Remember to Say “Thank You!”

This is a bit of a follow-up to my last post, Avoiding Aggression with Start Buttons, because I think there is more to be said about aggression in parrots. Prevention is truly the key and there is one other important step to avoiding this problem. I mentioned it briefly in my previous post, but it deserves more focus. That is the need to say “thank you.”

Biting problems, once they develop, can be resolved. But remember this: A behavior that an animal exhibits can only be suppressed through behavior modification efforts. It cannot be completely eradicated from the bird’s “behavior repertoire.” Thus, a bird who used to bite can always begin again if the social and environmental circumstances support the reemergence of that behavior.

Because of this, we need to center our attention on preventing aggression in the first place. Biting parrots aren’t a lot of fun to live with; I don’t know anyone who loves the thrill of never knowing when the beak might strike next. Plus, aggressive parrots often lose their homes. We need to help each other learn how to live with our parrots respectfully, so that the problem never develops in the first place.

This simple goal is easier said than done. Using start buttons to clarify communication and being mindful to pay attention to body language will both go a long way to preventing a biting problem. However, there is an even more essential ingredient to our social relationships with our birds. It is vital that we remember to say “thank you” to them when they comply with a request.

The Importance of Concepts and Language

Let’s deviate and talk for a minute about the language we use when we talk about training parrots.  When discussing behavior, I often bring in comparisons from the dog and horse training worlds and will do so here as well. I have two reasons.

First, behavior is behavior is behavior. What does that mean? It means that the same behavioral principles apply to the training (teaching) of all species. The most effective methods for training dogs aren’t any different than the most effective methods for training birds. There is a science of behavior that has been in existence for a century now. That’s a whole lot of data on how behavior works that we have at our fingertips.

Second, the training concepts and language used in dog or horse training tend to infiltrate conversations about parrot training.  A person who took their puppy to obedience school learned certain concepts from the individual conducting the classes. Many of those concepts might not be valid, depending upon the education and experience of the class leader. Many popular dog training practices are rooted neither in scientific theory, nor ethics.

They are nothing more than concepts. A concept is “an abstract idea or general notion.” It is not a proven fact or reality. Nevertheless, many of these concepts are pervasive and extremely resistant to break-down. Language reflects concepts, so let’s take a brief look at some of that. Why? Because the concepts we hold to be true and the language that lives in our heads can inform our own attitudes when we aren’t paying attention.

Is It a Command or a Request?

It is still most common for people to use the word command when it comes to describing a training cue. I would like for all of us to get this right. When we ask a parrot to do something, it is NOT a command. It is a request, a cue.

We don’t actually have the ability to command a parrot to do anything. A parrot’s beak puts him on pretty equal footing with us when it comes to that. The word command means to “give an authoritative order.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been successful in giving an authoritative order to any of my parrots. So, let’s call it what it is. Words matter. When we ask a parrot to do something, we are giving a cue…not a command. It is a request – nothing more.

Courtesy or Dominance? Your Choice.

It’s not any different than when we make a request of a family member. We usually get the best results if we preface it with “Would you please….” Most of us then make sure to remember to express gratitude for the favor done by at least saying “Thank you.” If a stranger holds a door open for us, we say “Thank you.” If the UPS driver hands us a package, we say “Thank you.” These good manners are deeply ingrained in us because we have been taught to be courteous. Why should we be any less courteous with our animals?

I think it has been different in our animal-human relationships because of that ever-lurking idea that we must have dominance over them. But it should not remain so. Our goal has to be that of building reliable, cooperative behavior. It’s hard enough living with parrots if we can’t get them to cooperate or if we get bitten every time we try. It’s time to cast aside invalid notions and focus on what works.

Crazy Thinking Gets in the Way of Effectiveness

Let’s go back to the idea of saying “thank you” to our parrots. This is also an area where language and concepts born in the dog training world infiltrate our own parrot community. Specifically, there is much confusion about the use of positive reinforcement and training “treats.”

A quick Google search brought me face to face once again with some of these invalid ideas. One website states that using food treats could foster dependence in an animal. “If you use treats, and only treats as a reward, it may happen that your pup always wants a tasty reward for a job well done or an acceptable behavior.”

What is wrong with that? Expecting a reward doesn’t mean that the dog won’t perform the behavior. It just means that he’s a bit disappointed when the treat doesn’t appear.

In reality, there is nothing wrong with an animal expecting a “thank you” in those circumstances. Moreover, just because he expects a treat doesn’t mean that we have to deliver one every time. Usually, it is best to reinforce every time, but there can be valid reasons reasons for not doing so. An example would be if you are putting the behavior on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.

This same website warns readers to always also provide positive reinforcement through the use of affection and praise. That’s fine, but only if the dog is motivated to earn praise and affection. Most parrots couldn’t care less about praise and if you have a parrot who bites, I wouldn’t recommend using affection as your primary reinforcer.

A last caution raises the issue that the trainer might not demand respect if relying solely on using training treats. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. You can’t demand respect, even from dogs.

Teaching New Behaviors is Good

Most of my blog topics arise out of conversations that I have had recently with people. I’ve had a lot of them lately that have to do with training. Most people I talk to balk at the idea, envisioning the need to set aside a block of time each day in their already-busy schedule to teach specific behaviors.

That type of training is wonderful and there are a great many benefits. Teaching new behaviors creates greater trust between parrot and owner. It increases the bird’s quality of life. It frequently causes the owner to appreciate the bird in a whole new way. The bird becomes easier to care for. Having regular training sessions can help to resolve some problem behaviors. Training improves communication between us and the animal. Pursuing training teaches us to be more observant.

Daily Habit Training Is Better

However, an even more important type of training takes place on a daily basis, whether you are cognizant of it or not. Parrots are always learning. Every single interaction you have with your bird is a learning moment for him. This means that you are constantly teaching, whether you choose to be aware of this or not. The truth: You get the behavior you reinforce, not the behavior you want.

The need to pursue training of any sort is a relatively new idea in our “parrot world.” Some have embraced this enthusiastically, posting video after video of parrots with impressive skills. But for most, it is still not a common practice to use positive reinforcement on a daily basis throughout the flow of life with our birds.

The Gist of Positive Reinforcement

So, here we are again – talking about the use of positive reinforcement. Those words may sound like mumbo jumbo to some. So, let’s break that concept down. Here are the steps to using positive reinforcement (making a request and saying “thank you”):

  • Know your parrot and what he wants most – whether that is a food treat, head scratches, or a bottle cap to play with.
  • Ask him to perform a behavior, such as stepping up, going back into the cage, or stepping down onto a perch. (The Request.)
  • Immediately give him the item he wants, if he performs the behavior as asked (or close enough). (The Thank You.)

When you follow this pattern in your interactions with your parrots, you will find that the thank you guarantees the please. Your parrot will begin to respond willingly to your cues because he has learned that you will always say “thank you.”

This is an oversimplification of the process, but is not inaccurate. This type of training is simple – as simple as it gets. These types of interactions occur regularly throughout our days.  We are already using reinforcement with our parrots. The key is to be cognizant of what behaviors we are reinforcing and when we are doing so.

Great! One More Thing I Now Have To Do….

How many of you are now groaning, thinking, “Great…one more thing I have to remember to do!”? I sympathize. It took me the longest time just to remember to put a handful of sunflower seeds into a pocket in the morning, so that I would be prepared when those moments arose to deliver some well-timed reinforcement. Truly, the hardest part of all this is getting into the habit.

Make It a Habit

I have a pattern of living in my head, rather than being present in the moment. When I live in my head, I forget stuff. I’m working on this.

One trick I have learned is habit stacking. Habit stacking is a trick for developing new habits by linking them to existing ones.  For example, if you make coffee in the morning, you might put the jar of sunflower seeds next to the coffee maker. That will serve as a visual cue to you to put some into your pocket. Saying “thank you” effectively throughout the day means that you need reinforcers close at hand. By using this trick, I soon remembered to put sunflower seeds and/or nut pieces in my pockets in the morning.

This practice, however, did not help me to remember to actually use them to reward my parrots’ good behavior. For that, I needed punishment, which appeared in the form of my dismay when they all fell out onto the floor at night when I undressed. The experience of sweeping up sunflower seeds off my bathroom floor every evening soon helped me to be cognizant of the fact that they were in my pocket. That, in turn, led to my using them throughout the day. Granted, I can be a slow learner, but perhaps you can relate.

When you teach your bird to do things, or work to strengthen behaviors that are already in place, by using positive reinforcement, you are simply remembering to say thank you. If you use those simple steps on a daily basis, you will have an agreeable parrot who complies with your requests and never learns to bite…because he doesn’t have to.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!

Parrots and Start Buttons

Communicating with parrots can be tricky. Evidence of this rests in how often parrot owners receive bites unexpectedly from their birds. Social media platforms are full of talk about “aggressive” parrots and photos of bites wind up in news feeds too often. We have all seen them. Clearly, there is a lack of clarity about how to resolve aggression in parrots.

