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.

Star Earns Her Wings

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

“Wow! There she goes!” I exclaimed as I watched Star, six-month-old parent-raised, Bare-eyed Cockatoo, take to the sky for the first time. It thrilled me and racked my nerves all at once.

I needn’t have worried. Thanks to her parents, and the flight ability that nature has bestowed upon her, and, humbly, a pinch of training from me, she enthusiastically put on her big girl wings to give that great big sky a go.

Star’s Preparation

Star comes from a line of trained, parent-raised free flying cockatoos. Her grandparents, parents, and cousins fly at Cockatoo Downs. It is only natural that Star carries on the tradition. To do so, though, she needed preparation.

Waiting for the teacher.

Her education started as a fledgling. She grew up in an outdoor aviary, exposed to all that the outside world has to offer. She learned to trust people. She learned to forage. She learned flight skills. She learned proper cockatoo socialization manners. In short, she learned to be a cockatoo living in captivity.

At six months of age, I felt Star was ready to free fly. Part of that feeling was intuitive, and the rest was from the confidence I had in her training; training not just from me, but more importantly, from her parents. It is they who provided her the educational foundation that helped her grow into a confident, assured cockatoo.

Star learns to recall to a perch.

From me, and other friends I invited to work with Star, she learned people socialization. She learned that we are entertaining and sometimes amusing creatures who often come equipped with treats. She learned to take goodies from our hands. She learned to target and station on her training perch. She’s an A+ student and eagerly looks forward to her classes.

Star (on the left) and family meet a new friend.

Star developed into a bold youngster as she improved her flight skills daily, swooshing around her aviary landing on orbits, twirling on boings, hanging upside down like a bat, and playing high-speed tag with her parents. She needed, though, one final step before facing the big release.

Learning the In’s and Out’s

Star needed to learn where the flight exit and entry door in the aviary is located. I decided on using the food station for that purpose. The station is located in the front of the aviary and has a handy door that opens to allow placement of food bowls inside. Star had watched her parents come down to the station daily as I serviced it so it wasn’t a big stretch for her to eventually join them when I was there. When she did, I’d offer everyone an almond, their favorite munchie.

Soon Star was the first to fly to the station when she saw me. I incorporated a verbal recall cue when I was at the station. It’s a cue I use with all the flying cockatoos, letting them know it’s time to go inside their aviaries.

The most important preparation for ensuring success for Star’s first flight came from her parents, Bebe and Flash. Kindergarten through high school took place in her aviary with them as her teachers. Now it was time to head off to college. I knew beyond a doubt that Bebe and Flash’s devoted care for Star would transfer to the big sky. They would accompany her and keep her safe.

Star’s First Free Flight

The flight day was cloudy with a spritz of light rain that showed signs of vanishing soon. An internal voice, along with the preparatory practical steps the cockatoo family and I had taken, told me this was the day.

Ready for take off.

The family sat at the food station as I slowly opened the door. It opens downward and is held in a ramp position by a chain. Bebe and Flash walked cautiously out on it. They waited for Star to join them. After some hesitation she snuggled in between them.

Star chooses to take off.

The parents waited patiently for Star to take it all in. She spent a minute or two assessing the new environment. Suddenly, Star took off on her own and a split second later Bebe and Flash joined her.

I couldn’t have asked for a better take off, as it was Star’s choice to fly. She was not startled to fly nor did her parents leave before she was ready. She had decided on her own to spread her wings. Off they went, flying in a tight threesome. Star could be heard vocalizing with her distinct chirp as she flew. It was easy to see that she was a bit wobbly in her new element, with no aviary to restrict her journey through the air. Her unsteady flight grew more certain the longer she flew.

The amount of care and concern the parents took looking after Star and guiding her was, quite honestly, an emotional experience for me. They never, ever let her out of their sight. They didn’t abandon her for any reason nor take her off into the wilderness.

Instead they circled above the aviaries and nearby trees showing her the landmarks from this new perspective of her home. Their attentive behavior was an example of the close bond parrot parents have with their chicks. It brings me much distress that most of those who hand raise parrots seem not to acknowledge the importance of this.

Unexpected Challenges

After about four minutes of flight, Flash and Bebe landed on the top of a nearby tree. “Oh, oh, now what?” I could imagine Star thinking. After two tries she landed somewhat ungainly on a skinny branch, but land she did. A minute or two later they took off again, expanding their flight perimeter.

