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Hi we have a male blue fronted amazon parrot around 2 years old, we have had him since 20 weeks old bought from a pet shop near us. There are a few of his behaviours that we just cant correct; after reading various parrot training books etc everyone says different things. He has always had a very close bond with my partner, we have never been able to touch him until a few months ago he now occasionally lets my partner scratch his beak + neck, the main behaviour we cannot seem to correct is screaming. Although I understand it is a natural behaviour and parrots do scream, we knew that before we got him but he screams a lot of the time. I myself talk to him a lot and he gets a lot of attention, although I admit we do not regularly let him out of the cage because of the second problem... biting on numerous occasions when my partner attempts to interact with him he will grab his finger with his foot and bite it. Almost like he's playing, but very hard, so when he is out of his cage he bites when we try to get him back in. We would love to have him out all the time otherwise... also when we bought him he was in a cage with another blue fronted amazon assumed to be his sister/brother, as a question could his behaviour relate to wanting company from another bird? If so would you recommend to try another bird after so long?
Thanks, Becky

Answered by Hillary Hankey:

Hello Becky,

It sounds like you have a lot going on with your young Blue Fronted Amazon, and I applaud your efforts for seeking out quality information. As you have observed, each behavior challenge doesn't exist in a vacuum, but rather, they are often all intertwined. Almost always there is one particular behavior that takes priority over the others to address; in this case you mentioned your Amazon's screaming. While screaming is a natural behavior as you noted, we can influence the intensity, frequency and duration by managing our own behavior in response to our parrot's calling. This behavior easily creeps into the realm of excessiveness because it is 1) natural for the parrot and thus readily performed and 2) annoying and easy for us to reinforce inadvertently.

Many times we are given the advice to ignore all screaming without any qualification of what exactly "ignoring" looks like, and in application, ignoring means different things to each of us. Even if we could ignore the behavior all of the time, that is only half of the equation to providing a sustainable solution. So first, we need to find the triggers that are likely to set that stage for you bird to start screaming. These could be hearing a familiar car pull up, talking on the phone, leaving the room, playing the tv or radio, to name a few common ones. Once we have identified those likely precursors that are specific to your bird's screaming, then we should identify specifically what we want him to do instead. What is he good at? Does he talk? Play with certain toys? Know how to forage for goodies in destroyable, safe items like paper bags filled with shredded paper? These are all things that he can do instead of scream that are rewarding for him. For those triggers that we can predict, like playing the tv, we can keep him busy with some favorite foraging items before we turn it on. As he stays busy, we can continue to walk over to the cage and drop a treat or lavish praise for what a wonderful boy he is.

For those events that we can't always predict, we can give him other tools to get our attention. As an example, we can teach him that making pleasant noises and talking produces our happy faces into the room, treats in the bowl, lots of talking from us, praise, and other things that he might value. If he starts to scream, we immediately leave the room and stay out until he quiets or makes a desirable sound. After a few repetitions, he should start to get a hang of the differentiation. One of the more difficult parts is staying consistent. This is why keeping him occupied with many wonderful forms of enrichment is so important... a busy beak is one that isn't focused on making all that noise!

With regard to biting, whether it's occurring during playing or other types of interactions, it's important to understand that this is a type of communication that is on the extreme side and can lead to more intense biting if ignored. When your partner is playing with him and these occur, he should be aware of your bird's body language before the biting occurs and back off and let the bird calm down for a minute or two. Are there pinned eyes, flared neck or tail feathers or an open beak? If your parrot doesn't give off much warning during these times, but the general conditions are the same, then it's best to avoid those conditions to make sure to prevent the biting. Returning to the cage can be a very common scenario for bites to occur. This is because he gets so much social stimulation and enrichment from being outside and the balance of stimulation in the cage is a little off. Try making sure his toys are regularly rotated and offering him so new ones every few days to make that cage more stimulating. And as you become more comfortable with him and learn more about his body language indicating a bite and how to prevent it, he might even get more out-time, which will help him feel more satiated with his social interactions. And finally, if your Blue Front has a favorite treat, like a whole nut in the shell, try offering him that when he steps off your hand into the cage to reinforce that behavior of returning to the cage. He will really start to look forward to it, especially if that is a rare treat that he doesn't get too often.

Individual birds have different thresholds for how they feel about being touched and scratched. It's wonderful that you both have been moving slowly and carefully with his comfort level. As long as you keep allowing his body language to show you his acceptance of your advances and choose your timing carefully, it sounds like you will continue on this path. And though it is hard to know how he would react with another bird, what we do know is that many parrots do well both as single birds and in multiple bird homes, and many birds also experience behavior problems in both types. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are lonely; they act the way that do based off of the cues they receive from us, whether we realize what cues we give them or not. As you have found out, many people have many different ideas how to manage those cues. It can get confusing to you and damaging to your bird to try the chef salad approach of "a little bit of everything." You did an excellent job of seeking out information from a well-supported and learned organization. You are off to a good start already!


Hillary Hankey
Learning Parrots
Avian Behavior International LLC

filed under: Behaviour and Training


Hi there, I have a parrotlet called Fynn and I've had him about a year now from when he was a chick (parent-reared, if that helps). I know parrotlets are sometimes territorial and the main thing to do is to teach them to step up. This does not work with him. He bites hard and lunges if I come close to his cage, and I always get bitten getting him out. He won't step up onto a twig either. But when he's in a different room he's a different bird- he loves kisses and stays with me (despite not being clipped- I understand this makes him harder to train as well but he's beautiful when he flies). This problem has got worse now I have moved to Uni with him, and his cage is in my bedroom. Now he won't have anything to do with me and I can't really take him into a different room. Please could you let me know if there are any ways of getting him to be less aggressive about his cage?
>Thanks so much smile

Answered by Susan Friedman & LLP Course Graduates:

Hi Lauren,

Cory here from Susan Friedman’s ParrotBAS teaching team! Thank you for coming to us with your question. The great news is that biting doesn’t have to be a necessary part of living with a parrot. With careful attention to Fynn’s body language, thoughtful arrangement of his environment, and a positive reinforcement teaching plan, the biting can be reduced and Fynn can be taught a behavior you would like him to do instead of the biting.

It is great that you described the undesired behavior in observable terms (biting when asked to step up in cage), because this is the first step towards predicting and changing it! Biting is something that Fynn does which we can see. Labels such as “territorial” do not describe what Fynn is doing, but rather what we think Fynn is being. Since behavior is defined as something that an animal does which can be observed, given certain conditions, it is best to focus on specific behaviors that we want to see more of - just like you did. We can’t teach “friendly”, it's just a label, but we can teach Fynn to approach hands and step up, or even fly to you on cue, all of which are specific behaviors.

All repeated behaviors, including biting, serve a function, a purpose, for Fynn or he wouldn't keep doing them! Animals, including people, choose behaviors to either avoid something undesirable to them, or to gain something they value. The key to understanding what function the biting behavior serves is to look into the immediate outcome, the change the behavior causes in the environment. The event that happens right before the behaviors occurs, called the antecedent, is a signal or cue to the bird about what to do right now to produce the outcome. Identifying the antecedent helps us predict when the behavior will occur. The event that immediately follows the behavior (called the consequence) determines whether the behavior will increase or decrease in the future. When the antecedent (A) happens, the animal can do the behavior (B), in order to gain or avoid the consequence (C). With the information that you have given me, I suspect that in this case it could be that when you reach your hand into Fynn’s cage (A), Fynn bites (B), in order to remove your hand (C). In other words, it seems like Fynn is biting in order to stop your approach and to create distance between you and his cage.

So, how do we teach Fynn to enjoy having you in close proximity to the cage? Approaching Fynn’s cage will become a signal that good things will happen if you continuously pair yourself with positive reinforcers such as food, and this means that your presence itself will become reinforcing to Fynn. Each time you pair yourself with food you will be making a deposit in Fynn’s trust account and growing a positive balance, so you can do this several times throughout the day by walking up to Fynn’s cage and simply giving him a bite of his favourite food. The key to keeping the trust account from going bankrupt is to avoid any negative or forceful interactions with Fynn. Of course, since Fynn is flighted, he can fly away from anything aversive. Resist calling him names like stubborn, territorial or unfriendly. When that happens, it is good data for you that Fin is escaping your approach and so you need to change what you do and add more trust into the account.

While step up is a great management behavior to teach and it’s your ultimate goal with Fynn, it isn’t necessarily the first thing that you should teach him. A great stepping-stone towards the step up goal is to teach Fynn a behavior called targeting. Targeting is to touch his beak to an object like a chopstick. It sounds (and is!) simple, but it also extremely useful because of it’s versatility and many applications, one being that it can help you avoid being bitten while teaching the step up behavior! The great thing about targeting is that you can teach it to Fynn while he is in his cage so that he isn't pressured to come to your hand, your fingers stay safe and you can work at his pace to continue building trust.

Once he follows the target stick for a treat, you will be able to target him out of the cage. New behaviors like targeting can be shaped through reinforcing small approximations towards the final behavior goal. When you present the target stick to Fynn at first, be sure to hold it on as close as he remains relaxed. Then some approximations you can reinforce are: 1) Looking at the target stick, 2) Leaning towards the target stick, 3) Touching beak to target stick. Each step should earn him a food treat and should be repeated until he performs that step without hesitation. If he happens to be afraid of the target stick in the beginning, just introduce it gradually at his pace, pairing its presence with a food treat. Body language that could indicate that Fynn is uncomfortable with something could include things like feathers slick against his body and leaning away. Learning to recognize subtle changes in Fynn’s body language and respecting it is a great investment in having a good relationship with him!

Once Fynn is touching the target stick with his beak, you can then teach him to approach it from further away by gradually increasing the distance you hold it out at. You can also teach him to follow a moving target by first reinforce him following it for a step, then a few steps, and so on. To keep the positive reinforcement really effective when teaching new behaviors deliver a food treat every time he does the approximation correctly, and immediately (within a few seconds). A great thing that you can do to improve your timing is to use a word like “yes” as a bridge to mark the exact moment that Fynn does the correct behavior, and then follow it up with food each time.

When Fynn knows how to target, you will have a full trust account and it’s time to zero in on teaching him how to step up onto your hand. To start, you can use the target to move Fynn onto a designated perch in his cage and reinforce him for standing on it while you open the cage door. It’s important to continue to reinforce Fynn for having calm body language as you gradually move your hand closer to him. Here’s where the target comes in handy. You can use it to orient Fynn’s head upwards as you shape him to step onto your hand because he can’t hold his head up and bite you at the same time - they are behaviors that are incompatible with one another. Since Fynn already knows how to follow the target, he can follow the target onto your hand at his pace, and then you can fade the target so that it isn’t needed anymore. Or, you can target Fynn to the top of his cage or to a perch affixed to the inside of his door.

For more ideas, go to http://www.behaviorworks.org and read Susan's and Lisa's article called "Right On Target", under "Written Works." It is always best to focus on what we want the animal to do, since after all, animals are built to behave and we can take advantage of that to empower them to do desired behaviors. There are some wonderful resources available to learn more about this: Dr. Susan Friedman’s excellent articles can be found at http://www.behaviorworks.org, Natural Encounters also has some quality avian training articles at http://www.naturalencounters.com and some great parrot training videos by Barbarah Heideneich can be found through http://www.goodbirdinc.com.

I wish you the best of luck with training Fynn!