Change Antecedents and Consequences to Solve Problems

With the majority of behavior problems, the key to solving them lies in examining the antecedents (what happens right before the behavior) and the consequences (what happens right after the behavior) in order to figure out an effective strategy. (This is a bit of an oversimplification, but is generally a true statement.)

Sometimes we can change the antecedents. Sometimes we can change the consequences. Sometimes we can change both. Doing so effectively resolves the problem over time.

When your bird has a screaming problem, you can often change both the antecedents and the consequences for best success. For example, if your bird screams while you are trying to cook dinner, you might change the antecedent by bringing the bird into the kitchen before he starts screaming to sit on a perch for hands-off social interaction. You would also change the consequences by removing any previous reinforcement that might have been offered for screaming and instead begin to offer rewards for talking and other pleasant noises.

Antecedent Changes Only for Biting

Biting is different. The best strategy to resolve biting is to avoid it – identify the antecedents and change those. Many people will advise consequence changes, such as a time out, when a bird bites. This never works. For a consequence change to work, there must be contiguity. This means that, for a consequence to influence behavior, it must occur very quickly after the behavior occurs.

If you try to give a parrot a “time out” in the cage for biting, by the time you get the bird into the cage, contiguity has been lost. The consequence occurs too long after the bite for it to have any meaning to the bird. I just did a consult with a client who has been using time-outs for years and her bird was still biting frequently. By focusing on antecedent changes, the problem has now almost resolved.

Avoid the Situation and Build Behavior to Resolve Biting

If your bird bites you, you must avoid the bites by changing the antecedents. If your bird bites your earrings when on your shoulder, then don’t allow him on the shoulder anymore. If he bites when you try to pet him, then don’t pet him under those circumstances anymore. If he bites when you change out food dishes, then teach him to station on a perch in the cage or remove him from the cage completely when you feed. If he bites when you put your face close to him, then don’t do that anymore.

At the same time, you must also begin offering positive reinforcement for all cued behaviors. This helps to build compliance at the same time that you remove opportunities for biting. The combination of these two strategies works every time.

Just Read the Body Language!

People will typically advise you to change the antecedents by carefully observing your parrot’s body language. This is good advice, but often doing so is easier said than done.

If you don’t have years of experience with a variety of birds, it can be hard to recognize and interpret body language accurately. New World birds, such as Amazons, macaws, and conures, are often the easiest to read. Their body language tends to be more overt, if not dramatic. However, the African grey may only slightly raise the feathers on his shoulders to alert you that a bite is coming. His is not so obvious. Your cockatoo might chatter his beak, but whether he means to bite or have sex with you may not be immediately evident.  

Reading body language is a skill that develops over time. Just telling someone to “read the body language and you won’t get bitten” may be of little help. The ability to read body language requires a good deal of sensitivity and that level of sensitivity will likely take practice and dedication to develop. It has taken me years of work to be able to spot every message my birds are transmitting.

Most humans aren’t very good at reading the body language of other people, much less that of animals. Expecting them to be able to read their parrots’ successfully, even if it has been described to them, may be simply expecting too much. Further, many parrots learn to mask their body language before biting for one reason or another.

The Function of Aggressive Displays

Behavior has function. This means that your parrot does things for a reason. While some biting results simply from a heightened state of arousal, the function of most biting behavior is either to make us stop doing what we are doing or to get a reaction from us. However, biting is not a natural behavior for most species, and therefore most individuals will initially display some signs that a bite is on the way, as the grey above demonstrates. If the owner ignores these signs time and time again, the bird can learn to simply save his energy and go straight for the bite.

So, what if we did something even better? What if we developed a form of communication with our birds that allowed them to indicate to us when they wanted to interact – a sort of permission they could give us to forge ahead?

The Benefits of Start Buttons

We can offer them a Start Button. This concept is useful for any species. It is especially useful for animals who suffer from fear or aggressive tendencies.

A start button is a signal the animal gives to the owner/trainer that offers “permission to continue.” It allows the animal to have greater control over his social experience. It enhances communication between owner and parrot and allows greater trust to develop in the relationship.

There is a big difference between the parrot who merely tolerates what you are doing and the parrot who is an active and eager participant.  We should be striving for the latter.

The start button grants the parrot the ability to say “Yes! I’m all in.” Conversely, it also grants the parrot the ability to say “No.” In other words, it gives them the power of consent and requires us to respect this.

Start buttons also take the burden off of the owner to read that body language that immediately precedes a bite. It allows the bird to clearly tell us that he is ready for what we have in mind and eliminates any need for a display.

A last benefit:
Embracing this social technology just may allow us to put the final nail in the coffin that will bury the “dominance concept.” There is no excuse for using insistence, force, or coercion with our companion parrots any longer.

Below are three examples of instances in which start buttons have been useful in three different species:

Violet’s Start Button

A friend of mine, Chris Shank, has a donkey named Violet. Violet is not a well-socialized donkey and is fearful of hands and some types of human interaction. Chris wanted to teach her to wear a halter and I was lucky enough to participate in Violet’s training.

Chris developed a start button that gave Violet full control over whether she wanted to participate in the halter training. She would hold a hand parallel to Violet’s face a couple of inches away, which Violet tolerated quite easily. Violet eventually would move her head closer to the hand, which was her start button that signaled to whichever one of us was working with her that she was ready to begin.

If she gave the signal, we would proceed to touch the side of her face, then gradually move the hand upward until we were able to reach over her head to grasp the other side of the halter. It gave her total control over a process that could have caused her fear. (This was not accomplished all at once  of course – we used small approximations to be able to complete the action.)

Dash’s Start Button

My last blog post of 2018 described the training I had been doing with Dash, a previously very aggressive dog. If you missed it and are interested, you can read the post here. When I was using the Constructional Aggression Treatment protocol, I did not walk all the way up to him in the final stages. He was so reactive that I thought a start button would help us both to feel safer. So, at each approach I stopped about two feet away and waited for some sign that it was okay for me to come closer.

He understood and began to offer a sit – a behavior he already knew well. The sit behavior became his start button. As soon as he sat his butt on the ground, I came forward and was able to deliver a treat. He had total control over whether I came closer or not.

Harpo’s Start Button

My Amazon parrot, Harpo, is a happy bird in all ways but does not want much physical contact. However, he does enjoy an occasional head scratch. So, I allow him the ability to decide when I touch him. I approach when he isn’t busy and wiggle my index finger, asking “Do you want a scratch?”  If he does, he fluffs up all of his head feathers. The act of fluffing those feathers is his start button that tells me it’s okay to offer a scratch. He has total control over whether he gets touched or not.

Begin with a Social Duet

Developing a start button requires a willingness to enter into a bit of a social duet. How did we know that Violet would turn her head? We didn’t. How did I know that Dash would sit? I didn’t. Instead, we waited in each case for the animal to offer some type of action that we could turn into a start button.

Harpo and I developed his start button years ago, before I ever understood that it had a name. I just never wanted to force myself on any of my birds, and certainly wanted to avoid any biting that might occur if I did force contact. I’m sure that many of you may have already been using communication like this with your own birds too.

Start Buttons for Stepping Up

If you are not, please consider embracing start buttons to clarify communication at times when biting might happen. For instance, if your parrot bites at times when you ask him to step up, I might suggest  one of two different start buttons.

Instead of offering your hand close to the parrot’s chest when you ask him to step up, instead give the cue clearly, but hold your hand back a foot or so. Wait for your parrot to say “yes” by raising his foot first. That is a start button. An alternate approach is to place your hand several inches away and ask the bird to walk towards it to step up – another sign of acquiescence on his part.

If you don’t see that foot raise, try leaving and coming back a few seconds later. Always reward your bird immediately with a treat when he does comply.

Better Communication Brings Greater Trust

If we all embraced this sort of communication with our birds, biting and other forms of aggression would be a lot less common. Each and every one of us can teach our birds to give us “permission” for interaction. It is merely common courtesy for us to give them a say in what happens to them.

Have any of you seen the videos of Keen, the African Grey parrot who understands his deaf owner’s sign language? This bird not only understands, but answers questions by lifting a particular foot to indicate that he is ready for whatever his owner is suggesting. That is a more sophisticated use of a start button that should inspire us all to wonder what else might be possible!

There is no need ever to be bitten by your bird. It is not just a part of living with parrots.

Yes, we do need to develop greater sensitivity to their body language so that we can understand them better. However, if we worked just a little harder to be respectful, granted them autonomy and the ability to communicate choice by using start buttons where we can, their quality of life would be greater and we too would be happier.

Please let me know how you might be using start buttons with your birds. This is an area that deserves greater exploration and we can help each other to identify what works!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Until next time!

Parrots in Bird Rooms

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the LIMA Hierarchy? LIMA stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” I am a LIMA behavior consultant, which means that I will always use the behavior change strategies that are least intrusive and minimally aversive with working with you and your parrot.

