a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

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 please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

 

Your Screaming Parrot and You

I posted a short survey on Facebook several weeks ago, asking readers to express interest in one of three future webinar topics. I was surprised to find that almost as many people asked for a webinar on screaming as asked for one on feather destructive behavior. I was surprised because screaming is actually one of the easiest behavior problems to solve.

Resources are Readily Available

There are a number of very good articles and webinars already in existence that outline the steps for solving a noise problem in a parrot. I published three of them myself in 2018. The formula is fairly straightforward. Remove any reinforcement for the problem noise (ignore it) and increase reinforcement for other behaviors that are more desirable – pleasant vocalizations, interacting with enrichment, etc. If you would like a refresher, read my blog post from 2018.

So…What’s the Problem?

So, why do we have so much difficulty? Could it be because a screaming parrot brings us face to face with issues we might rather not examine? Could it be that our own stinking thinking gets in our way?

I’ve given this a lot of thought recently because I live with a 42-year-old Moluccan cockatoo. Cyrano is a wild-caught parrot who arrived in the United States as a young bird. I adopted him when he was 20 years old. He’s a great parrot. He is not aggressive and, in general, isn’t very loud – unless a particular trigger is present.

I live at Cockatoo Downs, where free-flying cockatoos are a frequent sight. When they are outside flying, Cyrano loses his mind. He screams the entire time and none of the antecedent changes I have tried have been effective. No amount of enrichment can take his mind off of the fact that he can hear them clinging to my window screens.

A few days ago, he was being about as loud as a Moluccan Cockatoo can be in reaction to their proximity. I found myself for the first time actually feeling a bit frantic. I finally understood in the moment how so many of my clients have felt and just how desperate ongoing noise like that can make a person feel.

I’m a pretty even-tempered, patient person, but even I in that moment was pushed almost to the point of doing something. Only my knowledge that any action on my part could reward the behavior allowed me to remain calm and instead do something else to help myself.

As someone wrote on Facebook recently, “I just stick something in the beak to make it stop.” Yes, in the moment it can seem that we must make it stop. So, we take action. We put the parrot into another room. We cover the cage. We walk out of the room. We offer a toy. We spray water. We do whatever it takes to make it stop.

The problem with this approach is that these “solutions” that make the noise stop in the moment most often reward the behavior so that it increases in the future. By using interventions like this, we actually teach our parrots to scream. However, in our desperation for quiet, we really don’t care in that moment.

So, maybe this isn’t the easiest behavior problem to solve in a parrot. The information on how to do so is out there, readily available. So, what is getting in our way? Why can’t we simply follow directions and then live with a quiet(er) parrot? Why is this so hard?

Flaws, Delusions and Messy Bits

Actress Hattie Morahan once said, “I am fascinated by people’s flaws and delusions: all the messy bits of human nature we all try to pretend we don’t have.” I would agree. I love behavior consulting because it is such a very human endeavor, one during which these “messy bits” often come to light. And I believe it is our flaws and delusions that get in the way of achieving that goal of the quieter parrot.

I think there are five primary ways that we undermine our own best intentions and get in our own way, when it comes to solving this problem.

#1: We Believe Our Own Stories

First, we tell ourselves stories about what the parrot wants, what he intends, and how he feels. We love our parrots; it’s natural to try to interpret their communications. But, by allowing ourselves to indulge in this pastime, we often deprive ourselves of information that would point to a better solution. 

I worked with a couple who had a very loud African Grey whose favorite sound was a car alarm. We worked together for a couple of months and achieved success – the obnoxious noise was gone. Several months later, they requested a second consultation. Noise was again the issue. These folks thought they had a new problem because it was a different noise. They were telling themselves a story. The solution was actually the same as it had been the first time.

