Parrots in Bird Rooms

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the LIMA Hierarchy? LIMA stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” I am a LIMA behavior consultant, which means that I will always use the behavior change strategies that are least intrusive and minimally aversive with working with you and your parrot.

If a client wants to teach his parrot to step onto his hand, we have a choice between the use of positive or negative reinforcement. He can offer a valued item to “reward” the behavior when it occurs (positive reinforcement) or he could hold an aversive item near the bird to encourage him to get onto the hand and then withdraw it when he does (negative reinforcement).

Both tactics will accomplish the goal, but one is preferable to the other. The use of positive reinforcement improves the parrot’s quality of life and builds trust. As a result, the parrot often voluntarily exceeds the effort necessary to perform the task. The use of negative reinforcement can both break trust and cause unnecessary and detrimental stress to the parrot. The obvious and best choice is to use positive reinforcement to teach or strengthen behaviors.

The LIMA Hierarchy

The LIMA Hierarchy is also known as the Humane Hierarchy, and provides an ethical structure for behavior consultants and others (that’s you) when it comes to selecting training and behavior modification tactics. As the illustration below suggests, the very first step when attempting to change behavior is to examine conditions that support the parrot’s wellness.

Poor diet, unmet or inappropriately met social needs, and other poor practices or limitations in the environment will set the stage for behavior problems to develop. In other words, if the parrot is not getting his primary needs met, he will be more likely to display problem behavior. (Please note that “getting his needs met” does not equate with “getting what he wants.”) Conversely, if these areas are not corrected, reversing problem behavior will be either more difficult or impossible.

Thus the first step when solving behavior problems, consistent with both the LIMA Hierarchy and simple good sense, is to examine the diet and environment and make changes that will create wellness, increase quality of life, and support improved behavior.  

Deal Breakers in Parrot Care

I have come to think of some environmental conditions as “deal breakers.” My definition of a deal breaker in this instance refers to environmental conditions that are so detrimental to the parrot’s welfare that, should they continue, they make resolution of the behavior problem either extremely difficult or impossible.

For example, feeding a high fat, high carbohydrate diet is often a deal breaker. If the parrot is so full of fatty foods that he isn’t motivated to work for reinforcers, new behaviors can’t easily be taught. Further, a high-fat diet produces more energy for the parrot, which often is channeled into increased noise and aggression. Therefore, if the diet is not improved, behavior change becomes unlikely and malnutrition will be the continued result.

Another deal breaker can be excessive daily cage time. I am convinced that caged birds need at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, and that this needs to be broken into two sessions. If a parrot receives less time out than this, the pent-up energy and boredom that result will, at the very least, be reflected in increased noise, and at the worst, cause the development of stereotypical behaviors. Thus, this problem must be corrected before we can effectively implement behavior change strategies.

Bird Rooms Can Be Deal Breakers

This brings me to the topic of the bird room. Bird rooms have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. In fact, I was gob smacked when I searched online using the phrase. Pinterest, apparently, is the home of all good bird room ideas.  Make some popcorn! You could spend an entire day there and still not read it all. The only point not discussed is their unsuitability for the parrots who live in them.

A bird room can obviously be a huge benefit to owners because they help to contain the noise and the mess. When company arrives, you can shut the door to the bird room and socialize in peace. That closed door also hides the poop you didn’t get cleaned off the floor, the papers that your grey just pulled out of the cage onto the floor, the sweet potatoes on the wall, and the chewed woodwork. In other words, a bird room allows you to appear a bit saner to your friends who are inclined to visit.

But, does your bird room meet your parrot’s needs? Before I go further, allow me to provide one caveat. There are bird rooms and there are Bird Rooms. I have seen entire rooms designed for the parrot’s enriched existence in mind, with perches running the entire length of the room and lots to do and chew. The parrots get to be out of their cages all day in this type of bird room. There is usually also a comfortable spot for the owners, making it their room as well. This type of indoor aviary stands a much better chance of meeting the birds’ needs and does not factor into the discussion that follows.

For the purpose of this post, the definition of a bird room is a bedroom or office that contains the cages for all the birds in the household and little else. It is the room where the birds stay in their cages most of the time. A bird room like this often sets the stage for the development of behavior problems and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve them. The following discussion outlines the problems I see with this more typical type of bird room.

