Parrots: Navigating the Ocean of (Mis)Information

Rarely do I work with a client when I don’t spend time debunking myths. I do this patiently most of the time.download (4) I enjoy talking with my clients and getting to the truth about things. I feel genuine distress, however, for those who experience such frustration at hearing that the information they worked so hard to find and have trusted is not reliable.

Mostly, I marvel at how resistant to extinction this incorrect information has become. I have been around long enough now that I was there when some of this material was originally published decades ago. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now. Nevertheless, it gets repeated ad infinitum online and in print. At this point, some of it qualifies as urban companion parrot legend.

Here are a few of the myths that I have addressed with people within the last two months.

Myth #1: Parrots need 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.”  Not true. I believe that I have put this issue to bed with this previous blog post.

Myth #2:  Parrots must be kept at warm temperatures since they originate in equatorial regions. Not even close. Parrots, like all animals, acclimate to the temperatures at which they live. (Dawson, Marsh. 1989)

Myth #3: Parrots must be protected from drafts. Not true…mostly.  “Contrary to popular opinion, drafts are not harmful to healthy pet birds. A draft is really nothing more than a slight movement of air, usually accompanied by a mild temperature drop. A bird’s feathers provide insulation against temperature extremes far in excess of what a draft represents.” (Animal Hospitals USA, 2018)

This information about the need to protect against drafts originated decades ago when homes were not well-insulated.  People would place canaries in front of windows, around which there was an icy draft in winter. This set the bird up for illness.

These days, most of us live in well-insulated homes that don’t have drafts, unless we create them artificially by using window air conditioners.  These should not be placed where they will blow directly on a parrot.

photo-1521776384459-82edfd790487Myth #4:  Cockatoos are cuddly, needs birds who require more attention than other companion parrot species. Definitely not true. The real truth is that cockatoos display different behavior characteristics depending upon how they are reared. Current rearing practices that remove babies from their parents early on and force wean them to increase profits produce birds who arrive in their homes with a wealth of unmet needs.  They appear cuddly and needy because they didn’t get the nurturing they needed in their early stages. Those who are parent-reared until weaning do not display these qualities. They are independent parrots who need no more attention than others.

How does it happen that incorrect information gets repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact? How do people get away with posting information that is untrue?

I’ve given this problem a lot of thought and have decided that the following factors all contribute to this problem. If we can understand how a problem occurs, we can get closer to a solution.

First, material written by experts is not updated regularly.  This means that you can pick up readily available books and magazines that contain incorrect information.  Knowledge is always evolving, but what gets published doesn’t always reflect this increased understanding.

If someone wants to reprint an older article of mine, I make sure that I update it first.  My own knowledge has grown over the years and I want to ensure that people are reading what most clearly represents my current thinking. (I was wrong about a lot of things early on.) Authors of hard-cover books don’t always have that luxury.

Second, many people have a bad case of not knowing what they don’t know, coupled with a strong desire to be helpful. downloadIt feels good to dispense advice that fills a need someone else has. The opportunity to sound like an authority is very compelling. This leads to an endless amount of incorrect information being repeated online, since these helpful folks don’t check their facts before offering advice.

Third, the internet erases our ability to evaluate the signals we usually rely on when it comes to judging people and their information. Experts differ in their exact estimate of just how much of communication is non-verbal, but a range of 60% to 90% is generally accepted as accurate. (Eastman, 2018)

The largest component of any communication is non-verbal – body language, tone of voice, inflection, eye contact, facial expression. images (24)This means that, when you read online something that someone else has written, you are missing between 60% and 90% of important information about them and their message. On social media and websites, anyone can appear to be an authority.

Fourth, speaking as an authority is seductive. Some individuals who are very knowledgeable in some areas still give advice in others in which they are not, apparently unable to stop themselves.

Last, tribalism is alive and well in the “parrot community,” just as it is in politics. It is difficult to know when those publishing on social media have an agenda that is driving their posts. images (25)Much incorrect information is published with a real sense of urgency and commitment, simply because the speaker seeks to validate herself and her friends’ information.

I first decided on this topic two weeks ago, and spent some time searching online for examples to illustrate my points. Oddly, I was having a difficult time. The usual crap I read was absent from social media that day. Then, the two posts below dropped into my lap when a friend sent me these screen shots. These were published publicly on a Facebook group within the past week. Since they came to me unbidden, I deem it within the bounds of fair play to use them here.

