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.

Star Continues Her Education

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

I get a rush watching my cockatoos fly. They burst from their aviaries and pop up in the air like deflating balloons zipping every which way as they shoot into the sky. It’s easy to spot Star, Flash and Bebe’s recently fledged Bare-eyed Cockatoo youngster, among the flyers. She flips, swerves, and surges with glee, adding pizzaz to the flock as she ascends upward. It’s contagious as the others soon follow suit with extra liveliness in their own flight maneuvers. It’s glorious to watch!

Important Lessons

But enough gaiety. It’s time to get serious. Star needs to learn the code of manners and skills that will please her harrumphing human companions. Here’s a partial list a well-rounded companion cockatoo needs to accomplish:

  • Understand people are good things
  • Target
  • Hands and fingers are not targets for a busy beak
  • Step up on cue
  • Recall on cue
  • Station on perch

The first lesson in the curriculum is the most important and Star accomplished it early on. From fledge, she has watched her parents eagerly take pine nuts, sunflower seeds and other goodies from any person who offers them. As she became more comfortable with the world outside her nest box and as she started to eat on her own, she overcame her natural wariness and now eagerly joins her parents on the perch waiting for goodies.

An Enthusiastic Learner

Star is an enthusiastic, motivated learner. She’s excited when lessons begin. In fact, she is so eager she needs to learn some self-control. In the video below, she’s so excited she can’t stay on the perch.

Star takes me by surprise.

Star Learns to Target

Learning to touch a target stick assists with that. It helps her focus on the task at hand. Touching a target and being reinforced for doing so gives her a reason to stay put instead of flitting off on a whim or being distracted with other activities.

Targeting teaches her that actions she chooses to do when asked have consequences—good consequences. If she touches a target presented to her, bingo, she gets a treat! This is an easy behavior for a young, curious, clever cockatoo to accomplish.

Star’s first target.

Learning Good Manners

Good manners warrant taking treats politely from our hands. Star’s curiosity about novel objects is natural and helps her learn about her world. At her young age, human hands are objects that are both a little scary and intriguing. In order to figure out what this fleshy thing is, she bites, nibbles, and pokes at my hand with wariness and inquisitiveness.

Star needs to understand that humans are fragile creatures and don’t appreciate their hands being explored by parrots’ beaks—ouch! She was conflicted when I first presented my open hand full of seeds to her. She wanted to explore it with beak nibbles, and at the same time bite it to make it go away.

Pat Anderson presents a treat.

After some negotiating, with treats as reinforcers, we came to a compromise. I hold the sunflower seed in the tips of my fingers far enough away that she has to reach for it. This gives her less ability to bite and more motivation to take the treat gently. It worked.

Learning to Recall

Recalling on cue was pretty easy for Star to achieve as she had watched her parents do it many times. The first time I asked her to fly to my hand she landed with uncertainty bouncing a few times as she did. Having treats available convinced her quickly that flying to my hand is a good thing.

Star’s first recall.

Star Learns to Step Up

Stepping up for a parrot can sometimes be more frightening and challenging than asking him to fly to the hand. One reason is possibly having one’s hand right in front of the parrot can be intimidating for him. Of course, depending on the individual, there can be a multitude of reasons for a parrot’s hesitancy to step up.

In Star’s case, it was a new sensation having my open “step-up” hand so close to her body. Luring her with tasty delights induced her to put one foot on my hand which activated the treat dispenser. It wasn’t long before she readily stepped up when asked.

Star steps up.

Learning to Station

Training a parrot to station, essentially staying on a perch, play stand, cage top, or any preferred area, is important for a number of reasons. In the home, stations can help a bird stay away from possibly unsafe areas. Another reason, of course, is keeping parts of the home safe from the parrot! A station, such as a perch, can be used for a specific activity such as training. And it is for that last reason I wanted Star to learn to station.