Sincerely,
Cory
Cory Cordes
Animal Behavior Technologist
http://www.animallearningsolutions.com

filed under: Behaviour and Training

My name is Filippo, I own a congo grey since 1998. When I bought him I was
9 YO, and I have always been the only one in the family to take care of
him. The parrot was bought from a good breeder in my area, and he has been
handfed. In the past I have ignored him a little, but since a couple of
year I have tried to interact more with him. He spends the winter in a
100x50x140h cm cage in our kitchen, while in summer I move him in a
200x400x200h aviary in my garden, but very close to the house. I want now
to solve some of his behavioral problems:

1- BITE: yes, like many ignored parrots, he bites quite hard, and often
makes me bleed. Even if this is probably the greatest problem, I am
managing to solve it on my own, little by little, not trying to reinforce
the behaviour, and I immediately stop to interact with him and put him back
in his cage as soon as he tries to bite. Things are really going better,
even if sometimes he still bites, the frequency is much much lower than it
used to be. I have to say that he has always been a little pinchy, even when
he was a baby.

2- MATING: When I pet him and I play with him, he soon develops a
mating-like behaviour, moving up and down his head rhythmically, opening a
little his wings and regurgitating a little bit of food sometimes. I think
that these are mating behaviours, don't you think so? I don't know if I
have to reinforce, ignore or avoid them, but I tend to watch at them
positively. What do you think?

3- POO: It seems quite silly, but one of the greatest problems that I find
when I leave him free in the house is that he poos absolutely everywhere:
on my books, on the couch, on the bed, even on my own clothes. As you can
imagine, this could be very annoying and prevent me from letting him out a
lot. Is there a way to teach him to poo just in his cage or on his tower?

4- FRIEND: How do you see the introduction of another parrot in the family?
Could be a positive model or I will spoil the relationship I have with my
grey? And in case, it's better to get another grey or another species will
be ok? my dream is to get a macaw.

Thank you for your answer

Filippo

Category:
Behaviour and Training
Requestor Name:
Filippo Rivarossa

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hello Filippo! My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Supervisors at Natural Encounters, Inc. I’ve recently received the questions you submitted about your African grey, and I’d be happy to offer some input and advice. I’ll go ahead and tackle your four topics one by one below.

BITING
This is a very common thing that many parrot owners are faced with, and it sounds like it’s an issue that you are having some success dealing with. If you look at any behavior that an animal performs, it serves some function for them – it either gets them something that they want, or it gets them away from something that they want to avoid. Are you able to pinpoint certain places or situations in which your grey seems more likely to bite than others? All behavior is influenced by the environment at the time. Does he bite more around certain places, people, or objects? Looking for things in the environment that coincide with when biting happens can help you to start thinking about ways to set up the environment differently so that it is less likely that biting will occur.

Another important thing to be aware of are the variety of subtle body language cues that occur before your bird bites. There are a variety of small behaviors that your bird may display before biting – feather slicking down, movements becoming quicker, eyes pinning, etc – that are the bird’s way of saying that it doesn’t like something that’s happening at that moment, and your best bet is to respect those cues and take a step back. Learning to be sensitive to these cues will save you a lot of headache, and will help to make the bird feel more comfortable overall when it learns that it doesn’t need to bite in order to communicate to you what he does (or doesn’t) want.

Finally, if you can learn to read these body cues and begin to pinpoint the situations when biting might occur, you can ask yourself what you would rather have your bird do instead of biting at that moment. Any time we see a behavior that we don’t want to see repeated, we ask ourselves this question: instead of trying to stop this behavior, is there another behavior I can train the bird to do instead? For example, if a bird is biting when I bring my hand into his cage to step him up, I might decide to train the bird to step onto a perch near the door when I open it, and then to lift up his foot in order to tell me that he wants to step up in order to earn a treat. Most problems behavior, biting included, can be dealt with very successfully in this manner.

MATING
From the behaviors that you describe, I would guess that these are indeed behaviors that are associated with a bird that is closely bonded to you. Whether or not these are a good thing or a bad thing is up to the bird’s owner. Like you, I tend to think that it’s perfectly fine for a bird to display these behaviors for its human “mate.” Where you might run into trouble is if you want your bird to be able to spend time or otherwise interact with other people. Birds that are closely bonded to one person, much like a bonded bird in the wild, may take to threatening or even attacking others that encroach on their space or territory. Also, encouraging these breeding behaviors by pairing them with other things your bird might like (treats, attention, praise, toys, head scratches, etc) will likely increase the frequency of these behaviors in the future, so it’s just something to be mindful of.


POOPING
This can be huge challenge for companion parrot owners to deal with, but it is something that you can work on through training. Just like when we talked about biting, paying attention to body language is going to be very important. Before your bird poops, you may notice that there are a number of different signals that he displays beforehand – crouching down, loosening of the body feathers, a lifting of the tail, and leaning back on the perch are common things many birds do before relieving themselves. Learning these cues with be vital to successfully training your bird to poop on command. The other important thing for you to look at is to try to get a general idea for how often your bird poops. A smaller bird such as a grey will go to the bathroom more frequently than a larger bird like a macaw, so it may be as frequently as a few times per hour.

Here’s where the training comes in. First, identify where it is that you want the bird to go to the bathroom (in the cage, over some newspaper, on a particular towel, etc). Second, decide what you want your cue to be for the bird to poop. For example, you might say the phrase “go poop” or “go potty,” though it can be anything you decide. Next, when your bird is out and you see a sign that it looks like your bird is about to poop, ask him to step onto the hand, take him over to the place where you want him to go to the bathroom, say the cue that you want him to learn, let him poop, then follow that up with reinforcement that your bird really likes (praise, a treat, etc). Learning how often your bird tends to go to the bathroom will let you know roughly how often you need to be ready to follow the steps above, and following it up with a treat each time he poops after your cue – and never when you haven’t given the cue – will teach him what your cue means and why it is important.

The key to success here is going to be patience, consistency, commitment, and more patience. The more often you can follow this plan, the faster the bird will learn. Keep in mind that your bird will likely continue to go to the bathroom at times and in places that you don’t like, but by following the above plan these incidents will become far less frequent, and the interaction that your bird will get during this training will only help to strengthen your already strong relationship.

A FRIEND FOR THE BIRD?
The choice to add another bird to a one-bird family can be a difficult one, so it is great to hear that you are seeking advice before going ahead with it. It is possible that adding another parrot to the house could be a very positive addition to your grey’s life. At the same time, another bird may very likely be perceived as a threat to your bird, and something that he might try to harm. In either case, it is something that will very likely affect your relationship with your grey. Have you had the opportunity to see how your bird reacts around other companion parrots before? If so, this might give you an idea of how things might go with another bird around.

As for the question of what birds make good mates, many people decide to get birds of the same species as mates for their birds, though others may have birds of different breeds that become very closely bonded to each other. I would be cautious of trying to pair your bird up with something like a large macaw. In addition to the many challenges associated with having one of these large birds on their own, it may be very hazardous to have your much smaller grey interacting with a macaw, as their difference in size could make it very easy for the macaw to harm or even kill your grey if they got into a fight.

If you do decide to get another bird, the most important thing is to be very cautious and responsible in the way in which they are introduced. The two birds should have separate enclosures, and you can see how their behavior changes when these cages are kept closer or farther apart. If both birds are out of their cages, it should only be at a time when you are able to monitor them both closely, and be able to intervene immediately if a problem arises. Down the road it may be possible that the birds might be able to spend more time together, even time alone, but this should only be after you’ve seen that there is an extensive history of positive interactions between the two, and even then you need to recognize that there will always be the potential for negative interactions to occur. Just asking us these questions tells us that you are a caring and responsible bird owner, so taking it slow and always being aware and attentive are things that I’m sure will come very easily to you.

Thank you again for sharing your questions and challenges with us. I hope that the information that I have included here has been helpful, and please feel free to follow up with us again as more questions come up. Best of luck to both you and your bird!

Sincerely,
Chris Jenkins
Supervisor
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

I have an african grey parrot. His name is Gago. He is living with us now more than years. He speaks like a human being. He has vocabulary of over 100 words. He is very clever. Gago likes or loves my wife and he never bites my wife but he bites me when I want to put him in his cage or to take to other place in our home. Sometimes he bites me without giving any sign. I understand that he doesn't like me. How can I change his attitude to me? Thank you for your help.
Mehmet

Answered by Hillary Hankey:

Hello Mehmet, Sounds like you have a very intelligent parrot in your house. It’s never easy to be in a love triangle involving a bird, no matter what end you are working from. Good for you for seeking quality information on this behavior challenge. With a basic understanding of how behavior works and using a powerful tool in positive reinforcement, we can focus on a few key areas that will help you reduce the biting and build a better relationship with Gago.

Preventing the bite

Avoiding situations where Gago has bitten in the past or is more likely to bite is one of the most important steps we can take to improving your relationship with Gago. On the one hand, we want to keep him from rehearsing the biting behavior. Any behavior that is performed over and over again, whether it’s driving a car, showing off a card trick, or, as in this case, biting, is going to come more fluent and more efficient, which in this case, is not something we’d like to see happen! We don’t want that behavior becoming stronger, longer, faster, and more intense.

Additionally, when a parrot bites, it means we have put him in a situation where he feels that is his most effective – if not his only way - of getting his point across. A parrot usually gives signs through body language that he is uncomfortable or stressed before he bites. You noticed that Gago doesn’t always give a sign before he bites; good for you for looking for those signs! If in the past we have ignored those body language signals and continue interacting with the bird in the same manner, he will learn that the only behavior that gets his point across is biting. When the biting becomes so swift, we can look at two areas to help us prevent the bite from happening:

1. Identify environmental conditions that have usually preceded the bite. For instance, stepping the parrot up off of a favored person, putting our hand in front of his abdomen to step him up from a perch, and, as you mentioned, putting the bird back in the cage or taking him to an unfamiliar room are all very common conditions that we can reliably use to predict a bite.

Once we have identified the conditions, we can effectively avoid them! If he bites when you put him back in his cage, than we can have the person who has a stronger relationship with him be the one to do that until you are able to maintain a healthy relationship with him.  If being taken in to a strange room or being placed on an unusual perch has historically brought about a bite, then these too can be avoided.

2.  Look for the tiniest of signs that Gago might bite. These might include a tightening of feathers against the body, lowering his head, gripping his toes tighter on his perch, shifting his body weight in the opposite direction, taking a step away, even possibly just turning his eyes away from you… these are all tiny signs you might notice would precede a bite. Once you have identified these and see them while you are interacting with Gago, then you can stop what you are doing, and immediately return to the last place he was comfortable. This strategy will teach him that he can get across the point that he is uncomfortable without having to bite, allowing him to use less body language to get the same point across.

Become the bearer of all things good

In addition to avoiding situations that Gago would be most likely to bite, we can at the same time start increasing the value of having you close by Gago. We can remove all of Gago’s most favorite goodies, such as nuts, sunflower seeds, grapes, banana, and so on, from his food bowl and have them delivered to him by only you. Much like a child getting his dessert only after he has eaten his dinner, we are still allowing Gago to have his full diet, just arranging Gago’s personal favorite food items with teaching interactions so that he associates these highly enticing treats with activities he has previously found less desirable. You can either feed this to him by hand through the cage bars or on a perch, one goodie at a time. If Gago has a history of biting your fingers when you try to handfeed him, you can try using spoon to offer the treat or simply drop in his food cup. The idea is that once Gago starts to realize that every time he sees you, he gets something really yummy out of it, he will start looking forward to your presence.

