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Our Cockatoo and his Fear

Expert Question

I recently adopted Joey who came from a house where the guy would throw things at the cage if he made any noise. Joey is very sweet and loving with me. He will follow me around the house like a puppy or if I’m sitting down, he will come over and rub on me like a cat just wanting to be petted and hugged.

The only problem is Joey is afraid of my husband, Evan. Whenever Evan gets near him, Joey will try to run away. I’ve been making Evan give him all of his treats and food. Joey will take the treat from Evan only if Joey is in his cage, or sometimes on top of his cage. Otherwise Joey just runs from him, usually into the other room where I have to go get him and bring him back. I’d send Evan to retrieve him but I’m afraid that that will do more harm than good.

I’ve had Joey for about a week now. I know that he needs more time to adjust to his new home and to Evan. I plan on doing anything and everything for him to help him to settle in and be a happy little birdy. Do you have any ideas on helping him settle in faster? I’ve had someone suggest clicker training and having Evan read to Joey. Any thoughts on these? Any other suggestions?

I do have some, meaning 1, experience with rescue birds. My severe macaw mas mistreated in his previous home and was very aggressive when we first brought him home. It took us about a month of working with him and now he is, most of the time at least, a well behaved and loving little guy. Dealing with an aggressive bird is a lot different than dealing with a fearful bird though and I just want to make sure that I do everything right for both of my birds.

I can’t wait for the day when Joey is as happy and loving with Evan as he is with me.


Expert Answer

Hello Crystal, My name is Miranda DeVries and I am an avian trainer with Steve Martin’s Natural Encounters, Inc.  First, I would like to commend you for seeking help so quickly for Joey and your husband, Evan. It says a lot about your compassion for Joey that you want him to have a positive and reinforcing relationship with everyone in your household.

My first thoughts when reading your question was that any man who enters Joey’s life after the abuse and mistreatment he may have suffered by his previous male owner may have to start his relationship with Joey basically from scratch.  The past does not equal the present, however, and despite what may have occurred in the past you and your husband have the power to shape and modify the behavior you’re seeing now. This may sound a little daunting at first but with lots of positive reinforcements and interactions I believe Joey and Evan can have a relationship that they both are happy with.

You are well on your way to helping Evan and Joey build a positive relationship by not forcing Evan on Joey. Forcing a bird to be around someone or do something that makes the bird fearful can lead to more aggressive behaviors, even biting.  Any interactions Evan and Joey have right now should be when Joey is in his cage because from your question you say that is the only place Joey will take treats from Evan. I do not recommend that Evan read to Joey because from your question it would seem that the simple presence of Evan is a negative experience for Joey right now since he may not trust Evan.  I love your idea of having Evan feed Joey his favorite treats. The treat Evan gives Joey is something positive that he will begin to associate with your husband. You want to make sure, though, that when Evan does this the body language that Joey is presenting is positive and calm, and that he is not displaying possible signs of fear or aggression such as quick, jerking body movements, feathers slicked tightly against his body, or alarm calling. If Joey does present Evan with negative body language Evan should simply walk away from his cage. Walking away from the cage allows Joey to have power over his environment.  Evan can simply return later and give Joey a treat when he is presenting positive body language.  By giving Joey the power to make Evan leave if he is feeling uncomfortable, and limiting their time together to those instances when Joey’s behavior suggests that he is feeling comfortable about Evan’s presence, this will only help both Evan and your bird decrease the amount of negative interactions they have, therefore making their overall history together a more positive one in total. After the positive interactions of Evan giving Joey his treat have occurred for awhile you and your husband might notice that Joey looks at Evan when he enters the room or moves toward his food bowl before he even gets the treat.

After Evan can give Joey a treat in his bowl (that is both positive and reinforcing to both) he can start to give him treats from his hand while Joey sits nicely on his perch. At first Evan can bait Joey away from his bowl by showing him a treat in his hand over by Joey’s perch. Evan can eventually fade out the bait and just use a hand motion to send Joey to his perch and feed him through the cage. Just remember if Joey shows Evan any negative body language (behavior) Evan should simply walk away and return when Joey’s behavior is more positive -- the basic rule that we follow in all our training is to reward behaviors that we like and to ignore the ones that we don’t.  We always strive to give our birds the power to choose whether or not to participate in our training sessions. If our birds choose not to participate, by displaying body language such as the examples mentioned above, we simply leave with the treats and try again later when they offer body language that is calm and inviting, such as still body posture with loose feathering, or walking towards the side of the cage where we are standing.

