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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a bit of a follow-up to my last post, Avoiding Aggression with Start Buttons, because I think there is more to be said about aggression in parrots. Prevention is truly the key and there is one other important step to avoiding this problem. I mentioned it briefly in my previous post, but it deserves more focus. That is the need to say “thank you.”
Biting problems, once they develop, can be resolved. But remember this: A behavior that an animal exhibits can only be suppressed through behavior modification efforts. It cannot be completely eradicated from the bird’s “behavior repertoire.” Thus, a bird who used to bite can always begin again if the social and environmental circumstances support the reemergence of that behavior.
Because of this, we need to center our attention on preventing aggression in the first place. Biting parrots aren’t a lot of fun to live with; I don’t know anyone who loves the thrill of never knowing when the beak might strike next. Plus, aggressive parrots often lose their homes. We need to help each other learn how to live with our parrots respectfully, so that the problem never develops in the first place.
This simple goal is easier said than done. Using start buttons to clarify communication and being mindful to pay attention to body language will both go a long way to preventing a biting problem. However, there is an even more essential ingredient to our social relationships with our birds. It is vital that we remember to say “thank you” to them when they comply with a request.
The Importance of Concepts and Language
Let’s deviate and talk for a minute about the language we use when we talk about training parrots. When discussing behavior, I often bring in comparisons from the dog and horse training worlds and will do so here as well. I have two reasons.
First, behavior is behavior is behavior. What does that mean? It means that the same behavioral principles apply to the training (teaching) of all species. The most effective methods for training dogs aren’t any different than the most effective methods for training birds. There is a science of behavior that has been in existence for a century now. That’s a whole lot of data on how behavior works that we have at our fingertips.
Second, the training concepts and language used in dog or horse training tend to infiltrate conversations about parrot training. A person who took their puppy to obedience school learned certain concepts from the individual conducting the classes. Many of those concepts might not be valid, depending upon the education and experience of the class leader. Many popular dog training practices are rooted neither in scientific theory, nor ethics.
They are nothing more than concepts. A concept is “an abstract idea or general notion.” It is not a proven fact or reality. Nevertheless, many of these concepts are pervasive and extremely resistant to break-down. Language reflects concepts, so let’s take a brief look at some of that. Why? Because the concepts we hold to be true and the language that lives in our heads can inform our own attitudes when we aren’t paying attention.
Is It a Command or a Request?
It is still most common for people to use the word command when it comes to describing a training cue. I would like for all of us to get this right. When we ask a parrot to do something, it is NOT a command. It is a request, a cue.
We don’t actually have the ability to command a parrot to do anything. A parrot’s beak puts him on pretty equal footing with us when it comes to that. The word command means to “give an authoritative order.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been successful in giving an authoritative order to any of my parrots. So, let’s call it what it is. Words matter. When we ask a parrot to do something, we are giving a cue…not a command. It is a request – nothing more.
Courtesy or Dominance? Your Choice.
It’s not any different than when we make a request of a family member. We usually get the best results if we preface it with “Would you please….” Most of us then make sure to remember to express gratitude for the favor done by at least saying “Thank you.” If a stranger holds a door open for us, we say “Thank you.” If the UPS driver hands us a package, we say “Thank you.” These good manners are deeply ingrained in us because we have been taught to be courteous. Why should we be any less courteous with our animals?
I think it has been different in our animal-human relationships because of that ever-lurking idea that we must have dominance over them. But it should not remain so. Our goal has to be that of building reliable, cooperative behavior. It’s hard enough living with parrots if we can’t get them to cooperate or if we get bitten every time we try. It’s time to cast aside invalid notions and focus on what works.
Crazy Thinking Gets in the Way of Effectiveness
Let’s go back to the idea of saying “thank you” to our parrots. This is also an area where language and concepts born in the dog training world infiltrate our own parrot community. Specifically, there is much confusion about the use of positive reinforcement and training “treats.”
A quick Google search brought me face to face once again with some of these invalid ideas. One website states that using food treats could foster dependence in an animal. “If you use treats, and only treats as a reward, it may happen that your pup always wants a tasty reward for a job well done or an acceptable behavior.”
What is wrong with that? Expecting a reward doesn’t mean that the dog won’t perform the behavior. It just means that he’s a bit disappointed when the treat doesn’t appear.
In reality, there is nothing wrong with an animal expecting a “thank you” in those circumstances. Moreover, just because he expects a treat doesn’t mean that we have to deliver one every time. Usually, it is best to reinforce every time, but there can be valid reasons reasons for not doing so. An example would be if you are putting the behavior on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.
This same website warns readers to always also provide positive reinforcement through the use of affection and praise. That’s fine, but only if the dog is motivated to earn praise and affection. Most parrots couldn’t care less about praise and if you have a parrot who bites, I wouldn’t recommend using affection as your primary reinforcer.
A last caution raises the issue that the trainer might not demand respect if relying solely on using training treats. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. You can’t demand respect, even from dogs.
Teaching New Behaviors is Good
Most of my blog topics arise out of conversations that I have had recently with people. I’ve had a lot of them lately that have to do with training. Most people I talk to balk at the idea, envisioning the need to set aside a block of time each day in their already-busy schedule to teach specific behaviors.
That type of training is wonderful and there are a great many benefits. Teaching new behaviors creates greater trust between parrot and owner. It increases the bird’s quality of life. It frequently causes the owner to appreciate the bird in a whole new way. The bird becomes easier to care for. Having regular training sessions can help to resolve some problem behaviors. Training improves communication between us and the animal. Pursuing training teaches us to be more observant.
Daily Habit Training Is Better
However, an even more important type of training takes place on a daily basis, whether you are cognizant of it or not. Parrots are always learning. Every single interaction you have with your bird is a learning moment for him. This means that you are constantly teaching, whether you choose to be aware of this or not. The truth: You get the behavior you reinforce, not the behavior you want.
The need to pursue training of any sort is a relatively new idea in our “parrot world.” Some have embraced this enthusiastically, posting video after video of parrots with impressive skills. But for most, it is still not a common practice to use positive reinforcement on a daily basis throughout the flow of life with our birds.
The Gist of Positive Reinforcement
So, here we are again – talking about the use of positive reinforcement. Those words may sound like mumbo jumbo to some. So, let’s break that concept down. Here are the steps to using positive reinforcement (making a request and saying “thank you”):
Know your parrot and what he wants most – whether that is a food treat, head scratches, or a bottle cap to play with.
Ask him to perform a behavior, such as stepping up, going back into the cage, or stepping down onto a perch. (The Request.)
Immediately give him the item he wants, if he performs the behavior as asked (or close enough). (The Thank You.)
When you follow this pattern in your interactions with your parrots, you will find that the thank you guarantees the please. Your parrot will begin to respond willingly to your cues because he has learned that you will always say “thank you.”
This is an oversimplification of the process, but is not inaccurate. This type of training is simple – as simple as it gets. These types of interactions occur regularly throughout our days. We are already using reinforcement with our parrots. The key is to be cognizant of what behaviors we are reinforcing and when we are doing so.
Great! One More Thing I Now Have To Do….
How many of you are now groaning, thinking, “Great…one more thing I have to remember to do!”? I sympathize. It took me the longest time just to remember to put a handful of sunflower seeds into a pocket in the morning, so that I would be prepared when those moments arose to deliver some well-timed reinforcement. Truly, the hardest part of all this is getting into the habit.
Make It a Habit
I have a pattern of living in my head, rather than being present in the moment. When I live in my head, I forget stuff. I’m working on this.
One trick I have learned is habit stacking. Habit stacking is a trick for developing new habits by linking them to existing ones. For example, if you make coffee in the morning, you might put the jar of sunflower seeds next to the coffee maker. That will serve as a visual cue to you to put some into your pocket. Saying “thank you” effectively throughout the day means that you need reinforcers close at hand. By using this trick, I soon remembered to put sunflower seeds and/or nut pieces in my pockets in the morning.
This practice, however, did not help me to remember to actually use them to reward my parrots’ good behavior. For that, I needed punishment, which appeared in the form of my dismay when they all fell out onto the floor at night when I undressed. The experience of sweeping up sunflower seeds off my bathroom floor every evening soon helped me to be cognizant of the fact that they were in my pocket. That, in turn, led to my using them throughout the day. Granted, I can be a slow learner, but perhaps you can relate.
When you teach your bird to do things, or work to strengthen behaviors that are already in place, by using positive reinforcement, you are simply remembering to say thank you. If you use those simple steps on a daily basis, you will have an agreeable parrot who complies with your requests and never learns to bite…because he doesn’t have to.
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, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!
I wonder how many of you are familiar with the LIMA Hierarchy? LIMA stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” I am a LIMA behavior consultant, which means that I will always use the behavior change strategies that are least intrusive and minimally aversive with working with you and your parrot.
If a client wants to teach his parrot to step onto his hand, we have a choice between the use of positive or negative reinforcement. He can offer a valued item to “reward” the behavior when it occurs (positive reinforcement) or he could hold an aversive item near the bird to encourage him to get onto the hand and then withdraw it when he does (negative reinforcement).
Both tactics will accomplish the goal, but one is preferable to the other. The use of positive reinforcement improves the parrot’s quality of life and builds trust. As a result, the parrot often voluntarily exceeds the effort necessary to perform the task. The use of negative reinforcement can both break trust and cause unnecessary and detrimental stress to the parrot. The obvious and best choice is to use positive reinforcement to teach or strengthen behaviors.
The LIMA Hierarchy
The LIMA Hierarchy is also known as the Humane Hierarchy, and provides an ethical structure for behavior consultants and others (that’s you) when it comes to selecting training and behavior modification tactics. As the illustration below suggests, the very first step when attempting to change behavior is to examine conditions that support the parrot’s wellness.
Poor diet, unmet or inappropriately met social needs, and other poor practices or limitations in the environment will set the stage for behavior problems to develop. In other words, if the parrot is not getting his primary needs met, he will be more likely to display problem behavior. (Please note that “getting his needs met” does not equate with “getting what he wants.”) Conversely, if these areas are not corrected, reversing problem behavior will be either more difficult or impossible.
Thus the first step when solving behavior problems, consistent with both the LIMA Hierarchy and simple good sense, is to examine the diet and environment and make changes that will create wellness, increase quality of life, and support improved behavior.
Deal Breakers in Parrot Care
I have come to think of some environmental conditions as “deal breakers.” My definition of a deal breaker in this instance refers to environmental conditions that are so detrimental to the parrot’s welfare that, should they continue, they make resolution of the behavior problem either extremely difficult or impossible.
For example, feeding a high fat, high carbohydrate diet is often a deal breaker. If the parrot is so full of fatty foods that he isn’t motivated to work for reinforcers, new behaviors can’t easily be taught. Further, a high-fat diet produces more energy for the parrot, which often is channeled into increased noise and aggression. Therefore, if the diet is not improved, behavior change becomes unlikely and malnutrition will be the continued result.
Another deal breaker can be excessive daily cage time. I am convinced that caged birds need at least three to four hours out of the cage each day, and that this needs to be broken into two sessions. If a parrot receives less time out than this, the pent-up energy and boredom that result will, at the very least, be reflected in increased noise, and at the worst, cause the development of stereotypical behaviors. Thus, this problem must be corrected before we can effectively implement behavior change strategies.
Bird Rooms Can Be Deal Breakers
This brings me to the topic of the bird room. Bird rooms have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. In fact, I was gob smacked when I searched online using the phrase. Pinterest, apparently, is the home of all good bird room ideas. Make some popcorn! You could spend an entire day there and still not read it all. The only point not discussed is their unsuitability for the parrots who live in them.
A bird room can obviously be a huge benefit to owners
because they help to contain the noise and the mess. When company arrives, you
can shut the door to the bird room and socialize in peace. That closed door
also hides the poop you didn’t get cleaned off the floor, the papers that your
grey just pulled out of the cage onto the floor, the sweet potatoes on the
wall, and the chewed woodwork. In other words, a bird room allows you to appear
a bit saner to your friends who are inclined to visit.
But, does your bird room meet your parrot’s needs? Before I go further, allow me to provide one caveat. There are bird rooms and there are Bird Rooms. I have seen entire rooms designed for the parrot’s enriched existence in mind, with perches running the entire length of the room and lots to do and chew. The parrots get to be out of their cages all day in this type of bird room. There is usually also a comfortable spot for the owners, making it their room as well. This type of indoor aviary stands a much better chance of meeting the birds’ needs and doesnot factor into the discussion that follows.
For the purpose of this post, the definition of a bird room is a bedroom or office that contains the cages for all the birds in the household and little else. It is the room where the birds stay in their cages most of the time. A bird room like this often sets the stage for the development of behavior problems and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve them. The following discussion outlines the problems I see with this more typical type of bird room.
Disadvantages of Bird Rooms
Decreased Quality of Life: Many studies have concluded that one criterion for good quality of life for captive animals (this includes your companion parrots) is to afford the animal control over its environment. (Wolfensohn, S. et al 2018 ) This manifests within the practice of giving the parrot as many choices as possible. The typical arrangement for birds who live in bird rooms is to provide playstands for the birds in the common area; when the birds get to be out of the room, they perch on these stands.
However, most playstands offer
little to do for the parrot. Most don’t even have toy holders. When the birds
do get to join their owners for some social time, it is most often to perch in
one place only.
Environment matters a lot to birds. They thrive when their “home” is placed in our living area. It’s important for them to be able to behave socially in a normal (or as close to normal as we can support) manner when living in our homes. Clipping wings cripples them from behaving normally in a social manner. Confining all movements to a simple playstand when out of the bird room, adds to this “invisible confinement.”
Increased Physical and Emotional Isolation: Keeping parrots in a bird room cannot possibly result in anything less than increased isolation. We may entertain the goal of getting the birds out into the living area to visit twice a day, but this plan often gets put on hold during the busier times of the year. While some household parrots bond strongly to each other, most do not. They enjoy the presence of the other birds in the home, but their primary bonds remain to us. This artificial separation, then, increases the stress already inherent in living in captivity.
Increased Stress: I think of parrots, even the smaller species, as having large personalities. Large personalities result in a sense of territory. If you watch a group of parrots who are able to be at liberty all day, you will see that they keep their distance from each other most of the time, even if they are the same species. They interact socially, but don’t perch side by side unless they share a pair bond.
My own experience has convinced me that cages for medium to large parrots should be no closer than four or five feet from each other. This allows each parrot to have their own “sense of territory” and reduces the stress that parrots feel when crammed in next to each other in a single room. When cages are closer, you will often see hyper-excitable behavior and increased “territorial” aggression in parrots who live full-time in a bird room.
Increased Frequency of Undesirable Behavior: When our birds are located in a bird room, you wind up in the position of more frequently reinforcing problem behavior. If you hear a blood-curdling scream, you don’t have the advantage of being able to see that this jungle sound was the result of playing with a bell. Instead, you have no choice but to dash in there to see who’s been injured. Since the birds live in relative isolation, your entrance can be a powerful reinforcer. When you show up as a result of noise, you are teaching your bird room birds to scream.
Amplification of Reproductive Hormones: I have no proof for this next statement, so you will just have to take my word for it. Having a number of parrots in a bird room can amplify the impact of reproductive hormones in a phenomenon similar to contagion. It’s much the same thing as happens when you have to hospitalize an angry cat in a veterinary clinic. You may have three nice cats in the clinic. When you add the one angry cat, guess what? You now have four pissed off cats with which to deal.
Beyond that, I also believe that one trigger for the production of reproductive hormones is a degree of “sameness” to the environment. If you want a budgie to stop her chronic egg-laying, one useful (albeit inconvenient) strategy is to move the cage into a different room of the house every day. If you want to decrease hormone production in a larger parrot, you will see the reflective behavior decrease when you offer more exposure to new situations – trips out of the house, an outdoor aviary, etc. If you want a bunch of really “hormonal” parrots, keep them in a bird room 24/7.
Less Available Enrichment: While we remain relatively unaware of this, our own movements and behavior provide a good deal of entertainment to our parrots. They enjoy watching and predicting our behavior and looking for opportunities to interact with us. They are deprived of all this enrichment when they remain in a bird room. Their bird room life also allows us to remain out of touch with their need for enrichment, as well as their reaction to enrichment.
Less Passive Flock Bonding: A study of parrot behavior reveals that they use body language as a way to solidify alliances. Bonded parrots will preen each other’s heads, feed each other in a form of social duet, and mirror each others movements.
A group of parrots lacking pair bonds still use body language and behavior to solidify looser flock bonds through the performance of parallel activities. They will all preen at the same time, roost as one, or forage together as soon as a meal has been delivered. These more subtle behaviors may seem insignificant to us, but they are extremely important to quality of life and a sense of security for our birds.
Due to their amazing adaptability, they include us in these activities when they are able to do so, while we might not even notice. They may go to the food dish when we sit down to eat. A parrot may choose to roost when we sit down to read a book. Many parrots preen when allowed to accompany their human into the bathroom for the morning routine. Parrots in bird rooms are deprived of this vital manner of creating connection.
Inability to Resolve Behavior Problems: As detrimental as the combination of all these factors can be, the worst thing about bird rooms from my perspective as a consultant is the difficulty of resolving behavior problems. If your birds live most of the time in a bird room, you have a greatly diminished ability to influence their behavior.
To successfully resolve a behavior problem, you must take a constructional approach. This means that you must build (teach) other behaviors at the same time that you work to remove any reinforcement that might be present for undesirable behavior.
For example, if you want to solve a screaming problem, you can’t just ignore the problem noise. No one ever solved this problem simply by ignoring it. Instead, you must teach the bird to make pleasant sounds instead, through the use of positive reinforcement. If you want to solve a biting problem, you do have to modify your own behavior that results in the biting, but you also have to use positive reinforcement to re-establish a mutually trusting handling relationship.
Well guess what? You can’t change behavior that you can’t see. Thus, if your birds stay most of the time in the bird room, it is this reality that likely contributed to the development of the problem in the first place and will delay or make impossible its resolution.
Author and meditation expert Sharon Salzberg once said, “We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us – vs. – them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations.”
It struck me, when I found this a few days ago, that it applies exceptionally well to the topic at hand. If we can learn to practice fierce compassion towards our parrots, then we will develop greater appreciation for their unique qualities – flight and their distinctive social nature. Should we do so, we must then deconstruct practices that create isolation or deny freedom of movement for our birds. We must find a way to establish community with them in our homes in a manner that does not physically isolate them.
Doing so will, as the quote implies, lead to difficult situations. No matter. We have tools. We can use training and antecedent arrangement to solve these minor issues, rather than relying on practices that enforce that us vs. them approach to parrot keeping.
I agree with avian veterinarian Anthony Pilny that we need a new captive parrot paradigm. If you don’t like living with parrots, then why have them? If you do like living with parrots, then why have a bird room?
I would love to hear your comments. I’m sure this post has been unsettling for more than a few of you and perhaps upsetting to some. Please understand that I mean no judgment. However, some of the conditions under which companion parrots live make my heart hurt. It truly is time to examine the care-giving practices established in the 20th century and create together that new captive bird paradigm.
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, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!
Photo Credit: Featured image photo is by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash.com
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. IAABC Position Statement on LIMA.
Wolfensohn, S., Shotton, J., Bowley, H., Davies, S., Thompson, S., & Justice, W. (2018). Assessment of Welfare in Zoo Animals: Towards Optimum Quality of Life. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 8(7), 110. https://doi:10.3390/ani8070110
By making simple changes to the environment, you can often accomplish amazing improvements in problem behaviors. When referring to environment, social exchanges are included in the discussion, as well as the physical habitat and diet. You are part of your birds’ environment. The term includes anything and everything present in the environment that can impact the parrot’s behavior.
Environment Changes = Antecedent Changes
The natural science of learning and behavior is over a century old. By studying how behavior “works,” we have discovered very positive and humane ways in which to change it. One of the best relies upon making changes to the bird’s environment. In the science of applied behavior analysis, these types of changes are referred to as antecedent changes.
Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior morelikely. They are essential to “setting the parrot up for success,” when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing ones. Antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform. Essentially, they can be thought of as simply the management of behavior.
The huge value of positive reinforcement training (which includes clicker training) is now more commonly recognized and understood as one of the best ways to improve an animal’s behavior, as well as to teach new ones. However, antecedent changes are equally useful and can serve as stand-alone interventions. When you couple skillful arrangement of antecedents with the use of positive reinforcement, there are few limits to what you can achieve.
Ethics of Behavior Change
Antecedent changes are one of the most positive, least intrusive ways to change behavior. They often increase quality of life for the bird, in addition to making the owner’s life easier. They help to build a more trusting owner-parrot relationship.
This is important. When dealing with our parrots’ behavior, we must do so in an ethical manner. There is no room for forceful intervention, such as the frequently recommended advice to restrain a parrot until he stops resisting. For any who would like to delve further into the ethics of behavior change, please read the article by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. titled What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not Enough.
What Behaviors Can Be Managed?
The first key to using this behavior management strategy is to begin answering for yourself these questions:
What might make it easier (or more likely) for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
What might make it less likely that my bird will perform the problem behavior?
Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?
When we choose to live with very intelligent, sentient animals like parrots, we must be problem-solvers. Making use of antecedent (environment) changes helps greatly. This type of behavior modification also makes life easier for us. We don’t have to get caught up in telling ourselves stories about how the parrot feels or what he wants. We just make simple changes, then evaluate the resulting behavior. If not effective, we try another possible change.
The following are some real life examples of how well this type of strategy can work. I’ve used common problems voiced frequently by clients, as well as those from my own life with birds. These are organized according to the suggested questions above.
What might make it easier for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
Example #1: A Meyer’s parrot sustained an injury, received medical treatment and pain medication and was back at home, but losing weight. His owner, when home, observed him readily climbing down lower in his cage to access his food dish. Thus, pain (causing a reluctance to move) did not at first appear to account for the weight loss.
I suggested the possibility that he might not be as motivated to climb downward in her absence (a different environment). He would not have the stimulation of her presence to energize him, nor the distraction of her presence that might allow him to disregard his discomfort.
Antecedent Change: We moved the food dishes up right by his favorite perch and he regained the weight he had lost. We have no way of knowing whether this particular change, some other factor, or all changes combined, caused him to gain weight again. However, I offer this example to make you think. Parrots often behave differently when you are not at home.
Example #2: A similar example concerns the challenge many small birds pose when we try to improve their diet from a seed mix to formulated foods. Cages sold for these species always have the food dishes located down near the bottom of the cage. This means that getting to the food requires effort for the bird.
Antecedent Change: Place the new foods into additional dishes right up by the perch the bird uses most, leaving the seed mix in the dish down low. This is an example of decreasing the response effort. We make it easier for the bird to eat the new food because doing so requires less effort than does climbing down to the bottom of the cage.
Example #3: Many parrots do not readily interact with enrichment or consume fresh vegetables or fruit. These activities can be encouraged through their skillful placement. As the photo shows, placing a chuck of fresh food in a novel place often encourages consumption more quickly than simply leaving it in the food dish. I increased my own parrots’ consumption of pellets by offering them on play stands, in addition to their cages.
When placing enrichment, stand back and evaluate how the parrot uses his cage. I see cages with toys on the floor or in the lower third of the cage (where parrots usually don’t spend much time). I see toys in spots where it would take a great deal of effort for the bird to use them. I see toys that are completely inappropriate to the bird’s size, rendering interaction impossible.
Antecedent Changes: (1) Place the toy at a spot in the cage where the bird spends most of his time. Make sure that he can access it easily from that perch. (2) Hang it from the ceiling of the cage at beak level. It takes more effort for a parrot to bend over to interact with enrichment. (3) Place it where it’s not likely to bang into any part of his body when he turns around. (4) If it’s wood to chew, make sure that it isn’t too hard or too thick for him. (5) Use the information you have from previous behavior to inform your choice about what you provide. For example, if he chews up your junk mail when you leave it around, try a first toy made out of paper.
Example #4: Many clients complain that their parrot isn’t motivated to earn treats (preferred foods) when they attempt training.
Antecedent Changes: (1) Increase the value of the food treats you are using by only offering them when training and at no other time. (2) Try training right before a meal when motivation might be higher. (3) Eliminate any distractions, like other people or animals, in the training environment that might make your parrot less likely to focus.
What might make it less likely that my bird will perform a problem behavior in a particular set of circumstances?
Example #1: I once had a quaker parakeet who was fiercely “territorial” around his cage – meaning that I had a hard time interacting with him or changing out food dishes when he was near his cage because he would bite with ferocity. Luckily, he had a good recall and would fly to my hand whenever called.
Antecedent Change: Rather than trying to service his cage or asking him to step up when he was there, I instead would open his cage door, step back, cue him to fly to me, and put him on a play stand, which allowed me to interact with him easily or to service his cage while he was on the stand.
Example #2: One of my greys takes great pleasure in testing gravity by throwing my pots and pans down from my pot rack. She is also a genius when it comes to finding her way into my kitchen cupboards when I am not looking. A normally patient person, these behaviors turns me into a crazy woman. (I came inside recently, after taking my dog for a brief walk, to find my kitchen counter and floor covered with a mixture of baking soda, cocoa powder, ramen noodles and soy sauce.)
Antecedent Change: The most obvious and simplest change would be just to store my cook pots in a cupboard, preventing that problem entirely. However, I live in a teeny, tiny house with little storage space. So, I recently found a way to use different hooks that make it harder for her to enjoy that type of fun. To resolve the second issue, I installed child proof locks on my cupboards. Scolding her for either behavior would have only rewarded her by giving her social attention. Often, preventing problem behavior is the very best solution.
Example #3: A frequently voiced problem is that of the parrot who bites when you try to change out food bowls. I used to live with a Blue and Gold macaw who was like a rocket, charging through his food dish openings in an attempt to get to me, when I tried to feed him from the outside of his cage.
Antecedent Change: I solved that problem by offering a large treat very near a high perch on the opposite side of the cage. Anyone can do this. Place a second bowl up higher in the cage. When you are ready to change out dishes, place a valued food (that will take a minute or two to eat) in there. This will lure the parrot up to that dish, leaving you safe to accomplish your task. By repeating this every time you feed, you will soon have a parrot who stations while you feed.
Example #4: A client complained that her parrot would snatch her stud earrings out of her ears when she was holding him.
Antecedent Change: Take off the earrings before you hold your bird.
Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?
Example #1: Many parrots step up readily when perched at chest height, but are more reluctant when perched over the owner’s head. One cause can be that parrots, by nature, are much more comfortable stepping upward and forward, rather than downward.
Antecedent Change: Slowly get up on a step stool in a manner that doesn’t frighten the parrot and then ask him to step upward onto your hand. He will be much more likely to do so.
Example #2: Another of my greys occasionally chooses to perch around the house at spots down a bit lower, like the top of my step stool or the door to the dog crate. He often solicits head scratches from me while there, but I have learned he is a lot more likely to deliver the “Congo Grey Sucker Bite” when I am taken in by this “false” invitation. He never does that when he is perched up higher. Note: I don’t have to figure out why he displays this odd difference in behavior in certain spots in order to solve the problem.
Antecedent Change: I ignore his solicitations to pet his head when he is perched lower on one of these spots. (I don’t want him there anyway so should not reward that behavior.) Instead, I readily provide head pets when he is on his cage or a play stand and more likely to be a gentleman.
Example #3: A client complained recently that her parrot would vocalize obnoxiously non-stop when she worked in the kitchen, even though he could easily see her from his cage.
Antecedent Change: Put a table top perch in the kitchen and bring him in to supervise. They can socialize a bit and she can take that opportunity also to offer fresh vegetables as a snack. This simple change caused her to pronounce me “a genius.” We can all be geniuses if we learn to think in this manner.
Example #4: A cockatoo, pair-bonded to the woman in the home, bites anyone who tries to sit on the couch with her when he is near.
Antecedent Change: Keep the bird in his cage or on a nearby perch when you are sitting on the sofa.
Managing behavior by making antecedent changes is really just a matter of using common sense and brainstorming. First, identify and describe in detail the behavior you want to change (increase or decrease). Then, brainstorm as many environmental modifications (antecedent changes) as you can think of that might create the change you desire, even if some seem pretty silly or unlikely to work.
Next, try first using the one you think most likely to work. After a few days, step back and evaluate. Have you solved the problem? If not, go on to try the next most likely.
Some solutions are so effective and simple, they might appear suspect. For example, if a parrot bites or chews on your clothes when on your shoulder, simply deny him this privilege. One small change solves the problem with little effort.
In other situations, finding a solution can take many attempts. I have a client in Jordan with a mechanically inclined cockatoo who delights in leaving his cage to take the top panel off of the radiator. We have worked hard to teach stationing, but the radiator fun apparently is very reinforcing to him and resistant to change. Obviously, that training needs to be continued, but due to the possible danger, we also tried some antecedent changes.
We put a blanket over it when not in use. He moved the blanket. We tried putting an object on top that he hadn’t seen before, thinking that might make him less likely to go over to that side of the room. He didn’t care. We are left with the only option possible – to use additional hardware to screw the top in place and prevent the behavior completely.
Parrots are a joy and a challenge. Managing their behavior can press us to our limits. However, doing so can be a lot easier than you imagine. You can learn to do this!
Make first and frequent use of antecedent changes. Once you have the knack of arranging the environment to get the behavior you want, go on and learn how to use positive reinforcement to maintain desirable behaviors and teach new ones.
Don’t blame your parrots for being “difficult!” Instead, have some fun trying to create behavior changes. When you do, always remember to be kind. You can use what you learn on partners and children too!
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!
Resource and Suggested Reading List (these are not parrot-specific because the same rules for behavior change are the same for all species):
Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (revised edition, 2006)
Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots by Barbara Heidenreich (2012)