Encouraging Natural Behaviors in Captive Parrots

My last blog post concerned risk factors for feather damaging behavior, specifically lack of both liberty and control. The bigger consideration, of course, within this conversation about why parrots would damage the very things they need for survival, is quality of life.

In that last blog, I included a quote from Lauren A. Leotti and her co-authors: “In the absence of other stressors, however, the removal of choice, in and of itself, can be very stressful. It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress. It seems that the aversive effects of captivity may depend upon the extent to which behavioral choices have been reduced relative to what could be performed in the natural environment.” (Leotti, 2010)

Photo courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

Simply put, if captive parrots are unable to perform natural behaviors, the effects of captivity are going to result in serious behavioral and physical problems, which is exactly what we are seeing. Problems with biting, screaming, fear, and feather damaging behavior are all around us, as are growing numbers of parrots dying from atherosclerosis.

A New Paradigm

I’ve given this issue – the allowance of natural behaviors – a great deal more thought since I published that last blog post. While I did include in that post some strategies for supporting natural behaviors, this will be a deeper dive into that topic. I may repeat myself just a little, but we can’t hear this stuff too many times, right?

I suggest this model, the encouragement of natural behaviors, as the new paradigm for the way in which we care for our parrots from this point onward. In the past, our parrot-keeping efforts have been shaped by other concepts and models. Let’s take a moment to examine those in order to understand what may still be shaping our thinking as we attempt to move forward

Older Models for Parrot-Keeping

Dominance and Control

One of the most historically destructive models for the parrot-human bond has concerned that of dominance. In 1992, the following appeared in a popular magazine in an article about cage dominance: “To have a well-behaved parrot, owners must establish themselves as the dominant partner in the pair or flock bond….  As the bird establishes dominance over its cage, it becomes dominant everywhere.” (Blanchard, 1992)

In 1996, this message about the need for the human to be dominant was in the process of being softened and was now called Nurturing Dominance.  “By establishing a relationship of nurturing dominance by teaching and consistently using the four basic commands, you can successfully demote your parrot from its perceived position as head of the flock.” (The four commands were: “Up,” “Down,” “No,” and “Okay.”) (Wilson, 1996)

In 1999, these “principles” of dominance and control were formalized in book form, with yet another name change to Nurturing Guidance. An entire page was given over to the concept of height dominance.

As it was explained: “People who have not established Nurturing Guidance  will have trouble with height dominance, but they will most likely also have trouble with cage aggression, excessive screaming, biting, and other behavioral problems. I find that when people are having behavioral problems with their parrots, establishing non-threatening height dominance is the only way owners need to work with their birds.”

In other words, you won’t have behavior problems if you keep the bird down low and establish your own dominance. (If you need a really great counter argument to the myth of height dominance, read trainer Steve Martin’s article Understanding Parrot Behavior, Naturally.)

It is a sure sign that a behavioral “principle” has no validity if you need to keep morphing the concept and the name to make it more palatable to your readers. Moreover, if there is a dominant member in a relationship then, by definition, there must be a submissive member. Is that really the best we can do for the birds we love – to make them submissive so that they will behave?

In reality, there is a natural science of behavior that has been studied for over a century and has produced a set of fundamental principles, now known as applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA can both explain why behavior occurs and provide ethical methods for behavior change when this is desired.

Unfortunately, those concepts of dominance and control are like the film on the bottom of our parrot’s water dishes, pernicious, insidious, always in the process of establishing themselves yet again. In the past two weeks, I have talked to new clients who expressed concerns about their parrot being up too high. It is scary how persistent this concept remains in the minds of parrot owners.

Clipping Wings Keeps Parrots Safe

Wing clipping has been practiced with almost religious fervor for decades in this country. This concept has been so well embraced that it was not even questioned for years, despite the fact that we were depriving a living animal of moving around normally. In large part, this practice has been established and maintained as the right thing to do by those doing the clipping – veterinarians and groomers.

Unfortunately, in all cases I have found, those writing about the dangers of flight have never lived with a flighted parrot in their lives. While well-intentioned, they do not understand flight and the manner in which flight skills develop, nor what can be done to ensure safety for flighted parrots.

