Parrots and Neophobic Behavior

Photo courtesy of Nyla Copp

I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time that a parrot’s owner has told me that she had given away a playstand or toy that her parrot didn’t like. We’ve all had this experience, right? We bring home a perch or new toy, excited to introduce it to our bird, only to find that she won’t go anywhere near it.

Too often, when seeing this reaction, we assume that the parrot doesn’t like it. Thus, today I want to discuss yet another aspect of parrot behavior that is largely misunderstood – neophobia.

What Is Neophobia?

Neophobia can be defined as an extreme or irrational fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar. Parrots, generally speaking, display neophobic tendencies. This is why they so often reject new things – not because they don’t like them.

This is often blamed upon the fact that parrots are prey animals. However, this assumption is incorrect. This same behavior has been observed in virtually all species of mammals and birds,  including some raptors. (Greenberg, 2003) Many animals show an aversion to novelty.

Neophobia is usually observed in adult parrots. Young parrots tend instead to be neophilic – they eagerly explore new items in their environment. (Greenberg, 2003) When I used to breed African Grey parrots, I often thought of those babies as learning machines. They immediately and joyfully investigated anything new.

Factors Influencing Neophobic Behavior

This behavior has long been observed and studied across species lines, including fish and amphibians among others. However, investigations have been conducted by both psychologists and behavioral ecologists, each from a different perspective. Due to these different orientations, both fields have gathered conflicting results. (Greggor et al, 2015)

That said, however, one conclusion recurs in the research – the level of novelty to which a young parrot is exposed during its early developmental phases has a direct impact upon that same bird’s willingness to accept new things as an adult.

A study done with Orange-winged Amazons confirm this. Interestingly, this study found that exposure to the baby’s parents (parent-rearing vs. hand-rearing vs. co-parenting) had no impact upon later neophobic behavior. It was the level of novelty to which the birds were exposed in early life that had the biggest impact. (Fox, & Millam, 2004)

Another study found that species that typically inhabit more complex habitats, such as the edges of forests, tended to accept novel items more quickly. ( Mettke-Hofmann, 2002 ) Yet another concluded that neophobic responses tended to be lower in wild-caught birds. (Crane, 2017) These findings both underscore the impact of exposure to novelty in early development.

Ramifications of Neophobia for Companion Parrots

This is an important topic because your reaction to your parrots’ neophobic behavior has a big impact upon the quality of life that she will have in the future. If you give away a toy or playstand every time your bird reacts to it with fear, the amount of enrichment she has available will shrink and she will have fewer options for interaction. Fewer choices result in a decreased quality of life.

This can’t be allowed. Now only does it narrow a parrot’s future choices, but anecdotal experience would indicate that having this natural fear response reinforced may create more fear responses in the future. Your parrot will enter a behavioral tunnel.

Further, we have evidence that, once the initial fear response toward an item has been overcome, animals engage in just as much exploration of it as those who showed no fear initially. (University of Lincoln, 2017) This indicates how valuable it can be to a parrot if we are willing to engage in just a little bit of training.

The Necessary Approach

We know that the initial fear of a novel item tends to diminish with exposure. However, it is not acceptable to simply put a new item near to a parrot and expect him to “get over it!”  Using this approach is not ethical and is a form of flooding. As defined by Friedman, “With flooding the subject is presented with the highly feared object or situation which is not removed until the fear diminishes. The response that is prevented in this case is escape.” (Friedman, 2002)

Have you ever heard of The Five Freedoms? This concept was proposed by the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in order to establish guidelines that could be used to assess quality of life. It states that “animals should be free (1) from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, (2) from discomfort, (3) from pain, injury and disease, (4) to express natural behaviors, and (5) from fear and distress.” (Rodríguez-López, 2016)

This was written to be used for farm animals; a similar set of guidelines for companion parrots might be more complex. However, it is of note that freedom from fear and distress has been included along with freedom from injury, pain, and hunger.

