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!

 

Managing Behavior through Environmental Change

By making simple changes to the environment, you can often accomplish amazing improvements in problem behaviors. When referring to environment, social exchanges are included in the discussion, as well as the physical habitat and diet. You are part of your birds’ environment. The term includes anything and everything present in the environment that can impact the parrot’s behavior.

Environment Changes = Antecedent Changes

The natural science of learning and behavior is over a century old. By studying how behavior “works,” we have discovered very positive and humane ways in which to change it. One of the best relies upon making changes to the bird’s environment. In the science of applied behavior analysis, these types of changes are referred to as antecedent changes.animals-3618625__340

Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior more likely. They are essential to “setting the parrot up for success,” when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing ones. Antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform. Essentially, they can be thought of as simply the management of behavior.

The huge value of positive reinforcement training (which includes clicker training) is now more commonly recognized and understood as one of the best ways to improve an animal’s behavior, as well as to teach new ones. However, antecedent changes are equally useful and can serve as stand-alone interventions. When you couple skillful arrangement of antecedents with the use of positive reinforcement, there are few limits to what you can achieve.

Ethics of Behavior Change

Antecedent changes are one of the most positive, least intrusive ways to change behavior. They often increase quality of life for the bird, in addition to making the owner’s life easier. They help to build a more trusting owner-parrot relationship.

This is important. When dealing with our parrots’ behavior, we must do so in an ethical manner. There is no room for forceful intervention, such as the frequently recommended advice to restrain a parrot until he stops resisting. For any who would like to delve further into the ethics of behavior change, please read the article by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. titled What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not Enough.

What Behaviors Can Be Managed?

The first key to using this behavior management strategy is to begin answering for yourself these questions:

  • What might make it easier (or more likely) for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
  • What might make it less likely that my bird will perform the problem behavior?
  • Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

When we choose to live with very intelligent, sentient animals like parrots, we must be problem-solvers. parrot-55293__340Making use of antecedent (environment) changes helps greatly. This type of behavior modification also makes life easier for us. We don’t have to get caught up in telling ourselves stories about how the parrot feels or what he wants. We just make simple changes, then evaluate the resulting behavior. If not effective, we try another possible change.

The following are some real life examples of how well this type of strategy can work. I’ve used common problems voiced frequently by clients, as well as those from my own life with birds. These are organized according to the suggested questions above.

What might make it easier for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?

Example #1: A Meyer’s parrot sustained an injury, received medical treatment and pain medication and was back at home, but losing weight. download (14)His owner, when home, observed him readily climbing down lower in his cage to access his food dish. Thus, pain (causing a reluctance to move) did not at first appear to account for the weight loss.

I suggested the possibility that he might not be as motivated to climb downward in her absence (a different environment). He would not have the stimulation of her presence to energize him, nor the distraction of her presence that might allow him to disregard his discomfort.

Antecedent Change: We moved the food dishes up right by his favorite perch and he regained the weight he had lost. We have no way of knowing whether this particular change, some other factor, or all changes combined, caused him to gain weight again. However, I offer this example to make you think. Parrots often behave differently when you are not at home.

Example #2: A similar example concerns the challenge many small birds pose when we try to improve their diet from a seed mix to formulated foods. Cages sold for these species always have the food dishes located down near the bottom of the cage. This means that getting to the food requires effort for the bird.

Antecedent Change: Place the new foods into additional dishes right up by the perch the bird uses most, leaving the seed mix in the dish down low. This is an example of decreasing the response effort. We make it easier for the bird to eat the new food because doing so requires less effort than does climbing down to the bottom of the cage.

Example #3: Many parrots do not readily interact with enrichment or consume fresh vegetables or fruit. bird-1941481__340These activities can be encouraged through their skillful placement. As the photo shows, placing a chuck of fresh food in a novel place often encourages consumption more quickly than simply leaving it in the food dish. I increased my own parrots’ consumption of pellets by offering them on play stands, in addition to their cages.

When placing enrichment, stand back and evaluate how the parrot uses his cage. I see cages with toys on the floor or in the lower third of the cage (where parrots usually don’t spend much time). I see toys in spots where it would take a great deal of effort for the bird to use them. I see toys that are completely inappropriate to the bird’s size, rendering interaction impossible.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Place the toy at a spot in the cage where the bird spends most of his time. Make sure that he can access it easily from that perch. (2) Hang it from the ceiling of the cage at beak level. It takes more effort for a parrot to bend over to interact with enrichment. (3) Place it where it’s not likely to bang into any part of his body when he turns around. (4) If it’s wood to chew, make sure that it isn’t too hard or too thick for him. (5) Use the information you have from previous behavior to inform your choice about what you provide. For example, if he chews up your junk mail when you leave it around, try a first toy made out of paper.

