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!

 

Essential Guide to Communicating with Parrots

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

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

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

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

Behavior Problems = Communication Problems

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We Listen to a Parrot?

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

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

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

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

Reading Body Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parrots and Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting the Eyes

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

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

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

Interpreting Feather Position

Loose feathers = more relaxed

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

Heightened Arousal

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

Interpreting Body Position

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

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

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

Signs of Well-being or Happiness

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

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

Expressions of Interest

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

Signs of Disinterest

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

Signs of Surprise or Alarm

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

Signs of Fear or Aversion

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

Signs of Heightened Arousal

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

Signs of Anger (“Go Away!”)

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

Signs of Sexual Interest or Romantic Love

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

Putting It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

Our Own Body Language

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

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

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

Communicating with Parrots

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

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

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

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

Living as a Trainer

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

Remember:

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

How to Create A Bullet Proof Relationship with Your Parrot

Short on time? Living with parrots can certainly take a lot of time, if we factor in what’s needed for food preparation, toy making, cage cleaning, and social interaction. It’s tough to keep everything in balance, especially since life seems to be speeding up for all of us. We do the best we can and, in most cases, life with parrots seemingly moves along smoothly.

However, in the midst of this juggling act, our relationships with our birds can begin to hang in the balance and we aren’t even aware of it. Problems aren’t evident on the surface.

Then, an incident happens suddenly, such as an illness or injury, which requires medication given by force. Or perhaps, trust breaks down slowly over time, due to the perceived need to use coercion every once in a while to get the bird to step up and go back into the cage.

Then suddenly, we realize that our relationship with that parrot has tanked. He displays either fear or aggression (two sides of the same coin) and we are helpless to fix the problem. There are solutions for these circumstances, of course. But, wouldn’t it be so much easier to prevent such a loss of trust in the first place?

What if I told you that I have a sure-fire way for you to maintain trust with your parrot, even after a breach has occurred, by actually spending very little time? Many people assume that relationship-building with companion parrots requires a lot of one-on-one interaction, including abundant displays of physical affection.

This is not true. Further, this approach to social interaction leads to weak relationship formation. It feels good, but doesn’t actually accomplish anything of lasting value that will stand the test of time. Further, it often leads to problems.

Authors Maddy Butcher and Dr. Steve Peters in their book Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights discuss this phenomenon in their chapter “The Science of Comfort.” They give credit to horseman Randy Rieman for the quote: “Your circle of comfort and your horse’s comfort must constantly expand, otherwise they will shrink.” This is true for parrots as well.

Butcher and Peters define comfort as “a place, a situation, a feel where nothing bad every happens. Comfort can be a protected environment or a state of mind. We can be guilty of keeping our horses [parrots] in that perpetual comfort circle, where nothing is allowed to rile them.”

However, as the authors claim, we must experience discomfort at times in order to appreciate comfort. In this case, “discomfort” comes in the form of training (teaching). In Evidence-Based Horsemanship, authors Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black describe the ideal learning environment “as one that takes the horse [parrot] to a state just outside its comfort range. It’s a place where the horse [parrot] feels curious and a bit concerned.” They go on to describe the moment when that “moment of learning (and discomfort) is over” as one in which there is a rush of dopamine.

This is actually a perfect description of what happens in positive reinforcement training. When we use positive reinforcement, we are rewarding the parrot with a highly valued item for performing a desirable behavior we have asked for or that we have observed. 

Behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated. So, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. However, the use of positive reinforcement not only strengthens behavior – it strengthens relationships. It creates bullet-proof relationships.

This is true because positive reinforcement training builds a history of reinforcement. The implications of this actuality have been virtually ignored in parrot-related literature to date. And, in fact, this has not been a well-researched area either, with the exception of studies done to determine the impact of different schedules of reinforcement on this phenomenon.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to bog this down with a bunch of behavior and training jargon and concepts. I want to keep this simple.