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Now, let me be clear before I go further. I believe this author has good intentions and I don’t think she meant any harm. (I did contact her personally when I received the posts and she understands that I would be using them here.) She clearly cares about nutrition and wants every parrot to be eating a healthy diet.

However, as so often happens, she dispenses valid information along with some very incorrect details. This illustrates the BIGGEST problem with online sources, which I did not list above.  Most sources offer mixed advice – some good, some bad. This astronomically complicates the issue of finding trustworthy information.

Let’s examine these posts using critical thinking (the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment):

  1. I am not a parrot behaviorist. I do not have the credentials. I am certified as a parrot behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).
  2. There is no such thing as a “parrot nutritionist.” There is no educational program or certification for this title. Instead, many of us are knowledgeable about nutrition due to intensive self-study. This is an extremely complex topic due to the number of parrot species and their diverse regions of origin, making it highly unlikely that anyone will be sporting this title in the near future.
  3. Vitamin supplementation will not cause organ damage when a parrot is severely deficient in nutrients. Added vitamins will never be a valid replacement for a good diet, but can be very helpful in the sort term. Calcium is especially helpful and is used widely in cases of chronic egg-laying. Any vitamin supplementation undertaken should always be at the direction of an avian veterinarian.
  4. These posts were written in response to something one of my previous clients had just contributed on that forum. Unintentionally, this client had misrepresented the recommendations I had given her. The author of these posts did not contact me to verify that the information was correct before publishing her opinion.
  5. The author dispenses nutritional advice for a parrot who has had a life-threatening medical condition in the past, without asking the individual what her veterinarian had advised her to feed.
  6. The author herself provides a great deal of nutritional advice in her posts, although she herself is not an avian nutritionist.  Her qualifications, according to her profile, are that she is a “diamontolgist” (which is misspelled) and “former esthetician.”

To correct the record for those of you who care:

  • I do recommend pellets as a staple in the diet, as a recent blog post discusses.
  • I do not recommend TOPs pellets as the primary dietary staple.
  • I do not recommend a plant-based, mostly veggie diet.
  • do recommend limiting carbohydrates and excessive fats in the diet.
  • I do not recommend vitamin supplements unless a veterinarian has suggested their use.
  • The diet I had been coaching the client to feed had been recommended by her veterinarian.

I will leave you to arrive at your own judgement, but I think that these posts are an excellent example of the ways in which misleading information gets established as fact each second of every day online on websites and parrot forums.

So, how can you protect yourself when you go online for information about parrots?  images (16)We certainly can’t ignore the value of the internet when it comes to researching and learning, but how can you identify sources that you can trust?  How do you decide who really knows what they are talking about?

I suggest asking the following questions and evaluating the following criteria when deciding whose information to trust. They have served me well over the years.

  • What is the educational level of the author? People can certainly become well-educated through independent effort, and well-educated people can certainly publish incorrect information. Therefore, this criterion will not serve as a definitive indicator. However, I believe that those with higher education will be more likely to research their topic, have a higher commitment to publishing truth, and may be better able themselves to identify trust-worthy information.
  • Spelling matters. If you see someone dispensing information about Scarlet McCaws, that should serve as a red flag.
  • What credentials does the speaker have and are these related to the information being posted? We should hold people accountable for what they publish. It should be acceptable to ask about a speaker’s depth of experience in the topic under discussion and the speaker should graciously welcome the chance to explain how she knows what she knows.
  • Does the individual provide sources to support the information being published? When research about a given topic is available, it should be cited.
  • Does the information posted contain generalizations, such as “Amazons need….?” Behavior is a study of one. What any given parrot needs depends upon his previous socialization and training. Such declarations cannot possibly be accurate when we are speaking about parrots.
  • Is the speaker a recognized expert in the field? Has she published peer-reviewed journal articles? Is she certified by any institutions who recognize knowledge and achievement?
  • If the speaker is dispensing nutritional or veterinary information, does she herself have real work experience of any duration in the field of avian medicine?
  • Does the speaker publicly criticize or speak poorly of others? True professionals are respectful and are supportive of others in the field.
  • Follow a resource trail. Identify someone you consider to be a knowledgeable resource, and then ask who they promote and whose information they trust.

