Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots

As we begin to search for favorite soup recipes and pull out that beloved afghan, our parrots also change their behavior in response to colder weather and darker days. My own become a bit more obsessed with getting into the bathroom or being on the floor somewhere. I may need to fish one of them out of the closet occasionally.

Today I want to say a few more words about cavity seeking. I did cover this topic in my blog post Companion Parrots and Reproductive Hormones, but I think that a single focus on this topic is worthy. At this time of year especially, we can begin to see an increase in this behavior, which can be both puzzling and aggravating.

What is cavity seeking? I get that question a lot, usually right after I use the term as if everyone knows what it means.

When I did a Google search for these words, I got a lot of information about oral cavities. So, I had to  wonder…am I the only one using this term to describe a particular aspect of parrot behavior? I highly doubt it.  However, while the behavior is as common as parrots vocalizing loudly, the name for this behavior and it’s ramifications are not well-recognized.

What Is Cavity Seeking?

Cavity seeking is behavior sexually mature companion parrots attempt to pursue with the goal of establishing a potential nesting spot (in their perception at least). This appears to be a very strong drive and may occur independently from the presence of any perceived “mate,” although the two usually go hand in hand.

It is typically regarded as cute, slightly quixotic, and harmless. It can also be reinforcing for us when parrots engage in cavity seeking because it keeps them occupied for long periods of time, leaving us free to pursue our own tasks without worrying about the need to provide enrichment.

The Many Faces of Cavity Seeking

What does cavity seeking look like?

The answers to this are extremely diverse, which is why I want to focus exclusively on this topic today. The fact that it so often goes unrecognized is a problem, since it so often leads to an increase in the production of reproductive hormones, which in turn results in resource guarding (territorial aggression), increased vocalizations, and can set the stage for feather damaging behavior (FDB).

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a photo of one of Chris Shank’s cockatoos. It looks like innocent play, doesn’t it? It’s not. This bird is cavity seeking – checking out a small, dark space even when he has the entire property to explore, being a free-flighted parrot. This same cockatoo often jumps into Chris’ washing machine if he happens to be indoors and the lid is open .

One day, some years ago, we received an urgent visit from the pastor of a local church. One of Chris’ cockatoos had flown down the chimney, apparently investigating it as a possible nest cavity.

This is a topic that Chris and I often find ourselves discussing. For someone like Chris, who free flies her birds outdoors, this behavior can be dangerous. It causes the birds to fly too far afield and stay gone too long. During a few months of the year, her birds are not allowed their typical free flight schedule until this seemingly overcoming urge diminishes. For me, it is more frustrating than it is dangerous for my birds.

Modal Action Patterns

There may be research about this aspect of parrot behavior, but I was unable to find it. As I said, everything that came up was about dental health.

However, I believe this behavior to be a modal action pattern. A modal action pattern is an innate behavior or chain of behaviors that is triggered by a particular stimulus. (These previously were referred to as fixed action patterns, but most are now moving toward the terminology of modal action pattern.)

Adult parrots are undeniably and obsessively attracted to small, dark spaces, round “holes,” and small spaces with darkness behind them. A companion parrot’s interpretation of a suitable nesting site can be pretty broad. Two dimensions can suffice, although a dark surface or dark background adds allure.

Cavity Seeking Examples

A few days ago, I allowed my grey Marko to be in the bathroom while I was in there. She began cavity seeking in a most unexpected way. I have a four-year-old granddaughter and happen to have a toilet seat her size which fits over the standard seat. When not in use, I have it on the counter. The oval shape was stimulating enough for Marko that she immediately began to investigate. No doubt, she would have jumped into the middle of it if I had allowed it to continue.

Many parrots become obsessed with getting into cupboards and drawers. This is often seen as amusing by owners and, therefore, is often encouraged. I once knew someone who had emptied out her kitchen cupboards so that her large macaws could play in them.  My own Marko will sit for hours atop my sock drawer if I leave it open a crack. She stares into that dark slit and chews on the top edge of the drawer.

