An Introduction to Positive Reinforcement Training and its Benefits

Written by Barbara Heidenreich. Posted in Social Interaction

Positive Reinforcement TriningMacaws on bicycles, cockatoos raising flags, conures snatching dollar notes from audience members. These are images that often come to mind when the word “training” is mentioned in conjunction with parrots. While it is true that training is responsible for those resulting entertaining tricks, this short list of behaviors is a gross understatement of the endless potential training with positive reinforcement affords avian species in our care.

Training is simply teaching. When we train an animal with positive reinforcement we give it information on what it can do to earn desired outcomes. What behaviors we choose to teach are limitless. In addition to training birds for entertainment, we can use this form of communication to address behavior problems, to manage birds on exhibit, to teach birds to cooperate in their own medical care and/or to allow us to facilitate captive breeding practices.

Training is Science Based

Although training birds in general is not a new concept to avian enthusiasts, understanding the science behind training is just recently gaining momentum. The science behind training is called applied behavior analysis. This science focuses on how organisms learn. And truly we are all students of this science on a daily basis whether we are conscious of our application of its principles or not. Current trends in animal training choose to focus on using elements of this science that focus on kind and gentle strategies to create desired behavior and reduce undesired behavior. This includes avoiding the use of aversive punishment and negative reinforcement. In its place, trainers learn the art and skill of applying positive reinforcement to gain cooperation. (See definition below)

Positive Reinforcement: The presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behavior. Another name for positive reinforcement is reward training. Positive reinforcers tend to be valued or pleasant stimuli. To get positive reinforcers, learners often enthusiastically exceed the minimum effort necessary to gain them. Recommended!

Negative Reinforcement: The removal of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behavior. Another name for negative reinforcement is escape/avoidance training. Negative reinforcers tend to be aversive or unpleasant stimuli. To avoid negative reinforcers, learners often only work to the level necessary to avoid them. Not recommended!

Punishment: The presentation of an aversive stimulus, or removal of a positive reinforcer, that serves to decrease or suppress the frequency of the behavior. The use of punishment tends to produce detrimental side effects such as counter aggression, escape behavior, apathy and fear. Also, punishment doesn’t teach the learner what to do to earn positive reinforcement. Not Recommended!

One of the benefits of viewing behavior and learning from a scientific approach is that we can avoid the pitfalls of relying on anecdotal information and/or anthropomorphic interpretations of behavior. In addition as a recognized science, the information belongs to everyone. No single individual has ownership of the methods or principles. They are available for each and everyone one of us to learn and apply. By understanding the science we are able to remove misconceptions and erroneous interpretations of behavior. The science also teaches us that even innate behaviors are modifiable. And most importantly we learn to create and modify behavior with kinder and gentler methods. This allows reduction in stress, trust building bonds with caretakers, the avoidance of learned aggressive behaviors and the many other drawbacks often associated when aversive strategies are used to influence behavior.

The Potential of Positive Reinforcement Training

In many ways the parrot community is still in its infancy as it identifies the potential formalized training programs have to vastly improve avian care and management practices. Positive reinforcement training has long been a part of the management and care of species such as captive whales and dolphins. Dog training has made tremendous changes in the last ten years towards focusing on positive reinforcement training. While this highly effective and far kinder method of influencing animal behavior is ready and waiting to be exploited to its fullest in the avian community, a movement of positive reinforcement training devotees has been working hard to spread the word to parrot enthusiasts around the world.

What these supporters have learned is that positive reinforcement training dispels many common misconceptions that currently exist about parrots. No longer do they believe that getting bit by their parrot is inevitable, no longer do they worry if their bird is perched higher than chest level, no longer do they assume their parrot will misbehave with strangers, and so on. They have learned that by applying positive reinforcement training strategies, they can teach their bird to eagerly present almost any behavior they can imagine. Positive reinforcement trainers commonly teach their birds to voluntarily present the following practical and useful behaviors.

