Easiest Behavior Fixes Ever!

It seems sometimes that the bulk of our days is spent trying to change the behavior of other species – spouses, co-workers, children, pets, and even pests.

We struggle to get our kids to do their homework, rather than stare at screens. We want the dog to sit rather than jump up on a guest. We search for non-toxic snail control. We stress out over parrots who scream, display aggression, or pull feathers, trying one tactic and then another to get them to stop. At the same time, we can’t get them to eat vegetables, play with toys, or accept a bath.

Consequences and Punishment

When it comes to problem behavior, our first impulse is usually to try to find a consequence to make it stop. Further, that consequence often takes the shape of punishment. 

We take away screen time if the homework doesn’t get done. We lock the dog into his crate when he jumps up. When the parrot screams, we spray him with water or cover his cage. If the bird bites, we put him into his cage for a “time out.”

Why are we so focused on the use of consequences to change behavior? Perhaps because it feels so familiar.

We are all familiar with the painful consequences of failure to plan or of our own miscalculations. We learn to use a hammer correctly when we bang our fingers often enough. We fix that step after we trip. We avoid jalapenos after a sleepless night of indigestion.

For many of us, consequences in the form of punishment from others are also very familiar. If we run a red light, we pay the price of a ticket. If kids misbehave in school, they get a visit with the principal. If we break a law, we go to jail. For those of us who have taken a spin around the sun more than a few times, we can remember being spanked by our parents for wrongdoing – an accepted practice back when we were young.  

We live in a society in which consequences, especially the consequence of punishment, is the first “go to” method for changing behavior. Is it any wonder then that we focus on consequences when we need to change a parrot’s behavior?

Of course not! It feels familiar and punishment, delivered skillfully, will serve to decrease the problem behavior in the future. Moreover, it often feels good to the punisher, since it can relieve frustration and anger.

However, many problems derive from the use of punishment. Results of positive punishment may include a desire to escape, with a display of either fear or aggression. Another unforeseen result is apathy, in that other behaviors may be suppressed as well. Results of negative punishment include stress and frustration.

In general, taking action to punish a behavior often results in broken trust and increased problems of another sort. (Chance, 1999) We do not want to be in the position of punishing our parrots as our primary tactic for changing behavior.

Applied Behavior Analysis

There is, thankfully, a much better way to successfully solve many behavior issues. By changing antecedents, we can both make problem behaviors less likely and cause desired behaviors to occur more often.  

I have brought you through the backdoor into the house of applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis (the science of behavior) gives us a systematic, scientifically-proven method for changing behavior.

Please note that most of the behavior suggestions found on Facebook and other social media sites are not science-based. Most offering advice have a bad case of not knowing what they don’t know. Anyone “researching” behavior problems must question the credentials of anyone offering advice.

In contrast, the approach provided by applied behavior analysis can be trusted to work if practiced correctly.

We need focus on only three things when we need to change a specific behavior. In addition to the behavior itself, we examine the antecedents and the consequences. We are all familiar with the consequences of course. They are the events that occur immediately after a behavior that influence the rate at which that behavior will be offered in the future. (Luescher, 2006) Punishment is a consequence that reduces a particular behavior in the future.

A far better strategy whenever possible is to deftly arrange antecedents in order to support the likelihood of a desired outcome.

Antecedent-based Interventions

According to Friedman, Martin and Brinker, “Antecedents are the stimuli, events, and conditions that immediately precede a behavior.” Antecedents set the stage for the behavior to occur; the behavior will not occur without the presence of the antecedent.

Changing antecedents in order to change behavior is a more ethical, often simpler and easier way to change behavior. So easy in fact that, when I suggest such a change, clients will look at me with a bit of skepticism. I can see them thinking that things really can’t be that easy. 

Antecedent changes can be used in order to make it easy for our birds to perform the behaviors we do want and to make it hard or impossible to perform the behaviors that we don’t want to see.

Let’s review some examples of using antecedent changes both to decrease problem behaviors and to set birds up for success when performing new or unfamiliar behaviors.

Decreasing Problem Behaviors

Aggression and “Nippiness”

Antecedent changes are the “name of the game” when it comes to solving problems of aggression.

Example One: Some types of misbehavior occur when a bird is on the shoulder. Perhaps a bird, who has been sitting on your shoulder for three years without problem, suddenly begins to bite when up there. Perhaps he nips your earlobes or pulls your glasses off or rips an earring out.