Utilize a positive reinforcement program to build on his good behavior

Once Gago has started to associate your presence with his most favorite goodies, we can go about using positive reinforcement to give him information about what we want him to do in situations where he previously would have bitten. With positive reinforcement, we give the parrot something he likes, such as a food treat, scratch on the head, favored toy and so on, when he performs a behavior we want to see continue or increase. For instance, if there are certain scenarios where he will step on to your hand without biting, then we can immediately offer him a treat for doing so. It’s important to deliver that goodie promptly so that he associates it with the behavior we want. In this case, because he loves your wife so much, it could be that in order to have the opportunity to be with her, he steps up on to your hand. (There is a fabulous article about this written by Dr. Susan Friedman’s daughter here: http://www.thegabrielfoundation.org/pdffiles/year.pdf)

Something that might help us when we think of behavior and start to learn about positive reinforcement is analyzing the relative value certain activities might have for the bird. For instance, sitting with your wife sounds like it is a very high value activity for Gago. So could be sitting on a high perch with a panoramic view of the household, away from reaching hands and strange objects. On the other hand, walking in to a strange room or going back in to his cage, away his favorite person and away from the hub of socialization and enrichment, would have a significantly lower value to the bird.

When moving from a high value activity to one of lower value, we can use positive reinforcement to balance the value the bird might find from each activity.  Let’s take the example of Gago going back into his cage, a common environmental condition of parrots to bite. If every time your wife puts him back in his cage, he gets a lovely nut, the value of stepping on to that cage perch will increase. It might help to increase the overall value of being in the cage by making sure it is filled with lots of enriching toys, perhaps rotating the toys every few days so the environment stays fresh.

For further information about working with parrots through positive reinforcement is Barbara Heidenreich at www.goodbirdinc.com. She has a terrific magazine called “Good Bird!” and many articles and DVDs. Additionally, for more information about how understanding behavior can help us with our birds, you can visit Dr. Susan Friedman’s site www.behaviorworks.com and look for her articles under “Written Works.”

With a keen eye like you have demonstrated and armed with some information, I have no doubt you and Gago will be on the road to a better relationship. It takes patience and you can keep the sessions short and happy, and you will each come away feeling more empowered!

Hillary Hankey

filed under: Behaviour and Training

My 1 year old Congo African Grey (Bruno) loves to play. I often see him swinging on a rope upside down, making funny noises and pretending to attack toys hanging from the cage ceiling (or rather "defending" himself from the toys that are trying to "attack" him). When he is on the top of his cage, he loves to throw objects (like a small rubber ball) into the air, then run and pick it up, then throw again, run and pick it up and throw again and again.

My question is: is this type of active physical play normally seen in wild nature?

I know that parrots in the wild engage in play fights or flights to practice predator evasion. but that is more like a social play. Do wild African Greys play the same way as Bruno does? I heard an opinion that unless the bird is very well fed, it shouldn't be expending energy engaging in play like that. Every bit of stored energy should be used to obtain food, shelter and in other survival activities. Is that true?

Thank you, Lena

Answered by Jamie Gilardi:

Dear Lena, First of all, anytime a parrot exhibits play-like behavior, that's a very good sign indeed as it indicates that the bird is feeling good about life. After all, depressed, malnourished, or sick birds are really unlikely to be inspired to play.

Wild parrots, especially young birds in their first few years, are especially likely to exhibit behaviors which for us look like play. To the best of my knowledge, no one has spent enough time around wild Grey Parrots to have a really clear sense for how common this is in birds of various ages. Hopefully in the coming years, that will change and we'll get more of this kind of detailed information about their lives in the wild.

Very few wild animals are on such a tight energy budget such that expending some energy on play behavior would be of concern. Parrots in particular tend to feed on super abundant and very rich food. For example, one of the Grey's favorite fruits in the wild contains about 50% fat, so some of their preferred food items are extremely rich. Generally wild parrots feed a short period in the morning, and then spend most of the day resting, and then feed again in the mid-late afternoon. They have a lot of free time and should have ample energy for play should they be so inclined.

In any event, the more your bird spends time in play mode, the better. And the more different kinds of play you can introduce him to now while he's willing to try new things, the more likely he'll retain some of these playful, healthy activities later in life.

Good luck!

Jamie

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Hi Jim, I have three budgies. One is a female, six years or older. I adopted her a year ago. She will step up, and take treats from my hand. The second is a male, from the pet store, he is under one year of age. He steps up, will eat from my hand. The third was adopted, he was caught by a cat and had spent an undetermined time in the wild, I have had him for a few weeks. He is very timid and scared. They are in separate cages at the moment...is that the correct thing to do until I have formed a bond with them? I need advice on how to proceed with handling/taming them. (I have not clipped their wings) I would like to be able to let them have time outside the cages. My house unfortunately is very 'open plan' with few doors, so it is difficult to find a safe, smaller area to work with them. I have been going very slowly with trying to tame them, and would like advice on how to deal with three birds at once.


Answered by Jim McKendry:

G’day, Thanks for getting in touch with WPT with your question. Perhaps the first mindset to establish in achieving your long-term goal of building a trusting relationship with your third Budgie is that you can successfully build that relationship in the short-term whilst he is still inside his cage. As you are already aware, once he is out and about with the other two, arranging your environment so that you have opportunities to shape a positively reinforced association with you would be a real challenge. With a bunch of impeding variables that would be difficult, if not impossible, to control in an out of cage environment, let’s focus on what can be achieved while he is still in his cage.

Re-shape your goal set and focus on opportunities for you to put in place the following strategy…
First steps in developing a trusting relationship for you and this Budgie will be achieved by dedicating multiple times during the day when you can sit near his cage and allow him the time to observe you, become comfortable in your presence, and establish a reduced sense of threat from your presence in his environment.

This process is essentially allowing him to `gradually desensitize’ to you. To achieve this, gradually decrease the distance you are sitting from him when you observe that he is becoming more comfortable with you. This distance criterion is gradually shortened through observation of `calm’ indicators from his body language. Comfortable perching position, sitting on one foot, relaxed feathering, preening, feeding, drinking, vocalizing, playing with enrichment items, perching closer to you than moving away. These are all indicators that you can move closer and allow another period of time for him to establish comfort at that new distance.

As an already experienced and savvy Budgie owner, you will no doubt be well equipped to observe him and know when to raise your criteria for closer interaction. Combined with this, set his cage up so that there is a food bowl in a location that enables you to drop in a highly valued food treat as you walk past without having to put a hand in the enclosure itself. Each time you walk past his cage, drop a treat in there for him to hopefully start pairing the presence of you and your hand with the delivery of something of value to him.

Once your Budgie is observably comfortable with you sitting near his cage, start looking for opportunities to deliver those bowl treats for any slight movements towards you. From there the criteria can be raised to offering the food treat between the cage bars. A millet spray is a great reward for this and enables you to position your hand further away initially bolding the millet at the base and the seed head through the bars. If that criteria is achieved you can consider taking the next step and opening the door to deliver access to the millet spray by hand.

To improve your chances of success and to increase his potential motivation to move towards accessing a millet spray or seeds dropped in a bowl, make sure that you present these reinforcement opportunities at times prior to his normal feeding routine. If he has a full belly from his daily free feed then he will be less likely to be motivated to interact with you to receive the same thing that is on offer without the mental hoops to jump through.

Always assess his comfort and level of trust in you before raising your criteria. Sometimes people will suggest that this process is a case of two steps forward and one step back. I disagree. If you work sensitively with your Budgie you won’t be taking backward steps – just moving forward and building behavioural momentum towards your goal of having a trusting relationship with him.

Keep him separate or integrate him into your flock? For now I would definitely work with him on his own, in his own cage. It is much easier to control the variables and distractions that would make achieving your relationship building goals difficult if he were in with the other two. Budgies do thrive in flocks though and being a part of a flock enables a wealth of observational learning. Once you have established an improved level of trust and confiding responses in your presence you can consider co-housing all three of them. That would definitely be the long term goal. If your existing two Budgies are already savvy operators within your home and have regular fly arounds, I'm confident that you will find your guy is watching them and learning where suitable perching positions are. When he finally gets the chance to join them he will likely follow their lead - and then the fun begins grin

I would also highly recommend accessing the following articles available here at WPT for additional insights and for the `next steps’ once you have your Budgie literally `eating out of your hand’ ☺

http://www.parrots.org/pdfs/all_about_parrots/reference_library/behaviour_and_environmental_enrichment/PS%2019%201%20Feb%2007%20Parrot%20Trust%20SM.pdf

http://www.parrots.org/pdfs/all_about_parrots/reference_library/behaviour_and_environmental_enrichment/empowering_parrots.pdf

Best of luck from Down Under,
Jim McKendry
http://www.pbec.com.au

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Thank you for considering my question. I have a rainbow lorikeet that has ended up as my pet. I'm a WIRES carer and he (I can't be sure he is a male) came into my care in April as a displaced chick while he was a grey ball of down. I hand raised him with the intention of releasing him but at a certain point I took him to a vet who advised that he had beak and feather so was not releasable but that he could have a good life as a pet.

So at that point my partner and I started to treat him as a pet. A few weeks later I took him to another vet due to a thrush infection and while there, they did a DNA test that showed he does not have B&F. He does have poorly formed feathers though which the vet attributed to a nutritional &/or trauma incident related to him coming into care. He can fly in a limited way but needs to molt before he will be able to fly properly and the vet advised that he would not be releasable due to the length of time in care.

My partner and I love him very much and he has become known as Friend. I am a relatively new wildlife carer and we have never had a pet bird before so we have been figuring things out as we go.

Friend has a large cage but we try to let him out as much as possible and he loves interacting with us and is super playful. About two weeks ago Friend had been hanging out with me in my bedroom for about an hour, playing and exploring the space. At one point he just flew straight up from the bed and bit me extremely hard on my upper lip, drawing blood. I had to catch him to put him in his cage. He has since engaged in the same behaviour about 6 times with me, always going for my face and in particular my mouth; though he hasn't done it to my partner Nathan. We are both very attached with Friend though I am the one who feed him as a baby, I'm the one who does things like give him medication if he needs it.

I have started to recognize his precursor behaviour, his eyes pin and he stares intently at my face and there is just a shift in his body language. Each time he has bitten me (and now when he is starting to show the signs) we have put him back in his cage and waited for at least 15mins & he has settled down to get him out.

I'm afraid I'm starting to become fearful of handling him. I don't want him to be unhappy and I really don't want to be bitten.

I had thought that perhaps it was a result of hormones related to Spring but everything I have read says that they don't sexually mature until two years and he was only born around March/April.

As we don't know much at all about having a pet bird we haven't trained him at all and it was fairly common for us to have to catch him to put him in his cage when it was time. After reading info online I see how silly
that is and we're trying to use positive reinforcement of his much loved grapes to get him into his cage.

He use to do a thing where he would hop around our heads and shoulders and flap super rapidly for about 30secs and bite at our heads though not hard. We use to cover our faces while he flapped but we didn't stop him doing
it. Since the biting started we have not allowed him to engage in this behaviour on us.

I really want to sort out what is going on for him and I want to do the right thing by him and me. I would really appreciate some advise, I'm worried that I could be making it worse through ignorance.

He is molting at the moment and he spent last weekend at the vet because he had been regurgitating. The vet thought it was an infection though he was also treated for heavy metal poisoning just in case. I have given him his last dose of antibiotics tonight.

I'm more than happy to do as much research and training with him as I need to and Nathan & I are happy to go to as much effort as is needed. We would happily consider getting him a companion rainbow lorikeet and have been
thinking about it anyway as we want his social needs to be met especially during the day while we're at work. I was a little bit worried about the possibility of them not getting on and how to go about it. At this point I
feel like I need to sort out the issues with his behaviour before adding another bird into the mix. We would even consider taking him to live at a Wildlife park such as Featherdale if that was what was best for him. We would find it a very difficult thing to do but we would rather he was happy. He calls back and forth to the local wild lorikeets and they occasionally come down close to observe him. I just worry that having been a tame bird that going to
somewhere like Featherdale may also cause him problems and stress.

I'm sorry for the super long question but I want to give you the full picture. If you have any questions please let me know.

