Essential Guide to Communicating with Parrots

A veterinarian for whom I once worked used to frequently repeat: “Communication is a difficult thing.” There are no truer words. I have often observed two people who thought they were communicating well with each other, only to see that they did not understand each other at all. It’s a fascinating circumstance to watch.

If communicating with other humans is difficult, how do we imagine that we can communicate effectively with another species, especially one that is not even a mammal?

The effectiveness and quality of our communication with our own parrots is a subject worthy of ongoing exploration. Evidence of this is the often heard statement, “He bit me with NO warning!”

If you scroll through any parrot-related Facebook feed, you would be led to believe that behavior problems like screaming and biting are just a normal part of living with parrots. This is not true.

Behavior Problems = Communication Problems

The majority of behavior problems in parrots are, in reality, communication problems. This is especially true for screaming, biting and fear-based behaviors.  

We cannot have good relationships with people or parrots without effective communication. Historically, we have primarily communicated with our birds through the provision of physical affection, talking conversationally, and attempts to punish undesirable behavior. These efforts at relationship building miss the mark completely.

Why? Physical affection communicates to parrots the wrong message – that we offer the possibility to them of a pair bond. This in itself leads to several different behavior problems. It also teaches dependence, rather than independence.

Talking to them doesn’t result in any particular adverse consequences, but what does it really accomplish? How valuable is it to a parrot when we talk? It might be mildly entertaining to have us yakking away at them, but are we really getting any important message across?

Lastly, “punishment” is ineffective in the manner in which it is most often used. For example, covering a screaming bird’s cage is typically something they don’t mind at all. We might intend for it to communicate to the bird that its noise is an undesirable behavior, but the message doesn’t get across. Further, effective punishment will create distrust and fear. That’s not where we want to be in our relationships with our bird.

How Do We Listen to a Parrot?

Good communication with any species requires both talking and listening. But, how do we listen to a parrot?

The answer? We must read body language. Body language is the only way that parrots have to communicate their feelings to us.

The next important question is, “How do we talk to another species so that understanding is ensured? The answer to that is “We use positive reinforcement!” We need to be clear communicators when interacting with our parrots so that they understand which behaviors will help them to be successful in our homes – which behaviors will earn them what they really want.

Thus, success with our parrots depends upon two things: (1) listening to what they have to tell us by reading body language, and (2) communicating to them through the use of positive reinforcement.

Reading Body Language

When it comes to reading body language, it helps to understand the differences that may be present depending upon the part of the world in which the parrot originated. For many years, parrots have been informally relegated to two different groups – New World parrots and Old World parrots.

Old World parrots derived from Africa, Asia and Europe. Examples of these species would be cockatoos, African Greys, cockatiels, ring-necked parakeets, Eclectus, Poicephalus, and lovebirds. The body language of these species often tends to be more subtle in nature.

Conversely, New World parrots that come from the Americas, tend to have more overt or dramatic body language. Examples include Amazon parrots, conures, caiques, parrotlets, Pionus parrots, monk parakeets and macaws.  Both parrots in the photos are indicating interest, but it is more obvious in the macaw.

Keep in mind that is only a generalization. The body language that any individual displays will depend more upon his previous learning history (his socialization) than upon his species. However, this information can be helpful.

It teaches us, for example, that we must anticipate that an Amazon is not going to communicate in the same way that an African grey communicates. An Amazon who intends aggression will typically let you know in a more pronounced manner with pinning eyes, flared tail and raised feathers on the back of his head. The African grey who feels the same may only raise the feathers on his shoulders slightly and look at you with a bit more intensity.

This information also suggests that living without problems with our parrots will hinge upon building our own skills of observation, since each species with whom we interact will likely have a different style of communication. Therefore, we learn to take nothing for granted. Each new individual will need the same careful “get-to-know-you” observations that we used with the last.

Parrots and Emotions

The presence of emotions in animals and birds has long been the subject of much discussion. (I have listed a few reliable references below.) And, as often happens in a new area of exploration for truth, the pendulum of opinion has swung from one extreme to the other.

For some years now, the attribution of emotions to animals was often met with the accusation that the speaker was being anthropomorphic, assigning human characteristics to the animals under discussion. However, researchers are now taking this subject more seriously. Frans De Waal has given us the books Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and Mama’s Last Hug, for example. Both discuss the emotions of animals in a very convincing manner.

Finally, “hard science”has met “soft science” and now many are admitting that animals have emotions, possibly the same emotions that we experience as humans. Anyone who has lived with parrots knows this from experience. They are by nature incredibly social, sentient, and expressive.

The list of emotions now attributed to animals is surprisingly long. I found a more distilled list that includes: happiness, anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise. However, labels often fail us and these are labels. What does happiness look like in a parrot? What does sadness look like?

I think it makes sense instead to begin our exploration of how parrots express their emotions by first observing their body language in a variety of contexts and then doing our best to gather enough anecdotal evidence that we can correctly evaluate it and interpret it, thereby achieving some general agreement and creating a reference.

When I did this myself, I came to the conclusion that the parrots I have known had communicated to me, by using body language, the following: well-being or happiness, interest, disinterest, alarm or surprise, fear or aversion, heightened arousal, anger or “go away,” and sexual interest or romantic love.

Obviously, there are likely to be other emotional states that I have not listed. However, parrots have few facial muscles for exhibiting expressions, unlike our mammal friends. Therefore, reading their messages may be a bit more challenging. They use primarily three forms of body language to communicate. When we make observations, we have three main areas to examine: their eyes, feather position, and body position.

Interpreting the Eyes

Parrots will communicate in very subtle ways with their eyes and it can take experience to learn to read them. The most obvious change in a parrot’s eyes is called “pinning.” When a parrot pins his eyes, he alternately contacts and expands his pupils. This may last for just a brief few seconds, or can go on for a full minute or two.