It is a primary right of all animals to be free from fear and distress.  Thus, we must use methods other than direct continued exposure to new things without regard for the parrots reaction. Thankfully, we have more ethical, scientifically proven, methods for behavior modification that will help our parrots to overcome this aversion to new things.

The Introduction of New Things

First, I will say that the methods discussed below should be used to introduce items that will create a better quality of life for your parrot by allowing an increased number of choices for interaction – playstands, perches, foraging options, toys, travel carriers, outdoor aviaries, etc.

Other items, not necessary to quality of life, are best avoided. Just don’t bring the helium balloons home. If you must bring a ladder into the house, put the parrot into a different room first. If your friend comes in wearing a baseball cap that scares your parrot, ask him to take if off. Don’t paint your fingernails bright red if you don’t normally wear nail polish. Believe me, none of these things will matter to you in 10 years.

The methods that work best for teaching acceptance of new things are (1) a combination of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC) and (2) Constructional Aversion Treatment. Anyone can learn to use these techniques to successfully introduce new enrichment items, all the while allowing the bird to maintain a distress-free experience. All that is required are patience and persistence and the ability to read body language.

Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC) are usually used in combination with each other. However in some cases, such as the introduction of a new toy, desensitization may be all that is required.

Systematic desensitization is training during which your parrot is exposed to an item at a level at or below which fear is displayed.   In other words, “the bird is slowly presented with tolerable amounts or durations of the feared object or condition. The bird is never allowed to experience a high level of fear.” (Friedman, 2002) For example, the distance between the parrot and the object might be decreased as the parrot’s body language suggests that the closer proximity of the item no longer elicits fear.

Counter conditioning is used to change the parrot’s attitude toward a feared item by pairing it with something of value, such as a preferred food. In other words, through this pairing the bird learns to regard the new item as something that is desirable. The result of this training is that the previously fearful response is completely resolved and your bird will continue to interact happily with this item in the future.

Example: Introduction of a New Toy

You have a new toy that you want to hang in the cage, but as soon as your parrot sees it he leans away, obviously scared of it. You can use desensitization to introduce it successfully:

  • Hold the toy no higher than about chest height where it is visible to your parrot and move far enough away that he shows no signs of fear.
  • Slowly walk toward him, one step at a time, carefully observing his body language.
  • At the first sign of alarm, stop approaching and take one step backward.
  • Put the toy somewhere at that distance, at a level below your parrot’s typical perching height, so that he can easily see it. (A TV tray works well for this.)
  • Every day or so, move the toy a little closer to your parrot. If you ever see a sign of alarm when you do so, put the toy back at the last distance and allow your bird to look at it a little longer at that proximity.
  • When you’ve been able to move the toy right next to the cage, hang it on the outside of the cage down low.
  • Move it up to the middle of the cage, still on the outside.
  • Move it up to the height at which you would like to eventually have the toy.
  • Move the toy inside the cage.

It is vital that you observe your bird’s body language carefully during this process and that you use the information you collect to adopt a “red light, green light” approach. Any sign of distress from your bird serves as a red light – you go back to the last proximity. Comfortable body language is your green light to leave it at that distance.

This is an example in which counter conditioning may not be necessary. If your bird regularly plays with other toys, we might assume that he would accept this one for interaction once he is comfortable having it in his enclosure. At this point, interacting with the toy itself would be reinforcing.

Example: Introduction of a New Playstand

Desensitization to a new playstand can be accomplished in the same manner, if space limitations allow for this. In other words, you would move the stand closer and closer to the cage as your parrot’s body language allowed you to do so.

Photo courtesy of David Hull

If they did not, you must still begin by having the stand in the same room for a period that allows your parrot to become comfortable with its appearance.

