Essential Guide to Communicating with Parrots

A veterinarian for whom I once worked used to frequently repeat: “Communication is a difficult thing.” There are no truer words. I have often observed two people who thought they were communicating well with each other, only to see that they did not understand each other at all. It’s a fascinating circumstance to watch.

If communicating with other humans is difficult, how do we imagine that we can communicate effectively with another species, especially one that is not even a mammal?

The effectiveness and quality of our communication with our own parrots is a subject worthy of ongoing exploration. Evidence of this is the often heard statement, “He bit me with NO warning!”

If you scroll through any parrot-related Facebook feed, you would be led to believe that behavior problems like screaming and biting are just a normal part of living with parrots. This is not true.

Behavior Problems = Communication Problems

The majority of behavior problems in parrots are, in reality, communication problems. This is especially true for screaming, biting and fear-based behaviors.  

We cannot have good relationships with people or parrots without effective communication. Historically, we have primarily communicated with our birds through the provision of physical affection, talking conversationally, and attempts to punish undesirable behavior. These efforts at relationship building miss the mark completely.

Why? Physical affection communicates to parrots the wrong message – that we offer the possibility to them of a pair bond. This in itself leads to several different behavior problems. It also teaches dependence, rather than independence.

Talking to them doesn’t result in any particular adverse consequences, but what does it really accomplish? How valuable is it to a parrot when we talk? It might be mildly entertaining to have us yakking away at them, but are we really getting any important message across?

Lastly, “punishment” is ineffective in the manner in which it is most often used. For example, covering a screaming bird’s cage is typically something they don’t mind at all. We might intend for it to communicate to the bird that its noise is an undesirable behavior, but the message doesn’t get across. Further, effective punishment will create distrust and fear. That’s not where we want to be in our relationships with our bird.

How Do We Listen to a Parrot?

Good communication with any species requires both talking and listening. But, how do we listen to a parrot?

The answer? We must read body language. Body language is the only way that parrots have to communicate their feelings to us.

The next important question is, “How do we talk to another species so that understanding is ensured? The answer to that is “We use positive reinforcement!” We need to be clear communicators when interacting with our parrots so that they understand which behaviors will help them to be successful in our homes – which behaviors will earn them what they really want.

Thus, success with our parrots depends upon two things: (1) listening to what they have to tell us by reading body language, and (2) communicating to them through the use of positive reinforcement.

Reading Body Language

When it comes to reading body language, it helps to understand the differences that may be present depending upon the part of the world in which the parrot originated. For many years, parrots have been informally relegated to two different groups – New World parrots and Old World parrots.

Old World parrots derived from Africa, Asia and Europe. Examples of these species would be cockatoos, African Greys, cockatiels, ring-necked parakeets, Eclectus, Poicephalus, and lovebirds. The body language of these species often tends to be more subtle in nature.

Conversely, New World parrots that come from the Americas, tend to have more overt or dramatic body language. Examples include Amazon parrots, conures, caiques, parrotlets, Pionus parrots, monk parakeets and macaws.  Both parrots in the photos are indicating interest, but it is more obvious in the macaw.

Keep in mind that is only a generalization. The body language that any individual displays will depend more upon his previous learning history (his socialization) than upon his species. However, this information can be helpful.

It teaches us, for example, that we must anticipate that an Amazon is not going to communicate in the same way that an African grey communicates. An Amazon who intends aggression will typically let you know in a more pronounced manner with pinning eyes, flared tail and raised feathers on the back of his head. The African grey who feels the same may only raise the feathers on his shoulders slightly and look at you with a bit more intensity.

This information also suggests that living without problems with our parrots will hinge upon building our own skills of observation, since each species with whom we interact will likely have a different style of communication. Therefore, we learn to take nothing for granted. Each new individual will need the same careful “get-to-know-you” observations that we used with the last.

Parrots and Emotions

The presence of emotions in animals and birds has long been the subject of much discussion. (I have listed a few reliable references below.) And, as often happens in a new area of exploration for truth, the pendulum of opinion has swung from one extreme to the other.

For some years now, the attribution of emotions to animals was often met with the accusation that the speaker was being anthropomorphic, assigning human characteristics to the animals under discussion. However, researchers are now taking this subject more seriously. Frans De Waal has given us the books Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and Mama’s Last Hug, for example. Both discuss the emotions of animals in a very convincing manner.