Almond-shaped eye = relaxed
Rounded eye = alarm or concern

Eye shape is a much more subtle change. A parrot’s eyes may appear round at some times and more almond-shaped at others. In my experience, there can also be a change in the expression behind the eyes, which can range from a very soft and relaxed appearance to a hard stare.

Interpreting Feather Position

Loose feathers = more relaxed

Observing feather position contributes to the information base we accumulate when we read body language. A parrot may hold his contour feathers over his body in a tight, slicked-down manner or in a more relaxed, inflated way with a little air trapped behind them.

Heightened Arousal

Movement of specific feather groups often tells a more obvious story. Some parrots will fan their tail feathers outward, raise their crests, or raise certain areas of feathers over their bodies.

Interpreting Body Position

Body position gives us even more overt details. Parrots may lean toward or away from us, stand up tall, hide, or stand with one foot held upward against the body. All of these changes tell a story.

Raised feathers, low crouch, hard eyes = Stay away!

Thus, when we read avian body language, we must look at each of these three areas, ask ourselves what we are seeing, and then assimilate this information so that we can interpret what that parrot may be trying to tell us.

Signs of Well-being or Happiness

Signs that a parrot is experiencing a state of happiness or well-being might include the following:

  • Stretching
    • Shoulder raise (both wings being raised in unison and then lowered)
    • Unilateral (the parrot stretches out both wing and leg on the same side at the same time.)
  • Tail wags
  • Feathers relaxed
  • Eyes soft and almond-shaped
  • Beak grinding
  • Rough out (whole body shake out)
  • Head bobbing
  • Preening (not excessive)
  • Cheek feathers covering beak (cockatoos)

Expressions of Interest

  • Leaning or moving toward us or an item without signs of “anger” – see below
  • Eager look to the face and eyes
  • Contour feathers relaxed
  • Crest up (cockatoos or cockatiels)

Signs of Disinterest

  • Turning or physically moving away
  • Flying away
  • Preening as you attempt to engage socially
  • Eating treats very slowly when trying to train

Signs of Surprise or Alarm

  • Raised crest
  • Rounded eyes
  • Raised wings
  • Looking skyward
  • Standing up very tall
  • Feathers slicked down
  • Sharp calls

Signs of Fear or Aversion

  • Round eyes
  • Beak slightly open
  • Standing up very straight
  • Contour feathers held tightly against the body
  • Growling
  • Creating distance rapidly
    • Leaning away
    • Moving away

Signs of Heightened Arousal

  • Eye pinning
  • Raised crest
  • Whole body bobbing
  • Foot tapping against a perch (cockatoos)
  • Tail fanning
  • Facial blushing

Signs of Anger (“Go Away!”)

  • Eye pinning
  • “Hard” eyes
  • Tail fanning
  • Hissing (cockatoos)
  • Growling (greys)
  • Lunging / biting
  • Swaying from side to side
  • Raised feathers on certain areas
  • Crouching with beak open

Signs of Sexual Interest or Romantic Love

  • Beak clacking (cockatoos)
  • Tongue wagging (cockatoos)
  • Regurgitation
  • Masturbation
  • Wing drooping
  • Head bobbing
  • Soliciting allopreening
  • Seeks close physical contact

Putting It All Together

As stated previously, we won’t be successful in accurately reading avian body language unless we take all signs into consideration. Once we do, however, we can then take our cues from the parrot and respond appropriately.

If an Amazon parrot is fanning his tail, pinning his eyes, has his feathers raised on the back of his head and is leaning toward us with beak open, we are going to walk away and figure out another way to approach him that will not result in the aggression that is so obviously intended.

If we observe that our macaw is blushing, pinning his rounded eyes, swaying from side to side and slightly fanning his tail, we are going to conclude that this moment might not be the best time to ask him to step up. He is obviously in a heightened state of arousal and could bite just out of excitement.

If the Senegal we just adopted looks at us with rounded eyes, and stands up tall with feathers held tightly down, rapidly trying to scramble away from our approach, we are going to stop in our tracks realizing that perhaps this bird has more of a history of fear than we were lead to believe.

And, if our cockatoo clacks her beak at us as we remove her from the cage, begins to regurgitate, and then tries her best to scramble to a shoulder for a cuddle session, we are going to also stop in our tracks and realize that she has the wrong idea. We are not sexual partners. She belongs on a perch near you, but not on you.

Our Own Body Language

We must also exercise control over our own body language and use this to mirror that which the parrot offers. Since parrots communicate through body language, they are especially sensitive to ours.

Barbara Heidenreich said once, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” That is the cardinal rule, or should be, whenever you are in any animal’s presence. Many accidents and injuries could be avoided by following this simple advice. In general, the following rules will help to ensure your success when meeting new birds and in a variety of other situations:

  • Move slowly.
  • Keep gestures to a minimum.
  • Use a low voice.
  • Mirror the bird’s behavior – respond appropriately.
  • Practice awareness.

Communicating with Parrots

All living creatures are hard-wired to behave upon the environment in such a way that they can gain access to the things that they want. When we live with a parrot, one of the most valuable pieces of information we can have is to know what things he values most and to then use them to reward the behaviors that we would like him to perform more often: talking rather than screaming, stepping up rather than moving away, going back into the cage rather than biting.

The mistake that most caregivers make is to assume that the parrot wants approval. They typically reward behavior by talking, with an enthusiastic “Good bird!” Frankly, I have seen no evidence that parrots care what we think. They don’t care if we approve of the behavior they just offered.

What they want is currency – hard cash. What is hard cash to a parrot? Usually, it is going to be some high-value food – typically high-fat nuts or seeds. It could be head scratches. It could be a bottle cap. It is up to each of us to investigate and discover what constitutes hard cash for each of our parrots. This is likely to be different for each one.