Example #4: Many clients complain that their parrot isn’t motivated to earn treats (preferred foods) when they attempt training.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Increase the value of the food treats you are using by only offering them when training and at no other time. (2) Try training right before a meal when motivation might be higher. (3) Eliminate any distractions, like other people or animals, in the training environment that might make your parrot less likely to focus.

What might make it less likely that my bird will perform a problem behavior in a particular set of circumstances?

Example #1: I once had a quaker parakeet who was fiercely “territorial” around his cagedownload (16) – meaning that I had a hard time interacting with him or changing out food dishes when he was near his cage because he would bite with ferocity. Luckily, he had a good recall and would fly to my hand whenever called.

Antecedent Change: Rather than trying to service his cage or asking him to step up when he was there, I instead would open his cage door, step back, cue him to fly to me, and put him on a play stand, which allowed me to interact with him easily or to service his cage while he was on the stand.

Example #2050One of my greys takes great pleasure in testing gravity by throwing my pots and pans down from my pot rack. She is also a genius when it comes to finding her way into my kitchen cupboards when I am not looking. A normally patient person, these behaviors turns me into a crazy woman. (I came inside recently, after taking my dog for a brief walk, to find my kitchen counter and floor covered with a mixture of baking soda, cocoa powder, ramen noodles and soy sauce.)

Antecedent Change: The most obvious and simplest change would be just to store my cook pots in a cupboard, preventing that problem entirely. However, I live in a teeny, tiny house with little storage space. So, I recently found a way to use different hooks that make it harder for her to enjoy that type of fun. To resolve the second issue, I installed child proof locks on my cupboards. Scolding her for either behavior would have only rewarded her by giving her social attention.  Often, preventing problem behavior is the very best solution.

Example #3: A frequently voiced problem is that of the parrot who bites when you try to change out food bowls. I used to live with a Blue and Gold macaw who was like a rocket, charging through his food dish openings in an attempt to get to me, when I tried to feed him from the outside of his cage.

Antecedent Change: I solved that problem by offering a large treat very near a high perch on the opposite side of the cage. Anyone can do this. Place a second bowl up higher in the cage. When you are ready to change out dishes, place a valued food (that will take a minute or two to eat) in there. This will lure the parrot up to that dish, leaving you safe to accomplish your task. By repeating this every time you feed, you will soon have a parrot who stations while you feed.

Example #4: A client complained that her parrot would snatch her stud earrings out of her ears when she was holding him.

Antecedent Change: Take off the earrings before you hold your bird.

Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

Example #1: Many parrots step up readily when perched at chest height, but are more reluctant when perched over the owner’s head. imagesCAUSHIDZOne cause can be that parrots, by nature, are much more comfortable stepping upward and forward, rather than downward.

Antecedent Change: Slowly get up on a step stool in a manner that doesn’t frighten the parrot and then ask him to step upward onto your hand. He will be much more likely to do so.

Example #2: Another of my greys occasionally chooses to perch around the house at spots down a bit lower, like the top of my step stool or the door to the dog crate. He often solicits head scratches from me while there, but I have learned he is a lot more likely to deliver the  “Congo Grey Sucker Bite” when I am taken in by this “false” invitation. He never does that when he is perched up higher. Note: I don’t have to figure out why he displays this odd difference in behavior in certain spots in order to solve the problem.

Antecedent Change: I ignore his solicitations to pet his head when he is perched lower on one of these spots. (I don’t want him there anyway so should not reward that behavior.) Instead, I readily provide head pets when he is on his cage or a play stand and more likely to be a gentleman.

Example #3: A client complained recently that her parrot would vocalize obnoxiously non-stop when she worked in the kitchen, even though he could easily see her from his cage.

Antecedent Change: Put a table top perch in the kitchen and bring him in to supervise. They can socialize a bit and she can take that opportunity also to offer fresh vegetables as a snack. This simple change caused her to pronounce me “a genius.” We can all be geniuses if we learn to think in this manner.

Example #4: A cockatoo, pair-bonded to the woman in the home, bites anyone who tries to sit on the couch with her when he is near.

Antecedent Change:  Keep the bird in his cage or on a nearby perch when you are sitting on the sofa.