Disadvantages of Bird Rooms

Decreased Quality of Life: Many studies have concluded that one criterion for good quality of life for captive animals (this includes your companion parrots) is to afford the animal control over its environment. (Wolfensohn, S. et al 2018 ) This manifests within the practice of giving the parrot as many choices as possible. The typical arrangement for birds who live in bird rooms is to provide playstands for the birds in the common area; when the birds get to be out of the room, they perch on these stands.

However, most playstands offer little to do for the parrot. Most don’t even have toy holders. When the birds do get to join their owners for some social time, it is most often to perch in one place only.

Environment matters a lot to birds. They thrive when their “home” is placed in our living area. It’s important for them to be able to behave socially in a normal (or as close to normal as we can support) manner when living in our homes. Clipping wings cripples them from behaving normally in a social manner. Confining all movements to a simple playstand when out of the bird room, adds to this “invisible confinement.”

Increased Physical and Emotional Isolation: Keeping parrots in a bird room cannot possibly result in anything less than increased isolation. We may entertain the goal of getting the birds out into the living area to visit twice a day, but this plan often gets put on hold during the busier times of the year. While some household parrots bond strongly to each other, most do not. They enjoy the presence of the other birds in the home, but their primary bonds remain to us. This artificial separation, then, increases the stress already inherent in living in captivity.

Increased Stress: I think of parrots, even the smaller species, as having large personalities. Large personalities result in a sense of territory. If you watch a group of parrots who are able to be at liberty all day, you will see that they keep their distance from each other most of the time, even if they are the same species. They interact socially, but don’t perch side by side unless they share a pair bond. 

My own experience has convinced me that cages for medium to large parrots should be no closer than four or five feet from each other. This allows each parrot to have their own “sense of territory” and reduces the stress that parrots feel when crammed in next to each other in a single room. When cages are closer, you will often see hyper-excitable behavior and increased “territorial” aggression in parrots who live full-time in a bird room.

Increased Frequency of Undesirable Behavior: When our birds are located in a bird room, you wind up in the position of more frequently reinforcing problem behavior. If you hear a blood-curdling scream, you don’t have the advantage of being able to see that this jungle sound was the result of playing with a bell. Instead, you have no choice but to dash in there to see who’s been injured. Since the birds live in relative isolation, your entrance can be a powerful reinforcer. When you show up as a result of noise, you are teaching your bird room birds to scream.

Amplification of Reproductive Hormones:  I have no proof for this next statement, so you will just have to take my word for it. Having a number of parrots in a bird room can amplify the impact of reproductive hormones in a phenomenon similar to contagion. It’s much the same thing as happens when you have to hospitalize an angry cat in a veterinary clinic. You may have three nice cats in the clinic. When you add the one angry cat, guess what? You now have four pissed off cats with which to deal. 

Beyond that, I also believe that one trigger for the production of reproductive hormones is a degree of “sameness” to the environment. If you want a budgie to stop her chronic egg-laying, one useful (albeit inconvenient) strategy is to move the cage into a different room of the house every day. If you want to decrease hormone production in a larger parrot, you will see the reflective behavior decrease when you offer more exposure to new situations – trips out of the house, an outdoor aviary, etc. If you want a bunch of really “hormonal” parrots, keep them in a bird room 24/7.

Less Available Enrichment: While we remain relatively unaware of this, our own movements and behavior provide a good deal of entertainment to our parrots. They enjoy watching and predicting our behavior and looking for opportunities to interact with us. They are deprived of all this enrichment when they remain in a bird room. Their bird room life also allows us to remain out of touch with their need for enrichment, as well as their reaction to enrichment.

Less Passive Flock Bonding: A study of parrot behavior reveals that they use body language as a way to solidify alliances. Bonded parrots will preen each other’s heads, feed each other in a form of social duet, and mirror each others movements.

A group of parrots lacking pair bonds still use body language and behavior to solidify looser flock bonds through the performance of parallel activities. They will all preen at the same time, roost as one, or forage together as soon as a meal has been delivered. These more subtle behaviors may seem insignificant to us, but they are extremely important to quality of life and a sense of security for our birds.

Due to their amazing adaptability, they include us in these activities when they are able to do so, while we might not even notice. They may go to the food dish when we sit down to eat. A parrot may choose to roost when we sit down to read a book. Many parrots preen when allowed to accompany their human into the bathroom for the morning routine. Parrots in bird rooms are deprived of this vital manner of creating connection.

Inability to Resolve Behavior Problems: As detrimental as the combination of all these factors can be, the worst thing about bird rooms from my perspective as a consultant is the difficulty of resolving behavior problems.  If your birds live most of the time in a bird room, you have a greatly diminished ability to influence their behavior.