  • Step up onto the hand
  • Step up onto the hand of other people
  • Enter a kennel or other travel container
  • Play in a towel
  • Step onto a scale
  • Go back into the cage
  • Stay on desired play stands or cages
  • Interact without aggressive behavior with other birds

Positive reinforcement trainers often also train behaviors that may seem focused on entertainment. However they also serve a very real function of building trust and enriching their birds lives. These include the following:

  • Touching a target
  • Wave with a foot
  • Wave with a wing
  • Stretch wings out
  • Nod “yes”
  • Shake head “no”
  • Turn around
  • Retrieve an object
  • Talk on cue

Many of these seemingly impractical behaviors are also easily shaped into medical behaviors such allowing nail trims or clipping feathers without restraint. Some zoological facilities have trained parrots to allow the following medical behaviors without restraint (Video of which can be seen at Parrot Behavior and Training Workshops presented by the author)

  • All over tactile exam
  • Cloacal sampling
  • Choanal sampling
  • Ultrasound
  • Radiograph
  • Cloacal temperature reading
  • Nebulization
  • Masking for anesthesia
  • Blood draws

In addition to providing the tools to train novel behaviors, understanding the principles of applied behavior analysis gives parrot enthusiasts the foundation needed to address behavior problems. Behavior problems such as biting, screaming, bonding to one person, fear of leaving the cage and feather destructive behavior are many times the result of a parrot learning what to do to create an environment that works for the bird. Unfortunately humans often inadvertently reinforce or create the undesired behavioral response the parrot is presenting. By understanding the function of the behavior and identifying the antecedents and consequences that serve to maintain the behavior, owners can proceed to develop strategies based on applied behavior analysis principles to address problem behavior.

Learning How to Train

Surprising to most, training with positive reinforcement is relatively simple. As with any skill it can be practiced. The more it is practiced, typically the better one becomes at its application. Many behaviors can be trained in one or two twenty minute training sessions. The following are a few terms that are helpful to know prior to delving further into the nuances of training with positive reinforcement.

Cue: A signal that tells the animal what to do. Many trainers use verbal and/or hand cues.

Bridge or bridging stimulus: A signal or marker that indicates when an animal has done something correct. It bridges the gap in time between when the animal did something correct and when it will receive positive reinforcement. Some examples of bridges are clickers, whistles, the word “good” or a touch.

Shaping a behavior with approximations: Once a desired behavior is identified, it is possible to look at that behavior as a series of small steps. The first step must be learned before moving on to the next step. Eventually all the steps when joined together lead up to the final desired behavior. Approximations are used quite often to train behaviors. This strategy can be used to train a bird to step up onto the hand, go onto a scale, step onto strangers, enter a kennel, wave and much more.

Training with approximations is like a dance between the trainer and the bird. The bird may take a few steps or approximations forward, but if the bird is hesitant to move forward more, the trainers may choose to accept a step that had been mastered previously. The training may remain at this step for a few repetitions as the bird gains confidence before a more challenging step is attempted again. There is a constant shifting and adjusting to meet the capabilities of the bird, but eventually more steps are taken forward then backward and the bird learns what the trainer is trying to teach. It is an intricate dance and one that makes training such an interesting activity. It challenges a trainer’s skills. Very rarely does training become boring. Each species, each individual, each behavior brings a new set of criteria to the table.

Using the terms described above and positive reinforcement as a training strategy we can explore the process of training a behavior. The first step is to identify a behavior to train. When training by shaping with approximations, it is helpful to describe in writing what each step might be. This can help a trainer visualize the process. In addition it is important to identify a cue for the behavior, a bridge and the type of positive reinforcement preferred by the training subject.

At first the bird will not understand the cue. Therefore the first step is to try to create the situation in which the bird will perform a small part of the behavior. For example to teach a bird to step up on the hand for positive reinforcement, sunflower seeds may be used to lure the bird towards the hand. If the bird takes a step towards the hand, the bird is “bridged” (the bridge signal is given) and offered a seed. While the bird is making the step towards the hand, a cue can be offered, such as the verbal cue “step up”. This associates the cue with the action of moving towards the hand. Over time the bird will make the connection that the verbal cue “step up” means to go to the hand. Eventually the goal is to phase out showing the sunflower seeds to encourage the performance of the behavior and only offer the cue.