Star was introduced early to stationing on a perch by her parents. When in the aviary, the parents fly to the perch where training takes place. Star didn’t immediately fly to the perch with them if I was in the aviary. It did take time. At the start, I put treats in the feed bowl attached to the perch as Star watched and then I left the aviary. It wasn’t long before Star flew to the perch to eat the treats when I was in her presence. 

Station training

Our training progressed to where Star would stay on the perch as I put food in the bowl. That’s when we were off and running with our training sessions. The perch is such a magnet for Star and her family that they readily assemble on it for class while flying outside their enclosure.

Station training with cued recall.

The training I have done with Star is helping her mature into a confident, self-assured, and friendly cockatoo. When out free flying with her family she will sometimes peel away from her parents, seek me out, and attempt to land on me. I don’t kid myself that she does this out of the love she has for me. Let’s be honest, she seeks me out because she recognizes me as a resource of good things to eat.

With positive reinforcement training comes trust. Star knows I will indulge her with any manner of tasty tidbits and that’s fine with me. Star may not grow to “love” me, but she is certainly learning to trust me. That trust will increase and flourish creating between us a supportive and favorable relationship that will endure into the future. That’s all in the world I could ask for.

Star recalls by herself.

I describe my training sessions with Star not to point out that I am a great  trainer of parent-raised cockatoos. I am not and I have oodles of training blooper videos to prove it.

Instead, I recount them to emphasize that anyone with positive reinforcement training experience, even a little, can assist parent-reared parrots in becoming successful companion birds with strong, reliable, and enthusiastic connections to their people; and, most crucially, do so without sacrificing the welfare and identity of young parrots and their parents. With her parents upbringing and care, Star will forever identify as a cockatoo with all the native and unaffected qualities nature intended.

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.


Imperceptible Human Speak: Is This Your Problem?

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

Clever Hans

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

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

Wilhelm Von Osten and Hans (public domain)

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

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

The Thieving Monkeys

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

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

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

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

And Thieving Parrots

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

Navidad with the Poor Dog’s Bone

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

Picky Parrots

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

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

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

Parrots Respond to the Imperceptible

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

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

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

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

Animals and Humans – Two Different Orientations to Communication

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

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

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

Tics and Scents

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

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

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

Thoughts Create Feelings that Create Expressions

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

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

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

I wish you all the happiest of holidays!

References:

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Rags to Riches: One Cockatoo’s Story

About 20 years ago, I took a series of parrot care classes from Jamie McLeod in Summerland, California at her store the Parrot Menagerie. I drove two hours one way on Saturdays to attend and it was well worth it. I learned a lot.

One day in the middle of a class, Jamie said something I have never forgotten: “Parrots are what you make of them.” This statement offers in a distilled version all you really need to know about living with parrots. And to illustrate, I want to tell you about Georgie Pink.

First Phone Call

Wendy called to talk to me one day when I was working as a veterinary technician for Oak Hills Veterinary Clinic in Salem, Oregon. We had never met and she was not a current client at the clinic, but someone had told her about me.

Wendy was seeking advice. She had never had a parrot before and she wanted to adopt a Moluccan Cockatoo. I spent the next 30 minutes explaining why that was a terrible idea. I do not consider Moluccan Cockatoos appropriate for first-time parrot owners and believe that keeping them successfully in your typical home is a difficult task at best. The number of cockatoos without feathers is testimony to that.

Second Phone Call

Wendy was undaunted. Two weeks later, I heard from her again. She had found a Moluccan Cockatoo that she wanted to adopt. He was a male, about two years old. He had been raised in a bird store, then adopted to a private owner, who then took him to a second bird store for boarding and never returned for him. He had spent a year at the second store before Wendy and her husband, Lee, came upon him.Wendy and Lee

After inwardly calming my own emotions, I explained why adopting this particular bird was a really terrible idea. Male Moluccan Cockatoos can be more challenging than females (in my experience) and this bird obviously had not had the ideal beginning, since he had so far spent his entire young life in bird stores.