The Process

Managing behavior by making antecedent changes is really just a matter of using common sense and brainstorming. First, identify and describe in detail the behavior you want to change (increase or decrease). Then, brainstorm as many environmental modifications (antecedent changes) as you can think of that might create the change you desire, even if some seem pretty silly or unlikely to work.

Next, try first using the one you think most likely to work. After a few days, step back and evaluate. Have you solved the problem? If not, go on to try the next most likely.

Some solutions are so effective and simple, they might appear suspect. For example, if a parrot bites or chews on your clothes when on your shoulder, simply deny him this privilege. One small change solves the problem with little effort.

In other situations, finding a solution can take many attempts.  I have a client in Jordan with a mechanically inclined cockatoo who delights in leaving his cage to take the top panel off of the radiator. We have worked hard to teach stationing, but the radiator fun apparently is very reinforcing to him and resistant to change. Obviously, that training needs to be continued, but due to the possible danger, we also tried some antecedent changes.

We put a blanket over it when not in use. He moved the blanket. We tried putting an object on top that he hadn’t seen before, thinking that might make him less likely to go over to that side of the room. He didn’t care. We are left with the only option possible – to use additional hardware to screw the top in place and prevent the behavior completely.

Summary

Parrots are a joy and a challenge. Managing their behavior can press us to our limits. However, doing so can be a lot easier than you imagine. digital-art-95075__340You can learn to do this!

Make first and frequent use of antecedent changes. Once you have the knack of arranging the environment to get the behavior you want, go on and learn how to use positive reinforcement to  maintain desirable behaviors and teach new ones.

Don’t blame your parrots for being “difficult!” Instead, have some fun trying to create behavior changes. When you do, always remember to be kind. You can use what you learn on partners and children too!

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!

Resource and Suggested Reading List (these are not parrot-specific because the same rules for behavior change are the same for all species):

Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (revised edition, 2006)

Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots by Barbara Heidenreich (2012)

How Parrots Learn to Behave by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and Phoebe Greene Linden (2003)

10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know about Behavior by Susan Friedman, Ph.D.

Blog post by Eileen Anderson on her site eileenanddogs  – What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? .

 

Pellets: To Feed or Not to Feed

Parrot nutrition is a special area of interest for me and one about which I am fairly passionate. The foods that a parrot eats will literally determine his experience, physically and emotionally, throughout his life. photo-1436902799100-7eb776a61f79

What we are doing as a population of bird owners is not working. Too many parrots are diagnosed daily with malnutrition and the often fatal illnesses that result. As a veterinary technician, I have seen it too often.

I also know how hard bird owners work at feeding a healthy diet. But it’s not an easy task. Information found on the internet results in both confusion and frustration. Too many websites voice strong opinions without citing sources or even acknowledging authorship in some cases.

And, parrots offer their own set of challenges. Adult parrots often don’t accept new foods readily. Second, they are biologically “programmed” to consume high energy (high fat) foods before consuming others that may offer better nutrition and more fiber. This can make them resistant to eating lower fat foods if both are offered in plenty. (Molukwu, M. 2011)

I will tell you up front that I am a strong advocate of feeding pellets – not as 100% of the diet, but as a wholesome and beneficial staple in the diet. downloadIf you are staunchly opposed to feeding pellets, then please do not read on. This is written for those with an open mind. On the other hand, if you are undecided or wish you could get your parrot to eat pellets and can’t…then this blog is for you.

Nutrient Requirements for Parrots

I once again just recently researched published scientific information about parrot diets. It is still true that the best minds don’t know for certain what the best diet is for any parrot. They readily admit this. “Few nutrient requirements have been derived scientifically for companion birds, so nutrient requirements are based on the best guess from galliforms [chickens, ducks, turkeys, Japanese quail]”. (Orosz, S. 2006)Photo by Kris Porter

“Companion bird nutrition has virtually no tradition. In the last fifteen years progress has been made in the area of pet avian nutrition. As companion bird popularity increases, interest into researching nutritional needs has surfaced. There is still a relative lack of research information due to lack of funding, need to research “natural” diets, and the difficulty in duplicating nutritional needs in captivity.” (Ritzman, T. 2008) It is now ten years after that was written, and progress in growing our knowledge has been slow.

In the face of such a lack of knowledge, why would anyone adhere so strongly to their own prejudices that pellets aren’t important to a balanced diet when most veterinarians advocate their use so strongly? Significant advances in parrot health have been seen since they were introduced. Yet many do.

