The Education of Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Like an eager elementary student, Star leans forward on the perch next to her mom waiting to touch the target stick that will earn her a treat. Star, a six-month-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is learning how to acquire treats from me by touching a target. She is a quick and enthusiastic learner.

Star is parent-raised. She lives with her mom and dad, Bebe and Flash, in a spacious outdoor aviary. My goal for Star is to have her become a trained free flying cockatoo like her parents. She is well on her way by utilizing every bit of the 40 ft. x 20 ft. confines of her aviary as she develops her flight skills and strength.

Time Line of Development

Let’s exam her progression from a youngster barely able to hold and crack a sunflower seed to the more masterful cockatoo that she is today. Before explaining the teaching goals I have offered Star, here’s a timeline of her development and accomplishments thus far:

  • Star hatched on May 26, 2019.
  • 8 weeks of age: Star fledges, leaving the nest box for the first time.
  • 9 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me near her aviary.
  • 10 weeks of age: Holds and eats an Avicake; flight and foraging skills are improving.
  • 11 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me in the aviary.
  • 12 weeks of age: Still is fed by her parents, but eats more often on her own; flight skills are progressing to an adult level.
  • 13 weeks of age: Comes down to the training perch on her own when I’m absent and eats from the attached bowl.
  • 14 weeks of age: Comes to training perch and watches as I hand feed treats to Bebe on the perch.
  • 21 weeks of age: Not eating from my hand yet, but eats willingly from a handheld bowl.
  • 22 weeks of age: Takes treats and an almond from my hand; whimpers endearingly while waiting for the treat.
  • 23 weeks of age: Targets and takes a treat!
  • 24 weeks of age: Eats mostly on her own while occasionally begging and receiving food from her parents.

From the timeline, notice that the more Star becomes self-sufficient with her feeding ability, the more engaged she becomes with me on the training perch. She still shows caution and is anxious if I move too fast or do something out of the ordinary, but she recovers quickly. This little one is on her way to learning what people are all about.

Star’s Progress

The family after a bath

A typical school day for Star consists of watching what her teachers – her parents – do.  From them, she learns where to forage and what foods to eat. She practices her preening skills on each of them and learns cockatoo etiquette, as well as proper Bare-eyed vocalizations. Crucially, she learns how to be a successful and well-adjusted Bare-eyed Cockatoo.

At six months of age, Star exhibits significant mental and physical confidence. For example, when I put up new foraging enrichment, she immediately tries to puzzle out how to get the goodies. She either figures out solutions on her own or watches closely as Bebe or Flash tackle the problem. Learning from observing her parents is immensely helpful for Star, as it is for youngsters of all species. She is absorbing skills and behaviors from them that help her become a normal and mentally- balanced cockatoo.

The following is a striking example of acquiring a skill through observation. I made foraging wood blocks with holes drilled in them to hold hidden almond pieces. I strung the blocks together and hung them from a perch in the family’s aviary. The blocks could be accessed either by climbing down the string or sitting on the perch and pulling the string up.

Star flew to the foraging toy the minute I hung it. I watched as she climbed down the string of blocks and struggled while it twirled around as she was trying to get the almond from the wood. She quickly let go and flew off.

Next, Flash came over to the blocks and nonchalantly pulled the string up with his beak and foot as he sat on the perch. He could now hold the block of wood and quickly tear into it for the almond. The entire time Star watched him intently.

What I observed next solidified for me the importance of parental influence. After Flash left the string of blocks, Star started to pull it up, just as Flash had. Of course, she wasn’t as physically coordinated with this new skill, but she was successful nonetheless.

People Socialization

Over the last weeks, Star has made steady progress becoming more people-friendly or at least tolerant and I attribute her advancing people skills once again to her parents. Both cockatoos were parent-raised and socialized to people here at Cockatoo Downs. They’ve had extensive positive training encounters with a variety of people who visit here or come to our training workshops. All their training has been with positive reinforcement.

Not raised to be ‘snuggly’ cockatoos, Bebe and Flash exhibit natural Bare-eyed Cockatoo behaviors while maintaining a positive connection with people. They’ve learned that interacting with folks will bring them good things to eat and they rarely pass up a training session opportunity.