She was also responsible for the need to replace my closet doors. As you can see, they originally had slats that allowed her to see the darkness behind the doors. Her flight skills were good enough that she could land on the outside of the doors and cling to them as she chewed. Before too long, she had remodeled things to her liking and proceeded to guard the site until I replaced the doors themselves with a mirrored substitute that did not allow for chewing.

Other Examples from Real Life

One client had an exceptionally aggressive little conure. When I visited the home, I immediately recognized conditions that set the stage for her biting behavior. Her cage was located in the dining area with an adjoining kitchen. She regularly got to spend time up on top of the refrigerator. There was also a dark wood bookcase with which she was fascinated. And, she often crawled between the dog kennel and the back of the bar top for seating that separated the kitchen from the area that housed her cage. Once her access to these spots had been eliminated, we were able to make good progress with a behavior modification plan.

Another client regularly allowed his Umbrella Cockatoo to sit in the drawer in his office next to him while he was at work. When I dictated this as “off limits” behavior, he provided her with a playstand.

He reported progress a couple of weeks later, due to the fact that she had begun staying in a corner of the office, chewing on the woodwork. I had to break the news to him that this too was nesting behavior and that he really needed to teach her to remain up on the playstand, as we had agreed. Although the two or three dimensions seen here wouldn’t lead us to think about it as a suitable site for nesting behavior, it was for this parrot.

Many of my clients regularly (until they speak to me at least) provide cardboard boxes for their parrot to play in. Seems harmless, right? Enrichment is good, right? Not in this case.

Such play should never be encouraged. I suggest that anyone reading this should stop this practice immediately. It’s much healthier, from a behavioral standpoint, for a parrot to perch on a well-designed playstand and interact with enrichment there.

Another problem can be the provision of toys and “sleeping huts” sold for birds that encourage cavity seeking behavior. If a parrot spends time in these during the day, I suggest their removal. They are not necessary and can be a real problem.

If your parrot spends any time in a place that results in what we typically call “territorial aggression,” access needs to be prevented. In other words, if your parrot darts out suddenly to bite you from a favored spot, it is likely that she regards it as a potential nest site, no matter how you view it.

Training Solutions

As any of us know who have tried to keep parrots where we want them to be, this can be a struggle. Training/teaching is necessary. Always when we want a parrot to stop a behavior, we must replace it with another, incompatible behavior.

The incompatible behavior for cavity seeking is stationing on acceptable perches. This is not difficult, but it takes consistent, daily effort over a long period of time. It is not nearly as quickly accomplished as training specific behaviors like targeting, for instance.

If your parrot regularly walks on the floor and engages in cavity seeking or regular chewing on baseboards or other wood in places there, he has established a relationship with that dimension of your home. He finds significant reinforcement in that physical location.

Therefore, the solution must be to establish a relationship with the perches you provide. That takes time, so don’t despair. Just keep doing the right things for long enough.

I work on this on a daily basis and see continued improvement. I put walnut pieces in my pocket every morning. I keep these in front of my coffee maker so that I don’t forget (habit stacking).

Every time I walk through my living area where the birds are located, I offer a walnut piece to those birds who are perched where I want them to be (hanging perches, cages, playstands). Mine are fully flighted and have freedom to go where they want at all times, so have many choices available to them.

If they are perched on the refrigerator or the dog kennel door or the floor, they get nothing. You would be amazed at what I have accomplished. Almost always, they are all perched where I want them to be.

Synopsis

As I have said, the real problem with this behavior is that we fail to recognize it, don’t understand the ramifications of allowing a parrot to pursue this activity, and so often accommodate it because it meets our needs.

As an example, I just spoke with a new client whose two greys have “nests” all over the space where they spend their days – cardboard boxes in which they spend time, trash cans, etc. This has never been viewed as a problem. They enjoy this activity and it has appeared to be a good way for them to spend time.

However, the problems to be addressed in this case include screaming, aggression and feather damaging behavior – all of which result from such activities. It will be impossible to address these until this behavior is replaced with the behaviors of perching up higher and interacting with enrichment in those places.