One excellent resource recommends evaluating information for: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose (CRAAP.) (Illinois State University. 2018) To paraphrase, this source recommends asking the following questions:

  • Determine the date of publication. Is the information outdated?
  • How applicable is the information for your needs? For what audience was the information intended?
  • Is the author a knowledgeable source? Examine the author’s credentials or organizational affiliation.
  • What is the accuracy of the content? What type of language is used and does the information seem to be well-researched?
  • Why was the information written? How might the author’s affiliations affect the slant or bias of the information?

This is a problem that belongs to us all. If we are ever to be able to go online and trust what we read, we must each take individual responsibility for evaluating the information we find and for being careful about what we post. Thus, the most important question of all becomes this: photo-1522272556107-2a2b67715093

Where does YOUR level of commitment lie when it comes to the welfare of companion parrots? When you are online, is it more important to be liked and validated or more important to stand up for parrots and their welfare?

If it’s the latter, you will ask for credentials before trusting information that you apply to your birds or pass along to others.

If it’s the latter, you will question everything you read and use the criteria above to evaluate the information you accept as true.

images (1)If it’s the latter, you will not repeat information or offer advice unless you yourself have hands-on experience in the area under discussion and/or have absolutely verified it to be true.  “I heard it somewhere” or “I read it in a book” is not good enough.

If it’s the latter, you will support those who work hard to publish truth about parrots.

If you just want to chat online for fun or to get validation, be clear about what it is you are about. On the other hand, if you are trying to learn, then please first don your critical thinking cap. Don’t lend truth to this slogan: Critical Thinking Skills… the Other National Deficit!

It’s up to all of us to stem this never-ending tide of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation that undermines our ability to provide a good quality of life for our birds, to effectively deal with behavior problems, and to maintain their physical health over their optimal lifespans.images (18)

If we step up and accept this challenge, just think what we might accomplish when it comes to the political climate in this country!  Get out there and vote everybody!

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

References:

Animal Hospitals USA website. 2018. “Bird Care: Drafts.” Accessed October 22, 2018. http://www.animalhospitals-usa.com/birds/bird-care.html

Dawson W.R., Marsh R.L. (1989) “Metabolic Acclimatization to Cold and Season in Birds.” In: Bech C., Reinertsen R.E. (eds) Physiology of Cold Adaptation in Birds. NATO ASI Series (Series A: Life Sciences), vol 173. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-0031-2_9

Eastman, B. 2018. “How Much of Communication is Really Non-verbal?”  The Non-Verbal Group, 548 West 28th St, Ste. 231, New York, NY.  http://www.nonverbalgroup.com/2011/08/how-much-of-communication-is-really-nonverbal

University of Illinois, Guides at Milner Library. May 2018. “Determine Credibility (Evaluating): CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose).” https://guides.library.illinoisstate.edu/evaluating/craap

 

Quick Guide:  Solve Your Parrot’s Screaming Problem for Good!

If the phone calls I have received during August are any indication, we could rename it National Screaming Parrot Month.  There are a lot of you out there living with some very loud parrots.  Please don’t despair!  This is actually a fairly simple problem to solve, if you do all of the right things.

Behavior Has Functiondownload (1)

The first step is to realize that your parrot screams for a reason. Behavior has function. If he didn’t get something out of it, he wouldn’t keep doing it.  So ask yourself, “What reinforcement does he get for making such a racket? What’s in it for him?”

Many birds make noise because it earns them some social attention, either from the people in the house or the other birds. Do you or anyone else respond in some way when your parrot screams?  Even if you leave the room or cover the cage or spray him with water, you are offering him attention for his unwanted behavior. You are reacting in some way.  Believe it – lots of companion parrots are just bored enough that those types of reactions don’t serve to stop the behavior, even if the parrot finds them mildly aversive. Instead, they often reward it. At best, they offer short-term relief, but no permanent solution. Face it; if covering the cage were working well for you, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Other Reasons for Screaming

Some parrots make noise to alert you to some perceived danger. Does your parrot scream more now that he can see out the window? Does he scream when he hears sounds on the sidewalk outside? Then some of his screaming could be a form of hard-wired, sentinel behavior. He’s trying to sound the alarm! Environmental modification may be part of your answer.

Some parrots scream at predictable times, such as when the garage door opens and other family members arrive home. Perhaps you have a parrot who screams when you get on the phone? If you can predict it, you can prevent it.

