10 Tips for Relationships with Parrots

It has occurred to me that this blog post could turn out to be just a piece of self-indulgent fluff. However, the topic fascinates me. How do we best craft long-term relationships with our birds? So, I ask for your patience as I sort out my thoughts and I will leave it to you to be the final judge of its worth.

Recently, I asked someone whether it might be possible that they had fallen out of relationship with their parrot. Photo by Tavis Beck on UnsplashI’ve never asked anyone that before, and the question just popped out. It derived from an intuitive sense about what might be going on. My friend, an excellent caregiver whom I have known for years, just hadn’t been aware of what was really going on with his parrot. The bird had been startling and falling more often, but this had gone unnoticed until it created a wound.

It would make sense, wouldn’t it, if we did fall out of relationship with our parrots from time to time? Our relationships with people we love certainly go through ups and downs if they last for any period of time.  We aren’t always kind and loving; at times we may fall into a state of disconnect. Obligations, guilt, and the needs of others can become overwhelming at times, generating the need to create some emotional distance.

Why should it be any different with our parrots?  They live a long time, affording the opportunity to have a relationship that spans decades. They are socially sophisticated and have a deep sensitivity to us and our moods. They are emotional and intelligent, as are we.

I find it very odd that, in conversation with each other, we don’t seem to focus ever on the quality of our relationships with our birds. Do we even recognize that we have a relationship with each parrot? manfred-goetz-522979-unsplash Do we instead have a tendency to objectify them?

When I read comments online about parrots, I see plenty of labels like “cute,” “needy,” cuddly,” “sweet,” “aggressive,” “nippy,” etc. But I rarely hear anyone talk about their relationship with their birds. That is good cause for concern because relationship difficulties often evolve into behavior problems over time.

Everyone agrees that relationships take work. Relationships with parrots certainly take work. Despite all of their good qualities, parrots don’t appear to exhibit much gratitude or awareness about all the work we put in to keep them well-fed and healthy in a clean, enriched environment.  Not a one of my parrots has ever said “thank you” as I cleaned sweet potato off of the wall or “I’m sorry” as I scraped the bottom of my shoe off after having stepped on a piece of fresh pear. Beyond that, they apparently lack any awareness of the need to be nice. They are, to a one, incredibly unapologetic.

If I look back at my own life with birds which spans four decades now, I can easily identify periods when I was not as motivated to provide enrichment, got lazy about diet, and was not much inclined to provide behavioral guidance. I often surfaced from these times after attendance at a good parrot-related conference or a workshop with Barbara Heidenreich, once again motivated and re-energized.

My conclusion is that it’s normal for us to fall out of relationships emotionally with those we love from time to time, those with our birds included. Given that, the question becomes: How can we form the very best relationships with our birds and prevent them from falling apart?

Photo by Ruth Caron on UnsplashWhen we take a new parrot into our homes, we should be forming a relationship by looking to the future and imagining what we want that to look like, just as we would with a small child we had adopted. I don’t think we do that. Evidence to support this would come from the number of parrots relinquished daily to second, third or fourth homes. If the number of parrots living in rescue and adoption organizations like The Gabriel Foundation or Phoenix Landing is any evidence, we don’t put much thought into this at all.

It’s quite popular these days to refer to our birds and other pets as “family members.”  However, saying so doesn’t make it so.

I think most of us fall into relationship with parrots in the same way we form them with dogs and cats. Aside from their daily care, we interact with them physically by holding and petting them. It is soothing for us to have a well-loved cat or dog on a lap or right beside us and we have promoted parrots to a place alongside them, keeping them on shoulders much of the time. All of that physical contact meets our needs for love and companionship, but does it meet our birds’ needs?

Photo by sk on UnsplashParrots are not yet domesticated, as are our mammal friends we keep as pets. Their needs are diverse and complicated – so much so that we still don’t know exactly what they are. Much of their behavior is rooted in instinct. When that peach-colored head rests on your chest does it mean that your cockatoo loves you or does it mean that he seeks to form a mate-like bond with you? Reproducing is high on his list of instinctive priorities, while this possibility might not even be on your radar.

Forming a relationship with a parrot by focusing on physical affection may be a feel-good practice, but it creates a host of problems. Based upon my experience as a behavior consultant, engaging in a lot of close physical contact not only encourages dependence for the bird, but serves as a trigger for the development of a pair bond. Once the parrot has formed a pair bond with you, what comes next is not a feel-good experience at all if you happen to live with other people

Parrots with pair bonds typically display a host of unproductive and problematic behaviors – aggression toward others in the home, increased noise, and a tendency to destroy feathers. They develop a desire to get down on the floor more often, looking for “nesty” spots and destroying woodwork in the process. They slowly lose their desire to interact with enrichment or do much of anything except pursue activities related to nesting.

For the human in the pair-bonded relationship, problems also derive from this focus. I would describe this primarily as a lack of vision when it comes to really seeing the parrot in front of you for all that he is.Photo by Romina veliz on Unsplash

Author Henry Beston once wrote:  “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

There’s nothing wrong with showing our birds we love them by offering physical affection, but when we focus on cuddling with our parrots to the exclusion of other ways of interacting, I think we forget that they are “other nations.” Instead, we see only the “feather magnified” – a distorted image at best. The only way to stay in functional relationship with our parrots is to see them as the resourceful, complicated creatures that they really are, rather than as simply objects of our affection.

