By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank
I get a rush watching my cockatoos fly. They burst from their aviaries and pop up in the air like deflating balloons zipping every which way as they shoot into the sky. It’s easy to spot Star, Flash and Bebe’s recently fledged Bare-eyed Cockatoo youngster, among the flyers. She flips, swerves, and surges with glee, adding pizzaz to the flock as she ascends upward. It’s contagious as the others soon follow suit with extra liveliness in their own flight maneuvers. It’s glorious to watch!
But enough gaiety. It’s time to get serious. Star needs to learn the code of manners and skills that will please her harrumphing human companions. Here’s a partial list a well-rounded companion cockatoo needs to accomplish:
Understand people are good things
Hands and fingers are not targets for a busy beak
Step up on cue
Recall on cue
Station on perch
The first lesson in the curriculum is the most important and Star accomplished it early on. From fledge, she has watched her parents eagerly take pine nuts, sunflower seeds and other goodies from any person who offers them. As she became more comfortable with the world outside her nest box and as she started to eat on her own, she overcame her natural wariness and now eagerly joins her parents on the perch waiting for goodies.
An Enthusiastic Learner
Star is an enthusiastic, motivated learner. She’s excited when lessons begin. In fact, she is so eager she needs to learn some self-control. In the video below, she’s so excited she can’t stay on the perch.
Star Learns to Target
Learning to touch a target stick assists with that. It helps her focus on the task at hand. Touching a target and being reinforced for doing so gives her a reason to stay put instead of flitting off on a whim or being distracted with other activities.
Targeting teaches her that actions she chooses to do when asked have consequences—good consequences. If she touches a target presented to her, bingo, she gets a treat! This is an easy behavior for a young, curious, clever cockatoo to accomplish.
Learning Good Manners
Good manners warrant taking treats politely from our hands. Star’s curiosity about novel objects is natural and helps her learn about her world. At her young age, human hands are objects that are both a little scary and intriguing. In order to figure out what this fleshy thing is, she bites, nibbles, and pokes at my hand with wariness and inquisitiveness.
Star needs to understand that humans are fragile creatures and don’t appreciate their hands being explored by parrots’ beaks—ouch! She was conflicted when I first presented my open hand full of seeds to her. She wanted to explore it with beak nibbles, and at the same time bite it to make it go away.
After some negotiating, with treats as reinforcers, we came to a compromise. I hold the sunflower seed in the tips of my fingers far enough away that she has to reach for it. This gives her less ability to bite and more motivation to take the treat gently. It worked.
Learning to Recall
Recalling on cue was pretty easy for Star to achieve as she had watched her parents do it many times. The first time I asked her to fly to my hand she landed with uncertainty bouncing a few times as she did. Having treats available convinced her quickly that flying to my hand is a good thing.
Star Learns to Step Up
Stepping up for a parrot can sometimes be more frightening and challenging than asking him to fly to the hand. One reason is possibly having one’s hand right in front of the parrot can be intimidating for him. Of course, depending on the individual, there can be a multitude of reasons for a parrot’s hesitancy to step up.
In Star’s case, it was a new sensation having my open “step-up” hand so close to her body. Luring her with tasty delights induced her to put one foot on my hand which activated the treat dispenser. It wasn’t long before she readily stepped up when asked.
Learning to Station
Training a parrot to station, essentially staying on a perch, play stand, cage top, or any preferred area, is important for a number of reasons. In the home, stations can help a bird stay away from possibly unsafe areas. Another reason, of course, is keeping parts of the home safe from the parrot! A station, such as a perch, can be used for a specific activity such as training. And it is for that last reason I wanted Star to learn to station.
Star was introduced early to stationing on a perch by her parents. When in the aviary, the parents fly to the perch where training takes place. Star didn’t immediately fly to the perch with them if I was in the aviary. It did take time. At the start, I put treats in the feed bowl attached to the perch as Star watched and then I left the aviary. It wasn’t long before Star flew to the perch to eat the treats when I was in her presence.
Our training progressed to where Star would stay on the perch as I put food in the bowl. That’s when we were off and running with our training sessions. The perch is such a magnet for Star and her family that they readily assemble on it for class while flying outside their enclosure.
The training I have done with Star is helping her mature into a confident, self-assured, and friendly cockatoo. When out free flying with her family she will sometimes peel away from her parents, seek me out, and attempt to land on me. I don’t kid myself that she does this out of the love she has for me. Let’s be honest, she seeks me out because she recognizes me as a resource of good things to eat.
With positive reinforcement training comes trust. Star knows I will indulge her with any manner of tasty tidbits and that’s fine with me. Star may not grow to “love” me, but she is certainly learning to trust me. That trust will increase and flourish creating between us a supportive and favorable relationship that will endure into the future. That’s all in the world I could ask for.
I describe my training sessions with Star not to point out that I am a great trainer of parent-raised cockatoos. I am not and I have oodles of training blooper videos to prove it.
Instead, I recount them to emphasize that anyone with positive reinforcement training experience, even a little, can assist parent-reared parrots in becoming successful companion birds with strong, reliable, and enthusiastic connections to their people; and, most crucially, do so without sacrificing the welfare and identity of young parrots and their parents. With her parents upbringing and care, Star will forever identify as a cockatoo with all the native and unaffected qualities nature intended.
Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.
Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
However, 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.
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?” 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!
Abbie contacted me in early April 2018. Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December. He was 13 years old at the time and had lived with Abbie for 5 years. Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem. Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.
Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support. Abbie describes her feelings at the time:
When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking.
Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better.
It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.
It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.
A Complex Problem
Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation. You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.
I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all. I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future. I could immediately reassure her. The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem. It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.
Identification of Causes
I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.
First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
Scout also lacked “play skills.” He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.
Stress and Feather Picking
I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college. Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.
Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving. Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.
Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits
All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are. However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.
In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work. As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time. Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:
Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.
Evolving the Pair Bond
Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.
I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.
The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing
It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor. This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him. He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.
However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). Again we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size. They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest. Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.
We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much. Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.
Foraging and Enrichment
Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily. This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on hisfeathers. Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.
In my experience, you just have to find a starting point. I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.
While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage. If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys. By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.
Making Changes to Diet
We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.
I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.
I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.
Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones
I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.
Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout. Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.
In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.
We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress. There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.
By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.
Remember the “before” photo above? The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.
Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem. However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.
It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt. In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective. In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month. That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.
Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.
Lessons to Be Learned
If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems. Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!
Have you found success in stopping feather destruction? If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.
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!