For the purposes of this post, you can think of a history of reinforcement simply as a parrot’s length of exposure over time to the use of positive reinforcement in a variety of scenarios.

Thus, a history of reinforcement is the product of training. I think that the concept and need for training is still not widely understood or accepted in the “parrot community.” In fact, I came across just yesterday on Facebook yet another person who asserted that training parrots is demeaning to them.

This stance is ridiculously foolish. Training is simply teaching – offering another person or animal the option of learning. We would not think of living with a dog without teaching him to sit. Why would we live with the more complex parrot without teaching him desirable behaviors that make life easier and increase quality of life for him?

In my mind, there is no difference between training and behavior modification.  The latter are the words typically used when we refer to behavior consulting strategies. But, behavior consulting always involves teaching new, more desirable, behaviors to replace the undesirable.

Let’s examine these concepts from a few different angles, with a couple of stories thrown in along the way to further your understanding.

It’s very common to read or hear about a parrot choosing someone as “their person.” It’s true that parrots will often show this type of initial “attraction” or preference to a particular person. However, this is most often based upon a parrot’s social history rather than “love at first sight.” The latter is a more romantic view of it, but it’s most often just a reflection of history.

If a parrot was more closely bonded with a woman in his previous home, then he will show a preference for the woman in his next home. If a parrot was more bonded with someone who is short and wears glasses, then he will show a preference for any short person with glasses who visits the rescue organization looking for a parrot to adopt.

This is a reflection of a history of reinforcement. If he was more bonded to a woman in his past, it was because she was more reinforcing to him than others in the house.

And here’s the screwy thing – we buy into this. We are so flattered that we have been “chosen” that we don’t realize what’s really going on. We buy into the myth that the bird likes us more because we are special, rather than realizing this behavior simply represents the fact that we offer a measure of familiarity in an unknown land.

What then happens is that others in the house also buy into this myth and back off, when it comes to trying to manage a relationship with the parrot.  This causes the bond between the “chosen person” and parrot to grow ever stronger. In reality, it’s not difficult to create relatively evenly bonded social relationships with all people in the home.

Parrots like best the people who are most reinforcing. All you have to do is to make sure that everyone is equally reinforcing in their own ways. It’s not in a parrot’s best interests to allow him to bond solely to one person in the home.

How does one become a reinforcing person? The best way is to find ways that work for you to use positive reinforcement in your relationship with your bird. One of the best approaches is to reinforce all cued behaviors. I explained this in detail in a previous post called “Remember to  Say Thank You!

Another way is to take 5 to 10 minutes a few times a week to work on teaching specific behaviors. This too has been covered in the post “What is Training?

The point I want to make here is in regards to the effects of this type of training. We often say that training creates trust in relationships with animals. It certainly appears to.

Chris and I have been working fairly regularly to teach her fearful donkey, Violet, to voluntarily allow us to place a halter on her. Violet now brays with anticipation as soon as she sees us and eagerly participates in the training. Overall, she shows less of an aversion to our proximity at other times also. Trust is building.

This could simply be due to the counter conditioning effect our training has created. While we have been working with her to accept the halter, we have also been pairing the treats she enjoys (carrots, alfalfa pellets, corn chips, bread, and veggie crisps) with our extended proximity. It hardly matters, though, how we want to explain this. The net result is that she shows less fearful behavior, she displays a desire to be close to us and we will very soon be able to get a halter on her without force.

A history of reinforcement can indeed act like an insurance policy for your relationship with your parrot. A good example of this came one day when Chris had to take one of her Bare-eyed cockatoos into the veterinary clinic. This was a young parent-reared parrot who had begun to show signs of feather destructive behavior.

Let’s take a second and note the use of the term parent-reared. This youngling had been raised, weaned, and fledged by his parents on the property here without interference from Chris. However, as soon as he had fledged, Chris began training efforts with him. Within a relatively short period, he would step up for her, target, and fly to her hand as willingly as his parents did.