If a client wants to teach his parrot to step onto his hand, we have a choice between the use of positive or negative reinforcement. He can offer a valued item to “reward” the behavior when it occurs (positive reinforcement) or he could hold an aversive item near the bird to encourage him to get onto the hand and then withdraw it when he does (negative reinforcement).

Both tactics will accomplish the goal, but one is preferable to the other. The use of positive reinforcement improves the parrot’s quality of life and builds trust. As a result, the parrot often voluntarily exceeds the effort necessary to perform the task. The use of negative reinforcement can both break trust and cause unnecessary and detrimental stress to the parrot. The obvious and best choice is to use positive reinforcement to teach or strengthen behaviors.

The LIMA Hierarchy

The LIMA Hierarchy is also known as the Humane Hierarchy, and provides an ethical structure for behavior consultants and others (that’s you) when it comes to selecting training and behavior modification tactics. As the illustration below suggests, the very first step when attempting to change behavior is to examine conditions that support the parrot’s wellness.

Poor diet, unmet or inappropriately met social needs, and other poor practices or limitations in the environment will set the stage for behavior problems to develop. In other words, if the parrot is not getting his primary needs met, he will be more likely to display problem behavior. (Please note that “getting his needs met” does not equate with “getting what he wants.”) Conversely, if these areas are not corrected, reversing problem behavior will be either more difficult or impossible.

Thus the first step when solving behavior problems, consistent with both the LIMA Hierarchy and simple good sense, is to examine the diet and environment and make changes that will create wellness, increase quality of life, and support improved behavior.  

Deal Breakers in Parrot Care

I have come to think of some environmental conditions as “deal breakers.” My definition of a deal breaker in this instance refers to environmental conditions that are so detrimental to the parrot’s welfare that, should they continue, they make resolution of the behavior problem either extremely difficult or impossible.

For example, feeding a high fat, high carbohydrate diet is often a deal breaker. If the parrot is so full of fatty foods that he isn’t motivated to work for reinforcers, new behaviors can’t easily be taught. Further, a high-fat diet produces more energy for the parrot, which often is channeled into increased noise and aggression. Therefore, if the diet is not improved, behavior change becomes unlikely and malnutrition will be the continued result.

Another deal breaker can be excessive daily cage time. I am convinced that caged birds need at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, and that this needs to be broken into two sessions. If a parrot receives less time out than this, the pent-up energy and boredom that result will, at the very least, be reflected in increased noise, and at the worst, cause the development of stereotypical behaviors. Thus, this problem must be corrected before we can effectively implement behavior change strategies.

Bird Rooms Can Be Deal Breakers

This brings me to the topic of the bird room. Bird rooms have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. In fact, I was gob smacked when I searched online using the phrase. Pinterest, apparently, is the home of all good bird room ideas.  Make some popcorn! You could spend an entire day there and still not read it all. The only point not discussed is their unsuitability for the parrots who live in them.

A bird room can obviously be a huge benefit to owners because they help to contain the noise and the mess. When company arrives, you can shut the door to the bird room and socialize in peace. That closed door also hides the poop you didn’t get cleaned off the floor, the papers that your grey just pulled out of the cage onto the floor, the sweet potatoes on the wall, and the chewed woodwork. In other words, a bird room allows you to appear a bit saner to your friends who are inclined to visit.

But, does your bird room meet your parrot’s needs? Before I go further, allow me to provide one caveat. There are bird rooms and there are Bird Rooms. I have seen entire rooms designed for the parrot’s enriched existence in mind, with perches running the entire length of the room and lots to do and chew. The parrots get to be out of their cages all day in this type of bird room. There is usually also a comfortable spot for the owners, making it their room as well. This type of indoor aviary stands a much better chance of meeting the birds’ needs and does not factor into the discussion that follows.

For the purpose of this post, the definition of a bird room is a bedroom or office that contains the cages for all the birds in the household and little else. It is the room where the birds stay in their cages most of the time. A bird room like this often sets the stage for the development of behavior problems and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve them. The following discussion outlines the problems I see with this more typical type of bird room.

Disadvantages of Bird Rooms

Decreased Quality of Life: Many studies have concluded that one criterion for good quality of life for captive animals (this includes your companion parrots) is to afford the animal control over its environment. (Wolfensohn, S. et al 2018 ) This manifests within the practice of giving the parrot as many choices as possible. The typical arrangement for birds who live in bird rooms is to provide playstands for the birds in the common area; when the birds get to be out of the room, they perch on these stands.

However, most playstands offer little to do for the parrot. Most don’t even have toy holders. When the birds do get to join their owners for some social time, it is most often to perch in one place only.

Environment matters a lot to birds. They thrive when their “home” is placed in our living area. It’s important for them to be able to behave socially in a normal (or as close to normal as we can support) manner when living in our homes. Clipping wings cripples them from behaving normally in a social manner. Confining all movements to a simple playstand when out of the bird room, adds to this “invisible confinement.”

Increased Physical and Emotional Isolation: Keeping parrots in a bird room cannot possibly result in anything less than increased isolation. We may entertain the goal of getting the birds out into the living area to visit twice a day, but this plan often gets put on hold during the busier times of the year. While some household parrots bond strongly to each other, most do not. They enjoy the presence of the other birds in the home, but their primary bonds remain to us. This artificial separation, then, increases the stress already inherent in living in captivity.

Increased Stress: I think of parrots, even the smaller species, as having large personalities. Large personalities result in a sense of territory. If you watch a group of parrots who are able to be at liberty all day, you will see that they keep their distance from each other most of the time, even if they are the same species. They interact socially, but don’t perch side by side unless they share a pair bond. 

My own experience has convinced me that cages for medium to large parrots should be no closer than four or five feet from each other. This allows each parrot to have their own “sense of territory” and reduces the stress that parrots feel when crammed in next to each other in a single room. When cages are closer, you will often see hyper-excitable behavior and increased “territorial” aggression in parrots who live full-time in a bird room.

Increased Frequency of Undesirable Behavior: When our birds are located in a bird room, you wind up in the position of more frequently reinforcing problem behavior. If you hear a blood-curdling scream, you don’t have the advantage of being able to see that this jungle sound was the result of playing with a bell. Instead, you have no choice but to dash in there to see who’s been injured. Since the birds live in relative isolation, your entrance can be a powerful reinforcer. When you show up as a result of noise, you are teaching your bird room birds to scream.

Amplification of Reproductive Hormones:  I have no proof for this next statement, so you will just have to take my word for it. Having a number of parrots in a bird room can amplify the impact of reproductive hormones in a phenomenon similar to contagion. It’s much the same thing as happens when you have to hospitalize an angry cat in a veterinary clinic. You may have three nice cats in the clinic. When you add the one angry cat, guess what? You now have four pissed off cats with which to deal. 

Beyond that, I also believe that one trigger for the production of reproductive hormones is a degree of “sameness” to the environment. If you want a budgie to stop her chronic egg-laying, one useful (albeit inconvenient) strategy is to move the cage into a different room of the house every day. If you want to decrease hormone production in a larger parrot, you will see the reflective behavior decrease when you offer more exposure to new situations – trips out of the house, an outdoor aviary, etc. If you want a bunch of really “hormonal” parrots, keep them in a bird room 24/7.

Less Available Enrichment: While we remain relatively unaware of this, our own movements and behavior provide a good deal of entertainment to our parrots. They enjoy watching and predicting our behavior and looking for opportunities to interact with us. They are deprived of all this enrichment when they remain in a bird room. Their bird room life also allows us to remain out of touch with their need for enrichment, as well as their reaction to enrichment.

Less Passive Flock Bonding: A study of parrot behavior reveals that they use body language as a way to solidify alliances. Bonded parrots will preen each other’s heads, feed each other in a form of social duet, and mirror each others movements.

A group of parrots lacking pair bonds still use body language and behavior to solidify looser flock bonds through the performance of parallel activities. They will all preen at the same time, roost as one, or forage together as soon as a meal has been delivered. These more subtle behaviors may seem insignificant to us, but they are extremely important to quality of life and a sense of security for our birds.

Due to their amazing adaptability, they include us in these activities when they are able to do so, while we might not even notice. They may go to the food dish when we sit down to eat. A parrot may choose to roost when we sit down to read a book. Many parrots preen when allowed to accompany their human into the bathroom for the morning routine. Parrots in bird rooms are deprived of this vital manner of creating connection.

Inability to Resolve Behavior Problems: As detrimental as the combination of all these factors can be, the worst thing about bird rooms from my perspective as a consultant is the difficulty of resolving behavior problems.  If your birds live most of the time in a bird room, you have a greatly diminished ability to influence their behavior.

To successfully resolve a behavior problem, you must take a constructional approach. This means that you must build (teach) other behaviors at the same time that you work to remove any reinforcement that might be present for undesirable behavior.

For example, if you want to solve a screaming problem, you can’t just ignore the problem noise. No one ever solved this problem simply by ignoring it. Instead, you must teach the bird to make pleasant sounds instead, through the use of positive reinforcement. If you want to solve a biting problem, you do have to modify your own behavior that results in the biting, but you also have to use positive reinforcement to re-establish a mutually trusting handling relationship.

