Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots

As we begin to search for favorite soup recipes and pull out that beloved afghan, our parrots also change their behavior in response to colder weather and darker days. My own become a bit more obsessed with getting into the bathroom or being on the floor somewhere. I may need to fish one of them out of the closet occasionally.

Today I want to say a few more words about cavity seeking. I did cover this topic in my blog post Companion Parrots and Reproductive Hormones, but I think that a single focus on this topic is worthy. At this time of year especially, we can begin to see an increase in this behavior, which can be both puzzling and aggravating.

What is cavity seeking? I get that question a lot, usually right after I use the term as if everyone knows what it means.

When I did a Google search for these words, I got a lot of information about oral cavities. So, I had to  wonder…am I the only one using this term to describe a particular aspect of parrot behavior? I highly doubt it.  However, while the behavior is as common as parrots vocalizing loudly, the name for this behavior and it’s ramifications are not well-recognized.

What Is Cavity Seeking?

Cavity seeking is behavior sexually mature companion parrots attempt to pursue with the goal of establishing a potential nesting spot (in their perception at least). This appears to be a very strong drive and may occur independently from the presence of any perceived “mate,” although the two usually go hand in hand.

It is typically regarded as cute, slightly quixotic, and harmless. It can also be reinforcing for us when parrots engage in cavity seeking because it keeps them occupied for long periods of time, leaving us free to pursue our own tasks without worrying about the need to provide enrichment.

The Many Faces of Cavity Seeking

What does cavity seeking look like?

The answers to this are extremely diverse, which is why I want to focus exclusively on this topic today. The fact that it so often goes unrecognized is a problem, since it so often leads to an increase in the production of reproductive hormones, which in turn results in resource guarding (territorial aggression), increased vocalizations, and can set the stage for feather damaging behavior (FDB).

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a photo of one of Chris Shank’s cockatoos. It looks like innocent play, doesn’t it? It’s not. This bird is cavity seeking – checking out a small, dark space even when he has the entire property to explore, being a free-flighted parrot. This same cockatoo often jumps into Chris’ washing machine if he happens to be indoors and the lid is open .

One day, some years ago, we received an urgent visit from the pastor of a local church. One of Chris’ cockatoos had flown down the chimney, apparently investigating it as a possible nest cavity.

This is a topic that Chris and I often find ourselves discussing. For someone like Chris, who free flies her birds outdoors, this behavior can be dangerous. It causes the birds to fly too far afield and stay gone too long. During a few months of the year, her birds are not allowed their typical free flight schedule until this seemingly overcoming urge diminishes. For me, it is more frustrating than it is dangerous for my birds.

Modal Action Patterns

There may be research about this aspect of parrot behavior, but I was unable to find it. As I said, everything that came up was about dental health.

However, I believe this behavior to be a modal action pattern. A modal action pattern is an innate behavior or chain of behaviors that is triggered by a particular stimulus. (These previously were referred to as fixed action patterns, but most are now moving toward the terminology of modal action pattern.)

Adult parrots are undeniably and obsessively attracted to small, dark spaces, round “holes,” and small spaces with darkness behind them. A companion parrot’s interpretation of a suitable nesting site can be pretty broad. Two dimensions can suffice, although a dark surface or dark background adds allure.

Cavity Seeking Examples

A few days ago, I allowed my grey Marko to be in the bathroom while I was in there. She began cavity seeking in a most unexpected way. I have a four-year-old granddaughter and happen to have a toilet seat her size which fits over the standard seat. When not in use, I have it on the counter. The oval shape was stimulating enough for Marko that she immediately began to investigate. No doubt, she would have jumped into the middle of it if I had allowed it to continue.

Many parrots become obsessed with getting into cupboards and drawers. This is often seen as amusing by owners and, therefore, is often encouraged. I once knew someone who had emptied out her kitchen cupboards so that her large macaws could play in them.  My own Marko will sit for hours atop my sock drawer if I leave it open a crack. She stares into that dark slit and chews on the top edge of the drawer.

She was also responsible for the need to replace my closet doors. As you can see, they originally had slats that allowed her to see the darkness behind the doors. Her flight skills were good enough that she could land on the outside of the doors and cling to them as she chewed. Before too long, she had remodeled things to her liking and proceeded to guard the site until I replaced the doors themselves with a mirrored substitute that did not allow for chewing.