To successfully resolve a behavior problem, you must take a constructional approach. This means that you must build (teach) other behaviors at the same time that you work to remove any reinforcement that might be present for undesirable behavior.

For example, if you want to solve a screaming problem, you can’t just ignore the problem noise. No one ever solved this problem simply by ignoring it. Instead, you must teach the bird to make pleasant sounds instead, through the use of positive reinforcement. If you want to solve a biting problem, you do have to modify your own behavior that results in the biting, but you also have to use positive reinforcement to re-establish a mutually trusting handling relationship.

Well guess what? You can’t change behavior that you can’t see. Thus, if your birds stay most of the time in the bird room, it is this reality that likely contributed to the development of the problem in the first place and will delay or make impossible its resolution.

Author and meditation expert Sharon Salzberg once said, “We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us – vs. – them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations.”

It struck me, when I found this a few days ago, that it applies exceptionally well to the topic at hand. If we can learn to practice fierce compassion towards our parrots, then we will develop greater appreciation for their unique qualities – flight and their distinctive social nature. Should we do so, we must then deconstruct practices that create isolation or deny freedom of movement for our birds. We must find a way to establish community with them in our homes in a manner that does not physically isolate them.

Doing so will, as the quote implies, lead to difficult situations. No matter. We have tools. We can use training and antecedent arrangement to solve these minor issues, rather than relying on practices that enforce that us vs. them approach to parrot keeping.

I agree with avian veterinarian Anthony Pilny that we need a new captive parrot paradigm. If you don’t like living with parrots, then why have them? If you do like living with parrots, then why have a bird room?

I would love to hear your comments. I’m sure this post has been unsettling for more than a few of you and perhaps upsetting to some. Please understand that I mean no judgment. However, some of the conditions under which companion parrots live make my heart hurt. It truly is time to examine the care-giving practices established in the 20th century and create together that new captive bird paradigm.

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

Photo Credit: Featured image photo is by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash.com

Resources:

Friedman, Ph.D., Susan. 2008. What’s Wrong with this Picture: Effectiveness is Not Enough. Good Bird Magazine. http://behaviorworks.org/files/articles/What’s%20Wrong%20With%20this%20Picture-Parrot.pdf

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. IAABC Position Statement on LIMA.

Wolfensohn, S., Shotton, J., Bowley, H., Davies, S., Thompson, S., & Justice, W. (2018). Assessment of Welfare in Zoo Animals: Towards Optimum Quality of Life. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI8(7), 110. https://doi:10.3390/ani8070110

Dashel: A Message of Hope

I am deviating from my usual parrot-related themes for this last blog post of the year. I want to tell you about Dash, a dog from whom I have learned a lot during the past nine months.

Dash was one of a litter of feral puppies found in a field. Initially placed with a foster family, he was adopted shortly thereafter. However, his first family returned him to the shelter less than a year later. They demanded that the group either take him back or they would have him euthanized. At this point, he was underweight, dirty, and had fresh wounds and a large burn on one side.

Carla and Laurel found him online, were attracted by the look of this presumed Kelpie Mix, and drove to meet him at a PetSmart adoption fair. Dash was not handling the experience well, having evacuated his bladder and bowels upon arrival. He was timid and reluctant to be handled, even offering to bite at one point.

However, Carla and Laurel walked with him around the store for some time. By the time they got back to the rescue group, were able to gently pet him. They decided to adopt him and gained the agreement of the shelter staff. They had no idea what to expect once they had him in the car, recognizing that aggression was a very real possibility.

Dash’s early days with them were challenging. He appeared to have no prior training, was very nervous about new situations, and exhibited a prey drive that needed to be handled carefully as he got used to sharing a home with multiple cats. However, with patience and a lot of training on basic behaviors, Carla and Laurel eventually developed a trusting relationship with Dash. Before I ever met them, they had succeeded with him to the point where they could even trim his nails at home.

However, when they took Dash outside the house, he vigilantly watched for strangers and reacted violently if they got too close, barking and lunging savagely with teeth bared. When they tried to access any drive-thru window, he behaved fiercely there as well. His reactivity and aggression were strongest when physically next to either Carla or Laurel. When he nipped at one of their friends, they became very worried about what he might do if given the opportunity.

Dash’s “public outfit”

Realizing a greater need for safety measures, they used positive reinforcement to train Dash to wear a basket muzzle. When out in public, they were careful to maintain a safe distance from people, preventing any opportunity to bite. Dash also wore a bright red leash and collar, both bearing the word “CAUTION” in large black letters – a warning to other dog lovers.

