) on Thursday, October 10 at 11:00 am PDT (2:00 pm EDT). Unlike other webinars, this experience will provide you with a complete plan for solving any screaming problem. Attendees will receive a workbook, supporting materials, and a special offer for on-going support. Please don’t miss it!

References:

Aydinonat D, Penn DJ, Smith S, Moodley Y, Hoelzl F, Knauer F, et al. (2014) Social Isolation Shortens Telomeres in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). PLoS ONE 9(4): e93839. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093839aa

Costa P, Macchi E, Valle E, De Marco M, Nucera DM, Gasco L, Schiavone A. 2016. An association between feather damaging behavior and corticosterone metabolite excretion in captive African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) PeerJ 4:e2462 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2462

Griffin, Jenny (13 February 2012). “Species Spotlight on the African Grey Parrot”. Brighthub. Retrieved 1 March 2016. https://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/20670.aspx

Holman, R. 2008. “Psittacus erithacus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 24, 2019 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Psittacus_erithacus

Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998

Lafeber Company. 2019. African Grey Parrot. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/species/african-grey-parrot

Stromberg, Joseph. 2012. African Grey Parrots Have the Reasoning Skills of 3-year-olds. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/african-grey-parrots-have-the-reasoning-skills-of-3-year-olds-15955221

Sanford, Michael, BVSc, MRCVS. 2004. The Effects of UV-B Lighting Supplementation in African Grey Parrots. Selected Papers from the International Conference on Exotics 2004. ICE Proceedings. Exotic DVM, Vol. 6.3. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9fe6/40ea0111eb22183a877a25d16bbbf0d809a5.pdf

Mikolasch, Sadra, Kotrschal, Kurt and Schloegl, Christian. African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) use inference by exclusion to find hidden food7Biol. Lett.http://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.0500

Reuell, Peter. 2017. Discerning Bird. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/12/harvard-researchers-test-intelligence-of-african-grey-parrot

Seibold-Torres C, Owens E, Chowdhary R, Ferguson-Smith M, A, Tizard I, Raudsepp T. 2015. Comparative Cytogenetics of the Congo African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) Karger Cytogenetic and Genome Research. 2015;147:144-153. doi: 10.1159/000444136. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/444136. Accessed 9/23/19.

Valla, Daniela. 2019. 5 Surpising Facts About African Grey Parrots. https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/blogs/5-surprising-facts-about-african-grey-parrots

Morning Coffee with Ellie

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Learning is a change in behavior due to experience. Teaching is to cause someone to learn something by example or experience. Offer these two activities together daily for your companion parrot and you can create a powerhouse of an education both for you and your bird.

But, you may say, you don’t have time to train (teach) daily. I will counter with— but you do! If I can do it, you can do it. Listen, I’m lazy. Well, maybe not lazy so much as I procrastinate. Sure, I have good intentions. I make daily to-do lists, but most of the do’s don’t happen until the next day or the day after that or maybe the do’s fade off into oblivion.

No Schedule Needed!

Then how does making time for training my cockatoos work with my proclivity to dawdle? I do enjoy training, and I’m not good at making time to fit it into my day. My solution is to forget about trying to create a scheduled time for training.

Instead, I now go with the flow and simply use my daily encounters with the cockatoos as opportunities to train. And you can, too. This no-schedule schedule really lightens my mental have-to load and eases the pressure to train which oddly enough allows me to train even more.

Every interaction we have with our companion parrots is a teaching moment whether we think so or not. Don’t be fooled into thinking our companion birds are not paying attention to every move we make, especially when it comes to our behavior towards them. So let’s make those actions good things that our parrots look forward to.

Simple Solutions

Here’s an example of what I mean. We may think that taking the food bowl out of our parrot’s cage is merely a daily chore and not an opportunity to train. Your parrot, however, may find it’s a perfect opportunity to train you not to take the food bowl away. He does so by lunging at you just as you open the food bowl door.

Our typical reaction is to snap our hand back from the door and that’s exactly what he wanted. Your parrot has just trained you to go away when he lunges. You may not have thought this daily task is a teaching opportunity, but your parrot has certainly discovered that it is.

The food bowl removal takes very little time to do and occurs daily. So why not use that time to do some teaching? You can start by teaching your parrot to target away from the bowl while he is in his cage.

