10 Tips for Relationships with Parrots

It has occurred to me that this blog post could turn out to be just a piece of self-indulgent fluff. However, the topic fascinates me. How do we best craft long-term relationships with our birds? So, I ask for your patience as I sort out my thoughts and I will leave it to you to be the final judge of its worth.

Recently, I asked someone whether it might be possible that they had fallen out of relationship with their parrot. Photo by Tavis Beck on UnsplashI’ve never asked anyone that before, and the question just popped out. It derived from an intuitive sense about what might be going on. My friend, an excellent caregiver whom I have known for years, just hadn’t been aware of what was really going on with his parrot. The bird had been startling and falling more often, but this had gone unnoticed until it created a wound.

It would make sense, wouldn’t it, if we did fall out of relationship with our parrots from time to time? Our relationships with people we love certainly go through ups and downs if they last for any period of time.  We aren’t always kind and loving; at times we may fall into a state of disconnect. Obligations, guilt, and the needs of others can become overwhelming at times, generating the need to create some emotional distance.

Why should it be any different with our parrots?  They live a long time, affording the opportunity to have a relationship that spans decades. They are socially sophisticated and have a deep sensitivity to us and our moods. They are emotional and intelligent, as are we.

I find it very odd that, in conversation with each other, we don’t seem to focus ever on the quality of our relationships with our birds. Do we even recognize that we have a relationship with each parrot? manfred-goetz-522979-unsplash Do we instead have a tendency to objectify them?

When I read comments online about parrots, I see plenty of labels like “cute,” “needy,” cuddly,” “sweet,” “aggressive,” “nippy,” etc. But I rarely hear anyone talk about their relationship with their birds. That is good cause for concern because relationship difficulties often evolve into behavior problems over time.

Everyone agrees that relationships take work. Relationships with parrots certainly take work. Despite all of their good qualities, parrots don’t appear to exhibit much gratitude or awareness about all the work we put in to keep them well-fed and healthy in a clean, enriched environment.  Not a one of my parrots has ever said “thank you” as I cleaned sweet potato off of the wall or “I’m sorry” as I scraped the bottom of my shoe off after having stepped on a piece of fresh pear. Beyond that, they apparently lack any awareness of the need to be nice. They are, to a one, incredibly unapologetic.

If I look back at my own life with birds which spans four decades now, I can easily identify periods when I was not as motivated to provide enrichment, got lazy about diet, and was not much inclined to provide behavioral guidance. I often surfaced from these times after attendance at a good parrot-related conference or a workshop with Barbara Heidenreich, once again motivated and re-energized.

My conclusion is that it’s normal for us to fall out of relationships emotionally with those we love from time to time, those with our birds included. Given that, the question becomes: How can we form the very best relationships with our birds and prevent them from falling apart?

Photo by Ruth Caron on UnsplashWhen we take a new parrot into our homes, we should be forming a relationship by looking to the future and imagining what we want that to look like, just as we would with a small child we had adopted. I don’t think we do that. Evidence to support this would come from the number of parrots relinquished daily to second, third or fourth homes. If the number of parrots living in rescue and adoption organizations like The Gabriel Foundation or Phoenix Landing is any evidence, we don’t put much thought into this at all.

It’s quite popular these days to refer to our birds and other pets as “family members.”  However, saying so doesn’t make it so.

I think most of us fall into relationship with parrots in the same way we form them with dogs and cats. Aside from their daily care, we interact with them physically by holding and petting them. It is soothing for us to have a well-loved cat or dog on a lap or right beside us and we have promoted parrots to a place alongside them, keeping them on shoulders much of the time. All of that physical contact meets our needs for love and companionship, but does it meet our birds’ needs?

Photo by sk on UnsplashParrots are not yet domesticated, as are our mammal friends we keep as pets. Their needs are diverse and complicated – so much so that we still don’t know exactly what they are. Much of their behavior is rooted in instinct. When that peach-colored head rests on your chest does it mean that your cockatoo loves you or does it mean that he seeks to form a mate-like bond with you? Reproducing is high on his list of instinctive priorities, while this possibility might not even be on your radar.

Forming a relationship with a parrot by focusing on physical affection may be a feel-good practice, but it creates a host of problems. Based upon my experience as a behavior consultant, engaging in a lot of close physical contact not only encourages dependence for the bird, but serves as a trigger for the development of a pair bond. Once the parrot has formed a pair bond with you, what comes next is not a feel-good experience at all if you happen to live with other people

Parrots with pair bonds typically display a host of unproductive and problematic behaviors – aggression toward others in the home, increased noise, and a tendency to destroy feathers. They develop a desire to get down on the floor more often, looking for “nesty” spots and destroying woodwork in the process. They slowly lose their desire to interact with enrichment or do much of anything except pursue activities related to nesting.

For the human in the pair-bonded relationship, problems also derive from this focus. I would describe this primarily as a lack of vision when it comes to really seeing the parrot in front of you for all that he is.Photo by Romina veliz on Unsplash

Author Henry Beston once wrote:  “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

There’s nothing wrong with showing our birds we love them by offering physical affection, but when we focus on cuddling with our parrots to the exclusion of other ways of interacting, I think we forget that they are “other nations.” Instead, we see only the “feather magnified” – a distorted image at best. The only way to stay in functional relationship with our parrots is to see them as the resourceful, complicated creatures that they really are, rather than as simply objects of our affection.

If you search through articles and websites about success in human relationships, the number available is staggering. It’s an amazing reflection of just how self-absorbed we can be as a people. Further, no one agrees what a healthy relationship really depends upon. The 10 Signs That You Are in a Healthy Relationship published on the Psychology Today website serves up quite different criteria than does 7 Signs Your Relationship is Healthy on the Huffington Post website.

How can we know that we are creating healthy, i.e. functional, relationships with our own birds that will stand the test of time?  Here are a few thoughts, about which most of those publishing information on human relationships agree:

Respect: If we respect our birds, we don’t use force with them. Instead, we learn to use positive reinforcement to teach them to do the things we want them do. If a parrot won’t step up, we don’t push our hand into his abdomen to insist. Instead, we decide on a preferred food for which he will work, set up the request so that he is likely to comply, and reward him consistently when he does. We afford them autonomy.

Good Communication: We don’t assume we know how they are feeling. Instead we learn to read body language and change our own behavior according to what the parrot communicates. The only way our birds can “talk” to us is through body language and we understand this and respect them enough to learn their ways and preferences. If a parrot leans away from us when we offer petting, we don’t insist. Instead we back off and give him his space. Further, we make sure that our own communication is understandable. If asking for a behavior, we give clear, distinct cues so that he understands what we want.

PoicephalusAnger Control: If a parrot bites us, we don’t blame him. No matter how much it hurts, we control ourselves and instead of lashing out, we look at our part in the problem. Much biting stems from a lack of sensitivity to the body language they have tried so hard to use. If the biting continues, we take responsibility and seek help from someone who knows how to solve the problem. That does not include taking the problem to social media to have strangers weigh in. No one that I know who really has a foundational knowledge of how behavior works hangs out on social media answering questions for free. There is no reinforcement for doing so.

Empathy:  We strive to see things from the parrot’s perspective. If a bird is driving us crazy with screaming, we examine what we expect from him and wonder if perhaps we are asking too much. Are we meeting his needs? Is he getting out of his cage for sufficient time each day? Is he getting enough enrichment, bathing opportunities, and exercise? Expecting a parrot to stay in his cage 22 hours a day or remain isolated in a bird room most of the time without exhibiting problems is simply expecting too much. In addition, if a parrot ever displays fear, we stop in our tracks and rethink what we were about.

Commitment:  When things get difficult, we don’t automatically look at the option of giving the parrot up.download (2) Instead, we remind ourselves that this is a long-term commitment. Things won’t always be wonderful.  Sometimes they get hard. We can accept this fact with some patience and perhaps a sense of humor and wait for other answers to come. We pay money for help when we can’t solve the problems that have arisen.

Problem Solving: We realize that keeping an undomesticated creature inside of four walls is a daunting task. We don’t blame the parrot when problems arise. Instead, we seek solutions and release our preconceived notions of how things have to be. Rather than staying stuck in black and white thinking, we open ourselves to other possibilities.

Compromise:  I’m a great believer in the idea of creating balance in any social flock or family. Everyone must have a way to get their needs met, husbands and parrots included. This takes an open-minded approach that allows the family to strike a balance.

Enjoying Time Spent Together: We find ways to enjoy our birds that don’t involve cuddling and petting. We devise games. We put on music and have a dance party. We teach them to perform fun behaviors. We spend time outdoors together in a safe enclosure. We honor their need to enjoy parallel activities and bring them to the bathroom while we get ready in the morning or into the kitchen as we chop vegetables. We think about what they might enjoy.

DSC_1905Acceptance: We appreciate and respect the parrot for what he is… a flighted spirit. We don’t mutilate his wings to prevent flight without determining that this is absolutely necessary, rather than a matter of convenience for us. We accept him as the “other nation” he is, including his ability and need to fly. Every aspect of a bird’s physiology has evolved for the purpose of flight and this birthright should not be removed without an absolute need, such as preventing him from losing his home.

Trust: Each relationship is a bank account. Each trust-building interaction creates a deposit. And every time we spray the bird with water to stop screaming or force him to do something, we make a withdrawal. We cannot expect to have trust in these relationships unless our account balance is far in the green and stays there. It is possible to become overdrawn and it’s a difficult road back from there.

It is easy to get sucked into conversations about how these birds shouldn’t really be pets. That ship has sailed, my friend. Instead, let’s expand our thinking. Our parrots aren’t dogs or cats or rabbits or reptiles or horses. We need to create a new category of “pet ownership” that calls upon us to take into account their exceptional intelligence, resourcefulness, emotional sensitivity and long, long life spans. And, that takes some thinking!

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I get it that sometimes we must relinquish a parrot to another home.Thefuturewillbedifferent I get it that sometimes we do have to clip wings. I get it that there will be times when the parrot can’t get out of his cage for enough time.  I never blame anyone for making those hard decisions. However, I think we can set the bar a little higher than we have in the past by simply thinking a bit more about how we should be shaping our relationships with our birds.

I would love to hear your thoughts about being in relationship with the parrots who live in your homes. Please send me a comment and I will be sure to reply.

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!

Teaching a Fearful Parrot to Step Up

Today I want to celebrate a success story about overcoming fear in parrots. Judith SlateI met Judith and her parrots, Arlo and Audrey, in mid-January of 2018. Judith sought my help because Arlo had become afraid of her and she wanted to be able to handle him again. She also had some concerns about Audrey. Since she lives over an hour away, I made one visit to her home and then conducted the rest of our work together by telephone. Judith had no previous experience in training parrots, but she loves her birds and knew intuitively that things could be better. She is retired and enjoys spending lots of time in her garden.

Meet Arlo

Arlo is an eight-year-old African Grey. He was unweaned and 12 weeks old at the time Judith brought him home from the pet store. While originally hand-tame, an accident caused him to lose trust in Judith. After a too-short wing trim, he fell from her shoulder, hit the floor and broke a blood feather. He appeared to be in pain, so Judith quickly swooped down to pick him up. Arlo.6.8.18Ever since that incident, Arlo has avoided ever stepping onto her hands. She can’t handle him when she needs to. Judith reported that he had also become a bit more fearful in general. Lastly, Arlo had bitten Judith badly a few times since that original incident.

Judith had been working for some time to re-establish trust by just being close to Arlo and talking to him. And, since she couldn’t handle him, she had set up a well-appointed play area for him so that he could travel from his cage to a playstand and then to a table with toys on it. He is out of his cage all day. She had also stopped clipping his wings, so he was regaining flight and choosing to use this more often. I thought he really had an excellent quality of life when I saw his environment. Kudos to Judith.

Meet Audrey

Judith has a second parrot, Audrey, who also struggles with fear, mostly of new things.  At the time I met her she preferred to remain in her cage most of the time, even when the door was open. AudreyOneAudrey is a four- year-old Goffin’s Cockatoo that Judith adopted at the age of seven months from the same pet store from which she adopted Arlo. It troubled Judith that Audrey refused to come out on top of her cage to use the play gym there.  During our work together, we also decided that Audrey needed her own play stand and so introducing this became a goal as well. Last, Audrey had a habit, when she occasionally did get up on top of her cage, of running from Judith when she asked her to step up. This too had to be remedied.

Fear and Early Beginnings

It is common for adult parrots to display neophobia – a fear of new things. And, it certainly isn’t uncommon for parrots who have an accident like Arlo’s to become afraid of hands or the caregiver herself. But I would like to point out that, in my experience, parrots who have been sold from pet stores, either weaned or unweaned, begin life at a bit of a disadvantage. They have not received the sort of socialization that allows them to be able to easily weather stressful situations that occur once they go to new homes.

This comment may seem counter-intuitive.  Isn’t starting life in a pet store a good way to get “socialized?” No, it is not. The sort of socialization that occurs in a pet store is more likely to resemble flooding, wherein the young parrot has little choice about her social interactions, but is subjected instead to a lot of unwanted handling.

I take this opportunity to comment in this way because we all should be knowledgeable about the ways in which young parrots are reared. As Dr. Brian Speer once commented, “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.”  If we want to adopt a young parrot, we had better choose wisely by finding a small breeder who allows the fledglings to learn to fly well and wean according to their own time table before going to their new homes.  Such babies wind up having a great deal more resilience as adults and tend to be more “fright-proof.” That said, there are parrot stores who do things well, so I will merely say: “Let the buyer beware!” Do your research.

Work with Behavior, Not Labels

I would also like, before we get back to the story about Arlo and Audrey, to point out that “fearful” is a label, not a behavior. The specific behaviors that Arlo displayed that we wanted to change were his avoidance of Judith’s hands and his biting her when she did try to handle him. For Audrey, we wanted to change her lack of desire to access the play area on top of her cage, her running from Judith when she tried to step her up, and her avoidance of the new playstand.

I am comfortable talking about both Arlo’s and Audrey’s behavior as fearful. However, I do so as a bit of written “shorthand.”  When developing a behavior modification plan for what is perceived as fearful behavior, you must target very specific behaviors that you want to change. You can’t change “fearful.” By changing the behavior, you change the emotion… not the other way around. This is why Judith’s standing and talking to Arlo had not achieved the results she wanted.

Identifying Reinforcers

Before we could begin any training, we had to identify reinforcers (favorite things) for which each parrot would want to work. Successful training requires that the animal receives a valued reinforcer after performing the behavior. When working with fearful behavior, it is often necessary to use a very high-value food treat. If we are asking the parrot to work past his reluctance to approach a hand, we had better have something really good to give him when he does.

This was a bit of a challenge. Judith knew that Arlo liked both scrambled eggs and nuts, since he routinely shared these with her at meals. So, that was where we started. I asked Judith not to give these to Arlo anymore just as treats. Instead, we would use them as reinforcers until we could identify others. Audrey likes pistachio nuts so the same advice was given – no pistachio nuts unless she earns them.

Increasing Motivation

As it turned out, Arlo wasn’t particularly interested in any food treats if he had to do something to earn them. So, we reviewed this diet. Both birds eat an excellent diet of organic pellets, birdie bread, and an abundance of vegetables and fruits from Judith’s garden. They also get a small piece of red palm oil every day. Arlo shares meals with Judith, three times a day. These meals consist of small amounts of animal protein and an abundance of vegetables, both raw and cooked.

In order to increase Arlo’s motivation, we had to change his diet. I asked Judith to stop sharing her lunch with him. Getting three meals a day in addition to birdie bread and pellets, was keeping Arlo pretty stuffed at all times. We also cut down on the amount of red palm oil and birdie bread that she offered, increased the vegetables, and decreased the amount of animal protein he received. This had the desired effect. Not only was he more motivated for training, but he began eating more pellets.

The Relationship “Bank Account”

Before beginning our training, we discussed the importance of the “bank account” concept of relationship. Any time we cause fear or distrust in a parrot, that amounts to a withdrawal from the bank account. Every time we have an interaction that builds trust, that constitutes a deposit. Judith’s goal was to keep that relationship bank account in the green at all times. More deposits = more motivation for Arlo.

Thus, she had to become a good student of body language so that she could avoid doing anything that created more distrust in either parrot. Parrots can unlearn a fear of something, but that isn’t the same as forgetting that fear. In addition to teaching Arlo and Audrey to overcome the behaviors that reflect fear, Judith now needed to avoid doing anything that caused either parrot to move away from her or otherwise display fear of anything she was doing.

By doing so, she would also avoid any bites, since Arlo only bit her when afraid. By honoring his body language, she was able to resolve his aggression rather easily. His biting served a function for him. When he got afraid, he would bite her to make her go away. When she began to observe his body language so that she didn’t frighten him, he didn’t need to bite her anymore.

Determining a Starting Point

After identifying reinforcers, we had to determine a starting point for each training goal. For teaching Arlo to step up, we began by having Judith offer food treats quite a distance from the hand that he would eventually step onto. She offered the treats by holding them between Arlo and the step up hand. We made sure to begin at a distance where he showed no nervousness about the presence of that other hand.

Gradually, Judith decreased, in very small approximations (tiny steps), the distance between the treat and her step up hand so that Arlo had to come a little bit closer to get the treat at each approximation. We didn’t want him to ever get nervous during this training so she spent as much time as necessary before she asked him to come a little closer, waiting until he was 100% comfortable before moving ahead to the next step.

Arlo Steps Up

Eventually, Arlo would walk right up to her step up hand to get his treat. At that point, Judith began asking him to just lean over that hand to get the treat. Finally, he stepped up on that hand for a treat. From that point onward, it was just a matter of strengthening the behavior.  Today, Arlo steps up every time he is asked and has even stood on Judith’s hand as she walked with him back to his cage after his flying off. Next, Judith will be working on getting Arlo to remain on her hand for longer periods, always making progress in very small approximations so that Arlo stays relaxed.

Getting Audrey on the Play Gym

Focusing on Audrey, we encouraged her to come out on top of her cage by putting paper and other things to chew on her play top. Audrey loves her toys so this was enough to get her up there. Judith then began to offer treats as Audrey stayed up there. Now she had two reasons to be on her play gym. Enrichment was always present and she got treats when she was up there too. Now the play gym had at least as much value to her as the inside of her cage did and she began playing up there frequently by choice.

Teaching Audrey to Step Up

Now that she wanted to be on her play gym more, Judith had to deal with the problem of Audrey’s running away from her when asked to step up from that location. New rules had to go into effect. Under no circumstances was it okay to pursue Audrey if she would not step up. It was not okay to force her for any reason. Remember that bank account!

Since Audrey would step up at times without problem, Judith had to start there. She would show Audrey the treat and ask her to get onto her hand. If Audrey refused, Judith was to walk away without a word (taking the treat with her of course!). Then she would come back just a few minutes later to give Audrey another chance. When Audrey did step up, she got the treat and then Judith put her right back down again. This reassured Audrey that she wouldn’t be asked to do any more than just get onto Judith’s hand for a brief moment.

This is important when working with parrots who resist stepping up at times. We must allow them that choice to refuse. Do not push your hand into the parrot’s abdomen. Do not scare them onto your hand by holding something in your other. Those methods are unethical because they deprive the parrot of choice. All you have to do with a parrot like that is find your starting point. When she is likely to do as you ask, have her three or four times a day step up for a treat, after which you put her right back down. Once she is stepping up willingly, you continue to give a treat for the behavior but this is concealed until the behavior has been performed. You will have a parrot who steps up nicely!

Audrey Accepts Her New Playstand

Audrey was initially frightened by the sight of her new playstand. So, Judith put it across the room where she could look at it, but wasn’t afraid of it. When she was familiar with  the stand’s look, it was time to teach her to accept it.

Judith started at enough of a distance from the stand that Audrey showed no concern. She asked Audrey to step up, which she did now without any problem, and began walking slowly toward the stand, offering a treat at every step. In the beginning it was just a step or two toward the stand and then back again to the cage. Judith made sure that Audrey was relaxed (below threshold) every time they worked on this together. Using very small approximations, Judith decreased the distance to the stand with Audrey on her hand eating treats. After a few weeks of work, Judith was able to walk all the way up to the stand with a relaxed Audrey on her hand.

At that point, Judith began asking her just to lean over the stand’s perch to get her treat. Does this sound familiar? Once Audrey happily leaned over the stand for the treat, it was time to ask her to step onto the stand. Today, Audrey loves her playstand and spends considerable amounts of time there.

Lessons Learned

I wanted to tell you about Judith and her birds for a few reasons. I think there are some important lessons for us all in the story.

First: We don’t have to be excellent animals trainers to achieve great things. Animals are forgiving. Judith was a novice and she made mistakes. (And perhaps I didn’t communicate clearly!) At one point we laughed out loud together because she had actually been rewarding Arlo for not performing the desired behavior.

Second: We can and should work to help our parrots get over their fears. We may think we are doing them a favor by allowing them to stay in their comfort zones, but we are not. This is how parrots lose their flexibility and adaptability. It’s also how they lose their quality of life. If we believe that a good quality of life depends upon having choices to make, we do our parrots no favors by allowing them to choose not to interact with that new perch or toy.

Judith was brave enough to get out of her comfort zone and learn to train her parrots. Her motivation was simply love for her birds and a desire that they have the best lives possible. Arlo willingly left his comfort zone to take risks and today his quality of life is a lot better. He now doesn’t have to fear his primary caregiver for any reason. Audrey had to leave the comfort zone of her cage to learn to play on her upper play gym and her new playstand. Her quality of life is also greatly improved.

Third: When working with fearful parrots, success depends only upon having patience, consistency, and the fortitude to keep doing the right thing for long enough. The training that Judith did with Arlo and Audrey took several months and at times was not very rewarding for her. Working with fear can take a long time when dealing with prey animals. Often it isn’t very fun, but the success is all the sweeter for it.

Fourth: If your parrot is not “food motivated” for training, examine his diet. Chances are, he is either getting too many fatty foods, too many carbohydrates, or too much food overall. If you decide the diet needs changing, please consult your avian veterinarian before doing so.

If you have a parrot who is afraid of something, please consider some training to help her get past that fear. You will all benefit. Positive reinforcement training that encompasses desensitization and counter conditioning is the path forward!