Risk Factors for Feather Damaging Behavior

I had the honor last summer of listening to Dr. Susan G. Friedman give a lecture on control. What she had to say blew my mind and I continue to be as excited today by the ideas presented then – not only because what I heard was new, but because they reverberated within me as truth.  

Susan with my dog Rika

To paraphrase what Dr. Friedman had to say:

Behavior is the way that we control outcomes. When we behave, we move the environment in such a way that we are able to access reinforcers (things we value) and escape aversives (things we want to avoid).

When we, or any animal, performs a behavior, it is like tossing a stone into a river. A ripple is created. There is no way not to create a ripple when tossing the stone, just like there is no way not to influence the environment when we behave.

Learning is what we were born to do and the ability to learn is a product of natural selection. It is in our nature to control our outcomes. Therefore, the need for control is a part of our biology. There is a biological need for control. Therefore, control is a primary reinforcer, as vital to our parrot’s quality of life as food or water.

Control is a Biological Need

We know that all animals exercise control by making choices. I have argued for years that by increasing the number of choices that our parrots are able to make, we are increasing their quality of life.

Lauren A. Leotti and her co-authors expand upon this idea by saying, “Belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s well-being. It has been repeatedly argued that the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity.” They go on to state that “the restriction of choice is aversive.” (Leotti, 2010)

Lack of Control is Aversive

Not only is it aversive, it can result in the condition of learned helplessness. This is a state of behavior in which the animal stops even trying to make choices. How many times have we described a parrot as a “perch potato?” The perch potato is manifesting a version of learned helplessness.

Expanding upon this idea, they write: “In the absence of other stressors, however, the removal of choice, in and of itself, can be very stressful. It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress. It seems that the aversive effects of captivity may depend upon the extent to which behavioral choices have been reduced relative to what could be performed in the natural environment.” (Leotti, 2010)

New Perceptions

In the past few years, I have come to see our parrot-keeping practices in a new light. We have taken flighted spirits, clipped their wings, and put them in cages. Many parrots spend all of their time in their cage, or have at most, one or two hours out each day. We have taken away their liberty, which is essential for exercising choice.

If we kept dogs in a similar manner, rendering them unable to move in a way natural to them and keeping them in kennels for 22 hours every day, it would be considered abuse. However, these practices are still commonplace in the parrot world, rarely being brought into question. We appear unable to judge the inappropriateness of these practices since they have been accepted as normal for so long.

The Problem with Conventional Wisdom

Peter Hitchens Quote

The explanation for this lies in the phenomenon called conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is a collection of beliefs that are convenient and comfortable to people, such that they are able to resist facts that might diminish those very beliefs. (Wikipedia, 2019) I once heard someone say: A belief is an emotional commitment to an idea. As soon as you have a belief, you are automatically in denial in regards to any information that comes to you to the contrary.

Our conventional wisdom, when it comes to our companion parrots, is causing them harm. Dr. Friedman stated in her presentation, “A lack of control is a major risk factor for feather damaging behavior.” I could not agree more.

Feather Damaging Behavior

I have specialized in helping clients whose birds damage their feathers since 1996 and have given considerable thought to the causes. The list of non-medical causes I compiled years ago in an article for the World Parrot Trust included (1) inappropriate diet, (2) chronic stress or anxiety, (3) increased production of reproductive hormones, (4) lack of independent play skills that leads to boredom or over-dependence on the owner, (5) inadequate bathing opportunities, (6) lack of adequate rest, (7) insufficient exercise, (8) insufficient opportunity for learning and making choices, (9) lack of foraging and other “discovery” opportunities, (10) lack of access to fresh air and sunshine, and (11) foreign substances on feathers or exposure to toxic materials, such as cigarette smoke.

Today, my list reads as follows:

  • Chronic stress resulting from lack of choice making opportunities, especially as this relates to natural behaviors (foraging, flying, bathing, problem solving, enjoying fresh air and sunshine), and an overall lack of liberty and control
  • Inappropriate diet
  • Increased production of reproductive hormones
  • Inferior juvenile rearing conditions

I had two experiences this past year that appear to support my new view. Two female greys that I raised close to 20 years ago needed a change of homes. One came back to me to stay and the other went to a client of mine. Both greys had previously enjoyed really good homes – they had large cages, were flighted, ate nutritious diets, got plenty of enrichment, and had access to outdoor aviaries. However, they both spent too many hours in their cages.