Well guess what? You can’t change behavior that you can’t see. Thus, if your birds stay most of the time in the bird room, it is this reality that likely contributed to the development of the problem in the first place and will delay or make impossible its resolution.

Author and meditation expert Sharon Salzberg once said, “We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us – vs. – them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations.”

It struck me, when I found this a few days ago, that it applies exceptionally well to the topic at hand. If we can learn to practice fierce compassion towards our parrots, then we will develop greater appreciation for their unique qualities – flight and their distinctive social nature. Should we do so, we must then deconstruct practices that create isolation or deny freedom of movement for our birds. We must find a way to establish community with them in our homes in a manner that does not physically isolate them.

Doing so will, as the quote implies, lead to difficult situations. No matter. We have tools. We can use training and antecedent arrangement to solve these minor issues, rather than relying on practices that enforce that us vs. them approach to parrot keeping.

I agree with avian veterinarian Anthony Pilny that we need a new captive parrot paradigm. If you don’t like living with parrots, then why have them? If you do like living with parrots, then why have a bird room?

I would love to hear your comments. I’m sure this post has been unsettling for more than a few of you and perhaps upsetting to some. Please understand that I mean no judgment. However, some of the conditions under which companion parrots live make my heart hurt. It truly is time to examine the care-giving practices established in the 20th century and create together that new captive bird paradigm.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Photo Credit: Featured image photo is by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash.com

Resources:

Friedman, Ph.D., Susan. 2008. What’s Wrong with this Picture: Effectiveness is Not Enough. Good Bird Magazine. http://behaviorworks.org/files/articles/What’s%20Wrong%20With%20this%20Picture-Parrot.pdf

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. IAABC Position Statement on LIMA.

Wolfensohn, S., Shotton, J., Bowley, H., Davies, S., Thompson, S., & Justice, W. (2018). Assessment of Welfare in Zoo Animals: Towards Optimum Quality of Life. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI8(7), 110. https://doi:10.3390/ani8070110

Your Screaming Parrot and You

I posted a short survey on Facebook several weeks ago, asking readers to express interest in one of three future webinar topics. I was surprised to find that almost as many people asked for a webinar on screaming as asked for one on feather destructive behavior. I was surprised because screaming is actually one of the easiest behavior problems to solve.

Resources are Readily Available

There are a number of very good articles and webinars already in existence that outline the steps for solving a noise problem in a parrot. I published three of them myself in 2018. The formula is fairly straightforward. Remove any reinforcement for the problem noise (ignore it) and increase reinforcement for other behaviors that are more desirable – pleasant vocalizations, interacting with enrichment, etc. If you would like a refresher, read my blog post from 2018.

So…What’s the Problem?

So, why do we have so much difficulty? Could it be because a screaming parrot brings us face to face with issues we might rather not examine? Could it be that our own stinking thinking gets in our way?

I’ve given this a lot of thought recently because I live with a 42-year-old Moluccan cockatoo. Cyrano is a wild-caught parrot who arrived in the United States as a young bird. I adopted him when he was 20 years old. He’s a great parrot. He is not aggressive and, in general, isn’t very loud – unless a particular trigger is present.

I live at Cockatoo Downs, where free-flying cockatoos are a frequent sight. When they are outside flying, Cyrano loses his mind. He screams the entire time and none of the antecedent changes I have tried have been effective. No amount of enrichment can take his mind off of the fact that he can hear them clinging to my window screens.

A few days ago, he was being about as loud as a Moluccan Cockatoo can be in reaction to their proximity. I found myself for the first time actually feeling a bit frantic. I finally understood in the moment how so many of my clients have felt and just how desperate ongoing noise like that can make a person feel.

I’m a pretty even-tempered, patient person, but even I in that moment was pushed almost to the point of doing something. Only my knowledge that any action on my part could reward the behavior allowed me to remain calm and instead do something else to help myself.

As someone wrote on Facebook recently, “I just stick something in the beak to make it stop.” Yes, in the moment it can seem that we must make it stop. So, we take action. We put the parrot into another room. We cover the cage. We walk out of the room. We offer a toy. We spray water. We do whatever it takes to make it stop.

The problem with this approach is that these “solutions” that make the noise stop in the moment most often reward the behavior so that it increases in the future. By using interventions like this, we actually teach our parrots to scream. However, in our desperation for quiet, we really don’t care in that moment.

So, maybe this isn’t the easiest behavior problem to solve in a parrot. The information on how to do so is out there, readily available. So, what is getting in our way? Why can’t we simply follow directions and then live with a quiet(er) parrot? Why is this so hard?

Flaws, Delusions and Messy Bits

Actress Hattie Morahan once said, “I am fascinated by people’s flaws and delusions: all the messy bits of human nature we all try to pretend we don’t have.” I would agree. I love behavior consulting because it is such a very human endeavor, one during which these “messy bits” often come to light. And I believe it is our flaws and delusions that get in the way of achieving that goal of the quieter parrot.

I think there are five primary ways that we undermine our own best intentions and get in our own way, when it comes to solving this problem.

#1: We Believe Our Own Stories

First, we tell ourselves stories about what the parrot wants, what he intends, and how he feels. We love our parrots; it’s natural to try to interpret their communications. But, by allowing ourselves to indulge in this pastime, we often deprive ourselves of information that would point to a better solution. 

I worked with a couple who had a very loud African Grey whose favorite sound was a car alarm. We worked together for a couple of months and achieved success – the obnoxious noise was gone. Several months later, they requested a second consultation. Noise was again the issue. These folks thought they had a new problem because it was a different noise. They were telling themselves a story. The solution was actually the same as it had been the first time.

Let’s say that your parrot screams and you tell yourself, “He wants out of his cage.” That could very well be true. However, if you go let him out of his cage you will be rewarding the screaming. If you tell yourself, “He’s probably hungry – he hasn’t had dinner yet,” and you feed him, you will be rewarding the screaming.  Lots of people reward the very behavior they hate out of a misguided belief that the parrot needs something and they have to respond in that moment or they won’t be a good caregiver.

Telling ourselves stories about the parrot also allows us to take the screaming personally. I spoke to one client a few years ago who tearfully proclaimed, “He’s trying to get to me.” True, it can seem that way. However, believing this only allows us to remain stuck in a victim-like mentality that can’t even begin to grasp the details of a solution.

To solve the problem, a more dispassionate approach is required. It may feel good to us to think that we have identified and met a need our parrot has. However, this feel good moment only increases the problem in the future. The parrot isn’t going to be harmed if we don’t open that cage door or miraculously appear with dinner.

Instead, it’s necessary to examine the antecedents that set the bird up to scream and the consequences that may be maintaining the screaming, and then change those. That is the only way to solve a screaming problem. Reading the parrot’s mind doesn’t even begin to factor into the solution.

#2: Does Our Own Behavior Set the Stage for Quiet?

Second, we often don’t realize the impact of our own behavior on the parrot. It was a very amusing moment when I was talking to a couple who live with a loud Umbrella Cockatoo and they realized that their own noise levels influenced their bird. Bostonians with a tendency to become very animated when speaking to each other, they themselves were loud.  When they were loud, their bird became loud. A loud house will beget a loud parrot.

Try asking yourself if your own home supports a quiet parrot or a noisy parrot. It may be that the people living with the parrot need to quiet down and calm down themselves.

#3: An Anxious Parrot Is Often a Loud Parrot

Third, many of us have a difficult time recognizing anxiety in a parrot. We focus on the noise, oblivious to the accompanying body language. Anxious parrots can be very loud.

In using the word anxiety, I am referring to parrots whose body language indicates a lack of comfort in the environment. They do not often settle and roost. They may circle in their cages or pace back and forth along a perch for extended stretches of time. Their feathers are slicked down tightly against their bodies and they stand up tall. They move often and may vocalize shrilly in a repetitive fashion as they do so.

If you have an anxious parrot, no amount of behavior modification is going to be completely effective, because it’s necessary first to make changes that allow the parrot to relax. A careful study of the environment is necessary to determine what triggers might be responsible for this heightened state of alert in the parrot.

A more comfortable parrot will likely be a quieter parrot. Perhaps the cage needs to be moved out of a traffic pattern. Perhaps the window blinds need to be drawn. Perhaps a couple of large houseplants on either side of the cage would provide a greater feeling of security.

#4: We Live too Close to the Emotional Edge

Fourth, a screaming parrot will reveal cracks in our own equanimity and emotional stability. In my experience, there is nothing like a screaming parrot to bring otherwise sensible people to their knees. If this is the case for you, it may be time to examine your own stress levels and self-care routines.

A friend recently asked me what I do when Cyrano screams. I think she found it hard to believe when I said, “Nothing.” I just ride it out from a place of acceptance. If it gets too bad, I go into my office or go for a walk, but I rarely find the need to remove myself. Yes, it’s unpleasant but it’s really not that big a deal. If you find yourself undone by a loud parrot, perhaps it’s time to find your center, gather your wits, and just do the work.

