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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

If I want to bring another parrot into my home (where I already have two
parrots), is there really any risk of that bird having chlamydia/psittacosis
if it has been bred in the UK?

Answered by Ellen K. Cook, D.V.M.:


Thanks for this excellent question, Helen. The incidence of contagious disease, including psittacosis, has decreased since the importation of wild-caught birds has become illegal. However, this has not eliminated contagious disease, even in the captive-bred parrot population. I do recommend testing and quarantine of all new birds before their introduction into the flock. Your best source of information is your own qualified avian veterinarian. A local veterinarian would know best about the prevalence of disease and recommended testing procedures for your specific area.

filed under: Health and Nutrition

I have a Yellow Crowned Amazon who has been coughing and sneezing for a few months now. I've taken her to the vet several times and they've given her respiratory therapy and a few shots, but it doesn't seem to have worked. She does have a normal appetite and acts normally, but still coughs and sneezes a lot.

Could you please give me any other ideas / advice?

Answered by Dr. Brian Speer, DVM:

Hi, Abel -

It is impossible to provide much accurate information for you with an ill bird that really seems to require accurate diagnosis and treatment. The examining veterinarian involved here is best posed to answer many of your questions. Here are a few questions that you may want to consider asking when you see your veterinarian again: What is the diagnosis? What types of treatment have been administered? Why? Is referral to a specialist recommended? Outside consultation?

Not trying to be challenging, but good medicine is based on an accurate physical assessment of the patient in question, a narrowed diagnosis, applied treatment plan, and followup to assure that the desired goal(s) have been achieved - and this, to some extent, is limited when there is no ablility to actually see the patient in question.

filed under: Health and Nutrition

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 may have received bad advice & would appreciate your help. I live in S Dorset, but the last two winters have been very cold (down to -10C). During both of these my pair of Plumheads were in outside accommodation. They are 5 years old. They had a large indoor section. The female laid eggs and sat but the eggs did not hatch and showed no sign of development. Male too cold + too short day length?

I am no longer able to use this accommodation and have built a new aviary. This is tucked into the corner of our house, sheltered, and they give every sign of contentment. Flight area 7.5ft (L) x 6ft (H) 3.25ft (W). There is an additional security entrance.

I was advised that the birds would be fine with a shelter box. This I constructed from an aluminium locust cage as outer protection. Inside this is a polystyrene fish box for insulation, this being lined with thin ply and the interior space furnished with perches. One perch extends from outside, into the box. The entrance to the shelter is 10(H) x 6(W) inches. It has a 'green roof' of turf to give it a more natural appearance. The internal dimensions are 18(H) x 12 x 12. Dimensions are approximate as I am writing this in London. This accommodation could be kitted out with an electrical heat pad. I could also install artificial lighting to increase the 'day length'.

In spite of providing favourite goodies (Russet apples / blackberries) inside this structure, the birds show no inclination to use it, or even venture inside. They just about manage to reach in to pick the blackberries from bramble 'twigs'. They have been in this accommodation since mid July.

The birds insist on roosting under the open shelter I have provided for their food station.

I am just about to provide them with an apple log, hollowed out to the internal dimensions recommended in Jack & Syd Smiths' guide.

I am worried that this set up will not be safe for them over (another hard) winter, even if they can be persuaded to use their insulated shelter.

Any advice very welcome.

Answered by Jamie Gilardi:

I would recommend some form of heating over the winter period for these Plumheads.

The aviary you describe is adequate but the shelter box may not be to their liking for a number of reasons. Two things to ensure are that the box is well lit and that the perches within the box are higher than those in the outdoor aviary – as you no doubt know birds often favour a high roosting perch.

Here in Cornwall we maintain and breed Plumheads in enclosures similar to yours – last winter we reached -12 C. Our shelter area is a metal cage with wire front and roof which is under cover and accessed via a pophole which is always open. Above the highest perch in the shelter is suspended a 150w dull emitter infra red lamp which is always on during the winter. The birds are frequently seen under the heat lamp and invariably roost under or near it. Although Plumheads may be able to endure low temperatures they really should not have too. In my opinion they should always have free access to a warm area. Our heated shelter area is also lit on a timer to increase day length and to encourage the birds in to the shelter area as dusk approaches.

David Woolcock - Paradise Park, Cornwall, UK

filed under: Housing and Environmental Enrichment


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

One of my sun conures who is 13 years old has yellowing at the tips of his blue flight feathers. Is this a nutritional deficiency? It has been that way for the last several years.

