Easiest Behavior Fixes Ever!

It seems sometimes that the bulk of our days is spent trying to change the behavior of other species – spouses, co-workers, children, pets, and even pests.

We struggle to get our kids to do their homework, rather than stare at screens. We want the dog to sit rather than jump up on a guest. We search for non-toxic snail control. We stress out over parrots who scream, display aggression, or pull feathers, trying one tactic and then another to get them to stop. At the same time, we can’t get them to eat vegetables, play with toys, or accept a bath.

Consequences and Punishment

When it comes to problem behavior, our first impulse is usually to try to find a consequence to make it stop. Further, that consequence often takes the shape of punishment. 

We take away screen time if the homework doesn’t get done. We lock the dog into his crate when he jumps up. When the parrot screams, we spray him with water or cover his cage. If the bird bites, we put him into his cage for a “time out.”

Why are we so focused on the use of consequences to change behavior? Perhaps because it feels so familiar.

We are all familiar with the painful consequences of failure to plan or of our own miscalculations. We learn to use a hammer correctly when we bang our fingers often enough. We fix that step after we trip. We avoid jalapenos after a sleepless night of indigestion.

For many of us, consequences in the form of punishment from others are also very familiar. If we run a red light, we pay the price of a ticket. If kids misbehave in school, they get a visit with the principal. If we break a law, we go to jail. For those of us who have taken a spin around the sun more than a few times, we can remember being spanked by our parents for wrongdoing – an accepted practice back when we were young.  

We live in a society in which consequences, especially the consequence of punishment, is the first “go to” method for changing behavior. Is it any wonder then that we focus on consequences when we need to change a parrot’s behavior?

Of course not! It feels familiar and punishment, delivered skillfully, will serve to decrease the problem behavior in the future. Moreover, it often feels good to the punisher, since it can relieve frustration and anger.

However, many problems derive from the use of punishment. Results of positive punishment may include a desire to escape, with a display of either fear or aggression. Another unforeseen result is apathy, in that other behaviors may be suppressed as well. Results of negative punishment include stress and frustration.

In general, taking action to punish a behavior often results in broken trust and increased problems of another sort. (Chance, 1999) We do not want to be in the position of punishing our parrots as our primary tactic for changing behavior.

Applied Behavior Analysis

There is, thankfully, a much better way to successfully solve many behavior issues. By changing antecedents, we can both make problem behaviors less likely and cause desired behaviors to occur more often.  

I have brought you through the backdoor into the house of applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis (the science of behavior) gives us a systematic, scientifically-proven method for changing behavior.

Please note that most of the behavior suggestions found on Facebook and other social media sites are not science-based. Most offering advice have a bad case of not knowing what they don’t know. Anyone “researching” behavior problems must question the credentials of anyone offering advice.

In contrast, the approach provided by applied behavior analysis can be trusted to work if practiced correctly.

We need focus on only three things when we need to change a specific behavior. In addition to the behavior itself, we examine the antecedents and the consequences. We are all familiar with the consequences of course. They are the events that occur immediately after a behavior that influence the rate at which that behavior will be offered in the future. (Luescher, 2006) Punishment is a consequence that reduces a particular behavior in the future.

A far better strategy whenever possible is to deftly arrange antecedents in order to support the likelihood of a desired outcome.

Antecedent-based Interventions

According to Friedman, Martin and Brinker, “Antecedents are the stimuli, events, and conditions that immediately precede a behavior.” Antecedents set the stage for the behavior to occur; the behavior will not occur without the presence of the antecedent.

Changing antecedents in order to change behavior is a more ethical, often simpler and easier way to change behavior. So easy in fact that, when I suggest such a change, clients will look at me with a bit of skepticism. I can see them thinking that things really can’t be that easy. 

Antecedent changes can be used in order to make it easy for our birds to perform the behaviors we do want and to make it hard or impossible to perform the behaviors that we don’t want to see.

Let’s review some examples of using antecedent changes both to decrease problem behaviors and to set birds up for success when performing new or unfamiliar behaviors.

Decreasing Problem Behaviors

Aggression and “Nippiness”

Antecedent changes are the “name of the game” when it comes to solving problems of aggression.

Example One: Some types of misbehavior occur when a bird is on the shoulder. Perhaps a bird, who has been sitting on your shoulder for three years without problem, suddenly begins to bite when up there. Perhaps he nips your earlobes or pulls your glasses off or rips an earring out.