Or you can simply hand him his favorite treat on the opposite side of the cage from the food bowl. While he is munching away, out comes the bowl. After doing this over several days, voila, you’ve just schooled your bird to stay away from the bowl door when you service it. And if your parrot is polite about bowl removal, you can still do some targeting which, no doubt, he will look forward to.

I won’t go into more examples because I know you are savvy enough to understand what I mean. We can take simple interactions with our parrots and make them teaching moments. No training schedule needed. When I say moment, that’s pretty much what I mean. A couple of minutes of training here and a couple of minutes of training there add up to a surprisingly effective strategy.

Enter, Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo

Ellie came to live with me about three months ago. Although she is a charming cockatoo, we had some things to work out to let our relationship grow in a positive manner. (See my blog posts Commentary on Free Flight: Part Two and Lessons from Ellie for more information on how Ellie came to live with me, the behavior challenges she presented, and our on-going training.)

We have accomplished many things towards that goal. Her flying at me in an aggressive manner has decreased dramatically; her step-up behavior is now good and absent aggressive behavior; her foraging skills are improving daily and foraging options are met with enthusiasm.

I’m proud of us both and want to continue expanding her behavior repertoire. I want to train her to go into a travel crate. Ugh, now I have to block out a time each day for that. No, wait, go with the flow, right? Here’s what I do instead. I have coffee with Ellie in the morning.

Each morning I have my cup of coffee while sitting at the kitchen island where Ellie joins me. It’s a relaxing time for both of us. Ellie and I are waking up and gathering a bit of energy before we face the day. What better time to tackle a training project.

I’ve put the carrier on the kitchen island right in front of me and my cup of coffee. As I sip it, I observe Ellie as she walks around  the island  exploring. She sees a strange new object, the carrier, sitting in front of me where I have her treats (and my coffee) at the ready. The training starts the instant she looks at the carrier. When she does, she gets a treat.

In the beginning of our training time she was suspicious of the carrier, but after countless treats over several days, she came to understand that interacting with it means that good stuff happens.

Over a few morning coffee times together she has learned to walk in the carrier almost immediately on her own volition. My next step is to start closing the door while she’s in it, then moving the carrier slightly, picking it up, etc. What a lovely time for us both this has turned out to be. I still get my coffee and she gets her morning treats and learns a new skill to boot.

Another morning coffee project is having Ellie step on a scale. As with the carrier, the minute she looks at the scale she gets a treat. I feed her several times when she’s near the scale so that she knows the scale is where the treats show up. Then she learns that when she approaches the scale, she gets a treat. Finally, she figures out that stepping on the scale opens up my treat hand to a bounty of yummies.

A go-with-the-flow teaching moment outside of our morning coffee is when I ask Ellie to step up. I’ll proceed that request with a cue to touch a target. This is a very easy behavior for Ellie to do. She never hesitates to do it. When she touches the target she gets a treat. I’ll do this at least two times in a row. Then I’ll ask her to step up. Stepping up is a behavior Ellie is not 100% on board with. Sometimes she’ll refuse and sometimes she’ll even become aggressive.

By asking Ellie to touch the target two or three times before cuing the step-up, I’m creating behavioral momentum. Behavioral momentum is the use of a series of high-probability requests (in Ellie’s case, targeting) to increase compliance with lower-probability requests (Ellie stepping up). It’s amazing the change this training technique has made in Ellie’s willingness to step on my hand. Even her emotional response has changed to a calm, non-aggressive attitude.

Of course, more complicated or out of the ordinary behaviors may require some scheduled time during the day. For instance, teaching my cockatoo to fly through hoops requires using an area that has enough space to fly and accommodate perches and hoop stands. So for that I do set a block of time aside.

I want to reemphasize that simple short teaching sessions can take place whenever we come together with our parrots. One piece of advice is to have cups of treats in different places that are readily accessible to you when you interact with your parrot. Still another idea is to wear a treat bag or simply keep treats in your pocket. Using the no-schedule training method is a breeze to incorporate into your and your parrot’s daily routine. Give it a whirl. You’ll be glad you did!