Let’s say that your parrot screams and you tell yourself, “He wants out of his cage.” That could very well be true. However, if you go let him out of his cage you will be rewarding the screaming. If you tell yourself, “He’s probably hungry – he hasn’t had dinner yet,” and you feed him, you will be rewarding the screaming.  Lots of people reward the very behavior they hate out of a misguided belief that the parrot needs something and they have to respond in that moment or they won’t be a good caregiver.

Telling ourselves stories about the parrot also allows us to take the screaming personally. I spoke to one client a few years ago who tearfully proclaimed, “He’s trying to get to me.” True, it can seem that way. However, believing this only allows us to remain stuck in a victim-like mentality that can’t even begin to grasp the details of a solution.

To solve the problem, a more dispassionate approach is required. It may feel good to us to think that we have identified and met a need our parrot has. However, this feel good moment only increases the problem in the future. The parrot isn’t going to be harmed if we don’t open that cage door or miraculously appear with dinner.

Instead, it’s necessary to examine the antecedents that set the bird up to scream and the consequences that may be maintaining the screaming, and then change those. That is the only way to solve a screaming problem. Reading the parrot’s mind doesn’t even begin to factor into the solution.

#2: Does Our Own Behavior Set the Stage for Quiet?

Second, we often don’t realize the impact of our own behavior on the parrot. It was a very amusing moment when I was talking to a couple who live with a loud Umbrella Cockatoo and they realized that their own noise levels influenced their bird. Bostonians with a tendency to become very animated when speaking to each other, they themselves were loud.  When they were loud, their bird became loud. A loud house will beget a loud parrot.

Try asking yourself if your own home supports a quiet parrot or a noisy parrot. It may be that the people living with the parrot need to quiet down and calm down themselves.

#3: An Anxious Parrot Is Often a Loud Parrot

Third, many of us have a difficult time recognizing anxiety in a parrot. We focus on the noise, oblivious to the accompanying body language. Anxious parrots can be very loud.

In using the word anxiety, I am referring to parrots whose body language indicates a lack of comfort in the environment. They do not often settle and roost. They may circle in their cages or pace back and forth along a perch for extended stretches of time. Their feathers are slicked down tightly against their bodies and they stand up tall. They move often and may vocalize shrilly in a repetitive fashion as they do so.

If you have an anxious parrot, no amount of behavior modification is going to be completely effective, because it’s necessary first to make changes that allow the parrot to relax. A careful study of the environment is necessary to determine what triggers might be responsible for this heightened state of alert in the parrot.

A more comfortable parrot will likely be a quieter parrot. Perhaps the cage needs to be moved out of a traffic pattern. Perhaps the window blinds need to be drawn. Perhaps a couple of large houseplants on either side of the cage would provide a greater feeling of security.

#4: We Live too Close to the Emotional Edge

Fourth, a screaming parrot will reveal cracks in our own equanimity and emotional stability. In my experience, there is nothing like a screaming parrot to bring otherwise sensible people to their knees. If this is the case for you, it may be time to examine your own stress levels and self-care routines.

A friend recently asked me what I do when Cyrano screams. I think she found it hard to believe when I said, “Nothing.” I just ride it out from a place of acceptance. If it gets too bad, I go into my office or go for a walk, but I rarely find the need to remove myself. Yes, it’s unpleasant but it’s really not that big a deal. If you find yourself undone by a loud parrot, perhaps it’s time to find your center, gather your wits, and just do the work.

#5: A Screaming Parrot Widens Relationship Fractures

Last, a screaming parrot can also reveal cracks in our relationships with those with whom we share a home. This is a much bigger problem than people realize. In many homes that house a screaming parrot, one person loves that bird a lot more than the others do. Often, those others are a lot more irritated by the noise.

This creates a bit of a hostage situation that always makes it impossible to solve the problem. The one who loves the parrot becomes charged with the task of keeping it quiet. This is an impossible task, so anxiety grows. Anger erupts and ultimatums follow. Already stressed relationships move just a little closer to the breaking point. Often, in these cases, the bird loses his home. Sadly, this occurred just last month with one of my clients. When explaining, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to jeopardize her marriage for the parrot’s sake.