If you were able to gradually move the stand right up next to the cage, as in the toy example, counter conditioning can be quite simple. You can place interesting toys, along with a variety of highly valued food items, on the stand and simply allow your parrot to explore it on his own. At this point, you should be able to locate the stand anywhere and have the ability to place your parrot onto it. (As an aside, travel carriers can be introduced in the same way.)

If space limitations do not allow for this type of introduction, you can quite easily counter condition your parrot to accept the new stand, as long as your parrot steps up without reserve. Try it this way:

  • First, make sure that the stand is located far enough away from your parrot that he shows no fear of it.
  • Ask your parrot to step up and offer a highly valued food item that is small in size (no bigger than about the size of ½ pine nut or smaller).
  • After he eats it, take a step closer to the playstand and watch his body language carefully.
    • If he reacts in any way that indicates distress, move back to your initial spot and spend a few more minutes at that distance, simply offering one treat after another.
    • If he shows no distress, spend a minute or two there, offering treats.
  • Take another step closer and repeat this process until you can get all the way up to the playstand. (This will likely not occur all in one training session, but that’s fine; simply pick up where you left off the next time.)
  • When you have been able to walk all the way up to the playstand, you can begin to teach him to step onto it. At this point, you may find that your progress slows a bit; this is natural – stepping up onto it requires more from your parrot than simply walking towards it!
  • Hold your treat at a point such that your parrot just has to lean over the stand in order to reach it. Do this enough times that you see no hesitation at all to perform this behavior.
  • Next, hold the treat at such a distance that your bird has to just put one foot onto the stand in order to reach it. Again, repeat this enough times that your parrot is 100% comfortable.
  • Now, move the treat just enough that your parrot can’t reach it unless he has to step onto the stand with both feet. As soon as he does, allow him to come right back to your hand – don’t expect him to spend any time there yet!
  • Now begins another phase – making sure that he’s comfortable staying there. Some parrots might immediately be quite comfortable on the new stand; others may take a bit of convincing.
  • Therefore, gradually ask your parrot to spend first one minute, then two, then three…and so on, standing on the new perch. Use your “red light, green light” approach. Feed reinforcers the whole time he stays there.
  • At some point, your parrot will happily step onto the new stand and enjoy spending time there.

Congratulations! What you have accomplished is huge! Your parrot now has one more location in which to comfortably perch, a really big improvement in his quality of life.

Constructional Aversion Treatment (CAT)

I mentioned this training technique previously, in my blog post about Dash, an extremely aggressive dog. This approach was originally called Constructional Aggression Treatment, but is equally effective for the resolution of fearful behavior.

From the few resources I find, I might conclude that it is still not widely recognized for the incredibly fast results it can produce when implemented correctly. I include it here because it is so incredibly helpful in a wide variety of contexts to fairly quickly make significant progress. I have very successfully used it to address fearful behavior toward the owner herself, fear of hands, fear of new toys and fear of new perches.

One caveat: it may be best if you seek the help of a behavior professional before attempting to use this strategy. It requires more sensitivity to and accuracy in reading body language, than the methods of DS/CC explained above. I have consulted remotely with clients in using this and found that some struggled due to difficulties reading body language. This was corrected when they provided videos for my review. Another pair of eyes was necessary for success. Thus, your best chance with this is to have a coach.   

Example: Introduction of a New Toy Using CAT

  • Hold the toy in a spot where it is clearly visible to the parrot, but lower than she is perched. Make sure that the spot you choose elicits no signs of distress in your bird toward the toy. If you do see a fearful reaction, move back until this dissipates completely.
  • Take one step toward your parrot and observe body language.
  • If she looks completely relaxed, take another step.
  • Continue in this way until you do see a reaction. The goal is to be so observant that you catch the earliest signs of alarm – perhaps she stands up a little straighter or looks a bit more intensely at the toy. (If she moves away from you, it’s likely that you missed earlier signs.)
  • When you see this reaction, stay put and don’t move but continue to observe body language.
  • Watch for any sign of increased comfort – an eye blink, turn of the head, more relaxed body posture or feather position.
  • When you see this, immediately turn and walk back to your original position.
  • Approach again, using this same technique, repeatedly during a single training session. If you are doing this correctly, you will find that you are able to approach closer with each repetition or two, while your parrot remains distress-free.
  • When you can walk with the toy right up to the parrot, you will likely be able to simply put it directly into the cage.