Answered by Dr. Brian Speer, DVM:

I envision that what you are describing is within normal limits for this species. However, should you have concerns, or if your bird is past due for its routine veterinary examination, this is a very fair question to bring up for discussion with your avian veterinarian.

filed under: Health and Nutrition

I recently took my 4 year old eclectus parrot to the vet, because he was acting very quiet for a full day and into a second day. The vet noticed some swelling in the ridges in the upper back of the beak (sorry I forget the correct name). He looked at some poop under a microscope and saw some blood. He took an xray and said that the upper stomach area (proventicular?) looked unusually large and he was concerned about possible PDD. He gave me a Celebrex solution and said I should give my bird the Celebrex for 6 weeks. But, also, this means that my bird is not cleared to use the bird sitter. But, the blood test came back showing some bacteria, and I started a 10 day regimen of antibiotics, as well. On the 4th day my eclectus seemed close to normal, and at 9 days still seems like his old self. However, the vet said we cannot know whether it was the antibiotic or the Celebrex treating the PDD symptoms. I've read everything I can on PDD, and it makes no sense to me that this could be PDD. There was no weight loss. There was no passing of undigested food. The antibiotics made him better in a few days. But, now he is in limbo as far as being cleared to use a bird sitter, which is problemmatic for us. I've stopped the Celebrex, because it is $40/bottle. Should I continue the Celebrex or find a new vet?

Answered by Dr. Brian Speer, DVM:

It is impossible for me to be able to provide any form of accurate medical recommendations for your bird in the absence of direct consultation with your attending veterinarian or physically seeing your bird. The combination of clinical data that you mention, I agree, is not classically consistent with Proventricular Dilation Disease (PDD). Alterations in the choanal area and its papillae are non-specific, and do not necessarily correlate with any specific disease. Enlargement of the proventriculus, when seen radiographically, can be seen in Eclectus parrots that sometimes have no clear disease - their proventricular silouettes are sometimes larger than many other parrot species. Bloody feces are not typically noted with PDD. Alterations in complete blood count may suggest stress, or an inflammatory reaction to something, but are not necessarily clearly indicative of infection in and of themselves. The details are interpretively important, and all are dependent on the clinical history and physical examination findings of your veterinarian.

Clinical signs are grouped into two general systemic categories: neurological and gastrointestinal. Neurological signs of PDD include ataxia, blindness, abnormal head movements, seizures, loss of balance, depression and paralysis. Gastrointestinal signs of PDD include the passage of undigested seeds in feces, proventricular enlargement, diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, weight loss, starvation and death. All of these clinical signs can progress at variabe rates, and technically *any* clinically ill bird could have this disease as a possible inclusion in its differential diagnosis list. PDD at present time, is definitively diagnosed by biopsy of the effected organs, allowing for identification of the classic inflammatory lesions that are used to define the disease. The location of biopsy is dependent on clinical signs that are noted, and the level of concern and need for definitive diagnosis. Although avian bornavirus (ABV) has recently been identified as an etiologic agent of Proventricular Dilation Disease (PDD), testing for its presence, alone, does not confirm the presence of PDD. Only ABV 2 and ABV 4 have been strongly associated with PDD, and ABV types 1, 3, and 5 have not been associated with disease at present time. Surveyed populations of parrots can easily show a prevalence of 30-60% in apparently healthy birds. This disease is technically described as as one that is not treatable, although high doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including celebrex or meloxicam can sometimes show clinical improvement in individuals. These birds typically do not show improvement in as short a time as you have described in your bird here.

It sounds like there may no clearly established diagnosis at present time, and that your bird is feeling better after a course of antibacterial and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug treatment. This information, alone, is fairly far removed from clear evidence of PDD and a need for absolute quarantine from other birds. It still, however, should be possible that this disease could be present.

I would suggest that you speak with your veterinarian about your concerns, and also ask for specific recommendations about your relative risks of continuing to have your bird overlooked by your bird sitter.

filed under: Health and Nutrition

Hi, I'm planning to build an aviary in the garden of my townhouse in New York City for my rose breasted cockatoo Chirp, so he can spend more time outdoors during the warmer months. The designers have proposed using some type of metal mesh to form the enclosure, and using wrought iron to form some more decorative detail on the outside. What type of material would you recommend for the enclosure (his indoor cage is made of stainless steel), what thickness should the wire be, and how much gap between the wires would be ideal? I imagine that Chirp would get his beak to the decorative metal work made with wrought iron, is that safe? Also, what plants are safe to place inside the aviary? The ground is currently paved with bricks, do you recommend something else? Is there anything else, like pests or other problems, I should be aware of? Thank you so much for your help.