One of the New Environments

Both had extensive feather damage over their torsos at the time of rehoming. Now, both are fully feathered. In their current homes, they still have cages, but they enjoy a great deal more liberty, which results in the ability to make choices at an exponential rate. Both birds also had the advantage of excellent early rearing experiences and wonderful first homes. It appears that greater control over choices was the one factor that was significantly different in these new homes.

Unethical Practices Harm Us as Well

Given the above, it should be clear that the typical manner in which we keep parrots is destructive to their physical and psychological health. However, it harms us as well.

How are we harmed by our own behavior? We fail to appreciate that depriving a captive parrot of the ability to move around at choice, to fly, has an ethical component. Therefore, we are able to behave unethically while still maintaining a positive self-image.

However, there are many who are uncomfortable on some level. A good many clients have confided to me that they feel terrible that their parrots live in cages and display behaviors consistent with learned helplessness. This requires action.

Feasible Changes

Conventional wisdom is resistant to change.   So, how can we begin? Where do we start?

Grand sweeping gestures are prone to failure. It is not feasible to abandon the use of cages or release them all out “into the wild.”

This is a complex subject and behavior is a study of one. This true both for us and our birds. What is possible in one home may not be possible in another.

However, as Kurtyca suggests, “…although we cannot offer them complete control over all aspects of their environment, perhaps by offering choices within the confines of captivity, we can give some small amount of control, and thus increase their wellbeing.” (Kurtycz, 2015)

“One of the putative sources of stress in captivity is interference with or prevention of animals’ engagement in species-typical behaviors for which they appear to have a ‘‘behavioral need.’’(Morgan, 2006)

Species-typical Behaviors

Might this be the best place to begin our efforts? Species-typical behaviors for parrots include flying, foraging and problem solving, social interactivity, perching up high, chewing wood and other materials, bathing, interacting with the natural environment, and mating and rearing young.

It is only the last that we cannot afford to encourage in the companion parrot home. When we have done so in the past, most often the results have been disastrous.

Flight

As I have argued many times, wings should never be clipped unless absolutely necessary and certainly not for human convenience. Instead, our own homes and behavior must be modified in order to support their flighted status.

Foraging and Other Enrichment

If a parrot did not learn to forage when young, he will not understand the concept of hidden food. This then will need to be patiently taught. In regards to other enrichment, a wide variety of chewable items can be provided – cloth, palm frond toys, wood that is easy to chew, cardboard and paper, bells. A parrot regains a bit of control over his environment when he can choose the items with which he interacts.

The Natural Environment

I no longer regard as optional the provision of a safe space outdoors where a parrot can enjoy the natural environment. Notice that I used italics for the word “safe.”

I did so because there are problems with putting birds outdoors in carriers or cages. The small dimensions of both may cause stress, since the parrot perceives a lack of ability for escape should a predator be seen. The width of cage bars could allow a predator access to the parrot. Both must be used only with close supervision.

An aviary is, of course, the ideal. However, if this is not possible, other options must be considered. The stimulation of natural sunshine and breezes not only encourages good psychological health, the exposure to sunlight encourages good physical health.

Social Connectivity

We can offer a captive parrot greater control over his social interactions when we watch his body language carefully and then create greater distance if the signs indicate that this is his desire. We can decrease his stress by leaving plenty of room between the cages if multiple parrots of different species reside in one home.

We might also call into question the practice of keeping a single parrot. They are flocking creatures and, while they might be flexible enough to regard us and our other pets as a member of their flock, a single parrot often benefits from another bird in the home. No one should, however, get another parrot unless they want one.

Access to Height

We can increase his perception of control by allowing him to perch up high, where he feels safer. This is accomplished by installing hanging perches in the ceiling.

Placing area rugs below will contain the mess, and reinforcing cued behaviors will ensure that you can retrieve him.