Example: Introduction of a New Playstand Using CAT

  • This might, on the surface, appear similar to the counter conditioning approach described above. However, the significant difference is that no food reinforcers are used.
  • With the parrot on your hand, begin at a distance from the perch at which your bird shows no signs of concern.
  • Approach slowly, one step at a time, carefully observing body language.
  • Stop at the very first sign of alarm.
  • Watch for any slight indication of reduced distress/ more relaxation and immediately walk back to your starting position.
  • Repeat using the same technique until you are able to walk all the way up to the perch.
  • At this point, you can begin to use reinforcers to teach the parrot to step onto it, as described previously.

Conclusion

Neophobia is normal behavior for any adult parrot. Therefore, we should anticipate fearful reactions to new things.

That said, however, it is not difficult to introduce new toys, perches and other items to parrots if the correct approaches are used. Best methods always minimize the parrot’s stress levels during the process.

For ethical reasons, as well as those related to quality of life, we should never (1) force a new object into a parrot’s space when signs are evident that this is causing distress, nor (2) eliminate objects from the parrot’s environment if these have the chance of creating greater quality of life once accepted.

Systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, and Constructional Aversion Treatment are all effective methods for addressing the typical neophobia so often seen in parrots.  These methods can be used by anyone, but best success may be achieved with an experienced behavior professional guiding your efforts. If you want to go it alone, your success will be dependent upon accurate assessment of your own parrot’s body language and responding appropriately.

References:

Crane, Adam L & Ferrari Maud C.O. 2017. “Patterns of predator neophobia: a meta-analytic review.” 284. Proc. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0583

Fox, Rebbecca A & Millam, James R. 2004. “The Effect of Early Environment on Neophobia in Orange-winged Amazon Parrots (Amazona amazonica).” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 89, 117-129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2004.05.002

Friedman, Susan G. “Alternatives to Parrot Breaking.” Behavior Works. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/Alternatives%20to%20Parrot%20Breaking%202002.pdf

Greenberg, R. 2003. “The Role of Neophobia and Neophilia in the Development of Innovative Behavior of Birds.” Chapter 8. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/8197/85f5c7eb-2e6f-4cac-9707-e49215495ca6.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Greggor, Alison L, Thornton, Alex & Clayton, Nicola S. 2015. “Neophobia is not only avoidance: improving neophobia tests by combining cognition and ecology.” Science Direct, 6, 82-89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.10.007

Mettke-Hofmann, Claudia, Winkler, Hans & Leisler, Bernd. (2002). “The Significance of Ecological Factors for Exploration and Neophobia in Parrots.” Ethology, v.108, 249-272 (2002). 108. 10.1046/j.1439-0310.2002.00773.x.

Rodríguez-López, R. (2016). “Environmental enrichment for parrot species: Are we squawking up the wrong tree?” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 180, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.016

University of Lincoln. (2017). “Touchscreen test reveals why some birds are quicker to explore than others.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2019 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170710103435.htm

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots and offer behavior consultations to that end. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Parrots, Flight, and Play Behavior

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

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

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

The Functions of Play Behavior

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

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

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

Flighted Fledgling and the Adult Parrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Update

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

Morning Coffee with Ellie

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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


Morning Coffee with Ellie

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

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

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

No Schedule Needed!

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

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

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

Simple Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

Enter, Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Update

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

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

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

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


What Needs to Be Said

What needs to be said is that no matter how hard we try to provide the right environment when hand raising parrots, we can never provide every essential thing chicks need to grow into well-adapted and well-adjusted psittacines.

Star with one of her parents

I hand-raised cockatoos in the distant past and I now advocate for letting parrot parents do the job. I realize my advocacy is like telling a screaming parrot to be quiet, as this is usually ignored and the screaming continues. 

However, I will press on to champion for the right of captive parrots to raise their own offspring. Watching Star, a fourteen-week-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, flourish under her parents’ care underlines for me how important it is for young parrots to be educated by their parents.

Let’s look at some contrasts I’m finding between parent-raised and hand-raised cockatoos using fledgling Star and my own hand-raised birds as examples.

Foraging

Before cleaning the cockatoos’ aviaries the other day, I put up various browse for Star and her parents and the hand-raised cockatoos to forage upon.  I was amazed at the length of foraging activity Star and her parents displayed. The full two hours I cleaned, they were actively engaged, ferreting through the offerings finding leaves, seed heads, or berries that suited their fancies.

Star forages on garden-grown millet spray.

In the “hand raised” aviary there was initial interest in the browse, but that ended quickly as the interest was instead focused on me by landing on my shoulder or by watching what I was doing from a perch. The only bird who kept at the job of foraging in the hand-raised flock was Ritzie, who was parent- raised.

This diligent foraging activity of the family certainly shouldn’t be unexpected or surprising; after all, we are all primed by our evolution to forage for food. Even though parrots and people are endowed with an inherent drive to search for food, we must learn to how to successfully do so. Having models to learn from is the easiest and most efficient way to develop and master foraging skills. In Star’s case, her teachers are her parents.

Star forages on rose hips with her parents.

And it’s just not parrots who learn from their parents, as the following example shows. Dr. Courchesne, a veterinarian, who teaches biology at Northern Essex Community College explains:

Late August is high time for harassment [of people by gulls],” she said, “because the young have fledged and their adult parents take them to foraging spots, which include beaches and boardwalks, to find food and to teach them the ropes. The gulls, like the humans, bring their whole families. They’re being so pushy for food because they’re such committed parents,” she said.[i]

While people at the boardwalk have learned to forage for their food from snack bars (and are, no doubt, teaching their kids to do the same), gulls have learned how to forage on the food people carry away from the snack bars. Thankfully, Bebe and Flash are not teaching Star to swoop down and steal a sandwich from me, but they are certainly teaching her which foods are tasty and where to find them in the aviary.

Most hand-raised fledglings are at a disadvantage when it comes to foraging. They typically do not have an adult conspecific or even a parrot of another species to model foraging behavior; or, if they do, the adult parrot may not have learned all the fine skills of foraging or developed the motivation to search for food other than from a food bowl.

I found many common refrains on foraging and the companion parrot with a quick online search that reflected the following: Be persistent! Pet birds often require repeated encouragement until foraging becomes a way of life. In fact, many hand-raised bird will give up relatively easily when they cannot find food right away.

I personally have experienced the above statement with my own hand- raised birds. I was lax at enriching the fledglings’ environment with browse or toys many years ago and, as a result, those adult birds illustrate a lack of foraging interest today. Some of the flyers don’t bother to seek foraging opportunities even when out free flying.

The free flyers forage in the garden.

That said, the cockatoos are intelligent and inquisitive animals and over the years some have learned foraging behavior from interacting with foraging toys or from finding sunflowers and millet grown in the garden. Here, though, it must be said that they take a lot of their cues from watching the parent-raised flyers raid the garden.

Socialization

When one thinks of a socialized companion parrot, usually what comes to mind is a parrot who is nice to people; that is, she is a friendly, malleable bird who is not fearful of us or our environment. The parrot has been taught to behave in a manner that is acceptable in our human community and way of life. On the whole, hand-raising a parrot does accomplish those goals, if done with skill and compassion.

Socialization, the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, does take place with the parent-raised parrot of course. However, it is a socialization of another sort, in that the parents are teaching their young to behave in ways that are acceptable to parrot society.

Unfortunately, many hand-raised parrots miss out on this opportunity. The effect of this missed education sometimes manifests in a parrot who is afraid of other psittacines, or shows no interest in parrots, or may not have a clue as to how to behave successfully with others.

In Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance states: “…organisms are especially likely to learn a particular kind of behavior at one point in their lives, these stages for optimum learning are referred to as critical periods.[ii] With that in mind, my goal, with her parents’ help, is to teach Star to be successful in both human and parrot society at this critical period in her development.

As always, it is engrossing watching Bebe and Flash teach young Star how to be a proper cockatoo. And they don’t always use positive reinforcement methods when teaching Star about correct cockatoo etiquette. For example, Bebe will quickly give Star a strong bop with her beak if Star muscles in on food Bebe doesn’t want to share.

Star forages alongside her neighbors.

Star is further taught about cockatoo conduct by the cockatoos who live in the next door aviary. Even though they do not physically interact with Star, no doubt she is learning much about cockatoo socialization from observing the behaviors the others exhibit. For instance, she has become quite comfortable munching beak to beak (separated by the aviary wire, of course) with her neighbors as they all take advantage of a picnic of browse that is offered them in the same locale.

On first look this may seem inconsequential, but indeed learning to be near other non-familial cockatoos provides important lessons. Not only is she learning that other cockatoos can exist together amiably, she may pick up a new tip or two by watching how they forage.

At this juncture in Star’s life she is learning how to behave in cockatoo society, but not yet in human society. At Star’s age, a hand-raised cockatoo would be far advanced in knowing how to succeed with people. My goal is to teach Star how to succeed in my community and, with the help of her parents, in her community. This education will give Star effective skills for navigating both worlds.

She’s already on her way by learning that people can offer her good things. She watches as her parents get goodies on their training perches from me as well as from people they do not know.

Star looks on as her parents accept treats from visitors.

I interact with her parents daily. She sees the calm behavior her parents exhibit when I’m with them and that is a valuable visual lesson for her. I’m excited by the progress she is making as she is getting physically closer to me each time I am in the aviary.

Star eats on the training perch quite near to Chris, following her parents’ example.

Star’s learning and behavior development and comparing that progression with the behaviors of my hand-raised cockatoos is a fascinating, stimulating, and humbling journey that I invite you, the reader, to continue to join me on as I discuss more observations and dichotomies in my next blog.

[i] James Gorman, In Defense of Gulls, New York Times, 8/24/2019.

[ii] Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth, 2003) pg. 434.

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

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


a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

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

 

Essential Guide to Communicating with Parrots

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

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

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

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

Behavior Problems = Communication Problems

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We Listen to a Parrot?

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

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

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

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

Reading Body Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parrots and Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting the Eyes

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

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

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

Interpreting Feather Position

Loose feathers = more relaxed

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

Heightened Arousal

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

Interpreting Body Position

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

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

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

Signs of Well-being or Happiness

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

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

Expressions of Interest

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

Signs of Disinterest

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

Signs of Surprise or Alarm

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

Signs of Fear or Aversion

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

Signs of Heightened Arousal

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

Signs of Anger (“Go Away!”)

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

Signs of Sexual Interest or Romantic Love

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

Putting It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

Our Own Body Language

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

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

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

Communicating with Parrots

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

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

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

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

Living as a Trainer

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

Remember:

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Ellie

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

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

Early Preparations

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

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

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

Early Lessons

Behavior I was used to….

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

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

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

End of the “Honeymoon Period”

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

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

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

Signs of Trouble

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

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

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

My Behavior-Change Plan

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

Using a target to remove Ellie from her cage.

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

Targeting with Ellie

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

Environmental Modifications

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

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

Changes to the Daily Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

The Latest News

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

Baby Star has fledged! She is on the right.

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

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

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

Just for Fun!

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

Release from the Aviary

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

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

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