One we know what a parrot wants, success is just around the corner if we follow the following rules:

Living as a Trainer

  • Realize that every social interaction is a learning moment for the parrot.
  • Use positive reinforcement for all cued behaviors so that the parrot has control – he understands what he can do to acquire the things that he wants.
  • Get into the habit of asking yourself, “What am I reinforcing right now?”

Remember:

  • Every interaction with a parrot must be a dialogue.
    • When training
    • When handling
    • When offering a treat.
  • Practice respect.
    • Allow them control.
    • Give them a choice.

I would like to see a new era dawn, when it comes to relationships between companion parrots and their caregivers. In order for those relationships to be problem-free and full of joy we need to understand each other. This means that we have to listen to them and behave in a trust-building manner by altering our own behavior based upon the messages that they communicate.

We then must offer them choices about how to behave and ensure that the behavior we want gets rewarded with a rate of exchange that ensures that this will continue to be offered in the future.

References

Bekoff,  M. (2000) Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures: Current interdisciplinary research provides compelling evidence that many animals experience such emotions as joy, fear, love, despair, and grief—we are not alone. BioScience, Volume 50, Issue 10, October 2000, Pages 861–870, https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2000)050[0861:AEEPN]2.0.CO;2

Safina, C. (2015.) Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Henry Holt & Company, LLC. New York, NY.

Paul,E. and  Mendl, M. 2018. Animal emotion: Descriptive and prescriptive definitions and their implications for a comparative perspective.Applied Animal Behaviour Science,Volume 205,Pages 202-209,ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.01.008.

Weary, D., Droege, P., and Braithwaite, V. 2017. Chapter Two – Behavioral Evidence of Felt Emotions: Approaches, Inferences, and Refinements. Editor(s): Marc Naguib, Jeffrey Podos, Leigh W. Simmons, Louise Barrett, Susan D. Healy, Marlene Zuk. Advances in the Study of Behavior, Academic Press,Volume 49,Pages 27-48,ISSN 0065-3454,ISBN 9780128121214,https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.asb.2017.02.002.

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!

Lessons from Ellie

Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo, came to live with me at the end of June 2019. She was adopted from Exotic Bird Rescue in Eugene, Oregon and has had a history of living in a home environment. She is eight years old and fully flighted. She is social with people and is, of course, adorable.

Ellie was completely new to me. I  began our getting-to-know-each other journey with excitement and positivity. Ellie? Not so much. She showed some suspicion and wariness in her new environment, which is understandable. If I had been moved to a new home with a family I did not know, I would be pretty stressed out.

Early Preparations

I had prepared well for her introduction into my home. The family room is where I spend most of my indoor time and where Ellie would be living. I furnished it with ropes draped from the ceiling and a large rope “orbit” for her to land on if she chose.

Her cage was placed against a wall next to a window. She could see outside, as well as hunker down in her cage to avoid exposure to stimulation from the window. From her cage, she could see the cockatoos far off in their aviaries or while they were out flying. I also built Ellie a small aviary attached to the front of the house with access to it from the window next to her cage.

Martha Stewart would be impressed with my interior and exterior decorations for Ellie and I looked forward to watching Ellie’s enjoyment of them. In my mind, I saw her flying happily from rope to rope, swinging on the orbit, and bouncing on the boing. Oh, what fun we’d have!

Early Lessons

Behavior I was used to….

My first lesson from my teacher, Miss Ellie, was to lower my expectations and alter the above mental images. I’m so used to my lifelong ‘toos being active, exploratory, playful (especially young Bare-eyeds), and confident that I assumed Ellie would be the same way.

Even though she seemed to be a confident cockatoo, she did everything in slow motion. When she first arrived, she explored and considered each new situation with great thought and care. She was more of an observer than an action figure. Consequently, I too, had to slow myself down and not expect her to jump (or fly) for joy at my jungle gym set-up or explore the house and aviary on her own.

Ellie eventually became comfortable with her new home, and that’s when the “real” Ellie emerged—sort of like the movie, Alien, where the monster claws its way out of the human’s chest. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but this new Ellie certainly caught my attention.

End of the “Honeymoon Period”

Some people call the first two weeks or so, when a mature parrot comes to live in their home, the honeymoon period. The new parrot may be quiet, calm, and friendly to everyone so all is right with the world. We can be duped into believing that these are the permanent, unchanging qualities of our new friend.

Many times they are not. As the parrot becomes more comfortable and confident in his new environment, he will start to exhibit  behaviors that may have been repressed in the beginning.  Those behaviors may not be conducive to a happy relationship between caregiver and parrot.

Behavior is a function of its consequences; and, like all of us, Ellie has her own repertoire of behaviors that were reinforced successfully time and again during her life before she came to me. The science of learning tells us that a reinforced behavior will occur again. Unfortunately, some of Ellie’s old behaviors poked a few holes in our honeymoon period.

Signs of Trouble

For example, in the beginning I would walk Ellie around the house on my hand, which she seemed to enjoy. One of her favorite rooms was the bathroom. One day, while in the bathroom, she flew from my hand to the sink. She immediately went into the sink showing excitement. I asked her to step up, which was met with fluffed up head feathers and a cold stare. I knew what Ellie was saying: “Stay away from my sink!”

Our second troublesome interaction occurred in the family room. Ellie had become comfortable flying to the rope and hanging out. I was delighted with her having control of her environment. Unfortunately, she seemed bent on controlling me as well; and, she wasn’t using positive reinforcement (R+) methods to do so, that’s for sure.

For example, from her rope perch she would occasionally fly at me showing obvious aggression with her beak wide open, breathing fire like a flying dragon. Another instance was with her feed bowl. Ellie liked to bury her head in the bowl. Hiding her head in the bowl  is often a nesting behavior for a cockatoo, as the bowl can represent a nest cavity. If I walked near the bowl at this time, she would often strike at me.

