Part Five: Cooperative Living with Flighted Parrots

Often, when I talk about living with flighted parrots to someone who has always clipped wings, they get a look on their face that could be interpreted as a combination of horror, perplexity, and complete consternation.  You can tell that they can’t even begin to wrap their minds around what that might look like, or why one would want to.

Photo by Dana McDonald

I stopped clipping wings back in the late 1990’s. As I had gained more hands-on experience with birds, it just seemed to be a no-brainer that they should enjoy flight.  So, I made the decision with an abundance of enthusiasm and the confidence that, “I’ll just figure this out!”

I don’t actually recommend this approach to those of you considering transitioning from living with a wing-clipped parrot to living with a bird who flies. It’s much easier to have a bit of guidance from someone who has experience in this area. Thus, I offer this blog post to you, so that you can avoid some of the hassles that I had due to my own inexperience. 

Keys to Success

The ability to live cooperatively with flighted birds depends upon three main areas of management: (1) setting up the environment effectively, (2) training yourself to be continually mindful, and (3) learning how to efficiently provide behavioral guidance. You’re going to have to accept the fact that you’ll be doing some training to maintain compliance.

If you don’t, you will have an out-of-control experience with your bird and will wind up relegating him to his cage whenever you can’t directly supervise. One hallmark of quality of life is the ability to make choices. That is why a flighted bird is so lucky. His ability to move around is not compromised, so he can make a lot more choices.

If allowing flight means that your bird stays in his cage for longer periods, you have accomplished nothing for his quality of life. You might as well keep clipping wings so that he can at least be out of his cage more often.

Managing the Environment

I once adopted a baby grey to a family who were so committed to allowing flight that they had remodeled their entire home to realize this first goal of having the ideal environment. All doorways were turned into arches to eliminate molding. Kitchen cabinets extended all the way down to the floor. The refrigerator fit into a recess in the wall so that no bird could perch on top of it to chew the gasket. It was quite remarkable.

You don’t have to go to that extreme, of course, but a bit of work is needed to achieve the objective of flighted feathers and earth-bound humans living side by side in cooperative fashion.

Photo by Gloria Fantin

Birds want to perch up high and flighted parrots go where they want. They will perch on bookcases and chew the spines of the books. Many seem to have a particular fondness for lampshades.  They enjoy sitting on top of doors to chew the molding.

Therefore, you will need to provide your flighted bird with his own “furnishings,” in order to keep him off of your own. The ideal environment will have a perch in every room to which your parrot has access.  It is a bird’s nature to follow the flock and a flighted parrot will follow you from room to room.  Skillful placement of hanging perches, free-standing perches and table-top perches will help to guarantee that the experience is fun for all. At the end of this post, I have included a list of perches that I know from personal experience to be attractive to parrots.

Hanging perches are especially valuable.  While these may seem, at first glance, inconvenient to install and maintain, they will make life so much easier. Birds naturally seek the highest place to perch. By providing perches that hang from the ceiling, your bird will be more likely to choose those instead of your own furnishings. 

It is a parrot’s nature to chew where he is perched. Window ledges and the corners of walls will be at risk. Home improvement stores sell acrylic corners that can be easily screwed in place to protect these. Bannisters can be wrapped with sisal rope.

If there is enough space above your kitchen cabinets for a bird to perch, it will be best to place a piece of acrylic or wood on top that extends an inch or two past the cabinets to prevent chewing on the tops of the doors. The same suggestion would hold true for the top of your refrigerator. It’s huge fun to perch on the blades of ceiling fans and chew these. It’s best to purchase a fan inside a cage – they do exist.

Electrical cords can be a hazard and replacing appliances gets to be a real drag. These can be protected either by using cord channels or black pliable irrigation tubing slit down the center and placed around the wire.

If you allow your birds to perch on your shower rod and happen to have a shower curtain, placing a second rod above the one that holds the curtain will prevent the need to replace that regularly.

If your bird never fledged or has been clipped for a few years, he might not fly much or venture into other rooms at first, causing you to think that my suggestions are somewhat over-the-top.  However, as he builds his flight skills and gains confidence, he will eventually begin to explore your entire house and it will become his territory as well. 

Managing the Mess

It’s hard to say whether flighted birds create more mess than their clipped counterparts. Parrots are just messy – period! The answer probably depends upon where diets and enrichment items are offered and whether your bird likes to fly with his food and eat it in different locations. There are some actions you can take to minimize the mess.

Photo by Kris Porter

Locate hanging perches directly over cages or play stands. If that’s not possible, use area rugs. Purchase two sets. I like the ones that have non-slip backing and can be washed and dried. I haven’t yet tried the Ruggable brand, but they look ideal for this purpose and look a little classier. When you need to wash the rugs currently under your perches, simply lay down your second set. 

If there is a tight spot that tends to collect droppings because you can’t get a rug to fit, Glad Press and Seal is invaluable. Having a light adhesive backing, it can be applied directly to a clean (uncarpeted) floor and then replaced when needed. For smaller messes, keeping a good quantity of small cleaning cloths and a spray bottle filled with cleaning agent is a good strategy for quick clean-ups.

Probably the best way to deal with mess is to contain it to certain areas. This will involve encouraging your bird to stay on the perches you have provided, which is covered in the section on Managing their Behavior.