Other Examples from Real Life

One client had an exceptionally aggressive little conure. When I visited the home, I immediately recognized conditions that set the stage for her biting behavior. Her cage was located in the dining area with an adjoining kitchen. She regularly got to spend time up on top of the refrigerator. There was also a dark wood bookcase with which she was fascinated. And, she often crawled between the dog kennel and the back of the bar top for seating that separated the kitchen from the area that housed her cage. Once her access to these spots had been eliminated, we were able to make good progress with a behavior modification plan.

Another client regularly allowed his Umbrella Cockatoo to sit in the drawer in his office next to him while he was at work. When I dictated this as “off limits” behavior, he provided her with a playstand.

He reported progress a couple of weeks later, due to the fact that she had begun staying in a corner of the office, chewing on the woodwork. I had to break the news to him that this too was nesting behavior and that he really needed to teach her to remain up on the playstand, as we had agreed. Although the two or three dimensions seen here wouldn’t lead us to think about it as a suitable site for nesting behavior, it was for this parrot.

Many of my clients regularly (until they speak to me at least) provide cardboard boxes for their parrot to play in. Seems harmless, right? Enrichment is good, right? Not in this case.

Such play should never be encouraged. I suggest that anyone reading this should stop this practice immediately. It’s much healthier, from a behavioral standpoint, for a parrot to perch on a well-designed playstand and interact with enrichment there.

Another problem can be the provision of toys and “sleeping huts” sold for birds that encourage cavity seeking behavior. If a parrot spends time in these during the day, I suggest their removal. They are not necessary and can be a real problem.

If your parrot spends any time in a place that results in what we typically call “territorial aggression,” access needs to be prevented. In other words, if your parrot darts out suddenly to bite you from a favored spot, it is likely that she regards it as a potential nest site, no matter how you view it.

Training Solutions

As any of us know who have tried to keep parrots where we want them to be, this can be a struggle. Training/teaching is necessary. Always when we want a parrot to stop a behavior, we must replace it with another, incompatible behavior.

The incompatible behavior for cavity seeking is stationing on acceptable perches. This is not difficult, but it takes consistent, daily effort over a long period of time. It is not nearly as quickly accomplished as training specific behaviors like targeting, for instance.

If your parrot regularly walks on the floor and engages in cavity seeking or regular chewing on baseboards or other wood in places there, he has established a relationship with that dimension of your home. He finds significant reinforcement in that physical location.

Therefore, the solution must be to establish a relationship with the perches you provide. That takes time, so don’t despair. Just keep doing the right things for long enough.

I work on this on a daily basis and see continued improvement. I put walnut pieces in my pocket every morning. I keep these in front of my coffee maker so that I don’t forget (habit stacking).

Every time I walk through my living area where the birds are located, I offer a walnut piece to those birds who are perched where I want them to be (hanging perches, cages, playstands). Mine are fully flighted and have freedom to go where they want at all times, so have many choices available to them.

If they are perched on the refrigerator or the dog kennel door or the floor, they get nothing. You would be amazed at what I have accomplished. Almost always, they are all perched where I want them to be.

Synopsis

As I have said, the real problem with this behavior is that we fail to recognize it, don’t understand the ramifications of allowing a parrot to pursue this activity, and so often accommodate it because it meets our needs.

As an example, I just spoke with a new client whose two greys have “nests” all over the space where they spend their days – cardboard boxes in which they spend time, trash cans, etc. This has never been viewed as a problem. They enjoy this activity and it has appeared to be a good way for them to spend time.

However, the problems to be addressed in this case include screaming, aggression and feather damaging behavior – all of which result from such activities. It will be impossible to address these until this behavior is replaced with the behaviors of perching up higher and interacting with enrichment in those places.

It is never happy to find yourself in this position. So, let’s clean this up right now before things get worse! I would love to hear from you. Is this something that you struggle with? Let’s all share what we know about this problem and help each other to find more solutions. Please provide a comment here on or Facebook, where you will find this post on both of my pages, Pamela Clark and The Parrot Steward.

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

How to Create A Bullet Proof Relationship with Your Parrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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