Further, in my experience as a veterinary technician, no owner ever came in and requested a wing trim so that her bird would be safe. Instead, these requests were made because the bird was getting “uppity” now that it could fly. “Uppity” translates into being uncompliant and/or beginning to bite

Thus, in reality, wing clipping has been used in large part as just another way to maintain control of our parrots – limit their ability to move around and keep them down low. In other words, take away their feelings of safety so that they are less likely to resist our “commands.”

Other Models

A myriad of other well-established concepts exist, of course. These persist because of their authority borrowed from the reality that “everyone does it.”

These practices include keeping parrots in cages for most of every day, keeping parrots indoors at all times, cuddling parrots, cramming cages into a small room to contain the mess and noise, purchasing dome-topped cages, feeding seed diets…and the list goes on. We can always find someone else who does exactly what we do in order to validate our own choices.

A New Paradigm

We have before us a new decade. Let’s allow it to inspire us to shed the old skin of outmoded and destructive ideas and adopt a new paradigm for parrot-keeping. Should we do so, I would propose that we include as the most important criteria:

  • The provision for every parrot of as many natural behaviors as possible in each living situation.
  • To embrace the science of behavior, specifically the strategies of (1) arranging the environment for success, (2) antecedent change, and (3) positive reinforcement, to live harmoniously and cooperatively with our birds.

For the remainder of this blog post, I will be focusing on the provision of natural behaviors for our parrots, for there is much still to explore in this area. I have already written several posts on the second criteria of behavior change strategies, and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.

For now, I will leave you with the thoughts of trainer Steve Martin: “When you give an animal a voice through its body language, and place that voice in higher regard than your own, you are on the right path to successful training.”

Natural Behaviors to Encourage

Natural behaviors for wild parrots have been described as flying, foraging, bathing, roosting, socializing, vocalizing and breeding. However, there are others we might explore from the perspective of the companion parrot’s status in our homes. Some of the latter may attain a greater level of importance, given the often narrow scope of decision-making granted to them.

Two things: (1) First, this is an initial attempt only to explore this topic and my hope is that we can all brainstorm together from this point onward, and (2) I could write a separate blog post about each of the sections below, but in the interests of reasonable length, I have elected an introduction of each idea in most cases. Where I have important details to offer, I have done so.

A word about rights before I continue: If parrots enjoy certain activities in the wild, then would we not be correct in describing these same things as birthrights?

Bathing Options

Showering is important as a form of exercise and enrichment; it also serves to encourage normal preening. Opportunities most commonly involve taking the parrot into the shower or misting with a spray bottle. Other options should be explored in the interests of introducing variety.

Some parrots love to leaf bathe. Try offering a bunch of Swiss chard or fresh branches soaking wet and tied to the side of the cage or placed in a shallow dish. Both small and large parrots enjoy this activity once they are used to it.

Some parrots prefer bathing outdoors in an aviary, either in the spray from a hose or when it’s raining. Perhaps a water feature could be installed in the aviary?

We also have some exciting new products available – the unique creations by John Langkamp.

John creates bathing stations in all sizes that allow birds to bathe at liberty – when they feel like it. He also produces platform perches in a myriad of designs, play stands from the simplest table-top perch to two story sands, and “balconies” for cages that have no play tops. All of his products support the parrot’s engagement in natural behaviors.

Drinking Water

Parrots relish in fresh water. Mine eagerly drink from a freshly filled water dish, even though a moment before it still contained unsullied water. It has always struck me as wrong to limit a parrot’s access to water to drops coming out of a bottle. Wouldn’t you find it frustrating to have to lick droplets one at a time in order to drink?

Aside from the ethical problem of restricting a parrot’s access to water to this degree, water bottles can be risky. When water stops flowing, it becomes stagnant. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for certain bacteria species, such as Pseudomonas. (WHO, 2003)

When you wash out a parrot’s water dish, you will notice a film on the bottom. This is called the biofilm and is a coating in which water-borne bacteria grow.(Univ. of Ill, 2018) To adequately clean the water dish, you need a scrub pad.

With a water bottle, the water remains in the bottle for a longer period, thus enabling this biofilm to develop often for days. Refilling the bottle with fresh water does nothing to clean off the biofilm. Other risks involve bottle malfunction, which has resulted in the loss of parrots from dehydration.

My suggestion is to ditch the water bottles and let your parrot have a dish of water. Cleaning it twice a day should be sufficient, even for the messiest of parrots.  If it gets poop in it, move it to another place in the cage up higher.