My Behavior-Change Plan

With the real Ellie showing me these not-so-compatible behavior traits, I made up a training plan using the science-based training techniques of environmental change and R+.

Using a target to remove Ellie from her cage.

First thing was to teach Ellie to target. This simple training behavior can help form a favorable relationship between learner and teacher by helping the learner understand that good things come from the teacher through operant learning; that is, Ellie could choose to touch the target to get a treat. This exercise teaches Ellie that she has control over the training and the treat reinforcement.

Targeting with Ellie

Allowing a student control is a very powerful reinforcer. If she didn’t want to participate, then I would leave. However, she soon learned that the food goodies left with me. On future training encounters, Ellie started participating and it wasn’t long before she was an expert at targeting.

Environmental Modifications

The next thing on the list was to alter Ellie’s dragon flying routine. I could do this in many ways. I could just put up with it and dodge her attacks. I could swat at her as she flew at me. I could let her land on me and bite me and not react showing her that this behavior is pointless (yes, this is advice given by some parrot behavior consultants!). Or, I could change the environment that would make her dragon flying less likely to occur. Using the least intrusive, most effective method, I chose the latter.

I took down the rope so that she didn’t have her launch pad available. I also replaced her feed bowl with a foraging wheel full of pellets so Ellie didn’t have any “nesty” type bowl to display in and protect.

Changes to the Daily Schedule

At the same time, I changed her daily schedule. Ellie now goes out in the aviary each morning with a treat. I make sure the aviary is full of enrichment, in the forms of grape vines and other plant material to forage on, along with a foraging net full of shredded paper, wood, and food treats. She engages with them all.

I also go into the aviary multiple times a day to practice step ups and step downs with her, as well as targeting using positive reinforcement with food treats. This is helping to change her perception of me from a possible threat or an enroachment on her territory into a person who delivers good things. I will soon start to generalize the step up behavior by practicing it in various parts of the house. This will expand her step-up repertoire, as well as establish it as a highly reinforcing behavior.

At dinnertime, Ellie is asked to step up from her aviary and then I put her in her cage with her dinner of sprout mix. It is fed in a bowl, but when she is done, I take the bowl out which helps curb the “nesty” bowl behavior. I give her a foraging toy as a replacement and she still has her foraging wheel full of pellets, if she so chooses.

Finally, I don’t allow Ellie to fly about the house, even with the rope being absent. I will eventually, but want to wait until we have developed a more solid, supportive partnership. Instead of clipping her, which many people resort to when they have a “misbehaving” flying parrot, I’ve changed the environment as previously mentioned by eliminating the ropes and other opportunities to fly. She can certainly fly in her aviary, of course.

I am enjoying the challenges Ellie is offering me. Using my knowledge of the science of learning and behavior and utilizing positive reinforcement training methods, I have no doubt Ellie and I will form a lasting and trusting relationship. It may take a few weeks or a few months and require many adjustments along the way, but we have all the time in the world. I take pleasure in the journey and look forward to the successes and challenges that are sure to occur.

The Latest News

Baby Bare-eyed made her grand entrance into her new world on July 20, at nine weeks of age. She came out of her nest box in the early morning.

Baby Star has fledged! She is on the right.

I didn’t see her exit so when I saw three cockatoos in the aviary instead of just two cockatoos, it took me by surprise. It also took me a second to understand it was the baby—call me slow. When it sunk in, great excitement ensued!

If you read my very first guest blog post, you understand that the impetus behind allowing these two Bare-eyed cockatoos to go to nest was Asta’s loss. In Greek, Asta means “star.” Therefore, it seemed a natural progression to name this new little one Star.

I’ll devote the next blog to baby Star’s exploits as she navigates her new world with the help of her parents. Stay tuned!

Just for Fun!

It has been fascinating to me to watch the interactions between Flash and Bebe as they have raised their new chick. Things have not always been friendly between the two. At times Flash has been aggressive toward Bebe. Currently, Bebe won’t let Flash near Star, now that she has left the nestbox. If only we could read their minds! In place of that, I have allowed them to work off a little energy by letting them out of the aviary to fly each day. Once outside the enclosure, they seem to remember that they are a bonded pair.

Release from the Aviary

Stay tuned! In my next blog episode, I will provide an in-depth look into the interactions between the parents and their fledgling. I am observing behavior that I’m not sure how to interpret and have written to other experts to see if they can shed some light on these. I will also continue to offer an inside look my world with Miss Ellie Bare-eyed. Until next time….

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.

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.

Commentary on Free Flight: Part One

RV in Flight

In the minds of most people, watching a free flying bird of any species command the sky summons up feelings of freedom, independence, awe, and flights of fantasy (pun intended). When people are asked what special skill they would like to have, many answer… the ability to fly. Who wouldn’t? Swooping and soaring a sky that holds no boundaries or limits does offer ultimate freedom and control.

The Realities of Free Flight

I wish the reality of flying companion parrots outdoors replicated these romantic notions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The open environment of the sky has many speed bumps and obstacles that flying birds must navigate. The list is as long and complicated as a peacock’s tail and includes things such as weather conditions, wind, predators, buildings, cars, hunters, and neighbors. Nevertheless, many parrot owners dream about offering their beloved companion the experience of flying the open sky.

S.Macaw.M.Major.CDRetreat
Photo by Marinka Major

There’s much to consider before offering a companion parrot outdoor flight or, as it is commonly called, free flight. Free flight, along with indoor flight, is a complicated and training-dense activity. Compared to indoor flight, free flying a parrot comes with an extra layer of consequences that can endanger the parrot’s life. With that in mind, let’s examine what I expect a competent free flight candidate to look like.