Thank you for your time.
Michaela

Answered by Susan Friedman & LLP Course Graduates:

Dear Michaela,

You asked Jim McKendry about Friend's behavior but he is unfortunately unavailable this month. I hope the responses from my team are helpful! S.

Hi Michaela,

Shauna from the LLP teaching team! It is a super call on your part to be looking into Friend's diet. Good nutrition is imperative to help assure a bird’s health (physical and behavioral) and longevity. This becomes even more critical in cases of malnutrition evidenced by poor feathering such as you describe with Friend. Malnutrition can result in a wide range of adverse effects by compromising a bird's state of overall well-being.

It’s important to keep in mind that there have been only a few wild Lorikeet or other parrot diet studies to date, resulting in very little information about species typical diets. However, it is also worth considering that what birds eat in captivity needn’t be absolutely identical to the diet of their wild counterparts, given the huge difference in lifestyles between wild and captive birds. The brass ring of nutrition is the health of each individual in the environment in which they live.

We do know that Lorikeets have some special dietary requirements such as a food regimen that is low in iron and not excessively high in vitamin A or vitamin C. To meet these needs in captivity a specialized diet is critical. A diet that isn't too high in iron and also doesn't contain excessive amounts of vitamin A is needed. A safe way to provide vitamin A is through beta-carotene, which is a precursor to vitamin A. Spirulina, in the correct amount, works well. The diet should also be diverse, including fresh fruits, a vegetable slurry, and a Lorikeet powder, Lorikeet pellet, or both. If offering Lorikeet pellets they can be left in a bowl all day. Also during the day a few whole foods, such as a whole berry hidden in a flower can be offered for foraging activity. Wildlife nutrition specialist from Australia, Debra McDonald, Ph.D., studied wild Lorikeet diet. Her product, Dr. Mac's formulated Lorikeet diet, may be available in your area. For more information, go to http://www.drmacs.com

Lorikeet slurry can be offered by combining some of the foods that are listed below with a blender. Slurries not only add fresh food to the diet, but they also provide phyto-nutrients and antioxidants, which formulated foods lack. Fruit also provides energy via natural sugars.

Fruits to consider for lorikeet slurry are as follows: papaya (include daily), mango, melon (several varieties to choose from), kiwi, apple, berries, lychees guavas, plum, peach, or apricot.

Vegetables you might include in the slurry: Sweet potato, carrot, beets, zucchini, squash. Always include some dark leafy greens, e.g., kale, mustard greens, collards, and dark leafy lettuces.

For some Lorikeet foraging enrichment, you can offer green beans, corn, and fresh flower blossoms such as nasturtiums, pansy, hibiscus, roses, sunflowers, zucchini flowers and dandelion.

Sprouted seeds can also be part of a healthy Lorikeet diet, and their addition will enhance overall nutrition by adding easy to digest protein, B- complex vitamins, and other nutrients.

Lory's can be fed twice a day such as offering a formulated Lory food next to a bowl of fresh water, some sprouted seeds in the morning, professionally formulated Lory food in the afternoon (next to fresh water again), and about 2 Tablespoons of slurry (mixed fruit and greens from a blender).

Foods to never offer are: honey, corn syrup or other refined syrups, molasses or table sugar. Refined sugars are not the same as plant sugars. Plants contain raffinose sugar, which act similarly to fiber and slows digestion time down. Refined sugars may negatively effect beneficial gut flora where as raffinose may be beneficial to gut flora. Also molasses is high in iron so not recommended for Lorikeets.

This is the diet protocol used at The Gabriel Foundation (TGF, a US parrot welfare organization). If you are able to offer Dr. Mac's Organic Lory Nectar then you should follow instructions for that product, which may be slightly different than what we do at TGF. All diet suggestions above are a combination of what has been used successfully at TGF and information shared by Dr. McDonald.


As with any diet change have a good scale on hand to keep an eye on Friend's weight. Be sure to get weights at the same time each day. An ideal time would be in the morning before breakfast, if that works with your schedule. Also be sure to discuss diet choices and changes with Friend's veterinarian.

All the very best,
Shauna

Hi Michaela,

Billie here! I’m also teacher from the LLP team. First of all, thank you for coming to WPT for help with your problem. It sounds like you are willing to do whatever is needed to give Friend a life-long home. With that willingness, you will succeed. While we can’t cover all the information in one short email, we can certainly give you more “food” for thought about how behavior works, and some resources to consider.

Your main behavior concern is that Friend flies to your face and bites your lips. I do not blame you for not wanting to get bitten -- especially in the face. Biting is not a necessary part of having a companion parrots by any means. At the same time, we don’t blame friend for biting because from his point of view, it works – or he wouldn’t continue to do it! Our plan for behavior change requires that we redesign the environment, including what you do, to reduce the signals to bite and to remove reinforcers for biting.

It’s very astute of you to recognize his body language just before flying at your face. You described that his eyes pin, he stares at your face, and he shifts his body. Those are excellent observations, which we can use as predictors or warning signs. What you can predict, you can usually redirect or prevent.

Let’s start with the most basic foundation of behavior: Behavior that is repeated always serves a function the behaving individual. If you can observe what that is you may be able to provide that reinforcer for an acceptable, alternative behavior. For example, if the most immediate consequence for biting is that you move away, than try to move away at the first warning sign, when his eyes pin. This empowers your bird to use his behavior for an effect; that’s what behavior is for! It is a separate learning objective to teach your bird to approach you willingly and with enthusiasm. You can teach that by reinforcing small steps toward your hand. Again, give coming to you more function (value) for Friend and he will do it more often.

Even if we can’t figure out what reinforces a behavior, we can often reduce it by reinforcing a different behavior, the behavior you want to see more often. This approach, differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior, is usually paired with ignoring the problem behavior at the same time. The problem with biting is that it really can’t be ignored. When you are bitten, you are going to have some kind of reaction to it. No matter what your reaction is, whether screaming, ducking, or you turning away, it is most likely the bird has already been reinforced for biting you. The feel of your skin on his beak, or on his tongue could well be a reinforcer for his behavior. Flight is another reinforcer to consider. It is also entirely possible, since this is a young bird, that Friend is testing the limits in his environment, i.e., learning how to gain valued outcomes and escape unpleasant ones. Another consideration is the number of times he has been captured, which you wisely note is more intrusive than other methods available.

It is essential that you completely avoid getting bitten since anything your bird has an opportunity to practice improves! Even a small bird can do serious damage, especially when flying to your face. And it probably reduces the quality of Friend’s life too, to have a biting relationship with his companion.

When we want to change a behavior, we need to change what happens just prior to the behavior, what happens just after the behavior, or both. We never want any bird to get the opportunity to practice biting so let’s focus on what happens immediately before the behavior that sets the occasion for the behavior to occur. We should also be aware of what any consequences might be that would be maintaining and escalating the behavior.

If possible, try to remember the 6 times that Friend flew at you to bite you. Some possibilities might be:

1. How long has Friend been out of his cage?
2. What activity was he engaged in at the time? Was it interrupted?
3. Who was in the room? Were people talking loudly or interacting in particular ways?
4. Were you talking animatedly or waving your hands?
5. Was your attention directed elsewhere?
6. What does the bird escape/avoid by flying and biting your the face? Was Friend returned to the cage? Medication time? Capture time?
7. What does he gain by flying and biting your face?

These details can be key. For example, if Friend is most likely to bite when he has been out an hour and has not had much to do, you could put him in his cage before the hour is up. Leave him out for 45 minutes and put him away. Or, you can give him toys to play with while he is out of his cage so he has plenty to do, which may increase the value of going back into the cage when he’s tired of playing.

In the wild, birds are on the move a lot of the time foraging for food, building nests, flying to different places. In our homes, we need to take care to provide some of these activities. Make sure Friend has lots of toys in his cage that he plays with and toys on the outside of his cage. You will learn what toys he likes best as you try different types. You can make a lot of toys yourself to keep the cost down. Craft stores have a lot of supplies you can use. Just make sure that any wood parts aren’t painted and that you don’t give him anything toxic. If he doesn’t play with them when first introduced, that can be a great training activity.

It is also important that they have down time hanging out, relaxing, preening and napping. They should also get adequate rest each night. It might take some detective work on your part to figure out what sets the occasion for the behavior to occur, but the effort is certainly worth it.

As you suggest in your email, positive reinforcement is the way to go. To that end, we would suggest getting some information on bird behavior. At http://www.behaviorworks.org there are some excellent articles. Once you get to the web site, go to “Written Works” and then “Learning and Behavior.” I would suggest you start with the article “He Said - She Said, Science says.” The others are excellent as well. Check out the articles in “The Success Files” area under “Written Works” that deal specifically with biting that might give you some useful information. Also you could start training some basic behaviors, such as stationing, turnaround, and targeting, as they are easy to train. You could then move to step up and step down, and recall. All the time respecting the body language that says, “No thanks!” There are some wonderful articles at ww.naturalencounters.com and great videos on training your companion bird available at Barbara Heidenreich’s website. Her web site is http://www.goodbirdinc.com.

We know you will succeed! Have fun; teach and learn together!
Good luck!
Billie

filed under: Behaviour and Training


Hello, I took in a Yellow Collared macaw about 18 months ago. He is now about 18 years old and has spent most of his life being neglected, mistreated and passed from home to home. I know that he has been flicked and hit on the beak, had his cage hit to stop him screaming and at one stage was left in a back room for years because he was so loud. (there is more bad treatment in his past, but exactly what it was I don't know). When I first saw him he would lash out at the cage bars when anyone came near his cage. He also hadn't been out of his cage in years or been able to bath in that time (he could only get his head into his tiny water bowl).
he is doing a lot better now, I have gotten rid of his swearing, he whistles for attention instead of screaming (most of the time), he gets out, wanders around exploring, and will usually end up sitting on my foot
playing with my shoe laces and preening, i have also got him to step on and off a dowel so i can move him around.

The problem is you cannot get a hand close to him without him biting a finger right to the bone (can't blame him considering what hands have done to him in the past). On a few occasions he has stepped from the dowel onto my hand and for a second he seems relaxed, then suddenly his eyes pin, the feathers on his neck stand up and he latches onto a finger. Occasionally he will let you scratch his head through the cage bars, but only for a few seconds and then, eyes pin, neck feathers up and he lashes out. he is always showing he wants attention, but when you get close with a hand it is almost like he has a "flashback" to his previous experiences with hands.

Whenever possible I try reinforce when he is relaxed around hands. the question now is, is there hope that he will get over his fear of hands,or is it possible his fear is just too deep and he will always have a problem with hands? Will he be better off if i find him a partner and build an aviary for them, or possibly even send him to a sanctuary where he wont need to interact with people? I have to admit that I am a little wary of him after nearly needing stitches a few times, but i am happy to put in more time and effort if that is what is needed. In the end it is about what is best for him. Some advice would really be appreciated.

Thanks
Bruce

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hi Bruce, My name is Melissa Williams, and I am one of the trainers with Natural Encounters, Inc.

It is so awesome of you to take this bird on and give it the kind of home it deserves! Working with animals always has its challenges, but when you bring a history of mistreatment and neglect into the picture a whole other set of challenges arise. The good news, however, is that with patience (which you seem to have a lot of) and positive reinforcement you have the opportunity to rebuild trust and continually work on the relationship! It's great that you have already taken so many steps in the right direction: making sure he has the opportunity to bathe, giving him enough space, and giving him attention on a level that he is comfortable with. Because of the negative experiences he’s had in the past, it may take a longer period of smaller progressions until he is comfortable stepping up and spending time on your hand, but I do believe it is possible, especially with the progress you have made so far. One thing to keep in mind is to only move forward as fast as the bird is comfortable. The other thing to consider is if and how the bird would benefit from learning to step onto and spend time on your hand to begin with. While it may seem like a simple behavior to us, it is a big step to ask a bird to step onto what, for them, is probably a much less stable surface than a perch or dowel, and one that will likely bring them into much closer proximity to the body of the person doing the handling.

