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I have a 20 week old Blue and Gold Macaw called Tyson who is coming along nicely with training. I work during the day and when I come home from work he runs around the cage frantically until I get him out. I have a few chores to do before I can let him out each day so I make him wait. Also on the weekends when I'm home all day he runs around frantically for the first hour if he can see me (his cage is in the kitchen/dining) Will this behaviour settle? He usually gets at least two hours a day out of his cage in the later afternoons/early night. I have taught him to fly to me on command, only problem is when is he out he flies to me constantly. Will he ever stay on his cage or play stand and play with his toys?? He has numerous toys, foraging material and sticks to chew but when he's out I am flavour of the month. This gets difficult as I need to get dinner etc.
Thanks, Sue

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hello Sue,

Thanks for your questions about Tyson's behavior. My experience tells me the behavior you describe is not uncommon for birds in your situation, and these behaviors are just a few of the reasons parrots make challenging animals to share a home with. Wild macaws spend their lives with a companion by their sides. They are almost never alone in the wild. So, it makes perfect sense that a parrot in a home would do everything it can to be with you, his companion, when you come home. His behavior of running around the cage before you let him out is very likely a behavior that started out of his frustration and was reinforced by the action of you taking him out of the cage.

A behavior that is repeated has quite likely been reinforced in the past. The very act of letting Tyson out of the cage when he is pacing is likely to increase the pacing behavior. The goal now is to replace the pacing behavior with sitting on the perch behavior. If you encourage Tyson to climb up to the perch and reinforce that behavior with a treat, or even opening the door to let him out of the cage, it is likely that he will come to understand that he needs to be on the perch before you will let him out of the cage. You can also gradually extend the amount of time before you let him out of the cage so he will learn to sit on the perch a bit longer when you are home.

You asked if he will ever stay on his play stand instead of flying to you. The answer is; he will stay on his play stand when it is more reinforcing than flying to you. As yourself, "why should Tyson stay on the play stand?" What's in it for him? If being with you is more desirable to Tyson than staying on the play stand, why should he stay on the stand? Birds don't do things because they are "supposed to." They do things that the want to do. So, how do you arrange the environment so that Tyson would prefer to stay on the perch? You may be able to make it more appealing to him with toys and other enrichment items. Or, you can use treats of various types to reinforce the behavior of sitting on the perch. If he likes the treats, you can teach him that sitting on the perch a bit longer between treats will earn him a larger or more desirable reward. That variable schedule of reinforcement is similar to what I mentioned above with the pacing behavior.

Behavior is a product of consequences. When we see a behavior occur in a predictable or repeated manner, we know there is something reinforcing that behavior. We usually only need to look into the recent past to see that our actions have reinforced the unwanted behavior we are experiencing. I often hear people complain about biting, screaming, pacing and many other behaviors that they see in their birds. It is most likely that these problems are repeated because the person has reinforced the behaviors with something as simple as giving the bird some attention. Our goal should always be to replace unwanted behavior with more desirable behavior instead of trying to stop the unwanted behavior. To try and stop behavior is to try to punish the behavior, and punishment is a poor training tool when compared to positive reinforcement. We always want to stay in the positive reinforcement behavior change system to give our birds the best welfare and most enjoyable life.

I hope that helps.

Steve

Steve Martin
President, Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Hello, My name is Heidy. I am living in the Netherlands. There is something on my mind for quite a long time and I still don't know what to do. In February 2010 we bought our female Congo African Grey Sammy. For me it was love at first sight. Sammy and I have a wonderful relationship. At least I think so. Right from the start I was sure I wanted to buy another parrot because I wanted to have some bird company for Sammy.

So in May of 2010 we were at the same parrot shop where we bought our Sammy. The owner had some young Meyers parrots. We decided not to buy one of them right away but to think it over for a couple of days. In the car on our way home we decided against it. A few days later however, after done a bit of reading, we decided to buy one of the Meyers parrot after all. Right at their first encounter Buddhi (the Meyers parrot) attacked Sammy. They dislike each other ever since. And to be quite honest I myself have a bit of a love/hate relationship towards Buddhi. On the one hand I think she is a cute little parrot (she likes to crawl very much) but on the other hand I don't really like her (although she has grown on me) and I think made a mistake buying her. I never imagined and was never told that there was such a big difference in character between an African Grey and a Meyers parrot.