On her end, Wendy was researching cockatoos and visiting with many species at the store. She listened to recordings of Moluccans screaming, talked to people who had experience with them, and realized that I was right – the odds of long term success were not good.

However, her thoughts always returned to this one bird. In her words, “I would see him again and realize I would do whatever it took to launch him successfully in life for the long haul.” Wendy understood that her best chances of success would be to have some professional guidance for this.

Game On

About two weeks later, she called again to say that she had adopted the male Moluccan from the store and wanted my help in creating a suitable home for him. While harboring some significant doubts, I agreed to help. Game on.Georgie with Toy

I gave her a shopping list designed to create a suitable physical environment for him – a King’s 506 cage, an Atom, an outdoor aviary from Corner’s Limited, and lots of suitable toys. A big bird like that needs a big life. As she remembers it, “I was on the internet with my credit card until 3:00 am, making as much happen as I could before bringing him home.” This amounted to several thousands of dollars in investment, about which Wendy didn’t blink an eye. Within a week, she had them all. I was impressed. This clearly was a woman who knows how to commit.Gerogie in Pink Hat

Wendy named him Georgie Pink.

When I asked her years later why she adopted him despite all of my advice, she had this to say: “Because I am crazy? Because I want to be deaf? Mostly because he was abandoned and I wanted to be the one to love him.” (You should know that this is a woman who once found a litter of field mice in a household drawer and hand-fed them until they could be released into the nearby pasture.)

Creating Appropriate Challenges

Once we had the physical environment in place, I made several suggestions aimed at creating an appropriate psychological and emotional environment for him. He would need learning opportunities, challenges, and a broad variety of life experiences.

We began with teaching him simple behaviors like targeting, then gradually created more difficult tasks for him. Wendy had never trained a parrot before, but she dove into the experience eagerly. At this point, Georgie knows 19 tricks which he practices regularly. Wendy says that he is only limited by her own imagination, in terms of thinking of things to teach him. He loves his training and learns quickly. He recently mastered a “rooster call” in one evening. Gerogie Pink with Hat (2)

Georgie also has an inexplicable fondness for hats and models them eagerly. Wendy is happy to oblige. (She also throws him annual birthday parties.)

Creating His Social Experience

We talked at length about the importance of an appropriate social environment. Wendy closely followed my relationship advice, preventing the formation of a pair bond by not encouraging too much close time physically. To this day, Georgie interacts cooperatively and happily with Lee and many other people.

I frequently read on social media that “cockatoos need cuddling.” The opposite is true. Such activities appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones, which can lead to feather damaging behavior, aggression and increased noise. It’s a recipe for disaster in most cases.

Instead of focusing on physical affection, Wendy established and has maintained trust through consistency, respect, and the use of positive reinforcement. As a result, Georgie Pink is a good psittacine citizen with no behavior issues.

A Diversity of Experience

She took to heart the advice that parrots need diversity in their lives. Creating an interesting life experience for Georgie was the next challenge. This has taken a variety of forms over the past 14 or so years that she has had him.

Robin and Aviary
Robin with the Cockatoos

During the lovely Oregon summers, Georgie spends most of his time outdoors in the three aviaries on the property. There he has lots to chew, a large variety of perch types, and the ability to forage for growing vegetables.

Along the way, Wendy adopted a second Moluccan and an Umbrella cockatoo. She has a close friend named Robin, who is equally as kind and savvy about animals. Robin adopted a Moluccan of her own several years ago. The presence of other birds has helped to augment Georgie’s quality of life. Conspecifics are important to companion parrots.

Wendy did meet with some significant challenges. Georgie hated to bathe. However, keeping her eye on the goals to which we had agreed, she continued to work to teach him to enjoy this. Wendy gradually exposed him to different types of bathing experiences, using positive reinforcement. And, just look at him now!