Antecedent Change: In this case, the recommended antecedent change is simple – just don’t allow the bird onto your shoulder. Instead, you can teach him to station on a perch near you by offering reinforcers frequently. This will actually increase his quality of life more than sitting on your shoulder does. It both encourages independent behavior and offers him control over access to reinforcers.

Example Two: Your bird lunges at you when you are changing out food dishes.

Antecedent Change: Teach him to station up on a perch in the cage located furthest from the food dishes. When you show up with the food dishes, have with you a good-sized favorite treat that will take him a minute to eat. By moving your hand on the outside of the cage, lure him up to the designated perch and then give him the treat through the cage bars. Quickly switch out the dishes. Continue to do this every time you feed him. He will begin to scramble up to the preferred perch as soon as he sees you arrive with his food.

Example Three: Your flighted bird attacks your hands when you hold a book or tablet.

Antecedent Change: Either put him into his cage or outdoor aviary while you read or read in another room.

Example Four: Your bird bites when you ask him to step up.

Antecedent Change: You begin to reinforce stepping up by first showing and then immediately delivering a preferred food treat. At the same time, you read your bird’s body language and honor that by making use of a start button.

Screaming or Other Problem Noise

Example One: Your parrot enjoys perching where he can look out the window, but screams frequently when he sees neighborhood action taking place outside.

Antecedent Change: Purchase some sheer curtains and keep those closed when the noise will be inconvenient. You can still have the light without the noise.

Example Two: Your parrot is too loud when you have company. You might have learned to live with this, but it may upset your visitors and make it hard to enjoy yourselves. 

Antecedent Change: If you have a sleep cage, turn it into a “siesta cage.” Add a hanging perch above and a playstand beside, then place toys and foraging projects there. This way, your parrot can be relocated before your visitors arrive.

Example Three: Your parrot screams when you get on the phone.

Antecedent Change: Go into another room or outside to talk, if the call cannot be predicted. You might also try using the speaker phone function, since it is often holding the phone to your ear that acts as the stimulus for the noise.

Example Four: Your parrot screams when you and your spouse have a conversation in another room. This often results when a pair bond exists between the parrot and one of the partners. Additional measures will be necessary to resolve this social dynamic.

Antecedent Change: A simple antecedent change for the short term is to have the parrot present for the conversation. In this case, isolation is a problem.

Increasing Desirable Behaviors

Improving the Diet of Small Birds

It’s common for small parrots like budgerigars, cockatiels and lovebirds to eat a seed mix as the dietary staple. After all, that’s what the breeder or pet store sent you home with, along with that too-small cage, the cuttlebone, and the plastic toy with a bell inside.

If you have a bird like this and have learned about the dangers of such a diet, you may have struggled to get your bird converted to pellets and other foods.

Antecedent Change: Offer new foods in dishes that are right near to the bird’s favorite perches. They are more likely to accept these new foods sooner when they are right under that beak. This means that eating the new foods is easier, in terms of energy use.  

Teaching Larger Parrots to Eat Vegetables

Many parrots who have been eating a seed mix typically resist the consumption of both vegetables and pellets. In part, this is due to their neophobic nature. The other problem is their tendency to be naturally drawn to high-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods.

Antecedent Change: Measure out the amount of seed that your parrot eats in a day. This is important. You can’t decrease it if you don’t know what quantity you are offering to begin with. Before feeding, mix the seed into an equal measure of finely chopped vegetables or Chop Mix. Gradually begin to incrementally decrease the amount of seed offered daily as your parrot begins to eat the vegetable mix. By the time that you have stopped offering the seed mix at all, your parrot will have begun to eat both the pellets (if offering those also) and the vegetables.

Antecedent Change #2: Offer the pellets or vegetables in a different location, such as on top of the cage or on a play stand. This will often encourage consumption and I have no idea why. When I was working full time, my parrots ignored pellets in their cages. When I put them on play stands, they began eating them eagerly.

Playing with Toys

I hear many owners complain that their parrot doesn’t play with toys. There are certainly parrots who do not interact with any enrichment. These birds can be taught to interact with toys and foraging opportunities, but this requires consistent and focused training.

Still other birds might interact with toys, but do not do so because it is too difficult or inconvenient. For example, many wooden toys sold for certain species are actually too difficult for them to chew. Either the wood itself is too hard or the pieces are too big. Toy manufacturers have caught onto the fact that you won’t be happy if your parrot destroys in 15 minutes a toy that cost you $15.00. The problem with this is that the sorts of things that interest parrots are those that they can destroy quickly.