Where I can read Sammy almost like an open book and Sammy is to me at least very predictable, Buddhi is quite often a closed book to me and she attacks quite often. I have no idea what is going on inside of her. To be honest I did not know very much about parrots at the time I bought Buddhi. I the meantime a have done quite a lot of reading and I also attended a course on parrot behaviour. I really do not know what to do. Last year I talked to my avian vet and decided to put Buddhi in one of our outdoor aviaries. But neither Buddhi nor I felt comfortable with that. So after 1,5 days Buddhi moved in to our living room again. To be honest it was in October. But still I don't know what to do with Buddhi. Should I keep her or should I 'get rid of her'? When I keep her, I know for sure that she will have a good life and I of course do not know for sure what will happen to her even if she goes to good people.

Could I put her, with a mate in an aviary with kakarikies? I really don't know what to do. Can anyone please help me with this? I am very much looking forward to your advice on this.

Thank you very much in advance,

Heidy

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hi Heidy, My name is Bobby Brett and I work for Steve Martin’s Natural Encounters, Inc. in Orlando, Florida. I will try and help you with Sammy and Buddhi. First of all, I would like to thank you for being so considerate towards your parrot’s future and being willing to ask for input. Hopefully, together, we can come up with a solution to help you, Sammy, and Buddhi.

With all new challenges, I try to gather as much information as possible to best decide my strategies. Therefore, there will be some points throughout this brainstorm that I would like to ask some questions to try and fill in some gaps. Hopefully, with this new information, we can decipher a strategy that will be helpful.

Firstly, you mentioned before that you don’t particularly care for Buddhi, but she is growing on you. I assume that it is because she doesn’t seem to want to be around Sammy that she is not as appealing to you. Does she show aggression or other signs that she doesn’t like to interact with you or does she seem to enjoy being with you when you two are alone together? The reason for this thought process is to try and determine how you feel about Buddhi based solely on the interactions between the two of you. I know that you originally got her to be a companion for Sammy. However, if it turns out that this will not be the case would you be willing to keep her as a part of your family as another separate individual instead of as part of a pair of parrots? If it seems that she is content to be willing to interact with you then it may be beneficial for you to keep her with you and your family instead of sending her away to another family. On the flip side, if Buddhi is showing no indications that she is content with all of her current situation (family members, enclosure, etc.) then it may be possible that it would be better to find a better fit.

In your email you wrote that you can read Sammy’s body language very well and considered her behavior to be fairly predictable. Buddhi was a completely different story for you, however. It sounds like you have had a large amount of time living and interacting with Sammy (possibly due to the fact that you find her personality or demeanor more appealing to you) therefore leading to a very strong relationship built on trust and mutual understanding of each other’s body language. Have you noticed that you spend more time with Sammy than Buddhi? If there is a noticeable difference, the “unpredictability” of her behavior could be that there is just not as strong of a relationship with her as there is between you and Sammy.

As with all animal relationships (and people relationships as well) it takes time and respect to gain trust and build a strong relationship. Through training and a history of positive interactions, relationships can be built where there have been some problems in the past. Around work, we relate this relationship status to a bank account. Positive interactions (delivery of positive interactions – treats, scratches, freedom to leave, etc.) put trust into your Relationship Bank Account. Negative interactions (removal of positive stimuli- freedom of space, grabbing for vet procedures, punishing for incorrect behaviors, etc.) withdraw trust from your Relationship Account. Keeping your relationship and interactions as positive as possible makes for an overflowing Trust Account at your Bank of Relationships. Through these strategies, a good relationship between yourself and Buddhi (and even possibly Buddhi and Sammy) could mean the difference between having your current situation being a good fit and it not making the cut.

Here are some ideas I have for you to consider:

• Try and consider your interactions with Buddhi and determine your relationship status. By doing this we can work towards making interactions with you a more positive experience and eventually make future training sessions more successful and less stressful.

• Consider the idea that, if interactions between Sammy and Buddhi show that they are not likely to want to interact with each other directly, is it still satisfactory for you and your family to maintain a two-parrot household with the birds living separately. Maybe it would be possible for them to live in separate enclosures in the same room so they can still see and hear one another but there will be no risk of invading each other’s personal space. Many parrot owners are able to give multiple birds stimulating and enriched lives with this type of set up. With this strategy they can be a form of environmental enrichment for each other, even if they are not having physical contact with each other.

• One strategy you can try is what’s called a Howdy. You can try placing their enclosures (that they live in separately) next to one another so that they can see each other but have a barrier that will prevent interactions that could cause injury. Then you can reinforce them with treats they like (Sunflower Seeds, Peanuts, Veggies, Peanut Butter, whatever they love the most) when they are calm and not displaying any negative behaviors. However, if they do not seem to want to be in close proximity to each other, the next step below could help with this.

