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