Parrots: Navigating the Ocean of (Mis)Information

Rarely do I work with a client when I don’t spend time debunking myths. I do this patiently most of the time.download (4) I enjoy talking with my clients and getting to the truth about things. I feel genuine distress, however, for those who experience such frustration at hearing that the information they worked so hard to find and have trusted is not reliable.

Mostly, I marvel at how resistant to extinction this incorrect information has become. I have been around long enough now that I was there when some of this material was originally published decades ago. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now. Nevertheless, it gets repeated ad infinitum online and in print. At this point, some of it qualifies as urban companion parrot legend.

Here are a few of the myths that I have addressed with people within the last two months.

Myth #1: Parrots need 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.”  Not true. I believe that I have put this issue to bed with this previous blog post.

Myth #2:  Parrots must be kept at warm temperatures since they originate in equatorial regions. Not even close. Parrots, like all animals, acclimate to the temperatures at which they live. (Dawson, Marsh. 1989)

Myth #3: Parrots must be protected from drafts. Not true…mostly.  “Contrary to popular opinion, drafts are not harmful to healthy pet birds. A draft is really nothing more than a slight movement of air, usually accompanied by a mild temperature drop. A bird’s feathers provide insulation against temperature extremes far in excess of what a draft represents.” (Animal Hospitals USA, 2018)

This information about the need to protect against drafts originated decades ago when homes were not well-insulated.  People would place canaries in front of windows, around which there was an icy draft in winter. This set the bird up for illness.

These days, most of us live in well-insulated homes that don’t have drafts, unless we create them artificially by using window air conditioners.  These should not be placed where they will blow directly on a parrot.

photo-1521776384459-82edfd790487Myth #4:  Cockatoos are cuddly, needs birds who require more attention than other companion parrot species. Definitely not true. The real truth is that cockatoos display different behavior characteristics depending upon how they are reared. Current rearing practices that remove babies from their parents early on and force wean them to increase profits produce birds who arrive in their homes with a wealth of unmet needs.  They appear cuddly and needy because they didn’t get the nurturing they needed in their early stages. Those who are parent-reared until weaning do not display these qualities. They are independent parrots who need no more attention than others.

How does it happen that incorrect information gets repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact? How do people get away with posting information that is untrue?

I’ve given this problem a lot of thought and have decided that the following factors all contribute to this problem. If we can understand how a problem occurs, we can get closer to a solution.

First, material written by experts is not updated regularly.  This means that you can pick up readily available books and magazines that contain incorrect information.  Knowledge is always evolving, but what gets published doesn’t always reflect this increased understanding.

If someone wants to reprint an older article of mine, I make sure that I update it first.  My own knowledge has grown over the years and I want to ensure that people are reading what most clearly represents my current thinking. (I was wrong about a lot of things early on.) Authors of hard-cover books don’t always have that luxury.

Second, many people have a bad case of not knowing what they don’t know, coupled with a strong desire to be helpful. downloadIt feels good to dispense advice that fills a need someone else has. The opportunity to sound like an authority is very compelling. This leads to an endless amount of incorrect information being repeated online, since these helpful folks don’t check their facts before offering advice.

Third, the internet erases our ability to evaluate the signals we usually rely on when it comes to judging people and their information. Experts differ in their exact estimate of just how much of communication is non-verbal, but a range of 60% to 90% is generally accepted as accurate. (Eastman, 2018)

The largest component of any communication is non-verbal – body language, tone of voice, inflection, eye contact, facial expression. images (24)This means that, when you read online something that someone else has written, you are missing between 60% and 90% of important information about them and their message. On social media and websites, anyone can appear to be an authority.

Fourth, speaking as an authority is seductive. Some individuals who are very knowledgeable in some areas still give advice in others in which they are not, apparently unable to stop themselves.

Last, tribalism is alive and well in the “parrot community,” just as it is in politics. It is difficult to know when those publishing on social media have an agenda that is driving their posts. images (25)Much incorrect information is published with a real sense of urgency and commitment, simply because the speaker seeks to validate herself and her friends’ information.

I first decided on this topic two weeks ago, and spent some time searching online for examples to illustrate my points. Oddly, I was having a difficult time. The usual crap I read was absent from social media that day. Then, the two posts below dropped into my lap when a friend sent me these screen shots. These were published publicly on a Facebook group within the past week. Since they came to me unbidden, I deem it within the bounds of fair play to use them here.

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Now, let me be clear before I go further. I believe this author has good intentions and I don’t think she meant any harm. (I did contact her personally when I received the posts and she understands that I would be using them here.) She clearly cares about nutrition and wants every parrot to be eating a healthy diet.

However, as so often happens, she dispenses valid information along with some very incorrect details. This illustrates the BIGGEST problem with online sources, which I did not list above.  Most sources offer mixed advice – some good, some bad. This astronomically complicates the issue of finding trustworthy information.

Let’s examine these posts using critical thinking (the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment):

  1. I am not a parrot behaviorist. I do not have the credentials. I am certified as a parrot behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).
  2. There is no such thing as a “parrot nutritionist.” There is no educational program or certification for this title. Instead, many of us are knowledgeable about nutrition due to intensive self-study. This is an extremely complex topic due to the number of parrot species and their diverse regions of origin, making it highly unlikely that anyone will be sporting this title in the near future.
  3. Vitamin supplementation will not cause organ damage when a parrot is severely deficient in nutrients. Added vitamins will never be a valid replacement for a good diet, but can be very helpful in the sort term. Calcium is especially helpful and is used widely in cases of chronic egg-laying. Any vitamin supplementation undertaken should always be at the direction of an avian veterinarian.
  4. These posts were written in response to something one of my previous clients had just contributed on that forum. Unintentionally, this client had misrepresented the recommendations I had given her. The author of these posts did not contact me to verify that the information was correct before publishing her opinion.
  5. The author dispenses nutritional advice for a parrot who has had a life-threatening medical condition in the past, without asking the individual what her veterinarian had advised her to feed.
  6. The author herself provides a great deal of nutritional advice in her posts, although she herself is not an avian nutritionist.  Her qualifications, according to her profile, are that she is a “diamontolgist” (which is misspelled) and “former esthetician.”

