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!

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

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

Behavior Has Functiondownload (1)

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

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

Other Reasons for Screaming

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

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

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

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

“Parrots Are What You Make of them”

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

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

Ignore the Noise…But That’s Not All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impact of Nutrition

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

Activities to Use Up that Excess Energy

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

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

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

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

Eliminate Isolation and Evolve the Pair Bond

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

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

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

Additional Strategies

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

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

Your Stop-the-Screaming Checklist

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

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

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

Complications

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

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

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

Summary

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

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