Foraging

This has become the new buzz-word in the world of parrot enrichment, for good reason. However, we can expand our thinking even further. Parrots who naturally forage on the ground should be provided with opportunities of this nature. Grass mats for birds like budgerigars, cockatiels, and kakarikis are often eagerly accepted after just a few days.

Another great option is to place papers over the grates in the bottom of cages. There are several advantages. The birds get to go down onto the papers to forage for what they have dropped. I don’t have to scrub the cage grates. Changing papers is easy because all I have to do is to pick up the top later of paper; no need to pull out that heavy tray except for once a week. Many imagine that this will just result in poop-covered feet. It’s not appropriate for all parrots, but try it! You’ll be surprised.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

Foraging for natural plant materials can be provided in aviaries. Raised beds can offer millet, sunflowers and other edible flowers,  greens and other vegetables to encourage a more natural foraging experience.

Fresh Air and Sunshine

There is no other single thing you can do to provide enrichment that will reap as many benefits as setting up an outdoor aviary. The benefits are now widely recognized. Parrots are exposed to those necessary UVB rays. They wear themselves out and come back into the house calm and relaxed at the end of the day. They have access to different enrichment and bathing opportunities.

If you need some ideas, ask to be a member of the Home Aviary Design group on Facebook. It’s a private group, but is generous in accepting new members. The group has good participation and provides information about everything from design, to wire type, to rodent control and more.

Height and Alternate Perches

Parrots feel safer when perching up high. This is a birthright and a great way to provide enrichment.  They also need to move around. “In this respect, most parrots are neither sedentary nor migratory but mobile within a geographical area that provides for all of the bird’s needs, but not necessarily all at once in one locality.” (Parr, 1998)

Photo courtesy of Maha Tahiri

This observation of wild parrots can inform our own choices when creating an environment. Both flighted and clipped parrots can be provided with (and taught to use) free standing play gyms, hanging perches and other adornments to the environment that support more natural movements.

Lorenzo, the Double Yellow-headed Amazon in the photo was just adopted into a new home; he eagerly took to the trapeze they had prepared for him before his arrival.

Liberty Flying

I have published six blog posts on indoor flight for companion parrots. I am a passionate advocate for the allowance of flight, while also recognizing that some older parrots will not be good candidates for this experience.

It is not ethical to remove an animal’s ability to move around at will. As behavior consultant Jim McKendry once said, “If a dog gets out of the yard and bites the postman, we don’t cut off his legs. Instead we build a better fence.”

We must work towards the day when anyone breeding parrots must provide for a full fledging experience and then send that baby home without a wing clip. From that point onward, the new owner must learn how to live safely and cooperatively with a flighted parrot. We must also educate our veterinarians regarding a better way of thinking.

Imagine, just for a moment what your relationship might be like with a parrot who trusted you this much:

Video Courtesy of Lee Stone

Others’ Feathers

You should never get a second parrot because of the assumption that it will make the first happier. But, if you want to get a second parrot, my heart will be happy at the news.  Having always lived with multiple parrots, I see how each bird gains just from having other feathered creatures in the home.

Photo courtesy of Mandy Andrea

This is true even if the two parrots never interact physically. No other companion animal moves the way a bird moves. No other animal vocalizes like a bird does. No other animal reacts like a bird does. Just having another set of feathers in the house is enriching on multiple levels for a companion parrot.

The Unobstructed View

What effect might it have for a parrot to live his entire life within four walls? Perhaps none. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware of my own reaction when I get outdoors. It’s not just the feel of the breeze or sunshine, or the smell of nearby plants, but the fact that I am not confined. Finally, there is no barrier between me and the natural world.

How might we erase those walls, other than to get the parrot outdoors into an aviary? A Wingdow perch is of great appeal to many birds.

Wood, Branches and Bark

We don’t really know fully how parrots interact with the natural plant materials in their environment when that activity occurs outside of foraging for food. We do have some clues, however.

Donald Brightsmith and other researchers who have taken samples from the crops of wild macaws still in the nest have identified a percentage of bark chunks in the crop. Chris Shank and I have observed her free-flighted cockatoo parents foraging outside the aviary for bark and then returning to feed it to their young.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

My own parrots love to strip the bark off of fresh branches. We don’t understand the purpose of these behaviors. However, I suggest that providing fresh branches for perches and chewing enrichment may well be necessary for quality of life.

