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About Hillary Hankey
Hillary Hankey found her fascination for birds at a very early age. Having worked for veterinary clinics, avian breeding centers,…

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Ask An Expert: Hillary Hankey

Browse by category: Parrot Care, Behaviour and Training, Conservation, Ethics and Welfare, Housing and Environmental Enrichment, General, Health and Nutrition

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

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

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