#5: A Screaming Parrot Widens Relationship Fractures

Last, a screaming parrot can also reveal cracks in our relationships with those with whom we share a home. This is a much bigger problem than people realize. In many homes that house a screaming parrot, one person loves that bird a lot more than the others do. Often, those others are a lot more irritated by the noise.

This creates a bit of a hostage situation that always makes it impossible to solve the problem. The one who loves the parrot becomes charged with the task of keeping it quiet. This is an impossible task, so anxiety grows. Anger erupts and ultimatums follow. Already stressed relationships move just a little closer to the breaking point. Often, in these cases, the bird loses his home. Sadly, this occurred just last month with one of my clients. When explaining, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to jeopardize her marriage for the parrot’s sake.

Solving a screaming problem requires that everyone in the home is on the same page. Everyone must commit to the solution and support each other in doing the right things – following the recommended steps.

The inconvenient truth is that it is we who create screaming problems in our birds by both providing less than optimal environmental conditions and then responding incorrectly to the behavior we witness. The even more inconvenient truth is that, in order to change our parrots’ behavior, we often must change our own first.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Managing Behavior through Environmental Change

By making simple changes to the environment, you can often accomplish amazing improvements in problem behaviors. When referring to environment, social exchanges are included in the discussion, as well as the physical habitat and diet. You are part of your birds’ environment. The term includes anything and everything present in the environment that can impact the parrot’s behavior.

Environment Changes = Antecedent Changes

The natural science of learning and behavior is over a century old. By studying how behavior “works,” we have discovered very positive and humane ways in which to change it. One of the best relies upon making changes to the bird’s environment. In the science of applied behavior analysis, these types of changes are referred to as antecedent changes.animals-3618625__340

Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior more likely. They are essential to “setting the parrot up for success,” when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing ones. Antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform. Essentially, they can be thought of as simply the management of behavior.

The huge value of positive reinforcement training (which includes clicker training) is now more commonly recognized and understood as one of the best ways to improve an animal’s behavior, as well as to teach new ones. However, antecedent changes are equally useful and can serve as stand-alone interventions. When you couple skillful arrangement of antecedents with the use of positive reinforcement, there are few limits to what you can achieve.

Ethics of Behavior Change

Antecedent changes are one of the most positive, least intrusive ways to change behavior. They often increase quality of life for the bird, in addition to making the owner’s life easier. They help to build a more trusting owner-parrot relationship.

This is important. When dealing with our parrots’ behavior, we must do so in an ethical manner. There is no room for forceful intervention, such as the frequently recommended advice to restrain a parrot until he stops resisting. For any who would like to delve further into the ethics of behavior change, please read the article by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. titled What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not Enough.

What Behaviors Can Be Managed?

The first key to using this behavior management strategy is to begin answering for yourself these questions:

  • What might make it easier (or more likely) for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
  • What might make it less likely that my bird will perform the problem behavior?
  • Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

When we choose to live with very intelligent, sentient animals like parrots, we must be problem-solvers. parrot-55293__340Making use of antecedent (environment) changes helps greatly. This type of behavior modification also makes life easier for us. We don’t have to get caught up in telling ourselves stories about how the parrot feels or what he wants. We just make simple changes, then evaluate the resulting behavior. If not effective, we try another possible change.

The following are some real life examples of how well this type of strategy can work. I’ve used common problems voiced frequently by clients, as well as those from my own life with birds. These are organized according to the suggested questions above.

What might make it easier for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?

Example #1: A Meyer’s parrot sustained an injury, received medical treatment and pain medication and was back at home, but losing weight. download (14)His owner, when home, observed him readily climbing down lower in his cage to access his food dish. Thus, pain (causing a reluctance to move) did not at first appear to account for the weight loss.

I suggested the possibility that he might not be as motivated to climb downward in her absence (a different environment). He would not have the stimulation of her presence to energize him, nor the distraction of her presence that might allow him to disregard his discomfort.

Antecedent Change: We moved the food dishes up right by his favorite perch and he regained the weight he had lost. We have no way of knowing whether this particular change, some other factor, or all changes combined, caused him to gain weight again. However, I offer this example to make you think. Parrots often behave differently when you are not at home.

Example #2: A similar example concerns the challenge many small birds pose when we try to improve their diet from a seed mix to formulated foods. Cages sold for these species always have the food dishes located down near the bottom of the cage. This means that getting to the food requires effort for the bird.

Antecedent Change: Place the new foods into additional dishes right up by the perch the bird uses most, leaving the seed mix in the dish down low. This is an example of decreasing the response effort. We make it easier for the bird to eat the new food because doing so requires less effort than does climbing down to the bottom of the cage.

Example #3: Many parrots do not readily interact with enrichment or consume fresh vegetables or fruit. bird-1941481__340These activities can be encouraged through their skillful placement. As the photo shows, placing a chuck of fresh food in a novel place often encourages consumption more quickly than simply leaving it in the food dish. I increased my own parrots’ consumption of pellets by offering them on play stands, in addition to their cages.

When placing enrichment, stand back and evaluate how the parrot uses his cage. I see cages with toys on the floor or in the lower third of the cage (where parrots usually don’t spend much time). I see toys in spots where it would take a great deal of effort for the bird to use them. I see toys that are completely inappropriate to the bird’s size, rendering interaction impossible.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Place the toy at a spot in the cage where the bird spends most of his time. Make sure that he can access it easily from that perch. (2) Hang it from the ceiling of the cage at beak level. It takes more effort for a parrot to bend over to interact with enrichment. (3) Place it where it’s not likely to bang into any part of his body when he turns around. (4) If it’s wood to chew, make sure that it isn’t too hard or too thick for him. (5) Use the information you have from previous behavior to inform your choice about what you provide. For example, if he chews up your junk mail when you leave it around, try a first toy made out of paper.

Example #4: Many clients complain that their parrot isn’t motivated to earn treats (preferred foods) when they attempt training.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Increase the value of the food treats you are using by only offering them when training and at no other time. (2) Try training right before a meal when motivation might be higher. (3) Eliminate any distractions, like other people or animals, in the training environment that might make your parrot less likely to focus.

What might make it less likely that my bird will perform a problem behavior in a particular set of circumstances?

Example #1: I once had a quaker parakeet who was fiercely “territorial” around his cagedownload (16) – meaning that I had a hard time interacting with him or changing out food dishes when he was near his cage because he would bite with ferocity. Luckily, he had a good recall and would fly to my hand whenever called.

Antecedent Change: Rather than trying to service his cage or asking him to step up when he was there, I instead would open his cage door, step back, cue him to fly to me, and put him on a play stand, which allowed me to interact with him easily or to service his cage while he was on the stand.

Example #2050One of my greys takes great pleasure in testing gravity by throwing my pots and pans down from my pot rack. She is also a genius when it comes to finding her way into my kitchen cupboards when I am not looking. A normally patient person, these behaviors turns me into a crazy woman. (I came inside recently, after taking my dog for a brief walk, to find my kitchen counter and floor covered with a mixture of baking soda, cocoa powder, ramen noodles and soy sauce.)

Antecedent Change: The most obvious and simplest change would be just to store my cook pots in a cupboard, preventing that problem entirely. However, I live in a teeny, tiny house with little storage space. So, I recently found a way to use different hooks that make it harder for her to enjoy that type of fun. To resolve the second issue, I installed child proof locks on my cupboards. Scolding her for either behavior would have only rewarded her by giving her social attention.  Often, preventing problem behavior is the very best solution.

Example #3: A frequently voiced problem is that of the parrot who bites when you try to change out food bowls. I used to live with a Blue and Gold macaw who was like a rocket, charging through his food dish openings in an attempt to get to me, when I tried to feed him from the outside of his cage.

Antecedent Change: I solved that problem by offering a large treat very near a high perch on the opposite side of the cage. Anyone can do this. Place a second bowl up higher in the cage. When you are ready to change out dishes, place a valued food (that will take a minute or two to eat) in there. This will lure the parrot up to that dish, leaving you safe to accomplish your task. By repeating this every time you feed, you will soon have a parrot who stations while you feed.

Example #4: A client complained that her parrot would snatch her stud earrings out of her ears when she was holding him.

Antecedent Change: Take off the earrings before you hold your bird.

Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

Example #1: Many parrots step up readily when perched at chest height, but are more reluctant when perched over the owner’s head. imagesCAUSHIDZOne cause can be that parrots, by nature, are much more comfortable stepping upward and forward, rather than downward.

Antecedent Change: Slowly get up on a step stool in a manner that doesn’t frighten the parrot and then ask him to step upward onto your hand. He will be much more likely to do so.

Example #2: Another of my greys occasionally chooses to perch around the house at spots down a bit lower, like the top of my step stool or the door to the dog crate. He often solicits head scratches from me while there, but I have learned he is a lot more likely to deliver the  “Congo Grey Sucker Bite” when I am taken in by this “false” invitation. He never does that when he is perched up higher. Note: I don’t have to figure out why he displays this odd difference in behavior in certain spots in order to solve the problem.

