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!