To correct the record for those of you who care:

  • I do recommend pellets as a staple in the diet, as a recent blog post discusses.
  • I do not recommend TOPs pellets as the primary dietary staple.
  • I do not recommend a plant-based, mostly veggie diet.
  • do recommend limiting carbohydrates and excessive fats in the diet.
  • I do not recommend vitamin supplements unless a veterinarian has suggested their use.
  • The diet I had been coaching the client to feed had been recommended by her veterinarian.

I will leave you to arrive at your own judgement, but I think that these posts are an excellent example of the ways in which misleading information gets established as fact each second of every day online on websites and parrot forums.

So, how can you protect yourself when you go online for information about parrots?  images (16)We certainly can’t ignore the value of the internet when it comes to researching and learning, but how can you identify sources that you can trust?  How do you decide who really knows what they are talking about?

I suggest asking the following questions and evaluating the following criteria when deciding whose information to trust. They have served me well over the years.

  • What is the educational level of the author? People can certainly become well-educated through independent effort, and well-educated people can certainly publish incorrect information. Therefore, this criterion will not serve as a definitive indicator. However, I believe that those with higher education will be more likely to research their topic, have a higher commitment to publishing truth, and may be better able themselves to identify trust-worthy information.
  • Spelling matters. If you see someone dispensing information about Scarlet McCaws, that should serve as a red flag.
  • What credentials does the speaker have and are these related to the information being posted? We should hold people accountable for what they publish. It should be acceptable to ask about a speaker’s depth of experience in the topic under discussion and the speaker should graciously welcome the chance to explain how she knows what she knows.
  • Does the individual provide sources to support the information being published? When research about a given topic is available, it should be cited.
  • Does the information posted contain generalizations, such as “Amazons need….?” Behavior is a study of one. What any given parrot needs depends upon his previous socialization and training. Such declarations cannot possibly be accurate when we are speaking about parrots.
  • Is the speaker a recognized expert in the field? Has she published peer-reviewed journal articles? Is she certified by any institutions who recognize knowledge and achievement?
  • If the speaker is dispensing nutritional or veterinary information, does she herself have real work experience of any duration in the field of avian medicine?
  • Does the speaker publicly criticize or speak poorly of others? True professionals are respectful and are supportive of others in the field.
  • Follow a resource trail. Identify someone you consider to be a knowledgeable resource, and then ask who they promote and whose information they trust.

One excellent resource recommends evaluating information for: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose (CRAAP.) (Illinois State University. 2018) To paraphrase, this source recommends asking the following questions:

  • Determine the date of publication. Is the information outdated?
  • How applicable is the information for your needs? For what audience was the information intended?
  • Is the author a knowledgeable source? Examine the author’s credentials or organizational affiliation.
  • What is the accuracy of the content? What type of language is used and does the information seem to be well-researched?
  • Why was the information written? How might the author’s affiliations affect the slant or bias of the information?

This is a problem that belongs to us all. If we are ever to be able to go online and trust what we read, we must each take individual responsibility for evaluating the information we find and for being careful about what we post. Thus, the most important question of all becomes this: photo-1522272556107-2a2b67715093

Where does YOUR level of commitment lie when it comes to the welfare of companion parrots? When you are online, is it more important to be liked and validated or more important to stand up for parrots and their welfare?

If it’s the latter, you will ask for credentials before trusting information that you apply to your birds or pass along to others.

If it’s the latter, you will question everything you read and use the criteria above to evaluate the information you accept as true.

images (1)If it’s the latter, you will not repeat information or offer advice unless you yourself have hands-on experience in the area under discussion and/or have absolutely verified it to be true.  “I heard it somewhere” or “I read it in a book” is not good enough.

If it’s the latter, you will support those who work hard to publish truth about parrots.

If you just want to chat online for fun or to get validation, be clear about what it is you are about. On the other hand, if you are trying to learn, then please first don your critical thinking cap. Don’t lend truth to this slogan: Critical Thinking Skills… the Other National Deficit!

It’s up to all of us to stem this never-ending tide of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation that undermines our ability to provide a good quality of life for our birds, to effectively deal with behavior problems, and to maintain their physical health over their optimal lifespans.images (18)

If we step up and accept this challenge, just think what we might accomplish when it comes to the political climate in this country!  Get out there and vote everybody!

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

References:

Animal Hospitals USA website. 2018. “Bird Care: Drafts.” Accessed October 22, 2018. http://www.animalhospitals-usa.com/birds/bird-care.html

Dawson W.R., Marsh R.L. (1989) “Metabolic Acclimatization to Cold and Season in Birds.” In: Bech C., Reinertsen R.E. (eds) Physiology of Cold Adaptation in Birds. NATO ASI Series (Series A: Life Sciences), vol 173. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-0031-2_9

Eastman, B. 2018. “How Much of Communication is Really Non-verbal?”  The Non-Verbal Group, 548 West 28th St, Ste. 231, New York, NY.  http://www.nonverbalgroup.com/2011/08/how-much-of-communication-is-really-nonverbal

University of Illinois, Guides at Milner Library. May 2018. “Determine Credibility (Evaluating): CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose).” https://guides.library.illinoisstate.edu/evaluating/craap

 

My Parrot Won’t Play With Toys!

This is a claim I hear often from parrot owners who are totally frustrated in their efforts to offer enrichment in the form of toys or foraging, only to see their birds ignoring it.  Many simply give up, after spending what seems like endless amounts of time and money, having achieved no success at all.

