Parrots and the Need for Nature

Occasionally, I get myself into trouble with my mouth. That was the case about two decades ago when I responded to a post on a social forum.

The speaker had said, “I find my parrots eminently well-suited to my living room.”

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

I found this statement offensive and commented that I thought it smacked of arrogance. This brought down upon my head a hail of criticism, as you might imagine. One reader asked: “Why do you always have to be such a b*tch?”

Well, I’m not, actually. But I am a passionate advocate for the welfare of companion parrots, and as such, I do not hesitate to choose directness if that is what is required to open eyes and ears. I stand by my comment.

To this day, I still think that no one at the time really grasped why I found this statement so disrespectful to parrots as a whole. I was thinking, “How can any creature only one or two generations out of the wild be well-suited to your living room?”  It sounded like she was talking about a new lamp, for God’s sake, not an intelligent, sentient creature.

The possible repercussions of such a philosophy were what specifically troubled me. If we believe this, even a little bit, wouldn’t this let us off the hook in terms of working really hard to discover the circumstances in captivity that ensure the very best physical, psychological, and emotional health for our birds? If they are well-suited to our living rooms, then why do any more than make sure that the color of the cage matches the wallpaper, especially if it causes us inconvenience?

I have said before that I think some of our thinking when it comes to caring for parrots is pretty messed up. I typically cite as evidence for this my observations about the squirrely diet and care choices provided so often to companion parrots that can only stem from some deep-seated, unrecognized guilt at keeping a flighted spirit in a cage. We tend to focus so much on making them happy, as opposed to making them healthy.

Accompanying this concern is an ongoing nagging suspicion that we aren’t doing enough to ensure quality of life for companion parrots, simply due to lack of substantiated evidence about their true needs.

Enter the research that has been done by psychologist  Ming Kuo. She has studied the effects of nature on zoo animals, laboratory animals, and humans for the past 30 years. I became aware of her research when a friend sent me a link to a podcast Our Better Nature: How the Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life.  This is from the NPR series “The Hidden Brain” and was posted on September 10, 2018.

Kuo cites some convincing evidence about the many health benefits that derive from time in green spaces – tree-lined streets, gardens, parks, and forested or agricultural places. Consistently, research has proven that “the less green a person’s surroundings, the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality.”

One “study of over 345,000 people living in greener and less green residential surroundings revealed large differences in the prevalence of disease; even after controlling for socioeconomic status, prevalence for 11 major categories of disease was at least 20% higher among the individuals living in less green surroundings.”

She explores some of the many aspects of nature that may create this strong link between better overall health and time spent in nature.

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Many plants give off compounds called phytoncides, antimicrobial compounds that reduce blood pressure and boost immune function. Areas of forest, as well as those near moving water, have higher concentrations of negative air ions, which reduce depression and anxiety. Even the sights and sounds of nature have important psychological benefits. Walks in forested areas have been proven to cause a reduction of inflammatory cytokines, which have been implicated in cardiovascular disease, among other disease processes. The proven links between time spent in green places and improved health are too many to list here.

Ming Kuo is not alone in her research focus.  I have listed three other references at the end of this blog, which all corroborate her findings. I listed three because there were so many that were similar that listing them all seemed redundant.

Kuo explains the ramifications of the habitat selection theory. Specifically, “we are wired for whatever habitat we evolved in.” She includes a quote from Edward O. Wilson: “Organisms, when housed in unfit habitats, undergo social, psychological, and physical breakdown.” She asserts that “we are seeing this in people.” In support, she discusses in the podcast the research that proves that crime and other forms of social dysfunction increase in proportion to a lack of greenery in living areas.

Photo by Ronald Cuyan on UnsplashAre we seeing this in companion parrots?  Is the fact that more parrots are dying of atherosclerosis a reflection of their lack of exposure to the outdoors, as well as poor diet?

Could living constantly indoors without access to nature be an important factor in the development of feather destructive behavior?