Solving a screaming problem requires that everyone in the home is on the same page. Everyone must commit to the solution and support each other in doing the right things – following the recommended steps.

The inconvenient truth is that it is we who create screaming problems in our birds by both providing less than optimal environmental conditions and then responding incorrectly to the behavior we witness. The even more inconvenient truth is that, in order to change our parrots’ behavior, we often must change our own first.

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!

Managing Behavior through Environmental Change

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.animals-3618625__340

Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior more likely. 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. parrot-55293__340Making 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. download (14)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. bird-1941481__340These 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 cagedownload (16) – 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 #2050One 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. imagesCAUSHIDZOne 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.

The Process

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.

Summary

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. digital-art-95075__340You 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)

How Parrots Learn to Behave by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and Phoebe Greene Linden (2003)

10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know about Behavior by Susan Friedman, Ph.D.

Blog post by Eileen Anderson on her site eileenanddogs  – What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? .

 

What Is Training?

I fell in love with this photo when I saw it.  He seems to be thinking, “Would you please just tell me what you want from me?”

When a parrot begins to display problem behavior, it is usually due to a combination of things gone wrong and things undone.

In most cases, things have gone wrong in the process of creating the bird’s daily life. This is rarely due to a lack of caring on the owner’s part. It’s due to the difficulty of finding true, reliable information about parrot care.

Thus, the diet may be unbalanced. A social pair bond may have formed. The bird may not have enough to do or get out of his cage for enough hours each day.

And, in addition, behavioral training may have been neglected.

Inappropriate diet, pair-bonded social relationships, and inadequate environmental provisions + lack of effective guidance for the bird = behavior problem.images (11)  By “effective guidance,” I mean that the bird has not received guidance from the owner that would have steered his behavior into desirable channels.

So, most behavior consultations follow a similar pattern. We improve the diet, evolve social relationships, and increase enrichment and choice-making opportunities – if changes in these areas are necessary. This ensures that the bird’s needs are being met, which then sets him up for success when we formulate a plan to modify his behavior.

Inevitably, I wind up talking about training and that’s when things get really interesting.

A client asked me recently, “What actually is training?”  That was an excellent question and I’m happy to have a chance to discuss it here because I think many people have misconceptions about training. More than one person has mentioned to me that it almost seems demeaning for the parrot – that teaching tricks puts the parrot on the level of a circus animal. Others can’t imagine why you would want to train a parrot at all.

Many folks don’t really understand positive reinforcement training. They talk about clicker training, as if that is something different and apart and more special. It is not. Clicker training is positive reinforcement training. The clicker is used simply to make a sound that lets the bird know that he did the right thing. This buys you some time to deliver a treat. A spoken word works just as well in most cases.

Training is the process of teaching an animal a particular skill or type of behavior. target training

That is an oversimplified definition, of course. A more accurate, more scientific, definition would be that training involves teaching specific responses to specific stimuli. To expand on both, we can say that training involves the development of desirable responses and the suppression of undesirable responses. For example, we can teach a parrot to talk instead of scream when it wants attention. We can teach a parrot to stay on a perch rather than get down to cruise the floor.

The best trainers embrace positive reinforcement training as their primary behavior change strategy. Positive reinforcement is the process of offering the animal a valued item after it has performed a desirable behavior.  images (12)Most often, when training begins, food treats are used as reinforcers until others have been identified.

So, why do I always wind up talking about training when I do behavior consultations?  … Three reasons.

First, when you teach a bird new behaviors, you often see an almost “automatic” reduction in the problem behavior, so it affords a bit of quick success, which always helps.

Second, the bird has to unlearn the problem behavior and learn another, alternate, more desirable behavior that it can offer instead. That takes training, i.e. teaching.