Antecedent Change: Make toys at home, using designs from my pamphlet Parrot Enrichment Made Easy. This includes suggestions for making quick, easy-to-chew wooden toys, in addition to those made of paper, cardboard, and fabric.

Antecedent Change #2: In addition, make sure that toys and foraging options are placed very near perches on which your bird chooses to spend time. I have seen toys attached to the inside back of the cage with no perch in sight. I have seen toys placed near perches that are so close to the back of the cage that the parrot can’t comfortably turn around on the perch and can only sit on it facing backwards. Pretend you are your parrot and ask yourself if you can easily interact with the enrichment you have in the cage. Make sure that your parrot can perch easily in a spot where he can easily reach his enrichment items and won’t bang his tail if he turns around.

Encouraging a Bath

Another common complaint concerns the larger parrot who won’t accept a bath. This bird might bathe in the water dish occasionally, but doesn’t get wet enough.

Antecedent Change: Many owners have noticed that their parrot displays bathing behavior, usually in the water dish, when the vacuum cleaner is running. In addition to marveling at this strange phenomenon, you might also choose this as a time to offer a few spritzes from a spray bottle, especially if the parrot isn’t scared by the sight of the bottle. And if he is, perhaps you can conceal the bottle with a kitchen towel or piece of cardboard so that just the nozzle is visible.

Fun with Antecedents

I’ve provided examples of very simple antecedent changes for very simple problems so that you could get the idea. The whole process can be, and usually is, more complicated, and this is where the fun comes in.

In most cases, there are several possible antecedent changes that might work. So, when you identify that you have a problem, sit down with a piece of paper and brainstorm as many as you possibly can, even if a few seem unlikely or even silly.(You may also need to teach other, new behaviors using positive reinforcement, but you can at least get a head start on a solution in this way.)

Remember not to get caught up in trying to figure out what the parrot is feeling or thinking. Instead, just focus on the behavior itself. Then, implement for a week or so the one that you think is most likely to work. Measure the results by observing closely what happens. If that tactic seems to not be working, go on to the next most likely.

I’ll give you an example from my own case files. I know a particular parrot who pulls pin feathers during the night. These are observed on the floor of the cage or the cage cover in the morning. This is a perfectly well-adjusted, flighted parrot on a good diet with an excellent environment that encourages movement and provides lots of enrichment.

Possible antecedent changes include the following: (1) Encouraging more food consumption before bed; (2) Encouraging more exercise before bed; (3) Partially, rather than completely, covering her cage; (4) Giving her some enrichment in her cage to chew on during the night; and (5) Allowing her to stay up a bit later.

This case remains a work in progress. Since the feather damage is occurring only at night, it may well be related to a disease process. However, since veterinary treatment has been completed, it still makes sense to examine antecedents.

A Last Word

Antecedent changes provide us with science-based, ethical, and effective tactics for behavior change. Many simple problems can be resolved through these alone. Using antecedent changes, we can set our birds up for success by encouraging behaviors we would like to see.

All behavior principles that are scientifically proven, like the use of positive reinforcement and antecedent changes, work for humans too. They work across all species lines.

Perhaps we reach so readily for punishment when dealing with parrots is because we as a society use punishment almost exclusively to deal with our children and others.

It’s been a long time since my own kids were young. I was lucky enough back then to discover the book “How to Discipline with Love: From Crib to College” by Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson, which was published in 1992. As Fitzhugh points out, parents all across America are teaching their children to behave badly.

They ignore them when they are behaving well, usually desperately trying to get something else done, and instead provide attention (reinforcement) when they behave badly – throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, fighting with siblings, or refusing to go to bed.

He provides clear instructions for how we can turn that dynamic around. As we all struggle now with staying in place, physical or emotional isolation, and the anxieties related to contracting COVID-19, there is no better time than the present to begin practicing both antecedent changes and the use of positive reinforcement with our parrots, our children, and other family members. “They” say that things won’t be the same once this is all over. This is one change I would like to see that would benefit us all.