• It is possible, over time and training sessions, to work up to having animals live in close proximity to each other and be calm and comfortable with the situation. This can take a fair amount of time (amount of time completely determined on the behavior of the birds – some adjust quickly, others never accept the newcomer) but if you have the patience the reward could possibly be at the end of the tunnel. You might try and have Sammy and Buddhi living in separate enclosures in the same room and see how they behave. If you see signs of aggression (eyes pinning, tail fanning, feathers ruffled to enlarge body appearance, loud and insistent vocalizations, etc.) then you now have a starting point and know where they stand with each other. You can give them treats for calm behavior (feathers comfortably arranged, slow and deliberate movements, eye pupil size consistent, etc.) which will increase the likelihood of this behavior in the future. If you see signs of aggression you can move them farther away from each other until they are showing signs that they are more comfortable. What I would advise to avoid is putting them together and “wait for them to work it out”. This will lead to them practicing that aggressive behavior and not only increase the likelihood of them continuing it in the future, it could also increase the chances of them redirecting that aggression to you since they cannot reach the actual source of their frustration. Over time, it is possible for you to slowly be able to move them closer together and have them continue with their calm body language that you have so carefully trained.

• One thing that may be possible for Buddhi (from what I have been able to deduce from your email that she is the one with the likelihood of instigating aggressive behaviors) is to give her some extra enrichment. Enrichment can be many things in different shapes and forms that promote different behaviors. Shreddibles (newspaper, paper bags, cardboard, phonebooks, etc.) can help distract her from other stimuli or things that could promote aggressive behaviors. Also, the activity of interacting with these enrichment types that require a lot of energy could help her to burn off some of that frustration that could be building up. If it appears that she starts showing an inclination to misdirect her aggressive behaviors to a toy or other enrichment items that could be a great indication to you that the current situation is not to her liking and that you may need to adjust your current strategy.

• As far as putting Buddhi with a mate in an aviary with other birds, I would ask you very carefully consider your motivation. If she is already showing signs that she does not want to interact with other birds then, to me, there is a fairly good chance that she will not be willing to share space with them in the future, especially if she has a mate that could give the potential for breeding. This could actually increase her desire to repel other birds from her “territory” and threaten other animals (not just birds) from her defined area. The most important thing to keep in mind is Buddhi’s safety, as well as the safety of any other birds she may interact with.

So Heidy, I know that I have given you A LOT of information to look over and consider and I truly hope that some of it could possibly prove fruitful for you. As far as the question of whether or not you should keep Buddhi – only you and your family members can make that decision. You need to make a decision that works for you and your bird. However, I do have one question for you to consider at this point: If you let go of the idea that Buddhi was intended for Sammy and think about the way that it seems to be – that you have another parrot in your house – is it the situation that will be the best for that bird, and your family?

If you have any more questions or would like more clarification on something I suggested please do not hesitate to contact me again. I would very much like to make sure that whatever you choose works the best for you and your situation at home. If you would like some additional information on training, behavior, and enrichment then check out our website at http://www.naturalencounters.com. It has some great literature in the “Papers and Presentations” section.

Sincerely,

Bobby Brett
Trainer, Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: General

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your answer

Filippo

Category:
Behaviour and Training
Requestor Name:
Filippo Rivarossa

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Chris Jenkins
Supervisor
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Dear Steve, About a year ago i adopted a Moulaccan male that was about 20 years old. I adopted him through a very wonderful rescue organization. He had been there for about three years and had also been through about 7 homes. When I adopted him he spun to the left almost all day long as if he had a neurological condition. He also did not balance well when I took him to play in his outdoor aviary. When one of the rope swings moved in the breeze he would struggle to keep his balance. On several occassions he lost it and did not even try to keep himself from hitting the ground. It has now been a little over a year. He seems to only start spinning when he is getting worried about something and his balance seems to have improved immensely.

He is a wonderful intellegent bird and the majority of his chest feathers have surprisingly regrown in. He seems to use words appropriately telling me "I love you big momma" Which I have to admit would be cute except for the big part! My question is could what seemed like a neurological problem when I got his be more related to hormone swings? The rescue had taken him to the vet who did declare it was likely neuro but after a year of seeing the behavior slowly disappear I wonder if I should be prepared for it to return?

