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Why is my parrot acting that way?

Expert Question

Dear Susan, I have a 7 year old yellow crowned amazon called Merlin, confirmed by my vet to be a male. He was hand reared and I have had him since he was weaned at about 12 weeks. For the first 21/2 years we had a very good relationship - I would never have believed how “cuddly” a parrot could be. He is my second parrot. The first was an african grey, re-homed due to the death of his elderly owner. Sadly Fred died after only 2 years, suffering from the
long term effects of his previous owner being a heavy smoker. I had no problems handling him.

When years old he became more cheeky, but initially he was not a problem until one day he flew at me, landed on my head and started scratching and biting like mad. Having seen the program about Sirocco the Kakapo, I now believe Merlin was showing the same sexual behaviour. However at the time it frightened me and I brushed him off my head. This happened a couple more times and I began to loose confidence in handling him. Soon after this I went to a Parrot Training and Environment Enrichment course at Paradise Park UK which was a great help and for a while things improved. Sadly later that year Merlin started biting me more frequently - even choosing to bite my hand rather than take a treat when he had moved to his perch on request. We soon reached the stage when I involuntarily pulled my hand away when he went to bite(hold?) my finger and I found I couldn’t cope with him being loose. I am sad to say he now stays in his cage. He is in a Macaw sized cage and has a changing variety of toys and several foraging items each day. He comes to the side of the cage and hangs upside down for a scratch or gently preening on his head and will take a treat to eat whilst I reach in to clean the cage. I think actually I trust him less than he trusts me?? I have tried to find a local trainer (Bedfordshire UK) who might be able to help me without success. I know the problem is ME not Merlin - any suggestions as to how I can improve my trust of him would be so much appreciated.

Expert Answer

Hi Lesley, First I want to say good job. You admit some of the problem is your fear and also that you want to improve the situation with Merlin. These are both great steps on the path to changing behavior, both yours and Merlin’s. The ideal is to live in harmony and you can make this happen.

Behavior change can be done safely and relatively easily using baby steps. You’ve already started the process by giving Merlin scratches though the cage bars and giving him a treat when you clean the cage. Start taking these farther. Teach Merlin to station (if he doesn’t already) when you clean the cage. Stationing means going to a particular perch on cue, generally one farther from the door. Once on that perch then he receives the treat. You can train this behavior either by luring (using the treat to encourage him over to the perch) or by target training first. I might suggest training to a target stick so it can be used later for other behaviors. Target training has the advantage of teaching Merlin how you want him to behave in the future when he see’s the target stick, without having the extra step of having to fade the lure out.

While you are moving Merlin farther away from you when cleaning, you are also teaching him about a relationship that you and he can have in a training mode. This strategy also has the advantage of allowing you to gain more confidence around Merlin and he in you. There are many in cage behaviors you can then start to teach that will add more reinforcement to Merlin’s daily life while at the same time keeping you safe from a bite. You could teach him to ring a bell, turn around, wave etc. Each little behavior is a confidence builder for both of you. Eventually you could target Merlin to the open cage door and always be able to cue him back to that stationing perch. and click on Right On Target for more information on targeting.

By beginning with these ‘in cage’ behaviors, not only do you and Merlin both build some confidence but you also learn how to observe Merlin more closely and learn the body language and signs that say he has had enough interaction at this time. Just as importantly, it allows you to learn how to train Merlin without mistakes leading to you being bitten. From Merlin’s viewpoint, he learns that goodies come from you and this increases your value to him.

Once you and Merlin feel more confident and less fearful you could start to slowly train Merlin to step up to your hand. This is where those new observation skills you have developed will help you to watch for any change in Merlin’s body language and stance. Don’t ask yourself or Merlin for a full step up, just him touching your hand with one foot is great. With more confidence gained, you can work on Merlin getting both feet on your hand, but allowing him to go back onto the cage door. When you first move your hand with Merlin on, only move a small distance and then back to the cage door for Merlin. Gradually you will increase the time Merlin stands on your hand calmly and also the distance from the cage.  You will find many articles at the above mentioned web site that may help you along with the process, including both Empowering Parrots and Shaping New Behaviors

With many successes and repetitions of these behaviors, you will feel more secure,  and will learn how to watch for any body language that might signal discomfort and an impending bite. One little step at a time, there is no rush!

Gay Noeth
Lee McGuire
Susan Friedman

Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates
About Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates

Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D., is currently a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. A Behaviourist for more than 25 years, her area of expertise is learning and behaviour with a special emphasis on children’s behaviour disorders. 

In the last several years, Susan has helped pioneer efforts to apply to animals the humane philosophy and scientifically sound teaching technology from the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis, which has been so effective with human learners. The guiding principle of this approach is a hierarchy of teaching interventions starting with the most positive, least intrusive, effective behaviour solutions.
Susan is a steadfast proponent of changing behaviour through facilitation rather than force. These tools of facilitation focus on animals’ extraordinary biologic capacity to learn by interacting with their environment. She teaches that by changing the environment for success, animals learn to behave successfully. Susan currently teaches Living and Learning with Parrots: The Fundamental Principles of behaviour several times a year. (See for more information and links to her recent articles.)

Susan is the first author on two recently completed chapters on learning and behaviour for two new avian veterinary texts (in press, Harrison and Lightfoot’s Clinical Avian Medicine and Luescher’s Manual Parrot behaviour) and enjoys contributing to and learning from several internet lists on parrot behaviour. She is a core member of the California Condor Recovery Team and takes every opportunity to work with companion animal caregivers, veterinarians, animal trainers and zookeepers to empower and enrich the lives of all learners. Foremost in this interdisciplinary effort is her passion for and commitment to working with companion parrots and their caregivers.