Antecedent Change: In this case, the recommended antecedent change is simple – just don’t allow the bird onto your shoulder. Instead, you can teach him to station on a perch near you by offering reinforcers frequently. This will actually increase his quality of life more than sitting on your shoulder does. It both encourages independent behavior and offers him control over access to reinforcers.

Example Two: Your bird lunges at you when you are changing out food dishes.

Antecedent Change: Teach him to station up on a perch in the cage located furthest from the food dishes. When you show up with the food dishes, have with you a good-sized favorite treat that will take him a minute to eat. By moving your hand on the outside of the cage, lure him up to the designated perch and then give him the treat through the cage bars. Quickly switch out the dishes. Continue to do this every time you feed him. He will begin to scramble up to the preferred perch as soon as he sees you arrive with his food.

Example Three: Your flighted bird attacks your hands when you hold a book or tablet.

Antecedent Change: Either put him into his cage or outdoor aviary while you read or read in another room.

Example Four: Your bird bites when you ask him to step up.

Antecedent Change: You begin to reinforce stepping up by first showing and then immediately delivering a preferred food treat. At the same time, you read your bird’s body language and honor that by making use of a start button.

Screaming or Other Problem Noise

Example One: Your parrot enjoys perching where he can look out the window, but screams frequently when he sees neighborhood action taking place outside.

Antecedent Change: Purchase some sheer curtains and keep those closed when the noise will be inconvenient. You can still have the light without the noise.

Example Two: Your parrot is too loud when you have company. You might have learned to live with this, but it may upset your visitors and make it hard to enjoy yourselves. 

Antecedent Change: If you have a sleep cage, turn it into a “siesta cage.” Add a hanging perch above and a playstand beside, then place toys and foraging projects there. This way, your parrot can be relocated before your visitors arrive.

Example Three: Your parrot screams when you get on the phone.

Antecedent Change: Go into another room or outside to talk, if the call cannot be predicted. You might also try using the speaker phone function, since it is often holding the phone to your ear that acts as the stimulus for the noise.

Example Four: Your parrot screams when you and your spouse have a conversation in another room. This often results when a pair bond exists between the parrot and one of the partners. Additional measures will be necessary to resolve this social dynamic.

Antecedent Change: A simple antecedent change for the short term is to have the parrot present for the conversation. In this case, isolation is a problem.

Increasing Desirable Behaviors

Improving the Diet of Small Birds

It’s common for small parrots like budgerigars, cockatiels and lovebirds to eat a seed mix as the dietary staple. After all, that’s what the breeder or pet store sent you home with, along with that too-small cage, the cuttlebone, and the plastic toy with a bell inside.

If you have a bird like this and have learned about the dangers of such a diet, you may have struggled to get your bird converted to pellets and other foods.

Antecedent Change: Offer new foods in dishes that are right near to the bird’s favorite perches. They are more likely to accept these new foods sooner when they are right under that beak. This means that eating the new foods is easier, in terms of energy use.  

Teaching Larger Parrots to Eat Vegetables

Many parrots who have been eating a seed mix typically resist the consumption of both vegetables and pellets. In part, this is due to their neophobic nature. The other problem is their tendency to be naturally drawn to high-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods.

Antecedent Change: Measure out the amount of seed that your parrot eats in a day. This is important. You can’t decrease it if you don’t know what quantity you are offering to begin with. Before feeding, mix the seed into an equal measure of finely chopped vegetables or Chop Mix. Gradually begin to incrementally decrease the amount of seed offered daily as your parrot begins to eat the vegetable mix. By the time that you have stopped offering the seed mix at all, your parrot will have begun to eat both the pellets (if offering those also) and the vegetables.

Antecedent Change #2: Offer the pellets or vegetables in a different location, such as on top of the cage or on a play stand. This will often encourage consumption and I have no idea why. When I was working full time, my parrots ignored pellets in their cages. When I put them on play stands, they began eating them eagerly.

Playing with Toys

I hear many owners complain that their parrot doesn’t play with toys. There are certainly parrots who do not interact with any enrichment. These birds can be taught to interact with toys and foraging opportunities, but this requires consistent and focused training.

Still other birds might interact with toys, but do not do so because it is too difficult or inconvenient. For example, many wooden toys sold for certain species are actually too difficult for them to chew. Either the wood itself is too hard or the pieces are too big. Toy manufacturers have caught onto the fact that you won’t be happy if your parrot destroys in 15 minutes a toy that cost you $15.00. The problem with this is that the sorts of things that interest parrots are those that they can destroy quickly.

Antecedent Change: Make toys at home, using designs from my pamphlet Parrot Enrichment Made Easy. This includes suggestions for making quick, easy-to-chew wooden toys, in addition to those made of paper, cardboard, and fabric.