Training Offers Control

One of the best ways we can give back control to a parrot is to live as a trainer, by providing frequent opportunities for earning reinforcers. Positive reinforcement training is the gold standard for behavior change. It provides enrichment. It makes our lives easier. It helps us learn to read body language.

There are many reasons to train a parrot. However, the greatest of these is that it affords the parrot a sense of control. He has control over his ability to access the things he desires. Here are a few specific things you might begin to do:

  • Begin to teach specific behaviors, like targeting.
  • Offer your parrot a reinforcer (small piece of preferred food) for every cued behavior.
  • Embrace the SMART x 50 approach to encouraging desirable behavior.

Kathy Sdao, ACAAB, owns Bright Spot Dog Training and developed the SMART x 50 program. Although published for dogs, this can easily by applied to parrot behavior. SMART is the acronym for See, Mark And Reward Training. The numeral 50 refers to the goal of dispensing 50 reinforcers a day. (I think this amount may be excessive for a parrot, unless you can factor in some healthy choices.)

SMART x 50

This program encourages owners to get into the habit of awareness regarding the desirable behaviors that their parrots perform on a daily basis. It relies on the assumption that every bird already performs many desirable behaviors during the course of any day and that we can strengthen these and increase quality of life for our birds in the process.

These are the steps:

  • Count out 50 very small (no bigger than ½ the size of a pine nut), desirable treats.
  • Put these in a pocket or small container for easy access.
  • When you see or hear your parrot perform a cute or desirable behavior, mark this with one distinct word, such as “Yes!” (Examples: desirable noises, singing, interacting with enrichment, responding to cues such as “step up.”)
  • Deliver the treat.
  • Use up to 50 treats a day, but don’t feel badly if 10 are all you are able to dispense.

In using this, I have seen a distinct change in all of my animals. They become more interactive and enthusiastic in their demeanor. And, don’t be surprised if yours begin to toss out some new behaviors, just to see if those might also earn something.

The Next Decade

Jacques Deval once wrote “God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.”

Although true, I think this is a horrible little quote. Perhaps I find it so because of the truth he spoke. Let’s put the lie to those words in the next decade and strive for practices that allow for more liberty and control for our parrots. Each of us can just take one reasonable, do-able step at a time.

References:

Kurtycz, Laura M. (2015) “Choice and Control for Animals in Captivity.” The British Psychological Society, The Psychologist.28: 892-895https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/november-2015/choice-and-control-animals-captivity

Leotti, Lauren A., Iyengar, Sheena S., Ochsner, Kevin N. (2010) “Born to Choose: The Origine and Value of the Need for Control.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 14.10: 457-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001

Morgan, Kathleen N. and Tromborg, Chris. (2006). “Sources of Stress in Cativity.” Science Direct.102: 262-302. https://www.reed.edu/biology/professors/srenn/pages/teaching/2008_syllabus/2008_readings/1_MorganTromborg2008.pdf

Wikipedia contributors. (2019). Conventional wisdom. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:18, January 13, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conventional_wisdom&oldid=931490544

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. 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.

Star Continues Her Education

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

I get a rush watching my cockatoos fly. They burst from their aviaries and pop up in the air like deflating balloons zipping every which way as they shoot into the sky. It’s easy to spot Star, Flash and Bebe’s recently fledged Bare-eyed Cockatoo youngster, among the flyers. She flips, swerves, and surges with glee, adding pizzaz to the flock as she ascends upward. It’s contagious as the others soon follow suit with extra liveliness in their own flight maneuvers. It’s glorious to watch!

Important Lessons

But enough gaiety. It’s time to get serious. Star needs to learn the code of manners and skills that will please her harrumphing human companions. Here’s a partial list a well-rounded companion cockatoo needs to accomplish:

  • Understand people are good things
  • Target
  • Hands and fingers are not targets for a busy beak
  • Step up on cue
  • Recall on cue
  • Station on perch

The first lesson in the curriculum is the most important and Star accomplished it early on. From fledge, she has watched her parents eagerly take pine nuts, sunflower seeds and other goodies from any person who offers them. As she became more comfortable with the world outside her nest box and as she started to eat on her own, she overcame her natural wariness and now eagerly joins her parents on the perch waiting for goodies.