Antecedent Change: I ignore his solicitations to pet his head when he is perched lower on one of these spots. (I don’t want him there anyway so should not reward that behavior.) Instead, I readily provide head pets when he is on his cage or a play stand and more likely to be a gentleman.

Example #3: A client complained recently that her parrot would vocalize obnoxiously non-stop when she worked in the kitchen, even though he could easily see her from his cage.

Antecedent Change: Put a table top perch in the kitchen and bring him in to supervise. They can socialize a bit and she can take that opportunity also to offer fresh vegetables as a snack. This simple change caused her to pronounce me “a genius.” We can all be geniuses if we learn to think in this manner.

Example #4: A cockatoo, pair-bonded to the woman in the home, bites anyone who tries to sit on the couch with her when he is near.

Antecedent Change:  Keep the bird in his cage or on a nearby perch when you are sitting on the sofa.

The Process

Managing behavior by making antecedent changes is really just a matter of using common sense and brainstorming. First, identify and describe in detail the behavior you want to change (increase or decrease). Then, brainstorm as many environmental modifications (antecedent changes) as you can think of that might create the change you desire, even if some seem pretty silly or unlikely to work.

Next, try first using the one you think most likely to work. After a few days, step back and evaluate. Have you solved the problem? If not, go on to try the next most likely.

Some solutions are so effective and simple, they might appear suspect. For example, if a parrot bites or chews on your clothes when on your shoulder, simply deny him this privilege. One small change solves the problem with little effort.

In other situations, finding a solution can take many attempts.  I have a client in Jordan with a mechanically inclined cockatoo who delights in leaving his cage to take the top panel off of the radiator. We have worked hard to teach stationing, but the radiator fun apparently is very reinforcing to him and resistant to change. Obviously, that training needs to be continued, but due to the possible danger, we also tried some antecedent changes.

We put a blanket over it when not in use. He moved the blanket. We tried putting an object on top that he hadn’t seen before, thinking that might make him less likely to go over to that side of the room. He didn’t care. We are left with the only option possible – to use additional hardware to screw the top in place and prevent the behavior completely.

Summary

Parrots are a joy and a challenge. Managing their behavior can press us to our limits. However, doing so can be a lot easier than you imagine. digital-art-95075__340You can learn to do this!

Make first and frequent use of antecedent changes. Once you have the knack of arranging the environment to get the behavior you want, go on and learn how to use positive reinforcement to  maintain desirable behaviors and teach new ones.

Don’t blame your parrots for being “difficult!” Instead, have some fun trying to create behavior changes. When you do, always remember to be kind. You can use what you learn on partners and children too!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resource and Suggested Reading List (these are not parrot-specific because the same rules for behavior change are the same for all species):

Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (revised edition, 2006)

Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots by Barbara Heidenreich (2012)

How Parrots Learn to Behave by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and Phoebe Greene Linden (2003)

10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know about Behavior by Susan Friedman, Ph.D.

Blog post by Eileen Anderson on her site eileenanddogs  – What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? .

 

Suspicions and Fears about Avian Veterinary Care

Recently, I received a message from someone asking how she could teach her parrot to climb again after a bout of egg binding. Clearly, a medical problem remained, yet the owner was reluctant to take the bird back to the vet as he had asked. She also posted on Facebook asking for advice.

It would be easy here to lapse into judgment, but that would serve no forward-thinking purpose. The bird’s owner clearly does love her, is trying to get help, and the advice she got on Facebook mirrored my own – get the bird back to the vet. We can hope she did.

Distrust and Suspicion of Veterinarians

I choose to discuss this here because her behavior is not uncommon. images (18)I worked as a technician for avian veterinarians for close to 20 years before retiring this past January. The suspicion, distrust, and fear behind such behavior are actually very typical of a certain percentage of pet owners. This is a problem that deserves examination.

As a technician, I became aware that there is a generalized distrust of veterinarians and their motives among many who live with animals. Some entertain suspicions that the veterinarian is just recommending services in order to make money. They don’t understand the diagnostics and procedures being recommended, so fear they are being taken advantage of. They are frightened of the expense that might be incurred and feel no ability to take control of this if they do take their pet in.

We Distrust What We Don’t Understand

I think it’s normal to suspect what we don’t understand. I hesitate to take my car to a mechanic. I don’t know anything about cars or what routine maintenance and repairs cost, so I wind up being afraid that I will be taken advantage of. I feel that I have no way to protect myself, so I hesitate due to my suspicion and distrust, as well as fear of the potential expense.

Demystifying Avian Veterinary Care

We need to demystify avian veterinary care, so that all bird owners can have a trusting relationship with a qualified avian vet that includes honest two-way communication. Hopefully, this blog post can serve as a beginning towards that goal.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on UnsplashFor those of you who don’t have a trusting relationship with a veterinarian, please read the blog post that I wrote earlier in the year – The Avian Veterinarian: Tips for Choosing One You Can Trust. If you already have a veterinarian you trust, you may not need the information below. However, if your thoughts lurk in the dark places between “I could never afford care for my parrot!” and “My vet always wants to do too much testing!” …then the information below may help.

 Allow me to share what I know to be true about veterinarians,  medical testing and procedures, and how to best take control of your situation when you do seek medical care for your bird.

Veterinary Fees and Motivations

First, I can set to rest any fears you may entertain about being taken advantage of financially. No one becomes a veterinarian to make money. Most that I know live modestly with spouses who provide a second income.

download (5)Even if it were the most lucrative profession on the planet, most would not pursue it.  If you don’t have either diarrhea or vomit on your shoes at least once during the day, you have had to defend yourself against physical harm from the chihuahua whose fear, distrust and suspicion exceeds his owner’s.

Being a veterinarian is difficult and being an avian vet is even harder. Even if a veterinarian’s true passion is avian medicine, he often still has to see dogs, cats, and other animals in order to make a living. Relatively few places in the United States have a large enough population of bird owners to sustain an avian-only practice.

Aside from the daily physical unpleasantness and danger from animals who resist their medical care, the schedule is grueling. Often there is no emergency service available for after-hours care, so avian vets wind up seeing patients on weekends and evenings if clients need them.

To suspect a veterinarian of recommending services photo-1535241556859-780cb9f395f2simply to make money reflects a profound lack of understanding about the nature of the profession. People become veterinarians because they love animals and want to help them (and perhaps because healing animals is more appealing than healing humans).  None of them are getting rich doing it.

Why is Avian Veterinary Care So Expensive?

Avian veterinary care can seem quite expensive, however. Partly, this is just a matter of perception. Clients with medical insurance of their own are used to having liability only for a co-pay and meeting a deductible. This leaves them out of touch with what the real costs are for medical care.

First, care is expensive because veterinarians receive exactly the same amount of training and incur the same amount of debt as human medical doctors. For avian vets, additional training is required not only for themselves, but their staff. Birds are different from any other pet we see and a great deal of study regarding new advances is required to keep up to date.

photo-1516665813681-197673df81eeNext, avian veterinary care is expensive because appointment times must be longer. Most dog and cat owners don’t need a lot of help with diet and husbandry.  Bird owners, however, frequently do need help with diet, husbandry, and behavior issues. Since these things can impact health and the human-animal bond, we must spend the time to address them.

Further, very ill birds may need to be hospitalized in order to perform diagnostics and initiate treatment. This too increases expense. Sick birds can be quite fragile.  The ancient physician’s oath, the guiding principle that permeates every branch of medicine, is “First Do No Harm.” 

Avian medicine is more expensive because we can’t use the same procedures and medications for birds as we do for mammals. We can usually take a radiograph of a dog without sedation. To x-ray a bird requires either conscious sedation or anesthesia. This requires additional staff, equipment, and medications, all of which translate into increased costs.

Last, medications for birds can be more expensive because they often must be photo-1522827585129-4ba47bae3e06compounded. You can’t pill a parrot.  It’s necessary to create a liquid from a tablet or capsule so that it can be administered orally. This takes expertise, time and additional supplies.

These are just a few reasons why avian medical care can seem very expensive.  I hope this explanation will allow you to set aside any suspicions you may have about your veterinarian trying to increase your invoice with unnecessary services. You can instead assume that your veterinarian is well-intentioned.  He wants the best for you and your bird. That fact is bankable.

Finding Comfort in a Foreign Land

For most people, spending time in a veterinarian’s office is about as much fun as spending time in a human doctor’s office. The physical surroundings are strange and too sterile. The vocabulary is foreign and you can wind up feeling stupid because you aren’t familiar with the terms used. Often the staff seems to be in a hurry, which makes asking questions uncomfortable. download (4)It’s easy to doubt the need for something that you don’t understand.

If this has been your experience, it can help to understand more about the standard testing that may be recommended, as well as the procedures that are used to address certain situations. Better familiarity may help you to feel like you have more control of the situation and are better able to communicate with less confusion.