One of the goals is to keep every interaction positive, even if that means keeping interactions short and having more of them throughout the day. Because you mentioned he has a history of biting, he has likely learned to bite when he gets uncomfortable in order to go home and be left alone. Your goal will be to continue to be sensitive to smaller changes in his body language that occur before biting to allow the bird to let you know when he is uncomfortable, so that you can avoid having to get into a biting situation in the first place. By keeping each interaction short, you put him home or give him the space he likes to feel comfortable before he feels the need to practice biting. This also allows you to reinforce each positive interaction you have since it ends when he is still comfortable. As time goes on and your relationship builds, you will be able to slowly increase the amount of time you spend giving him attention, but it will have to be very slowly.

It's also great that you are working on reinforcing him for being calm when hands are around. Another great way to actively desensitize him to hands would be to start with your hands at a distance where the bird is comfortable and reinforce his successively smaller movements closer and closer to them, instead of bringing the hands closer and waiting to see when the bird becomes uncomfortable; this empowers the bird to use his body language to determine what distance is acceptable. You can start by placing your hands several feet away from him (or the closest point that he is completely comfortable with) and having some of his favorite treats a few steps towards your hands in front of him so that he has to take a step or two towards your hand to get them. Because he has an aversive history of hands approaching him, this gives him the power of choice as to whether to approach your hand or not. Once he seems completely confident approaching your hand at that distance, you can begin to move the reinforcements slightly closer to your hand, keeping in mind to keep your hand very still and not make any sudden movements that could make him nervous. Eventually, the end goal would be him walking up to you, stepping onto your hand, and taking the reinforcement nicely out of your fingers. It is important to help build his confidence by giving him the opportunity to approach an object or person whenever possible instead of them approaching him.

I think he has found a wonderful home with you and your immense amounts of patience. All of the negative experiences he has had in the past will have to be slowly and surely replaced with positive reinforcement and positive interactions that will build the trust necessary for a good relationship with him, but I believe it can be done! We wish you the best of luck, and look forward to hearing about your successes in the future.

Sincerely,
Melissa Williams
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

My Question: Regarding a rescued 7 yr old male African Grey. I obtained "Steve" from a friend who works at an avian rescue. She was fostering him, and I felt I could offer Steve a lot of patience. His first owner got him young, as a talking novelty but neglected him, never gave him destructible toys, and never noticed that he was mutilating under his wings after he had escaped outside for 5 days and been rescued. The mutilation was discovered when she surrendered him. He was in the rescue for 2 years and basically was extremely fearful and nearly motionless. He was to be euthanized because his mutilation wounds wouldn't heal, but I've now had him for 9 months. He had already stopped mutilating when he was fostered, and except for picking at his neck feathers slightly, he's looking very healthy and is starting to have a bit of spark in his eyes.

He has learned to target beads from my hand, which he drops into a cup, and then gets a small nut reward. He does move around his cage to forage for wrapped pellets, but basically sits all day and doesn't want to come out.

I think he has bonded to me - he solicits head rubs nightly, and calls to me when I've left the room, but he won't come out. I have to stick my hand in, and it's as if we start all over: he's nervous, then gradually relaxes. (Because of his mutilation wounds, the rescue workers would remove him from his cage by his neck for vet visits! No wonder he's paranoid about hands.)

I provide tons of toys, leave his cage door open daily - sometimes he comes out on a perch on the door, but only if I'm sitting or lying down, and he returns immediately to his cage if I get up. He has the company of a mature Jardine's parrot and 2 cockatiels (all in separate cages). All ignore him and he ignores them.

Steve is a very fearful guy. For practical reasons (like vet visits) and for his own growth and life enjoyment, I'd like to be able to eventually get him used to my hands outside of head scritching time, but that may take quite a while. He's extremely sensitive to emotions and thoughts like a finely tuned radar!

Do you have any advice to help Steve rehabilitate and lessen his fear response - a fear basically about everything (even the placement of old and new toys). He does chew hanging toys, but mostly when he's nervous, rather than for play or exploration. It's as if he doesn't have a clue how to play, which makes sense, given his history.

My other birds are quite normal and I've been hoping that Steve watching them be normal might help.

Thanks for your kind perusal of my case! I love the guy and want him to be as happy as he can be, under the circumstances.

Shannon Ryan

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hello Shannon, My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Supervisors with Natural Encounters, Inc. Thank you for taking the time to seek out information that will help you to provide Steve with the best care and welfare possible. I have several thoughts that I'd like to share about your situation, as well as some ideas on where to go from here.

In the work that we do with our animals, we discipline ourselves to focus on the observable behaviors that an animal exhibits. Since we can't know what's going on in their heads, looking at changes in their body language and behaviors in response to stimuli in their environment and responding in kind is the best way that we can communicate with them. Good two-way communication is the goal in all our interactions: being able to interpret whether or not the stimuli in a given situation (toys, objects, environmental distractions, an animal’s caretakers, etc) are something that the animal wants or something that the animal wants to get away from. You've provided some great examples of observable behaviors that occur in conjunction with discrete environmental events: putting down his head to solicit scratches from you when you are in proximity to his cage, and avoidance behaviors when a hand is presented inside his cage. Our goal is to try to find a way to take the behaviors that you want to see more of and make them things that Steve actively seeks to be a part of.

It is quite possible that in Steve's past he was subjected to a fair amount of punishment and negative reinforcement. Forcing a bird to step up by pushing your hand up against their chest, grabbing them by the neck to get them out of a cage, or chasing them around a room to get them to go back home are all things that might be done to a bird with no intention of causing them harm or discomfort. In the animal's mind, though, these are likely very negative experiences, and he will do everything he can to avoid or minimize his exposure to these events in the future. It is very likely that Steve has had a variety of negative experiences involving people's hands, maybe even for the entirety of his life. The amazing thing about behavior, though, is that it is ready-made to be flexible and respond to new information in the environment - every day is a chance for Steve to start building a brand new outlook on the humans that he spends his time with.

If the behavior that he are hoping to see is stepping willingly onto the hand, we first have to ask why the animal would want to perform the behavior. If we ask the question "What's in it for me?" from the animal's perspective when considering a behavior, we can begin to form a plan about how to take steps towards making this behavior something the animal will look forward to doing. This is in contrast to forcing an animal to be compliant. If you present your hand into the cage and Steve shows nervous body language (feathers slicked tight, moving to the other side of the cage, lunging/biting at the hand) but then calms down and submits, he may have learned in the past that this is something that he simply can't get away from, and therefore has no choice but to submit to. Our goal, however, is to create a bird that is not only willing but eager to step up because of a long, strong history of positive experiences being associated with stepping up. If a step onto the hand is always paired with praise, a favorite toy, a scratch on the head, or preferred foods treat, it is highly likely that Steve will look forward to being able to step up again in the future.

Of course, the execution of this plan requires discipline and patience, both qualities that it seems that you've already demonstrated with your bird. If I was in your shoes, my first step would probably be to take my hand out of the picture completely for the time being. With a bird that's nervous stepping up or being on the hand, I first try to build a solid relationship of trust through repetitions of simple behaviors that the bird can perform inside the cage. Target training – teaching an animal to touch a particular object to earn a reward – is an excellent place to start because it keeps the animal actively scanning the environment to figure out where it needs to go or what it needs to do to in order to earn reinforcement. Using good positive reinforcement techniques – keeping approximations small at first and moving ahead at the bird’s pace, offering a treat every time the bird performs the right behavior, taking a step back when the animal seems confused or frustrated, ending sessions when the animal demonstrates that it no longer wants to participate – will help not only by teaching Steve a variety of new behaviors, but each and every positive experience you are a part of helps to strengthen your relationship with him, a crucial component of all human-animal interactions.

Since playing with new toys is also one of your goals, you can train him to interact with new objects in the same way that you trained him to target to the beads in your hand: reward him for looking at the object, then for making a small move towards it, then for touching it for a moment, then for interacting with it for extended periods of time. If each step is paired with something Steve likes, the act of interacting with the object will likely become reinforcing in and of itself just because of the long history he has built up of good things happening in conjunction with doing this behavior. Not only will interacting with new objects help to get Steve to be more active, but it is very likely that it will have a beneficial effect on his feather plucking behavior as well.

As to the specific behavior of Steve stepping onto the hand, I would start with a behavior that he is already doing, walking out onto a perch on the open door of the cage. This starts by offering reinforcement for maintaining calm, comfortable body posture first for allowing the door to be opened a bit, then a bit more, and eventually for coming to the perch on the door. Each time he gets a little closer to this, I would praise him verbally and drop a small treat in one of his bowls. Even if he will take a treat from your hand through the walls of his cage, I think it would do more harm than good at this point to try to offer him a treat right through the open door. He may be fine with this, though – paying close attention to his body language throughout this process will be the key to making progress. Any time he leans or walks away or demonstrates what you would interpret as “nervous” behaviors, that is your cue to move back (both physically and to an earlier step where Steve was having progress). Through time and repetition, Steve will stay comfortable while a hand is presented at a distance, then slightly closer, then closer still, until it is near the perch on the door. When you get to a point when he is approaching the hand, you can try to present the treat in such a way that he was to lean across your hand to get it. If he does that, then you can see if he’ll put one foot on it, then eventually two feet, and finally stepping up and being moved slowly and steadily away from the perch. If done correctly, Steve will always have the power to say “no thank you” simply by choosing to walk away from the training session, and if he seems nervous while on the hand he should be set back down on his perch straightaway. Respecting his comfort level and trying again later is another critical component to good communication, and will only make him that much more likely to want to participate the next time a training session comes along.

Having respect for the bird by honoring their right to say no, keeping a close eye on his body language at all times, consistently striving to present positive consequences for desired behaviors, and seeking to avoid the use of aversive stimuli whenever possible will open your relationship with Steve to a world of nearly limitless behavioral possibilities. Always make sure to work at the bird’s pace, though, and be mindful that setbacks will occur. Instead of getting frustrated, just know that every mistake or setback is just an opportunity to start again with new information. Indeed, quite often our mistakes teach us more than our successes, and if we learn from them they most definitely will become less frequent as time passes and we gain increased experience, insight, and sensitivity.

I hope that you’ve found this information to be useful, as these tools have proven to be invaluable to the work that we do with our animals each and every day. If you haven’t done so already, I would also encourage you to check out the articles that we have posted on our website, http://www.naturalencounters.com, as they contain great information about bird behavior, training, and enrichment.

We wish you the best of luck, and we hope that you and Steve have many years of great interactions ahead of you!

Sincerely,

Chris Jenkins
Supervisor
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Hi Eb, you helped us about 11 years ago (when we were living in Flagstaff AZ) to teach our macaw, Cyrano (then 2-3 yrs old, now 14 years old) to land by dropping her onto the bed. This was so she wouldn't crash since as a clipped fledgling she never learned to fly or land and also to encourage her to flap her wings for exercise.

Fast-forward to now. We have a 4 year old Red-fronted macaw (Sorata) who fledged as a baby, is an adept flyer & loves to fly! And does throughout the house. Cyrano has continued to dislike it and never initiates flight. Seeing Sorata's joy and fitness, we've been working with Cyrano the last 5 mo to fly short distances to us, and while she gets excited and has gotten better & lands on us, it still seems to scare her. She used to flap her wings while gripping onto us after baths but now doesn't do that. She also used to flap to exhaust herself before Tom has to towel her for wing/beak clippings, but the other day she flew off him & crashed & hid under the chair, very scared. She seems nervous in our large bedroom where we fly her. We're realizing it's not worth it, that the whole flying thing stresses her, and that we'll just quit & try to get her back to flapping while holding on to us. Do you agree - if so how do we get her back to just flapping? Or have any thoughts on if and how we can gently help her learn to like flying. We're in a bit of a conundrum & just want her to be happy & healthy. As the alpha female, we're also wondering if it's stressful watching her kid sister fly all around so easily - but maybe that's just fine for all. Thank you!