And, after all… isn’t it okay if we have a bird who doesn’t play with toys if he seems happy enough? If he’s not displaying behavior problems and he’s healthy, why keep trying? Keeping parrots seems to be a lot of work at times. Many ask, “Do I really need to keep working on this too?”

I hate to disappoint you…but the answer is yes.photo-1519165209234-0545d0e2c755  You do need to keep working on this.  Your parrot does need to interact with enrichment for the very best quality of life.  If you want him to enjoy physical, emotional, and intellectual health, you’ve got to keep trying.

Parrots, like all creatures, evolved to act upon their environment in different ways. When they do, the environment gives them feedback. This feedback from the environment offers them the chance to learn. This learning process enriches their lives much of the time in different ways.

A parrot who doesn’t know how to keep himself busy is a lot more likely to develop behavior problems such as screaming or chewing off feathers.  “Captive settings may limit the expression of normal behaviours and, as a consequence, abnormal behaviours may develop.” (Rodriguez-Lopez, 2016)

Glove StufferYour parrot can work on a foraging project for 30 minutes, finally accessing his treat.  Or he can scream for 30 minutes until you finally react.  The treat and your reaction are both “feedback” from the environment. Both types of feedback enrich his life because he acted on the environment in order to get a certain result.

His existence is enriched by your social attention when you react, even if you sound angry or use a swear word or two.  It can be quite enjoyable for a bored parrot to figure out what he can do to get a reaction out of you. He is hard-wired to act upon his environment. He will do so independently of you and your desires.

I have always thought of a parrot’s day as similar to a “pie chart of activity.”  In other words, they operate in our homes within an “activity budget.”  I want my parrots’ activity budget to look something like this pie graph. Granted, the time spent in each activity likely would not be the same, but you get the idea. Foraging

If your parrot doesn’t fly or interact with wood or other enrichment, there’s a much greater chance that some of those pie wedges may read “screaming” or “biting” or “feather destruction.”

There is a second reason why we can’t give up on trying to get our parrots to interact with physical enrichment. Life in captivity is stressful  for our companion parrots, no matter how good a job we do with them.  “Captive animals are susceptible to chronic stress due to restricted space, lack of hiding places, presence of visitors, or the lack of resources that promote physical and mental stimuli. In birds, chronic stress can promote stereotypes, self-mutilation, feather picking, chewing on cage bars and walls, fearfulness and excessive aggression. Environmental enrichment (EE) becomes an important management tool to decrease chronic stress in captive animals.” (de Almeida, Palme, and Moreira 2018)

Thus, it is a real problem when a parrot doesn’t interact with enrichment or know how to forage.  It’s enough of a problem that it deserves dissection. If we can come to a better understanding of the problem, we can both prevent it AND solve it.

The problem begins with our own expectations. Everyone talks about parrots “playing,” so we expect our parrots to play.   This expectation is not a reasonable one, if applied to all parrots.

Mylas+and+Severe+2+7-20-2009+6-02-44+PM[1] (2)Baby parrots play.  One of the happiest periods of my life was when I was breeding a small number of African Greys each year.  There is nothing more fun that watching the development of baby parrots. They are learning machines. They are eager to investigate anything you give them. Like all baby animals, they are playful. That is their job –  it’s how they learn about the world.

Once mature, however, most adult parrots don’t play. It’s not their nature to be playful. Granted, there are exceptions.  Some individuals are more playful than others. Some species tend to be more playful  than others – caiques, lorikeets, small macaws and some conures, to name a few. Some individuals within those species could play for hours with a simple object. If you need cheering up, check this video out.

However, if you expect an African Grey, one of the Poicephalus species, or an Eclectus to be playful, you could wait a very long time. Thus, the first problem is thinking there is something wrong with your parrot if he doesn’t play.

An adult parrot has a different job – to stay safe with the knowledge he’s learned to date. They are often suspicious, if not downright afraid, of new things.  If you expect your adult parrot to immediately interact with a new toy or project, you may be sadly disappointed. It could very well take a week or longer before your bird decides that object is safe enough for exploration.  So, that’s the second problem – expecting your parrot to interact with new enrichment items without a proper period of introduction.

If your older parrot was raised by a breeder who didn’t offer enrichment to the babies and then went into a first home or two where this need was also neglected, he may have temporarily lost that once-important desire to investigate, even once an item does become familiar. Both situations can lead to that diagnosis – My parrot doesn’t play with toys!

The third problem we create for ourselves with this issue has to do with perception. Dr. Susan Friedman has made enormous contributions to our understanding of behavior. In many of her articles, she discusses the problems that result when we label parrot behavior. For example, if I think of my parrot as aggressive, this leads me nowhere, in terms of arriving at a solution to that problem. However, if I look at the circumstances surrounding the bites, I see that there are some things I can change.  Changing the right circumstances in an effective way does lead to a solution to the problem.

When you tell yourself …My parrot doesn’t play with toys!…it’s the same thing as imposing a label on your parrot. photo-1538440694107-8448c848ad97That statement in itself will prevent you from solving this problem because you will believe it. To move toward a solution, you must look at what the parrot does do and build from there. Every parrot interacts with some objects, even if you don’t think of them as toys.

A fourth obstacle to having a parrot who interacts with enrichment is the type of things manufactured and sold to parrot owners. Often these are targeted at you and your pocketbook, rather than your parrot’s preferences. Purchasing the wrong type of toys can lead to the same conclusion – My parrot doesn’t play with toys! 

For one thing, the desires of a parrot and the desires of a parrot owner are not the same and toy manufacturers know this.  A parrot wants to destroy a wood toy quickly and easily.  He wants to act on his environment. A parrot owner wants to buy a toy that will last due to the expense. He wants to spend his money wisely. images (15)

How many of us have wasted our money on the toy to the right?  Those alphabet blocks and round wooden beads are so hard that only the very largest of parrots can chew them up. Most parrots will simply give up after a short while. But, the important thing to the owner is that he didn’t spend $25.00 on a toy that only lasted a brief while.