One comical episode occured when the parents landed on top of their aviary. Star had no idea how to do that. Landing on perches inside the aviary was a breeze. But landing on it? She made several passes, chirping in confusion, trying to figure out a landing strategy. Her parents waited. At last she worked it out and made a successful two-point touchdown.

After an hour of flying and landing on various trees, Bebe and Flash once again landed on the aviary with Star. I was standing near the food door ramp and asked Bebe if they were ready to go in. She and Flash answered by flying down to the ramp.

Star had not been paying attention and was totally bewildered as to how her parents got there. She did short flights near the door vocalizing her frustration to which the parents took off and then returned to the door showing her how it’s done. “Ah, ha! That’s how you do it,” thinks Star…and so she did.

Flight Number Two

With the first successful flight tucked under her wings, I offered a second one a few days later. The difference in Star’s attitude, confidence, and skill was remarkable. Her parents eased off of the close formation, flying and landed in trees while Star kept flying. It’s as if they gave Star the keys to the car and said, “Have at it!” She separated from them many times in the air while swooping, dipping her wings, and throwing in an occasional tail wag for good measure. Was she having fun? You bet!

It’s hard for me to conjure up what Star must have been feeling in her new environment. Is it just another day in the life of a cockatoo or is she exhilarating in this new world that has been introduced to her? Probably it’s a bit of both. I’m looking forward to watching her enjoy what it means to be a cockatoo in the sky—the environment she was meant to be in.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.


Exciting News!

In my last episode of this blog series about life at Cockatoo Downs, I explained about our current project. As we have waited for the baby Bare-eyed eggs to hatch, I thought it only right to give you reasons why I advocate for parrots raising their own chicks, as opposed to people raising them.

Endorsing the idea that parrots raise their own chicks can cause contentious debate in the aviculture world …from large-scale breeders, to hobby breeders, to pet store owners. In addition, parrot owners have been led to believe that only a hand-raised baby parrot will bond with them.

Although this subject is worthy of debate, it is not my intention to do so in this blog. My goal instead is to share my opinion only as to why I support and encourage the parent-raising of chicks.*

Years ago, I bred and raised many cockatoos. I either pulled eggs from the parents’ nest box for incubator hatching or pulled their young chicks for hand-feeding. That was the way it was done and still is to ensure that the chicks were human-socialized for the companion parrot market.

A chick raised by a human easily creates attachments with other humans. As a breeder, that’s the kind of bird I wanted to sell; as a consumer, that’s the kind of cockatoo you wanted to buy. It was a win-win situation. Or was it?

Let’s consider the parrot in this equation. Those who live closely with parrots know that their own birds have emotions, showing us strong, intuitive states of mind. Since our companion parrots have emotions, it only makes sense then that all parrots are sentient beings. (Mama’s Last Hug, a book by Frans de Waal, is an excellent source for learning of recent research into animal emotions.)

The more often I took babies or eggs from the parents, the more uncomfortable I became. The obvious distress shown by the parent cockatoos when I raided their nest became more and more agonizing to watch. It finally dawned on me that this was an act that totally disrespected the parents’ emotional well-being and was, in my evolving view, abusive to the welfare of the parrots. To subject breeding parrots to this disruption is ethically wrong and inhumane.

I had to ask myself an uncomfortable question: Do I serve my customer who wants a snuggly, friendly cockatoo or do I serve the cockatoo who has the birthright to be a cockatoo through and through? I came to the conclusion that a parrot has the right to be a parrot and relate to the world as a parrot. That’s when my view on hand-raising changed.

Looking at hand-rearing from the baby parrot’s point of view offers yet another welfare and ethical perspective. In my opinion, people are not good parrot parents, no matter our experience or compassion in bringing up parrot chicks. There is no way we can match, both physically and psychologically, what parrot parents offer their young.

Experienced parents spend many hours a day brooding the chicks, keeping them warm and secure, preening them, vocalizing to them, feeding them, and eventually weaning them successfully when the time is right. Just as importantly, the parrot youngster grows up knowing she is a parrot. She knows how to relate to other parrots. She has learned parrot social manners and behavior from the best teachers there are: her parents. In other words, she becomes a well-adjusted parrot.

To deprive parrot chicks their birthright is, to me, ethically unsound. People may say, “Oh, they’re just birds so what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned before, parrots are sentient beings who deserve a fair shake at life; and, that shake is better if they see the world through parrot eyes instead of eyes blinded by human influence.

Hand-raising versus parent-raising psittacines is a complicated issue. Parent-rearing and hand-raising both have costs for the parent pair, the chicks, and the people who will ultimately live with them. Certainly, the opinions I offer here cover only a small part of the issue.