Answered by E.B. Cravens:

Linda, The one thing about flight training for fearful and never-fledged parrots is that it never really ends. At least not until they are totally skilled and strong and confident. For Cyrano to develop this type of flying, it will take lots of further progress from just the initial drop-and-flap training two or three feet off the bed with which you begin.

Every time he takes off in flight and/or crashes is essentially a step backward in his development. Hence these situations are to be avoided at all costs.

Yes, flapping exercise on the hand is good and will strengthen his torso, but much of landing has to do with technique and that just takes practice.

It would be best to analyze the WAY Cyrano flies. Does he always go straight ahead and end up going too fast to actually land well, hence falling forward on his face? Does he always fly down? Upwards? Parrots, especially large macaws, who over flap once taking off may gain too much speed and do not always have the skill to feather their wings, brake in the air, look downwards, put out their feet, and land on an object. In a household these things are even harder since macaws are evolved to fly hundred of yards at a time if they flap strongly. That's why three and four and six-foot flap and lands are great indoor training.

If Cyrano is over-speeding, I would advise trimming the first two (sometimes later a third) strongest thick-ribbed flight feathers on each wing to slow his power down about 15%. This will not affect the landing progress.

You need to make this process as easy as possible for Cyrano, so that he does it time and again until it becomes second nature. One goes about this by establishing a comfortable and stable "landing site." April and I use large handle baskets with our fledglings. They have the advantage of being able to be moved around the room to change flight patterns and visuals--but never change the recognizable landing site so that the bird begins to grow in confidence. Other such sites would be the back of a recliner draped with a large stable bath towel, or the wood on a portable perch (which does not shake 1) and can also be covered with the strong towel. Top of the cage with the towel, humans arm wrapped in the towel, etc, etc.

Get the point? Some 75% of correct landing for inexperienced birds is the mental aspect. That means that before taking off, the parrot that already KNOWS where he is going to try and land will have a singularly better chance of doing it smoothly. After fifty or a hundred such proper landings, you will notice that Cyrano begins to make an instantaneous decision WHILE AIRBORNE on where to land--say, by taking off, deciding to turn around in mid air, spotting his towel takeoff spot (obviously the more large towels of the same color around the room the better!) and returning to land on the same place.

This, by the way, illustrates the number on failure in most hand-feeding nursery fledging methods: the keepers do not control the mental side of the initial flights by establishing clear recognizable landing spots; instead they just let baby birds take off and go wherever they will and they end up with panicked chaotic crashes, impacts on windows, grabbing on door frames or picture frames or curtains, etc., instead of precise hop and flap landings on easily recognizable objects.

Regarding Sorata's flying. I would venture that its always a bit stressful for a macaw that has been living alone to all-of-the-sudden be confronted with another large parrot flying around the room---certainly if the Red Front flits by Cyrano or lands nearby or such. A parrot taking wing is a grand inducement for the nearby parrot to take off immediately also. Your Blue Throat (I believe it was...) would surely be drawn to fly in tandem on impulse, but being unable or fearful, would experience some fretfulness. Incidentally, an "alpha" bird as you termed it, is often the one that is the best flyer in the home. This might explain Cyrano's increased nervousness or wish to avoid things by hiding under a chair.

It might be possible to devise some "games with treats" that prompt Sorata to fly from point A basket or soft spot to point B and back and forth, giving Cyrano a turn each time and a treat reward for joining in the game of practice flying.

Whatever you do, don't give up! You have a golden opportunity here to improve the life of both your macaws. Just a little imagination and a lot of perseverance, and you will be quite pleased with the outcome.

With aloha, EB

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Dear Susan, I have two Monk parakeets that will be one year old in June. They are active and appear to be in good health, but I have been reading everywhere that parrots should be brought for an yearly veterinary visit to ensure they health condition. Can you confirm to me if this is necessary or if it would be a useless stress for them? Thank you for your consideration and have a good day.

[Editor's note: Original question received in Italian, English translation provided above]
Ho 2 parrocchetti monaci che hanno 1 anno a giugno, sono vispi e apparentemente in salute ma leggo ovunque che bisognerebbe far fare una visita annuale per essere più sicuri sul loro stato di salute. mi conferma se è proprio necessario o se potrebbe essere un inutile stress per loro? grazie dell'attenzione e buona giornta

Answered by Susan Friedman & LLP Course Graduates:

Dear Giulia, Thank you for asking your question. My area of expertise is behavior change, not avian veterinary medicine; however I found your question about yearly health exams interesting from a behavioral point of view.

It is commonly recommended that parrots have a yearly veterinary exam to ensure their heath condition, although not all possible tests need to be run routinely every year. The final decision on what tests should be included yearly varies, and is usually based on the veterinarian direct observation of the bird and the caregiver’s report. This information establishes a baseline from which changes in your bird’s physiology and behavior can be monitored for the earliest possible detection and treatment of any problems, both visible and invisible to caregivers, which may arise.

The behavioral part of your question is so important: You asked if yearly health visits would be a useless stress for our parrots. The subject of patient stress is important to consider one two levels -1) the bird’s discomfort, and 2) the potential for stress to invalidate medical data. This means that reducing patient stress is a number one priority for our birds during all activities related to accomplishing yearly exams including preparation for the visit at home, transport to and from the exam, and during the exam.

From a behavioral point of view, we need to consider what stress looks like in observable terms. How will you know if your bird is stressed? Or, more to the point: What does an unstressed bird look like? The body language and behavior we consider representative of stress can vary by species and individuals. Observe carefully your bird’s feather positions, body posture, and the position of the legs, wings, eyes, beak, and head during times when your bird is alert but calm. To the greatest extent possible, that’s what we want our bird to display throughout exam day.

The best way to meet this goal is to do a task analysis of every activity that will occur during exam day and then teach your bird how to do each activity using our best teaching strategies, for example shaping new behaviors with positive reinforcement. The time to teach a bird calm transport and exam behavior is not the day of the appointment! Plan ahead and start teaching one behavior at a time, now. Teach your bird to willingly enter and exit a carrier, remain relaxed during transport, step on and off a scale, relax while held in a towel.

You don’t need to have all the behaviors mastered before the exam. Each behavior you do successfully teach your bird to do, will strengthen your relationship and help your bird be resilient to a temporary withdrawal from your “trust account”. There are stressors in every animal’s life that can be easily overcome when they live an empowered lifestyle in general.

[Editor's note: Original question received in Italian, English translation provided above]
Cara Giulia, Grazie per aver inviato la tua domanda al Forum di Esperti del WPT.
La mia area di competenza è la modifica del comportamento, non la medicina veterinaria. Tuttavia, ho trovato interessante dal punto di vista comportamentale la tua domanda sulle visite veterinarie annuali.

Generalmente, si raccomanda di far svolgere una visita veterinaria annuale ai pappagalli per verificare il loro stato di salute, anche se non è necessario sottoporli annualmente a tutte le analisi disponibili. La decisone finale sulle analisi da svolgere ogni anno può variare, e generalmente si basa sulle osservazioni da parte del veterinario e su quanto gli viene riferito dal proprietario. Queste informazioni rappresentano le basi dalle quali i cambiamenti della fisiologia e del comportamento dei pappagalli possono essere monitorati per poter individuare e curare il prima possibile qualsiasi problema che possa emergere, sia visibile che invisibile ai proprietari.

L'aspetto comportamentale della tua domanda è molto importante: chiedi se queste visite annuali possono provocare uno stress inutile ai nostri pappagalli. Vi sono due aspetti importanti da considerare nello stress nei pazienti: 1) il disagio del pappagallo, e 2) la possibilità che lo stress alteri i risultati medici. Questo significa che la riduzione dello stress nei pazienti è la priorità più importante per i nostri pappagalli durante tutte le attività relative alle visite veterinarie annuali, come la preparazione a casa per la visita, il trasporto per e dal veterinario, e durante la visita stessa.

Dal punto di vista comportamentale è necessario considerare come appare lo stress in termini osservabili. Come farete a sapere se il vostro pappagallo è stressato? Più precisamente: Come appare un pappagallo non stressato? Il linguaggio corporeo e il comportamento che riteniamo sia rappresentativo dello stress varia tre le diverse specie e i singoli esemplari. Osservate attentamente la posizione delle penne del vostro pappagallo, la posizione del corpo, e quella dalle zampe, delle ali, degli occhi, del becco, e della testa, quando il vostro pappagallo è vigile ma calmo. E' così che vorremmo che il nostro pappagallo si sentisse il più possibile nel giorno della visita veterinaria.

Il modo migliore per raggiungere questo obiettivo è di analizzare gli interventi necessari per ogni attività che si verificherà durante la giornata della visita veterinaria, e poi di insegnare al pappagallo come svolgere ogni attività usando i nostri metodi migliori per l'insegnamento, per esempio lo 'shaping' di nuovi comportamenti usando il rinforzo positivo.
Il momento per insegnare al vostro pappagallo ad essere calmo durante il trasporto e la visita, non è il giorno dell'appuntamento! Pianificate in anticipo e iniziate ad insegnare un comportamento alla volta, da subito.
Insegnate al vostro pappagallo ad entrare e ad uscire volontariamente dal trasportino, a sentirsi tranquillo durante il trasporto, a salire e a scendere da una bilancia, a rilassarsi quando è avvolto in un asciugamano, ecc.

Non avrete bisogno di perfezionare ogni comportamento prima della visita. Ogni comportamento che insegnerete con successo al vostro pappagallo rinforzerà il vostro rapporto, e lo aiuterà a resistere temporaneamente a un prelievo dal “conto fiduciario”. Vi sono degli stressor nelle vite di ogni animale che possono essere superati facilmente quando le loro vite sono generalmente stimolanti e gratificanti.

filed under: Behaviour and Training


Hi Jim,
I recently read an article on the top dangers associated with injury and death in parrots. High on the list was not clipping your bird’s wings. Examples given were the risks of flying into windows, mirrors, hot pots and escape. They recommended that all pet birds be clipped. Another article I came across a while back said that more than half of all birds lost were clipped and that fully flighted birds had a higher retrieval rate due to being better able to escape predators and often survive for long enough to be retrieved. I personally have had a few very close calls when my birds were clipped and stopped clipping about 2 years ago (I think having clipped birds made me complacent and gave me a false sense of security. With flighted birds I am far more aware of possible dangers). I have five dogs and my neighbours all have dogs and cats so a clipped bird would not last very long if it got out. A flighted bird would at least stand a chance of surviving long enough to be retrieved so I think flighted is a better option for me. The ultimate solution would be an outdoor flight and flight training. There are a lot of contradictory opinions on the matter. While both clipped and unclipped have risks attached, is one necessarily a much less risky option than the other? I would like to get some more thoughts on the subject. Thanks, Bruce.