Resources:

Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1999

Friedman, S. G. (2009). “Behavior fundamentals: Filling the behavior-change toolbox.” Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 3(1), 36–40. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/journals/Behavior%20Fundamentals%20JACAB.pdf

Friedman, S.G. (2008) “10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know About Behavior.” Psittacine Magazine, May 2008. Pgs 14-16. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/10%20Things%20Your%20Parrots%20Want%20You%20to%20Know.pdf

Friedman, S. G. (2001) “The ABCs of Behavior.” Original Flying Machine, Issue 9: Nov-Dec, 2001. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/ABCs%20of%20Behavior%202004.pdf

Luescher, Andrew. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Chapter 14: Friedman, S.G., Martin, Steve, Brinker, Bobbie. “Behavior Analysis and Parrot Learning.” Pg. 147-163.

McGuire, L. (2015) “The Parrot That Screams.” Psittacine Magazine. Pgs 10-11. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/offshoots/Parrot%20that%20Screams%20-%20WPT%20PS%20Summer%202015.pdf

Encouraging Natural Behaviors in Captive Parrots

My last blog post concerned risk factors for feather damaging behavior, specifically lack of both liberty and control. The bigger consideration, of course, within this conversation about why parrots would damage the very things they need for survival, is quality of life.

In that last blog, I included a quote from Lauren A. Leotti and her co-authors: “In the absence of other stressors, however, the removal of choice, in and of itself, can be very stressful. It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress. It seems that the aversive effects of captivity may depend upon the extent to which behavioral choices have been reduced relative to what could be performed in the natural environment.” (Leotti, 2010)

Photo courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

Simply put, if captive parrots are unable to perform natural behaviors, the effects of captivity are going to result in serious behavioral and physical problems, which is exactly what we are seeing. Problems with biting, screaming, fear, and feather damaging behavior are all around us, as are growing numbers of parrots dying from atherosclerosis.

A New Paradigm

I’ve given this issue – the allowance of natural behaviors – a great deal more thought since I published that last blog post. While I did include in that post some strategies for supporting natural behaviors, this will be a deeper dive into that topic. I may repeat myself just a little, but we can’t hear this stuff too many times, right?

I suggest this model, the encouragement of natural behaviors, as the new paradigm for the way in which we care for our parrots from this point onward. In the past, our parrot-keeping efforts have been shaped by other concepts and models. Let’s take a moment to examine those in order to understand what may still be shaping our thinking as we attempt to move forward

Older Models for Parrot-Keeping

Dominance and Control

One of the most historically destructive models for the parrot-human bond has concerned that of dominance. In 1992, the following appeared in a popular magazine in an article about cage dominance: “To have a well-behaved parrot, owners must establish themselves as the dominant partner in the pair or flock bond….  As the bird establishes dominance over its cage, it becomes dominant everywhere.” (Blanchard, 1992)

In 1996, this message about the need for the human to be dominant was in the process of being softened and was now called Nurturing Dominance.  “By establishing a relationship of nurturing dominance by teaching and consistently using the four basic commands, you can successfully demote your parrot from its perceived position as head of the flock.” (The four commands were: “Up,” “Down,” “No,” and “Okay.”) (Wilson, 1996)

In 1999, these “principles” of dominance and control were formalized in book form, with yet another name change to Nurturing Guidance. An entire page was given over to the concept of height dominance.

As it was explained: “People who have not established Nurturing Guidance  will have trouble with height dominance, but they will most likely also have trouble with cage aggression, excessive screaming, biting, and other behavioral problems. I find that when people are having behavioral problems with their parrots, establishing non-threatening height dominance is the only way owners need to work with their birds.”

In other words, you won’t have behavior problems if you keep the bird down low and establish your own dominance. (If you need a really great counter argument to the myth of height dominance, read trainer Steve Martin’s article Understanding Parrot Behavior, Naturally.)

It is a sure sign that a behavioral “principle” has no validity if you need to keep morphing the concept and the name to make it more palatable to your readers. Moreover, if there is a dominant member in a relationship then, by definition, there must be a submissive member. Is that really the best we can do for the birds we love – to make them submissive so that they will behave?

In reality, there is a natural science of behavior that has been studied for over a century and has produced a set of fundamental principles, now known as applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA can both explain why behavior occurs and provide ethical methods for behavior change when this is desired.

Unfortunately, those concepts of dominance and control are like the film on the bottom of our parrot’s water dishes, pernicious, insidious, always in the process of establishing themselves yet again. In the past two weeks, I have talked to new clients who expressed concerns about their parrot being up too high. It is scary how persistent this concept remains in the minds of parrot owners.