He never knew anything but trusting interactions with her and understood that she was going to always be the bearer of good things. However, at the time he needed to go to the vet, he had not yet been trained to go into a carrier. We needed to use force to get him into one. We were both concerned about the impact this trust-destroying event would have on their relationship.

We locked him into his suspended 10 ft. x 10 ft. indoor aviary, preventing access to the larger one outdoors. Chris then had to crawl up into the aviary and use a bird net to capture him and get him into the carrier. It broke our hearts to do so, since we knew full well how stressful this was for him.

Guess what? We needn’t have worried. After he was back home and had settled back in, he picked up his relationship with Chris without missing a beat. He displayed no loss of trust and continued to interact with her confidently, as he always had.

This, my friends, is the power that a history of positive reinforcement can have in a parrot / human relationship. Please protect your relationships with your birds. At the very least, it will get you through difficult times. At most, it might just guarantee that bird’s place in your home forever.

References:

Butcher, Maddy (with Dr. Steve Peters). 2019. Horse Head: Brain Science & Other Insights. Cayuse Communications. https://cayusecommunications.com

McLeod, Saul. 2018. “Skinner – Operant Conditioning.” Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

St Peter Pipkin, C., & Vollmer, T. R. 2009. “Applied implications of reinforcement history effects. “Journal of applied behavior analysis42(1), 83–103. doi:10.1901/jaba.2009.42-83

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 or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Exciting News!

In my last episode of this blog series about life at Cockatoo Downs, I explained about our current project. As we have waited for the baby Bare-eyed eggs to hatch, I thought it only right to give you reasons why I advocate for parrots raising their own chicks, as opposed to people raising them.

Endorsing the idea that parrots raise their own chicks can cause contentious debate in the aviculture world …from large-scale breeders, to hobby breeders, to pet store owners. In addition, parrot owners have been led to believe that only a hand-raised baby parrot will bond with them.

Although this subject is worthy of debate, it is not my intention to do so in this blog. My goal instead is to share my opinion only as to why I support and encourage the parent-raising of chicks.*

Years ago, I bred and raised many cockatoos. I either pulled eggs from the parents’ nest box for incubator hatching or pulled their young chicks for hand-feeding. That was the way it was done and still is to ensure that the chicks were human-socialized for the companion parrot market.

A chick raised by a human easily creates attachments with other humans. As a breeder, that’s the kind of bird I wanted to sell; as a consumer, that’s the kind of cockatoo you wanted to buy. It was a win-win situation. Or was it?

Let’s consider the parrot in this equation. Those who live closely with parrots know that their own birds have emotions, showing us strong, intuitive states of mind. Since our companion parrots have emotions, it only makes sense then that all parrots are sentient beings. (Mama’s Last Hug, a book by Frans de Waal, is an excellent source for learning of recent research into animal emotions.)

The more often I took babies or eggs from the parents, the more uncomfortable I became. The obvious distress shown by the parent cockatoos when I raided their nest became more and more agonizing to watch. It finally dawned on me that this was an act that totally disrespected the parents’ emotional well-being and was, in my evolving view, abusive to the welfare of the parrots. To subject breeding parrots to this disruption is ethically wrong and inhumane.

I had to ask myself an uncomfortable question: Do I serve my customer who wants a snuggly, friendly cockatoo or do I serve the cockatoo who has the birthright to be a cockatoo through and through? I came to the conclusion that a parrot has the right to be a parrot and relate to the world as a parrot. That’s when my view on hand-raising changed.

Looking at hand-rearing from the baby parrot’s point of view offers yet another welfare and ethical perspective. In my opinion, people are not good parrot parents, no matter our experience or compassion in bringing up parrot chicks. There is no way we can match, both physically and psychologically, what parrot parents offer their young.

Experienced parents spend many hours a day brooding the chicks, keeping them warm and secure, preening them, vocalizing to them, feeding them, and eventually weaning them successfully when the time is right. Just as importantly, the parrot youngster grows up knowing she is a parrot. She knows how to relate to other parrots. She has learned parrot social manners and behavior from the best teachers there are: her parents. In other words, she becomes a well-adjusted parrot.

To deprive parrot chicks their birthright is, to me, ethically unsound. People may say, “Oh, they’re just birds so what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned before, parrots are sentient beings who deserve a fair shake at life; and, that shake is better if they see the world through parrot eyes instead of eyes blinded by human influence.

Hand-raising versus parent-raising psittacines is a complicated issue. Parent-rearing and hand-raising both have costs for the parent pair, the chicks, and the people who will ultimately live with them. Certainly, the opinions I offer here cover only a small part of the issue.

There are many more components to be considered. What if the parrot pair is not successful in raising their chicks? What to do about training the parent-reared youngster for the companion market? Does parent-rearing guarantee that the offspring will be well-adjusted individuals? Does the typical companion parrot owner have the skills to live with a parent-reared bird so that they both will thrive? Pros and cons of hand-raising versus parent-raising are many and they each deserve close inspection in order for people to come to their own conclusions.

I, for one, am letting my personal ethics on how animals in captivity should be treated determine my choice. I am comfortable with it and look forward to illuminating for you the world of parent-raised cockatoos and how I, Pam, Bebe and Flash, along with their little ones, will learn to live together in harmony.

*It’s worth noting that the Netherlands became the first country to outlaw the hand-rearing of parrots in 2014.

Just for Fun…and a Bit of History

I’d like to give a brief history of how I got into free flying. Almost forty years ago, Popcorn, a handsome, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo came to me as a youngster. He was my pet or, in today’s parlance, my companion. Popcorn and I had a great relationship and I thought it would be wonderful if he could learn to free fly outdoors.

I pretty much knew nothing about training for free flight and I cringe now recalling how I just sort of opened the door and said to Popcorn, “Fly! Be free!” Well, I wasn’t really that irresponsible, but it was close.

I’d take Popcorn on my hand and hang outside with him while he learned what the great outdoors was all about. I’d put him on the deck railing and ask for short recalls, which he did inconsistently. Because I was naive and ignorant about free flight training, I figured that, since he flew to me about 50% of the time when requested, that was good enough. Yikes!

That was his training, in a nutshell, and I was super darn lucky he was smart and kept his head about him and learned and managed on his own the dangers of flying outdoors. He was a successful flyer for thirty years.

Now, of course, I do things much differently. My knowledge and skills at training have improved. And, I certainly don’t take free flight as nonchalantly as I did with Popcorn.

First, I choose the right candidates for free flight, as not all parrots are suitable for such an activity. I do have cockatoos who do not fly outdoors. Most importantly, I train recall to fluency under different conditions. There are a passel of factors that go into making a competent flyer, the discussion of which I will leave for another blog.

The way I fly my birds may be different from how other people free fly their parrots. Of particular note, I don’t take them to another location to fly. They haven’t been trained for an entertainment show or for display. They instead have been trained to be competent flyers at home where they live. The birds and I have become close friends and companions – a cohesive group made up of independent individuals.

As I stand in wonder daily at their intelligence and flight capabilities, I try to imagine the world as they do. I fail miserably, short of even an inkling of what it’s like for them, because I am bound to the earth.

I will say that they seem to be just as interested in my terrestrial life as I am in their aerial one. They find my activities entertaining to watch or participate in as I dig holes, fix fences, haul hay, pull weeds, or just sit on the deck swing and relax.

Free flying my cockatoos is a natural and common activity here at Cockatoo Downs, yet I don’t ever take it for granted. For me it is an amazing experience watching them maneuver in their world of flight; to them it is just another day doing what birds are supposed to do…fly!

The Latest News!

Flash and Bebe have a chick! He/she hatched May 26. Pam was feeding the cockatoos, since I was out of town. She noticed unusual behavior from Flash and Bebe.