Once Joey is comfortable with Evan coming up to his cage and feeding him, Evan may even try getting some of Joey’s behaviors on cue while still in his cage.  The behavior could be simply a pleasing sound that Joey makes or targeting a toy with his beak.  When training these behaviors, if Evan finds he cannot give Joey his treat quickly after the correct behavior is performed, he can use a bridge.  A bridge is a signal to the animal that what it has just done at that exact moment was good, and that reinforcement is on its way -- it gets its name because it “bridges” the gap in time between when the animal has performed the desired behavior and when the rewards is presented to the animal for performing the behavior. We at Natural Encounters, Inc., normally use a quick verbal 'good' as a bridge.  As was suggested in your question, you can also give a click with a clicker.  Evan should keep a handful of treats on him and whenever he hears Joey make the noise or do whatever behavior he decides, he can bridge Joey and give him the treat.  When Joey is making the noise (or performing the behavior) consistently Evan can start to cue him for it. A cue can be anything at all (verbal or hand signal) that lets the bird know that you want him to make that noise or perform that behavior. Birds are extremely visual and tend to pick up on hand cues easier than verbal cues. Evan may notice that every time Joey performs the desired noise/behavior, he first flaps his wings or does some sort of behavior just before the noise/behavior is about to occur. When Evan sees that, he can cue Joey for the desired behavior, bridge after it is presented, and then walk over and provide the reinforcement. The behavior itself can be something very simple at first, such as training Joey to touch or hold a toy that is in his cage, and if both Joey and Evan enjoy the interactions it entails then you can move on to more complicated behaviors from there.

Once Evan and Joey have a comfortable relationship within the cage they can start working on their relationship outside of the cage. Depending on their comfort level with one another and Evan’s criteria of what he wants his relationship with Joey to be, he may even choose to work on stepping Joey up out of his cage using either his hand or a more stable tool like a stick or T-perch.  While this may seem like a simple behavior at first glance, the process of teaching a bird to do this using positive training methods can actually be quite a detailed and lengthy process that should never be rushed.  If you are interested in learning more about the steps involved in training a bird to step up using positive reinforcement, please let us know and we’d be happy to provide you with further details.  The key to all this is that Evan should continue to reinforce the behavior that he likes, allow Joey’s body language to shape his own, and in doing so diligently I think you will be amazed at the progress both your bird and your husband will be able to make.  In your email you say that Joey is currently fleeing from Evan when he approaches.  If Evan can learn to read Joey’s subtle signs of discomfort, Evan can take steps now to make sure it doesn’t get to that point with the two of them again.  If Evan slowly approaches Joey with a treat and Joey’s feathers become tight or his posture changes suggesting that he wants to move away, Evan should freeze and take a small step back.  If Joey’s feathers soften and his weight shifts to a comfortable low position, Evan can then slowly proceed forward, repeating this process and truly allowing Joey to tell Evan how quickly or slowly (or even whether or not) he can approach.  This process gives Joey power by allowing him to make Evan retreat with just the slightest change in body language, and will make Joey much more comfortable with Evan’s presence overall.

Crystal, I hope the above helps Evan and Joey and even yourself build a more positive relationship. If you have any further questions I recommend our website, which features our responses to companion parrot questions such as yours that we have received over the years, articles on bird behavior, training, and enrichment, and information on the companion parrot owner workshops that we offer several times a year at our training facility in Winter Haven, FL.  Best of luck to you all!


Miranda DeVries
Avian Trainer
Natural Encounters, Inc.

Steve Martin & Staff
About Steve Martin & Staff

Steve Martin has lived with parrots from the time he was five years old. By the time he was 16 his bird interest expanded to falconry and he has been a Master Falconer ever since.

He began his professional animal training career when he set up the first of its kind, free-flight bird show at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. Since then he has produced educational animal programs, or consulted at, over 50 zoological facilities around the world.

Steve has produced three videos on parrot behaviour and training and lectures frequently about parrot behaviour. He has also written several articles on animal behaviour and conducts training workshops each year at his facility in Winter Haven, Florida. Over two-thirds of his year is spent on the road consulting with zoos and aquariums on animal behaviour issues or teaching staff the art and science of animal behaviour.

Steve is President of both Natural Encounters, Inc., ( a company of over 20 professional animal trainers, and Natural Encounters Conservation Fund, Inc., a company dedicated to raising funds for conservation projects.
Steve has been a long time fan, supporter, and a Trustee of the World Parrot Trust. He is also a core team member of the California Condor Recovery Team, and Past-President and founding member of IAATE, an international bird trainers’ organization.