Finally, “hard science”has met “soft science” and now many are admitting that animals have emotions, possibly the same emotions that we experience as humans. Anyone who has lived with parrots knows this from experience. They are by nature incredibly social, sentient, and expressive.

The list of emotions now attributed to animals is surprisingly long. I found a more distilled list that includes: happiness, anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise. However, labels often fail us and these are labels. What does happiness look like in a parrot? What does sadness look like?

I think it makes sense instead to begin our exploration of how parrots express their emotions by first observing their body language in a variety of contexts and then doing our best to gather enough anecdotal evidence that we can correctly evaluate it and interpret it, thereby achieving some general agreement and creating a reference.

When I did this myself, I came to the conclusion that the parrots I have known had communicated to me, by using body language, the following: well-being or happiness, interest, disinterest, alarm or surprise, fear or aversion, heightened arousal, anger or “go away,” and sexual interest or romantic love.

Obviously, there are likely to be other emotional states that I have not listed. However, parrots have few facial muscles for exhibiting expressions, unlike our mammal friends. Therefore, reading their messages may be a bit more challenging. They use primarily three forms of body language to communicate. When we make observations, we have three main areas to examine: their eyes, feather position, and body position.

Interpreting the Eyes

Parrots will communicate in very subtle ways with their eyes and it can take experience to learn to read them. The most obvious change in a parrot’s eyes is called “pinning.” When a parrot pins his eyes, he alternately contacts and expands his pupils. This may last for just a brief few seconds, or can go on for a full minute or two.

Almond-shaped eye = relaxed
Rounded eye = alarm or concern

Eye shape is a much more subtle change. A parrot’s eyes may appear round at some times and more almond-shaped at others. In my experience, there can also be a change in the expression behind the eyes, which can range from a very soft and relaxed appearance to a hard stare.

Interpreting Feather Position

Loose feathers = more relaxed

Observing feather position contributes to the information base we accumulate when we read body language. A parrot may hold his contour feathers over his body in a tight, slicked-down manner or in a more relaxed, inflated way with a little air trapped behind them.

Heightened Arousal

Movement of specific feather groups often tells a more obvious story. Some parrots will fan their tail feathers outward, raise their crests, or raise certain areas of feathers over their bodies.

Interpreting Body Position

Body position gives us even more overt details. Parrots may lean toward or away from us, stand up tall, hide, or stand with one foot held upward against the body. All of these changes tell a story.

Raised feathers, low crouch, hard eyes = Stay away!

Thus, when we read avian body language, we must look at each of these three areas, ask ourselves what we are seeing, and then assimilate this information so that we can interpret what that parrot may be trying to tell us.

Signs of Well-being or Happiness

Signs that a parrot is experiencing a state of happiness or well-being might include the following:

  • Stretching
    • Shoulder raise (both wings being raised in unison and then lowered)
    • Unilateral (the parrot stretches out both wing and leg on the same side at the same time.)
  • Tail wags
  • Feathers relaxed
  • Eyes soft and almond-shaped
  • Beak grinding
  • Rough out (whole body shake out)
  • Head bobbing
  • Preening (not excessive)
  • Cheek feathers covering beak (cockatoos)

Expressions of Interest

  • Leaning or moving toward us or an item without signs of “anger” – see below
  • Eager look to the face and eyes
  • Contour feathers relaxed
  • Crest up (cockatoos or cockatiels)

Signs of Disinterest

  • Turning or physically moving away
  • Flying away
  • Preening as you attempt to engage socially
  • Eating treats very slowly when trying to train

Signs of Surprise or Alarm

  • Raised crest
  • Rounded eyes
  • Raised wings
  • Looking skyward
  • Standing up very tall
  • Feathers slicked down
  • Sharp calls

Signs of Fear or Aversion

  • Round eyes
  • Beak slightly open
  • Standing up very straight
  • Contour feathers held tightly against the body
  • Growling
  • Creating distance rapidly
    • Leaning away
    • Moving away

Signs of Heightened Arousal

  • Eye pinning
  • Raised crest
  • Whole body bobbing
  • Foot tapping against a perch (cockatoos)
  • Tail fanning
  • Facial blushing

Signs of Anger (“Go Away!”)