Star Update

Fledgling Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (16 weeks old) continues to make progress in her people-are-good-things education. She comes readily to a training perch to sit next to her mom or dad as I feed them treats out of my hand. In fact, a parent can act as an assistant trainer, meaning I give the parent a treat and the parent then gives that treat to Star when she comes close. What a team!

I also put food in the bowl fastened to the perch. While a parent eats from my hand, Star will eat from the bowl. I am slowly moving my treat hand closer and closer to Star as the parent eats from it. Star is staying put while I do this. She watches my hand, but is also focused on her food bowl and will not fly off as I make my micro movements towards her. Such a brave Star-bird!

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


Early Beginnings for Parrots

Phoebe Greene Linden was ahead of her time. Back in 1993, 26 years ago, she published an article that talked about Abundance Weaning™, a term she coined and trademarked. The latter fact is amusing today; it’s not like hordes of breeders since have tried to steal the term. They remain mired in their practices of force-weaning (also called deprivation-weaning) baby parrots.

Phoebe began a crucial conversation, one that remains unfinished today. She brought an ethical focus to the rearing of baby parrots that took into account also the well-being of the breeding birds themselves. Her concerns were both ethical and practical.

Her ideas flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom of the day. According to Phoebe, breeding parrots should have large enclosures and plenty of enrichment. Baby parrots must be fledged and allowed to develop excellent flight skills. Flight ability should never be removed from a parrot all at once. Fledglings needed to be abundantly supported as they developed their independent eating skills and provided with lots of enrichment to encourage their desire to explore.

I recently did a Google search for the term “abundance weaning” and found websites describing this method, without any reference or credit to Phoebe. In addition, they have bastardized the initial ideas that Phoebe developed. Unfortunately, a full description of this process is not within the scope of this post, but this is a word to the wise. Abundance Weaning™, as Phoebe developed it, incorporated a great deal more than simply allowing baby parrots to wean when they were ready. (Linden, 1993)

As Phoebe writes:  “Abundance weaning is a segment of a process of nurturing that begins with hand-feeding and should not end in this lifetime for our feathered companions. Abundance weaning contributes significantly to the well-balanced psychological development of the young parrot: it provides innumerable opportunities for owner and baby to bond deeply in a spirit of trust and plenitude, it encourages the development of physical skills in a non-threatening environment, it is the cornucopia from which springs fullness and peace. Would that every creature on this earth be given the abundance we can provide to our special feathery messengers.”

Phoebe was my mentor when I reared African greys back then. I emulated her practices with excellent results. The greys I produced were different from those of other breeders. They were bold, eager to engage, confident and coordinated.

I wasn’t the only one who put into practice what Phoebe taught.  There were other small breeders who bred parrots purely for the love of the species and the ability to do a really great job fostering their development.

However, our ethics got the better of us. We were all small breeders, a lot more in love with the birds than the money. Gradually, we came to see that no matter how well we screened adoptive homes, things often did not turn out as we might have wished for our offspring.

My own experience included babies who were lost forever outdoors, those who gradually spent more and more time in their cages and began to destroy feathers as a result, those who did not receive the guidance I had taught their new owners to provide, and those who suffered due to the insensitivity of those who adopted them. I learned that, when screening potential adopters, you never really get to see what is truly bedrock in the person.

Most of us who were colleagues back then stopped breeding as a result of similar experiences, leaving the field open to production breeders and those for whom the money is more important than the ethics.

I have often quoted avian specialist Dr. Brian Speer: “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.” If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, I don’t know what will…that is if you love parrots like I do for their innate qualities.

We humans are incredibly slow sometimes to recognize the truth… slow to learn and slow to change. Chris Shank’s last blog post revealed some profound comparisons between what her fledgling Star is learning and the more typical experience baby parrots have today at the hands of breeders. Essentially, Chris brought up the same conversation that Phoebe began 26 years ago.

It always kills me that Facebook posts and those on other social media sites are so full of parrot love, and yet the manner in which we breed and rear baby parrots withstands no real scrutiny at all. No one seems to care how our baby parrots are produced, as long as they are there for our consumption when we want them.

The only exceptions to this come from a few like Phoebe, Dr. Speer, Chris, and others like them who occasionally toss out a verbal or written volley in hopes of keeping the conversation alive and refocusing our attention on what is most important.

