Dear Steve & staff, I know you're very busy, but I'm hoping you may have time to give your opinion and suggestions to this question. A good friend of mine, Frans, is an experienced bird owner, he currently owns 3 Congo African Greys. His English isn't that good, that's why I'm writing to you on his behalf!
It concerns one of his Greys - he's had this bird for about 5 months now. The bird, Rocco, is 7 years old.The parents and origins of this bird are unknown, as is his first year of life. When the bird was 1 year old, he was bought in a shop. The man who bought him had Rocco for 6 years and told Frans that Rocco was always very scared, particularly of men. However, over the 6 years that he had him, he was able to handle Rocco to some extend - feed him and clean the cage - his wife could indeed do a bit more with Rocco.
So 5 months ago, Rocco came to Frans. Frans has a lot of experience in keeping and training birds (based on positive reinforcement) and managed to solve quite a few behavioural problems in birds over the years. He felt he could also re-train Rocco to get over his extreme fear of men.
5 months on.... there's been no progress in Rocco at all. Frans' wife Susi can occasionally give Rocco a treat or scratch his head a little through the cage bars, but that's all.
Frans himself can't do a thing with Rocco, after having tried different ways of approach - the gentle way in very small steps and later a harder way by taking Rocco out of the cage (with great difficulty) and putting him on the standard with the other Greys to start with. The other Greys seem to feel Rocco's fear, keep their distance from him and didn't interact with him. Personally I thought the flock dynamic might help to overcome the phobia, but Rocco is fearfull of the other Greys as well, so there isn't much contact between the other birds and Rocco.
Rocco refuses to come out of his cage, won't/can't step up. As soon as Susi (let alone Frans) opens the cage and puts her hand into it, Rocco is literally in a blind panic. When Frans approaches the cage, even when still yards away from him, Rocco starts flying through the cage etc in pure blind panic. Frans needed to take a bit of blood from Rocco a while ago to have him tested again, which meant handling Rocco - after which Rocco even went into a kind of coma from fear for a few minutes.
Frans is looking for the one ''way in'' with Rocco, after which he hopes to be able to start training with him, but the problem is he hasn't found this way in yet.
Rocco's quality of life is of course greatly impaired by his fear...
All in all, this really doesn't look like extreme fear but a fully blown phobia. Rocco appears to be an extremely phobic bird, with a clear phobia for men in particular. Frans is at his wits end and running out of ideas and ways to approach Rocco to find a way in to try and break through this fear, which is why I'm writing to you...
Are there any particular ways to try and approach an extremely phobic bird?
Could the flock dynamic play a helpfull part in this and if so, how?
I've searched the internet looking for research on phobia in birds and did find some articles - however, could you suggest any particular research that may be useful to help to understand extreme phobia in birds and ways to deal with this? Frans is considering drugging the bird with a mild sedative, hoping this might take the edge of Rocco's phobia to provide a way in to start training with him - is this an option and if so, what is the best sedative to use?
Your suggestions and opinion on this will be very welcome and on behalf of Frans and from me a big thank you in advance,
Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:
My name is Corey Derryberry and I am an avian trainer with Natural Encounters, Inc. I received your e-mail and am looking forward to sharing some advice with you, Frans, and Rocco. First of all, I would like to commend all of you for seeking help with Rocco. It is always great to see parrot owners invested in improving the quality of life and the relationships with the birds in their care.
One of the first things we teach new trainers is to understand that every parrot is an individual and each training situation is a study of one. Not only does this mean that each bird’s behavior may be different in the presence of similar environmental changes, such new objects, people, food, or even sounds, but the bird’s behavior may be different with various trainers (as you have seen with Rocco’s interactions with Susi and Frans). Therefore, the best way to build a relationship with Rocco is to allow him to choose when he wants to move on in the training process. What this means is that training is a two-way communication. Just as our body language is telling our bird what we would like them to do, their body language will tell us what they are willing to do.