The second problem is the power of advertising. We love parrots and we love photos of parrots.  Therefore, as a selling tool the manufacturer or company will position a toy with a parrot suggesting interest in the parrot towards the toy.91M9oTClGZL._SL1500_  You’ve got to use your critical thinking skills to question the advertising before moving the item into your shopping cart.  Look at the toy to the left. Suggested by the photo as appropriate for a cockatiel, this toy is totally unsatisfactory for a bird of that size…or any bird.  Those coconuts are very hard and the holes are so small that getting anything out of them would be difficult.

Let the buyer beware.

So, what are you supposed to do if you have a bird doesn’t play with toys?

First, find a starting place.  Most parrots interact with something. If you have a parrot who loves to play with bottle caps (and doesn’t chew on them), hide bottle caps in a foraging toy so that it takes some work for him to get at them.

If your parrot loves to chew the back of your sofa, create toys made of fabric. Get a cotton gardening glove and stuff it with interesting items and food treats and hang this in the cage. Or find a pair of baby overalls at Goodwill and use zip ties to close up the legs.  Then, stuff the pockets with foot toys and treats.

If your parrot loves paper and cardboard, but won’t chew wood, then give him foraging projects made from those materials. If your parrot only chews on smaller wood toys, but demolishes them too quickly, then create these with wood slices and beads on a stainless skewer sold for parrots.

Second, make sure that the perching you provide sets the bird up for success and makes it easy for him to interact with the item.  I often see toys hung in the cage without any perch nearby.  Put yourself in your parrot’s feathers.  If he perches there, can he reach that toy comfortably?

Third, provide reinforcement.  Once you have found an item with which your parrot interacts, keep a soft focus on his behavior. When you see him touch or chew the toy…or even just look at it…immediately tell him “Good!” and quickly offer a preferred food treat. Soon he will learn that messing around with things in his cage earns him food!

Fourth, experiment.  Gradually, add a wider variety of toys – stainless steel bells, paper, fabric, easy-to-chew wood, puzzle toys, etc.  Through this process, you can discover a lot about your bird.  Don’t pre-judge his interests and preferences.  Perhaps you’ve always just given him wood toys, only to find that he’s insane for bells.  Many small macaws for example, enjoy sitting underneath bells.  One caveat:  most parrots prefer toys made of natural materials; my advice would be to leave those acrylic toys at the bird store, unless they offer a foraging challenge.

One small study found that parrots interacted with their staple diet of pellets for longer periods if they were provided with “over-sized” pellets.  (Rozek, Danner, Stucky, Millam, 2010) These required longer periods of time for consumption, given the additional challenges of manipulation. If your parrot consumes one size of pellet, perhaps providing much larger pellets in or out of foraging toys could be an important type of enrichment.

The most difficult challenge can be teaching an older parrot to forage who never learned the skill in the first place. Baby parrots are naturally curious, but they have to be provided with the raw materials to develop this into the skill of exploration. Older parrots can still learn this, however, and it is important that they do. “Enrichment is more successful it if is aimed at soliciting species-specific behaviours such as foraging.” (Coulton, Waran, Young, 1997)

BobbingForApplesTeaching a parrot to forage requires starting with very basic challenges and then making them incrementally more difficult in small steps.  Many of you may have already seen this, either on my website or on Facebook, but I have completed a pamphlet of foraging challenges that are easily made at home from inexpensive materials.  It demonstrates how to start out simple and gradually add complexity. This is free to all of you for download: Parrot Enrichment Made Easy: Low Cost Tips and Tricks.

Lastly, there are some foraging toys sold on the market today that do help beginning foragers to learn the skill.  My favorite is the Acrylic Foraging Kabob.  It triggers interest because the parrot can see that it has something inside of it, but offers enough of a challenge in extracting the items. It can be very helpful in introducing vegetables.  And, it includes a food skewer that is useful in making other toys.

A last word.  Remember – always watch your parrot with any new toy to make sure he’s interacting with it safely. Most parrots will not ingest non-food items, but watch nonetheless, especially if you are giving your parrot a toy with cotton strings attached.

End Note:  I attempt, whenever possible, to substantiate my anecdotal observations with scientific research. I have cited a number of studies at the end of this blog that help to support what I have said.  However, there has been a bit of a bias among researchers to focus more on enrichment for captive primates and carnivores. The studies that have been performed for captive parrots are few and often have been done on very small populations. They may be suggestive, rather than definitive.

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

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Saeed Lajami on Unsplash.com.

References:

Coulton, LE, NK Waran, and RJ Young. 1997. “Effects of Foraging Enrichment on the Behaviour of Parrots.” Animal Welfare 1997, 6: 357-363. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_Young15/publication/233642678_Effects_of_Foraging_Enrichment_on_The_Behaviour_of_Parrots/links/004635388f928d5693000000.pdf

De Almeida, Ana Claudia, Rupert Palm and Nei Moreira. 2018. “How Environmental Enrichment Affects Behavioral and Glucocorticoid Responses in Captive Blue-and-Yellow Macaws (Ara araruana).” Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 201: 125-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.12.019

Meehan, CL, JP Garner, and JA Mench. 2004. “Environmental Enrichment and Development of Cage Stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica). Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychogiol 44: 209-218. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bbb2/a21684e23a62de973c1779e8d6a103f7463a.pdf

Rodriguez-Lopez, Rogelio. 2016. “Environmental Enrichment for Parrot Species: Are We Squawking Up the Wrong Tree?” Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 180: 1 – 10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.016

Rozek, Jessica, Lindsey Danner, Paul Stucky, and James Millam. 2010. “Over-sized pellets naturalize foraging time of captive Orange-winges Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica).”  Elsevior Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal 125: 80-87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.001

Parrots and the Need for Nature

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

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

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo-1513836279014-a89f7a76ae86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Training?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Guide:  Solve Your Parrot’s Screaming Problem for Good!