Is the manner in which we rear parrots in captivity really important?

Do methods really matter?

There is abundant research that documents both developmental and behavioral abnormalities in a large number of hand-reared species, indicating that early conditions for animals are of critical importance. Feenders and Bateson discuss several conclusions previously reached by other researchers:

  • “In humans, poor parenting and adverse experiences during early development are associated with impairments in adult cognitive ability and an increased risk for developing psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and psychoses.”
  • “In rats, Rattus norvegicus, maternal separation produces long-lasting changes in emotional behaviour and impaired responses to stress. Maternal separation induces reduced neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus and consequential impairments in learning and memory.
  • “In rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta, removal from the mother followed by peer rearing or rearing by mothers experiencing variable foraging conditions produces adults with more reactive stress physiology, increased anxiety, impulsivity and aggression and behavioural abnormalities such as motor stereotypies.”
  • “Adverse events during early development have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing abnormal behaviour, and specifically motor stereotypies, in a range of species. For example, animals removed from their mother at an earlier age, and animals born in captive as opposed to natural environments, show a higher incidence of stereotypic behavior.”
  • “In birds, there is some evidence that manipulations that involve elements of hand rearing affect the adult phenotypes similarly to the effects observed in mammals.”

Rebecca Fox comes to similar conclusions regarding parrots: “Abnormal sexual imprinting and a strong social preference for humans may cause behavior problems in pet parrots, which are probably more likely to inappropriately direct sexual behavior at their owners. Hand-reared birds may exhibit other behavior problems as well, most notably so-called “phobic” behavior.” (Fox, 2006)

Phoebe Greene Linden and Andrew U. Luescher provide a detailed comparison of observable behaviors exhibited by both hand-reared and wild Amazon parrots in Santa Barbara, California through all stages from hatching to fledging and the development of independent eating skills.

They comment upon the importance of fledging: “Sadly, the majority of psittacids raised for the companion market will not experience a true fledging process and may never actually fly because their environments are not provisioned for such development.”

“Space, time, and commitment limitations abound, and some aviculturists contend that fledging is unnecessary or extravagant. The question remains: Can a suitably developed psittacine companion who never flies remain a viable lifelong pet? That answer to that question depends, of course, on what environments shape the experiences during the time of development normally occupied by flight and after.” (Linden,P. 2006)

There you have only a taste of the research available, which documents the deleterious effects of hand-rearing on both mammals and birds. The conclusions are unanimous – the process of hand-rearing carries with it significant impact upon the developing young animals and will impact them throughout their lives.

Serving as companion to this body of science stands our own anecdotal evidence. Dogs and cats who were hand-reared are typically quite different, displaying abnormal and problematic behavior that often encompasses aggressive tendencies. I once had a bottle-fed black cat who would come up behind unassuming visitors and bite them hard on the back of the leg. That adorable bottle-feeding kitten evolved into an adult cat who caused a lot of problems.

So…yes. The manner in which our companion parrots are reared matters. It is critical to their entire life experience.

I often assist owners in locating adult parrots for adoption and during the transition once the parrot is home. I can state with certainty that well-reared parrots adapt very differently, and much more easily, to their new homes. (By “well-reared,” I am referring to hand-rearing that included Abundance Weaning™ and a full fledging experience, at a minimum.)  Further, if the previous home had included elements of deprivation, these individuals literally blossom when placed once again into more benevolent circumstances.

Further, I see behavioral similarities among the population of parrots who were weaned according to artificial time frames and whose wings were clipped before they ever learned to fly.  These include dependent and sexually-oriented behavior toward one person, a lack of foraging ability, and fearful behavior that is inappropriate to the environmental context.

I see these birds as permanently impaired and destined to a long existence in captivity that includes significant levels of stress. Often, the consulting process can improve their quality of life, but they will never be the birds that they would have been had they enjoyed a better beginning.

Chris’ blog post generated many comments on my Facebook page and a respectful discussion took place, although participants embrace many strongly-held and widely-divergent opinions. One breeder shared that she chooses to incubator-hatch her parrot eggs so that she can avoid the stress to the parents of having their babies repeatedly removed. Another disagreed with this approach because of the proven detrimental effects that accrue when babies are not allowed contact with their parents. My gratitude goes out to all who participated.