By watching Rocco’s body language, we can determine the best place to start. If Rocco is showing signs of fear or aggression, such as eyes pinning (the pupils contracting and expanding quickly), tail fanning, raised neck feathers or feathers slicked tightly to the body, lunging and biting, or simply moving away, as Frans enters the room, this should serve as a clear sign that he is uncomfortable, and if Frans would continue to approach the enclosure, it could easily cause the relationship to worsen. There are, however, steps that Frans can take to work to make Rocco more comfortable with his presence. First, it is helpful to find Rocco’s favorite treats to use as reinforcers. A reinforcer is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will increase in frequency. Early on, treats such as peanuts, sunflower seeds, or grapes may be the best reinforcers, but again it depends on Rocco’s behavior to tell us what the best reinforcer is. Frans could put a wide variety of treats in Rocco’s food dish and watch which treats he eats first. These are most likely the best reinforcers. Once Frans has found the best treats, they should only be given as part of the training process and not as part of Rocco’s daily food. When Frans enters the room he should go straight to Rocco’s bowl and drop one of these treats in, but then quickly remove himself from the room. Not only will this build the relationship with Frans by pairing him with something positive, but by not lingering, Rocco will learn that the aversive, the source of his discomfort, is only temporary. In time, Rocco’s negative response to Frans’ presence will lessen. Once Rocco does not show any aggressive or fearful behavior, or even better, if Rocco begins to come over to the bowl when Frans enters the room, we know it is time to move on.
At this point, Frans can start increasing the amount of time spent near Rocco’s enclosure and may begin to give Rocco treats directly from the hand through the bars. Again, let Rocco’s body language determine Frans’ behavior. If Rocco begins to show any unwanted body language, it is time for Frans to back away.
When Rocco is comfortable with Frans outside the enclosure, he can start feeding Rocco through the open door. One thing to remember at this point, Rocco seems to have a long history of when hands come into his enclosure it means something bad is about to happen to him. Whether or not this is true, that is how Rocco reacts, so we need to respect this. By allowing Rocco to come to the treat (and therefore Frans) rather than Frans approaching Rocco, his confidence and trust increase. If an aversive, or anything that causes Rocco to be fearful or uncomfortable, enters into his enclosure and Rocco has no way to escape it, it can be a terrible detriment to the relationship. In my opinion, it is highly likely that a long history of this scenario may be the cause of Rocco’s current behavior. My suggestion is to give Rocco a treat through the bars, then open the door gently and offer a second treat at the entrance of the enclosure. If Rocco seems reluctant to come towards the door, use the best treats here, and use a lot of them. This could be a difficult step, so he should get a really good reward for coming to the door.
Once Rocco is comfortable with Frans opening the door and handing him a treat, Frans will have his “In” and can start to train more behaviors and open Rocco up to a whole new world. I suggest starting small, such as training a wave or a turn on the perch using similar steps as mentioned above, before training Rocco to step onto a hand. The more positive interactions Frans has with Rocco before stepping him up and walking into a new, novel area, the more likely Rocco will trust Frans and be comfortable in these new environments. Here at Natural Encounters we often refer to this as a “Trust Account”. The more trust or positive experiences (i.e., “deposits”) we put into the relationship, when we have to break that trust, by catching him up or putting him in another stressful situation, the less of a dent it will put in that account and it is that much easier to build up that trust again.
There are a few things for everyone involved to remember during this process. As I mentioned, every training process is the study of one. Rocco’s behavior at that moment should guide the training process. The bird’s history does not determine his future behavior. We avoid using words such as “phobic” or “fearful” because they describe a mental state which we can never know. As trainers, we can only change the behavior we can see so that is what we focus on. If we label a bird as “phobic”, we have given the bird an excuse for its behavior. We will then begin to expect that behavior, thus allowing it to continue. By avoiding such labels, we also avoid self-imposed obstacles to the training process and allow us to devise strategies to reshape these behaviors and build up positive history.
Also, because every bird is an individual, what is reinforcing to one bird, may not be reinforcing to another. Treats are not the only reinforcers out there. A special toy or a scratch on the head may be reinforcing, but only if the bird enjoys it and we see the frequency of the behavior increase to obtain that reinforcement. But this may also mean that certain situations are reinforcing in and of themselves. We have birds, that as soon as you open the door they will scramble out of the enclosure and play with anything they find lying around. We also have birds that we could leave the door open for an entire day and they will never leave the comfort of their enclosure. The same principle applies to social interactions as well. Some of our parrots live in large flight enclosures with nine or ten other birds, and do quite well there. But we also have birds that stay alone and when we do put them with other birds they often start aggressing towards the other birds. In similar situations, once again let Rocco’s behavior dictate what to do. A good starting point may be to move the parrots’ enclosures near one another and watch their body language. If they move away from each other or start fighting even in the safety and comfort of their own enclosures, it is a good sign that they should be kept separated. On the other hand, if the parrots show comfortable body language then you can slowly increase their contact until eventually they have full contact with one another.