The Caretaker Trainer

The first element in determining whether a parrot is to be a successful flight candidate is not the parrot. Wait, what? In fact, it’s the parrot’s human partner that determines whether the bird fails or succeeds. A close look reveals the following facts:

  • All flying bird species are excellent candidates for flight. Bird species meant to fly come equipped with the proper flight paraphernalia and mental acuity to do so.
  • Captive parrots are also born with everything they need to successfully fly.
  • Companion parrots are more often than not thwarted from learning to fly properly when humans clip the wings of fledglings or do not provide an environment conducive to learning all their flight skills.
  • The training skills possessed by the average parrot caretaker typically do not reach the minimum requirements needed to produce a truly successful and safe free flyer.
Hillary Hankey
Free flight expert Hillary Hankey

It is the human component of the free flight equation that holds the key to a successful experience. It is essential that the parrot caretaker must be skilled in using positive reinforcement training. “But wait!” you say. “I’ve heard that if I hand raise a parrot, he will naturally bond to me and won’t want to fly away.” Sadly, this popular belief is fundamentally flawed.

 

Isn’t Our Bond Enough?

It’s true that by hand raising a parrot, a bond is normally created between caretaker and parrot. Unfortunately, some people believe this is all that is necessary for free flight and consequently, do little if any training. It’s like thinking your puppy will automatically come when called as an adult because she’s “bonded” to you. We all know that usually doesn’t happen.

Without a strong foundation of training, the bond that is created from hand rearing can and does break down as the parrot matures. Even if the bond does grows stronger, it won’t ensure the free flight parrot will be safe or competent in his flying.Scale Training

The parrot must be taught the basic behaviors all parrots should learn. These include stepping up and down on cue, recalling, entering a carrier, and acceptance of husbandry procedures such as stepping voluntarily onto a scale to be weighed. Not only does this training help develop a confident bird, it goes hand in wing with creating a trusting working relationship between caretaker and parrot.

Necessary Factors

My intent is not to inform readers about how to train a parrot for free flight. I will, however, provide a short list of some of the factors that are involved.

Along with the behaviors mentioned above, the parrot must be taught to fly up from low places and down from high places while developing the physical strength to do so. He must be desensitized to the outdoors by becoming familiar and comfortable with his outside surroundings. He must be given the opportunity to fly in the wind, rain, heat and cold. He must respond to an outdoor recall cue from his caretaker. The list goes on and on.

The human partner to the free flying parrot must have a working knowledge of how to train with positive reinforcement, force-free techniques. Since the use of positive reinforcement and training in general are still not in daily practice by the majority of caregivers, it is likely that the “typical” parrot owner is not well-skilled in training, let alone training for free flight. 

"Topper", Goffin's cockatoo, Cacatua goffiniana

Because of this, I highly recommend that the caretaker seek the in-person coaching of an experienced parrot free flight trainer; someone who will guide and support the parrot owner through the process of training.

Online Courses vs. Direct Mentoring

There are trainers online who offer courses in free flight. They offer little more than an outline to follow. Even if they provide help by critiquing videos of their customers training their parrots, it’s just not the same as  having an experienced mentor there by your side. Parrots and their people are individuals who have nuances, personality traits, and physical aspects that don’t translate fully via a video or even through discussion. The training mentor simply must be involved in person for the parrot owner to gain the knowledge that is needed to fly a parrot outdoors.

This brings up yet another factor in the making of a capable human flight partner  – truly understanding the dangers involved in flying the parrot outdoors. This is another area in which having an experienced trainer by your side is essential.

And to this end, the trainer caretaker must examine whether she has the inner fortitude to accept that her parrot, no matter the proficiency of training, could be lost, injured, or killed at any time during flight. This understanding and acceptance are perhaps the most difficult things to acknowledge and internalize before undertaking the flight training of a parrot.

I am a realist when it comes to free flying parrots and after forty years of flying my cockatoos, I still, to this day, heave a sigh of relief when everyone is put away safely after flying. No matter how much we love our parrots and wish for them a life as close as possible to that of their wild relatives, launching them into the open sky unprepared or partially prepared is a recipe for disaster for both the parrot and her person. There is a steep learning curve for all involved.

So, please, if you are considering free flight for your bird, do a conscientious examination of your personal attributes, talents, deficiencies, personality, and your motives when it comes to wanting your bird to free fly. If you’re honest, the answers will influence whether you proceed with flying or not.

The Latest News!

We recently held a training workshop here at Cockatoo Downs. We invited Susan Friedman and Peggy Hogan to head the weekend and dispense their knowledge about training and behavior to an eager group of trainers. The enthusiasm from the people who attended was palpable and infectious.2019 Retreat

Susan Friedman, PhD gave a fascinating presentation about the fact that control is a primary reinforcer, as important to the animal as food. As she stated, “Control is a biological necessity.” Any behavior offered moves the environment – much like a stone tossed into a river. It creates ripples; behavior does as well.  All animals behave in order to control their outcomes – access reinforcers or avoid aversives. The reason that animals and birds love training so much is because they are offered the chance to control reinforcers through their behavior.

And, in fact, she stated her belief that a lack of control for a parrot is a risk factor for feather damaging behavior. “Control is the nucleus of behavioral health.” This is one reason that Pam and I lobby so strongly for allowing indoor flight whenever possible for companion parrots.

Susan contrasted training theory held as gospel 20 years ago to the new concepts some trainers are learning to embrace today. Two decades ago, trainers believed that all behavior needed to be under cue control. In other words, the animal should not offer a behavior unless a cue had been given.

A more modern training approach offers the animal more control, in the form of start buttons and request cues. Training is seen as a dialogue between the trainer and the parrot.

This information was kind of a mind blower for me and I’m still digesting the information she shared.

Peggy Hogan
Peggy Hogan

Peggy Hogan presented on start buttons, otherwise known as “yes” or “consent” signals. These allow the animal to communicate when it is ready to proceed with the training task or behavior. Peggy is a zealous campaigner for using start buttons in our training, as this gives the animal control and establishes a dialogue between learner and teacher. Powerful stuff!