Antecedent Change #2: In addition, make sure that toys and foraging options are placed very near perches on which your bird chooses to spend time. I have seen toys attached to the inside back of the cage with no perch in sight. I have seen toys placed near perches that are so close to the back of the cage that the parrot can’t comfortably turn around on the perch and can only sit on it facing backwards. Pretend you are your parrot and ask yourself if you can easily interact with the enrichment you have in the cage. Make sure that your parrot can perch easily in a spot where he can easily reach his enrichment items and won’t bang his tail if he turns around.

Encouraging a Bath

Another common complaint concerns the larger parrot who won’t accept a bath. This bird might bathe in the water dish occasionally, but doesn’t get wet enough.

Antecedent Change: Many owners have noticed that their parrot displays bathing behavior, usually in the water dish, when the vacuum cleaner is running. In addition to marveling at this strange phenomenon, you might also choose this as a time to offer a few spritzes from a spray bottle, especially if the parrot isn’t scared by the sight of the bottle. And if he is, perhaps you can conceal the bottle with a kitchen towel or piece of cardboard so that just the nozzle is visible.

Fun with Antecedents

I’ve provided examples of very simple antecedent changes for very simple problems so that you could get the idea. The whole process can be, and usually is, more complicated, and this is where the fun comes in.

In most cases, there are several possible antecedent changes that might work. So, when you identify that you have a problem, sit down with a piece of paper and brainstorm as many as you possibly can, even if a few seem unlikely or even silly.(You may also need to teach other, new behaviors using positive reinforcement, but you can at least get a head start on a solution in this way.)

Remember not to get caught up in trying to figure out what the parrot is feeling or thinking. Instead, just focus on the behavior itself. Then, implement for a week or so the one that you think is most likely to work. Measure the results by observing closely what happens. If that tactic seems to not be working, go on to the next most likely.

I’ll give you an example from my own case files. I know a particular parrot who pulls pin feathers during the night. These are observed on the floor of the cage or the cage cover in the morning. This is a perfectly well-adjusted, flighted parrot on a good diet with an excellent environment that encourages movement and provides lots of enrichment.

Possible antecedent changes include the following: (1) Encouraging more food consumption before bed; (2) Encouraging more exercise before bed; (3) Partially, rather than completely, covering her cage; (4) Giving her some enrichment in her cage to chew on during the night; and (5) Allowing her to stay up a bit later.

This case remains a work in progress. Since the feather damage is occurring only at night, it may well be related to a disease process. However, since veterinary treatment has been completed, it still makes sense to examine antecedents.

A Last Word

Antecedent changes provide us with science-based, ethical, and effective tactics for behavior change. Many simple problems can be resolved through these alone. Using antecedent changes, we can set our birds up for success by encouraging behaviors we would like to see.

All behavior principles that are scientifically proven, like the use of positive reinforcement and antecedent changes, work for humans too. They work across all species lines.

Perhaps we reach so readily for punishment when dealing with parrots is because we as a society use punishment almost exclusively to deal with our children and others.

It’s been a long time since my own kids were young. I was lucky enough back then to discover the book “How to Discipline with Love: From Crib to College” by Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson, which was published in 1992. As Fitzhugh points out, parents all across America are teaching their children to behave badly.

They ignore them when they are behaving well, usually desperately trying to get something else done, and instead provide attention (reinforcement) when they behave badly – throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, fighting with siblings, or refusing to go to bed.

He provides clear instructions for how we can turn that dynamic around. As we all struggle now with staying in place, physical or emotional isolation, and the anxieties related to contracting COVID-19, there is no better time than the present to begin practicing both antecedent changes and the use of positive reinforcement with our parrots, our children, and other family members. “They” say that things won’t be the same once this is all over. This is one change I would like to see that would benefit us all.

Resources:

Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1999

Friedman, S. G. (2009). “Behavior fundamentals: Filling the behavior-change toolbox.” Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 3(1), 36–40. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/journals/Behavior%20Fundamentals%20JACAB.pdf

Friedman, S.G. (2008) “10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know About Behavior.” Psittacine Magazine, May 2008. Pgs 14-16. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/10%20Things%20Your%20Parrots%20Want%20You%20to%20Know.pdf

Friedman, S. G. (2001) “The ABCs of Behavior.” Original Flying Machine, Issue 9: Nov-Dec, 2001. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/ABCs%20of%20Behavior%202004.pdf

Luescher, Andrew. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Chapter 14: Friedman, S.G., Martin, Steve, Brinker, Bobbie. “Behavior Analysis and Parrot Learning.” Pg. 147-163.