Others parrots react to the noise created by the family. If you have a loud family, you will likely have a loud parrot.  He’s a member of the flock just trying to chime in, after all. If you quiet down, so may he.download (5)

And, let’s face it.  Some parrot species just tend to be a tad noisier than others.  Sun conure owners unite!  Even though you have chosen to live with one of the loudest species on the planet, you too can enjoy a quiet home.

“Parrots Are What You Make of them”

The second step is to realize that you have the power. You have the power to impact your parrot’s choices through your reactions. If he is screaming in order to get your attention, then you can choose a bit more wisely the behaviors for which you do give him attention.

A long time ago, I took a series of bird care classes from Jamie McLeod  who owns the Parrot Menagerie in Summerland, California. One day she said, “Parrots are what you make of them.” ParakeetColorfulIt’s true.  If you want a loud parrot, give him attention when he’s loud. If you want a parrot who plays with toys, give him attention when he plays. If you want a parrot who talks, give him attention when he talks. If you want a parrot to eat vegetables, give him attention when he does.

Ignore the Noise…But That’s Not All

I’m sure you have all heard that, in order to solve a screaming problem, you must ignore the noise.  That is true.  If you want the noise you don’t like to disappear, you have to quit rewarding it. However, there are two facts that you must embrace for this strategy to have any affect at all.

First, realize that any reaction on your part has the potential to reward the behavior. So, don’t react in any way. Don’t leave the room. Don’t look at the parrot. Don’t spray the parrot with water. Don’t cover the cage. Don’t put the parrot in the closet. Don’t whistle. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t give your spouse a dirty look because it’s his parrot. Don’t scream back.  Those things won’t work and you will just wind up hating yourself and the parrot.

Get some hearing protection if you have to.  No…I’m not kidding. Trying is not the same as doing. You can’t expect to be successful if you react some of the time and succeed at ignoring the noise at others. Any sporting goods store will be able to sell you some hearing protection.

Second, realize that simply ignoring the behavior will never solve the problem. ScreamingCartoon.FBIf you stop reacting to the screaming, the parrot will simply come up with another behavior that will serve the same function for him, and it likely will not be a lot more enjoyable than what he has been doing.  Why not make sure that you are the one to choose which behaviors he performs next?

What would happen if you decided to react with some social attention and maybe a food treat when he talked or make other pleasant noises?  I can tell you. You would hear a lot more talking and pleasant noises.  What if you decided to reward him when he played with a toy?  He would likely play with toys more, as long as they were items that were interesting to him.

To Change Your Parrot’s Behavior, You Must Change Your Own

Remember: You Have the Power. To change your parrot’s behavior, you can change your own. Stop rewarding the screaming. Instead, reward the other behaviors that your parrot offers that you enjoy more.

The way you do the rewarding (offer reinforcement) is important, however. Your timing has to be good. If you offer him a reinforcer too long after he performed the behavior you like, he won’t be able to connect the two.  Instead, as soon as he says a word, turn immediately (within just a second or two) and say, “Yes!” in a voice he can clearly hear.  Then, as quickly as possible walk over and offer something he wants – a food treat or a head scratch. Carry the treats in your pocket so you have them handy if you’re going to use food. Make sure that every time you say “Good!” you follow it with a food treat, even if you made a mistake in recognizing a sound that you really don’t like.

Realize also that you cannot reward quiet.  This does nothing, since “being quiet” is not a behavior.  Instead, look for something the bird is actually doing.

Be consistent about this.  Catch him in the act of being good and reward that.  Just pay attention while you are going about your daily routine. Think if it as practicing parrot behavior mindfulness. 

The Impact of Nutrition

There are other factors that can impact a parrot and his tendency to make noise also.  Did you know that the diet you feed can set your parrot up for louder behavior?  Carbohydrates and fats are two categories of nutrients that produce more energy for your bird.  A bird who lives indoors, especially if he doesn’t fly, does not need excessive amounts of energy. Therefore, a loud parrot who eats a seed mix, a lot of nuts, or human snack foods may need a diet overhaul if you want him to be quieter.

Activities to Use Up that Excess Energy

Speaking of excess energy, baths and time spent outdoors are wonderful experiences for your parrot that will contribute to quieter behavior. Parrots enjoy the same relaxation after spending time outdoors that we do. A day spent in a safe enclosure outside will do wonders to produce a quieter parrot.

Similarly, if you have visitors coming for lunch and you want a quieter parrot, try giving him a bath right before. (This assumes that your parrot enjoys bathing. It’s not fair to scare him into being quiet.) 105Please bathe him in the morning.  He shouldn’t go to bed wet.

A parrot can’t forage, or chew wood, and scream at the same time. Therefore, by providing more for him to do, and making sure he interacts with his enrichment, he may be quieter. If you have a parrot who doesn’t yet know how to forage, there are some great resources on-line.  Two of my favorites are Parrot Enrichment and Foraging for Parrots.

In some cases, environmental changes can help. If your parrot is louder when he can see out of a window, move his cage. If that’s not possible, keep the blinds down.

Eliminate Isolation and Evolve the Pair Bond

Isolation will create a louder parrot.  Parrots want to be with the family flock. If you have your parrots in a “bird room” make sure they have enough time out of it and that this period is predictable for them. Parrots do best when they get at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, divided into two different periods of time. Less than that and you run the risk of living with a louder bird forever. There’s just only so much isolation and confinement that they can stand.

If you find that you are following these instructions and still not making progress, think about getting your birds out of the bird room permanently.  You can’t reward behavior that you can’t see or hear. It’s a lot easier guiding them into appropriate channels of behavior if they live in your midst.

If your parrot has formed a pair bond with you (thinks you are his mate), he will likely be more demanding of your time. Cosy momentsIf he screams until he gets to be on your shoulder, you may want to encourage him to see you as more of a friend. Try doing some simple training with him so that he comes to look to you for guidance, rather than snuggles, as you gradually reduce that “shoulder time.” Teaching him to station on an interesting perch of his own can help to keep him off of your body.

Additional Strategies

Heading the screaming off before it occurs can help to break the pattern, if you can predict it. If your parrot screams when you get on the phone, talk in another room. Or, give him a good drenching bath before you make that call. If he screams to wake you up in the morning, set your alarm and wake up earlier.  I know….but you’re the one who chose to live with a parrot! They want to wake up when the day dawns.

There is one additional strategy that works to shorten screaming sessions for some parrots.  Please notice that I said “shorten” and “some.” This will not be an important part of your solution.  So, if you can’t implement this aspect of the plan, don’t worry.  images (5)However, if you have a parrot who screams non-stop for extended periods, wait until he stops, say a quick “Good!” and follow this with a treat. You cannot use this intervention with a parrot who screams in quick bursts with small spots of quiet in between.  He’ll start screaming again before you make it over to him with the treat.

Your Stop-the-Screaming Checklist

If you want a quiet(er) parrot, here is your checklist:

  • Ignore the screaming (and any other noise or behavior you don’t like) – 100%.
  • Reward talking and other pleasant sounds.
    • Immediately say “Yes!” and quickly deliver a food treat.
  • Provide new enrichment every day or two, especially right before you would like him to be quiet. Give him things that he can destroy quickly – that’s what he wants.
  • Reduce fats and carbohydrates in the diet, if excessive. Please consult with your veterinarian regarding any potential diet changes.
  • Bathe your parrot to use up some energy.
  • Give your parrot the gift of an outdoor aviary.
  • Make sure he gets enough time with you out of his cage twice a day.
  • Teach new behaviors like targeting and stationing.
  • Prevent the screaming if you can predict it. Get creative.
  • Modify the environment to protect his visual experience if needed.

Remember: To change your parrot’s behavior, you must change your own. In reality, you have to change both your thinking and your behavior. Each time you and your parrot have an interaction, he is learning. You are the one who will decide what he is learning.

Complications

People have two problems with this “program.”  First, they forget to keep rewarding the alternate behaviors, the ones the parrot does instead of screaming.  Once they get a little relief, they think the problem is solved.  However, your parrot can always decide to scream again.  It’s still an arrow in his quiver of possible behaviors that he might offer.

So, remember to stay consistent.  Train yourself to look for those behaviors that you would like to reward. They may or may not change over time. As long as they are behaviors that you enjoy, that’s all that matters.  You will wind up giving him attention anyway.  It might as well be for behavior you like.

If you do, you can avoid the second problem that people have. I’ve had more than one client come back to me later with a “second” screaming problem. It wasn’t a second problem. It was merely a different noise.  They had stopped rewarding all of the desirable behaviors the parrot was doing because the noise problem had resolved. They got lazy. So, the parrot came up with a different problem noise. The solution to the problem was the same, of course, even though it was a different noise.

Summary

You must guide your animals’ behavior. By consciously reinforcing the behaviors you do like and ignoring the ones you don’t, you will enjoy your animals a lot more and have far fewer problems. By training new behaviors, you purchase an insurance policy against problem behaviors manifesting in the future. Parrots need learning opportunities, or they will create their own!

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

Teaching a Fearful Parrot to Step Up

Today I want to celebrate a success story about overcoming fear in parrots. Judith SlateI met Judith and her parrots, Arlo and Audrey, in mid-January of 2018. Judith sought my help because Arlo had become afraid of her and she wanted to be able to handle him again. She also had some concerns about Audrey. Since she lives over an hour away, I made one visit to her home and then conducted the rest of our work together by telephone. Judith had no previous experience in training parrots, but she loves her birds and knew intuitively that things could be better. She is retired and enjoys spending lots of time in her garden.

Meet Arlo

Arlo is an eight-year-old African Grey. He was unweaned and 12 weeks old at the time Judith brought him home from the pet store. While originally hand-tame, an accident caused him to lose trust in Judith. After a too-short wing trim, he fell from her shoulder, hit the floor and broke a blood feather. He appeared to be in pain, so Judith quickly swooped down to pick him up. Arlo.6.8.18Ever since that incident, Arlo has avoided ever stepping onto her hands. She can’t handle him when she needs to. Judith reported that he had also become a bit more fearful in general. Lastly, Arlo had bitten Judith badly a few times since that original incident.

Judith had been working for some time to re-establish trust by just being close to Arlo and talking to him. And, since she couldn’t handle him, she had set up a well-appointed play area for him so that he could travel from his cage to a playstand and then to a table with toys on it. He is out of his cage all day. She had also stopped clipping his wings, so he was regaining flight and choosing to use this more often. I thought he really had an excellent quality of life when I saw his environment. Kudos to Judith.

Meet Audrey

Judith has a second parrot, Audrey, who also struggles with fear, mostly of new things.  At the time I met her she preferred to remain in her cage most of the time, even when the door was open. AudreyOneAudrey is a four- year-old Goffin’s Cockatoo that Judith adopted at the age of seven months from the same pet store from which she adopted Arlo. It troubled Judith that Audrey refused to come out on top of her cage to use the play gym there.  During our work together, we also decided that Audrey needed her own play stand and so introducing this became a goal as well. Last, Audrey had a habit, when she occasionally did get up on top of her cage, of running from Judith when she asked her to step up. This too had to be remedied.

Fear and Early Beginnings

It is common for adult parrots to display neophobia – a fear of new things. And, it certainly isn’t uncommon for parrots who have an accident like Arlo’s to become afraid of hands or the caregiver herself. But I would like to point out that, in my experience, parrots who have been sold from pet stores, either weaned or unweaned, begin life at a bit of a disadvantage. They have not received the sort of socialization that allows them to be able to easily weather stressful situations that occur once they go to new homes.

This comment may seem counter-intuitive.  Isn’t starting life in a pet store a good way to get “socialized?” No, it is not. The sort of socialization that occurs in a pet store is more likely to resemble flooding, wherein the young parrot has little choice about her social interactions, but is subjected instead to a lot of unwanted handling.

I take this opportunity to comment in this way because we all should be knowledgeable about the ways in which young parrots are reared. As Dr. Brian Speer once commented, “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.”  If we want to adopt a young parrot, we had better choose wisely by finding a small breeder who allows the fledglings to learn to fly well and wean according to their own time table before going to their new homes.  Such babies wind up having a great deal more resilience as adults and tend to be more “fright-proof.” That said, there are parrot stores who do things well, so I will merely say: “Let the buyer beware!” Do your research.

Work with Behavior, Not Labels

I would also like, before we get back to the story about Arlo and Audrey, to point out that “fearful” is a label, not a behavior. The specific behaviors that Arlo displayed that we wanted to change were his avoidance of Judith’s hands and his biting her when she did try to handle him. For Audrey, we wanted to change her lack of desire to access the play area on top of her cage, her running from Judith when she tried to step her up, and her avoidance of the new playstand.

I am comfortable talking about both Arlo’s and Audrey’s behavior as fearful. However, I do so as a bit of written “shorthand.”  When developing a behavior modification plan for what is perceived as fearful behavior, you must target very specific behaviors that you want to change. You can’t change “fearful.” By changing the behavior, you change the emotion… not the other way around. This is why Judith’s standing and talking to Arlo had not achieved the results she wanted.

Identifying Reinforcers

Before we could begin any training, we had to identify reinforcers (favorite things) for which each parrot would want to work. Successful training requires that the animal receives a valued reinforcer after performing the behavior. When working with fearful behavior, it is often necessary to use a very high-value food treat. If we are asking the parrot to work past his reluctance to approach a hand, we had better have something really good to give him when he does.

This was a bit of a challenge. Judith knew that Arlo liked both scrambled eggs and nuts, since he routinely shared these with her at meals. So, that was where we started. I asked Judith not to give these to Arlo anymore just as treats. Instead, we would use them as reinforcers until we could identify others. Audrey likes pistachio nuts so the same advice was given – no pistachio nuts unless she earns them.

Increasing Motivation

As it turned out, Arlo wasn’t particularly interested in any food treats if he had to do something to earn them. So, we reviewed this diet. Both birds eat an excellent diet of organic pellets, birdie bread, and an abundance of vegetables and fruits from Judith’s garden. They also get a small piece of red palm oil every day. Arlo shares meals with Judith, three times a day. These meals consist of small amounts of animal protein and an abundance of vegetables, both raw and cooked.

In order to increase Arlo’s motivation, we had to change his diet. I asked Judith to stop sharing her lunch with him. Getting three meals a day in addition to birdie bread and pellets, was keeping Arlo pretty stuffed at all times. We also cut down on the amount of red palm oil and birdie bread that she offered, increased the vegetables, and decreased the amount of animal protein he received. This had the desired effect. Not only was he more motivated for training, but he began eating more pellets.

The Relationship “Bank Account”

Before beginning our training, we discussed the importance of the “bank account” concept of relationship. Any time we cause fear or distrust in a parrot, that amounts to a withdrawal from the bank account. Every time we have an interaction that builds trust, that constitutes a deposit. Judith’s goal was to keep that relationship bank account in the green at all times. More deposits = more motivation for Arlo.

Thus, she had to become a good student of body language so that she could avoid doing anything that created more distrust in either parrot. Parrots can unlearn a fear of something, but that isn’t the same as forgetting that fear. In addition to teaching Arlo and Audrey to overcome the behaviors that reflect fear, Judith now needed to avoid doing anything that caused either parrot to move away from her or otherwise display fear of anything she was doing.

By doing so, she would also avoid any bites, since Arlo only bit her when afraid. By honoring his body language, she was able to resolve his aggression rather easily. His biting served a function for him. When he got afraid, he would bite her to make her go away. When she began to observe his body language so that she didn’t frighten him, he didn’t need to bite her anymore.

Determining a Starting Point

After identifying reinforcers, we had to determine a starting point for each training goal. For teaching Arlo to step up, we began by having Judith offer food treats quite a distance from the hand that he would eventually step onto. She offered the treats by holding them between Arlo and the step up hand. We made sure to begin at a distance where he showed no nervousness about the presence of that other hand.

Gradually, Judith decreased, in very small approximations (tiny steps), the distance between the treat and her step up hand so that Arlo had to come a little bit closer to get the treat at each approximation. We didn’t want him to ever get nervous during this training so she spent as much time as necessary before she asked him to come a little closer, waiting until he was 100% comfortable before moving ahead to the next step.

Arlo Steps Up

Eventually, Arlo would walk right up to her step up hand to get his treat. At that point, Judith began asking him to just lean over that hand to get the treat. Finally, he stepped up on that hand for a treat. From that point onward, it was just a matter of strengthening the behavior.  Today, Arlo steps up every time he is asked and has even stood on Judith’s hand as she walked with him back to his cage after his flying off. Next, Judith will be working on getting Arlo to remain on her hand for longer periods, always making progress in very small approximations so that Arlo stays relaxed.