Would time spent in nature help to avoid the development of the stereotypical behaviors some parrots display? These specifically have been cited as evidence of “mental illness” in parrots.

And, what about the unexplained, abnormally high levels of aggression that occasional parrots develop? Could this too be a sign of some deeply-rooted frustration at always being surrounded by four walls? Can parrots grow “stir-crazy?”

I believe so; however, I can offer no proof. We have, as a population of thinkers and lovers of parrots, completely ignored any such links. We apparently have given no thought at all, when it comes to research, to the benefits to parrots of time spent outdoors, other than to explore those of exposure to natural sunlight.

I own a number of veterinary texts, and not one of them explores a possible link between exposure to the outdoors and psychological and physical health in parrots. I couldn’t find even a brief suggestion that this might be a valuable subject for exploration. Even Holistic Care for Birds: A Manual of Wellness and Healing by David McCluggage, DVM ignores this obvious link, stopping short at a suggestion to put houseplants around the bird’s cage to ensure a greater sense of safety.

This is a profoundly saddening omission. Research must be done in this area. Until we have corroborating evidence of the benefits to parrots of time spent in nature, I would call on us all to rethink our approach to keeping companion parrots indoors constantly, without even occasional exposure to the outdoors.

I will always believe that there is no substitute for an outdoor aviary that allows for more freedom of movement than the standard bird cage. However, I do acknowledge that putting up such an enclosure is not possible for everyone at certain times of their lives. Should this be the case for you, I would encourage you to explore other options and to keep this goal on your future list of priorities.kaitlin-dowis-506598-unsplash

Might it be possible to screen in a deck or porch? Can you put your parrot into a carrier and go for a walk or to the park? Could you take your parrot camping safely?

Non-toxic plants around the cage aren’t a bad idea. Perhaps even bringing in natural branches from safe woods for chewing could help. Would a fountain in the room provide a calming influence? Sounds of nature have proven benefits to people.

The World Parrot Trust has for sale some DVDs that show the activities of parrots in the wild. My own birds enjoy watching these. Would even a mural of nature or certain wallpaper designs have a positive impact? We can’t know, but we could make a commitment to experiment and share information with each other.

Given the overwhelming evidence of the many human health benefits, both physical and psychological, that derive from exposure to green spaces, we cannot possibly continue to wear blinders when it comes to our companion parrots. We have been out of the wild for centuries. They have only been out of the wild for decades, and many of the birds still in breeding situations were wild-caught. This means that your parrots have very keen ties to the natural world that you cannot ignore.

We all love our parrots. roman-kraft-421410-unsplashBut, love is not enough. Let’s channel that love into more research about the conditions they need to live problem-free in our environments. And, until we have those answers, let’s use the common sense that we have to make the changes we can to allow them to maintain that vital link of theirs to the natural world.

It is our duty and such effort will only benefit us in the long run.

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. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Roberto Nickson on Unsplash.com.

References:

Hofmann, Mathias et al. “Contact to Nature Benefits Health: Mixed Effectiveness of Different Mechanisms.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15.1 (2018): 31. PMC. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.wild world.

Mercola, Joseph. 2018. “Massive Study Reveals Exposure to Nature Has Significant Health Benefits.” https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/massive-study-reveals-exposure-nature-has-significant-health-benefits.

Ming, Kuo. 2015. ” How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway.” Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 6, Article 1093 (August). https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01093.

NPR: Hidden Brain Series (2018). [podcast] Our Better Nature: How The Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life. Available at: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Pederson, Tracy. n.d. “Nature Exposure Tied to Wide Range of Health Benefits.” https://psychcentral.com/news/2018/07/07/nature-exposure-tied-to-wide-range-of-health-benefits/136811.html.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Training?

I fell in love with this photo when I saw it.  He seems to be thinking, “Would you please just tell me what you want from me?”