Discussions carried on while attendees were coached in working with the cockatoos and equines. Ann Dahlen brought her adorable (is there any other kind?) mini horses and generously allowed people to work with them. Violet, my donkey who easily shows fear reactions, nonetheless sought out any human who was willing to partner up. She’s learned over the last two years of living here that people mean good things. She’s trying hard to be braver each day and it’s paying off.

Flash and Bebe, the Bare-eyed parents, participated in their own way. They have continued to “ask” to go out flying each morning. When I let them out to fly, I seized the opportunity to show off their chick to the training group. The parents accommodated by flying up and away and out of sight. As I brought the chick out of the box she dazzled everyone with her cuteness! In the photo she is 21 days old.me, BBE 6_15_19

Once the parents were safely back in their aviary, it was easy to see that they were nonplussed by the ten or so people moving about during training sessions. Pam even went into the parents’ aviary at one point and Flash flew to his perch for a quick targeting session while Bebe manned, um, womanned, the nest box watching the action from the entrance hole. 

It was a weekend not to be forgotten anytime soon and we were all grateful for the extraordinary learning opportunity we received from Peggy and Susan.

Just For Fun

The free flyers are enjoying time at the creek at Cockatoo Downs. It’s always fascinating to me to watch their interactions with the environment.

 

In this case, I was sitting on the footbridge while the cockatoos explored the creek. The creek offered an opportunity to practice what comes naturally to a wild cockatoo and that is finding and drinking water. In this video clip the cockatoos learn that drinking water is not always in a bowl. What a concept!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Socializing Young Parrots

Why do young parrots need to be socialized? Aren’t they snuggly, compliant, and cooperative from the get-go? Unfortunately, they are not.

Parrots are only a generation or two away from their wild counterparts. They have not been altered by generations of domestication. They come to us fully packed with all the instincts, mental tools, and patterns of behavior that help them navigate and survive successfully in nature.

Typically, this exquisitely developed system for survival does not serve the parrot well in a home environment. Hence the practice of hand-raising parrot chicks, which tames them before they realize they are “wild”.

Hand-rearing assists in making parrots pliable and adaptable to living with people; but, is it the easiest and best way to accomplish this goal?

The Complexities of Hand-rearing

Possibly not, as the caretaker must know and understand a multitudinous number of important concerns and responsibilities such as: (1) Feeding a correct diet to the chick every few hours, (2) keeping its environment clean and at the correct temperature for comfort and optimal growth, (3) giving the chick appropriate physical attention, (4) allowing him to grow up with conspecifics, (5) providing unforced weaning, and (6) most crucially, allowing him to fledge fully and confidently.

There are scores of other details often not seen or even thought of when raising a parrot chick, with many of them overlooked, unrecognized, or just plain ignored by the caregiver.

As one example, we have evidence that the diet fed to wild chicks is significantly different than that which we use for hand-rearing in captivity. This raises important questions.

Wild vs. Captive Chick Feeding

Most parrot species in the wild feed chunks (an “undigested regurgitate”) of a wide variety of foods to their chicks. This is true no matter the age of the chick. (Cornejo, 2012) Contrast this with the unvaried “gruel” typically used for hand-feeding by breeders. Further, many parrots in the wild feed tree bark and small pieces of wood to their babies. As you will read below, our Bare-eyed parents at Cockatoo Downs choose to do so as well.

The fact that this “undigested regurgitate” remains in the crop for longer periods allows for crop sampling, which has resulted in the research cited herein. Crop contents have been compared to our standard hand-feeding formulas; with the latter coming up short in fat content and some nutrient levels. Further, hand-fed parrots grow more slowly than do parent-fed babies. (Cornejo, 2012)

A life-threatening problem with hand-reared chicks is crop stasis, in which the contents of the crop are not emptied. This may be due to the finely ground texture of hand-feeding formulas. (Brightsmith, et al. 2010) It has been hypothesized that the small pieces of wood and bark found in crop contents may assist in the emptying of the crop, in addition to providing additional minerals and fiber. (Renton, 2006)

But this isn’t a treatise on hand-rearing. I just wanted to emphasize the difficulties and complexities involved, as well as the questions that research has raised. Let’s move on to how it’s possible to form  partnerships with parent-raised “wild” youngsters by using positive reinforcement training (R+).

Relationships with Parent-Reared Chicks

We try our darnedest to use R+ training exclusively with all the cockatoos at Cockatoo Downs. Briefly, that means  when training or cuing a behavior, the bird is given a favorite food treat when the behavior is performed. Reinforcing a behavior with something the parrot likes makes it more likely that the action will be repeated.

For example, if my cockatoo steps up willingly and politely onto my hand, she gets a treat. If she is on a play stand minding her own business, she is reinforced with treats or activities for doing so. If she flies to me when called, she again gets a yummy food item or a quick head preen. Reinforcers in the form of food treats, head scritches, or anything the parrot likes are offered each and every time. The cockatoo sees me as the go-to source for all things good and chooses to readily perform the behaviors I request.

We set up our training environment in safe surroundings, limiting stress as best we can, and working in short sessions. We are mindful of an assortment of things: the training environment, the bird’s willingness to engage, and knowing when to continue training or to end the session. This list, along with an assortment of other components necessary for successful training sessions, creates a learner who is willing, motivated, and trusting.

The parent Bare-eyed cockatoos, Flash and Bebe (both parent-raised), grew up immersed in R+ training. This has made them trusting of me; and, this trust has generalized to other people, demonstrated by the fact that they are willing participants in working with attendees who come to our training workshops. My hope is that Flash and Bebe’s relaxed and engaged manner with me, Pam, and other people will influence positively their new chick’s behavior.

Because the cockatoo parents show little stress around us and actively seek our attention, their engaged behavior should transfer to the young fledgling and help her more easily adapt to our presence and eventually come to find people as sources of good things.*

What Do We Really Want in a Cockatoo?