Answered by Jim McKendry:

G’day Bruce.
Thanks so much for accessing WPT for some advice and additional food for thought on what is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues surrounding the keeping of parrots as companion animals. I am a major advocate of maintaining full flight capability of all parrots kept in captivity and I strongly feel that we need to make a fundamental shift away from 19th and 20th century paradigms of thinking about what is acceptable and not acceptable in regards to our expectations of companion parrots and develop a 21st century approach towards their care, training and management. Simply – parrots are `built to behave’ in a range of specific biologically functional ways. The foundation of that functional behaviour is the capability of flight. Indeed, it is when we start to attempt to modify the anatomy of our parrots or create expectations of them that are completely incompatible with the expression of their natural biological tendencies that we then experience `behaviour problems’. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that when we keep parrots in contexts that afford them opportunities to socialize, fly, vocalize, establish territories, forage, breed and behave in biologically functional ways that we experience very few difficulties with their care. In my nearly 20 years of keeping parrots, and over 10 years of consulting with owners, wing clipping is, from my own anecdotal experience, perhaps the number one precursor to many of the most significant behavioural health issues I encounter and subsequent reasons for their failure in pet homes. I don’t subscribe to the common thought that wing clipping is `a personal choice’. A personal choice for the bird or the owner? If we are genuine and authentic about promoting relationships with parrots as pets built on a foundation of respect, trust and appreciation for accommodating them to the best of our abilities then such decisions should be made in the primary interest of what is ultimately the best for the bird – not simply to cater for the limitations of the owner’s environmental circumstance. A 21st century approach to companion parrot care embraces their flight capability and challenges owners to develop both the appropriate training skills to manage that successfully and to create an appropriate environment to ensure that flight is catered for safely. Ultimately – it’s our expectations of our parrots as pets and the environment that we provide for them that need to be modified – not their wings. The justifications and rationale presented for wing clipping really don’t maintain validity today. Flying into windows, getting stuck in the toilet or the frying pan, escaping out the door are all examples of problems with the management of the flighted bird – not the capability of flight itself. I often use the analogy that if your pet dog ran out of the gate and bit the postman on the leg would you tie his legs up to prevent that from happening again or would you just make sure the gate is locked? Parrots, unfortunately, are just about the last of our companion animals that are subject to socially endorsed physical modification. We no longer tail dock or ear trim dogs (at least not here in Australia) and educated people would consider de-fanging of a captive venomous snake to be safely kept as a pet inhumane. These are practices that were once accepted but are no longer. It’s a shame that some members of the veterinary community still seem to endorse wing-clipping and continue to promote dominance hierarchy based approaches to their handling and training, hence providing much of the social validity for their practice. What we really need to be advocating and striving for is improved education for a modern approach to the keeping of a parrot as a pet and being progressive about our approaches to parrot care.

I wrote a three-part article for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine back in 2008 that provided a very thorough overview of the keeping of flighted parrots. You can access this material via backorder of the Aug/Sep 2008, Oct/Nov 2008 & Dec/Jan 2009 issues of Australian Birdkeeper Magazine at http://www.birdkeeper.com.au. The second and third articles provide insights into the training and management of flighted companion parrots – definitely well worth reading. Much of the following rationale for maintaining flight in companion parrots is excerpted from the first article in the series…

Let’s Define the Boundaries
Any discussion of `flight’ and `companion parrots’ really needs prefacing with a clear distinction between the concepts of a `flighted parrot’ and a `free-flighted parrot’. The focus of this article is strictly on the philosophy, training and management of `flighted’ parrots, birds allowed full flight capabilities but kept indoors or within a suitable flight enclosure. It is critical for parrot owners to realise that successful and ethical keepers of flighted companion parrots know their limitations, their bird’s limitations, and have a conscious awareness of controlling as many of the potential variables that come into play with the keeping of flighted birds. This is only achieved through the implementation of proper training and the provision of suitable and safe housing. When we choose to keep a flighted parrot we must also accept an essential set of responsibilities and obligations. These are...
• Ensuring the safety and welfare of our birds at all times through careful arrangement of their flight environment and;
• Protecting the biodiversity and biosecurity of our surrounding natural environment by not allowing a flighted parrot outside of a flight enclosure or secure indoor flight space
Adhering to the above will ensure that risks associated with flight are minimised or completely negated.

Why have a flighted pet parrot?
In my experiences as a keeper of flighted companion parrots for many years, working professionally with free-flighted birds at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, and through consulting with pet parrot owners on behaviour management, I have been able to identify and validate the following reasons why maintaining flight is so important for our parrots...

Increase in functional behaviours: Parrots that have retained their flight capabilities can be observed functionally engaging with their environment at higher levels than parrots deprived of flight. We often perceive this enhanced level of engagement as an increase in `confidence’ and I would certainly agree with that. Functional behaviours, such as foraging and exploratory behaviour provide the foundation for improved behavioural outcomes in companion parrots. Flight facilitates a significant enhancement in a parrot’s control over its environment through providing additional scope for decision-making and choice. When empowered with these opportunities, parrots can be seen to cope better and adapt more successfully to the limitations of the captive environment.

Reduction in development of stereotypical behaviours: As an increase in exploration and engagement with their environment is observed, often there is a corresponding decrease in the development of stereotypical behaviour. Whilst flight is not the magic cure for removal of behaviours such as feather picking and other significant behavioural health issues, it is often a critical component of a management plan to avoid their development or reduce their occurrence once established.

Reduction in level of dependency: The next step along a continuum of behavioural development that is supported through flight is a reduction in the level of dependency on the human carer. Parrots deprived of flight often become almost totally reliant upon the human carer for movement around their environment. We can acknowledge that flight is important to a parrot in supporting an enhanced level of physical engagement with its environment. It is reasonable then to suggest that with that comes a degree of independence that may potentially reduce behavioural problems associated with an over-reliance on human carers for social and environmental stimulation.

Enhancement of relationship with owner through improved training and reinforcement schedules: Keeping a parrot that can fly challenges the companion parrot owner to develop their own skills in the training and management of a pet that is empowered with independence and options for greater influence over its environment. In my experience this sets up wonderful learning and relationship development experiences for both the companion parrot and the owner. The relationship that an owner of a flighted pet parrot has with their bird is one that demands a foundation of trust and positive reinforcement history. It can be wonderfully rewarding and enriching to take that next step in supporting a reduction in over-dependence and an increase in your role as a teacher and positively reinforcing presence in your parrots environment.

Therapeutic benefits for behavioural recovery and rehabilitation: I first started working with other companion parrot owners on supporting the behavioural and enrichment needs of their birds back in 1999. Reflecting on the depth of that first-hand experience I can suggest that flight has been critical in the behavioural recovery of many birds I have worked with, particularly those that have developed feather-picking behaviours. Often there has been a need to establish outdoor flight enclosures to further enhance the environmental scope and opportunity for functional behaviour. Outdoor flight space offers immense benefits in reducing or completely avoiding behavioural health issues. I would certainly encourage parrot owners to consider constructing a safe and secure outdoor flight enclosure for their pet parrot. I have worked with a small number of dedicated clients on the design of such enclosures and the shift in experience scope that their parrots now have access has been brilliant to be a part of.

Earlier diagnosis of change in state of physical health: Early diagnosis of the state of health of a pet parrot can be absolutely critical in ensuring that potentially life-threatening illness is treated quickly. There is no argument that a parrot that engages in flight as part of its daily behavioural repertoire will offer a more overt and observable indication of a change in state of health than a wing-clipped or flightless parrot. Parrots that do not fly already present low rates of functional behaviour and may tend to be inactive for longer periods of the day than a flighted bird. Daily food intake may also be less in wing-clipped birds than observed in flighted parrots. Observable resting durations are often longer in wing-clipped birds and some may even present less functional vocal behaviours than might be expected from flighted birds. This can result in a keeper failing to recognise early symptoms of illness that we normally associate with lack of activity, lack of engagement in enrichment, and lack of interest in novel objects in their environment. My morning walk around my aviaries will quickly inform me if one of my parrots is not 100%, simply based on my observations of their activity level, keenness to fly to the hand, and general mobility around their enclosure.

Bruce – the above is really only scratching the surface of developing a full argument for maintaining flight in our pet parrots but it’s hopefully offered a reasonable alternative to much of what you have read elsewhere on the internet. I would encourage all WPT members to access the article series I put together for ABK Magazine to develop a full picture of my own philosophy and approach. A flighted companion is indeed a challenging one. The 21st century companion parrot keeper will embrace that challenge and hopefully leave a legacy for future generations of companion parrot carers that respects and caters for flight in their birds.

Kind Regards, Jim McKendry
http://www.pbec.com.au

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Hi, My name is Naomi. My family and I have a Fiery-shouldered Conure parrot named Mario that is about 5 years old. Currently there are 7 people living in our house. We have had him for the past year from a previous owner who could not give him the attention he needs.

For the most part Mario is a lovely bird. He used to have issues with biting but we have gotten that under control to the point where he rarely bites. Unfortunately he has always been a loud bird. While I understand that they generally make noise his noise has progressed to a behavioural problem. Since his cage is in our dining room and there are 7 people living in our house we just put up with it because it seemed impractical to train him. This means that we often enter the room when he is screaming so we can eat (or for some other activity) and he becomes quiet. Essentially we have rewarded his bad behaviour. But he also makes noise when we have deep or emotionally charged conversations or when we play music which I don’t think should be “punished”. (I should also note that there are a lot of people around all day and that he gets flying time from after supper around 6:30pm until we go to bed (10:30-11:00 pm).

While we put up with his screaming it is annoying our new housemate, my uncle (who is at home the most during the day with Mario). My uncle says he has researched how to train the bird and says we simply cover the bird up until he is quiet. I have found this method so far to be very inconsistent and so I do not think the bird understands this. Alternatively, I have read that giving him treats to find when we leave will keep him distracted. Given our family situation of a large household should we stick to the covering method or do you have a “nicer” method? If so how long of an interval should we wait to uncover him once he is quiet? I should also mention I am his favorite followed by my dad, though my dad has more authority over Mario. Please help. I love this little guy and just want to give him the best home possible without giving him away.

Thank you,
Naomi

Answered by Susan Friedman & LLP Course Graduates:

Hi there Naomi, Thank you for bringing us this question. Many people who live with parrots have a problem with excessive loud vocalizations. This behavior can be one of the most difficult to replace, unless caregivers are very systematic. It is wonderful that you are willing to work with this little fellow to ensure that his quality of life is enhanced, and yours too, without using force or coercion that are often suggested on some the internet sites. Great catch on your part realizing that covering may well not work as intended. Why might that be I wonder? Let’s see if we can figure it out.

All animals including humans are impacted by what goes on in the world around us as we go about acting out our daily lives. We all behave for a purpose either to get a particular outcome or to escape or avoid a particular outcome. We have learned to turn on the heat when we are cold; to drink water when we are thirsty; to put our foot on the brake to avoid hitting another car; and, to call out to our family and friends when we want to get their attention for one reason or another. Parrots, including conures, are not all that much different. In other words, those events that immediately follow any behavior can send a signal about whether to emit that behavior again in the future. There is a clear relationship between behavior and the consequences that follow it. Mario’s case, we can posit that he gets something of value out of the making the loud noises.

A goodly number of the loud sustained vocalization behaviors that occur in the home are directly related to seeking our human attention. That isn’t to say that living in a busy home with seven people might not be a factor considering each person may well react in a different way to the vocalizations but starting with one behavior often is more than enough to reduce behaviors that occur in other circumstances so let’s deal with the first point.
If it has been too long since Mario last interacted with a human, or a specific human, then loud vocalizations may well be the behavior used to gain that interaction. Stated another way:

WHEN there is little attention, IF Mario loudly vocalizes, THEN a family member looks at him/speaks to him.

That simple sentence gives us one possible functional assessment of Mario’s behavior to start with. As soon as he gets that “look” the behavior may well have been reinforced long before the cover is added or other action taken (yelling at him, making faces at him, leaving the room, etc) . We also know that behaviors we get something of value for doing will be repeated. Therefore we can state with some confidence that the “loudness/screaming” will continue. Yikes! What can we do about that? There are a number of strategies we can use that we will be talking more about below but now we have one starting point to dig in and use.