If the phone calls I have received during August are any indication, we could rename it National Screaming Parrot Month.  There are a lot of you out there living with some very loud parrots.  Please don’t despair!  This is actually a fairly simple problem to solve, if you do all of the right things.

Behavior Has Functiondownload (1)

The first step is to realize that your parrot screams for a reason. Behavior has function. If he didn’t get something out of it, he wouldn’t keep doing it.  So ask yourself, “What reinforcement does he get for making such a racket? What’s in it for him?”

Many birds make noise because it earns them some social attention, either from the people in the house or the other birds. Do you or anyone else respond in some way when your parrot screams?  Even if you leave the room or cover the cage or spray him with water, you are offering him attention for his unwanted behavior. You are reacting in some way.  Believe it – lots of companion parrots are just bored enough that those types of reactions don’t serve to stop the behavior, even if the parrot finds them mildly aversive. Instead, they often reward it. At best, they offer short-term relief, but no permanent solution. Face it; if covering the cage were working well for you, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Other Reasons for Screaming

Some parrots make noise to alert you to some perceived danger. Does your parrot scream more now that he can see out the window? Does he scream when he hears sounds on the sidewalk outside? Then some of his screaming could be a form of hard-wired, sentinel behavior. He’s trying to sound the alarm! Environmental modification may be part of your answer.

Some parrots scream at predictable times, such as when the garage door opens and other family members arrive home. Perhaps you have a parrot who screams when you get on the phone? If you can predict it, you can prevent it.

Others parrots react to the noise created by the family. If you have a loud family, you will likely have a loud parrot.  He’s a member of the flock just trying to chime in, after all. If you quiet down, so may he.download (5)

And, let’s face it.  Some parrot species just tend to be a tad noisier than others.  Sun conure owners unite!  Even though you have chosen to live with one of the loudest species on the planet, you too can enjoy a quiet home.

“Parrots Are What You Make of them”

The second step is to realize that you have the power. You have the power to impact your parrot’s choices through your reactions. If he is screaming in order to get your attention, then you can choose a bit more wisely the behaviors for which you do give him attention.

A long time ago, I took a series of bird care classes from Jamie McLeod  who owns the Parrot Menagerie in Summerland, California. One day she said, “Parrots are what you make of them.” ParakeetColorfulIt’s true.  If you want a loud parrot, give him attention when he’s loud. If you want a parrot who plays with toys, give him attention when he plays. If you want a parrot who talks, give him attention when he talks. If you want a parrot to eat vegetables, give him attention when he does.

Ignore the Noise…But That’s Not All

I’m sure you have all heard that, in order to solve a screaming problem, you must ignore the noise.  That is true.  If you want the noise you don’t like to disappear, you have to quit rewarding it. However, there are two facts that you must embrace for this strategy to have any affect at all.

First, realize that any reaction on your part has the potential to reward the behavior. So, don’t react in any way. Don’t leave the room. Don’t look at the parrot. Don’t spray the parrot with water. Don’t cover the cage. Don’t put the parrot in the closet. Don’t whistle. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t give your spouse a dirty look because it’s his parrot. Don’t scream back.  Those things won’t work and you will just wind up hating yourself and the parrot.

Get some hearing protection if you have to.  No…I’m not kidding. Trying is not the same as doing. You can’t expect to be successful if you react some of the time and succeed at ignoring the noise at others. Any sporting goods store will be able to sell you some hearing protection.

Second, realize that simply ignoring the behavior will never solve the problem. ScreamingCartoon.FBIf you stop reacting to the screaming, the parrot will simply come up with another behavior that will serve the same function for him, and it likely will not be a lot more enjoyable than what he has been doing.  Why not make sure that you are the one to choose which behaviors he performs next?

What would happen if you decided to react with some social attention and maybe a food treat when he talked or make other pleasant noises?  I can tell you. You would hear a lot more talking and pleasant noises.  What if you decided to reward him when he played with a toy?  He would likely play with toys more, as long as they were items that were interesting to him.

To Change Your Parrot’s Behavior, You Must Change Your Own

Remember: You Have the Power. To change your parrot’s behavior, you can change your own. Stop rewarding the screaming. Instead, reward the other behaviors that your parrot offers that you enjoy more.

The way you do the rewarding (offer reinforcement) is important, however. Your timing has to be good. If you offer him a reinforcer too long after he performed the behavior you like, he won’t be able to connect the two.  Instead, as soon as he says a word, turn immediately (within just a second or two) and say, “Yes!” in a voice he can clearly hear.  Then, as quickly as possible walk over and offer something he wants – a food treat or a head scratch. Carry the treats in your pocket so you have them handy if you’re going to use food. Make sure that every time you say “Good!” you follow it with a food treat, even if you made a mistake in recognizing a sound that you really don’t like.

Realize also that you cannot reward quiet.  This does nothing, since “being quiet” is not a behavior.  Instead, look for something the bird is actually doing.

Be consistent about this.  Catch him in the act of being good and reward that.  Just pay attention while you are going about your daily routine. Think if it as practicing parrot behavior mindfulness. 

The Impact of Nutrition

There are other factors that can impact a parrot and his tendency to make noise also.  Did you know that the diet you feed can set your parrot up for louder behavior?  Carbohydrates and fats are two categories of nutrients that produce more energy for your bird.  A bird who lives indoors, especially if he doesn’t fly, does not need excessive amounts of energy. Therefore, a loud parrot who eats a seed mix, a lot of nuts, or human snack foods may need a diet overhaul if you want him to be quieter.

Activities to Use Up that Excess Energy

Speaking of excess energy, baths and time spent outdoors are wonderful experiences for your parrot that will contribute to quieter behavior. Parrots enjoy the same relaxation after spending time outdoors that we do. A day spent in a safe enclosure outside will do wonders to produce a quieter parrot.