When a parrot begins to display problem behavior, it is usually due to a combination of things gone wrong and things undone.

In most cases, things have gone wrong in the process of creating the bird’s daily life. This is rarely due to a lack of caring on the owner’s part. It’s due to the difficulty of finding true, reliable information about parrot care.

Thus, the diet may be unbalanced. A social pair bond may have formed. The bird may not have enough to do or get out of his cage for enough hours each day.

And, in addition, behavioral training may have been neglected.

Inappropriate diet, pair-bonded social relationships, and inadequate environmental provisions + lack of effective guidance for the bird = behavior problem.images (11)  By “effective guidance,” I mean that the bird has not received guidance from the owner that would have steered his behavior into desirable channels.

So, most behavior consultations follow a similar pattern. We improve the diet, evolve social relationships, and increase enrichment and choice-making opportunities – if changes in these areas are necessary. This ensures that the bird’s needs are being met, which then sets him up for success when we formulate a plan to modify his behavior.

Inevitably, I wind up talking about training and that’s when things get really interesting.

A client asked me recently, “What actually is training?”  That was an excellent question and I’m happy to have a chance to discuss it here because I think many people have misconceptions about training. More than one person has mentioned to me that it almost seems demeaning for the parrot – that teaching tricks puts the parrot on the level of a circus animal. Others can’t imagine why you would want to train a parrot at all.

Many folks don’t really understand positive reinforcement training. They talk about clicker training, as if that is something different and apart and more special. It is not. Clicker training is positive reinforcement training. The clicker is used simply to make a sound that lets the bird know that he did the right thing. This buys you some time to deliver a treat. A spoken word works just as well in most cases.

Training is the process of teaching an animal a particular skill or type of behavior. target training

That is an oversimplified definition, of course. A more accurate, more scientific, definition would be that training involves teaching specific responses to specific stimuli. To expand on both, we can say that training involves the development of desirable responses and the suppression of undesirable responses. For example, we can teach a parrot to talk instead of scream when it wants attention. We can teach a parrot to stay on a perch rather than get down to cruise the floor.

The best trainers embrace positive reinforcement training as their primary behavior change strategy. Positive reinforcement is the process of offering the animal a valued item after it has performed a desirable behavior.  images (12)Most often, when training begins, food treats are used as reinforcers until others have been identified.

So, why do I always wind up talking about training when I do behavior consultations?  … Three reasons.

First, when you teach a bird new behaviors, you often see an almost “automatic” reduction in the problem behavior, so it affords a bit of quick success, which always helps.

Second, the bird has to unlearn the problem behavior and learn another, alternate, more desirable behavior that it can offer instead. That takes training, i.e. teaching.

Third, many parrots have developed pair bonds with their owners and these pair bonds often contribute to the very behavior problem that we are trying to resolve. By beginning to do some training, the owner can encourage the bird to look to her for guidance, rather than physical affection.pairbond

This photo may appear to represent a desirable social moment. It does not. By focusing your social interactions around the exchange of physical affection, everyone loses. You, as the owner, lose the ability to see the parrot as the resourceful, intelligent, incredibly capable creature he is. And your parrot loses out on a more enriched existence that involves learning new things.

Once I have convinced someone of the benefits of training, I often hear yet one more concern: “I can’t train because my bird is not food motivated.” I actually hear this quite often online, as well. It is a common perception.

Let’s examine this statement. It expresses the belief that the bird is not motivated to eat food. So, right out the gate, we know that’s wrong. Right? Parrots need food to live, so they must by definition, be food motivated.

What owners usually mean when they say this is that their parrot has not seemed interested in taking a treat in exchange for a cued behavior.  That is a whole different problem, and it’s always the same problem. If parrots are not motivated to earn training treats, it is almost always because they are getting too many fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods in their daily diet.013

This is why we so often have to improve the bird’s diet before we can modify his behavior. If you convert the parrot to eating formulated foods and fresh vegetables with limited fruit, you will have a parrot who is “food motivated.”  And, in fact the best practice is always to reserve seeds and nuts for use as reinforcers. It’s a win-win situation. The bird still gets to have some treats, but has to earn them rather than finding them in the food bowl.