It is never happy to find yourself in this position. So, let’s clean this up right now before things get worse! I would love to hear from you. Is this something that you struggle with? Let’s all share what we know about this problem and help each other to find more solutions. Please provide a comment here on or Facebook, where you will find this post on both of my pages, Pamela Clark and The Parrot Steward.

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

a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

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 please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

 

Lessons from Ellie

Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo, came to live with me at the end of June 2019. She was adopted from Exotic Bird Rescue in Eugene, Oregon and has had a history of living in a home environment. She is eight years old and fully flighted. She is social with people and is, of course, adorable.

Ellie was completely new to me. I  began our getting-to-know-each other journey with excitement and positivity. Ellie? Not so much. She showed some suspicion and wariness in her new environment, which is understandable. If I had been moved to a new home with a family I did not know, I would be pretty stressed out.

Early Preparations

I had prepared well for her introduction into my home. The family room is where I spend most of my indoor time and where Ellie would be living. I furnished it with ropes draped from the ceiling and a large rope “orbit” for her to land on if she chose.

Her cage was placed against a wall next to a window. She could see outside, as well as hunker down in her cage to avoid exposure to stimulation from the window. From her cage, she could see the cockatoos far off in their aviaries or while they were out flying. I also built Ellie a small aviary attached to the front of the house with access to it from the window next to her cage.

Martha Stewart would be impressed with my interior and exterior decorations for Ellie and I looked forward to watching Ellie’s enjoyment of them. In my mind, I saw her flying happily from rope to rope, swinging on the orbit, and bouncing on the boing. Oh, what fun we’d have!

Early Lessons

Behavior I was used to….

My first lesson from my teacher, Miss Ellie, was to lower my expectations and alter the above mental images. I’m so used to my lifelong ‘toos being active, exploratory, playful (especially young Bare-eyeds), and confident that I assumed Ellie would be the same way.

Even though she seemed to be a confident cockatoo, she did everything in slow motion. When she first arrived, she explored and considered each new situation with great thought and care. She was more of an observer than an action figure. Consequently, I too, had to slow myself down and not expect her to jump (or fly) for joy at my jungle gym set-up or explore the house and aviary on her own.

Ellie eventually became comfortable with her new home, and that’s when the “real” Ellie emerged—sort of like the movie, Alien, where the monster claws its way out of the human’s chest. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but this new Ellie certainly caught my attention.

End of the “Honeymoon Period”

Some people call the first two weeks or so, when a mature parrot comes to live in their home, the honeymoon period. The new parrot may be quiet, calm, and friendly to everyone so all is right with the world. We can be duped into believing that these are the permanent, unchanging qualities of our new friend.

Many times they are not. As the parrot becomes more comfortable and confident in his new environment, he will start to exhibit  behaviors that may have been repressed in the beginning.  Those behaviors may not be conducive to a happy relationship between caregiver and parrot.

Behavior is a function of its consequences; and, like all of us, Ellie has her own repertoire of behaviors that were reinforced successfully time and again during her life before she came to me. The science of learning tells us that a reinforced behavior will occur again. Unfortunately, some of Ellie’s old behaviors poked a few holes in our honeymoon period.

Signs of Trouble

For example, in the beginning I would walk Ellie around the house on my hand, which she seemed to enjoy. One of her favorite rooms was the bathroom. One day, while in the bathroom, she flew from my hand to the sink. She immediately went into the sink showing excitement. I asked her to step up, which was met with fluffed up head feathers and a cold stare. I knew what Ellie was saying: “Stay away from my sink!”

Our second troublesome interaction occurred in the family room. Ellie had become comfortable flying to the rope and hanging out. I was delighted with her having control of her environment. Unfortunately, she seemed bent on controlling me as well; and, she wasn’t using positive reinforcement (R+) methods to do so, that’s for sure.

For example, from her rope perch she would occasionally fly at me showing obvious aggression with her beak wide open, breathing fire like a flying dragon. Another instance was with her feed bowl. Ellie liked to bury her head in the bowl. Hiding her head in the bowl  is often a nesting behavior for a cockatoo, as the bowl can represent a nest cavity. If I walked near the bowl at this time, she would often strike at me.