Chris Shank, in various episodes of her guest blog, has brought to our attention the necessary components to successful parent-rearing. However, she herself questions whether the time frames for taming and training the babies produced this way are realistic when breeding for the pet trade.

Co-parenting seems to be a more viable answer. This is the process during which babies remain with their parents, thus receiving all the benefits of a parent-reared bird, but also have regular positive contact with people for both play and supplemental feeding. For this to be a viable approach, however, the parent birds must themselves be friendly enough toward humans.

However, finding breeders who co-parent is next to impossible. Further, at this stage, just trying to find a breeder who is knowledgable about behavior, practices Abundance Weaning, and fledges her babies is also next to impossible. I know this first-hand.

Over the past two years, I have had several clients ask me to help them find a good breeder. We determine the species that they prefer to adopt and identify the geographical areas they can consider. We then identify potential breeders and I provide to the client a list of questions to ask the breeder to determine whether she really is a viable candidate. We then evaluate the answers together. Initially, I believed that to be an approach designed to ensure success.

I had a total of seven such experiences in the past two years and not one of them turned out satisfactorily. We found breeders who talked the talk, but that was as far as it went. One breeder agreed to fledge the baby parrot, but then clipped the wings without telling my client beforehand. She later explained that she was afraid the baby would hurt himself. She had said that she fledges her babies, but in the end clearly knew nothing about the process and did not understand the value.

Another breeder was unable to support the baby into becoming food independent and finally insisted that the owner come and adopt her unweaned baby parrot. (This bird was well past the age when independent eating skills could be expected.)

These experiences should never happen; yet, they are the norm.

The solution? If you really love parrots, then vote with your dollars. Simply refuse to purchase unweaned babies. Don’t purchase babies who can’t fly because their  wings were clipped before they ever had a chance to fledge. Don’t purchase a baby who is “weaned” at an age before they would have fledged in the wild. Don’t purchase a baby whose early beginnings are going to commit him to a life of dependence, fear, and behavior problems.

Educate yourselves and then drive this market toward improvement. We don’t want family members that have been reared by “farming industry practices.” That is the answer. You are the answer.

That will be solution enough until we can figure out an even better way of rearing baby parrots…until breeders realize that the market is demanding higher standards of them. My hope is that we will see a great deal more co-parenting and parent-rearing.

And in the meantime, consider seriously adopting an older parrot who needs a home. I can assure you that adopting a baby is no insurance policy against having behavior issues. All parrots will present you with challenges. There are so many adult parrots who need homes. If they come with problems, then get an experienced behavior consultant to help you. Problems can be solved!

Let’s keep this discussion alive, so that another 26 years doesn’t slip between our fingers, characterized by a lack of awareness and change. Captive parrots deserve better from us.

Addendum: If you are a breeder who co-parents or parent-rears and sends babies home fully-flighted, I would love to hear from you: pamelaclarkcvt@gmail.com.

References:

Feenders, G., & Bateson, M. (2013). Hand rearing affects emotional responses but not basic cognitive performance in European starlings. Animal behaviour86(1), 127–138. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.05.002

Fox, R. 2006. “HandRearing: Behavioral Impacts and Implications for Captive Parrot Welfare.” Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.

Linden, P. G.  1993. “Abundance Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report.  Issue #13. September/October 1993. Volume 3, Number 5. Pages 18 – 21.

Linden, P. G. 1994. “Fledgling Stress Syndrome.” The Pet Bird Report.  Issue #19. Volume 4, Number 5. Pages 42 – 44.

Linden, P. G. 1995. “The Developmental Impact of Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #20. Volume 4, Number 6. Pages 4 – 10.

Linden, P. G. 1995. “Eating Skills for Recently Weaned Chicks.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #23. Date unknown. Volume 5, Number 3. Pages 38 – 45.

Linden, P, G. with Leuscher, A. 2006. “Behavioral Development of Psittacine Companions: Neonates, Neophytes, and Fledglings.” Manual of Parrot Behavior.  Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.

Meder, A. (1989), Effects of hand‐rearing on the behavioral development of infant and juvenile gorillas (Gorilla g. gorilla). Dev. Psychobiol., 22: 357-376. doi:10.1002/dev.420220404