There are many different things we can train parrots to do. We can teach simple, fun behaviors like targeting, turning around, or waving. We can teach a parrot to stay on a hand, rather than fly to a shoulder. We can teach a parrot to stay on a particular perch, rather than climbing down to the floor to terrorize people’s feet and the household pets. We can teach a parrot to fly to us on cue. We can teach a parrot to take medication willingly from a syringe or walk into a carrier when asked. There is no limit to what we can teach and our parrots can learn.

Anyone can teach these things!  We don’t need to be professional trainers. You would be amazed at how forgiving, flexible, and adaptable parrots can be in the face of our own lack of training skills. They still learn quite readily and have fun doing it.

Chris Shank Photos 023However, training is not necessarily easy for people in the beginning. It can be tiring because of the focus it takes. For many of us, so used to having our attention fragmented, this type of focus can seem like very hard work.

And often, beginning training sessions reveal our own lack of hand-eye coordination. This means practice for us, even when training simple behaviors like targeting. It can take a bit of repetition to get to the point where we don’t feel so awkward.

This was the case with a client of mine recently. In frustration, she told me emphatically, “I am NOT a trainer.” I wonder how many of you are nodding your heads in agreement right now, feeling the same way?  I, myself, might have made that comment at one point.

The truth is, however, we are all trainers. Animals are always learning with every single social interaction they have with us. Their learning ability doesn’t switch off and on. If they are always learning, then we are always teaching.

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Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash.com

And, as I pointed out to my unhappy client, she IS a trainer. She had very effectively trained her parrot to scream and lunge aggressively.  The fact that her training was unintentional doesn’t matter. It was her reactions to her parrot’s behaviors that reinforced them to the point where they became serious problems that required professional help to resolve.

So, we really don’t have a choice. We must accept that we are all trainers. We have the responsibility to think about what we are training our animals with our social attention…all of the time. As I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” I have never heard better advice.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, each of us, maintained a daily awareness of the power we hold to influence the behavior of others? What if we all went around asking ourselves, when interacting socially with any creature, “What am I teaching at this moment?” images (13)Our relationships with our parrots and all animals would improve, certainly. Our relationships with other people would be kinder and more thoughtful, perhaps.

So, imagine please, how we might change the world simply by learning training and behavior principles and using positive reinforcement with all living things in our daily lives. Our parrots at least would fly straighter and truer their whole lives long.

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. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Егор Камелев on Unsplash. 

Chop Mix: Perfect Nutritional Supplement or Popular Nutritional Disaster?

I often choose blog topics because of something I’ve recently seen or heard that troubles me. This one is no exception. After talking to a few clients recently and reading comments online, I’ve grown concerned about how Chop Mix is being prepared and fed to companion parrots.

What is Chop Mix, you ask?chop  Chop is a mixture of finely chopped vegetables with cooked grains, cooked legumes and/or beans, and other ingredients. It has been described as an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to preparing supplemental food for birds.

I and others have used some form of the chop mix concept for a couple of decades.  However, in the past several years, this form of feeding parrots has gained huge popularity, mostly thanks to the efforts of Patricia Sund and others who have written so widely about it.

I love the concept and recommend it to others. Feeding Chop, in addition to high quality formulated foods, is a great way to get healthy variety into our birds’ diets. It makes conversion to new foods (pellets and vegetables) easier. It is relatively simple to prepare and serve, since it is typically frozen for storage, eliminating the need to prepare fresh food every morning.