 

Wendy and Robin have established a cooperative rotation for the birds. Wendy’s birds have “sleep-overs” at Robin’s house and Robin’s bird comes to visit at Wendy’s. This exchange involves traveling in the car, different enrichment, and a slightly different schedule. This variety of experience serves to increase quality of life and keep things interesting for all the birds.Gerogie at Nursing Home (1)

Georgie also enjoys visiting nursing homes with Robin. He engages happily with the residents there, always gentle and enthusiastic about making them laugh. In Wendy’s words, “He is a happy, boisterous, loving, funny boy.”

This is a cute, heart-warming, happy story. It also offers us some serious things to think about.

Cockatoos are over-represented in rescue organizations and sanctuaries. Many will tell you that large cockatoos should no longer be bred in captivity. Over 50% of my clientele are folks who have problems with their cockatoos.

Are cockatoos the problem? No. We are the problem. We are the problem because we don’t acknowledge the depth of life experience that they have evolved to need. They are not much different than we. They need space, the experience of the outdoors, the chance to go places and learn new things, and a healthy diet in order to be their best.

Moreover, this is true for all parrots. Our tendency has been to vastly underestimate the scope of life that each needs, while at the same time engaging in over-protective practices, often narrowing their life experience to sitting on a shoulder for hours a day.

I often hear owners talk about their desire not to “stress” their birds. There is stress and there is STRESS. We should never intentionally scare our birds. However, bringing them just slightly out of their comfort zone to teach them to accept new experiences through the application of positive reinforcement training is a life gift to them.

We have much to learn from Wendy. This incredibly caring woman set many things aside for Georgie Pink so that he could have the best quality of life possible. Her dedication to her parrots is unparalleled in my experience, surpassing my own. Many thanks to her for allowing me to share her story.

Independent Georgie Pink wishes all of you in the United States a Happy Independence day!

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, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Jamie McLeod is also the founder of the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary where she continues her extraordinary work with parrots and other birds. If you are able, please send her a small donation.

How to Create A Bullet Proof Relationship with Your Parrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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.

Part One: Parrots, Flight, and Humans

The conversation about companion parrots and flight has been ongoing for over two decades now, the hallmarks of which have been radical bias and lack of information. In short, the discussion has been acutely dysfunctional and has done little to move forward in any significant way quality of life for the majority of parrots.  Choices about whether to allow a companion parrot to fly in the home are still most often based upon opinion and/or fear.

While I see evidence these days of greater open-mindedness towards the allowance of flight for parrots in the home, a wide-spread lack of information and understanding about flight persists and must be corrected. We must all set aside personal biases, with the recognition of two dichotomous facts: (1) flight is a parrot’s birthright, and (2) flight is not possible for all companion parrots in all homes.

Between these two extremes, there is much to discover and discuss. Flight is such a complex system of behaviors, both physical and mental, that I might spend two years writing about it before I felt that the subject had been sufficiently covered. That’s not practical of course, but I will need to divide this topic into a number of posts. This one will serve as an introduction to the discussion.

I do not believe that we can, nor should, attempt to discuss flight for our own parrots until we obtain some perspective about the real nature of flight for birds.

Birds and Flight

Birds are currently the only living creatures with feathers and most species have evolved to use those feathers as their primary means of getting from place to place. Given that fact, even those readers without familiarity with parrots might assume that feathers and flight would be of critical, primary importance to the life experience of any bird. 

In The Lives of Birds, Lester L. Short remarks, “…everything about a bird’s physical structure, and indeed much of its physiology, is affected to some degree by the constraints of flight.”  We could take Mr. Short’s observations one step further to rightly state that everything about a bird is affected by its need and ability to fly, including its emotional make-up.  A bird is flight, and to ignore this in our parrot keeping practices is to do them an injustice.

Feathers and Function

Feathers come in several different forms.  Smooth ones cover the body, fluffy ones provide warmth and insulation, and long, stiff feathers provide support for flight. An average-sized bird has several thousand feathers, which grow in feather tracts, with patches of bare skin in between.  The flight feathers have a central, spongy shaft, making the feather lighter and more flexible for flight.