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hello, Whenever someone asks me if a particular behavior could be related to a health problem I always recommend the person have the bird checked out by an avian vet. I figure if the person wonders if it is possible, then it likely is possible, and it is usually best to have a professional evaluate the possibilities.

That said, there are a number of things you mentioned that caught my eye. To begin with, I have seen several parrots do the spinning behavior you mentioned. Now, we know that most behaviors that are repeated have some form of reinforcement associated with the performance of that behavior. What we don't always know is exactly what those reinforcers are. The reinforcers for some behaviors, like persistent vocalizations (screaming), and maybe even continuous spinning, might be the attention the bird gets from a human. Even the attention given to the bird by a subtle glance can be enough to reinforce the behavior, and cause birds to continue a behavior with hopes of getting more attention. However, I bring this up as background and it may have nothing to do with your bird.

Then, there are the multitude of reinforcers for behaviors that are private to the bird and we will never get to know. In the case of spinning, we don't know if the bird finds some form of enjoyment in performing the behavior, maybe like a person exercising or running on a treadmill. Animals perform many behaviors for reasons we will never understand. The repeat of these behaviors tells us there is something reinforcing the behavior. But, exactly what those reinforcers are may never be known to us. Beware there are many pseudo experts out there who will diagnose or interpret behaviors such as the spinning you have described and tell you why the bird does the behavior in terms of what the bird is thinking or what the bird "is." For instance, some may say the bird spins because it "wants to impress you," or the bird "Is neurotic" or "Is hormonal" or any one of many other interpretations that may actually sound feasible, but are far from the true motivation for the behavior. Keep in mind that no one knows what a bird is thinking. Although many of the explanations you hear may make sense to you, the reality is the only real information we have to deal with is what you see the bird "Do." Often following the lead of people who describe behavior in terms of what a parrot "Thinks" or what the parrot "Is" will take you farther from a true understanding of the motivation for undesirable behavior.

You also mentioned that the bird had trouble keeping his balance on the rope swing, especially when the wind blew. This information raises a few flags for me. First, a bird with clipped wings will generally have more trouble balancing in situations like you described. However, even birds with clipped wings should not fall off a perch. The fact that he has fallen off of a perch on multiple times causes me to again encourage you to have an avian veterinarian check him out. I have many birds in outdoor aviaries and cannot remember a bird loosing its balance to the point of being unable to retain its perch. All of our birds are full-flight, which gives them a balancing advantage over birds with clipped wings. But, I still believe it is very uncommon for a bird even with clipped wings to fall off of a perch, even in the wind.

As for the spinning behavior being related to hormones, I suggest a vet will be a better person to answer that question. But, I will say that this companion parrot world is flooded with people blaming undesirable behavior on hormones. I believe most of the undesirable behaviors we see in parrots are inadvertently reinforced by the owners and have nothing to do with the bird's hormones. Unfortunately too many so-called experts are quick to label birds and situations with explanations that relieve the owners of responsibility, but do nothing to solve the behavior problem.

You mentioned that your bird speaks. This is a good sign that may give some insight into the bird's health and emotional status. Mimicking sounds is one of the first things to stop when a bird is not healthy or feels stressed in its environment. I believe vocalizing is in many ways an expression of well-being. Though we will never know what a bird is thinking, we can see behaviors associated with a bird being comfortable in its surrounds. These behaviors are things like rousing or shaking its feathers, preening, playing with toys, bathing, and vocalizing in ways that are not associated with obvious stress or alarm calls. When I see a bird talk, or mimic sounds, I usually see other signs and behaviors that tell me the bird is comfortable in its surroundings.

I hope that helps,

Steve

filed under:


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

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

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

Thanks
Bruce

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Melissa Williams
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shannon Ryan

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Chris Jenkins
Supervisor
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

My Question: My male military macaw is becoming sexually mature. One odd behavior I've noticed is that when I am allopreening him, (I try to avoid any deliberate arousal), he now opens his beak and works his tongue in a very specific way, which he never did in the past.

I know that the flehmen response is specific to some mammals, (although many more animals, including snakes, use the vomeronasal organ to locate mates). This is the closest thing I can think of in terms of behavior.

I saw an intriguing reference to male mallards' changing their reproductive behavior when their olfactory nerves were sectioned, but I've never read anything that specifically relates to the behavior I'm seeing.

Any thoughts about this? I never see him doing it when he isn't in more or less direct contact with me, but he isn't touching me with his beak or anything.

Thanks,
Nancy Sullivan

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hello Nancy! My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Supervisors with Natural Encounters, Inc. Steve forwarded me your question about your Military macaw, and we'd be happy to offer our thoughts.