There are many more components to be considered. What if the parrot pair is not successful in raising their chicks? What to do about training the parent-reared youngster for the companion market? Does parent-rearing guarantee that the offspring will be well-adjusted individuals? Does the typical companion parrot owner have the skills to live with a parent-reared bird so that they both will thrive? Pros and cons of hand-raising versus parent-raising are many and they each deserve close inspection in order for people to come to their own conclusions.

I, for one, am letting my personal ethics on how animals in captivity should be treated determine my choice. I am comfortable with it and look forward to illuminating for you the world of parent-raised cockatoos and how I, Pam, Bebe and Flash, along with their little ones, will learn to live together in harmony.

*It’s worth noting that the Netherlands became the first country to outlaw the hand-rearing of parrots in 2014.

Just for Fun…and a Bit of History

I’d like to give a brief history of how I got into free flying. Almost forty years ago, Popcorn, a handsome, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo came to me as a youngster. He was my pet or, in today’s parlance, my companion. Popcorn and I had a great relationship and I thought it would be wonderful if he could learn to free fly outdoors.

I pretty much knew nothing about training for free flight and I cringe now recalling how I just sort of opened the door and said to Popcorn, “Fly! Be free!” Well, I wasn’t really that irresponsible, but it was close.

I’d take Popcorn on my hand and hang outside with him while he learned what the great outdoors was all about. I’d put him on the deck railing and ask for short recalls, which he did inconsistently. Because I was naive and ignorant about free flight training, I figured that, since he flew to me about 50% of the time when requested, that was good enough. Yikes!

That was his training, in a nutshell, and I was super darn lucky he was smart and kept his head about him and learned and managed on his own the dangers of flying outdoors. He was a successful flyer for thirty years.

Now, of course, I do things much differently. My knowledge and skills at training have improved. And, I certainly don’t take free flight as nonchalantly as I did with Popcorn.

First, I choose the right candidates for free flight, as not all parrots are suitable for such an activity. I do have cockatoos who do not fly outdoors. Most importantly, I train recall to fluency under different conditions. There are a passel of factors that go into making a competent flyer, the discussion of which I will leave for another blog.

The way I fly my birds may be different from how other people free fly their parrots. Of particular note, I don’t take them to another location to fly. They haven’t been trained for an entertainment show or for display. They instead have been trained to be competent flyers at home where they live. The birds and I have become close friends and companions – a cohesive group made up of independent individuals.

As I stand in wonder daily at their intelligence and flight capabilities, I try to imagine the world as they do. I fail miserably, short of even an inkling of what it’s like for them, because I am bound to the earth.

I will say that they seem to be just as interested in my terrestrial life as I am in their aerial one. They find my activities entertaining to watch or participate in as I dig holes, fix fences, haul hay, pull weeds, or just sit on the deck swing and relax.

Free flying my cockatoos is a natural and common activity here at Cockatoo Downs, yet I don’t ever take it for granted. For me it is an amazing experience watching them maneuver in their world of flight; to them it is just another day doing what birds are supposed to do…fly!

The Latest News!

Flash and Bebe have a chick! He/she hatched May 26. Pam was feeding the cockatoos, since I was out of town. She noticed unusual behavior from Flash and Bebe.

They were out together on a branch in front of the nest box. This was unusual in itself, since at least one of them at a time has remained in the nest box for some weeks. Both were displaying in a unique way, mirroring each others’ movements as they walked back and forth, vocalizing together.

Pam interpreted this as an announcement of their new bundle of joy and relayed this to me when I got home. We can’t really know for sure, of course, what their display meant, but I like to think the proud parents were sending out a baby pronouncement.

The next morning, I fed breakfast at the front of their aviary as usual. Both birds came out to eat, but Bebe quickly returned to the box after a few bites. Flash remained at the breakfast bar.

I went into the aviary cautiously to listen for a peep or two. I didn’t know how Flash would react, now that there was possibly a little one. He paid me no mind at all, continuing to stuff his face. I believe that this behavior is the result of all the trust that we have built between us through our long history of positive reinforcement training. Most parents with new chicks would never respond to an intrusion like that in such a calm manner. I got very close to the box and heard a few faint peeps as Bebe settled herself into the nest. For joy! Stay tuned as the adventure continues.

Disclaimer:I do not recommend nor promote that companion parrots be flown outside without the owner having a solid knowledge of training and behavior and also being assisted in person by an expert parrot trainer with extensive experience in free flight.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.