Similarly, if you have visitors coming for lunch and you want a quieter parrot, try giving him a bath right before. (This assumes that your parrot enjoys bathing. It’s not fair to scare him into being quiet.) 105Please bathe him in the morning.  He shouldn’t go to bed wet.

A parrot can’t forage, or chew wood, and scream at the same time. Therefore, by providing more for him to do, and making sure he interacts with his enrichment, he may be quieter. If you have a parrot who doesn’t yet know how to forage, there are some great resources on-line.  Two of my favorites are Parrot Enrichment and Foraging for Parrots.

In some cases, environmental changes can help. If your parrot is louder when he can see out of a window, move his cage. If that’s not possible, keep the blinds down.

Eliminate Isolation and Evolve the Pair Bond

Isolation will create a louder parrot.  Parrots want to be with the family flock. If you have your parrots in a “bird room” make sure they have enough time out of it and that this period is predictable for them. Parrots do best when they get at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, divided into two different periods of time. Less than that and you run the risk of living with a louder bird forever. There’s just only so much isolation and confinement that they can stand.

If you find that you are following these instructions and still not making progress, think about getting your birds out of the bird room permanently.  You can’t reward behavior that you can’t see or hear. It’s a lot easier guiding them into appropriate channels of behavior if they live in your midst.

If your parrot has formed a pair bond with you (thinks you are his mate), he will likely be more demanding of your time. Cosy momentsIf he screams until he gets to be on your shoulder, you may want to encourage him to see you as more of a friend. Try doing some simple training with him so that he comes to look to you for guidance, rather than snuggles, as you gradually reduce that “shoulder time.” Teaching him to station on an interesting perch of his own can help to keep him off of your body.

Additional Strategies

Heading the screaming off before it occurs can help to break the pattern, if you can predict it. If your parrot screams when you get on the phone, talk in another room. Or, give him a good drenching bath before you make that call. If he screams to wake you up in the morning, set your alarm and wake up earlier.  I know….but you’re the one who chose to live with a parrot! They want to wake up when the day dawns.

There is one additional strategy that works to shorten screaming sessions for some parrots.  Please notice that I said “shorten” and “some.” This will not be an important part of your solution.  So, if you can’t implement this aspect of the plan, don’t worry.  images (5)However, if you have a parrot who screams non-stop for extended periods, wait until he stops, say a quick “Good!” and follow this with a treat. You cannot use this intervention with a parrot who screams in quick bursts with small spots of quiet in between.  He’ll start screaming again before you make it over to him with the treat.

Your Stop-the-Screaming Checklist

If you want a quiet(er) parrot, here is your checklist:

  • Ignore the screaming (and any other noise or behavior you don’t like) – 100%.
  • Reward talking and other pleasant sounds.
    • Immediately say “Yes!” and quickly deliver a food treat.
  • Provide new enrichment every day or two, especially right before you would like him to be quiet. Give him things that he can destroy quickly – that’s what he wants.
  • Reduce fats and carbohydrates in the diet, if excessive. Please consult with your veterinarian regarding any potential diet changes.
  • Bathe your parrot to use up some energy.
  • Give your parrot the gift of an outdoor aviary.
  • Make sure he gets enough time with you out of his cage twice a day.
  • Teach new behaviors like targeting and stationing.
  • Prevent the screaming if you can predict it. Get creative.
  • Modify the environment to protect his visual experience if needed.

Remember: To change your parrot’s behavior, you must change your own. In reality, you have to change both your thinking and your behavior. Each time you and your parrot have an interaction, he is learning. You are the one who will decide what he is learning.

Complications

People have two problems with this “program.”  First, they forget to keep rewarding the alternate behaviors, the ones the parrot does instead of screaming.  Once they get a little relief, they think the problem is solved.  However, your parrot can always decide to scream again.  It’s still an arrow in his quiver of possible behaviors that he might offer.

So, remember to stay consistent.  Train yourself to look for those behaviors that you would like to reward. They may or may not change over time. As long as they are behaviors that you enjoy, that’s all that matters.  You will wind up giving him attention anyway.  It might as well be for behavior you like.

If you do, you can avoid the second problem that people have. I’ve had more than one client come back to me later with a “second” screaming problem. It wasn’t a second problem. It was merely a different noise.  They had stopped rewarding all of the desirable behaviors the parrot was doing because the noise problem had resolved. They got lazy. So, the parrot came up with a different problem noise. The solution to the problem was the same, of course, even though it was a different noise.

Summary

You must guide your animals’ behavior. By consciously reinforcing the behaviors you do like and ignoring the ones you don’t, you will enjoy your animals a lot more and have far fewer problems. By training new behaviors, you purchase an insurance policy against problem behaviors manifesting in the future. Parrots need learning opportunities, or they will create their own!

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

The Avian Veterinarian: Tips for Choosing One You Can Trust

Do you have an avian veterinarian that you trust 100% and to whom you take your birds on a regular basis? If so, you are profoundly lucky and your birds are even luckier.  The majority of parrots never see a vet until there is a health crisis.  Very sick birdSince it is a crisis, often the time is not there to choose a vet carefully, which decreases the chances of a positive outcome unless you get lucky.

If you don’t have such a veterinarian, you may want to think about the many benefits of establishing and maintaining such a relationship. For one thing, if you have chosen an excellent avian vet, he will recommend annual exams.

The Value of Routine Care

There is no substitute for an annual exam performed by an experienced, skilled avian vet. During such a routine exam, the vet will look closely at your parrot’s skin, ears, eyes, and nares. He will check the choanal cleft in the roof of the mouth. He will check the health of the cloaca. He will listen to the heart. He will weigh your bird and determine a body condition score, so that you know whether your parrot might need to lose some weight or gain some. Caique Restraint

He or his knowledgeable staff will take a thorough history so that he knows what your parrot eats, how often he is bathed, and what type of exposure he has. If diet changes need to be made, he will make recommendations and then follow-up on your success. He may even be able to either assist with basic behavior problems or know someone to whom he can refer you.