Third, many parrots have developed pair bonds with their owners and these pair bonds often contribute to the very behavior problem that we are trying to resolve. By beginning to do some training, the owner can encourage the bird to look to her for guidance, rather than physical affection.pairbond

This photo may appear to represent a desirable social moment. It does not. By focusing your social interactions around the exchange of physical affection, everyone loses. You, as the owner, lose the ability to see the parrot as the resourceful, intelligent, incredibly capable creature he is. And your parrot loses out on a more enriched existence that involves learning new things.

Once I have convinced someone of the benefits of training, I often hear yet one more concern: “I can’t train because my bird is not food motivated.” I actually hear this quite often online, as well. It is a common perception.

Let’s examine this statement. It expresses the belief that the bird is not motivated to eat food. So, right out the gate, we know that’s wrong. Right? Parrots need food to live, so they must by definition, be food motivated.

What owners usually mean when they say this is that their parrot has not seemed interested in taking a treat in exchange for a cued behavior.  That is a whole different problem, and it’s always the same problem. If parrots are not motivated to earn training treats, it is almost always because they are getting too many fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods in their daily diet.013

This is why we so often have to improve the bird’s diet before we can modify his behavior. If you convert the parrot to eating formulated foods and fresh vegetables with limited fruit, you will have a parrot who is “food motivated.”  And, in fact the best practice is always to reserve seeds and nuts for use as reinforcers. It’s a win-win situation. The bird still gets to have some treats, but has to earn them rather than finding them in the food bowl.

There are many different things we can train parrots to do. We can teach simple, fun behaviors like targeting, turning around, or waving. We can teach a parrot to stay on a hand, rather than fly to a shoulder. We can teach a parrot to stay on a particular perch, rather than climbing down to the floor to terrorize people’s feet and the household pets. We can teach a parrot to fly to us on cue. We can teach a parrot to take medication willingly from a syringe or walk into a carrier when asked. There is no limit to what we can teach and our parrots can learn.

Anyone can teach these things!  We don’t need to be professional trainers. You would be amazed at how forgiving, flexible, and adaptable parrots can be in the face of our own lack of training skills. They still learn quite readily and have fun doing it.

Chris Shank Photos 023However, training is not necessarily easy for people in the beginning. It can be tiring because of the focus it takes. For many of us, so used to having our attention fragmented, this type of focus can seem like very hard work.

And often, beginning training sessions reveal our own lack of hand-eye coordination. This means practice for us, even when training simple behaviors like targeting. It can take a bit of repetition to get to the point where we don’t feel so awkward.

This was the case with a client of mine recently. In frustration, she told me emphatically, “I am NOT a trainer.” I wonder how many of you are nodding your heads in agreement right now, feeling the same way?  I, myself, might have made that comment at one point.

The truth is, however, we are all trainers. Animals are always learning with every single social interaction they have with us. Their learning ability doesn’t switch off and on. If they are always learning, then we are always teaching.

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Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash.com

And, as I pointed out to my unhappy client, she IS a trainer. She had very effectively trained her parrot to scream and lunge aggressively.  The fact that her training was unintentional doesn’t matter. It was her reactions to her parrot’s behaviors that reinforced them to the point where they became serious problems that required professional help to resolve.

So, we really don’t have a choice. We must accept that we are all trainers. We have the responsibility to think about what we are training our animals with our social attention…all of the time. As I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” I have never heard better advice.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, each of us, maintained a daily awareness of the power we hold to influence the behavior of others? What if we all went around asking ourselves, when interacting socially with any creature, “What am I teaching at this moment?” images (13)Our relationships with our parrots and all animals would improve, certainly. Our relationships with other people would be kinder and more thoughtful, perhaps.

So, imagine please, how we might change the world simply by learning training and behavior principles and using positive reinforcement with all living things in our daily lives. Our parrots at least would fly straighter and truer their whole lives long.

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. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Егор Камелев on Unsplash.