When parrots in the wild are in the process of allopreening, there are often a number of other behaviors that seem to occur at the same time. These are sometimes referred to as "comfort behaviors", and include things like scratching, yawning, and stretching. Companion parrots often exhibit the same sorts of behaviors when they are being preened by their owners, and from what you've described our best guess is that what you're seeing is yawning. It doesn't sound like what your seeing is reproductively related, and it is possible that while the behavior was originally triggered by the stimulation of the preening itself, the "yawning" behavior may now be displayed more frequently either because the behavior itself is pleasurable for the bird, or because there is reinforcing value in whatever reaction he gets from you when the behavior is displayed. In speaking with Steve, he mentioned that he has most often seen this sort of behavior when a bird is scratched near the ears, so we'd be curious to know if the behavior is most noticeable when the preening occurs in this area.

Hope this information is helpful!

Chris Jenkins
Supervisor
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

Dear Steve, I welcomed Thor, a Green-winged macaw, into my family when he was about 6 months old. As a baby, he was docile and quiet. At around 30 months, he started to become (for lack of a better word) a real jerk. I have read a lot about parrots and their 'terrible twos' and expected much of this behavior. One facet that I can no longer tolerate is his screaming. His cage is in an area of the family room that adjoins our kitchen. We spend 90% of our time in these two rooms, so he is always involved in daily life.

He speaks very well for a macaw, so I used techniques on these forums to train him to use more pleasant words/sounds he already knows to express his wants. For example, while we eat dinner in the family room, if he would like to try some of what we are eating, he says "hello". If we are out of sight and he wants to see us, he calls out, "never more". This worked great for quite awhile, but now he has come to expect it. When he says hello a few times and doesn't get receive food he begins to scream. I have tried switching his toys more often and making sure he has time to exercise out of his cage. It seems the more attention I give him and the more I try to work with him, the more demanding he becomes.

I am seeking any advice you can give on how to establish a mutual understanding and respect with Thor regarding food, volume, etc.

How do you teach a parrot the age-old lesson: you can't always get what you want?

Thanks,
Alex Altomare

Answered by Steve Martin & Staff:

Hello Alex! My name is Chris Jenkins, and I am one of the Supervisors with Natural Encounters, Inc. I received your question about your screaming macaw, Thor, and I’d be happy to offer you some advice that should be helpful in dealing with it.

Screaming is a natural behavior for parrots, and is therefore a behavior that can never be eliminated completely. That being said, it is well within your ability to use positive reinforcement to train your bird to reduce the frequency and duration of these screams, and to replace them with other vocalizations that you find more acceptable.

From what you’ve detailed, it sounds like you’ve gotten some good training information that can give you a head start on working to reduce the incidence of Thor’s screaming. The basic plan that we try to follow when dealing with a screaming parrot is two-fold. First, we try to make sure that we don’t do anything to reinforce the screaming as it occurs. Second, we work to train the bird to perform behaviors that are incompatible with screaming in order to get what it wants. We’ll tackle these two aspects one at a time.

First, it is important to not reinforce the behavior that you want to see eliminated. Parrots have the ability to call very loudly, as you have heard. What we want to make sure is that we don’t inadvertently train our birds to scream in order to get what they want. Some companion owners will give their birds treats or toys when they are screaming in hopes that it will shift their focus and keep them occupied. Others will ignore their birds when they scream until it reaches an intensity that they can’t tolerate, and then go to their birds to either console or scold them. Both of these scenarios send the message that screaming will earn the bird a desirable consequence. In the first case, the bird learns that it can earn a variety of treats or toys by screaming. The second case is basically the same, as the bird learns not only that it can get attention (even if it is negative attention) by screaming, but that in order for it to work they have to scream very, very loudly!

It is important, then, for the bird to learn that screaming will not earn it something that it wants. If the bird learns that there is no positive consequence to screaming, then over time the bird will spend less time and energy performing this behavior in order to achieve that outcome. Be aware, though, that a behavior that was previously reinforced and is now ignored will usually go through what is know in the training world as an “extinction burst.” This means that, before giving up, the animal will likely perform the previously reinforced behavior with a higher intensity or duration than they ever have before in a last ditch effort to earn reinforcement. In Thor’s case, this means that the screaming will likely get worse before it gets better. Think of it as when you are trying to call someone to get his or her attention. If a soft “Hey there” doesn’t work, you say “Hey” a little louder. If that doesn’t work, you say it even louder than that. If that doesn’t work, you may yell “HEEEEEYYYYYY!!!” before giving up and realizing that the person isn’t going to pay attention to you. Thor’s screaming will likely follow the same progression, and it is vitally important that you resist the temptation to respond in any way during this “burst”, as doing so sends the message to him that he can only get your attention by screaming really, really, REALLY loudly. We know of one companion parrot owner who has taken up the habit of freezing in place wherever she is in her home when her cockatoo screams, for fear that she might in some way make a movement or sound that could inadvertently reinforce the bird. That might be a bit of an extreme example, but it definitely takes to heart the importance of not reinforcing an unwanted behavior.