Why are Laboratory Tests Necessary?

A physical exam reveals much valuable information: malnutrition and vitamin A deficiencies, respiratory illness and sinus or eye infections, feather abnormalities, problems with bones and joints, and external parasites.

However, there is even more that this examination will not tell you. This is why your veterinarian will at some point recommend doing some laboratory tests. Unfortunately, there is no one test that will reveal all necessary information to diagnose a problem. It is often necessary to perform a few different tests, each of which provides a piece to the diagnostic puzzle.

Below is a brief description of each, provided so that the next time you go to the vet you will understand more of what is said. Please save this post so that you can refer to it before your next vet appointment. These are the tests most commonly recommended.

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

This blood test looks at red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets (which cause blood clotting). download (8)The test reveals signs of anemia, infection, blood protein levels, inflammation, and the presence of blood parasites. When a bird is sick, the white blood cell (WBC) count will show the level of infection present. If this is very high, the test may need to be repeated after the first round of antibiotics to see if this therapy needs to be continued.

Your veterinarian may recommend this test even if your bird is healthy. Every bird is different. By doing a CBC when your bird is well, your vet then knows exactly what is normal for him. This information will help in the future if he does fall ill.

Serum Chemistry Panel

This blood test is often performed along with the CBC. It evaluates individual organ function and is invaluable for diagnosing liver and kidney disease, as well as diabetes. It provides electrolyte values, calcium levels, and cholesterol levels. This test is especially important for older birds, sick birds and those who have been eating a poor diet.

Fecal Direct Smear and Fecal Flotation

download (9)These tests are usually performed together and may be referred to as a “fecal analysis.”  They reveal the presence of intestinal parasites and any bacterial or yeast overgrowth. The direct smear can be invaluable in diagnosing avian gastric yeast (known previously as megabacteria). Your vet may recommend this when your bird is sick, but also as an initial screening test when you bring a new bird into your home.

Gram stain and/or Culture and Sensitivity

These tests are usually done for the same purpose – that of determining the type of organisms (bacteria and/or yeast) present in both the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. These tests also are valuable for routine screening on well birds, as well as to provide diagnostic assistance when the bird is ill.

Some vets seem to prefer Gram stains, while others find more value in doing a culture and sensitivity.  The Gram stain quantifies the number of organisms present and distinguishes between two different classifications of bacteria. It can also reveal the presence of a yeast overgrowth in the gastrointestinal tract or spirochetes in the oral cavity.

The culture and sensitivity also identifies organisms present, but in addition tests for which antibiotics will be most effective in treating them. This is very helpful in minimizing any guesswork when it comes to choosing a medication.

Cytology

If your bird has a lump or mass, a wound that isn’t healing, or some type of skin irritation, your veterinarian will likely recommend a cytology.  The sample obtained is stained with dye and then examined under the microscope to determine what type of organism is causing the problem.  Only in this way can your veterinarian know which type of medication is needed. In the case of a mass, he will be able to tell if this is malignant.

Radiographs (X-rays)

Radiographs can reveal pneumonia, fungal infections, foreign bodies, and bone fractures or abnormalities.  download (10)They are often recommended as a second stage in the diagnostic process, unless physical signs dictate their immediate need.

I once had a Red-lored Amazon who displayed signs of respiratory illness. We performed a CBC and chemistry panel.  The latter was normal and the WBC count was just slightly elevated, but we treated her with antibiotics anyway.

She initially improved, then worsened again. We took radiographs as a next step, which revealed a large inoperable thyroid tumor that was pressing on her trachea, making it hard for her to breathe.  This one additional test changed our treatment course completely.  It was clear that euthanasia was the best course to prevent further suffering.

These are only a few of the tests commonly recommended. I hope that you will openly discuss with your vet the advantages and disadvantages of anything he thinks needs to be done. Remember that he is on your side and wants the best for you and your bird.

Staging Diagnostics

I have heard many clients express frustration about having paid for initial diagnostics only to have additional testing recommended. While it may be easy to be suspicious in such a case, there is a good reason for this. SickAmazonMost veterinarians will stage diagnostics – they recommend certain steps initially in hopes that these will provide the needed answers. (Most vets are respectful of both clients’ pocketbooks and  patients’ stress levels.) If a diagnosis can’t be determined after these tests, others might be necessary.

If you encounter this situation, please remember that your vet isn’t just trying to get more money out of you. Further, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. This is a standard way to proceed in both veterinary and human medicine.

The Severely Ill Bird

It is also imperative at times to hospitalize a very sick bird in order to stage both diagnostics and treatment. Since companion birds have retained the ability to hide illness, your bird may be sicker than you have realized by the time you do get him to the vet. If this is the case, don’t be surprised if your veterinarian recommends keeping him at the clinic for a day or longer. Again, this isn’t because he is trying to jack up your invoice.

In the case of respiratory illness, your vet may even delay the physical exam until your parrot has been stabilized a bit. He may first just let him rest for a short time in a warm incubator, even providing a little oxygen. He might then administer subcutaneous fluids, putting his patient quickly back to recover from that. After another hour, he might attempt to collect a lab sample. After another rest, he might give an antibiotic injection. It is best to proceed slowly in such cases, so that the needed treatment doesn’t make the bird worse. Again, this very necessary process will translate into increased cost.

Preparing for Expense

You must assume that your bird will require medical care, just as do you and your other pets. If you plan ahead for this, you can take most of the fear out of the experience. Several options exist.

  • Put a small sum aside each month into a separate savings account ear-marked just for avian veterinary care.
  • Consider pet insurance. Unfortunately, the only company in the United States currently offering coverage for birds is Nationwide Bird & Exotic Pet Insurance (formerly known as VPI or Veterinary Pet Insurance).
  • Pet Assure offers a discount card, which may reduce fees at some clinics within their network.
  • Apply for CareCredit. This company offers help financing health care expenses. It is easy to apply for and can be used for your own health care also. Not every veterinarian accepts CareCredit, so check first before making an appointment.
  • If your veterinarian doesn’t offer to go over a treatment plan, which outlines the costs of the day’s services, request one. This process can seem a bit daunting and the most suspicious of us may imagine that this is an arm-twisting exercise. However, nothing could be further from the truth. A treatment plan is an invitation to have a conversation. It’s your chance to ask questions about what has been recommended and to frankly discuss any financial limitations you may have.

Conclusion

Your bird is going to need both routine veterinary care, as well as treatment for injuries and illness. photo-1521866337281-e7207a7159c9Birds always seem to get themselves into trouble in one way or another.

We can act on our love for them by planning for this, both by securing the financial means to pay and learning more about veterinary procedures and processes. Both will allow you to enter into a true partnership with your veterinarian. Remember, he has dedicated his life to you and your birds.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

References

Association of Avian Veterinarians. 2018. “Bird Health Exam.” https://www.aav.org/page/healthexam

Magnuson, M. 2018. “Ask the Vet: Why is Veterinary Care So Expensive?” The Project Pawsitive Foundation: http://www.projectpawsitive.com/2018/01/17/veterinary-care-expensive

Rupley, A. DVM, ABVP Avian. 1997. Manual of Avian Practice. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company.

Sakas, P DVM, MS. 2002. “Understanding Avian Laboratory Tests.” Material was adapted from Essentials of Avian Medicine: A Practitioner’s Guide,  2nd Edition by Peter S. Sakas DVM, MS. AAHA Press. https://nilesanimalhospital.com/files/2012/05/Understanding-Avian-Laboratory-Tests.pdf

Credits: Featured image is by Benny Kirubakaran on Unsplash.

10 Tips for Relationships with Parrots

It has occurred to me that this blog post could turn out to be just a piece of self-indulgent fluff. However, the topic fascinates me. How do we best craft long-term relationships with our birds? So, I ask for your patience as I sort out my thoughts and I will leave it to you to be the final judge of its worth.

Recently, I asked someone whether it might be possible that they had fallen out of relationship with their parrot. Photo by Tavis Beck on UnsplashI’ve never asked anyone that before, and the question just popped out. It derived from an intuitive sense about what might be going on. My friend, an excellent caregiver whom I have known for years, just hadn’t been aware of what was really going on with his parrot. The bird had been startling and falling more often, but this had gone unnoticed until it created a wound.

It would make sense, wouldn’t it, if we did fall out of relationship with our parrots from time to time? Our relationships with people we love certainly go through ups and downs if they last for any period of time.  We aren’t always kind and loving; at times we may fall into a state of disconnect. Obligations, guilt, and the needs of others can become overwhelming at times, generating the need to create some emotional distance.

Why should it be any different with our parrots?  They live a long time, affording the opportunity to have a relationship that spans decades. They are socially sophisticated and have a deep sensitivity to us and our moods. They are emotional and intelligent, as are we.

I find it very odd that, in conversation with each other, we don’t seem to focus ever on the quality of our relationships with our birds. Do we even recognize that we have a relationship with each parrot? manfred-goetz-522979-unsplash Do we instead have a tendency to objectify them?