Answered by E.B. Cravens:

Dear Jade, My compliments on giving your Rose Breasted Cockatoo a new phase in life with an outdoor play cage. Wire choices are many and difficult in the U.S. these days. Stainless steel wire is available but expensive. we used to use high quality galvanized wire from England....Twilweld it was called, but is is rare in the states these days. Some of the local hardware and building wires are Chinese or imported and of poor quality---one of our main cages rusted all over in four years and had lots of poor galvanizing. You could check with Riverdale Mills on the east coast. http://www.riverdale.com/

For a Rosie I would use half inch by half inch openings in 14 gauge thickness. They are not tremendously strong chewers, preferring to fray things normally. Make sure you bathe the wire down with a vinegar/water solution to remove the zinc that is found on galvanized wire, before finally putting the parrot in the flight. A brick floor may work out, but it is necessary for Rosies to have some sort of applied ground foraging. That either means a section in grasses, wildflowers, seed weeds, and sod where they can scrabble and dig and forage or a large tray from a building center or greenhouse where you can put safe clean sandy soil and plant it or add daily green stuffs (not potting mixes or bagged things, but plain old dirt unsprayed and unfertilized!!) That will give him an area to venture to the ground. The small wire openings will deter most pests, but if you live where there are racoons it can be dangerous. We like to bury a twelve inch section of wire straight out along the ground outside the cage walls and clipped to the walls. That way any rat or cat or such would come up to the wire and try to dig down but only find a wire barrier it cannot dig through.

There are plenty of plants that can be used inside. Google 'safe plants parrots' and you will find a list. Our favorites are mulberry, elm, fruit trees including apple, pear, apricot, crabapple, quince. Also all the cluster palms, any bamboos, and hanging plants like spider plants, geraniums, nasturtiums, marigolds, pansies, etc. A sprouting bin will allow you to sprout uneaten bird seeds and place them in hanging orchid baskets for browse. Also cut branches from neighborhood trees allowing pruning will work for weeks fastened by wires high up on the sides of the cage for privacy and perches--maple, oak, beech, evergreens, etc. Anything that would die in the winter needs to be in a large moveable pot to be taken in when frosts begin.You could even get some fresh timothy or alfalfa hay and spread it on the bricks to make cleanup easier every fortnight or so.

A covered roof on part of the aviary is necessary for wind protection and sun screen, and to hide from hawks.. Also a corner or two with plywood on the sides to give privacy so he has a place to hang out and nap.Wrought iron is basically safe, just buy quality paints that are child safe and keep lots of organic chewables and toys he likes in the cage--that will prevent most birds from ever resorting to chewing on wire or paints. A fake playbox (not a total enclosed nestbox) made out of pine shelving would be fun and even some knotted old jeans legs or tee shirts for the cloth fraying rosebreasteds often enjoy.

Good luck and I hope this information is not too late. Your e mail just reached me a short time ago and I know the summer is getting on.
Cheers, EB

filed under: Housing and Environmental Enrichment

I have a problem with a Golden Conure (Guarouba guarouba), her legs and toes are infected with something.They where bleeding. My own vet does not recognize the problem. Have you any idea what the problem might be. The vet examine the bird for mold and parasites which where negative. There was only a small increase of intestinal bacteria She was treated with Synulox for that. The problem started when she was breeding. The filling of the nest box are beechwood chips.

Answered by Dr. Brian Speer, DVM:

Hi, AJ - This is not going to be a simple problem that will allow one to view a photo and tell you what the diagnosis is or may be. There appears to be some necrosis of the skin over the upper surface of the feet. This can be caused by traumatic, toxic, vascular problems or other issues. My best suggestion would be to continue to work with your attending veterinarian, ask them to consider consultation with an experienced colleague if indicated, and to continue to press for diagnosis.

filed under: Health and Nutrition

Hello Dr.Speer,I am very worried about my Regent Parrot as, today I noticed he had eaten small bits off the door draft seal. He hasn`t eaten very much of it but I don`t know if these seals are made of rubber or plastic. Could this do him any harm and what can I do? He doesn`t look sick and is still eating his food.