Let’s start with a description of what a trained parent-raised cockatoo represents for me. First, I want the cockatoo to be independent and to grow up knowing she is a cockatoo. That’s easy to accomplish with parent- raising. She’ll obviously identify with her parents and not me.

Second, I want her to seek physical and emotional support from her cockatoo friends, not necessarily me. That may sound cold-hearted, as if I don’t really care about her.

On the contrary, I believe it’s healthy for a parrot to grow up identifying as a parrot, and learning appropriate parrot behavior. I celebrate that and want to keep her self-image intact, rather than have it replaced by the more typical image – a snuggly cockatoo, dependent on people to fulfill her life. In short, I celebrate my cockatoos being cockatoos.

Third, I desire my cockatoos to have basic manners and behaviors that make living with people conducive and successful. That means stepping up when asked, coming when called, learning to live in a cage, and learning to go into a travel crate. With these foundational skills accomplished, we can move on to learning other fun stuff like flying thru hoops!

Fourth, I want my cockatoo to engage with other people. I want her to seek out people and investigate what they have to offer her. I want her to be able to anticipate that strange people are cool animals, who most likely will have blue-ribbon goodies to give her.

Now, do I accomplish all of this in my training of parent-reared birds? Usually, yes, although it’s always a work in progress. Working with my parent-reared cockatoos is an ongoing learning experience for all of us, most especially me. 

Flying through Hoops at Cockatoo Downs

Early Stages for Training

The following outlines the training I anticipate doing with this new little one. I’m sure these steps will be modified as I go forward:

  • While the chick is still in the nest, I work with the parents on simple behaviors, such as targeting or turning around on the perch, while in the aviary. This keeps the parents engaged and maintains the partnership between us.
  • I feed the parents treats when I walk by the aviary, if they approach me at the feeding station.
  • When the chick first leaves the nest box to fledge, I will assess the parents’ behavior and actions, which will indicate to me whether or not to enter the aviary. I will respect their wishes if their body language says, “Do not enter.”
  • When I can enter the aviary to train, I will start by just handing the parents treats, while the fledgling watches.
  • The next step will be to work with the parents while moving closer to the fledgling as I do so.
  • Gradually, through small baby steps, we will work toward including the fledgling in our training.

Training requires awareness and mental flexibility, along with thoughtfulness and commitment. We want to work with the cockatoos, not against them. They call the shots.

What is so wonderful about working with parent-raised birds or even flighted parrots, is the sensitivity necessary for effective teaching. It requires us to stretch and grow our capabilities and offers us untold lessons. In the end, we become better observers, trainers, and appropriate partners to our parrots.

So what’s the easiest way to socialize a parrot chick? Turns out hand-rearing and parent-rearing can be equally challenging. In the end, it’s up to us to determine which is more humane and ethical for the parents and their chicks. I’ve chosen the path less traveled: parent-rearing cockatoos.

*Research has shown how stress can be transferred between members in a gull family.( https://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/6794)

The Latest News!

Flash and Bebe, like all of us in close relationships can, had a tiff a week ago. Bebe wanted to go into the nest box to brood the chick and, for whatever reason, Flash thought otherwise. He wouldn’t allow her near the box and would chase her around the aviary endlessly.  What to do? The only thing I could think of was to let them both out to free fly.

I can hear you gasp. Please know that Bebe and Flash have free flown at Cockatoo Downs almost daily for nine years. They know every bit of the territory. They realize the dangers and their flight skills are beyond reproach.

That said, I was more than a little nervous to let them out. My gut, though, was telling me Flash needed to work off energy that was somehow affecting his relationship with Bebe.

I knew they were both highly invested in their chick. I believed that allowing them out to fly would not in any way diminish their instincts to raise the little one. So, holding my breath, I opened the aviary door and out they zoomed.

The cantankerous pair I saw in the aviary instantly transformed into a well-oiled flying machine. They flew together closely and precisely circling the property. Every flight move was made in tandem in perfect coordination. There was no strife, no bickering. It was a beautiful thing to see.

10 Days Old

I took advantage of their absence to get my first peak into the nest box. Two eggs had been laid, but only one chick had hatched. Her full crop assured me that she is being well-cared for and comparison photos indicate a solid growth pattern.

15 Days Old, Eyes Opening and Crest Up!

After about forty-five minutes of flying and visiting their cockatoo neighbors, Flash and Bebe returned to their aviary. Bebe immediately went into the box and I soon heard the chick peeping loudly as she was being fed.  Flash sat calmly on a nearby perch preening. His angst and irritation had vanished and he was at peace with his world.

Another fascinating development: I have observed Flash and Bebe eating tree bark when out flying and then feeding this to their chick, just as wild parrots do (see section above). Since this seems to be an important need of theirs, I have begun bringing branches into their aviary for consumption.

Just For Fun

I went for a short bike ride up my road the other day. It was windy and pleasant. Rebbie, Tyke, and Ritzie were out with me. Reb loves to ride with me on my shoulder as I pedal along. The other two flew low next to me as Reb and I rode up the road.

I turned back for home, riding downhill and into the wind. Reb’s cheek feathers ruffled as he held on tight, leaning into the wind. The other two had perched on a fence post watching as we rode towards home. Reb soon figured that it would be easier to fly than hold on. Off he went, whooshing up into the wind while Tyke and Ritzie left their post to join him. What a sight to behold! I so look forward to having the new little Bare-eyed chick grow up and be able to experience all the excitement free flying has to offer her. And I look forward to sharing her adventures with her.