They were out together on a branch in front of the nest box. This was unusual in itself, since at least one of them at a time has remained in the nest box for some weeks. Both were displaying in a unique way, mirroring each others’ movements as they walked back and forth, vocalizing together.

Pam interpreted this as an announcement of their new bundle of joy and relayed this to me when I got home. We can’t really know for sure, of course, what their display meant, but I like to think the proud parents were sending out a baby pronouncement.

The next morning, I fed breakfast at the front of their aviary as usual. Both birds came out to eat, but Bebe quickly returned to the box after a few bites. Flash remained at the breakfast bar.

I went into the aviary cautiously to listen for a peep or two. I didn’t know how Flash would react, now that there was possibly a little one. He paid me no mind at all, continuing to stuff his face. I believe that this behavior is the result of all the trust that we have built between us through our long history of positive reinforcement training. Most parents with new chicks would never respond to an intrusion like that in such a calm manner. I got very close to the box and heard a few faint peeps as Bebe settled herself into the nest. For joy! Stay tuned as the adventure continues.

Disclaimer:I do not recommend nor promote that companion parrots be flown outside without the owner having a solid knowledge of training and behavior and also being assisted in person by an expert parrot trainer with extensive experience in free flight.

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

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

Parrots 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

What Is Training?

I fell in love with this photo when I saw it.  He seems to be thinking, “Would you please just tell me what you want from me?”

When a parrot begins to display problem behavior, it is usually due to a combination of things gone wrong and things undone.

In most cases, things have gone wrong in the process of creating the bird’s daily life. This is rarely due to a lack of caring on the owner’s part. It’s due to the difficulty of finding true, reliable information about parrot care.

Thus, the diet may be unbalanced. A social pair bond may have formed. The bird may not have enough to do or get out of his cage for enough hours each day.

And, in addition, behavioral training may have been neglected.

Inappropriate diet, pair-bonded social relationships, and inadequate environmental provisions + lack of effective guidance for the bird = behavior problem.images (11)  By “effective guidance,” I mean that the bird has not received guidance from the owner that would have steered his behavior into desirable channels.

So, most behavior consultations follow a similar pattern. We improve the diet, evolve social relationships, and increase enrichment and choice-making opportunities – if changes in these areas are necessary. This ensures that the bird’s needs are being met, which then sets him up for success when we formulate a plan to modify his behavior.

Inevitably, I wind up talking about training and that’s when things get really interesting.

A client asked me recently, “What actually is training?”  That was an excellent question and I’m happy to have a chance to discuss it here because I think many people have misconceptions about training. More than one person has mentioned to me that it almost seems demeaning for the parrot – that teaching tricks puts the parrot on the level of a circus animal. Others can’t imagine why you would want to train a parrot at all.

Many folks don’t really understand positive reinforcement training. They talk about clicker training, as if that is something different and apart and more special. It is not. Clicker training is positive reinforcement training. The clicker is used simply to make a sound that lets the bird know that he did the right thing. This buys you some time to deliver a treat. A spoken word works just as well in most cases.

Training is the process of teaching an animal a particular skill or type of behavior. target training

That is an oversimplified definition, of course. A more accurate, more scientific, definition would be that training involves teaching specific responses to specific stimuli. To expand on both, we can say that training involves the development of desirable responses and the suppression of undesirable responses. For example, we can teach a parrot to talk instead of scream when it wants attention. We can teach a parrot to stay on a perch rather than get down to cruise the floor.

The best trainers embrace positive reinforcement training as their primary behavior change strategy. Positive reinforcement is the process of offering the animal a valued item after it has performed a desirable behavior.  images (12)Most often, when training begins, food treats are used as reinforcers until others have been identified.

So, why do I always wind up talking about training when I do behavior consultations?  … Three reasons.

First, when you teach a bird new behaviors, you often see an almost “automatic” reduction in the problem behavior, so it affords a bit of quick success, which always helps.

Second, the bird has to unlearn the problem behavior and learn another, alternate, more desirable behavior that it can offer instead. That takes training, i.e. teaching.