My Behavior-Change Plan

With the real Ellie showing me these not-so-compatible behavior traits, I made up a training plan using the science-based training techniques of environmental change and R+.

Using a target to remove Ellie from her cage.

First thing was to teach Ellie to target. This simple training behavior can help form a favorable relationship between learner and teacher by helping the learner understand that good things come from the teacher through operant learning; that is, Ellie could choose to touch the target to get a treat. This exercise teaches Ellie that she has control over the training and the treat reinforcement.

Targeting with Ellie

Allowing a student control is a very powerful reinforcer. If she didn’t want to participate, then I would leave. However, she soon learned that the food goodies left with me. On future training encounters, Ellie started participating and it wasn’t long before she was an expert at targeting.

Environmental Modifications

The next thing on the list was to alter Ellie’s dragon flying routine. I could do this in many ways. I could just put up with it and dodge her attacks. I could swat at her as she flew at me. I could let her land on me and bite me and not react showing her that this behavior is pointless (yes, this is advice given by some parrot behavior consultants!). Or, I could change the environment that would make her dragon flying less likely to occur. Using the least intrusive, most effective method, I chose the latter.

I took down the rope so that she didn’t have her launch pad available. I also replaced her feed bowl with a foraging wheel full of pellets so Ellie didn’t have any “nesty” type bowl to display in and protect.

Changes to the Daily Schedule

At the same time, I changed her daily schedule. Ellie now goes out in the aviary each morning with a treat. I make sure the aviary is full of enrichment, in the forms of grape vines and other plant material to forage on, along with a foraging net full of shredded paper, wood, and food treats. She engages with them all.

I also go into the aviary multiple times a day to practice step ups and step downs with her, as well as targeting using positive reinforcement with food treats. This is helping to change her perception of me from a possible threat or an enroachment on her territory into a person who delivers good things. I will soon start to generalize the step up behavior by practicing it in various parts of the house. This will expand her step-up repertoire, as well as establish it as a highly reinforcing behavior.

At dinnertime, Ellie is asked to step up from her aviary and then I put her in her cage with her dinner of sprout mix. It is fed in a bowl, but when she is done, I take the bowl out which helps curb the “nesty” bowl behavior. I give her a foraging toy as a replacement and she still has her foraging wheel full of pellets, if she so chooses.

Finally, I don’t allow Ellie to fly about the house, even with the rope being absent. I will eventually, but want to wait until we have developed a more solid, supportive partnership. Instead of clipping her, which many people resort to when they have a “misbehaving” flying parrot, I’ve changed the environment as previously mentioned by eliminating the ropes and other opportunities to fly. She can certainly fly in her aviary, of course.

I am enjoying the challenges Ellie is offering me. Using my knowledge of the science of learning and behavior and utilizing positive reinforcement training methods, I have no doubt Ellie and I will form a lasting and trusting relationship. It may take a few weeks or a few months and require many adjustments along the way, but we have all the time in the world. I take pleasure in the journey and look forward to the successes and challenges that are sure to occur.

The Latest News

Baby Bare-eyed made her grand entrance into her new world on July 20, at nine weeks of age. She came out of her nest box in the early morning.

Baby Star has fledged! She is on the right.

I didn’t see her exit so when I saw three cockatoos in the aviary instead of just two cockatoos, it took me by surprise. It also took me a second to understand it was the baby—call me slow. When it sunk in, great excitement ensued!

If you read my very first guest blog post, you understand that the impetus behind allowing these two Bare-eyed cockatoos to go to nest was Asta’s loss. In Greek, Asta means “star.” Therefore, it seemed a natural progression to name this new little one Star.

I’ll devote the next blog to baby Star’s exploits as she navigates her new world with the help of her parents. Stay tuned!

Just for Fun!

It has been fascinating to me to watch the interactions between Flash and Bebe as they have raised their new chick. Things have not always been friendly between the two. At times Flash has been aggressive toward Bebe. Currently, Bebe won’t let Flash near Star, now that she has left the nestbox. If only we could read their minds! In place of that, I have allowed them to work off a little energy by letting them out of the aviary to fly each day. Once outside the enclosure, they seem to remember that they are a bonded pair.