Managing Ourselves

A friend once made me laugh by commenting that the only people who could use the remote controls in her house were the ones with long fingernails. We’ve all lost a remote control or three, depending upon how quickly we learn and how distracted we tend to be. We count ourselves lucky if they only take the buttons.

Parrots love electronics. Even the best among us have experienced a sneak attack on these valuables. Dr. Susan Friedman in a presentation once used a photograph of what her computer keyboard looked like after her Umbrella Cockatoo had quietly let himself out of his cage in the early hours of the morning. Of course, a clipped parrot could manage the same, but those who fly have increased access.

We have to learn to remember to cover computers with towels, put remotes away in a cupboard, keep certain doors closed, and not leave anything out in plain sight that might be attractive for chewing. This is essentially an exercise in mindfulness and the ability to anticipate problems.

We must think ahead when making purchases. For example, you might decide not to replace your old, worn furniture with a set of rattan. You get the idea. This is probably going to have to be a learn by doing experience. Be assured, the fun of living with a flighted spirit makes it worthwhile.

Managing Their Behavior

Life with parrots is always easier when we accept the fact that we must actively steer their behavior into desirable channels. When you live with birds who fly, getting into the mindset of living as a trainer is essential.

If you don’t, your experience may very well get out of control. Parrots constantly offer behavior, as all animals do. This is especially true of birds who fly. The more active a bird can be, the more behavior he can offer, and the more opportunities he has to act on the environment. Some of this behavior, you won’t like.

If you don’t step up and teach him what you want him TO DO, you will wind up behaving toward him in a very aversive manner – chasing him off locations where you don’t want him to be, acting like a crazy person when you find that he’s destroyed your containers of expensive make-up, and using force to get him back into his cage. Besides being incredibly uncool, this type of behavior will break all trust and make having a parrot no fun at all.

Thus, you’ve got to teach the behaviors that will allow him to be successful and for you to have control over your experience. I will describe these briefly; information on how to teach most of these is available in abundance online.

Five Essential Behaviors to Teach and Maintain

Step-Up:   The majority of birds who have been deemed good candidates for flight already step up, at least some of the time.  Likely, you will just need to maintain compliance by making sure to always reinforce this with a preferred food or head scratch.  A valuable practice: Ask your bird a few times a day to step up, provide a reward, and then put him right back down again.  This is good advice for any parrot.

Step-Off:  Birds who are strongly bonded to you may have a more difficult time with this one. If so, choose a reinforcer of high value to the parrot and show it to him when giving the cue, at least in the beginning.  Reinforce every time you cue this behavior with a high value treat.

Stationing:   Teaching your parrot to primarily use his own “furniture” is an essential practice. Three important benefits derive from this:

  • It keeps him off of your shoulder, which avoids the formation of a pair bond and fosters his continuing independence.
  • It helps to prevent damage to household items.
  • It prevents cavity seeking behavior.  

Instructions for stationing can be found on my website.

The Drop: You will thank yourself a millions times over if you teach your parrot to drop an item on cue. It saves a lot of money in replacing pens and will keep him safe if he ever picks up anything dangerous.

Offer him an item to take with his beak, such as a poker chip or whiffle ball.  Once he takes it, show him a food treat or something else he might want more and ask him to “Drop.” Once he has, give him the other them. Practice this often with a variety of things, gradually working up to those that are more valuable to him.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

The Recall: Teaching your bird to come when called is a must.  Having a rock-solid recall is essential to a happy relationship and drastically increases your chances of getting him back if he is lost. This can be taught a couple of different ways.  My favorite: If he has a habit of flying to your shoulder, turn when you hear him coming and say “Fly here”  while holding up your hand so that he lands there. Reward him with a treat.  As he learns that “Fly here” means to come and land on your hand, you can begin to cue him from a variety of different locations. 

Following these simple suggestions will go a long way toward ensuring that you establish a happy and cooperative existence with your parrot.

One final suggestion:  If you have never lived with a flighted parrot or currently have challenges with your bird who flies, please either call me for a consultation or get help from another qualified mentor. As Dr. Patricia McConnell once wrote about dog training: “You wouldn’t try to learn basketball just by reading a book, so if you need to play the game, do what any parent would do for their child, and find a good, knowledgeable coach.”

Resources for Perches

*Sneak Preview*

My friend, Chris Shank, and I often discuss parrots and their welfare. We share some serious concerns about both how baby parrots are hand-raised in captivity and the recent insistence among free-flight enthusiasts that candidates must be hand-reared and encouraged to develop a bond of dependence in order to be successful.

Chris has free flown her cockatoos for over 30 years and is an expert on the subject. Several years ago, two Bare-eyed Cockatoos were raised here by their parents and became successful free fliers through positive reinforcement training.

This spring, two parent-raised Bare-eyed Cockatoos have gone to nest and are currently sitting on eggs. Therefore, their offspring will be second-generation parent-reared birds and will become free flyers themselves. Chris will be revealing her experiences here as a guest blogger so that you all can share in this fascinating and exciting experience. We hope to show that hand-rearing is not necessary to have a trusting relationship with a young parrot and that a young parrot raised to be independent can succeed at free flight.

Please note that neither Chris nor I advocate free flight for the average owner, especially the flight of a single parrot.

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!

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. 

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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.

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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!