If you search through articles and websites about success in human relationships, the number available is staggering. It’s an amazing reflection of just how self-absorbed we can be as a people. Further, no one agrees what a healthy relationship really depends upon. The 10 Signs That You Are in a Healthy Relationship published on the Psychology Today website serves up quite different criteria than does 7 Signs Your Relationship is Healthy on the Huffington Post website.

How can we know that we are creating healthy, i.e. functional, relationships with our own birds that will stand the test of time?  Here are a few thoughts, about which most of those publishing information on human relationships agree:

Respect: If we respect our birds, we don’t use force with them. Instead, we learn to use positive reinforcement to teach them to do the things we want them do. If a parrot won’t step up, we don’t push our hand into his abdomen to insist. Instead, we decide on a preferred food for which he will work, set up the request so that he is likely to comply, and reward him consistently when he does. We afford them autonomy.

Good Communication: We don’t assume we know how they are feeling. Instead we learn to read body language and change our own behavior according to what the parrot communicates. The only way our birds can “talk” to us is through body language and we understand this and respect them enough to learn their ways and preferences. If a parrot leans away from us when we offer petting, we don’t insist. Instead we back off and give him his space. Further, we make sure that our own communication is understandable. If asking for a behavior, we give clear, distinct cues so that he understands what we want.

PoicephalusAnger Control: If a parrot bites us, we don’t blame him. No matter how much it hurts, we control ourselves and instead of lashing out, we look at our part in the problem. Much biting stems from a lack of sensitivity to the body language they have tried so hard to use. If the biting continues, we take responsibility and seek help from someone who knows how to solve the problem. That does not include taking the problem to social media to have strangers weigh in. No one that I know who really has a foundational knowledge of how behavior works hangs out on social media answering questions for free. There is no reinforcement for doing so.

Empathy:  We strive to see things from the parrot’s perspective. If a bird is driving us crazy with screaming, we examine what we expect from him and wonder if perhaps we are asking too much. Are we meeting his needs? Is he getting out of his cage for sufficient time each day? Is he getting enough enrichment, bathing opportunities, and exercise? Expecting a parrot to stay in his cage 22 hours a day or remain isolated in a bird room most of the time without exhibiting problems is simply expecting too much. In addition, if a parrot ever displays fear, we stop in our tracks and rethink what we were about.

Commitment:  When things get difficult, we don’t automatically look at the option of giving the parrot up.download (2) Instead, we remind ourselves that this is a long-term commitment. Things won’t always be wonderful.  Sometimes they get hard. We can accept this fact with some patience and perhaps a sense of humor and wait for other answers to come. We pay money for help when we can’t solve the problems that have arisen.

Problem Solving: We realize that keeping an undomesticated creature inside of four walls is a daunting task. We don’t blame the parrot when problems arise. Instead, we seek solutions and release our preconceived notions of how things have to be. Rather than staying stuck in black and white thinking, we open ourselves to other possibilities.

Compromise:  I’m a great believer in the idea of creating balance in any social flock or family. Everyone must have a way to get their needs met, husbands and parrots included. This takes an open-minded approach that allows the family to strike a balance.

Enjoying Time Spent Together: We find ways to enjoy our birds that don’t involve cuddling and petting. We devise games. We put on music and have a dance party. We teach them to perform fun behaviors. We spend time outdoors together in a safe enclosure. We honor their need to enjoy parallel activities and bring them to the bathroom while we get ready in the morning or into the kitchen as we chop vegetables. We think about what they might enjoy.

DSC_1905Acceptance: We appreciate and respect the parrot for what he is… a flighted spirit. We don’t mutilate his wings to prevent flight without determining that this is absolutely necessary, rather than a matter of convenience for us. We accept him as the “other nation” he is, including his ability and need to fly. Every aspect of a bird’s physiology has evolved for the purpose of flight and this birthright should not be removed without an absolute need, such as preventing him from losing his home.

Trust: Each relationship is a bank account. Each trust-building interaction creates a deposit. And every time we spray the bird with water to stop screaming or force him to do something, we make a withdrawal. We cannot expect to have trust in these relationships unless our account balance is far in the green and stays there. It is possible to become overdrawn and it’s a difficult road back from there.

It is easy to get sucked into conversations about how these birds shouldn’t really be pets. That ship has sailed, my friend. Instead, let’s expand our thinking. Our parrots aren’t dogs or cats or rabbits or reptiles or horses. We need to create a new category of “pet ownership” that calls upon us to take into account their exceptional intelligence, resourcefulness, emotional sensitivity and long, long life spans. And, that takes some thinking!

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I get it that sometimes we must relinquish a parrot to another home.Thefuturewillbedifferent I get it that sometimes we do have to clip wings. I get it that there will be times when the parrot can’t get out of his cage for enough time.  I never blame anyone for making those hard decisions. However, I think we can set the bar a little higher than we have in the past by simply thinking a bit more about how we should be shaping our relationships with our birds.

I would love to hear your thoughts about being in relationship with the parrots who live in your homes. Please send me a comment and I will be sure to reply.

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!

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.