Barbs extend outward, slanting diagonally from either side of the feather shaft. You can easily pull these barbs apart, then by pressing above and below the separation, zip them together again, the same way the bird does while preening.  From each side of the barb grow hundreds of barbules that overlap each other. Minute hooks on the barbules lock the branches together.  The “construction” of even a single feather is exquisitely complex. 

Feathers have many advantages.  They are light and are replaced regularly when worn or lost.  Each feather is individually attached to a muscle, which allows for greater maneuverability. (Poole, R. 1983) Feathers enable birds to fly thousands of miles a year, to fly at speeds of 100 miles an hour, to hover and fly backwards, and to fly for days at a stretch without stopping.

Other Accommodations

The bird’s skeleton has evolved in such a way as to keep flying weight to a minimum.   The skull of most birds is paper thin.  Many have hollow bones, which are filled with air sacs for increased buoyancy.  A frigate bird, whose wing span is seven feet wide, has a skeleton that weighs only four ounces, less than the weight of its feathers. (Poole, R. 1983)

Internal organs have evolved in such a way as to make flight easier as well.  The heart has become enlarged to include four chambers in most birds, in order to be able to remove impurities from the blood more quickly. 

In the respiratory system, air is pumped through a system of air sacs that branch off the lungs to occupy much of the bird’s body.  In some species, this system of air sacs extends even down into the legs.  In fact, in 1758, an English surgeon showed that a bird could still breathe if you completely blocked his windpipe, but made a small hole from the outside into a wing or leg bone. (Page, J. 1989)

The fusion of various bones in the skeleton has also resulted in decreased overall weight, and in some cases more flexibility.  The bones of the clavicles have fused into the “wishbone” or furcula.  Scientists have been able to view, with high-speed x-ray movies, the flight of a starling in a wind tunnel.  They observed that the furcula opens and closes with each wing beat, acting as a sort of spring or bellows.  This appears to assist the bird in breathing, pumping air throughout the respiratory system. (Page, J. 1989)

Flight and Migration

One of the most important functions of flight is that of migration.

Even tropical birds, who are not subjected to the extremes of weather, move with the seasonal rains and droughts, often across hundreds of miles. Certain examples of migratory flight almost defy belief.  Some shorebirds fly non-stop from South America to the coast of New Jersey.  This flight takes ten days to complete, a total of 240 hours of uninterrupted flight.  The motivating force behind migration is about finding food, rather than avoiding severe temperatures.  In reporting the migratory efforts of the short-tailed shearwater, a bird that covers over 18,000 miles in a single year, Weidensaul comments, “Migrations like this leave us staggered; we are such stodgy, rooted creatures.  To think of crossing thousands of miles under our own power is as incomprehensible as jumping to the moon.  Yet even the tiniest of birds perform such miracles.”

Flight Skills

During flight, a number of flight skills are demonstrated.  The bird must be able to gain lift.  Three factors affect lift:  the surface area of the wing, the wind speed, and the angle at which the wing is held.

Gliding is another important skill for a flying bird.  A bird will stop beating its wings, and thus begin to glide.  This results in a loss of speed, which enables the bird to land.  Gliding and hovering are necessary to landing. Powered flight requires more energy, and is achieved when the pectoral muscles drive the wing downwards. Birds must also be able to steer themselves once in the air.  They can do this solely through the use of the wings. This is achieved by altering the angle or shape of one wing. 

Flight and Humans

Aside from the importance it has to birds, flight has carried significance for humans since time began.  As Jack Page and Eugene Morton write in Lords of the Air, “We humans appear always to have been on the lookout for ways to understand ourselves and our world, and for most of our tenure here, we have rarely looked at any bird – say, a crow – and simply seen a crow….  In the first place, crows and most other birds fly, and flight has meaning. 