  • Eye pinning
  • “Hard” eyes
  • Tail fanning
  • Hissing (cockatoos)
  • Growling (greys)
  • Lunging / biting
  • Swaying from side to side
  • Raised feathers on certain areas
  • Crouching with beak open

Signs of Sexual Interest or Romantic Love

  • Beak clacking (cockatoos)
  • Tongue wagging (cockatoos)
  • Regurgitation
  • Masturbation
  • Wing drooping
  • Head bobbing
  • Soliciting allopreening
  • Seeks close physical contact

Putting It All Together

As stated previously, we won’t be successful in accurately reading avian body language unless we take all signs into consideration. Once we do, however, we can then take our cues from the parrot and respond appropriately.

If an Amazon parrot is fanning his tail, pinning his eyes, has his feathers raised on the back of his head and is leaning toward us with beak open, we are going to walk away and figure out another way to approach him that will not result in the aggression that is so obviously intended.

If we observe that our macaw is blushing, pinning his rounded eyes, swaying from side to side and slightly fanning his tail, we are going to conclude that this moment might not be the best time to ask him to step up. He is obviously in a heightened state of arousal and could bite just out of excitement.

If the Senegal we just adopted looks at us with rounded eyes, and stands up tall with feathers held tightly down, rapidly trying to scramble away from our approach, we are going to stop in our tracks realizing that perhaps this bird has more of a history of fear than we were lead to believe.

And, if our cockatoo clacks her beak at us as we remove her from the cage, begins to regurgitate, and then tries her best to scramble to a shoulder for a cuddle session, we are going to also stop in our tracks and realize that she has the wrong idea. We are not sexual partners. She belongs on a perch near you, but not on you.

Our Own Body Language

We must also exercise control over our own body language and use this to mirror that which the parrot offers. Since parrots communicate through body language, they are especially sensitive to ours.

Barbara Heidenreich said once, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” That is the cardinal rule, or should be, whenever you are in any animal’s presence. Many accidents and injuries could be avoided by following this simple advice. In general, the following rules will help to ensure your success when meeting new birds and in a variety of other situations:

  • Move slowly.
  • Keep gestures to a minimum.
  • Use a low voice.
  • Mirror the bird’s behavior – respond appropriately.
  • Practice awareness.

Communicating with Parrots

All living creatures are hard-wired to behave upon the environment in such a way that they can gain access to the things that they want. When we live with a parrot, one of the most valuable pieces of information we can have is to know what things he values most and to then use them to reward the behaviors that we would like him to perform more often: talking rather than screaming, stepping up rather than moving away, going back into the cage rather than biting.

The mistake that most caregivers make is to assume that the parrot wants approval. They typically reward behavior by talking, with an enthusiastic “Good bird!” Frankly, I have seen no evidence that parrots care what we think. They don’t care if we approve of the behavior they just offered.

What they want is currency – hard cash. What is hard cash to a parrot? Usually, it is going to be some high-value food – typically high-fat nuts or seeds. It could be head scratches. It could be a bottle cap. It is up to each of us to investigate and discover what constitutes hard cash for each of our parrots. This is likely to be different for each one.

One we know what a parrot wants, success is just around the corner if we follow the following rules:

Living as a Trainer

  • Realize that every social interaction is a learning moment for the parrot.
  • Use positive reinforcement for all cued behaviors so that the parrot has control – he understands what he can do to acquire the things that he wants.
  • Get into the habit of asking yourself, “What am I reinforcing right now?”

Remember:

  • Every interaction with a parrot must be a dialogue.
    • When training
    • When handling
    • When offering a treat.
  • Practice respect.
    • Allow them control.
    • Give them a choice.

I would like to see a new era dawn, when it comes to relationships between companion parrots and their caregivers. In order for those relationships to be problem-free and full of joy we need to understand each other. This means that we have to listen to them and behave in a trust-building manner by altering our own behavior based upon the messages that they communicate.

We then must offer them choices about how to behave and ensure that the behavior we want gets rewarded with a rate of exchange that ensures that this will continue to be offered in the future.

References

Bekoff,  M. (2000) Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures: Current interdisciplinary research provides compelling evidence that many animals experience such emotions as joy, fear, love, despair, and grief—we are not alone. BioScience, Volume 50, Issue 10, October 2000, Pages 861–870, https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2000)050[0861:AEEPN]2.0.CO;2

Safina, C. (2015.) Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Henry Holt & Company, LLC. New York, NY.

Paul,E. and  Mendl, M. 2018. Animal emotion: Descriptive and prescriptive definitions and their implications for a comparative perspective.Applied Animal Behaviour Science,Volume 205,Pages 202-209,ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.01.008.