When I read comments online about parrots, I see plenty of labels like “cute,” “needy,” cuddly,” “sweet,” “aggressive,” “nippy,” etc. But I rarely hear anyone talk about their relationship with their birds. That is good cause for concern because relationship difficulties often evolve into behavior problems over time.

Everyone agrees that relationships take work. Relationships with parrots certainly take work. Despite all of their good qualities, parrots don’t appear to exhibit much gratitude or awareness about all the work we put in to keep them well-fed and healthy in a clean, enriched environment.  Not a one of my parrots has ever said “thank you” as I cleaned sweet potato off of the wall or “I’m sorry” as I scraped the bottom of my shoe off after having stepped on a piece of fresh pear. Beyond that, they apparently lack any awareness of the need to be nice. They are, to a one, incredibly unapologetic.

If I look back at my own life with birds which spans four decades now, I can easily identify periods when I was not as motivated to provide enrichment, got lazy about diet, and was not much inclined to provide behavioral guidance. I often surfaced from these times after attendance at a good parrot-related conference or a workshop with Barbara Heidenreich, once again motivated and re-energized.

My conclusion is that it’s normal for us to fall out of relationships emotionally with those we love from time to time, those with our birds included. Given that, the question becomes: How can we form the very best relationships with our birds and prevent them from falling apart?

Photo by Ruth Caron on UnsplashWhen we take a new parrot into our homes, we should be forming a relationship by looking to the future and imagining what we want that to look like, just as we would with a small child we had adopted. I don’t think we do that. Evidence to support this would come from the number of parrots relinquished daily to second, third or fourth homes. If the number of parrots living in rescue and adoption organizations like The Gabriel Foundation or Phoenix Landing is any evidence, we don’t put much thought into this at all.

It’s quite popular these days to refer to our birds and other pets as “family members.”  However, saying so doesn’t make it so.

I think most of us fall into relationship with parrots in the same way we form them with dogs and cats. Aside from their daily care, we interact with them physically by holding and petting them. It is soothing for us to have a well-loved cat or dog on a lap or right beside us and we have promoted parrots to a place alongside them, keeping them on shoulders much of the time. All of that physical contact meets our needs for love and companionship, but does it meet our birds’ needs?

Photo by sk on UnsplashParrots are not yet domesticated, as are our mammal friends we keep as pets. Their needs are diverse and complicated – so much so that we still don’t know exactly what they are. Much of their behavior is rooted in instinct. When that peach-colored head rests on your chest does it mean that your cockatoo loves you or does it mean that he seeks to form a mate-like bond with you? Reproducing is high on his list of instinctive priorities, while this possibility might not even be on your radar.

Forming a relationship with a parrot by focusing on physical affection may be a feel-good practice, but it creates a host of problems. Based upon my experience as a behavior consultant, engaging in a lot of close physical contact not only encourages dependence for the bird, but serves as a trigger for the development of a pair bond. Once the parrot has formed a pair bond with you, what comes next is not a feel-good experience at all if you happen to live with other people

Parrots with pair bonds typically display a host of unproductive and problematic behaviors – aggression toward others in the home, increased noise, and a tendency to destroy feathers. They develop a desire to get down on the floor more often, looking for “nesty” spots and destroying woodwork in the process. They slowly lose their desire to interact with enrichment or do much of anything except pursue activities related to nesting.

For the human in the pair-bonded relationship, problems also derive from this focus. I would describe this primarily as a lack of vision when it comes to really seeing the parrot in front of you for all that he is.Photo by Romina veliz on Unsplash

Author Henry Beston once wrote:  “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

There’s nothing wrong with showing our birds we love them by offering physical affection, but when we focus on cuddling with our parrots to the exclusion of other ways of interacting, I think we forget that they are “other nations.” Instead, we see only the “feather magnified” – a distorted image at best. The only way to stay in functional relationship with our parrots is to see them as the resourceful, complicated creatures that they really are, rather than as simply objects of our affection.

If you search through articles and websites about success in human relationships, the number available is staggering. It’s an amazing reflection of just how self-absorbed we can be as a people. Further, no one agrees what a healthy relationship really depends upon. The 10 Signs That You Are in a Healthy Relationship published on the Psychology Today website serves up quite different criteria than does 7 Signs Your Relationship is Healthy on the Huffington Post website.

How can we know that we are creating healthy, i.e. functional, relationships with our own birds that will stand the test of time?  Here are a few thoughts, about which most of those publishing information on human relationships agree:

Respect: If we respect our birds, we don’t use force with them. Instead, we learn to use positive reinforcement to teach them to do the things we want them do. If a parrot won’t step up, we don’t push our hand into his abdomen to insist. Instead, we decide on a preferred food for which he will work, set up the request so that he is likely to comply, and reward him consistently when he does. We afford them autonomy.

Good Communication: We don’t assume we know how they are feeling. Instead we learn to read body language and change our own behavior according to what the parrot communicates. The only way our birds can “talk” to us is through body language and we understand this and respect them enough to learn their ways and preferences. If a parrot leans away from us when we offer petting, we don’t insist. Instead we back off and give him his space. Further, we make sure that our own communication is understandable. If asking for a behavior, we give clear, distinct cues so that he understands what we want.

PoicephalusAnger Control: If a parrot bites us, we don’t blame him. No matter how much it hurts, we control ourselves and instead of lashing out, we look at our part in the problem. Much biting stems from a lack of sensitivity to the body language they have tried so hard to use. If the biting continues, we take responsibility and seek help from someone who knows how to solve the problem. That does not include taking the problem to social media to have strangers weigh in. No one that I know who really has a foundational knowledge of how behavior works hangs out on social media answering questions for free. There is no reinforcement for doing so.

Empathy:  We strive to see things from the parrot’s perspective. If a bird is driving us crazy with screaming, we examine what we expect from him and wonder if perhaps we are asking too much. Are we meeting his needs? Is he getting out of his cage for sufficient time each day? Is he getting enough enrichment, bathing opportunities, and exercise? Expecting a parrot to stay in his cage 22 hours a day or remain isolated in a bird room most of the time without exhibiting problems is simply expecting too much. In addition, if a parrot ever displays fear, we stop in our tracks and rethink what we were about.

Commitment:  When things get difficult, we don’t automatically look at the option of giving the parrot up.download (2) Instead, we remind ourselves that this is a long-term commitment. Things won’t always be wonderful.  Sometimes they get hard. We can accept this fact with some patience and perhaps a sense of humor and wait for other answers to come. We pay money for help when we can’t solve the problems that have arisen.

Problem Solving: We realize that keeping an undomesticated creature inside of four walls is a daunting task. We don’t blame the parrot when problems arise. Instead, we seek solutions and release our preconceived notions of how things have to be. Rather than staying stuck in black and white thinking, we open ourselves to other possibilities.

Compromise:  I’m a great believer in the idea of creating balance in any social flock or family. Everyone must have a way to get their needs met, husbands and parrots included. This takes an open-minded approach that allows the family to strike a balance.

Enjoying Time Spent Together: We find ways to enjoy our birds that don’t involve cuddling and petting. We devise games. We put on music and have a dance party. We teach them to perform fun behaviors. We spend time outdoors together in a safe enclosure. We honor their need to enjoy parallel activities and bring them to the bathroom while we get ready in the morning or into the kitchen as we chop vegetables. We think about what they might enjoy.

DSC_1905Acceptance: We appreciate and respect the parrot for what he is… a flighted spirit. We don’t mutilate his wings to prevent flight without determining that this is absolutely necessary, rather than a matter of convenience for us. We accept him as the “other nation” he is, including his ability and need to fly. Every aspect of a bird’s physiology has evolved for the purpose of flight and this birthright should not be removed without an absolute need, such as preventing him from losing his home.

Trust: Each relationship is a bank account. Each trust-building interaction creates a deposit. And every time we spray the bird with water to stop screaming or force him to do something, we make a withdrawal. We cannot expect to have trust in these relationships unless our account balance is far in the green and stays there. It is possible to become overdrawn and it’s a difficult road back from there.

It is easy to get sucked into conversations about how these birds shouldn’t really be pets. That ship has sailed, my friend. Instead, let’s expand our thinking. Our parrots aren’t dogs or cats or rabbits or reptiles or horses. We need to create a new category of “pet ownership” that calls upon us to take into account their exceptional intelligence, resourcefulness, emotional sensitivity and long, long life spans. And, that takes some thinking!

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I get it that sometimes we must relinquish a parrot to another home.Thefuturewillbedifferent I get it that sometimes we do have to clip wings. I get it that there will be times when the parrot can’t get out of his cage for enough time.  I never blame anyone for making those hard decisions. However, I think we can set the bar a little higher than we have in the past by simply thinking a bit more about how we should be shaping our relationships with our birds.

I would love to hear your thoughts about being in relationship with the parrots who live in your homes. Please send me a comment and I will be sure to reply.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!