So, why my recent concern?  I think there are a couple of problems with how Chop is being prepared. First of all, people seem to have gotten the idea that the sky’s the limit – that you can put anything into Chop and the resulting mix be a valuable thing to feed their birds. This is not the case.veggies  The nutritional value of Chop is only as good as the ingredients you put into it. Some individuals are adding ingredients that really should not be offered in any quantity to companion parrots on a daily basis.

When I searched for the term “chop mix” as I prepared to write this, I immediately found 21 different websites that all offered recipes for Chop. I stopped counting after two minutes. I found chop mix for cockatiels, chop mix for Eclectus, chop mix for African greys…and the list goes on. The “recipes” were all quite different from each other, as was the advice directed at owners.

On those 21 different websites, I found a lot of strongly-worded, very confusing advice. Some recommend including uncooked grains, which is definitely not a good idea. Grains should always be at least soaked and sprouted, if not cooked, in order to make them more digestible and eliminate the enzyme-inhibitors present. download (6)Some people advise adding raw yams or sweet potatoes; others say these must be cooked. Others include vegetable or whole wheat pasta, while their counterparts recommend no pasta at all. Some sites advise the addition of fruit; others warn against this, since it creates a wetter mix. How is anyone to understand that Chop must be prepared conscientiously with all of this different advice floating around?

I see two main problematic strategies being used when preparing Chop Mix. The first recommends the addition of high quantities of carbohydrates to prevent the mix from being too wet. The second involves adding too many “goodies” in the desire to create a mix the parrot will eat.

The creation of a truly great Chop poses one distinct challenge.  When you chop up a bunch of vegetables and then freeze them in a plastic bag, the cell membranes of those vegetables rupture, releasing all the moisture that was inside of them.  Thus, you can wind up with a very wet mess that your birds won’t eat.

Those dedicated to the Chop concept have gotten quite creative over the years as they have attempted to deal with this inconvenient problem. Some individuals recommend making large batches in the bathtub, advising that this way all the juice will go down the drain, thereby solving the problem.  Ahem.

I don’t care how much bleach you might have used, it’s not a good idea to prepare food in your bathroom, no matter who you intend to feed it to. Take it from one who has spent years staring at microbes through a microscope lens. If you need to make a large batch, you can always use large plastic storage tubs reserved just for that purpose.

Second, “all the juice” contains many valuable nutrients. You don’t want that going down the drain. You want to preserve as much of it as possible, hopefully getting it into your bird at some point.  So, the second option to which people resort is the addition of dry ingredients that will soak up the moisture.download (7)  Suggestions for this include pasta, rolled grains, certain seeds and others.

Consider this photo, which I lifted off of the internet. Please ignore the fact that there seems to be a parrot taking a bath in the middle of a bowl of Chop. I want you to look at the ingredients. Can you see how much pasta is in there?!?

That is a problem. You simply can’t add that amount of refined carbohydrates to a mixture and believe that it’s going to be a healthy thing to feed your birds. I have written previously about the dangers of unbalancing your parrot’s diet by feeding high levels of fatty foods and simple carbohydrates in the diet. If you rely on dry carbohydrates to soak up excess moisture, you will have a parrot eating too many carbs in his diet.

I also see folks getting a little crazy with “additions.” I once watched a speaker at a conference prepare a large beautiful batch of Chop.  I then watched as she ruined it by dumping in whole bags of nuts, pumpkin seeds, and dried sweetened coconut. “Egads,” I thought. Any parrot eating that mix will be able to load up on goodies and ignore the grains and vegetables.Iggy.Chop.FB

Chop can be a wonderful supplemental food for parrots…or a nutritional disaster. If we strive for the former, we must embrace the fact that a good Chop Mix must be prepared carefully according to certain guidelines.

First, it should conform roughly to the same percentages of protein and fats as balanced formulated diets contain. This can be estimated by simply looking at it, if you have a fundamental knowledge of the different categories of nutrients (protein, fat, etc) and which ingredients contain them.