One point that should be noted here, the intervention would work best if you can get the entire family onside – perhaps each person working to teach Mario a different behavior. The more reinforcement Mario can get for behaving in ways that you can live with, the faster the “loudness” will subside.

What can we do?
• Observe and collect data on when the “loudness” is most likely to occur. Sometimes, a simple change in the environment before the behavior occurs is all that is needed. For example:
- The television is too loud - we can turn it down a notch.
- The kids are scrapping - we ask them to consider Mario and what impact their behavior is having on him. Can they move to another room?
- Emotionally charged conversations can be held away from Mario.
- It has been two hours since anyone spoke to Mario directly - so we drop by the cage and say “ How are you doing little fellow”.

• Observe and collect data on what we humans are already doing that reinforces the loud behavior, that produces something of value for Mario. We are laughing loudly and Mario joins in – we look at him and laugh too. Mario is loud and we tell him to “stuff it”, or words to that effect and we have again reinforced his loudness, or we move toward his cage (without or without cover). Using that information can lead us to a greater understanding about why the behavior occurs in the first place. Being able to understand, predict and change the behavior of interest can then lead us to some great strategies discussed more below.

• Teach him new ways to get that attention. Any bird can’t whistle, or talk, and be “loud” at the same time. We reinforce those sounds that we can live with. To do that, we need to teach ourselves to listen - developing a keen ear for those sounds that the family can live with and then reinforcing those pleasant sounds immediately. Called Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior (DRI), it works well since Mario can’t be “loud” and talk/whistle pleasantly at the same time.

• In cage and out of cage enrichment. Adding toys that Mario will interact with and changing them regularly will provide greater in cage interest for those times when the family is busy with life so that Mario can entertain himself. Part of enrichment can be the addition of foraging toys/ boxes. It is possible that Mario would need to be taught how to play with toys or shaped to use foraging devices. You can find more information on how to shape behavior at the links below.
In the wild, a large part of a bird’s day is spent hunting/foraging for food. In the home we can replicate that somewhat using boxes with foot toys, treats, hidden portions of the daily diet that need to be searched for. Not only are foraging boxes enriching, they are also reinforcing for those birds who have learned how to use them plus having the advantage that we can also reinforce this type of behavior with some attention at the beginning and then slowly fading the attention component as Mario becomes more proficient at searching for toys and foraging. Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behavior (DRA) is another wonderful tool to have in the tool kit and that’s the procedure of reinforcing alternatives like foraging!

• Teach Mario new behaviors. Parrots are learning all the time unfortunately, what we are often teaching them in the home is to bite harder and scream louder. If instead, we teach them behaviors such as station to a specific perch, come/approach when called, stay where you are for example; we not only have a well behaved psittacine but a bird who has increased positive reinforcement in its life. That later point is very important since those birds with the most positive reinforcement are usually the most behaviorally healthy.

Admittedly, you do have your work cut out for you but if you can get the family onside you can surely change Mario’s behavior. Each family member will have their own level of tolerance for “loudness”, the trick will be coming to some consensus that you can all agree on.

There are some great resources on the World Parrot Trust website http://www.parrots.org/index.php/referencelibrary/behaviourandenviroenrich/
as well as a tool you can use that will be found at the following link: http://www.behaviorworks.org/htm/downloads_toolkit.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YY7IhoebQo

Amongst the many articles on the behaviorworks web site you might find the one under the “Written Works” tab and “S Files” tabs that show a similar problem with a Moluccan cockatoo very useful.

Lee McGuire and Susan Friedman

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Dear Phoebe, When raising young cockatoos, what are the best ways to avoid behavioral problems when cockatoos become adults? Thanks,
Nic Miller

Answered by Phoebe Green Linden:

Hello Nic, and thanks for writing World Parrot Trust. By becoming a supporter of World Parrot Trust, you've already made a good decision that can have far-reaching positive ramifications for your captive cockatoo companion, so kudos! Stay interested. Keep questioning.

Here are some recommendations to help you and your captive cockatoo live together in companionship and understanding.

1) Learn everything you can about parrots – become a well-versed generalist. Read extensively, especially everything on the WPT site which is like being in Parrot University, plus watch videos of parrots in the wild, and then become active in an issue surrounding captive parrots which is meaningful to you.

2) Along the way, develop a keen specialized knowledge of the species of cockatoo you intend to keep captive and know their wild habitats, habits, flock sizes, seasons, indigenous food preferences (if known) and so on.

3) Participate in conservation efforts that enhance the lives of your captive's wild cousins. This will help deepen your compassion for the type of parrot you keep.

4) Establish a friendly and supportive relationship with an avian veterinarian and her/his staff and discuss specific medical, social, nutritional concerns with her/him. Follow her/his advice but don’t be shy about getting a second opinion, especially if the advice you first receive is contrary to what’s documented on this site.

5) Take the on-line class Living and Learning with Parrots, no matter who teaches it. Participate in on-line discussions (even if you just lurk at first), attend seminars, go to conferences, think deeply well into the night on issues.

6) Before you buy the cage, stick your head and shoulders in it and look around. If it’s not big enough for you to do that, the cage is too small.

7) Once you’ve got a big enough cage, stick your head and shoulders inside it, or sit on the stoop and check out the interior: notice where the bowls, perches and enrichment items are and envision how a smallish body, with two zygodactyl feet (two toes pointing forward, two pointing backwards) would make her/his way through this space. This might take practice, but keep trying. You'll adapt. You’re sure to get the point well before 8 consecutive hours of this exercise.

8) Speaking of exercise, when you’re in the cage, how do you stretch? Flap? Where are the foraging areas and how do you get to them? Where do you sleep? How about privacy and shade? If you were the size and temperament of your parrot, how would you rate the interior of the cage? Make it fabulous. Make the primary cage a place where, if other cockatoos came to visit, they’d be like, whoa man, this is cooooool.

9) Still inside the cage, check it out: How’s the view? If you live with other parrots, chances are from the inside of your cage, you mainly see other cages. If you were the size of your parrot, how would you rate the interior of the cage?

10) As the human who is 100% responsible, make every single environmental adjustment you can to enhance the cockatoo’s well-being. Create spaces, scenarios and enticements specifically designed from her/his point of view and commensurate with her/his physicality and abilities. Continue this without flagging.

11) Realistically assess your physical surroundings and make interior and exterior spaces commensurate with your captive cockatoo’s capabilities, innate propensities and your ideals of multi-species companionship. Keep in mind, always, the fact that your captive has, without their permission, given up the notions and the realities of like-species companionship and all that entails. Denied the knowledge of other cockatoos’ voice and touch, your captive needs you to assess her/his needs, respect them, and fulfill them. Absent from flock life and its myriad lessons, apart from wisdom of grandparents, parents, siblings and native communities, your captive depends on you to supplement their captive-life curriculum with On-Going Benevolent Lessons in Captivity. Also, add more cockatoo-friendly hang-out areas than you think you need.

12) Consider cockatoo noise-making a legitimate form of communication, a way of life, an expression of emotional complexity, a necessary physical release, and a symphony in praise of bio-diversity. Get used to it.

In conclusion, the best advice I can give is to keep learning. Contribute as much as you can. Consider the cockatoo individual who inhabits your space as your personal representative of the huge wild imperiled earth and act, always, accordingly.

All best,
Phoebe Greene Linden
Santa Barbara Bird Farm


filed under: Behaviour and Training

Dear Susan, I have a 7 year old yellow crowned amazon called Merlin, confirmed by my vet to be a male. He was hand reared and I have had him since he was weaned at about 12 weeks. For the first 21/2 years we had a very good relationship - I would never have believed how "cuddly" a parrot could be. He is my second parrot. The first was an african grey, re-homed due to the death of his elderly owner. Sadly Fred died after only 2 years, suffering from the
long term effects of his previous owner being a heavy smoker. I had no problems handling him.

When years old he became more cheeky, but initially he was not a problem until one day he flew at me, landed on my head and started scratching and biting like mad. Having seen the program about Sirocco the Kakapo, I now believe Merlin was showing the same sexual behaviour. However at the time it frightened me and I brushed him off my head. This happened a couple more times and I began to loose confidence in handling him. Soon after this I went to a Parrot Training and Environment Enrichment course at Paradise Park UK which was a great help and for a while things improved. Sadly later that year Merlin started biting me more frequently - even choosing to bite my hand rather than take a treat when he had moved to his perch on request. We soon reached the stage when I involuntarily pulled my hand away when he went to bite(hold?) my finger and I found I couldn't cope with him being loose. I am sad to say he now stays in his cage. He is in a Macaw sized cage and has a changing variety of toys and several foraging items each day. He comes to the side of the cage and hangs upside down for a scratch or gently preening on his head and will take a treat to eat whilst I reach in to clean the cage. I think actually I trust him less than he trusts me?? I have tried to find a local trainer (Bedfordshire UK) who might be able to help me without success. I know the problem is ME not Merlin - any suggestions as to how I can improve my trust of him would be so much appreciated.

Answered by Susan Friedman & LLP Course Graduates:

Hi Lesley, First I want to say good job. You admit some of the problem is your fear and also that you want to improve the situation with Merlin. These are both great steps on the path to changing behavior, both yours and Merlin's. The ideal is to live in harmony and you can make this happen.

Behavior change can be done safely and relatively easily using baby steps. You've already started the process by giving Merlin scratches though the cage bars and giving him a treat when you clean the cage. Start taking these farther. Teach Merlin to station (if he doesn't already) when you clean the cage. Stationing means going to a particular perch on cue, generally one farther from the door. Once on that perch then he receives the treat. You can train this behavior either by luring (using the treat to encourage him over to the perch) or by target training first. I might suggest training to a target stick so it can be used later for other behaviors. Target training has the advantage of teaching Merlin how you want him to behave in the future when he see's the target stick, without having the extra step of having to fade the lure out.

While you are moving Merlin farther away from you when cleaning, you are also teaching him about a relationship that you and he can have in a training mode. This strategy also has the advantage of allowing you to gain more confidence around Merlin and he in you. There are many in cage behaviors you can then start to teach that will add more reinforcement to Merlin's daily life while at the same time keeping you safe from a bite. You could teach him to ring a bell, turn around, wave etc. Each little behavior is a confidence builder for both of you. Eventually you could target Merlin to the open cage door and always be able to cue him back to that stationing perch. http://www.behaviorworks.org/htm/articles_behavior_change.html and click on Right On Target for more information on targeting.

By beginning with these 'in cage' behaviors, not only do you and Merlin both build some confidence but you also learn how to observe Merlin more closely and learn the body language and signs that say he has had enough interaction at this time. Just as importantly, it allows you to learn how to train Merlin without mistakes leading to you being bitten. From Merlin's viewpoint, he learns that goodies come from you and this increases your value to him.

Once you and Merlin feel more confident and less fearful you could start to slowly train Merlin to step up to your hand. This is where those new observation skills you have developed will help you to watch for any change in Merlin's body language and stance. Don't ask yourself or Merlin for a full step up, just him touching your hand with one foot is great. With more confidence gained, you can work on Merlin getting both feet on your hand, but allowing him to go back onto the cage door. When you first move your hand with Merlin on, only move a small distance and then back to the cage door for Merlin. Gradually you will increase the time Merlin stands on your hand calmly and also the distance from the cage. You will find many articles at the above mentioned web site that may help you along with the process, including both Empowering Parrots and Shaping New Behaviors

With many successes and repetitions of these behaviors, you will feel more secure, and will learn how to watch for any body language that might signal discomfort and an impending bite. One little step at a time, there is no rush!

Gay Noeth
Lee McGuire
Susan Friedman




filed under: Behaviour and Training

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