Clipping Wings Keeps Parrots Safe

Wing clipping has been practiced with almost religious fervor for decades in this country. This concept has been so well embraced that it was not even questioned for years, despite the fact that we were depriving a living animal of moving around normally. In large part, this practice has been established and maintained as the right thing to do by those doing the clipping – veterinarians and groomers.

Unfortunately, in all cases I have found, those writing about the dangers of flight have never lived with a flighted parrot in their lives. While well-intentioned, they do not understand flight and the manner in which flight skills develop, nor what can be done to ensure safety for flighted parrots.

Further, in my experience as a veterinary technician, no owner ever came in and requested a wing trim so that her bird would be safe. Instead, these requests were made because the bird was getting “uppity” now that it could fly. “Uppity” translates into being uncompliant and/or beginning to bite

Thus, in reality, wing clipping has been used in large part as just another way to maintain control of our parrots – limit their ability to move around and keep them down low. In other words, take away their feelings of safety so that they are less likely to resist our “commands.”

Other Models

A myriad of other well-established concepts exist, of course. These persist because of their authority borrowed from the reality that “everyone does it.”

These practices include keeping parrots in cages for most of every day, keeping parrots indoors at all times, cuddling parrots, cramming cages into a small room to contain the mess and noise, purchasing dome-topped cages, feeding seed diets…and the list goes on. We can always find someone else who does exactly what we do in order to validate our own choices.

A New Paradigm

We have before us a new decade. Let’s allow it to inspire us to shed the old skin of outmoded and destructive ideas and adopt a new paradigm for parrot-keeping. Should we do so, I would propose that we include as the most important criteria:

  • The provision for every parrot of as many natural behaviors as possible in each living situation.
  • To embrace the science of behavior, specifically the strategies of (1) arranging the environment for success, (2) antecedent change, and (3) positive reinforcement, to live harmoniously and cooperatively with our birds.

For the remainder of this blog post, I will be focusing on the provision of natural behaviors for our parrots, for there is much still to explore in this area. I have already written several posts on the second criteria of behavior change strategies, and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.

For now, I will leave you with the thoughts of trainer Steve Martin: “When you give an animal a voice through its body language, and place that voice in higher regard than your own, you are on the right path to successful training.”

Natural Behaviors to Encourage

Natural behaviors for wild parrots have been described as flying, foraging, bathing, roosting, socializing, vocalizing and breeding. However, there are others we might explore from the perspective of the companion parrot’s status in our homes. Some of the latter may attain a greater level of importance, given the often narrow scope of decision-making granted to them.

Two things: (1) First, this is an initial attempt only to explore this topic and my hope is that we can all brainstorm together from this point onward, and (2) I could write a separate blog post about each of the sections below, but in the interests of reasonable length, I have elected an introduction of each idea in most cases. Where I have important details to offer, I have done so.

A word about rights before I continue: If parrots enjoy certain activities in the wild, then would we not be correct in describing these same things as birthrights?

Bathing Options

Showering is important as a form of exercise and enrichment; it also serves to encourage normal preening. Opportunities most commonly involve taking the parrot into the shower or misting with a spray bottle. Other options should be explored in the interests of introducing variety.

Some parrots love to leaf bathe. Try offering a bunch of Swiss chard or fresh branches soaking wet and tied to the side of the cage or placed in a shallow dish. Both small and large parrots enjoy this activity once they are used to it.

Some parrots prefer bathing outdoors in an aviary, either in the spray from a hose or when it’s raining. Perhaps a water feature could be installed in the aviary?

We also have some exciting new products available – the unique creations by John Langkamp.

John creates bathing stations in all sizes that allow birds to bathe at liberty – when they feel like it. He also produces platform perches in a myriad of designs, play stands from the simplest table-top perch to two story sands, and “balconies” for cages that have no play tops. All of his products support the parrot’s engagement in natural behaviors.

Drinking Water

Parrots relish in fresh water. Mine eagerly drink from a freshly filled water dish, even though a moment before it still contained unsullied water. It has always struck me as wrong to limit a parrot’s access to water to drops coming out of a bottle. Wouldn’t you find it frustrating to have to lick droplets one at a time in order to drink?