So must you sit idly by while your bird screams louder and louder? Not at all. At the same time that you are ignoring the unwanted behavior, you can work to train your bird to perform behaviors that you like in order for it to earn desirable consequences. From what you’ve said you’ve already been reinforcing Thor for vocalizations that you like, “Hello” and “Never more”. By pairing these vocalizations with the reinforcers that you mentioned, you’ve strengthened them to a point that they are now offered more and more frequently. This is to be expected, as he has learned that there are desirable consequences to these particular behaviors. In order to avoid the screaming that occurs when he doesn’t get these reinforcers, there are a few different strategies that you might find helpful to try. If you want to maintain the two vocalizations above, I would suggest working to slowly increase the length of time between when the vocalization occurs and when he gets reinforced for it. We’ve worked with a number of people who’ve had this exact same issue, and what seems to work well is to introduce a secondary reinforcer – perhaps verbal praise like the word “Good” – that happens after he vocalizes but before you give him the treat or attention. This praise, if presented consistently, will tell the bird that what it’s just done was good, and that a treat or attention will follow. In the training world this is known as a “bridge” because it bridges the length of time between when the behavior occurred and when the treat is delivered. In the early stages of training you can bridge and reinforce the bird right after the behavior occurs, but the goal will be to slowly lengthen the time between the behavior and it’s consequences. This is not a quick fix, and will take some time, but it is a very reliable method that has been successful for a number of companion parrot owners over the years. At first this may involve making fairly frequent trips from your chair to his cage, but with time and consistency you should be able to stretch the time between these trips out to whatever length of time you think is appropriate. Also, your response of “Good” can be a reinforcer in and of itself. If the bird vocalizes in a way you like and you answer back, this “call and response” can become an additional form of attention that Thor can learn that he will get for performing this desirable vocalizations, thus giving you another way to reinforce him without always having to get up to do so.

In addition to lengthening the amount of time between when these vocalizations occur and when reinforcement arrives, you should also train him to perform other behaviors that are incompatible with screaming. The behaviors that we suggest for this particular case would be any soft call, whistle, or vocalization that you find acceptable. The more these sounds are reinforced, the more likely your bird will be to perform them, and because you will be making sure to not reinforce unwanted vocalizations like screaming, Thor will learn that it is much more worth his while to spend his time performing the behaviors that have consequences that he likes instead of those that are ignored. At the same time, I would think about how else you might set up your environment to give Thor the best chance to be successful in the training that you’ll be doing. If you find that he’s most likely to scream during dinner, you might consider giving him lots of attention just prior to dinnertime, and then leaving him with some treats or a favorite toy during dinnertime. You may also consider making this his dinnertime as well, as he will likely be more occupied with what he’s been given to eat at that time than with what’s going on at the dinner table. If you feel that the screaming is a function of his being out of the sight of you during dinner, you can do a test and see if moving his cage so that he can see you while you eat makes a difference, as he may just be calling because he can hear people but can’t see what’s going on.

In summary, the best way to teach Thor that he can’t always get what he wants is by making sure you provide clear, consistent communication about what the consequences of his various behaviors will be. Making sure that he gets lots of attention and reinforcement when he is performing behaviors that you like, ignoring and not reinforcing behaviors that you don’t like, and actively working to replace unwanted behaviors with more desirable, incompatible ones will give Thor a new vocabulary for how he should interact with the humans that he shares him home with, and will hopefully give your ears a much needed rest.

With patience, determination, and consistency, I have no doubt that the above methods can begin to lead to a significant decline in Thor’s screaming. If you haven’t done so already, I’d also suggest checking out the articles we have posted at http://www.naturalencounters.com, as they contain information about bird training, behavior, and enrichment that you may find interesting and useful.

Best of luck to you both!

Sincerely,

Chris Jenkins
Supervisor
Natural Encounters, Inc.

filed under: Behaviour and Training

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