Let’s take a look at the many aspects of feeding pellets, so that you can make up your own mind about the correct choice: Should I feed my parrot pellets, or not?

The Default Diet

First, I contend that we all need a “default” diet. By this I mean a diet that our parrots will eat that we can pour out of a bag. Serving other foods can be good for adding variety into the diet to ensure nutritional balance. However, the day may come when some problem prevents you from following through with your usual parrot food preparation plans. In times of disaster, we need a food that we can serve quickly that will support good health.

This “default diet” is going to be either a seed mix or a formulated diet. If we want to protect our parrots’ health, we can’t feed seed as the main dietary staple. Not only does daily consumption of a seed mix lead to malnutrition, it sets the parrot up to develop diseases like obesity, lipoma development, atherosclerosis and fatty liver disease.

Problems with Seed Mixes

Seed mixes are deficient in 32 essential nutrients. They are very low vitamin A, which is essential  if the  immune system is to function correctly. If it does not, illness results. Seed mixes also lead to calcium deficiencies, which can put a bird’s life in peril. Many egg-bound birds who lay soft shell eggs do so because of the seed mix they eat.images (7)

Feeding a high-fat diet can also contribute to behavior problems. Dr. Jamie Lindstrom explains: “As we provide these high carb, high lipid diets, we’re also providing these birds with high energy. If the parrot has insufficient opportunities to expend this energy, it leads to some of the aberrant behaviors, such as screaming and biting, that we see in these birds.”  (Lindstrom, J. 2010)

Fatty foods give the parrot more energy, which may be channeled into biting or screaming. With one client years ago, I improved a screaming problem simply by converting a Scarlet Macaw from a seed mix to pellets and vegetables. That wasn’t the sole solution of course, but that change was crucial to long-term success. It is also thought by many that high fat diets contribute to increased “hormonal” behaviors, such as cavity seeking, intense bonding with one person in the family, paper shredding on the bottom of the case, and territorial aggression. (Hoppes, S. 2018)

In Defense of Seed Mixes

Some defend seed mixes by pointing out that pellets have been mixed with the seed or that vitamins have been sprayed on the outside of the seeds to create a “balanced” diet. However, whether a diet is deemed balanced or not depends upon what that bird actually eats. When given the option of seeds vs. pellets, parrots usually only eat the seed. When vitamins are sprayed on the outside of seeds, this also does nothing to balance the diet. Parrots hull all of the seeds they consume. Thus, the added vitamins wind up on the floor of the cage with the shells. “For the supplement to be effective, it must be consumed in proportion to its presence in the mix.” (Brilling Hill, Inc. 1996)

Even if the attempt is made to balance a seed mix by feeding table food, the fact still remains that seed mixes contain too much fat for the average parrot. Adding table food can make this worse, as most Americans do not eat a low-fat diet. There really is no valid argument in favor of feeding a seed mix as the chosen dietary staple. That leaves us with the option of feeding pellets  (formulated diets).

Types of Formulated Diets

Formulated diets come in three types. Two of the types are typically lumped together, being described as “pellets.”  The third type is manufactured by combining seeds and pellets into one product. An example would be the Lafeber Nutriberries and Avicakes.

 Pelleted or Extruded Diets

Not all pellets are created equal. There are two methods for manufacturing a “pelleted” diet. The first creates an extruded nugget.  An example of this type would be Zupreem or Pretty Bird. Some extruded products contain sugar, which makes them a favorite among many parrots. Some say that it is easier to convert a parrot to an extruded nugget, but I have not found this to be true.images (8)

Extruded diets are manufactured by forcing a mixture of dry, ground ingredients and water through a die under high pressure and high temperature. The higher temperatures required to produce extruded diets may cause more nutrient depletion than happens with pelleted foods. In either case, nutrients that break down under higher temperatures are then added back into the product to ensure that nutrient levels are met. (Brilling Hill. 1996)

Extruded diets often, but not always, contain chemical dyes that are made from petroleum. It has not been substantiated definitively that food dyes cause behavior problems or allergies in children. However, many swear that this is the case. Choose a product without artificial coloring if this is a concern of yours.

True pellets, on the other hand, are produced by adding steam to a mixture of dry, ground ingredients and then forcing this through a die to create the shape. Generally, they are produced under lower temperatures than are extruded nuggets. Some pellet brands are organic and non-GMO. Ingredients may be less finely ground and there may be more whole-food ingredients listed on the label. Harrison’s is an example of a pelleted diet.