Aside from the ethical problem of restricting a parrot’s access to water to this degree, water bottles can be risky. When water stops flowing, it becomes stagnant. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for certain bacteria species, such as Pseudomonas. (WHO, 2003)

When you wash out a parrot’s water dish, you will notice a film on the bottom. This is called the biofilm and is a coating in which water-borne bacteria grow.(Univ. of Ill, 2018) To adequately clean the water dish, you need a scrub pad.

With a water bottle, the water remains in the bottle for a longer period, thus enabling this biofilm to develop often for days. Refilling the bottle with fresh water does nothing to clean off the biofilm. Other risks involve bottle malfunction, which has resulted in the loss of parrots from dehydration.

My suggestion is to ditch the water bottles and let your parrot have a dish of water. Cleaning it twice a day should be sufficient, even for the messiest of parrots.  If it gets poop in it, move it to another place in the cage up higher.

Foraging

This has become the new buzz-word in the world of parrot enrichment, for good reason. However, we can expand our thinking even further. Parrots who naturally forage on the ground should be provided with opportunities of this nature. Grass mats for birds like budgerigars, cockatiels, and kakarikis are often eagerly accepted after just a few days.

Another great option is to place papers over the grates in the bottom of cages. There are several advantages. The birds get to go down onto the papers to forage for what they have dropped. I don’t have to scrub the cage grates. Changing papers is easy because all I have to do is to pick up the top later of paper; no need to pull out that heavy tray except for once a week. Many imagine that this will just result in poop-covered feet. It’s not appropriate for all parrots, but try it! You’ll be surprised.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

Foraging for natural plant materials can be provided in aviaries. Raised beds can offer millet, sunflowers and other edible flowers,  greens and other vegetables to encourage a more natural foraging experience.

Fresh Air and Sunshine

There is no other single thing you can do to provide enrichment that will reap as many benefits as setting up an outdoor aviary. The benefits are now widely recognized. Parrots are exposed to those necessary UVB rays. They wear themselves out and come back into the house calm and relaxed at the end of the day. They have access to different enrichment and bathing opportunities.

If you need some ideas, ask to be a member of the Home Aviary Design group on Facebook. It’s a private group, but is generous in accepting new members. The group has good participation and provides information about everything from design, to wire type, to rodent control and more.

Height and Alternate Perches

Parrots feel safer when perching up high. This is a birthright and a great way to provide enrichment.  They also need to move around. “In this respect, most parrots are neither sedentary nor migratory but mobile within a geographical area that provides for all of the bird’s needs, but not necessarily all at once in one locality.” (Parr, 1998)

Photo courtesy of Maha Tahiri

This observation of wild parrots can inform our own choices when creating an environment. Both flighted and clipped parrots can be provided with (and taught to use) free standing play gyms, hanging perches and other adornments to the environment that support more natural movements.

Lorenzo, the Double Yellow-headed Amazon in the photo was just adopted into a new home; he eagerly took to the trapeze they had prepared for him before his arrival.

Liberty Flying

I have published six blog posts on indoor flight for companion parrots. I am a passionate advocate for the allowance of flight, while also recognizing that some older parrots will not be good candidates for this experience.

It is not ethical to remove an animal’s ability to move around at will. As behavior consultant Jim McKendry once said, “If a dog gets out of the yard and bites the postman, we don’t cut off his legs. Instead we build a better fence.”

We must work towards the day when anyone breeding parrots must provide for a full fledging experience and then send that baby home without a wing clip. From that point onward, the new owner must learn how to live safely and cooperatively with a flighted parrot. We must also educate our veterinarians regarding a better way of thinking.

Imagine, just for a moment what your relationship might be like with a parrot who trusted you this much:

Video Courtesy of Lee Stone

Others’ Feathers

You should never get a second parrot because of the assumption that it will make the first happier. But, if you want to get a second parrot, my heart will be happy at the news.  Having always lived with multiple parrots, I see how each bird gains just from having other feathered creatures in the home.

Photo courtesy of Mandy Andrea

This is true even if the two parrots never interact physically. No other companion animal moves the way a bird moves. No other animal vocalizes like a bird does. No other animal reacts like a bird does. Just having another set of feathers in the house is enriching on multiple levels for a companion parrot.

The Unobstructed View

What effect might it have for a parrot to live his entire life within four walls? Perhaps none. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware of my own reaction when I get outdoors. It’s not just the feel of the breeze or sunshine, or the smell of nearby plants, but the fact that I am not confined. Finally, there is no barrier between me and the natural world.