Five primary benefits accrue from bringing your parrot in annually for an exam:

  • Problems can be caught early; you are much less likely to be surprised by a serious health crisis.
  • Your parrot learns over the years to tolerate the stress of the veterinary visit and be comfortable in the exam room. Should he ever become ill, the stress of the illness will not be compounded by the stress of his very first vet visit.
  • Your vet gets to know you and how you relate to your parrot, giving him the ability to make you more comfortable. He will also be less shy (if he has a tendency in that direction) when making recommendations. Many professionals in the veterinary community feel a bit hesitant about making recommendations that they know are going to cost the client a lot of money. You don’t want a vet to minimize recommendations for diagnostics or treatment, if your parrot really needs them. You can always say “no.”
  • You develop a sense of trust in your vet. You know you can trust him not to recommend anything that isn’t really in the best interests of your bird. You’ve also been able to speak to him over the years about affordable care. This makes coming up with a treatment plan much quicker and easier at times of illness. Parrot in Carrier
  • Lastly, having to get your parrot into a carrier once a year means that you are perhaps a tad more motivated to provide enough training to maintain compliance with basic requests (step up, step off, stay there, go into the cage, go into the carrier).

Strength of Commitment

There is one more, very important, benefit to you that derives from such a relationship.  If the vet and his staff know you and your commitment to your parrot, they will be more likely to move heaven and earth to get your parrot in to be seen should an emergency or illness occur.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be this way, but that is the reality.  The commitment they show may very well mirror the commitment that you have shown over the years.

I have worked as a licensed technician for two different avian and exotic veterinarians since 2002, although I just retired this past January.  The emergency clinic in our town doesn’t have an avian vet on staff.  However, they still see birds. Both of the vets for whom I worked did not feel overly confident in that care, so both would come in on days off…take birds home…anything they could do to help an established client with a sick bird.  If you do not have such a relationship, you may not get that level of commitment from a new vet. If they are busy that day, you may very well be referred elsewhere.

Finding Your Vet

Finding the right avian vet can be challenging. An avian veterinarian is merely someone who is willing to see birds. Anyone can call themselves an avian vet. Therefore, this task is not as easy as consulting Google. Research is required.

Some believe that finding a certified avian veterinarian is the best choice. ABVPSuch a vet has obtained certification from the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). In order to obtain this, veterinarians must have maintained for six years a high-quality, full-time practice experience with birds.  They must be able to document a commitment to continuing education of high quality. They must demonstrate the ability to communicate professionally and scientifically by preparing written case reports. They must also pass a very rigorous examination.

Board certification is only one quality that is important. It is without doubt a desirable factor. However, I consider handling skills and length of experience treating birds to be even more important.  I once took a young African grey to a board certified avian veterinarian who turned him on his back to listen to his heart, much to the distress of my parrot. On the other hand, the two vets for whom I worked were excellent, amazingly skilled veterinarians, well able to both think outside the box and demonstrate humility and compassion with clients. Neither were board certified.

To search for a board certified avian vet in your area, you can go to the ABVP website.

A more diagnostic attribute when seeking an avian vet is membership in the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV).  If a veterinarian is a member and chooses to regularly attend continuing education provided by this organization, he will be staying up to date with recent advances in avian medicine.  This is important.  The Find A Vet Form on the AAV website allows you to search for a member vet near you. ­

Ten Characteristics You Want in a Veterinarian

When seeking an avian vet, it helps to know what you are looking for.

  1. A reception staff familiar with birds and triage. They know the right questions to ask to assess urgency. Veterinary-Receptionist-HomeThey understand the basics for patient comfort – they get you into an exam room right away rather than have you sit with your parrot next to the Mastiff with diarrhea. They also have a general knowledge of parrot species. They are able to tell you that your parrot is an Amazon after you have described him as a green bird. (Happens all the time.) I purchased Rosemary Low’s book Parrots in Aviculture to help the receptionists at my clinics. It’s out of print but still available on Amazon.
  2. Technicians who are skilled at restraint and who take a true interest in you and your parrot. They can determine the existence of and prioritize husbandry concerns to address and perhaps even provide education accordingly.
  3. The entire staff has a commitment to low stress or Fear-Free veterinary care. The Fear Free organization offers certification to individuals committed to alleviating the fear, stress and anxiety that pets often feel when coming to the vet. They have now finalized their education for exotic vets, which should broaden our ability in the future to locate those vets who work to minimize stress for our birds.
  4. The veterinarian has excellent handling skills himself. He is able to gain access to the parrot in a way that minimizes stress. VetwithMacawHe holds the parrot no longer than is absolutely necessary. He understands body language and can assess the parrot’s stress levels and respond accordingly. He prioritizes your bird’s stress over his busy schedule.
  5. He is a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and regularly attends high-quality continuing education (at least once a year).
  6. He has lived with parrots himself or at least really seems to like birds.
  7. He is respectful and answers questions patiently, providing clear explanations.
  8. He displays a willingness to research and consult other, more experienced, veterinarians when faced with a new challenge.
  9. There is coverage for emergencies, whether the veterinarian provides the care himself or a referral to another clinic.
  10. The practice sees at least five to ten birds a week.

I don’t require that my veterinarian have knowledge of behavior problems and their solutions. Behavior is a very complex subject.  Many vets have shown a real commitment to learning about behavior. However, if your primary focus is medicine and you have limited hands-on experience solving problems, your knowledge is going to be severely restricted.  A better quality in a vet is one who maintains a relationship with and refers without hesitation to an excellent certified behavior consultant.

I don’t ask about fees.  One of the clinics at which I worked has a reputation for being “expensive.”  We were. Our annual fee review always found we were in the 75% percentile. That meant that we were more expensive than 75% of other clinics in our geographical area.