A word of caution: You can’t choose a pellet simply by reading the ingredient list. Organic, non-GMO, and a variety of ingredients are all good claims. However, you must also ask yourself what person or body is behind the product.

Who formulated the product? Do they have a degree in nutrition or other pertinent education? Was any research done during the formulation? Any feeding trials performed?  Do they claim that the pellet is a complete diet? If the company cannot willingly and happily provide you with this information, you should consider another choice.

Arguments Against Feeding Pellets

Let’s look at some of the arguments often given for not feeding pellets:

Argument: Pellets are too dry and can contribute to a “dry crop mix” if the parrot doesn’t drink enough water.

Answer: I have never seen or heard of such a case. Parrots in the wild consume many foods, including soil, that vary widely in moisture content. It is likely that they readily adjust their water intake to account for this. If a parrot is ill or is prevented access to water, this could be an issue. However, consuming pellets poses no risk to a healthy parrot.

Argument: Pellets are boring.

Answer: They are to us. We can’t know how our parrots regard them. In any case, I’m not sure that parrots expect their food to be exciting. That said, this is why it’s a good idea to offer a variety of vegetables, limited fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

Argument: Pellets do not allow for natural foraging behavior.

Answer: They do if you include them in foraging toys and other foraging opportunities.

Argument: Pellets cannot possibly meet the nutritional needs of all species of parrots kept in captivity.

Answer: This is probably true, especially for those species who forage from a huge selection of plant materials and invertebrates in the wild. However, it’s no reason not to feed them. They offer balanced nutrition. It’s up to us to supplement the pellets with enough healthy variety as described above to make sure that we get as close as possible to offering a balanced diet.

Argument: Pellets are not palatable so parrots don’t like them.

Answer: Not true. This argument is the result of incorrectly interpreting behavior. Many people conclude this after offering pellets and finding that the parrot won’t eat them. Introducing pellets has to be done correctly to ensure acceptance. You can’t offer a choice between seeds and pellets and then conclude that the parrot doesn’t like pellets. This is like offering a two-year-old a choice between broccoli and ice cream. Further, if a parrot hasn’t seen pellets before, it may take several weeks of offering them before he accepts them.  

Argument: Eating pellets leads to iron storage disease (hemochromatosis).

Answer: True… IF your parrot consumes moderate quantities of both pellets and citrus fruits or juice. Parrots do not need dietary iron and too much iron absorbed from the diet can cause a health risk. The ascorbic acid in citrus fruit causes increased absorption of iron from the diet. There is no need to feed citrus fruits and they are best avoided in a pellet-eating parrot.

Argument: Veterinarians only recommend pellets because they make money off of them.

Answer: This is so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit a response.

Argument: Eclectus parrots develop toe-tapping and wing flipping if you feed them pellets.

Answer: Actually, these behaviors cannot be blamed solely on pellets or vitamin supplementation.  (Desborough, L. 2014)

Argument:: Converting my parrot to pellets is just too hard; he never eats them.

Answer: He will if you introduce them in the right way. Read on…the next section is for you.

But first, an additional argument is often presented. Why feed pellets at all?  Why not just offer a healthy variety and allow the parrot to choose which foods he needs? GreyIn theory, this should work. In practice, it does not. I can assure you of that from my own personal experience. In addition, “a self-selected diet in African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) resulted in a diet that was deficient in a total of 12 dietary components consisting of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. (Orosz, S. Lafeber.com)” For most species a combination of a formulated diet (50-80%) is ideal along with fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other appropriate fresh foods.” (Ritzman, T. 2008)

 Converting the Seed-Eating Parrot to Pellets

 Let me reassure you about two things. First, I have never been unsuccessful in converting a parrot from seed to pellets. Second, I have never found it necessary to make the parrot hungry in order to accomplish this goal. If pellets are introduced correctly, your parrot will choose to eat them. The following is a foolproof method for getting your parrot to eat pellets:

First, make a chop mix for your bird. You may already have heard of “chop.” (While some lay claim to this idea, some version of it has been around for a long time.) Chop.FBWhole grains are cooked, then mixed with finely chopped vegetables and other items. The mix is frozen and then defrosted for feeding. It’s a good way to get a lot of variety into a parrot’s diet and offer a foraging experience. Here is an excellent article about making chop.

The only way you can screw this idea up is by including too many “goodies” (nuts, wheat-based pasta, dried fruit, etc.) into your mix. It should include only grains as close to nature as possible and a wide variety of vegetables. Other healthful additions might include flax seed, pasta made from legumes, sprouts, etc.  Using the chop mix to convert the parrot to eating pellets works extremely well for birds who are used to being offered variety.