Cockatoo Downs… Location of Adventures in Living with Parrots

References:

Brightsmith, D, et al. (2010) Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 24(1):9–23, 2010 ’ 2010 by the Association of Avian Veterinarians. ” Nutritional Content of the Diets of Free-living Scarlet Macaw Chicks in Southeastern Peru”

Cornejo, Juan (2012). Doctoral dissertation for Texas A & M University: “Insights on Psittacine Nutrition through the Study of Free-living Chicks.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293175636_Insights_on_Psittacine_Nutrition_Through_the_Study_of_Free-Living_Chicks

Renton, K. (2006). Biotropica: The Scientific Journal of the ATBC. “Diet of Adult and Nestling Scarlet Macaws in Southwest Belize, Central America” https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-7429.2006.00123.x

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.

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!

New Beginnings

Dear Readers: For the next several months, this blog will be published every week. I am bringing to you an experience you can find no where else. Every other week, my friend Chris Shank will be sharing the extraordinary story of current events at her aviary, Cockatoo Downs, as a guest blogger. On the off weeks, I will be bringing you my own thoughts, as I have been for over a year now. The following is from Chris:

I was down by the creek, clearing some brush with my free flight companion, Tyke, a Bare-eyed Cockatoo. Ritzie, another Bare-eyed, was off on one of his many flight adventures. Tyke and I were among the trees so, when I heard Ritzie give repetitive contact calls from afar, I figured he didn’t know where we were.

I had him in my sights, though, and yelled out our recall cue. Immediately, he made a beeline towards the direction of my call. I watched as he swerved through the trees and made a soft landing on the creek bridge where Tyke and I were working. I marveled at his skills and willingness to respond to my call. You see, Ritzie is a parent-raised free flying cockatoo, unlike Tyke who was hand-raised.

Controversy: Hand-raising vs. Parent-Reared?

Current prevailing “wisdom” recommends that companion parrots destined for free flight must be hand-raised, thereby making it easier to create a stronger bond with their caretakers. This human-parrot bond, so the theory goes, is the foundation for achieving success at flying a parrot outdoors. Countering that theory, parent-raised Ritzie and his brother, Flash, have achieved masterful free flight skills and positive human-cockatoo relationships through positive reinforcement training alone. From that training a trusting partnership has developed between us.

These siblings were raised by their cockatoo parents through fledging. When Ritzie and Flash left the nest, they learned from their parents (who were also competent and confident outdoor flyers) what free flying was all about. While their parents taught them flight skills, I taught them people skills such as recalling to my hand, stepping up when cued, stationing on a perch, and touching a target stick.

We accomplished all of that and more. Now, nine years later, the brothers are consummate flyers and eager participants in training sessions, not only with me, but with people who come here to participate in our many training workshops. This proves to me that parrots need not be hand raised to become willing partners, learners and skilled free flyers.

In Honor of Asta

There’s a free flight project in the making at Cockatoo Downs and it’s all because of Asta, my Bare-eyed Cockatoo. You can see her in the masthead of this blog and in the photo below. She was a super free flyer along with being a best friend to me and her pal, Rebbie, a Philippine Cockatoo. I lost her due to cancer in April 2019.

Pam and I thought the best way to honor her memory and her incredible self was to add more magnificent Bare-eyes (is there any other kind?) to the flock. I’m sure she would approve. So here’s to you, Asta! Wish us luck.

The Project

Flash has paired up with another trained Bare-eyed Cockatoo free flyer, Bebe. Both birds were parent-reared. They are very bonded and are sure to make good parents. I will be journaling the progress of this cockatoo couple from their nest box preparations to brooding, to raising their chicks, to watching them fledge, and onwards through training and flying outside. I’ll be sharing this sure-to-be fascinating  journey with you as it progresses.

The Aviary

Bebe and Flash live in a spacious 20 ft. x 40 ft. outdoor aviary. The aviary is planted in grass and has a variety of plants growing seasonally, on which the birds regularly forage. The aviary is connected to the bird barn. A window in the barn wall allows the cockatoos to enter and exit their indoor barn cage (which is 10 ft. by 10 ft.) where their food and water are kept.

The Nestbox

The nest box is made of plywood and was erected on April 18. It’s anchored securely on the barn wall at the back of the aviary. The access hole was purposely kept small to allow the birds to enlarge the hole themselves. In the box, I placed medium-sized chunks of wood for them to chew up, rearrange, or simply toss out the hole. All of this remodeling gets them into breeding mode and facilitates a team effort. Both birds worked on the access hole either together or separately; and, after three days they were able to enter the box.

Brooding

I have purposely chosen not to look in the nest box at any time so as not to disturb the couple. After about a week after entering the box, I saw signs that eggs had been laid. Now, there was always one bird in the box while the other was outside. I also observed another clue. When Bebe emerged from the box and came to the front of the aviary for a treat, I noticed there was a small bare brood patch in the middle of her chest. Flash had one also. If my calculations are correct, eggs should be hatching the week of May 20.

Training

At Cockatoo Downs we practice positive reinforcement and force-free training. I have worked with Bebe and Flash throughout their lives. Training is not on a schedule, but I do try to work with them a couple of times a week either in their aviary or while they are out flying. In their aviary, I have perches set up where they have learned to station, target, and recall to me. They have also readily worked for Pam and people who come to our training events.

Because Bebe and Flash are willing and enthusiastic participants in their training, they will be excellent role models for their youngsters. The newly fledged little ones should find nothing bizarre about this strange looking creature (me) working with their parents. My hope is that they will participate as well.

Going Forward

I am grateful to Pam for allowing me to share the adventures of our new free flight family. If the stars align the way they should, there will be chicks to write about in the next episode. I can hardly wait to hear the soft peep, peep, peeping coming from the nest box. Stay tuned!

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 began with a wild little budgie named Tampiki. Chris’ natural talents at training created over time a trusting relationship with what she calls that “tiny puff of turquoise feathers.” Years later, Chris graduated from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California. Her internship was done at Busch Gardens where she became part of the parrot show. She next worked as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara. From there, she continued her work with dolphins in Hasslock, 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.