Does your Parrot have a Trust account?
By STEVE MARTIN, Natural Encounters, Inc.
Why are so many people so unhappy with their companion parrot? How can these beautiful, intelligent and entertaining creatures cause so much anxiety and frustration? After all, we paid a small fortune to have them in our homes and to care for them properly. Why don’t they recognise how much we love them and how much time, effort and money we spend on them? They cuddle with us, close their eyes and moan approvingly when we scratch their heads. They seem to look forward to being with us and can’t wait for us to come home. But, then they go and scream at the top of their lungs … loud enough to rattle the windows… at the neighbour’s house. If that’s not enough, when we finally go to let the bird out of the cage it bites us! How did that cute, cuddly, intelligent little angel turn into a screaming, violent, foreign being?
These questions and more are asked every day in the companion parrot community. There is no panacea, no quick fixes, no solution that works exactly the same for every bird and every owner. Part of the attraction and majesty of parrots is in their individuality. Each and every bird is wonderfully unique. Its behaviour is shaped and influenced by natural tendencies combined with environmental conditions and experiences. As a parrot owner, our actions are just part of the many ingredients added to the primordial soup that determines how our parrots will behave. There are countless other influences on behaviour that help to determine how a bird behaves in certain situations and environments. However, our actions are among the most important of these factors because they form the base for our relationships with our birds. That relationship is the focus of this article.
The best relationships are the ones built on a solid foundation of trust. Most often, this trust is built slowly, over weeks or even months with some birds. Each time we interact with our birds in a positive way we make a deposit into our “Trust Account” at the Bank of Relationships. As our account grows, our birds become more and more confident in us and more willing to be with us. Positive reinforcement is perhaps the most valuable experience we can provide our birds because of its effect on strengthening behaviour. By definition, positive reinforcement is a process where something is provided to an animal that increases or maintains a behaviour. The reinforcer can be anything a parrot likes, such as a scratch on the head, verbal praise, companionship, treats, etc. Each occurrence of positive reinforcement is a deposit that feeds our trust account and strengthens our relationship portfolio.
Conversely, each time we use aversives, or do something the bird dislikes, we make a withdrawal from our trust account. Unfortunately, it is very easy to make withdrawals when working with companion parrots. For example, a common strategy for taking a parrot out of the cage is to chase it around the cage until you finally block its escape and force it to get on your hand. Likewise, to get it back into its cage simply move quickly and block its escape with your body. Because these strategies can work most people don’t see the problem with them. They get the bird in and out of the cage. In fact, there are many people who readily encourage this type of training. They say things like “Make sure the bird knows you are the flock leader” and “Don’t let him get away with making independent decisions.” I have also seen people advocate repeated step-ups, or laddering exercises to encourage compliance with the step-up command. They don’t realise that every time you force a bird to comply with commands like this you make a withdrawal from the trust account. If you make too many withdrawals, you will find yourself in the relationship poorhouse. When this happens many people end up blaming the bird instead of accepting responsibility for bankrupting the account. Some people choose to blame the bird by labeling it as phobic, hormonal, aggressive, jealous, abused, etc. These labels do little more than relieve the owner of responsibility for their bird’s poor behaviour and take away the person’s motivation to deal with the behavioural issue. Once the parrot takes the blame for the bloodied hands being thrown up in defeat, the bird is likely headed to a new home, sanctuary or rescue organisation.
Aggression is not the only problem associated with using aversives with animals. According to Dr. Susan Friedman, a leading authority on the science of parrot behaviour, the scientific community has described certain detrimental side effects associated with forcing animals to perform behaviours. They have shown with hundreds of species from cockroaches to whales that the use of aversives (things an animal dislikes or wants to avoid), might produce one or more of the following side effects: increased aggression, escape/avoidance behaviour, generalised fear of the environment, and apathy or generalized reduction in behaviour. These side effects are standing by - ready to eat up the trust you have worked so hard to build - any time you force a parrot to do anything it does not want to do.