Release from the Aviary

Stay tuned! In my next blog episode, I will provide an in-depth look into the interactions between the parents and their fledgling. I am observing behavior that I’m not sure how to interpret and have written to other experts to see if they can shed some light on these. I will also continue to offer an inside look my world with Miss Ellie Bare-eyed. Until next time….

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.

Avoid the Pair Bond: Social Relationships with Parrots

At the heart of many behavior problems is a social relationship that has taken a wrong turn. Why? Because, despite our best intentions we often misunderstand what parrots really need from us socially. And then, we do the wrong things.

We take all that we know about living with other companion animals and attempt to apply this to life with parrots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Parrots are too different. They are prey animals, not predators. Most are not yet domesticated, while our dogs, cats and bunnies are. A parrot’s social needs are more closely aligned with the wild life than with captive life.

Lessons from the Wild

So, what do parrots really need from us socially? Observations of their wild lives provide valuable clues. They have many different relationships on various levels. They enjoy parallel activities which serve to cement the integrity of the flock. They all forage at the same time, preen at the same time, nap at the same time.

They are also full of trickery. They engage frequently in brief, playful interactions. They steal perches and food from each other. They engage with each other in mid-air. Some species even play physically with each other.

Each parrot also has a relationship with the flock as a whole.  The flock serves as the vehicle for finding food, accessing that food, evading predators and providing a sense of safety. A single parrot away from his flock would likely meet with a swift demise. They understand this instinctively.

Pair Bonds In the Wild

It is important to note that the only time that adult parrots in the wild spend extended periods of time physically close together is when they have formed a pair bond. They are engaged in cementing that pair bond through remaining close by each other, searching for a suitable nest site, excavating that nest and then laying eggs and rearing young.

Pair Bonds in Captivity

I assert that it physical closeness with a companion parrot that serves as a physiological trigger that causes our parrot to form a pair bond with us. This conviction is based upon two decades of anecdotal experience. Petting the parrot down the back and under the wings, having the parrot on the shoulder for extended periods, cuddling at night before bed, allowing the parrot under the covers…all of these activities give the parrot the wrong message – that we are inviting a sexual relationship. But, we certainly don’t want that, right?

What DO We Want?

I know what I want. And, I know what we should all want for a companion parrot. We should want that parrot to be fully independent, well able to entertain himself most of the time…foraging for food and interacting with enrichment. We should not want a parrot who sits on our shoulder or lap all day. That’s not much quality of life for a captive parrot, given the myriad of activities in which they would engage in the wild on a daily basis.

What DO They Want (Need)?

Lessons from the wild indicate that they need a sense of safety and security that the flock provides. What does this mean for us? I hate to break it to all of you who depend upon them, but bird rooms are a really bad idea. They may be convenient for us, but are a source of stress for parrots, making it impossible for them to satisfy their social needs.

Parrot have big personalities and a well-defined sense of territory. It is stressful for larger parrots to live in close proximity to others, especially others of different species. Parrots seem most comfortable with a minimum of about five feet between cages, which is hard to accomplish in the typical bird room.

Parrots of different species, while they may enjoy having other feathered ones around, will not usually form a cohesive flock bond with them. Instead, most parrots consider the humans in the home to be their primary flock. It is with us that they want to enjoy those parallel activities. Thus, the best thing you can do to facilitate a healthy social life for your parrot is to locate his cage in the living area of the home. (A play stand is not good enough.  Sorry….)

Parallel Activities

The importance of parallel activities to a parrot should not be underestimated. While we may imagine that our birds need hours of one on one time with us, that isn’t the case at all! They don’t need much focused time with us. This may be good news to all of you thinking that you may need to give  your parrot up due to your lack of time.

They will satisfy themselves socially by eating when we eat, preening while we ready ourselves for the day, and snoozing while we nap. We don’t have to do anything other than have our parrots in our proximity to satisfy this particular need of theirs. How easy is that?

Brief, Playful Social Interactions

How about the need for brief, playful social interactions? That one is easy to satisfy too. When our parrots are located in our living areas, it comes naturally to interact with them throughout the day in this manner.