Answered by Dr. Brian Speer, DVM:

Hi, Elizabeth - I hope your bird has remained healthy. Consumption of sealants certainly could result in exposure to a variety of toxins that could have been present in them. Lead, zinc, petroleum products and others can certainly pose some potential for toxicologic risk. Your more immediate course of action could have been to either contact your local veterinarian, and/or ask a poison control hotline source if there is significant risk, and what you should be looking for.

filed under: Health and Nutrition

I address this this query to E.B. Cravens, a person whose expertise I greatly respect from reading his articles in the Redwood Empire Cage Bird Club newsletter.

My goffins cockatoo (20 yrs old) has been having an on/off 'infection' in his wing pit the last couple of years. Originally I was told it was a fungal infection, then a staph infection. He was given antibiotics (3 times in 1.5 yrs) mixed in his water. Each time it cleared up. Last AB treatment ceased 2 mos. ago, then I noticed yesterday that it has started up again in his left wing pit. It occurs mostly in his right wing pit, but his left side is occasionally affected - to a lesser degree. It looks a bit oozy, and crusts up. We were told it is because he picks at it; however, my thought is that he picks BECAUSE he has and infection/fungus - which then worsens the issue. I fear he will become AB resistant; also, I do not want his immunity compromised.

I live in Sonoma County, CA. He is outdoors much of the time, playing in the various fruit trees and local natives. Fred also has an ongoing zinc issue (last 18 years) and wears a collar most of the time; I only take it off for a few min-hrs to let him preen.

I thought Staph was bacterial, not fungal. Would greatly appreciate your input.

Kindly, Roxanne

Answered by E.B. Cravens:

Dear Roxanne, Thank you for the kind words. I do not know if I am the right person to fully answer your question, since it is basically a medical issue; and I hope the WPT representatives will also ask Dr. Speer or his staff to add their comments...

That said, here is my two cents worth, given from a rural resident who does not have available bird medical service on hand:

Are you working with a certified avian veterinarian? Has he or she identified the microorganism through cultures? Being told it is a different thing once or twice can certainly be frustrating and it needs to be tied down more specifically. Sometimes a bacteria like staphylococcus can also weaken a parrot so that fungus can invade. There are many species of staph, some which are known to reside on bird hosts, some which are very difficult to eradicate when established. Once your culprit is identified, sensitivity tests will determine a medicine that can attack it.

Personally, with an exterior infection, I would also like to treat the sores topically. As such, we prefer to use holistic applications that can work concurrently with your antibiotics. If your cockatoo has healed and been without lesions on a prior treatment, that would indicate that the bird has certain capabilities to beat the infection with medical help. But should he be in an environment where the staph is heavily prevalent (ie...some soils, weathered woodstuffs, mildewed ropes, etc) it might be that he is continually exposed to more of the same.

This is what I would recommend:

1) Don't put her back on general antibiotics until you have a microbe identified and a medicine isolated that will kill it. Giver her multi-level avian probiotic powder now.....one of the good ones.

2) Begin to assess any items or cage furniture or the like that could harbor an infection and totally clean and sterilize them--it is not necessary to use strong disinfectants or bleach, just a good soap and water cleaning and sunlight drying will probably help. Throw away anything suspect. Think of it as spring cleaning down to the core.

3) Consider getting some citrus bioflavinoid--that is grapefruit seed extract, GSE, and using it in her water for three weeks and topically as a wash. Hospitals have reported some success with GSE in fighting staph infections. Bathe her regularly and I would use GSE in the water if a spray bottle works. We mix all ours at 9cc per gallon.

4) Get a soothing aloe vera gel or even better the raw plant sliced up and use that as a nighttime salve. Not only is it anti-bacterial and bitter to the taste of feather pickers, but is seals sore wounds under a mild film that speeds wound healing manyfold.

5) Put the parrot on a supplement with spirulina, trace minerals, and clay sprinkled on any wet food that she will eat.

6) If she is not getting any health food grit---start to sprinkle it on her food.....cuttlebone hard shell bits scraped off, oyster shell, clean bird grit, whatever....many of our parrots develop nutritional problems with secondary weaknesses if they do not have grit, especially during the breeding season...for a Goffin's in your region that would be October to February by rough estimate. Grit is used in salt and pepper
amounts only once a week or once every two weeks. Cockatoos not getting access to the ground are notorious for finding zinc particles on their cage wire (or epoxy paint) and ingesting it as a substitute.

7) You did not specify a diet, but if he is on mostly extruded pellets, you need to get him to eat live food--ie fruit pips, sprouts, veggies, green stems, etc. Perhaps the outdoor trees provide some of this.

Good luck. Keep in touch please.

Eb Cravens

filed under:

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

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