When visitors were due to arrive, they made a comfortable place for him in an upstairs room and escorted Dash up there, providing a stuffed Kong for entertainment. Nevertheless, even away from the stimulus of the strange person, Dash would put his nose to the heating vent and bark non-stop. In his vigilance, he never settled down during these times.

I met Carla and Laurel due to an online posting of my own, offering services for dogs. Having just left my job as a veterinary technician, I was in the middle of deciding in which direction my career would go and was casting about a bit for income.

Their goal was to find a pet sitter. Living in the country with two dogs, four cats, and a flock of noisy ducks and geese, they knew they would need someone with animal experience.  They were especially worried about who might be able to care for Dash.

Our first meeting was at the local park, a place Dash associated with pleasant things. After a brief discussion, we decided that they didn’t just need a pet sitter – they needed a behavior specialist to guide their ongoing efforts. While Dash trusted them, he wasn’t comfortable with new people, dogs, or unfamiliar situations. After learning more about him, I really couldn’t see how I might ever enter their home safely to provide animal care without some long-term efforts at behavior modification first. It certainly wasn’t a situation of just “making friends” with Dash.   

Carla and Laurel readily agreed. They had recognized this for themselves, of course, and had already worked with one dog trainer without seeing any improvement in Dash’s behavior. I was touched and impressed by their commitment to this “misfit” dog and by how far he had come already as a result of their efforts. Thus, I began my work with Dash on March 24, 2018.

I was under no illusions. I knew working with Dash could be dangerous, but he wore a basket muzzle quite comfortably and I had worked previously with fearful and aggressive dogs. As a veterinary technician conducting behavior appointments, I had trained numerous resistant dogs to accept medical procedures in a fear-free manner.  

I began by structuring counter conditioning and desensitization sessions at the local park. While I stood quietly about 20 feet away, the distance at which Dash was below threshold, either Carla or Laurel would slowly walk Dash back and forth in a zigzag pattern parallel to my location, frequently cuing the behaviors he already knew and providing reinforcement. As they did so, they very gradually decreased the distance between Dash and my position. In this way, we paired things he values with my presence.

During these beginning sessions, I watched Dash’s body language closely for any signs of distress and was gratified to see that he appeared to be happily accepting of our work. I attributed this to using very small approximations, giving him lots of time to get used to me. He performed the cued behaviors without hesitation and eagerly accepted reinforcers. His sniffed the ground in what appeared to be a relaxed manner.

On the second session, they were able to walk him up to within 18 inches of me. At that instant, we all learned an important lesson about Dash.  Previously, this had gone unnoticed due to the careful distance they had always maintained around other people. Dash stood sniffing the ground, body relaxed, tail wagging slightly in a normal position, readily eating treats as they were offered. He went from this posture into a full-out attack on me within a split second.

We had been prepared for this possibility, of course. They immediately retreated with him, removing the opportunity to earn any more reinforcers in that moment. I had stepped back and was unharmed, although it took a few moments for my heart rate to return to normal.

A typical “ladder” of aggressive body language

Dash had apparently learned to mask early signs of aggression, as many animals do. Most dogs will display a linked chain of signals that lead up to biting, providing a clear warning before they resort to full-out aggression. Each dog is unique in his choice of signals, but for example, a dog might first lick his lips, look away, then focus intently on a stimulus, raise his hackles, shift his weight forward and growl, then crouch a bit, and finally lunge. If you punish a dog for these “warning” behaviors, he learns not to offer them. He simply saves his energy and attacks once close enough.

Would you pet this parrot?

Parrots do the same thing. If you ignore their body language that predicts a bite, they learn not to bother offering it. A lot of people claim that their parrot bit them with no warning. Sometimes this isn’t true – they simply didn’t recognize or register the warning body language. Sometimes it is true – usually due to this type of prior learning on the parrot’s part.  

Dash did offer some very subtle signs of course that I gradually learned to recognize. His eyes adopted a more intense look, although he didn’t stare. His weight shifted very slightly to his front legs. He would look away in some instances, although he did not offer this sign consistently. And he exuded a palpable physical tension that I learned to feel intuitively with my body before I saw it with my eyes.

We continued these weekly sessions, working in different outdoor locations to generalize our progress. We saw huge success. After a period of about three months, Dash would readily approach me and take treats from my hand with no signs of hesitation, nervousness or impending aggression. He was visibly happy to see me each week.