There has been much written about the dangers of bacteria and fungus on plants taken from the outdoors. However, these come under the heading of “imagined” dangers.

Advice for “disinfection” stems from washing with vinegar to baking them in the oven. I believe, based upon anecdotal evidence, that these measures are unnecessary. If you are worried about “germs,” give the branches a good blast with your hose to dislodge anything suspect.

Two such “vases” with pine 2 x 4s on either side as chewable perches.

A great way to bring fresh branches into the home for your parrots’ enjoyment is to first create a “vase” for them. Purchase PVC pipe that is 4 to 6 inches in diameter, then cut a length about four feet long. You can paint this green for aesthetic appeal. Put this into a large Christmas tree stand and tighten in place. When ready, shove the branches down into the top of the pipe and replace as needed.

If you choose actively growing branches with the bark intact, there is little danger. Simply stay away from branches where the wood looks old and the bark is falling off of it, for fungus could be growing under the bark in those cases. Just allow common sense to prevail.

If unsure of the safety of certain trees, you can refer to this website. If you are unable to identify a tree species, you can take a sample into a garden center for identification.  

The Keys to Change

It is human nature for most of us to reject an idea when we first hear of it, especially if it means more cost, inconvenience, or work…as most of those above will.

However, do you remember my point in that last blog about how our own behavior harm us? If we fail to appreciate that many of our practices for keeping companion parrots either do not meet their needs, may harm them, or even meet the definition of unethical, yet we insist on maintaining our own positive self-image, discord results – internal and external.

Let’s begin by deciding to be a bit more open-minded to the ideas above. Remember that you don’t have to help anyone else see the light. You just have to help yourself to see the light.

You can choose to stay away from opinionated discussions on social media and instead do your own research to find information from reputable sources. Then, if you get to the point of being convinced that you can make some improvements, just brainstorm to see what might be possible. Things don’t have to be black and white. You can start small.

Resources:

Blanchard, Sally. “The Importance of Cage Dominance.” The Pet Bird Report. Sept/Oct 1992: 4-7.

Blanchard, Sally. The Companion Parrot Handbook. Alameda: PBIC, Inc., 1999.

Juniper, Tony and Parr, Mike. Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998.

Leotti, Lauren A., Iyengar, Sheena S., Ochsner, Kevin N. (2010) “Born to Choose: The Origine and Value of the Need for Control.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 14.10: 457-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001

Luescher, A. ,ed. Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2018. “Model to show how bacteria grow in plumbing systems.” Science News. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180329190849.htm

Wilson, Liz. “Nurturing Dominance: What It Is and How and Why It Works.” The Pet Bird Report. October 1996: 32-35.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2003. Heterotrophic Plate Counts and Drinking-water Safety. Edited by J. Bartram, J. Cotruvo, M. Exner, C. Fricker, A. Glasmacher. Published by IWA Publishing, London, UK. ISBN: 1 84339 025 6. https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/water-quality/guidelines/HPC4.pdf?ua=1

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. 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.

Risk Factors for Feather Damaging Behavior

I had the honor last summer of listening to Dr. Susan G. Friedman give a lecture on control. What she had to say blew my mind and I continue to be as excited today by the ideas presented then – not only because what I heard was new, but because they reverberated within me as truth.  

Susan with my dog Rika

To paraphrase what Dr. Friedman had to say:

Behavior is the way that we control outcomes. When we behave, we move the environment in such a way that we are able to access reinforcers (things we value) and escape aversives (things we want to avoid).

When we, or any animal, performs a behavior, it is like tossing a stone into a river. A ripple is created. There is no way not to create a ripple when tossing the stone, just like there is no way not to influence the environment when we behave.

Learning is what we were born to do and the ability to learn is a product of natural selection. It is in our nature to control our outcomes. Therefore, the need for control is a part of our biology. There is a biological need for control. Therefore, control is a primary reinforcer, as vital to our parrot’s quality of life as food or water.

Control is a Biological Need

We know that all animals exercise control by making choices. I have argued for years that by increasing the number of choices that our parrots are able to make, we are increasing their quality of life.

Lauren A. Leotti and her co-authors expand upon this idea by saying, “Belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s well-being. It has been repeatedly argued that the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity.” They go on to state that “the restriction of choice is aversive.” (Leotti, 2010)

Lack of Control is Aversive

Not only is it aversive, it can result in the condition of learned helplessness. This is a state of behavior in which the animal stops even trying to make choices. How many times have we described a parrot as a “perch potato?” The perch potato is manifesting a version of learned helplessness.