Getting Audrey on the Play Gym

Focusing on Audrey, we encouraged her to come out on top of her cage by putting paper and other things to chew on her play top. Audrey loves her toys so this was enough to get her up there. Judith then began to offer treats as Audrey stayed up there. Now she had two reasons to be on her play gym. Enrichment was always present and she got treats when she was up there too. Now the play gym had at least as much value to her as the inside of her cage did and she began playing up there frequently by choice.

Teaching Audrey to Step Up

Now that she wanted to be on her play gym more, Judith had to deal with the problem of Audrey’s running away from her when asked to step up from that location. New rules had to go into effect. Under no circumstances was it okay to pursue Audrey if she would not step up. It was not okay to force her for any reason. Remember that bank account!

Since Audrey would step up at times without problem, Judith had to start there. She would show Audrey the treat and ask her to get onto her hand. If Audrey refused, Judith was to walk away without a word (taking the treat with her of course!). Then she would come back just a few minutes later to give Audrey another chance. When Audrey did step up, she got the treat and then Judith put her right back down again. This reassured Audrey that she wouldn’t be asked to do any more than just get onto Judith’s hand for a brief moment.

This is important when working with parrots who resist stepping up at times. We must allow them that choice to refuse. Do not push your hand into the parrot’s abdomen. Do not scare them onto your hand by holding something in your other. Those methods are unethical because they deprive the parrot of choice. All you have to do with a parrot like that is find your starting point. When she is likely to do as you ask, have her three or four times a day step up for a treat, after which you put her right back down. Once she is stepping up willingly, you continue to give a treat for the behavior but this is concealed until the behavior has been performed. You will have a parrot who steps up nicely!

Audrey Accepts Her New Playstand

Audrey was initially frightened by the sight of her new playstand. So, Judith put it across the room where she could look at it, but wasn’t afraid of it. When she was familiar with  the stand’s look, it was time to teach her to accept it.

Judith started at enough of a distance from the stand that Audrey showed no concern. She asked Audrey to step up, which she did now without any problem, and began walking slowly toward the stand, offering a treat at every step. In the beginning it was just a step or two toward the stand and then back again to the cage. Judith made sure that Audrey was relaxed (below threshold) every time they worked on this together. Using very small approximations, Judith decreased the distance to the stand with Audrey on her hand eating treats. After a few weeks of work, Judith was able to walk all the way up to the stand with a relaxed Audrey on her hand.

At that point, Judith began asking her just to lean over the stand’s perch to get her treat. Does this sound familiar? Once Audrey happily leaned over the stand for the treat, it was time to ask her to step onto the stand. Today, Audrey loves her playstand and spends considerable amounts of time there.

Lessons Learned

I wanted to tell you about Judith and her birds for a few reasons. I think there are some important lessons for us all in the story.

First: We don’t have to be excellent animals trainers to achieve great things. Animals are forgiving. Judith was a novice and she made mistakes. (And perhaps I didn’t communicate clearly!) At one point we laughed out loud together because she had actually been rewarding Arlo for not performing the desired behavior.

Second: We can and should work to help our parrots get over their fears. We may think we are doing them a favor by allowing them to stay in their comfort zones, but we are not. This is how parrots lose their flexibility and adaptability. It’s also how they lose their quality of life. If we believe that a good quality of life depends upon having choices to make, we do our parrots no favors by allowing them to choose not to interact with that new perch or toy.

Judith was brave enough to get out of her comfort zone and learn to train her parrots. Her motivation was simply love for her birds and a desire that they have the best lives possible. Arlo willingly left his comfort zone to take risks and today his quality of life is a lot better. He now doesn’t have to fear his primary caregiver for any reason. Audrey had to leave the comfort zone of her cage to learn to play on her upper play gym and her new playstand. Her quality of life is also greatly improved.

Third: When working with fearful parrots, success depends only upon having patience, consistency, and the fortitude to keep doing the right thing for long enough. The training that Judith did with Arlo and Audrey took several months and at times was not very rewarding for her. Working with fear can take a long time when dealing with prey animals. Often it isn’t very fun, but the success is all the sweeter for it.

Fourth: If your parrot is not “food motivated” for training, examine his diet. Chances are, he is either getting too many fatty foods, too many carbohydrates, or too much food overall. If you decide the diet needs changing, please consult your avian veterinarian before doing so.

If you have a parrot who is afraid of something, please consider some training to help her get past that fear. You will all benefit. Positive reinforcement training that encompasses desensitization and counter conditioning is the path forward!

 

Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

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Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.