Second, the overall percentages of “ingredient types” matters. A good Chop Mix should contain roughly 40% grains, 50% vegetables, and 10% other ingredients. By using that formula you stand a better chance of approximating the protein and fat percentages in formulated foods. You also will avoid creating a mix that allows your parrot the opportunity to fill up on things like coconut, nuts and pasta due to their too-high percentage in the mix.

whole grainsThird, the quality of your ingredients matters. The grains used should be in their most natural form, as close to their harvested state as possible. White rice and other refined grains should not be used.

Nor should you include white or vegetable pasta. Cooked and/or sprouted whole grains are best. Vegetables must be in their freshest state and washed carefully.no pasta Additions to control moisture or create greater interest must be chosen very carefully and used sparingly.

I am not going to provide a complete description here of how to make Chop.  You too can Google “chop mix” and find 21 recipes in two minutes.  But I do have some tips for dealing with the excess moisture. I will share with you what works for me. I am able to create a mix my parrots love without sacrificing their nutritional status to the carbohydrate gods.

First, do not include:

  • Vegetables high in water content, such as cucumber, chayote squash, jicama, celery. These can always be added right before serving, once the base mix has been defrosted.
  • Fruit, unless this is freeze dried. Fruit has too much moisture to be included and should be limited in the diet anyway. A few pieces of fruit can be added to a Chop serving right before feeding.

Second, when creating your base mix that you will freeze:

  • Slightly undercook your grains, which will allow them to absorb a bit more moisture once mixed with the vegetables. Sample them yourself to determine doneness. The grains should be tender, but still a bit firm. Do not include mushy grains – these will support more bacterial growth and only contribute to your moisture problem.
  • Allow the grains to thoroughly cool before adding the finely chopped vegetables.
  • Add dry, uncooked pasta that is made from legumes, quinoa, or brown rice. If you’re going to do so, add in a small quantity only. Do not use pasta made from white flour, which includes most “veggie” pastas.TJs mix
  • Add a bag of Trader Joe’s Super Seed & Ancient Grains Blend – this works as well as pasta or better to absorb moisture and adds better nutrition.
  • Add raw, uncooked oat groats or a small amount of rolled grains.

After defrosting and before serving:

  • Cut a tiny corner off of the bottom of the defrosted bag of Chop. Allow the liquid to drain from the bag into a large measuring cup. Store this in the freezer for adding to birdie bread.
  • Add raw hulled hemp seed.
  • Add sprouts – these will continue growing slowly in the food dish or refrigerator, absorbing some moisture.

This is the last Chop Mix that I prepared. It is dry, with individual pieces easily separated from each other.Chop Mix The ingredients I used this time included: kamut (cooked with cinnamon), broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, lightly cooked winter squash, sugar snap peas, green beans, red bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, parsnips, yellow squash, zucchini squash, sprouted white winter wheat, sprouted rye berries, sprouted sunflower seed, sprouted mung beans, sprouted lentils, sprouted millet, sprouted poppy seed, sprouted fenugreek, sprouted buckwheat, sprouted sesame seed, sprouted purple barley, corn kernels, 100% lentil pasta, garbanzo beans (canned and rinsed), raw oat groats and raw hulled hemp seed. IMG_20180829_070837831_LL

Greens and fruit are added right before serving, directly into the dish. This works best since they are such fragile foods.

A final tip: it’s important to limit the size of your servings. You will see that the portion of Chop I provide to my greys, Amazon and Moluccan is relatively small. They each get ¼ level cup of the mix each morning. By limiting the amount served, I further avoid the problem of any bird picking out only what he wants. They are encouraged to eat it all and they still have room for pellets, which they also enjoy. For more information on Chop, please go to Life from Scratch. This article is the best I have ever read about making Chop Mix.

I would love to hear from readers. I’m sure that many of you have better ideas than I do. If we collaborate, I’m sure that the quality of Parrot Chop will only improve for all parrots! Please add a comment to share your thoughts.

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. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!