Expanding upon this idea, they write: “In the absence of other stressors, however, the removal of choice, in and of itself, can be very stressful. It has been found that the restriction of behaviors, particularly behaviors that are highly valued by a species, contributes to behavioral and physiological manifestations of stress. It seems that the aversive effects of captivity may depend upon the extent to which behavioral choices have been reduced relative to what could be performed in the natural environment.” (Leotti, 2010)

New Perceptions

In the past few years, I have come to see our parrot-keeping practices in a new light. We have taken flighted spirits, clipped their wings, and put them in cages. Many parrots spend all of their time in their cage, or have at most, one or two hours out each day. We have taken away their liberty, which is essential for exercising choice.

If we kept dogs in a similar manner, rendering them unable to move in a way natural to them and keeping them in kennels for 22 hours every day, it would be considered abuse. However, these practices are still commonplace in the parrot world, rarely being brought into question. We appear unable to judge the inappropriateness of these practices since they have been accepted as normal for so long.

The Problem with Conventional Wisdom

Peter Hitchens Quote

The explanation for this lies in the phenomenon called conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is a collection of beliefs that are convenient and comfortable to people, such that they are able to resist facts that might diminish those very beliefs. (Wikipedia, 2019) I once heard someone say: A belief is an emotional commitment to an idea. As soon as you have a belief, you are automatically in denial in regards to any information that comes to you to the contrary.

Our conventional wisdom, when it comes to our companion parrots, is causing them harm. Dr. Friedman stated in her presentation, “A lack of control is a major risk factor for feather damaging behavior.” I could not agree more.

Feather Damaging Behavior

I have specialized in helping clients whose birds damage their feathers since 1996 and have given considerable thought to the causes. The list of non-medical causes I compiled years ago in an article for the World Parrot Trust included (1) inappropriate diet, (2) chronic stress or anxiety, (3) increased production of reproductive hormones, (4) lack of independent play skills that leads to boredom or over-dependence on the owner, (5) inadequate bathing opportunities, (6) lack of adequate rest, (7) insufficient exercise, (8) insufficient opportunity for learning and making choices, (9) lack of foraging and other “discovery” opportunities, (10) lack of access to fresh air and sunshine, and (11) foreign substances on feathers or exposure to toxic materials, such as cigarette smoke.

Today, my list reads as follows:

  • Chronic stress resulting from lack of choice making opportunities, especially as this relates to natural behaviors (foraging, flying, bathing, problem solving, enjoying fresh air and sunshine), and an overall lack of liberty and control
  • Inappropriate diet
  • Increased production of reproductive hormones
  • Inferior juvenile rearing conditions

I had two experiences this past year that appear to support my new view. Two female greys that I raised close to 20 years ago needed a change of homes. One came back to me to stay and the other went to a client of mine. Both greys had previously enjoyed really good homes – they had large cages, were flighted, ate nutritious diets, got plenty of enrichment, and had access to outdoor aviaries. However, they both spent too many hours in their cages.

One of the New Environments

Both had extensive feather damage over their torsos at the time of rehoming. Now, both are fully feathered. In their current homes, they still have cages, but they enjoy a great deal more liberty, which results in the ability to make choices at an exponential rate. Both birds also had the advantage of excellent early rearing experiences and wonderful first homes. It appears that greater control over choices was the one factor that was significantly different in these new homes.

Unethical Practices Harm Us as Well

Given the above, it should be clear that the typical manner in which we keep parrots is destructive to their physical and psychological health. However, it harms us as well.

How are we harmed by our own behavior? We fail to appreciate that depriving a captive parrot of the ability to move around at choice, to fly, has an ethical component. Therefore, we are able to behave unethically while still maintaining a positive self-image.

However, there are many who are uncomfortable on some level. A good many clients have confided to me that they feel terrible that their parrots live in cages and display behaviors consistent with learned helplessness. This requires action.

Feasible Changes

Conventional wisdom is resistant to change.   So, how can we begin? Where do we start?

Grand sweeping gestures are prone to failure. It is not feasible to abandon the use of cages or release them all out “into the wild.”

This is a complex subject and behavior is a study of one. This true both for us and our birds. What is possible in one home may not be possible in another.

However, as Kurtyca suggests, “…although we cannot offer them complete control over all aspects of their environment, perhaps by offering choices within the confines of captivity, we can give some small amount of control, and thus increase their wellbeing.” (Kurtycz, 2015)

“One of the putative sources of stress in captivity is interference with or prevention of animals’ engagement in species-typical behaviors for which they appear to have a ‘‘behavioral need.’’(Morgan, 2006)

Species-typical Behaviors

Might this be the best place to begin our efforts? Species-typical behaviors for parrots include flying, foraging and problem solving, social interactivity, perching up high, chewing wood and other materials, bathing, interacting with the natural environment, and mating and rearing young.

It is only the last that we cannot afford to encourage in the companion parrot home. When we have done so in the past, most often the results have been disastrous.

Flight

As I have argued many times, wings should never be clipped unless absolutely necessary and certainly not for human convenience. Instead, our own homes and behavior must be modified in order to support their flighted status.

Foraging and Other Enrichment

If a parrot did not learn to forage when young, he will not understand the concept of hidden food. This then will need to be patiently taught. In regards to other enrichment, a wide variety of chewable items can be provided – cloth, palm frond toys, wood that is easy to chew, cardboard and paper, bells. A parrot regains a bit of control over his environment when he can choose the items with which he interacts.

The Natural Environment

I no longer regard as optional the provision of a safe space outdoors where a parrot can enjoy the natural environment. Notice that I used italics for the word “safe.”

I did so because there are problems with putting birds outdoors in carriers or cages. The small dimensions of both may cause stress, since the parrot perceives a lack of ability for escape should a predator be seen. The width of cage bars could allow a predator access to the parrot. Both must be used only with close supervision.

An aviary is, of course, the ideal. However, if this is not possible, other options must be considered. The stimulation of natural sunshine and breezes not only encourages good psychological health, the exposure to sunlight encourages good physical health.

Social Connectivity

We can offer a captive parrot greater control over his social interactions when we watch his body language carefully and then create greater distance if the signs indicate that this is his desire. We can decrease his stress by leaving plenty of room between the cages if multiple parrots of different species reside in one home.

We might also call into question the practice of keeping a single parrot. They are flocking creatures and, while they might be flexible enough to regard us and our other pets as a member of their flock, a single parrot often benefits from another bird in the home. No one should, however, get another parrot unless they want one.

Access to Height

We can increase his perception of control by allowing him to perch up high, where he feels safer. This is accomplished by installing hanging perches in the ceiling.

Placing area rugs below will contain the mess, and reinforcing cued behaviors will ensure that you can retrieve him.

Training Offers Control

One of the best ways we can give back control to a parrot is to live as a trainer, by providing frequent opportunities for earning reinforcers. Positive reinforcement training is the gold standard for behavior change. It provides enrichment. It makes our lives easier. It helps us learn to read body language.

There are many reasons to train a parrot. However, the greatest of these is that it affords the parrot a sense of control. He has control over his ability to access the things he desires. Here are a few specific things you might begin to do:

  • Begin to teach specific behaviors, like targeting.
  • Offer your parrot a reinforcer (small piece of preferred food) for every cued behavior.
  • Embrace the SMART x 50 approach to encouraging desirable behavior.

Kathy Sdao, ACAAB, owns Bright Spot Dog Training and developed the SMART x 50 program. Although published for dogs, this can easily by applied to parrot behavior. SMART is the acronym for See, Mark And Reward Training. The numeral 50 refers to the goal of dispensing 50 reinforcers a day. (I think this amount may be excessive for a parrot, unless you can factor in some healthy choices.)

SMART x 50

This program encourages owners to get into the habit of awareness regarding the desirable behaviors that their parrots perform on a daily basis. It relies on the assumption that every bird already performs many desirable behaviors during the course of any day and that we can strengthen these and increase quality of life for our birds in the process.

These are the steps:

  • Count out 50 very small (no bigger than ½ the size of a pine nut), desirable treats.
  • Put these in a pocket or small container for easy access.
  • When you see or hear your parrot perform a cute or desirable behavior, mark this with one distinct word, such as “Yes!” (Examples: desirable noises, singing, interacting with enrichment, responding to cues such as “step up.”)
  • Deliver the treat.
  • Use up to 50 treats a day, but don’t feel badly if 10 are all you are able to dispense.

In using this, I have seen a distinct change in all of my animals. They become more interactive and enthusiastic in their demeanor. And, don’t be surprised if yours begin to toss out some new behaviors, just to see if those might also earn something.

The Next Decade

Jacques Deval once wrote “God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.”

Although true, I think this is a horrible little quote. Perhaps I find it so because of the truth he spoke. Let’s put the lie to those words in the next decade and strive for practices that allow for more liberty and control for our parrots. Each of us can just take one reasonable, do-able step at a time.

References:

Kurtycz, Laura M. (2015) “Choice and Control for Animals in Captivity.” The British Psychological Society, The Psychologist.28: 892-895https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/november-2015/choice-and-control-animals-captivity

Leotti, Lauren A., Iyengar, Sheena S., Ochsner, Kevin N. (2010) “Born to Choose: The Origine and Value of the Need for Control.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 14.10: 457-463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001

Morgan, Kathleen N. and Tromborg, Chris. (2006). “Sources of Stress in Cativity.” Science Direct.102: 262-302. https://www.reed.edu/biology/professors/srenn/pages/teaching/2008_syllabus/2008_readings/1_MorganTromborg2008.pdf

Wikipedia contributors. (2019). Conventional wisdom. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:18, January 13, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conventional_wisdom&oldid=931490544

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. 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.

Imperceptible Human Speak: Is This Your Problem?

I have been fascinated for some time now regarding the extent to which our parrots can read and understand us by observing our body language and facial expressions. I believe that most of us are vastly unaware of the scope of impact that our involuntary body language has on our birds. We have plenty of both scientific and anecdotal evidence on this topic with other animals, but I’ve never seen it extrapolated to our lives with our parrots.

Clever Hans

Many of you are familiar with the Clever Hans Phenomenon. For those of you who are not, Hans was a horse who, in the early 1900’s, lived in Berlin with his owner and developed worldwide fame. His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, was a mathematics teacher who began to train Hans to perform mathematical calculations.

After four years of training, Wilhelm von Osten began to give demonstrations. Hans was asked to count, read the clock, identify playing cards, and perform arithmetic. He indicated the correct answer to the problems posed by pawing with his hooves. He was able to give the correct response even when the questioner was not his owner.

Wilhelm Von Osten and Hans (public domain)

At the time, the majority of experts became convinced themselves of Hans’ ability. Eventually however, a biologist and psychologist by the name of Oscar Pfungst was able to prove that Hans had no such ability.

It was found that Hans was unable to deliver the correct answer if the questioner didn’t know the correct answer or if Hans could not see the face of the examiner. As it turned out, Hans was a keen observer of the microscopic facial signals that the person posing the questions was not aware of giving. Reading these, he would give the correct answer when he read a signal that indicated he had or was about to give the correct answer.

The Thieving Monkeys

In a recent newsletter, I mentioned having listened to an NPR Hidden Brain podcast, during which psychologist Laurie Santos was interviewed. She discussed her research with non-human primates, both on the Caribbean Island of Cayo Santiago and in a lab that she built for the purpose at Yale University. This episode was dated October 21 and was titled “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Being Human.”

Her goal in studying non-human primates was to learn more about human behavior. As Santos explains it, the best way to discover information about humans is to do research on non-human animals in order to discover what we have in common and what we don’t.

During one experiment, the researchers had to abandon their efforts after having found that the free-ranging monkeys on the island had stolen all of the fruit that was being used for reinforcement. This caused some consternation because it’s not like these researchers were unaware of their surroundings or “tuned out” in any way.

This then prompted a new line of research aimed at discovering whether the monkeys were actually stealing rationally. They were! When faced with the prospect of stealing from a person who was looking at the fruit and a person who could not see the fruit, they chose to steal from the latter. They were rationally calculating their chances of success.

And Thieving Parrots

This is not news to those of us who have turn around to find that the pen that was there the moment before has now disappeared. We find after a moment of inattention that the “E” letter is now missing from our laptop keyboard. We return after the briefest of moments to discover that every piece of fruit in the bowl now has a bite taken out of it.  

Navidad with the Poor Dog’s Bone

We are always astonished at what our birds can accomplish when our backs are turned for what seems like just a quick moment. What I hope to illustrate with these examples is just how carefully our perceptive parrots watch us. They learn far more from us that we might ever imagine.

Picky Parrots

Many years ago, another behavior consultant related a story. He had a client who claimed that her parrot would eat only organic vegetables. The consultant didn’t believe this and got her to agree to a more controlled “study.”

Her husband prepared two identical bowls of vegetables, one with organic vegetables and the other with vegetables grown through standard commercial means. She then delivered the bowls to her parrot, who ate both without preference. It’s possible that she had been cuing her parrot with her body language to eat the organic vegetables only.

While I hear reports of “picky” parrots from many people, I have never had any problem converting a parrot, new to my home, to a better diet. Partly this is due to an effective technique, but I also believe that it is due to the fact that I simply expect them to eat it. It never occurs to me that they won’t.

Parrots Respond to the Imperceptible

People rarely seek professional help for parrot behavior problems as a first resort. Instead, they talk to friends, to the people at the bird store, and to people on social media. It is only when they have exhausted all of the suggestions, in addition to their own ideas about what might work, that they call me. By this time, they are usually in a state of despair, if not desperation. In short, they are upset.

During our first contact, I am able to reassure them that all is fixable and then go on to explain how that will be accomplished. I can almost feel their relief, despite the technology that separates us.

The odd thing is that, when we have our next contact, a good many of them report that their parrot has displayed greatly improved behavior since our first conversation. This has happened so many times now that I do not think this is a fluke. I believe that the owner’s new state of relief translated itself through microscopic signs to the parrot, who in turn was able to relax a bit more.

This report may sound fanciful and vague to many. It sounds that way to me also when I reread what I have written. However, this has been my experience for decades.

Animals and Humans – Two Different Orientations to Communication

In our communication with non-human animals, we almost exclusively employ spoken words (coupled with touch – an approach that has proven disastrous in many cases.) I suppose the focus on speech is natural, given that we are verbal animals and our relationships with other humans most often depend upon the use of words.

However, if you watch the parrots and other animals in our care, they are often taking cues from the way we signal with our bodies or the expressions on our faces. This focus on watching body language makes sense for them, given that their relationships rely upon the use of unspoken cues and expressions.

When we teach a parrot to perform a behavior, we can’t simply use words. We must rely instead upon some type of physical signal, at least in the beginning. It is my contention that animals and birds seek to first gain information by watching our body language and second from listening to our words.

Tics and Scents

In the book Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, Gretel Ehrlich writes “Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been or how our bank accounts describe us. What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes, but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we’re finally ourselves.”

Our parrots always know what is “bedrock and current” in us. If your commitment to your parrot is wavering, he will likely know that. If you or someone in your home doesn’t like the bird, he will know that too. If you are afraid of your parrot, he will understand that. If you feel anxiety every time you look at your parrot who chews his feathers, that too will be conveyed.

Historically, as a parrot owning population, we have behaved generally without recognition, regard, or respect for the body language that our parrots employ to communicate with us. Even less attention has been given to what we might communicate ourselves with our bodies. No acknowledgment has been directed toward our imperceptible facial expressions.

Thoughts Create Feelings that Create Expressions

And, in fact, such acknowledgement would be of no use. We can’t control expressions that originate from the fleeting feelings that we experience. However, it is our thoughts that create our emotions. Our emotions then fuel our microscopic tics and scents.

So, this isn’t a typical blog post offering you a list of action steps. Instead, this is a New Year reminder that our own mental and emotional states impact every creature in our homes.

Every new year, I have the same resolution – to get right and be right with myself. If my life is out of balance, to get it back into balance. If a situation is causing me distress, to either leave it or resolve it. If I don’t like an aspect of myself, to find my way to the resources that will work for me to improve the situation. If my habits don’t support my long-term goals, to instill the ones that will.

I wish you all the happiest of holidays!

References:

Hogan, Linda, Metzger, Deena, and Peterson, Brenda, ed. Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Croup, 1998.

Samhita, L., & Gross, H. J. (2013). The “Clever Hans Phenomenon” revisited. Communicative & integrative biology6(6), e27122. doi:10.4161/cib.27122

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3921203

Vedantam, Shankar, Cohen, Rhaina, Boyle, Tara and Schmidt, Jennifer. “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Being Human.” National Public Radio (NPR). Psychologist Laurie Santos’ research with primates.  October 21, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/15/770430417/what-monkeys-can-teach-us-about-being-human

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. 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.

 

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!