How might we erase those walls, other than to get the parrot outdoors into an aviary? A Wingdow perch is of great appeal to many birds.

Wood, Branches and Bark

We don’t really know fully how parrots interact with the natural plant materials in their environment when that activity occurs outside of foraging for food. We do have some clues, however.

Donald Brightsmith and other researchers who have taken samples from the crops of wild macaws still in the nest have identified a percentage of bark chunks in the crop. Chris Shank and I have observed her free-flighted cockatoo parents foraging outside the aviary for bark and then returning to feed it to their young.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

My own parrots love to strip the bark off of fresh branches. We don’t understand the purpose of these behaviors. However, I suggest that providing fresh branches for perches and chewing enrichment may well be necessary for quality of life.

There has been much written about the dangers of bacteria and fungus on plants taken from the outdoors. However, these come under the heading of “imagined” dangers.

Advice for “disinfection” stems from washing with vinegar to baking them in the oven. I believe, based upon anecdotal evidence, that these measures are unnecessary. If you are worried about “germs,” give the branches a good blast with your hose to dislodge anything suspect.

Two such “vases” with pine 2 x 4s on either side as chewable perches.

A great way to bring fresh branches into the home for your parrots’ enjoyment is to first create a “vase” for them. Purchase PVC pipe that is 4 to 6 inches in diameter, then cut a length about four feet long. You can paint this green for aesthetic appeal. Put this into a large Christmas tree stand and tighten in place. When ready, shove the branches down into the top of the pipe and replace as needed.

If you choose actively growing branches with the bark intact, there is little danger. Simply stay away from branches where the wood looks old and the bark is falling off of it, for fungus could be growing under the bark in those cases. Just allow common sense to prevail.

If unsure of the safety of certain trees, you can refer to this website. If you are unable to identify a tree species, you can take a sample into a garden center for identification.  

The Keys to Change

It is human nature for most of us to reject an idea when we first hear of it, especially if it means more cost, inconvenience, or work…as most of those above will.

However, do you remember my point in that last blog about how our own behavior harm us? If we fail to appreciate that many of our practices for keeping companion parrots either do not meet their needs, may harm them, or even meet the definition of unethical, yet we insist on maintaining our own positive self-image, discord results – internal and external.

Let’s begin by deciding to be a bit more open-minded to the ideas above. Remember that you don’t have to help anyone else see the light. You just have to help yourself to see the light.

You can choose to stay away from opinionated discussions on social media and instead do your own research to find information from reputable sources. Then, if you get to the point of being convinced that you can make some improvements, just brainstorm to see what might be possible. Things don’t have to be black and white. You can start small.

Resources:

Blanchard, Sally. “The Importance of Cage Dominance.” The Pet Bird Report. Sept/Oct 1992: 4-7.

Blanchard, Sally. The Companion Parrot Handbook. Alameda: PBIC, Inc., 1999.

Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998.

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

Luescher, A. ,ed. Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2018. “Model to show how bacteria grow in plumbing systems.” Science News. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180329190849.htm

Wilson, Liz. “Nurturing Dominance: What It Is and How and Why It Works.” The Pet Bird Report. October 1996: 32-35.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2003. Heterotrophic Plate Counts and Drinking-water Safety. Edited by J. Bartram, J. Cotruvo, M. Exner, C. Fricker, A. Glasmacher. Published by IWA Publishing, London, UK. ISBN: 1 84339 025 6. https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/water-quality/guidelines/HPC4.pdf?ua=1

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

Parrots and Start Buttons

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

Change Antecedents and Consequences to Solve Problems

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

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

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

Antecedent Changes Only for Biting

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

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

Avoid the Situation and Build Behavior to Resolve Biting

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

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

Just Read the Body Language!

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

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

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

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

The Function of Aggressive Displays

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

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

The Benefits of Start Buttons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violet’s Start Button

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

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

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

Dash’s Start Button

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

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

Harpo’s Start Button

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

Begin with a Social Duet

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

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

Start Buttons for Stepping Up

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

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

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

Better Communication Brings Greater Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Screaming Parrot and You

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

Resources are Readily Available

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

So…What’s the Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flaws, Delusions and Messy Bits

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

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

#1: We Believe Our Own Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#3: An Anxious Parrot Is Often a Loud Parrot

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

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

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

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

#4: We Live too Close to the Emotional Edge

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

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

#5: A Screaming Parrot Widens Relationship Fractures

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

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

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

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

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