Once you have created your chop mix:

  • Measure the amount of seed mix consumed each day.
  • Mix this into an equal quantity of chop mix; offer this on a daily basis. (Your parrot will need to forage through the chop in order to eat his seeds. If he won’t go near the dish, then you will need initially to offer a small quantity of seed in a separate dish so that he doesn’t go hungry.)
  • At the same time, begin to offer in a separate dish a good-quality pellet. Don’t worry if he doesn’t eat them at this time. Feed fresh pellets daily in a small quantity (two or three) until he starts to eat them.
  • When you observe that he is eating some of the grains and vegetables, start reducing the amount of seed you mix into his chop. (You can reduce the overall quantity of seed by as little as one teaspoon a week if he is slow to eat the chop. Or, you can reduce it more quickly if he eats the chop mix readily. Take your cues from your parrot. Go as slowly or as quickly as he needs, but continue to steadily reduce weekly the amount of seed you put into the chop.)
  • Drumroll: At some point (once the quantity of seed mix offered gets to the point where he can no longer rely on it to meet his nutritional need for dietary fat) he will begin to eat the pellets. You won’t have to do anything else to encourage him to eat pellets.
  • Once he is eating the pellets well, completely eliminate the seed mix from the daily diet. Give it to the wild birds or use it to reward different behaviors that you ask him to perform.

Please note that this method is intended for species other than budgerigars and cockatiels. Generally, veterinarians recommend feeding these species fewer pellets. I convert these birds first from seed to Labefer Nutriberries and Avicakes, then add in a smaller quantity of pellets. This method has been most successful.

There are other ways, of course, to successfully introduce pellets to parrots. However, if I make this blog any longer, no one will read it!

Feeding Other Foods

If you do offer other foods in addition to the pelleted or extruded diet, you may change the nutrient balance of the diet as a whole, which could be problematic. This only becomes a serious problem if you are adding in seeds or nuts. As previously stated, parrots will eat high fat foods in preference to formulated foods. The best practice is to reserve any treats, whether seeds or nuts or cheese, for use in reinforcing behaviors that you have asked the parrot to do.

If you supplement with fruits and vegetables, you are less likely to upset the total nutrient balance of the diet. These foods are high in water content, so even if they make up a high proportion of dietary weight, they have a relatively small influence on the balance of nutrients supplied by dry pellets or extrusions that contain much less water.  (Brilling Hill, Inc. 1996)

Veterinarians generally recommend that formulated foods make up between 50% and 80% of what is consumed. My best advice is to consult your own veterinarian as to what brand and amount to feed.

A Few Cautions

If pursuing a diet change, please weigh your parrot regularly to guard against weight loss. This is easier than trying to figure out what the parrot is actually eating. (An exception to this would be if your veterinarian has recommended weight loss for your parrot and is monitoring your progress with this.) Otherwise, weigh your parrot once or twice a week. You can use a good-quality kitchen scale. Alternatively there are many websites that sell scales with perches.

You should also be monitoring the droppings as an added precaution. What goes in must come out. If you have more than one bird in the cage, please also increase the number of food dishes. You should eliminate any competition for food as the diet conversion is completed.

Sources:

Brue, R. (1997) Nutrition. In: D. Zantop, abridged edition, Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing, Pages 23-46.

Brilling Hill, Inc. for Veterinary Practice Publishing Company. 1996. Nutrition of Psittacines (Parrot Family.) [online] Available at: https://www.marionzoological.com/docs/NutritionPsittacines-1009.pdf

Dr. Sharman M. Hoppes, 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.

Clark, P. Dr. Jamie Lindstrom (2010) Telephone interview: The Link Between Diet and Behavior.

 Desborough, L.  (2014) Toe-tapping in Eclectus Parrots. [online] Available at: https://eclectusparrotcentre.com/contact/toe-tapping

Molokwu, M and Nilsson, J and Olsson, O. (2011) Diet Selection in Birds: trade-off between energetic content and digestibility of seeds. Oxford University Press for the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. [online] Available at: https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/22/3/639/269921

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

Dr. Susan Orosz, 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.

Dr. Susan Orosz, DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. Date unknown. Avian Nutrition Revisited: Clinical Perspectives. Pet Birds by Lafeber Co. [online] Available at: https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/avian-nutrition-revisited-clinical-perspectives

Dr. Tracey Ritzman, DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. [online] Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings