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!

Parrots and Start Buttons

Communicating with parrots can be tricky. Evidence of this rests in how often parrot owners receive bites unexpectedly from their birds. Social media platforms are full of talk about “aggressive” parrots and photos of bites wind up in news feeds too often. We have all seen them. Clearly, there is a lack of clarity about how to resolve aggression in parrots.

Change Antecedents and Consequences to Solve Problems

With the majority of behavior problems, the key to solving them lies in examining the antecedents (what happens right before the behavior) and the consequences (what happens right after the behavior) in order to figure out an effective strategy. (This is a bit of an oversimplification, but is generally a true statement.)

Sometimes we can change the antecedents. Sometimes we can change the consequences. Sometimes we can change both. Doing so effectively resolves the problem over time.

When your bird has a screaming problem, you can often change both the antecedents and the consequences for best success. For example, if your bird screams while you are trying to cook dinner, you might change the antecedent by bringing the bird into the kitchen before he starts screaming to sit on a perch for hands-off social interaction. You would also change the consequences by removing any previous reinforcement that might have been offered for screaming and instead begin to offer rewards for talking and other pleasant noises.

Antecedent Changes Only for Biting

Biting is different. The best strategy to resolve biting is to avoid it – identify the antecedents and change those. Many people will advise consequence changes, such as a time out, when a bird bites. This never works. For a consequence change to work, there must be contiguity. This means that, for a consequence to influence behavior, it must occur very quickly after the behavior occurs.

If you try to give a parrot a “time out” in the cage for biting, by the time you get the bird into the cage, contiguity has been lost. The consequence occurs too long after the bite for it to have any meaning to the bird. I just did a consult with a client who has been using time-outs for years and her bird was still biting frequently. By focusing on antecedent changes, the problem has now almost resolved.

Avoid the Situation and Build Behavior to Resolve Biting

If your bird bites you, you must avoid the bites by changing the antecedents. If your bird bites your earrings when on your shoulder, then don’t allow him on the shoulder anymore. If he bites when you try to pet him, then don’t pet him under those circumstances anymore. If he bites when you change out food dishes, then teach him to station on a perch in the cage or remove him from the cage completely when you feed. If he bites when you put your face close to him, then don’t do that anymore.

At the same time, you must also begin offering positive reinforcement for all cued behaviors. This helps to build compliance at the same time that you remove opportunities for biting. The combination of these two strategies works every time.

Just Read the Body Language!

People will typically advise you to change the antecedents by carefully observing your parrot’s body language. This is good advice, but often doing so is easier said than done.

If you don’t have years of experience with a variety of birds, it can be hard to recognize and interpret body language accurately. New World birds, such as Amazons, macaws, and conures, are often the easiest to read. Their body language tends to be more overt, if not dramatic. However, the African grey may only slightly raise the feathers on his shoulders to alert you that a bite is coming. His is not so obvious. Your cockatoo might chatter his beak, but whether he means to bite or have sex with you may not be immediately evident.  

Reading body language is a skill that develops over time. Just telling someone to “read the body language and you won’t get bitten” may be of little help. The ability to read body language requires a good deal of sensitivity and that level of sensitivity will likely take practice and dedication to develop. It has taken me years of work to be able to spot every message my birds are transmitting.

Most humans aren’t very good at reading the body language of other people, much less that of animals. Expecting them to be able to read their parrots’ successfully, even if it has been described to them, may be simply expecting too much. Further, many parrots learn to mask their body language before biting for one reason or another.

The Function of Aggressive Displays

Behavior has function. This means that your parrot does things for a reason. While some biting results simply from a heightened state of arousal, the function of most biting behavior is either to make us stop doing what we are doing or to get a reaction from us. However, biting is not a natural behavior for most species, and therefore most individuals will initially display some signs that a bite is on the way, as the grey above demonstrates. If the owner ignores these signs time and time again, the bird can learn to simply save his energy and go straight for the bite.

So, what if we did something even better? What if we developed a form of communication with our birds that allowed them to indicate to us when they wanted to interact – a sort of permission they could give us to forge ahead?

The Benefits of Start Buttons

We can offer them a Start Button. This concept is useful for any species. It is especially useful for animals who suffer from fear or aggressive tendencies.

A start button is a signal the animal gives to the owner/trainer that offers “permission to continue.” It allows the animal to have greater control over his social experience. It enhances communication between owner and parrot and allows greater trust to develop in the relationship.

There is a big difference between the parrot who merely tolerates what you are doing and the parrot who is an active and eager participant.  We should be striving for the latter.

The start button grants the parrot the ability to say “Yes! I’m all in.” Conversely, it also grants the parrot the ability to say “No.” In other words, it gives them the power of consent and requires us to respect this.

Start buttons also take the burden off of the owner to read that body language that immediately precedes a bite. It allows the bird to clearly tell us that he is ready for what we have in mind and eliminates any need for a display.

A last benefit:
Embracing this social technology just may allow us to put the final nail in the coffin that will bury the “dominance concept.” There is no excuse for using insistence, force, or coercion with our companion parrots any longer.

Below are three examples of instances in which start buttons have been useful in three different species:

Violet’s Start Button

A friend of mine, Chris Shank, has a donkey named Violet. Violet is not a well-socialized donkey and is fearful of hands and some types of human interaction. Chris wanted to teach her to wear a halter and I was lucky enough to participate in Violet’s training.

Chris developed a start button that gave Violet full control over whether she wanted to participate in the halter training. She would hold a hand parallel to Violet’s face a couple of inches away, which Violet tolerated quite easily. Violet eventually would move her head closer to the hand, which was her start button that signaled to whichever one of us was working with her that she was ready to begin.

If she gave the signal, we would proceed to touch the side of her face, then gradually move the hand upward until we were able to reach over her head to grasp the other side of the halter. It gave her total control over a process that could have caused her fear. (This was not accomplished all at once  of course – we used small approximations to be able to complete the action.)

Dash’s Start Button

My last blog post of 2018 described the training I had been doing with Dash, a previously very aggressive dog. If you missed it and are interested, you can read the post here. When I was using the Constructional Aggression Treatment protocol, I did not walk all the way up to him in the final stages. He was so reactive that I thought a start button would help us both to feel safer. So, at each approach I stopped about two feet away and waited for some sign that it was okay for me to come closer.

He understood and began to offer a sit – a behavior he already knew well. The sit behavior became his start button. As soon as he sat his butt on the ground, I came forward and was able to deliver a treat. He had total control over whether I came closer or not.

Harpo’s Start Button

My Amazon parrot, Harpo, is a happy bird in all ways but does not want much physical contact. However, he does enjoy an occasional head scratch. So, I allow him the ability to decide when I touch him. I approach when he isn’t busy and wiggle my index finger, asking “Do you want a scratch?”  If he does, he fluffs up all of his head feathers. The act of fluffing those feathers is his start button that tells me it’s okay to offer a scratch. He has total control over whether he gets touched or not.

Begin with a Social Duet

Developing a start button requires a willingness to enter into a bit of a social duet. How did we know that Violet would turn her head? We didn’t. How did I know that Dash would sit? I didn’t. Instead, we waited in each case for the animal to offer some type of action that we could turn into a start button.

Harpo and I developed his start button years ago, before I ever understood that it had a name. I just never wanted to force myself on any of my birds, and certainly wanted to avoid any biting that might occur if I did force contact. I’m sure that many of you may have already been using communication like this with your own birds too.

Start Buttons for Stepping Up

If you are not, please consider embracing start buttons to clarify communication at times when biting might happen. For instance, if your parrot bites at times when you ask him to step up, I might suggest  one of two different start buttons.

Instead of offering your hand close to the parrot’s chest when you ask him to step up, instead give the cue clearly, but hold your hand back a foot or so. Wait for your parrot to say “yes” by raising his foot first. That is a start button. An alternate approach is to place your hand several inches away and ask the bird to walk towards it to step up – another sign of acquiescence on his part.

If you don’t see that foot raise, try leaving and coming back a few seconds later. Always reward your bird immediately with a treat when he does comply.

Better Communication Brings Greater Trust

If we all embraced this sort of communication with our birds, biting and other forms of aggression would be a lot less common. Each and every one of us can teach our birds to give us “permission” for interaction. It is merely common courtesy for us to give them a say in what happens to them.

Have any of you seen the videos of Keen, the African Grey parrot who understands his deaf owner’s sign language? This bird not only understands, but answers questions by lifting a particular foot to indicate that he is ready for whatever his owner is suggesting. That is a more sophisticated use of a start button that should inspire us all to wonder what else might be possible!

There is no need ever to be bitten by your bird. It is not just a part of living with parrots.

Yes, we do need to develop greater sensitivity to their body language so that we can understand them better. However, if we worked just a little harder to be respectful, granted them autonomy and the ability to communicate choice by using start buttons where we can, their quality of life would be greater and we too would be happier.

Please let me know how you might be using start buttons with your birds. This is an area that deserves greater exploration and we can help each other to identify what works!

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. Until next time!