As you have seen Rocco will also interact differently with different people. As you have seen with Frans and Susi, Rocco seems to have a better relationship with Susi. I do not know how much interaction Susi has with the birds beyond giving the occasional treat or scratch on the head. There may be an advantage to Susi using this process to build a relationship with Rocco first, then have Susi step away and Frans begin building his relationship. This has a few advantages. Because of the more positive starting point, it may improve Rocco’s comfort and quality of life more quickly than if Frans starts the process first. Rocco may also be more comfortable with Frans coming near the enclosure to drop treats in if he already has a strong history of Susi doing the same thing. We have several birds that during a show will fly to a new trainer’s hand even when they have not had other contact simply because of the long history of being reinforced for that behavior.
Susi’s involvement may have another advantage. You mentioned in your e-mail that Rocco will fling himself against the wall of the enclosure if Frans approaches. If this happens every single time Frans enters the room to drop a treat in Rocco’s bowl, Rocco may not connect Frans with the treat. If Rocco is hanging on the side of his enclosure and it takes some time to calm enough to find the treat Frans left, it is as if Frans never left the treat. Studies have shown that the closer the delivery of the reinforcer is to the behavior (in this case Rocco’s calm behavior to Frans’ treat), the quicker the subject will learn the behavior. So in the early stages of training, if Susi could stand near Rocco’s enclosure when Frans walks in the room, she could hand Rocco a treat, then Frans could quickly leave again. Starting out Frans would be able to stay far enough away so that Rocco remains calm. As training progresses Frans can move closer and closer to the enclosure as long as Rocco stays calm, and Susi can reward this calm behavior as it is occurring. If Rocco does show signs of distress, Frans can take a step back. Eventually Rocco will be calm enough with Frans for him to start dropping the treats in. At the same time, once Frans is able to approach and deliver the treats himself, Susi should begin to remove herself, first by moving away from the cage and moving towards leaving the room altogether, such that Rocco’s calm behavior around Frans does not have to completely depend on the additional presence of Susi in the future.
There is one risk to Susi’s involvement, though. In households with multiple people interacting with a parrot, sometimes the parrot will bond with one person and begin to show aggression to the other, especially when both trainers are present. It is important to keep an eye out for signs of this occurring for it can slow down the training process. If this does begin to happen, the person with the better relationship can back out of the training process for the time being, so that the other person can built up the relationship. It does take some vigilance and time, but this can be overcome.
Lastly, be patient. There are birds that will learn to step onto someone’s hand in only a few days and there are birds where it can take several months. As I have mentioned several times, work at the pace Rocco sets. If you try to move on when Rocco is not ready, the relationship, and therefore the behavior, can break down quickly.
If there is one theme I hope you, Frans, and Susi take from this is that Rocco should be empowered to make his own decisions. There are many people in this industry that say you should be a “flock leader” or that you should never allow a bird to be dominant over you. These are ideas that we avoid here at Natural Encounters. When a bird is forced to interact with someone or scooped up onto a hand without being given the choice, the bird can often become apathetic, attempt to avoid people, or even become aggressive to humans. By giving the bird a choice and therefore giving the bird control over its environment, not only does this build trust with the people with whom they interact, but also builds their confidence to explore the world. When we want our birds to step on our hand, we offer our hand a short distance away from them and wait for them to come to us. Not only does this teach our birds that we will not put them in a situation they do not want to be in, but also teaches them that if something does scare them and they fly off our hands, we become the safe point and the birds usually return to us without delay. By empowering our birds and giving them control over their environment, we believe we are giving them a richer, more fulfilling life.
I hope this information helps you, Frans, Susi, and especially Rocco. If you have any more questions, take a look at our website at http://www.naturalencounters.com
where you can find papers on training, questions from other pet owners, and much more information. But also feel free to contact me directly with any follow-up questions you have. I will be happy to help out. Good luck to you, Frans, Susi, and Rocco.
Natural Encounter, Inc.