Soon after Star fledged, I invited people to come and engage with her parents in short training sessions of targeting. From afar, Star observed Flash and Bebe’s training sessions, which set good examples for Star to emulate in the future.

Star’s Training

It’s impossible to rush Star’s training as she will respond simply by flying away. Flighted birds make us better trainers because we learn quickly that taking micro steps toward our training goals is essential. If we push or ask for too much, our student will fly off with an “I’m-outta-here” retort.

The goal of Star targeting and taking a treat from my hand was accomplished in stages. First, she learned to eat from attached feed bowls on the training perches with her parents. This enabled her to understand that the training perch was a source of good things.

Step One: Star learns to come down and eat from bowls on the training perches.

Next she learned to stay on the perch while I was feeding her parents. She watched closely as her mom and dad took treats from my hand. When I offered my open hand chock full of sunflower seeds and pines nuts to Star, she responded with a big fat “No way!” and off she flew. It took several sessions for her to become desensitized to the scary hand.

Step Two: Star learns to stay on perch while I feed her parents from my hand.

I accomplished it by taking a step backwards and offering her a “safer” option which was to eat from a handheld bowl. That did the trick as she became comfortable with seeing my hand near her, but didn’t have to deal with the frightening (eek!) possibility of touching it.

Step Three: Star learns to eat from a bowl I hold in my hand.
Step Four: Star learns to take treats from my hands.

Soon Star was eating from my hand. She progressed rapidly to taking a treat calmly from my fingers to—ta da!—touching a target.

Step Five: Star learns to target!

Slow Going?

One could argue that, at six months of age, a hand raised cockatoo would be weaned, be super people -friendly, stepping up on the hand, learning recall, and other behaviors we expect in our companion parrots. I would counter that with, at what cost to the young parrot and her parents? Please read my previous blog post that compares hand-rearing vs. parent rearing and the impact of each on their offspring.

It makes me sad to think of the critically important education hand-raised parrots miss growing up without their parents. So much of what gives Star her success in life so far has been taught to her by Bebe and Flash. It’s because of hand raising’s short- and long- range detrimental effects on both parents and chicks that I have chosen to parent raise Star.

So what if it takes longer to socialize and train her? We have all the time in the world. It’s the journey I’m taking with Star and her parents and what I’m learning from them that makes this so worthwhile.

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

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


Parrots, Flight, and Play Behavior

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

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

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

The Functions of Play Behavior

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

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

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

Flighted Fledgling and the Adult Parrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Update

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

Morning Coffee with Ellie

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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


What Needs to Be Said

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

Star with one of her parents

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

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

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

Foraging

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

Star forages on garden-grown millet spray.

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

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

Star forages on rose hips with her parents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The free flyers forage in the garden.

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

Socialization

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

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

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

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

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

Star forages alongside her neighbors.

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

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

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

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

Star looks on as her parents accept treats from visitors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Contradictory Cockatoo Behavior

The most fascinating thing about watching Bebe and Flash Bare-eyed Cockatoo raise their chick, Star, is that their behaviors change as does the growing inventory of Star’s exploratory actions. Let’s look at some examples.

The Power Struggle

In my last blog episode, I mentioned the power struggle that exists between Flash and Bebe, first over who would brood the eggs, then feed the chick, and now feed and stay near the fledgling, Star. I’ve consulted with an experienced cockatoo breeder in Australia about what is, in my eyes, unusual behavior. He could not give me an answer.

He did mention, though, that in captive breeding situations cockatoos can be quite difficult, as some males show intense aggression towards their mates before going to nest. I was aware of that conduct, having bred cockatoos myself. What I haven’t observed before is anything like this constant changing of who’s “in charge” of Star.

I’m thinking that this may be a natural behavior, distorted by captivity. In the wild, while one bird broods the egg or chick, the other would typically be out for some length of time finding food. When the far-ranging mate returns, the length of time has been such that the at-home mate is ready to leave the nest box, thus letting the returned cockatoo take over brooding duties.

In the aviary, food is conveniently only a few wing-beats away. When one mate leaves the fledgling’s side, the other swoops in to take over, regardless of whether enough time has elapsed.