Parrots and people have a way of developing little social duets over time. For example, my African Grey, Marko, loves to hang upside down from my hand.  She started that.  Now, I can step her up and give her the cue to flip upside down. Once upright again, she is happy to take a treat and go back to her perch.

Dancing with your parrot is another example. How about playing toss the paper ball for a few minutes? What else can you think of? What does your parrot like to do? Can you turn that into a 60-second game?

Following the Flock

Parrots also need to follow the flock. That means that, when we change rooms, they want to change rooms to accompany us. A flighted parrot will do this on his own. If you live with a clipped parrot, you will need to provide the transport. Think about having a perch in every room. This way, if you are going into another room for an extended period of time, you can bring your parrot with you to perch while you go about your activities.

Other Social Needs

Aside from these very specific social needs, parrots must have a minimum of three to four hours out of the cage each day for a decent quality of life. More is better. This block of time should be divided into two periods, one in the morning and a second later in the day. It is simply too hard on a parrot to only come out of the cage once a day. Such a schedule often contributes to behavior problems. This time out of the cage allows them to make choices, change locations, and engage in those important social activities outlined above.

My Flock

For the past 15 years, I have worked full-time as a veterinary technician while pursuing my behavior consulting career on the weekends. People always ask me how I can possibly care well for eight parrots while doing all that. I have been easily able to meet the social needs of my own parrots because I follow the advice given in this blog. My parrots are happy, undemanding, and keep themselves busy without needing big chunks of my time.

Does a Pair Bond Already Exist?

What if you have already allowed your parrot to form a pair bond with you? How will you even know if a pair bond exists? I can tell you some sure signs:

  • Your parrot hates everyone but you.
  • Your parrot tries to bite your partner when he or she comes close. (Or the parrot bites you under the same circumstances…another fun variation on that theme.)
  • Your parrot tries to masturbate on you when you are holding him.
  • You can’t get the parrot off of your shoulder (and you’re not in the veterinarian’s office).
  • Your parrot frequently wants to preen your hair, eyebrows, or beard.

I can tell you that you don’t want a pair bond with your parrot. Such a bond leads to increased aggression, screaming and feather destructive behavior. For females, it can also lead to chronic egg laying, which puts the parrot at risk for egg binding. Not only is that a life-threatening condition, it generally incurs astronomical vet bills.

Evolving the Pair Bond

A pair bond can be evolved into a more appropriate relationship with consistent effort over time. First, figure out how much time your parrot currently perches on your shoulder, lap or chest. Begin to reduce that systematically by small increments each week. At the same time, immediately stop petting him anywhere but on the head. Keep him out of your bed. Stop the cuddling. (I know…this is hard. Perhaps a cat or a Yorkshire Terrier might be a good addition at this time.)

Replace that physical closeness by beginning some parrot training. Parrots in the wild are constantly problem solving. Their physical environment requires this. In captivity, most parrots are bored.  By doing some training on a daily basis, you accomplish some very important things.

Parrot Training

Learning new behaviors enriches the parrot’s experience to an extent  you can’t imagine. Learning new behaviors in an important form of enrichment. Learning new behaviors tires a parrot out mentally so he has less need to threaten your eardrums with vocalizations.

But, most importantly, training your parrot will serve over time to evolve that pair bond. By placing yourself in the role of teacher/trainer, you encourage the parrot to look to you for guidance and direction, rather than physical love.

Training doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Five minutes once or twice a day is enough. It doesn’t even matter if you skip days. Your parrot will quite easily pick up where you left off in the training.

What to Train?

It’s best to begin your training by teaching a simple behavior like targeting. Not familiar with targeting? Here is an excellent video, created by behavior consultant Stephanie Edlund, to get you started: http://understandingparrots.com/guide-to-target-training-your-parrot.

Summary

Parrots need the following for social satisfaction:

  • Cage located in the living area.
  • The ability to engage in parallel activities.
  • Brief, playful social interactions with you.
  • Three to four hours out of the cage each day.
  • Parrot training with you as the teacher.

Happy training! Happy Socializing! Sent with much love to you all!

`Pam