In early August, I shifted our strategy. During one session, Dash had taught me another lesson. While he was quite comfortable approaching me and taking treats, my approaching him was not something that he would tolerate.  I chose Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT), after seeing a video of Barbara Heidenreich using this with both aggressive and fearful zoo animals.

Beautifully described in the book Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly by Kellie Snider, this behavior modification strategy uses negative reinforcement to teach the animal to perform behaviors other than aggression as someone approaches. Used effectively, the ultimate result is that the animal completely reforms his original opinion of the scary stimulus. This method can cause stress for the animal, so initially I limited this work to 15 minutes at a stretch, with frequent breaks for short walks and fun behaviors in between. This worked very well.

As an aside, I would not typically choose negative reinforcement as a behavior change strategy because it can create some fall-out with the animal, causing distrust. However, in this case its use was acceptable. With a fearful animal, you often do have to start out using negative reinforcement before you are able to switch to positive reinforcement. And, the CAT approach results in success so quickly that a switch to positive reinforcement does not take long.

We worked first in different neutral outdoor locations. It took only two sessions before Dash welcomed my approach as I walked all the way up to him to offer a food treat. We then worked with Dash in the car. Previously, he had displayed violent reactivity if anyone walked toward the vehicle. In one short session, I was able to approach the car and even put my hand on it with perfect acceptance from Dash.

We then progressed to working on the gravel road right outside his home, the spot in which he had previously been most reactive. Within three sessions, I was able not only to walk up to him on the road, but could approach him on the pathway up to the front door, and then enter the house while he was in the living room. At all times, we kept Dash below threshold, so that he experienced no distress.

Pat approaching Dash on the walkway

We then worked to generalize his acceptance of any human’s approach by using different “helpers,” friends who agreed to approach him using the CAT protocol. (Many thanks to Chris Shank and Pat Anderson.) This work met with equally swift success. Within three sessions, Chris was able to walk into Dash’s home. Within one session, Pat was able to approach him on the front walkway.

This was the first time that anyone had been able to walk into the house with Dash in the same room. Not only could we come inside, he was happy to have us do so. He was even tolerant of two of us at once in the house for up to a few moments.

This was another beginning, however, rather than an end. While I could walk into the home, it was clear that Dash wasn’t comfortable with my presence there for any duration.

Taking Dash for a walk

Our efforts now shifted to conditioning him to my presence for longer periods within the home and the back yard. These sessions are ongoing and with each week, Dash grows more accepting of me. He rubs his head against my leg affectionately and recently welcomed a bit of scratching on his chest. When I sit, he will come and place his head in my lap. He allows me to hold his leash and walk him short distances away from Carla and Laurel. He happily goes into the back yard with me while they remain in the house. Last week, he and I spent time in the house together without their presence. We have progressed to taking his muzzle off for very short periods while I am in the house.

Outside the home, he has shown comparable progress. He is much less reactive in the car, and Carla and Laurel can now enter a drive-thru without high drama from Dash. He tolerates strangers who appear on the highway nearby or on their gravel road. He settles upstairs when visitors are present in the house, no longer barking insanely. He still wears his special leash and muzzle in public, of course. However, Carla and Laurel can now take him places with a great deal more ease.

Why did I choose to share Dash’s story today? Certainly not to highlight any skills I might have as a dog trainer. Any experienced canine behavior consultant will readily see that I made lots of mistakes. That I have been this successful is as much testimony to Carla’s and Laurel’s commitment and skillful training with Dash as my own.

I chose to talk about Dash today because his is a story of hope. This dog, initially deemed “hopeless” by his first family, now lives more comfortably in his world. His “accepted family” has grown and his quality of life is better. He initially presented as a difficult challenge, but with commitment and consistent effort and compassion, we have achieved what I wasn’t sure would be possible for him. And our work isn’t finished yet.

2018 has been a difficult year for many of us for many reasons. We have a madman at the helm of our country. Differences in belief and philosophy seem to divide us more severely than ever before; examples of hateful behavior assault us each day on social media and the news. Signs of climate change grow more real, while our government negates this and refuses to take action. Those of us who love the natural world are led to despair.

It is easy to feel dejected on a daily basis. However…

Feelings are not facts.

There is always hope.

Hope for Dash and other dogs like him.

Hope for me and hope for you. Hope for our country. Hope for the world. 

Happy Holidays, Everyone. I will see you in the New Year.

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