The crow is black, and black means something.  Feathers mean something, as do the eggs from which the crow is born.  For most people throughout time, these meanings have been as real as the bird itself, and perhaps more so, since the meanings were taken to be universal and eternal.  Flight means space, light, thought, imagination.”

Among the early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, the bird came to signify the human soul.  In ancient Egypt, the feather was one of the hieroglyphic elements that spelled such words as lightness and height. Wings have been seen as analogous to spirituality.  To the Greeks, they also signified love and victory.

While these are only a few of the fascinating facts related to bird flight, they underscore two major points.  First, every physical feature of the bird has evolved to facilitate flight.  Second, much of our fascination with birds is because they can fly.

A Subjective View of Feathers and Flight

I bred African Grey parrots for many years, back at a time when wing clipping was done by rote. Thanks to mentor Phoebe Linden, however, I understood the importance of the fledging experience. In the earliest years, babies enjoyed flight for two weeks before gradual wing clipping.

As I observed the astonishing gains to them from this experience, I made sure that they flew for three to four weeks before their clip. I was witness at this point to how young parrots use flight to reach important developmental milestones. After fledging, they first work on developing flight skills – landing safely, calculating the power of flight necessary to cover a particular distance, hovering, and more.

Once able to fly with skill, they then began to use this newfound ability to explore their environment. Finally, in their fifth and sixth week of flight, they turned their attention to the use of flight to communicate with each other and to build social relationships with each other and with me.

At this point, I made a discovery that completely changed my breeding practices and thinking about the importance of flight to a companion parrot. When I performed a slight wing clip on babies who had flown for a period of six weeks, I saw that this had a devastating impact on them. Flight had truly become who they were, and I had taken that away from them.

I had perpetrated a crime in my own ignorance and because, like so many, I had accepted without question the oft-repeated advice that companion parrots should have their wings clipped. Never again. From that point on, I quit clipping babies entirely, sending them to new homes fully flighted and trained to recall on cue.

We Destroy What We Value

Documentation of much of our own human behavior over millennia reveals how much we value birds and their ability to fly. Yet, we have been emotionally comfortable removing this remarkable ability from those in our care.

How do we reconcile this? Frankly, I don’t know. While the ability to fly has enchanted us on one level, we have been quick to prevent it on another.

Perhaps it’s our unquestioned conviction that we always know what’s best for animals in our care. Perhaps it stems from a need to have an experience with birds in our homes that is predictable and controlled. Perhaps it has been a too-easy acceptance of what others have pronounced to be true.

Myths about Flight in the Home

How often have you heard that we must clip our parrots’ wings to keep them safe? To protect them  from flying into windows or onto the hot stove? To keep them from drowning in toilets? Some veterinarians still espouse this advice by rote.

In truth, parrots are learners. If they can learn to keep themselves safe in the wild, they can (and do) learn to keep themselves safe in our homes. True, accidents can happen. However, accidents happen all the time to parrots who can’t fly as well. That is our purview – to anticipate possible problems and make changes to the environment to prevent them, no matter the state of flight feathers.

The real question is this: Can companion parrots enjoy complete physical, mental and emotional health without flight? And, if the answer is “no,” then where do we go from here? How do we learn to live successfully with a parrot who flies?

Future episodes of the blog will explore the benefits of flight to companion parrots, how to determine whether your bird is candidate for flight, how to set up the home for flighted bird, and how to live successfully and safely with flighted parrots.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. 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!

Resources

Short, Lester. 1993. The Lives of Birds. New York, NY. Henry Holt & Co.

Poole, Robert M. ed. The Wonder of Birds. Washington D.C: National Geographical Society. 1983.

The Gift of Birds. 1979. National Wildlife Federation.

Page, Jake and Morton, Eugene S.  1989. Lords of the Air: The Smithsonian Book of Birds. New York: Smithsonian Institution.

Weidendaul, Scott. 1999. Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. New York: North Point Press.  

Perrins, Christopher. 1976. Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.