Weary, D., Droege, P., and Braithwaite, V. 2017. Chapter Two – Behavioral Evidence of Felt Emotions: Approaches, Inferences, and Refinements. Editor(s): Marc Naguib, Jeffrey Podos, Leigh W. Simmons, Louise Barrett, Susan D. Healy, Marlene Zuk. Advances in the Study of Behavior, Academic Press,Volume 49,Pages 27-48,ISSN 0065-3454,ISBN 9780128121214,https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.asb.2017.02.002.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Lessons from Ellie

Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo, came to live with me at the end of June 2019. She was adopted from Exotic Bird Rescue in Eugene, Oregon and has had a history of living in a home environment. She is eight years old and fully flighted. She is social with people and is, of course, adorable.

Ellie was completely new to me. I  began our getting-to-know-each other journey with excitement and positivity. Ellie? Not so much. She showed some suspicion and wariness in her new environment, which is understandable. If I had been moved to a new home with a family I did not know, I would be pretty stressed out.

Early Preparations

I had prepared well for her introduction into my home. The family room is where I spend most of my indoor time and where Ellie would be living. I furnished it with ropes draped from the ceiling and a large rope “orbit” for her to land on if she chose.

Her cage was placed against a wall next to a window. She could see outside, as well as hunker down in her cage to avoid exposure to stimulation from the window. From her cage, she could see the cockatoos far off in their aviaries or while they were out flying. I also built Ellie a small aviary attached to the front of the house with access to it from the window next to her cage.

Martha Stewart would be impressed with my interior and exterior decorations for Ellie and I looked forward to watching Ellie’s enjoyment of them. In my mind, I saw her flying happily from rope to rope, swinging on the orbit, and bouncing on the boing. Oh, what fun we’d have!

Early Lessons

Behavior I was used to….

My first lesson from my teacher, Miss Ellie, was to lower my expectations and alter the above mental images. I’m so used to my lifelong ‘toos being active, exploratory, playful (especially young Bare-eyeds), and confident that I assumed Ellie would be the same way.

Even though she seemed to be a confident cockatoo, she did everything in slow motion. When she first arrived, she explored and considered each new situation with great thought and care. She was more of an observer than an action figure. Consequently, I too, had to slow myself down and not expect her to jump (or fly) for joy at my jungle gym set-up or explore the house and aviary on her own.

Ellie eventually became comfortable with her new home, and that’s when the “real” Ellie emerged—sort of like the movie, Alien, where the monster claws its way out of the human’s chest. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but this new Ellie certainly caught my attention.

End of the “Honeymoon Period”

Some people call the first two weeks or so, when a mature parrot comes to live in their home, the honeymoon period. The new parrot may be quiet, calm, and friendly to everyone so all is right with the world. We can be duped into believing that these are the permanent, unchanging qualities of our new friend.

Many times they are not. As the parrot becomes more comfortable and confident in his new environment, he will start to exhibit  behaviors that may have been repressed in the beginning.  Those behaviors may not be conducive to a happy relationship between caregiver and parrot.

Behavior is a function of its consequences; and, like all of us, Ellie has her own repertoire of behaviors that were reinforced successfully time and again during her life before she came to me. The science of learning tells us that a reinforced behavior will occur again. Unfortunately, some of Ellie’s old behaviors poked a few holes in our honeymoon period.

Signs of Trouble

For example, in the beginning I would walk Ellie around the house on my hand, which she seemed to enjoy. One of her favorite rooms was the bathroom. One day, while in the bathroom, she flew from my hand to the sink. She immediately went into the sink showing excitement. I asked her to step up, which was met with fluffed up head feathers and a cold stare. I knew what Ellie was saying: “Stay away from my sink!”

Our second troublesome interaction occurred in the family room. Ellie had become comfortable flying to the rope and hanging out. I was delighted with her having control of her environment. Unfortunately, she seemed bent on controlling me as well; and, she wasn’t using positive reinforcement (R+) methods to do so, that’s for sure.

For example, from her rope perch she would occasionally fly at me showing obvious aggression with her beak wide open, breathing fire like a flying dragon. Another instance was with her feed bowl. Ellie liked to bury her head in the bowl. Hiding her head in the bowl  is often a nesting behavior for a cockatoo, as the bowl can represent a nest cavity. If I walked near the bowl at this time, she would often strike at me.

My Behavior-Change Plan

With the real Ellie showing me these not-so-compatible behavior traits, I made up a training plan using the science-based training techniques of environmental change and R+.

Using a target to remove Ellie from her cage.

First thing was to teach Ellie to target. This simple training behavior can help form a favorable relationship between learner and teacher by helping the learner understand that good things come from the teacher through operant learning; that is, Ellie could choose to touch the target to get a treat. This exercise teaches Ellie that she has control over the training and the treat reinforcement.

Targeting with Ellie

Allowing a student control is a very powerful reinforcer. If she didn’t want to participate, then I would leave. However, she soon learned that the food goodies left with me. On future training encounters, Ellie started participating and it wasn’t long before she was an expert at targeting.

Environmental Modifications

The next thing on the list was to alter Ellie’s dragon flying routine. I could do this in many ways. I could just put up with it and dodge her attacks. I could swat at her as she flew at me. I could let her land on me and bite me and not react showing her that this behavior is pointless (yes, this is advice given by some parrot behavior consultants!). Or, I could change the environment that would make her dragon flying less likely to occur. Using the least intrusive, most effective method, I chose the latter.

I took down the rope so that she didn’t have her launch pad available. I also replaced her feed bowl with a foraging wheel full of pellets so Ellie didn’t have any “nesty” type bowl to display in and protect.

Changes to the Daily Schedule

At the same time, I changed her daily schedule. Ellie now goes out in the aviary each morning with a treat. I make sure the aviary is full of enrichment, in the forms of grape vines and other plant material to forage on, along with a foraging net full of shredded paper, wood, and food treats. She engages with them all.

I also go into the aviary multiple times a day to practice step ups and step downs with her, as well as targeting using positive reinforcement with food treats. This is helping to change her perception of me from a possible threat or an enroachment on her territory into a person who delivers good things. I will soon start to generalize the step up behavior by practicing it in various parts of the house. This will expand her step-up repertoire, as well as establish it as a highly reinforcing behavior.

At dinnertime, Ellie is asked to step up from her aviary and then I put her in her cage with her dinner of sprout mix. It is fed in a bowl, but when she is done, I take the bowl out which helps curb the “nesty” bowl behavior. I give her a foraging toy as a replacement and she still has her foraging wheel full of pellets, if she so chooses.

Finally, I don’t allow Ellie to fly about the house, even with the rope being absent. I will eventually, but want to wait until we have developed a more solid, supportive partnership. Instead of clipping her, which many people resort to when they have a “misbehaving” flying parrot, I’ve changed the environment as previously mentioned by eliminating the ropes and other opportunities to fly. She can certainly fly in her aviary, of course.

I am enjoying the challenges Ellie is offering me. Using my knowledge of the science of learning and behavior and utilizing positive reinforcement training methods, I have no doubt Ellie and I will form a lasting and trusting relationship. It may take a few weeks or a few months and require many adjustments along the way, but we have all the time in the world. I take pleasure in the journey and look forward to the successes and challenges that are sure to occur.

The Latest News

Baby Bare-eyed made her grand entrance into her new world on July 20, at nine weeks of age. She came out of her nest box in the early morning.

Baby Star has fledged! She is on the right.

I didn’t see her exit so when I saw three cockatoos in the aviary instead of just two cockatoos, it took me by surprise. It also took me a second to understand it was the baby—call me slow. When it sunk in, great excitement ensued!

If you read my very first guest blog post, you understand that the impetus behind allowing these two Bare-eyed cockatoos to go to nest was Asta’s loss. In Greek, Asta means “star.” Therefore, it seemed a natural progression to name this new little one Star.

I’ll devote the next blog to baby Star’s exploits as she navigates her new world with the help of her parents. Stay tuned!

Just for Fun!

It has been fascinating to me to watch the interactions between Flash and Bebe as they have raised their new chick. Things have not always been friendly between the two. At times Flash has been aggressive toward Bebe. Currently, Bebe won’t let Flash near Star, now that she has left the nestbox. If only we could read their minds! In place of that, I have allowed them to work off a little energy by letting them out of the aviary to fly each day. Once outside the enclosure, they seem to remember that they are a bonded pair.

Release from the Aviary

Stay tuned! In my next blog episode, I will provide an in-depth look into the interactions between the parents and their fledgling. I am observing behavior that I’m not sure how to interpret and have written to other experts to see if they can shed some light on these. I will also continue to offer an inside look my world with Miss Ellie Bare-eyed. Until next time….

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.