Third, many parrots have developed pair bonds with their owners and these pair bonds often contribute to the very behavior problem that we are trying to resolve. By beginning to do some training, the owner can encourage the bird to look to her for guidance, rather than physical affection.pairbond

This photo may appear to represent a desirable social moment. It does not. By focusing your social interactions around the exchange of physical affection, everyone loses. You, as the owner, lose the ability to see the parrot as the resourceful, intelligent, incredibly capable creature he is. And your parrot loses out on a more enriched existence that involves learning new things.

Once I have convinced someone of the benefits of training, I often hear yet one more concern: “I can’t train because my bird is not food motivated.” I actually hear this quite often online, as well. It is a common perception.

Let’s examine this statement. It expresses the belief that the bird is not motivated to eat food. So, right out the gate, we know that’s wrong. Right? Parrots need food to live, so they must by definition, be food motivated.

What owners usually mean when they say this is that their parrot has not seemed interested in taking a treat in exchange for a cued behavior.  That is a whole different problem, and it’s always the same problem. If parrots are not motivated to earn training treats, it is almost always because they are getting too many fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods in their daily diet.013

This is why we so often have to improve the bird’s diet before we can modify his behavior. If you convert the parrot to eating formulated foods and fresh vegetables with limited fruit, you will have a parrot who is “food motivated.”  And, in fact the best practice is always to reserve seeds and nuts for use as reinforcers. It’s a win-win situation. The bird still gets to have some treats, but has to earn them rather than finding them in the food bowl.

There are many different things we can train parrots to do. We can teach simple, fun behaviors like targeting, turning around, or waving. We can teach a parrot to stay on a hand, rather than fly to a shoulder. We can teach a parrot to stay on a particular perch, rather than climbing down to the floor to terrorize people’s feet and the household pets. We can teach a parrot to fly to us on cue. We can teach a parrot to take medication willingly from a syringe or walk into a carrier when asked. There is no limit to what we can teach and our parrots can learn.

Anyone can teach these things!  We don’t need to be professional trainers. You would be amazed at how forgiving, flexible, and adaptable parrots can be in the face of our own lack of training skills. They still learn quite readily and have fun doing it.

Chris Shank Photos 023However, training is not necessarily easy for people in the beginning. It can be tiring because of the focus it takes. For many of us, so used to having our attention fragmented, this type of focus can seem like very hard work.

And often, beginning training sessions reveal our own lack of hand-eye coordination. This means practice for us, even when training simple behaviors like targeting. It can take a bit of repetition to get to the point where we don’t feel so awkward.

This was the case with a client of mine recently. In frustration, she told me emphatically, “I am NOT a trainer.” I wonder how many of you are nodding your heads in agreement right now, feeling the same way?  I, myself, might have made that comment at one point.

The truth is, however, we are all trainers. Animals are always learning with every single social interaction they have with us. Their learning ability doesn’t switch off and on. If they are always learning, then we are always teaching.

83088806
Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash.com

And, as I pointed out to my unhappy client, she IS a trainer. She had very effectively trained her parrot to scream and lunge aggressively.  The fact that her training was unintentional doesn’t matter. It was her reactions to her parrot’s behaviors that reinforced them to the point where they became serious problems that required professional help to resolve.

So, we really don’t have a choice. We must accept that we are all trainers. We have the responsibility to think about what we are training our animals with our social attention…all of the time. As I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” I have never heard better advice.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, each of us, maintained a daily awareness of the power we hold to influence the behavior of others? What if we all went around asking ourselves, when interacting socially with any creature, “What am I teaching at this moment?” images (13)Our relationships with our parrots and all animals would improve, certainly. Our relationships with other people would be kinder and more thoughtful, perhaps.

So, imagine please, how we might change the world simply by learning training and behavior principles and using positive reinforcement with all living things in our daily lives. Our parrots at least would fly straighter and truer their whole lives long.

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

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Егор Камелев on Unsplash.