But guess what? That clinic had up to date equipment. The staff was encouraged to go to continuing education and were paid for it. Our compensation was commensurate with the stress and long hours of the job. And because of this, we all went the extra mile for clients and were able to provide higher quality care. When it comes to veterinary care, you often get what you pay for.

If money is a chronic issue, consider pet insurance.  More companies are beginning to cover care for birds. Don’t get coverage for routine care. Make a monthly deposit into a savings account for that. Instead, cover yourself and your bird against the unexpected.

My last bit of advice: Be prepared to travel.  I sometimes hear folks complain that their avian vet is too far away.  Honestly? Be happy if you have a truly excellent avian vet within two hours of driving. Yes, it’s inconvenient.  But, at least you have a truly excellent avian vet.  Consider yourself lucky.

Narrowing the Search

After you have located the “avian” vets in your area, make a telephone call to each. Be armed with a list of questions. Call and say, “Hello, I am looking for a new avian vet and I’m wondering if someone there might be able to answer a few questions for me.”  The response should be friendly and eager. Happy ClientA good clinic will be happy to take the time to answer any questions for a potential new client. If someone isn’t available at once, you should receive a call back before the end of the day. Once you get someone on the phone, you can ask the following questions:

  • How many years has the vet been seeing birds?
  • How many birds does the clinic see in a week?
  • What percentage of the practice is avian?
  • Do you recommend annual exams?
  • What types of diagnostics do you recommend annually? Do the recommended tests change with the age of the bird?
  • How do you minimize stress for the parrots who come in?
  • What provisions do you have for emergencies? Is there an emergency clinic that sees birds or do you make some arrangements for after-hour care?
  • Is the veterinarian a member of AAV?
  • Does he have any birds himself?

Ask for A Tour

You may not be able to find a clinic who provides desirable answers to all of those questions, but if the results are at all positive, ask if you can come in for a tour.  A really excellent clinic will jump at the chance to show you around.

They should, without being asked, take you into every area of the clinic except the doctors’ offices, any quarantine areas, and the surgery. That said, you should at least be able to look through the door into the surgery room.

Schedule a Wellness Visit

If you are impressed by the tour, schedule a get-to-know-you visit. This will allow you to see for yourself the way the staff behaves with your parrot and evaluate their skill at restraint.

If you have any niggling worries while there, try to address them by asking questions.  If that attempt is not successful, go onto the next clinic for a phone call and tour.

Your Part in Identifying Health Concerns

It may be that you can’t find an avian vet who meets the criteria suggested above. Depending upon where you live in the world, you might not have access to a vet at all. If so, the suggestions below may be helpful in maintaining your parrot’s health and avoiding emergencies. Even if you do have a great avian vet, you should practice these same things anyway.

First, feed an excellent diet. In order to do so, you have to know what an excellent diet is. Even if you think you do know, conferring with a professional knowledgeable about avian nutrition is the best idea.

Second, weigh your bird weekly at about the same time each day. Weight loss is often the first sign of illness. Remember that your bird is a prey animal and will hide any signs of illness until the very last minute. If he does fall ill, you may not get much warning. By weighing your parrot, you stand a better chance of catching things early. You can use a kitchen scale that weighs in grams, as long as you create a non-slip surface.  Alternatively, Old Will Knott Scales sells those made specifically for parrots.

Third, examine his droppings daily. Just use plain newspaper (printed or not) in the bottom of the cage.  Learn what normal droppings look like. If you see changes that persist, such as increased urine, unformed feces or urates that change from white to tan or green, you may have a sick parrot.

Fourth, really look at your parrot daily.  That may seem silly to say.  But, I don’t mean just look at his face when you talk to him.  Instead, really look at every part of him. I do this when I’m feeding.  Look closely at the feet, the tail and wings, the feathers…any part that you can visualize without actually restraining him.  You would be surprised at the number of times parrots are presented for exams with obvious visible problems that have gone unnoticed.  Hone your observational skills!

If you think at any time that your parrot may need medical attention but don’t have a vet who sees birds in your area, see if you can find a vet who will consult with an avian vet by telephone.  You will likely have to pay for this, but a lot can be accomplished through this type of coaching. It’s better than no care at all.

Please realize that you need to partner with an avian veterinarian. Finding the right one takes work.  But, to do so is a gift to your parrot.  It will increase his quality of life over the long run. It will give you peace of mind, knowing that you have a skilled professional on your side should illness or injury strike.

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

 

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

Abbie contacted me in early April 2018.  Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December.  He was 13 years old at the time and had livOscarandChristieed with Abbie for 5 years.  Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem.  Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.

Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support.  Abbie describes her feelings at the time: 

When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking. 

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Before Photo (early April 2018)

Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better. 

 It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.

It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.

A Complex Problem

Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation.  You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.

Describing all of the risk factors for FDB is not within the scope of today’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible causes, please read my two-part article Feather Destructive Behavior in Companion Parrots.

I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all.  I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future.  I could immediately reassure her.  The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem.  It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.

Identification of Causes

I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.

  1.  First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
  2. Scout also lacked “play skills.”  He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
  3. I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
  4. Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.

Stress and Feather Picking

I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college.  Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.

Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving.  Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are.  However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.

In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work.  As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time.  Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:

Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.

Evolving the Pair Bond

Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.

I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor.  This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him.  He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.

However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). OscaronBasketAgain we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size.  They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest.  Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.

We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much.  Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.

Foraging and Enrichment

Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily.  This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on his feathers.  Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.

In my experience, you just have to find a starting point.  I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.

While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage.  If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys.  By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.

Making Changes to Diet

We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.

I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.

I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.

Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout.  Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. ChristieTargeting Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.

In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.

Stress

We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress.  There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.

Results

By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.

OscarAfter
After Photo (mid-June 2018)

Remember the “before” photo above?  The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.

Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem.  However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.

It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt.  In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective.  In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month.  That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.

Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.

Lessons to Be Learned

  • If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
  • Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
  • Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
  • Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems.  Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!

Have you found success in stopping feather destruction?  If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.

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