This is all just conjecture on my part and may well make no sense at all. I could not find detailed descriptions of wild Bare-eyed Cockatoo nesting behavior, so this is the best explanation I can come up with at this time. If anyone has any other ideas or information regarding this behavior, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

Feeding and Foraging

Star, at 13 weeks of age, is still being fed regurgitated food by her parents, so whoever is on Star-watch will feed her. When I fill up the food station, the controlling parent at the time will not allow the other admission to it.

Again, I ask “Why is this?” How does this relate to cockatoo behavior in the wild? Do paired cockatoos keep their mates from accessing food in nature? Most likely not, since there is probably food readily available elsewhere.

That there is an “argument” between Flash and Bebe over food access in the aviary is probably due to limited availability, since there has been only one feeding station. Providing only one food station in a captive environment can cause resource guarding. We may see it between two companion dogs when they are fed their dinner. We can see it in a group of horses when fed communally in a paddock. I answered my own question by providing one more feeding station and the resource guarding ceased.

Free Flying Behavior

Another change in parental behavior involves Flash and Bebe’s free flying. While the pair was brooding the chick and continuing  until a few days after Star had fledged, it was typical that both birds would go out to fly when I opened their door. Off they’d go, sometimes at great length and other times just for a short stretch of the wings.

Star flies down close to Chris for the first time to forage.

While her parents were out flying, Star would sit quietly tucked in or behind the birch tree that grows in the back of the aviary. At this time of her life she did no exploratory flying in the aviary on her own.

When I offered Bebe and Flash an opportunity to free fly one morning not too long ago, neither took me up on it. Okay, that wasn’t too unusual. What was unusual is that in the weeks following, going out to free fly wasn’t part of Flash and Bebe’s agenda.

Sharing fresh millet spray with Father Flash

As Star’s exploratory behaviors have increased, so too have the parents’ intense surveillance over her. In other words, as she becomes more independent, the parents’ concern about her whereabouts grows.

It seems that it should be the opposite; that is, as Star’s independence grows, so should the loosening of parental apron strings. Again, I’ve come up with another hypothesis.

Even though Star is becoming quite competent at negotiating the aviary by flight, she has not acquired adult capabilities. Her flying is not as physically robust as her parents. Even her ability to walk on a perch is not up to adult standards yet. However, she doesn’t hesitate to fly about the aviary with as much gusto as she can muster.

The Awkward Star

I compare this extra Star attention by Flash and Bebe to human parents whose baby is learning to walk. Once some competency has been achieved by the toddler, parents are more acutely aware of her movements, as she can quickly get herself into a pickle from her new walking ability. So it may be for Star’s parents, while she is in her “toddler” stage. In the wild, her new flight skills could easily lead her into dangerous situations.

Raptors are keenly aware of juvenile birds. Fledgling parrots have all the characteristics of defenseless youngsters. Fledgling vocalizations sound different from their adult parents. Their flight skills are certainly different from those of mature birds. Their size may be different. Their mannerisms may be more awkward and so on.

Raptors pick up on these youthful characteristics with ease and understand that an effortless meal is available for the taking. Hence, Flash and Bebe watch Star even more closely during this “toddler” stage of her development, even though she is safe in the aviary.

Behaviors I see displayed by Star and her parents are no doubt colored by their captive environment. However, observing Flash and Bebe raise Star is fascinating in and of itself, regardless of where it’s done.

Latest News About Ellie

Ellie continues to settle into life at Cockatoo Downs. She seems to have grown fond of having the flyers visit her while she is in her aviary on the deck. She shows excitement and watches intently as the small flock gathers around her aviary.

Ellie Foraging

The flyers and Ellie eagerly take treats from me as we all hang out together. When they fly away, she calls after them, which I take as a healthy sign that she is becoming a bit more cockatoo- oriented, rather than just people-focused.

Just for Fun at Cockatoo Downs!

Alex Collins is a young man who attended our Exotic Bird Rescue workshop we held a few weeks ago. When I saw Alex work with a couple of the cockatoos at the workshop, I was impressed by his skill and demeanor around the birds. I invited him back for some one-on-one training time with me and the cockatoos.

Alex is calm and focused around the birds and pays attention to their body language. When there is a misread, he doesn’t get flustered and is ready to try again. Alex spent some time working Flash and Bebe in the aviary while Star watched from her perch. Bebe was all about Alex, but Flash, not so much. But with Alex’s calm persistence, Flash came around and was soon targeting and taking treats from him. It was a good day.

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

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

The Inconvenient Truth About …Cockatoos

Cockatoos are one of the most consistently relinquished parrots, handed over to sanctuaries and rescue organizations with regularity, after being deemed just too difficult. Clients with cockatoos make up over 50% of my consulting practice.

What is going on? Are these parrots unfit for life as human companions? Are they just too difficult to keep as pets? Does it just take too much time to meet their needs, as some claim?

I don’t believe any of this is true. Cockatoos aren’t any more unfit for life as a human companion than any other parrot species. Instead, they suffer loss of their homes due to our perpetual misunderstanding of them as parrots and of their true needs.

The Cultivation of Urban Legend

For example, one popular website states:

When hand-fed as babies and properly tamed, cockatoos tend to form extremely strong bonds with their owners that last a lifetime. They are also known to be one of the most affectionate parrot species and sometimes called ‘velcro’ birds.

These birds crave petting from their owners and prefer to be on or near them at all times. It’s very important that you’re able to devote the time this pet needs. That includes handling and socializing with them for at least two hours each day, if not more.

Some cockatoos can become depressed if they feel like they aren’t getting enough attention. This can lead to side effects such as feather plucking and destructive behavior.”

I’m not going to cite this source, other than to say that I lifted this excerpt word for word from what I would call an “authoritative” website – in that it is one that comes up very frequently when searching for anything to do with parrots. Because it comes up regularly, people assume that the information offered is reliable.

Unfortunately this, like many other similar sites, simply repeats the false information that has been published elsewhere. If everyone says it’s so, it must be true. Right? NO.

Online, there is more urban legend about cockatoos than trustworthy information.  In fact, if you attempt a Google search, you will have to jump to page 5 before you find anything even remotely scientific. Get to page 8 and you still won’t find any scientific papers about their breeding behavior in the wild. Instead, you will find page after page describing cockatoos as loud, demanding, needy, and cuddly.

Anaïs Nin once said: “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The italics are mine. This has never been truer for any subject than it is for cockatoos.

Falsehoods and Fabrication

The word perhaps most often used to describe cockatoos is cuddly. Needy comes in a close second.

The inconvenient (for us) truth? Cockatoos are not cuddly. We are cuddly. We are often cuddly to an almost compulsive extent. It is our perceptions of the cockatoo behavior we observe and misinterpret that cause them the trouble in which they often find themselves.

To understand how this misconception came about, we must examine two aspects of wild cockatoo behavior: (1) the manner in which baby cockatoos, especially the larger species, are raised by their parents, and (2) the ways in which adult cockatoos maintain their pair bonds with each other.

Cockatoo Parenting Styles

Each parrot pair cares for their young in a manner specific to their species. This nurturing style differs from one species of parrot to another.  Not all parrots care for their babies with the same level of attention. For example, Amazons are known for their almost neglectful care in the wild.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

Information about how cockatoo species care for their young comes mainly from breeders who allow their pairs to rear their own babies through fledging and weaning. The advent of nest box cameras has assisted in gathering this knowledge.

In her article “Weaning Sadie: An Observation,” published back in July of 2000 in the Pet Bird Report, now-retired companion cockatoo breeder Katy McElroy discussed the observations she had made of normal weaning time frames for cockatoo fledglings, as well as the manner in which the parents interact with their chicks.

Each parrot species has an innate time frame for becoming food independent. Quite obviously, this cannot occur until the baby learns to fly and can keep up with his parents on foraging expeditions. There is no food in the next cavity. Parent birds do not bring uneaten food into the nest cavity for their chicks. Instead, for the first few months of his life, until fledging, the baby is dependent upon regurgitated food for his sustenance.

This natural time clock to which wild cockatoos adhere for weaning is not changed when they are bred in captivity. When McElroy allowed her Moluccan Cockatoo pairs to raise their own babies, she made two critical observations.

First, the parents were frequently in the nest box, providing physical attention, preening them, touching their beaks, and feeding them. One Moluccan father visited his chick every hour. As the author describes it, there was a “nearly constant level of feeding and attention that parent birds lavish on their offspring.” They did not “wean” their chick until she was close to one year of age. Even when Sadie was eating well on her own, her parents would provide “comfort” feedings, if reassurance after a stressful event was needed.

Contrast this reality, however, with the manner in which cockatoos are raised in captivity for the pet trade. Large cockatoos like Sadie are often sent to their new homes between four and five month of age, long before they should be food independent. This means not only that their weaning was rushed, but that they did not receive the close physical nurturing contact that they instinctively need when young.

These babies then go into their first homes hungry for the nurturing that they missed in their abnormal breeding situations. And those adopting these birds do not realize that this hunger for close physical contact is because of these deficient rearing conditions, rather than because cockatoos need cuddling. Turning to the internet for information only solidifies this conviction that petting and cuddling are the correct activities.

As McElroy concludes, by ignoring normal time frames for weaning, we produce a “needier” parrot. And when we respond to this needy behavior by encouraging it, we create a dependent parrot who lacks living skills. Before long, all that bird wants is to be on a shoulder, lap, or chest. She becomes less and less likely to interact with enrichment. She screams for attention if we dare to ask her to perch somewhere by herself. She attacks the new boyfriend. She chases the children when she’s on the floor.

The Reality

In reality, evidence of the fact that cockatoos are not any more “cuddly” or “needy” by nature than any other parrot species is all around us.

Read Chris Shank’s recent blog about Star’s development. Now that she has fledged, she is not seeking out any more close physical contact with her parents than would any other fledgling parrot. All of her needs for emotional support were met by her parents while she was still in the nest box.

Or, read my recent blog post about Georgie Pink. Wendy could very well have turned Georgie into a “velcro” bird. Instead, she provided all the enrichment and training he needed to develop into the independent bird he was destined to be.

Further, those of us who have lived with wild-caught cockatoos, like my Moluccan Cyrano, can verify that these birds, who were reared by their parents before capture, are not particularly cuddly. Instead, they are powerful, resourceful, independent birds.

The reality is that we set cockatoos up to become cuddly, needy birds by breeding and rearing them in such a way that their early needs are not met and then by encouraging neediness their whole lives long.

Pair Bonding Behaviors in Cockatoos

As with their diverse parenting styles, different species display a variety of behaviors that create and maintain their pair bonds. The definition of a pair bond is a close relationship formed through courtship and sexual activity with one other animal or person.

Cockatoos engage in a great deal of close physical contact when maintaining a pair bond – frequent mutual preening and perching in very close proximity to each other. We could say that they cuddle with each other.

This means that, when we have an adult cockatoo and we engage in a great deal of cuddling and petting, we are conveying the message to them that we are their mate. This then is how a pair bond forms between the person and the parrot.

The Cockatoo Disaster Pattern

As well-meaning parrot lovers, we adopt cockatoos and then turn to the abundant on-line literature about how cuddly and needy they are, not realizing that all of this information is nothing more than misinterpretation of observed behavior and imaginative crap. And then, because we want to do the right thing, or perhaps because we intentionally chose a cuddly parrot in the first place, we provide a lot of close physical contact.

This certainly suits the young cockatoo, but more than anything else…it suits us. Most of us get pets to meet our own emotional needs. Many needy people are drawn to cockatoos especially. After all, the internet give us permission to pet those birds as much as we want.

So, we proceed, not realizing that this young parrot not only is growing up with a heavy measure of dependence, but that, as he matures, this will become pair-bonding behavior. Once you have a cockatoo who has formed a pair bond with you, your own quality of life often tanks rather dramatically.

This is about the time that the screaming, aggression, floor-chasing, feather destruction and self-mutilation begins. Physical problems, such as cloacal prolapse, occur as well. Avian veterinarians and parrot behavior consultants are well-familiar with this pattern and its causes.

There is usually crying too – ours. As parrot-loving people, we can’t believe that things have gone so badly.

And, I’m here to tell you that this very typical situation, in which the cockatoo has a pair bond with one individual in the family, engages in cavity seeking (which comes with the territory) and eats a high-fat, high-carb diet is a very tough problem to solve. It takes a great deal of consistent effort on the owner’s part to get hormone production under control and convince the parrot that she really isn’t his sexual partner, that he needs to be nice to her real partner, and that he needs to live relatively independently. Turning this around can take years of persistent, on-going effort.

It is made especially difficult because we don’t want to do it. I cannot tell you the number of times I have explained to a client that she really needs to stop cuddling and petting her cockatoo, only to have her react as if crushed. This news usually comes as an emotional blow, so dependent are we on pursuing this behavior with our birds.

It is also true that, by the time clients with problem cockatoos come to me, or are at the point of giving their beloved parrot up, they often feel victimized by the bird. Can we blame them? No.

After all, they have followed all the advice that they found in the first five Google search pages. They have cuddled the bird. They have provided hours of one-on-one attention. They have done everything they can think of to make the bird happy. And yet, the parrot’s behavior is making their lives impossible.

Who’s the Victim?

In reality, we are the ones who have victimized the cockatoos.

Every time we breed a cockatoo without understanding their innate developmental needs, we victimize them.

Every time we breed a cockatoo for money and wean it too early, we victimize them.

Every time we clip wings and prevent fledging, we victimize them.

When we bring them into our homes and allow them hours of shoulder and lap time, we victimize them.

When we cuddle with them under the covers and pet them down their backs, we victimize them.

When we keep them in our homes and make decisions based solely upon what they appear to want, rather than what they need, to live an independent lifestyle… we victimize them.

Solutions

This disaster pattern is avoidable.

First, do not adopt a baby cockatoo from a breeder unless you can find one who either allows the parents to rear their own offspring, or encourages a full fledging experience and food independence that follows wild, innate patterns. And, that’s about impossible in the United States.

If you really want a cockatoo, please adopt one from a rescue organization. Believe me, there is no shortage of older birds available.

Then realize that there is a 99% chance that the previous owner interacted with the parrot in such a way that a pair bond formed. You will have verification the first time the bird lays his head on your chest and begs for petting. Birds who change homes usually do their best to form the same type of social bond with their new owner as they had with the last. So, be prepared.

When you see this, you will know that instead of responding in like manner, you must instead begin to reinforce this parrot for any independent behavior he displays. Now is his chance for a happier, more autonomous life. His spirit will respond over time. If you work on training him to perform new, and more functional, behaviors, he will begin to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. The result will be a much greater quality of life for you both.

We owe them this.

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

Environmental Enrichment and Learning

A pair of wild cockatoos going to nest encompasses a lot of work. They must find a nest cavity, prepare it, defend it, and after a bit of romance, eggs are made and laid. They then take turns brooding the eggs, feeding and caring for the chicks, which all leads, hopefully, to the successful fledging of the babies.

I let my pair of Bare-eyed Cockatoos go to nest in May so the chicks could be trained for free flight. Mr. and Mrs. Flash and Bebe Bare-eyed Cockatoo accomplished all of the prerequisites with success.

Their chick, Star, fledged at 9 weeks of age. With relief, I thought the hard parts were over for the couple. But, I was wrong. From what I observed from the parents’ behavior, having a youngster out of the nest can be stressful for them—at least it seemed so for Bebe, the mom.

While Flash was handing out cigars at the chick’s successful emergence from the nest box, Bebe fretted over Star. The first few days she stayed close at Star’s side as if to reassure her about her new world.  She persistently preened Star and touched her beak to keep her at ease. Star didn’t go exploring much and that seemed fine with Bebe.

Parenting and Contrary Behavior

Though Flash and Bebe appeared to me to be excellent parents, I noticed a behavior that I didn’t understand. It took the form of a power struggle before fledging over who was allowed access to the nest box to brood the eggs.

For example, if Bebe wanted to enter the box, sometimes Flash would chase her away, or vice versa. Once either of them claimed the box there was no more strife, meaning the “winner” was never made to relinquish the nest box once he or she was inside. It wasn’t a frequent occurrence, but it happened enough to catch my attention and cause concern.

Why would this behavior take place? This didn’t make sense. Do wild Bare-eyed Cockatoos do this in nature? To me it didn’t seem to be conducive to successful chick raising. Was this just a behavior imposed by captivity? I don’t have the answers.

One way I thought to modify or change this antagonistic behavior was to let one or both birds out to free fly when I saw the clashes happening. Since flying uses lots of energy, it did seem to help calm them down upon returning to the aviary after their fly-abouts.

Flash and Bebe Out for a Fly About

Typically, when they left the aviary giving each other the hairy eyeball, they almost immediately paired up and flew together in synchronicity, which helped them re-establish a compatible pair bond. However, with one especially hostile encounter in the aviary, I let them out to fly and they even argued while flying. That changed when they spotted a hawk in a nearby tree. They put their differences aside to band together to harass the hawk and all was well.

Star Talk

Let’s talk about baby Star. I admit that the morning Star made her appearance I was momentarily confused. I saw three birds instead of two sitting together on a perch. Did one of the neighbor cockatoos find a way into Bebe and Flash’s aviary? No, my slow witted brain figured out the third cockatoo was the baby!

After silently shouting for joy, I watched in amazement the little one taking in her new environment. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, after growing up looking at four walls and not much else. When I first saw her, Star had already flown to the front of the aviary. Bebe was sitting securely by her side and she was not letting Flash close to Star.

Star was adorable. Her feathers were perfect. Her tail had yet to reach full length so she appeared smaller than her parents. (As of this writing, her tail has reached full length and she looks almost to be the same size as her folks.) She didn’t do much exploring the first few days and seemed content to stay by her mom’s side.

Flight Skills

Gradually, Star started taking control of her new surroundings. When I observed Star’s first flights, it was like watching a butterfly. She was kind of wobbly and there was not much umph in her propeller. Her directional flying was suspect. She’d pick out a destination, but sometimes didn’t accomplished her goal. That didn’t deter her as she would gather her determination and try again.

Star Practices Flying and Landing on Perches that Move

Of course, with each new effort she was more frequently successful in landing where she wanted. Behavior is a function of its consequences and Star was showing me exactly how that worked. Successfully landing on her goal perch was positively reinforcing for her so, of course, she’d attempt it again all the while becoming more competent in her landing skills.

From ten days onward her flight mastery greatly improved. Her progress was impeded by aviary living, however, and I’m sure if she were in the wild, her flight development would proceed more rapidly. During this time, the parents were acutely conscious of her movements and one or both would follow her everywhere in the aviary.

Learning in Action

One of the fascinating things about watching Star grow is the marvel of seeing learning in action. We sometimes take for granted or don’t even think about how we and our fellow animal friends learn. Of course, we learn every single day; and, watching someone, in this case, Star, learn about what works and what doesn’t work is thrilling to me. And, boy, she has lots to assimilate.

Star needs to learn flight, of course, but also proper Bare-eyed Cockatoo vocalizations, fine motor skills, foraging, social skills, and much more. Because there are so many things that affect Star’s learning progress, I’ll be focusing on only one influence in this article. I’ll start off with the importance of environment enrichment and its effect on learning.

Environmental Enrichment

As described by the website Why Animals Do the Thing, “Environmental enrichment is the process of enhancing an animal’s environment to increase their physical activity, fulfill their psychological needs, and encourage engagement in species-typical behavior.” This is exactly what Star needs to develop into a competent, resilient, and confident adult.

To that end, I have equipped Star and her parents’ aviary with a wide variety of enrichment. Let’s take the availability to forage, for example. I allow different weeds and grasses to grow in the aviary. These serve as foraging opportunities for the cockatoos.

I also harvest and install a variety of plant matter such as mustard seed pods, blackberry stems with berries, hawthorn berry branches with berries, ash tree branches with seed pods, barnyard grass, millet spray, crab apple branches with apples, and anything else that might be of interest to the birds.

Bebe Teaches Perseverance to Star

All of these foraging opportunities are everyday occurrences for Star’s parents who take full advantage of them. But to Star they are important learning opportunities. The parents are skilled and eager foragers and Star follows their foraging behavior by learning how to manipulate and eat the offerings.

Star Forages Up High on Mustard Seed

It was touching to watch Star learn to forage. While mom easily snapped a small stem of browse off a mustard plant and held it steadily in her foot while opening the seed pod to eat the seeds, it wasn’t so easy for baby Star.

This Isn’t As Easy as It Looks!

It would take her a while to zero in on a piece of the plant, get it in her beak, and snap it off. Then she’d take several attempts to hold it with her foot to munch on. In the beginning, she’d sometimes drop the plant stem and have to start all over. That didn’t deter her, however. She kept at it and kept getting better.

Perching is another environmental enrichment that gives Star chances to learn and practice motor skills. I have furnished the aviary with boings, orbits, rope perches, 2×4 wood perches, and natural branch perches. There’s even a small live birch tree available to perch in. Each helps Star develop skills such as balancing, landing, playing, all while developing her strength and confidence.

Look Hard to See Baby Star

Yet another environmental enrichment for Star is simply living outdoors in her aviary. Star learns all about the weather, the sun, the wind, the rain, the cold, the horse and donkey who walk by her aviary each day, her cockatoo neighbors and the cockatoos who free fly over her aviary, the vultures who soar above, the swallows swooping and swerving catching insects, the bats who come out in the evening to hunt those same insects, the bellowing of the cows at night, as well as the songs of the coyotes. These and many other wonders and surprises are available for Star to learn about while living outdoors.

I remember one instance when only a few days after fledging, we had a very strong late afternoon wind. Star had been sitting on the front perch of the aviary when the wind picked up. It got so strong that it made her wobble on the perch. She was very reluctant to fly to the back perch, which was out of the wind. Instead, with her mom by her side, she held on tight to the perch leaning into the wind and learning about balancing in the blustery air. Although it was a bit distressing to watch her seesaw about, I’m happy she had this important learning experience.

I found this quote while reading, Learning and Behavior, by Paul Chance: “Our environment exerts control over our behavior [by stimulus control or cues]. Paradoxically, that can increase control we have over our lives.” In other words, the more variety of learning options that stimulate Star to explore and learn what works and doesn’t work, the more control she has over which options with which to engage.

Providing Star with an enriched positive environment will build her behavioral repertoire that will aid her during difficulties or opposition. I look forward to watching her behavioral education expand her ability to function successfully in her new world and look forward to sharing that with you.

Latest News!

Ellie Bare-Eyed Cockatoo came to live with me over a month ago. In my last blog I described how we are learning about each other’s quirks, both good and bad.

I described how Ellie has the unfortunate alter ego that I call, The Flying Dragon Lady. The Flying Dragon Lady’s (FDL) job is to drive me from my home by flying at my head with her scary beak wide open, ready for the attack.

I told FDL that this behavior is not conducive to a friendly, safe home environment. She refused to listen. So I went about changing the environment to make it harder for FDL to function, which I explained in the last blog.

As Ellie’s and my time together continues, FDL has made minimum appearances, but she still exists. What is really cool is that I’ve worked everyday to have Ellie touch a target and get a pine nut for doing so. This is a miraculous training tool and I’ll give an example why.

FDL showed herself the other day. I took out the target and while FDL was sitting on her cage thinking about her next attack, I had her target the chop stick and then gave her a pine nut. Before my very eyes, FDL vanished and sweet, calm Ellie emerged. It truly was astounding. This episode shows the power of using a well-learned and consistently positively reinforced behavior to change an emotion. FDL is capable only of being harsh and discordant, so away she went allowing sweet Ellie to return.

Just for Fun!

I want Ellie to grow comfortable with the free flyers, so that she won’t be startled when they come to visit her aviary. So, I have been practicing her targeting in the aviary while another cockatoo remains outside.

The delivery of reinforcers to them both teaches them that good things happen when in the proximity of the other!

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

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

Essential Guide to Communicating with Parrots

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

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

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

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

Behavior Problems = Communication Problems

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We Listen to a Parrot?

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

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

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

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

Reading Body Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parrots and Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting the Eyes

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

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

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

Interpreting Feather Position

Loose feathers = more relaxed

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

Heightened Arousal

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

Interpreting Body Position

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

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

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

Signs of Well-being or Happiness

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

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

Expressions of Interest

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

Signs of Disinterest

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

Signs of Surprise or Alarm

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

Signs of Fear or Aversion

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

Signs of Heightened Arousal

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

Signs of Anger (“Go Away!”)

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

Signs of Sexual Interest or Romantic Love

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

Putting It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

Our Own Body Language

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

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

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

Communicating with Parrots

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

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

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

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

Living as a Trainer

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

Remember:

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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