McGuire, L. (2015) “The Parrot That Screams.” Psittacine Magazine. Pgs 10-11. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/offshoots/Parrot%20that%20Screams%20-%20WPT%20PS%20Summer%202015.pdf

Encouraging Natural Behaviors in Captive Parrots

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

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

Photo courtesy of Siljan Nicholaisen

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

A New Paradigm

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

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

Older Models for Parrot-Keeping

Dominance and Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clipping Wings Keeps Parrots Safe

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

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

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

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

Other Models

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

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

A New Paradigm

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

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

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

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

Natural Behaviors to Encourage

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

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

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

Bathing Options

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking Water

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

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

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

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

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

Foraging

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

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

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

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

Fresh Air and Sunshine

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

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

Height and Alternate Perches

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

Photo courtesy of Maha Tahiri

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

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

Liberty Flying

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

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

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

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

Video Courtesy of Lee Stone

Others’ Feathers

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

Photo courtesy of Mandy Andrea

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

The Unobstructed View

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

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

Wood, Branches and Bark

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

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

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Keys to Change

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

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

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

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

Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.

Risk Factors for Feather Damaging Behavior

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

Susan with my dog Rika

To paraphrase what Dr. Friedman had to say:

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

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

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

Control is a Biological Need

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

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

Lack of Control is Aversive

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

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

New Perceptions

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

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

The Problem with Conventional Wisdom

Peter Hitchens Quote

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

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

Feather Damaging Behavior

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

Today, my list reads as follows:

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

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

One of the New Environments

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

Unethical Practices Harm Us as Well

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

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

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

Feasible Changes

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

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

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

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

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

Species-typical Behaviors

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

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

Flight

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

Foraging and Other Enrichment

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

The Natural Environment

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

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

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

Social Connectivity

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

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

Access to Height

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

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

Training Offers Control

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

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

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

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

SMART x 50

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

These are the steps:

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

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

The Next Decade

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.

Imperceptible Human Speak: Is This Your Problem?

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

Clever Hans

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

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

Wilhelm Von Osten and Hans (public domain)

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

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

The Thieving Monkeys

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

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

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

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

And Thieving Parrots

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

Navidad with the Poor Dog’s Bone

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

Picky Parrots

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

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

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

Parrots Respond to the Imperceptible

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

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

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

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

Animals and Humans – Two Different Orientations to Communication

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

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

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

Tics and Scents

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

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

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

Thoughts Create Feelings that Create Expressions

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

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

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

I wish you all the happiest of holidays!

References:

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.

 

Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots

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

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

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

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

What Is Cavity Seeking?

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

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

The Many Faces of Cavity Seeking

What does cavity seeking look like?

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

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

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

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

Modal Action Patterns

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

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

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

Cavity Seeking Examples

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

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

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

Other Examples from Real Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

Abbie contacted me in early April 2018.  Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December.  He was 13 years old at the time and had livOscarandChristieed with Abbie for 5 years.  Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem.  Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.

Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support.  Abbie describes her feelings at the time: 

When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking. 

OscarBefore
Before Photo (early April 2018)

Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better. 

 It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.

It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.

A Complex Problem

Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation.  You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.

Describing all of the risk factors for FDB is not within the scope of today’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible causes, please read my two-part article Feather Destructive Behavior in Companion Parrots.

I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all.  I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future.  I could immediately reassure her.  The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem.  It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.

Identification of Causes

I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.

  1.  First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
  2. Scout also lacked “play skills.”  He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
  3. I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
  4. Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.

Stress and Feather Picking

I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college.  Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.

Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving.  Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are.  However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.

In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work.  As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time.  Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:

Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.

Evolving the Pair Bond

Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.

I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor.  This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him.  He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.

However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). OscaronBasketAgain we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size.  They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest.  Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.

We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much.  Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.

Foraging and Enrichment

Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily.  This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on his feathers.  Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.

In my experience, you just have to find a starting point.  I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.

While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage.  If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys.  By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.

Making Changes to Diet

We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.

I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.

I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.

Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout.  Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. ChristieTargeting Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.

In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.

Stress

We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress.  There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.

Results

By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.

OscarAfter
After Photo (mid-June 2018)

Remember the “before” photo above?  The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.

Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem.  However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.

It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt.  In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective.  In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month.  That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.

Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.

Lessons to Be Learned

  • If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
  • Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
  • Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
  • Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems.  Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!

Have you found success in stopping feather destruction?  If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.

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!