An Enthusiastic Learner

Star is an enthusiastic, motivated learner. She’s excited when lessons begin. In fact, she is so eager she needs to learn some self-control. In the video below, she’s so excited she can’t stay on the perch.

Star takes me by surprise.

Star Learns to Target

Learning to touch a target stick assists with that. It helps her focus on the task at hand. Touching a target and being reinforced for doing so gives her a reason to stay put instead of flitting off on a whim or being distracted with other activities.

Targeting teaches her that actions she chooses to do when asked have consequences—good consequences. If she touches a target presented to her, bingo, she gets a treat! This is an easy behavior for a young, curious, clever cockatoo to accomplish.

Star’s first target.

Learning Good Manners

Good manners warrant taking treats politely from our hands. Star’s curiosity about novel objects is natural and helps her learn about her world. At her young age, human hands are objects that are both a little scary and intriguing. In order to figure out what this fleshy thing is, she bites, nibbles, and pokes at my hand with wariness and inquisitiveness.

Star needs to understand that humans are fragile creatures and don’t appreciate their hands being explored by parrots’ beaks—ouch! She was conflicted when I first presented my open hand full of seeds to her. She wanted to explore it with beak nibbles, and at the same time bite it to make it go away.

Pat Anderson presents a treat.

After some negotiating, with treats as reinforcers, we came to a compromise. I hold the sunflower seed in the tips of my fingers far enough away that she has to reach for it. This gives her less ability to bite and more motivation to take the treat gently. It worked.

Learning to Recall

Recalling on cue was pretty easy for Star to achieve as she had watched her parents do it many times. The first time I asked her to fly to my hand she landed with uncertainty bouncing a few times as she did. Having treats available convinced her quickly that flying to my hand is a good thing.

Star’s first recall.

Star Learns to Step Up

Stepping up for a parrot can sometimes be more frightening and challenging than asking him to fly to the hand. One reason is possibly having one’s hand right in front of the parrot can be intimidating for him. Of course, depending on the individual, there can be a multitude of reasons for a parrot’s hesitancy to step up.

In Star’s case, it was a new sensation having my open “step-up” hand so close to her body. Luring her with tasty delights induced her to put one foot on my hand which activated the treat dispenser. It wasn’t long before she readily stepped up when asked.

Star steps up.

Learning to Station

Training a parrot to station, essentially staying on a perch, play stand, cage top, or any preferred area, is important for a number of reasons. In the home, stations can help a bird stay away from possibly unsafe areas. Another reason, of course, is keeping parts of the home safe from the parrot! A station, such as a perch, can be used for a specific activity such as training. And it is for that last reason I wanted Star to learn to station.

Star was introduced early to stationing on a perch by her parents. When in the aviary, the parents fly to the perch where training takes place. Star didn’t immediately fly to the perch with them if I was in the aviary. It did take time. At the start, I put treats in the feed bowl attached to the perch as Star watched and then I left the aviary. It wasn’t long before Star flew to the perch to eat the treats when I was in her presence. 

Station training

Our training progressed to where Star would stay on the perch as I put food in the bowl. That’s when we were off and running with our training sessions. The perch is such a magnet for Star and her family that they readily assemble on it for class while flying outside their enclosure.

Station training with cued recall.

The training I have done with Star is helping her mature into a confident, self-assured, and friendly cockatoo. When out free flying with her family she will sometimes peel away from her parents, seek me out, and attempt to land on me. I don’t kid myself that she does this out of the love she has for me. Let’s be honest, she seeks me out because she recognizes me as a resource of good things to eat.

With positive reinforcement training comes trust. Star knows I will indulge her with any manner of tasty tidbits and that’s fine with me. Star may not grow to “love” me, but she is certainly learning to trust me. That trust will increase and flourish creating between us a supportive and favorable relationship that will endure into the future. That’s all in the world I could ask for.

Star recalls by herself.

I describe my training sessions with Star not to point out that I am a great  trainer of parent-raised cockatoos. I am not and I have oodles of training blooper videos to prove it.

Instead, I recount them to emphasize that anyone with positive reinforcement training experience, even a little, can assist parent-reared parrots in becoming successful companion birds with strong, reliable, and enthusiastic connections to their people; and, most crucially, do so without sacrificing the welfare and identity of young parrots and their parents. With her parents upbringing and care, Star will forever identify as a cockatoo with all the native and unaffected qualities nature intended.

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

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


The Introduction of a New Parrot

My best Christmas gift this year is Chuckie. Chuckie is the sixth African Grey to join my flock for good, although a few others have come and gone. He is approximately 11 years old and has been cared for well by a friend of mine.

She didn’t used to be a friend. She was a client who brought Chuckie in annually to the vet clinic at which I worked. I was always her technician and we grew fond of each other over the years.

At one point, she began asking me if I would adopt Chuckie when she died. I said “No.” She continued to make the request each year when I saw her, and I finally agreed to foster Chuckie while I tried to find him a home. At some point, she must have caught me in a weak moment, and I did agree finally to adopt him myself. That was several years ago.

This December, age, health and other concerns forced a move for her to be closer to family and it wasn’t possible to take Chuckie. The decision was an agonizing one, as it so often is when anyone surrenders a beloved parrot. But, there really was not a choice when it came right down to it. And, now Chuckie is mine.

This change is a big adjustment for Chuckie. He is used to living with his best friend in their home – just the two of them. Now he lives with me, whom he knows just a little, and five goofball African Greys and assorted other parrots.

Now he must not only navigate a new friendship with me, but learn to live alongside other birds as well – something he has never done. A parrot who has always lived with humans can find this to be a considerable challenge. Chuckie speaks English very well, but doesn’t know anything about speaking African Grey.

Behavior is a Study of One

Many people ask about the best way to introduce a parrot into your home, expecting a set of simple instructions. Years ago, the oft-repeated advice was to leave a new parrot in his cage for three days to allow him to “acclimate” to your home before you allowed him out to interact. That might be appropriate for some parrots, for others it could be punishing.

Behavior is a study of one. I don’t know who first said that. I am repeating it here because this is one of the most important things you will ever learn. Generalizations, such as the advice to leave a new bird in the cage for three days, will never serve you well.

Every parrot brings with him a different learning history, in addition to differences dictated by genetics. Further, his behavior in your home will differ from the behavior he displayed in his previous home, especially if that was a rescue organization.

Even small environment changes can have a significant impact upon a parrot’s behavior. When it comes to changing homes, a total environment change, the impact on a bird can be huge in the short term. Therefore, the behavior you may have observed in his last living situation may not be the behavior that you see once you get him home.

Before You Bring Him Home

Prior to bringing a new adult parrot home, it’s important to collect as much information as possible about his past. Does he choose to fly? What are his favorite treats? What diet has he been eating? What are his favorite toys? Does he show fear of anything? Ask as many questions as you can that are pertinent to your home and family.

When it comes to information about diet and environment, you can use this to make your new parrot feel as comfortable as possible. You can use his favorite foods for motivation and teaching. You can provide his favorite toys to ensure some level of continuity. You will certainly offer the diet he is used to eating.

Try to keep as many things the same in this regard during your early weeks with him. You can always improve his diet and get him a better cage once he’s more comfortable.

When it comes to information told to you about his behavior, you will not be able to rely upon this to be true. It offers you a starting point only, and the information that you collect by observing the parrot yourself will be much more important.

For one thing, when people relinquish a parrot, they often lie. We are all human, and if you want to get rid of an animal, you are not going to highlight their problem behaviors when speaking to a potential adopter.

Additionally, the previous owner may not know how to interpret body language and, therefore, may not really know or understand the parrot with whom they have lived. In these cases, the information they provide may not be helpful. So, when you finally get your new bird home, you may be in for some surprises.

Have in Mind Some Future Goals

As I anticipate the addition of any parrot into my home, I always have in the back of my mind a set of goals. These goals represent all of the activities that I believe are vital to good emotional, mental, and physical health:

  • Eating a varied, nutritionally complete diet
  • Time spent foraging
  • Chewing wood and other materials
  • Bathing
  • Learning new things
  • Acceptance of a variety of alternate perching sites
  • Enjoying an outdoor aviary
  • Compliance with my requests for handling
  • The development of better flight skills (if possible post clip)
  • Peaceful co-existence with the other birds
  • A minimum of noise
  • A lack of aggression

The Early Days of Introduction

When a new parrot joins our home, we must suspend whatever arbitrary agenda we might have previously entertained and instead support the parrot’s process for integration into the family. A parrot’s innately social nature will move him to incorporate himself into whatever social structure exists. All we have to do is to provide support and guidance.

How do we do that? We observe body language and respond appropriately. Parrots are great communicators. All we have to do is to be good listeners and to take our cues from the new parrot.

Generating Specific Goals

When a new parrot arrives in my house, my approach is two-fold: (1) I begin to slowly introduce activities consistent with my overarching goals, and (2) I begin to build a trusting social relationship.

Since I know that I can’t necessarily rely upon the information I have gathered about my parrot’s previous behavior, I proceed slowly when I begin to introduce each of these things. I then watch his reaction, which provides me with better data about what types of teaching will be necessary as we go forward.

For example, I will present him with the diet I feed all of my birds and see what he does. If he eats it, I continue to offer it and observe. If he only picks at it, I will supplement with other foods his owner might have provided. If he has been on a seed mix, I will continue to provide that and use the method I have developed to convert him from eating seed mix to pellets and fresh foods.

If I provide a basic foraging toy and he ignores it, I assume that I will need to teach him to forage. I will provide an easily destroyed wood toy. If he ignores it, I know that I may have to use positive reinforcement to capture and shape the behavior of chewing on wood. If I spritz him with water and he runs away, I know that I will need to teach him to bathe.

When it comes to Chuckie, I am very lucky. He already eats a great diet and loves to bathe. He chews on wood when it is provided. He’s a wonderful talker but makes no sounds I don’t like and he hasn’t shown the least inclination to bite. He already enjoys one playstand, having explored this on his own by climbing over onto it from his cage. Luckily, Chuckie is partially flighted as he recovers from a wing clip.

Chuckie in foreground stretching comfortably

He is already exploring away from his cage on his own and has even made it out to the living room. Since he can move around on his own, I see no reason to try to force this issue by carrying him out there. He’ll make the trip when he’s ready.

He is also already making friends. Bongo Marie and Navidad are now hanging out near his cage, where Chuckie still prefers to stay most of the time. They have become steady companions. It will be fun to see what materializes in the future. Greys do enjoy those other grey birds.

Chuckie does not, however, step up from inside his cage and only part of the time from on top. He also still prefers to remain in or on his cage a lot more than I would like. And, he’s relatively new to an aviary environment, having been out there just once previously when he boarded with me. And, I don’t think he yet understands the concept of hidden food.

Chuckie in the aviary

So, my list of things to work on for him include:

  • Better compliance when it comes to stepping up
  • Learning new cued behaviors (targeting to start)
  • Learning to forage
  • Learning to enjoy the aviary

Building Trust

When it comes to establishing a social/handling relationship, I prefer to let the parrot take the lead in the early stages as I make observations. If I don’t know the parrot well, I simply put the carrier with the door open inside the cage when I first get him home. I recommend this approach. It allows him to come out on his own when he’s ready. The door to the cage can be open as well.

At this point, you can begin your data collection in regards to his “social temperament.” Hopefully, you have a list of his favorite foods and objects that you can use as reinforcers. A new parrot will look for ways to be successful (gain access to the things he wants) in this new environment.

If the parrot remains in the carrier for longer than 10 minutes, you have an indication that he may be fearful, at least for now. That will tell you that you may need to proceed slowly. This is the benefit of allowing him to make the moves early on.

Chuckie’s first few days

When he does emerge from the carrier, watch what he does. Does he stay in the cage at the back? Or goes he come out on top and begin exploring. These are critical observations to make. It will be the best evidence you have about whether his behavior lies on the side of bolder or shyer. This information can then inform your other training for your future goals.

During his first week, you will be able to make a list of things that you need to work on and adjustments that you may need to make to the environment.

Does he startle when the dog or cat walks by? Or, does he show too much fondness for your husband? Does he sound an alarm every time someone walks by the window? In order to make him comfortable, or to avoid long-term problems, you can begin to make adjustments to the environment that will help.

Handling Your New Parrot

Once he shows some interest in interacting, you can respond by making some social overtures. I begin by offering a treat from my fingers, at times when I see no signs of heightened arousal. Once I see that he takes treats easily, then I ask him to walk a step or two toward me to take a treat.

Once he will walk several steps toward me, I will see if he will walk toward and then step onto my hand for a reinforcer. If he does that easily, I will ask him to step up using my typical cue.

If course, you may be able to skip some or even all of these steps. On the other hand, you might need to work through them all. If so, working through them might take two days or two months.

The Gifts of the Older Parrot

Incorporating a new, older bird into my home is one of my favorite joys. I encourage you to consider it also. (Eight of my eleven parrots were older when they came to me.)

Cyrano: Adopted at 20; now 43 years old

I will never criticize anyone for purchasing a well-reared baby parrot. They can be hard to resist and rearing a young parrot well is a learning process also. We must have tolerance for each other’s choices.

However, adopting an older parrot brings rewards that might not be apparent at first glance. We tend to focus upon what we are doing for them. Yet what they do for us is far more valuable in the scheme of things.

They come with baggage, as do we all. If we work well with them, the level of wisdom, patience, and focus required for this elevates us. It is nothing less than a spiritual pursuit. And, therein is the gift.

Do you remember Siljan and Dorris? I have now worked with Siljan for a year as her consultant and coach and a strong friendship has developed. She wrote this to me right before Christmas:

The meaning of life never comes for free. You have to work for it and it is only yourself who’s able to find it. I was looking for the meaning of life everywhere, but with age I finally figured out how to create it myself.  I often lose this meaning of life thing I’ve created, but the traces and pieces are still in me, so I often find the way back.”

Siljan describes well the struggle we all face during our lifetimes. I’m lucky that parrots and my love for them has allowed me to create a meaning for my life.

I will continue to dedicate my efforts to you and your parrots in 2020. Happy New Year to You All!

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!

Star Earns Her Wings

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

“Wow! There she goes!” I exclaimed as I watched Star, six-month-old parent-raised, Bare-eyed Cockatoo, take to the sky for the first time. It thrilled me and racked my nerves all at once.

I needn’t have worried. Thanks to her parents, and the flight ability that nature has bestowed upon her, and, humbly, a pinch of training from me, she enthusiastically put on her big girl wings to give that great big sky a go.

Star’s Preparation

Star comes from a line of trained, parent-raised free flying cockatoos. Her grandparents, parents, and cousins fly at Cockatoo Downs. It is only natural that Star carries on the tradition. To do so, though, she needed preparation.

Waiting for the teacher.

Her education started as a fledgling. She grew up in an outdoor aviary, exposed to all that the outside world has to offer. She learned to trust people. She learned to forage. She learned flight skills. She learned proper cockatoo socialization manners. In short, she learned to be a cockatoo living in captivity.

At six months of age, I felt Star was ready to free fly. Part of that feeling was intuitive, and the rest was from the confidence I had in her training; training not just from me, but more importantly, from her parents. It is they who provided her the educational foundation that helped her grow into a confident, assured cockatoo.

Star learns to recall to a perch.

From me, and other friends I invited to work with Star, she learned people socialization. She learned that we are entertaining and sometimes amusing creatures who often come equipped with treats. She learned to take goodies from our hands. She learned to target and station on her training perch. She’s an A+ student and eagerly looks forward to her classes.

Star (on the left) and family meet a new friend.

Star developed into a bold youngster as she improved her flight skills daily, swooshing around her aviary landing on orbits, twirling on boings, hanging upside down like a bat, and playing high-speed tag with her parents. She needed, though, one final step before facing the big release.

Learning the In’s and Out’s

Star needed to learn where the flight exit and entry door in the aviary is located. I decided on using the food station for that purpose. The station is located in the front of the aviary and has a handy door that opens to allow placement of food bowls inside. Star had watched her parents come down to the station daily as I serviced it so it wasn’t a big stretch for her to eventually join them when I was there. When she did, I’d offer everyone an almond, their favorite munchie.

Soon Star was the first to fly to the station when she saw me. I incorporated a verbal recall cue when I was at the station. It’s a cue I use with all the flying cockatoos, letting them know it’s time to go inside their aviaries.

The most important preparation for ensuring success for Star’s first flight came from her parents, Bebe and Flash. Kindergarten through high school took place in her aviary with them as her teachers. Now it was time to head off to college. I knew beyond a doubt that Bebe and Flash’s devoted care for Star would transfer to the big sky. They would accompany her and keep her safe.

Star’s First Free Flight

The flight day was cloudy with a spritz of light rain that showed signs of vanishing soon. An internal voice, along with the preparatory practical steps the cockatoo family and I had taken, told me this was the day.

Ready for take off.

The family sat at the food station as I slowly opened the door. It opens downward and is held in a ramp position by a chain. Bebe and Flash walked cautiously out on it. They waited for Star to join them. After some hesitation she snuggled in between them.

Star chooses to take off.

The parents waited patiently for Star to take it all in. She spent a minute or two assessing the new environment. Suddenly, Star took off on her own and a split second later Bebe and Flash joined her.

I couldn’t have asked for a better take off, as it was Star’s choice to fly. She was not startled to fly nor did her parents leave before she was ready. She had decided on her own to spread her wings. Off they went, flying in a tight threesome. Star could be heard vocalizing with her distinct chirp as she flew. It was easy to see that she was a bit wobbly in her new element, with no aviary to restrict her journey through the air. Her unsteady flight grew more certain the longer she flew.

The amount of care and concern the parents took looking after Star and guiding her was, quite honestly, an emotional experience for me. They never, ever let her out of their sight. They didn’t abandon her for any reason nor take her off into the wilderness.

Instead they circled above the aviaries and nearby trees showing her the landmarks from this new perspective of her home. Their attentive behavior was an example of the close bond parrot parents have with their chicks. It brings me much distress that most of those who hand raise parrots seem not to acknowledge the importance of this.

Unexpected Challenges

After about four minutes of flight, Flash and Bebe landed on the top of a nearby tree. “Oh, oh, now what?” I could imagine Star thinking. After two tries she landed somewhat ungainly on a skinny branch, but land she did. A minute or two later they took off again, expanding their flight perimeter.

One comical episode occured when the parents landed on top of their aviary. Star had no idea how to do that. Landing on perches inside the aviary was a breeze. But landing on it? She made several passes, chirping in confusion, trying to figure out a landing strategy. Her parents waited. At last she worked it out and made a successful two-point touchdown.

After an hour of flying and landing on various trees, Bebe and Flash once again landed on the aviary with Star. I was standing near the food door ramp and asked Bebe if they were ready to go in. She and Flash answered by flying down to the ramp.

Star had not been paying attention and was totally bewildered as to how her parents got there. She did short flights near the door vocalizing her frustration to which the parents took off and then returned to the door showing her how it’s done. “Ah, ha! That’s how you do it,” thinks Star…and so she did.

Flight Number Two

With the first successful flight tucked under her wings, I offered a second one a few days later. The difference in Star’s attitude, confidence, and skill was remarkable. Her parents eased off of the close formation, flying and landed in trees while Star kept flying. It’s as if they gave Star the keys to the car and said, “Have at it!” She separated from them many times in the air while swooping, dipping her wings, and throwing in an occasional tail wag for good measure. Was she having fun? You bet!

It’s hard for me to conjure up what Star must have been feeling in her new environment. Is it just another day in the life of a cockatoo or is she exhilarating in this new world that has been introduced to her? Probably it’s a bit of both. I’m looking forward to watching her enjoy what it means to be a cockatoo in the sky—the environment she was meant to be in.

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.


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.