When training a new behavior the sequence is as follows:

  1. Presentation of cue by the trainer
  2. Bird performs behavior or approximation towards desired behavior
  3. Bridge is given by the trainer for correct performance of behavior or approximation
  4. Positive reinforcement is offered by the trainer
  5. This process repeats itself as each approximation is added, until the final goal behavior is achieved.

Once a bird has gone through the approximations and clearly understands that the cue means to perform a particular behavior, the use of the bridge can be phased out for that behavior. The bridge is a good tool to help clearly communicate what is desired. However, once the behavior is learned it is not necessary. If the bird has problems with the behavior or is learning a new behavior, the bridge can always be reintroduced.

Although the bridge can eventually be removed, it is not recommended to phase out the positive reinforcement. Over time the bird will lose its motivation to perform the behavior. Reinforcement increases the likelihood the bird will perform a behavior; aversive or no consequences can decrease that likelihood.

Training a Retrieve

Learning new behaviors is mentally and physically stimulating for companion parrots. It is no secret that parrots are some of the most intelligent animals on earth. Having the opportunity to exercise their brain power is highly enriching. The following example describes the approximations one can take to teach a simple retrieve. It is also a great exercise for new trainers to use to practice applying the principles of training.

  1. Set the bird on a small perch (approximately one foot long). This will limit where the bird might choose to go.
  2. Offer from your hand a small toy, such as a plastic bead, or other small but heavy object. Usually birds will pick it up with their beaks out of curiosity. If the bird will not pick it up, try hiding a piece of food behind the bead so the bird must touch the bead with its beak. In this training scenario, the presentation of the bead may act as a visual cue, but you can also use a verbal cue such as “pick it up”. (Later this will be useful if you want the bird to retrieve other objects.)Bridge and reinforce when the bird touches the bead with its beak. Continue shaping touching the bead until the bird picks it up.
  3. Hold a small bowl under the bird’s beak. Eventually the bird will tire of the bead and drop it. Catch the bead in the bowl. Give the bridging stimulus you have chosen when the bead hits the bowl bottom. This can be clicking a clicker one time, or saying the word “good”. Decide the type of bridging stimulus you will use before you begin the session. After the bridging stimulus is given, offer the bird positive reinforcement. The positive reinforcement can be a sunflower seed or other food treat. Other forms of positive reinforcement can be offered such a head scratches or attention. Just be sure the bird finds these things positively reinforcing.
  4. Repeat this process several times.
  5. After several repetitions, move the bowl over to the side slightly. The bird will probably not drop the bead in the bowl. If this happens, do not bridge or reinforce. Offer the bead again. Allow the bird to miss and not get reinforced one or two times.
  6. Then go back to trying to catch the bead in the bowl. Bridge and reinforce.
  7. Try moving the bowl to the side again. If the bird gets the bead in the bowl offer a large reinforcement. If he misses, go back to step 3 and work up to step 5 again. Keep repeating this process until the bird understands the bead must go into the bowl in order to get the reinforcement.
  8. Once the bird gets the concept of the bead going into the bowl, start moving the bowl a little farther away. You will find you may have to go through steps 3-7 again. But eventually, you will be able to hold the bead on one end of the perch and the bowl on the other.
  9. Once this concept is understood by the bird, you can try switching the object to something else. When you do this, go back to holding the bowl under the bird’s beak and catching the object. Gradually approximate the bowl farther away. This should go quickly this time. Once the concept is well understood, try placing the bird and bowl on another surface such as a table. Again, you may need to repeat steps 3-7 to get on track. But eventually the bird will learn to generalize and perform the behavior in different environments and with different objects.

Conclusion

The good news about training is that it is not that hard to do. Understanding a few simple concepts can get parrot enthusiasts started on a path of discovery. Not only can training with positive reinforcement provide entertaining diversions, but it can also create well behaved parrots, reduce stress, avoid aggressive responses, and create an eager and enthusiastic participant. Most importantly it fosters the human animal bond that draws us to these fascinating creatures.

Freidman, S.G. (2005). “He Said, She Said, Science Says.” Good Bird Magazine. Volume 1 issue 1.
Friedman, S.G. (2005) “Straight Talk about Parrot Behavior” Good Bird Magazine Volume 1 Issue 3.
Friedman, S.G. and Heidenreich, B. (2005) “Pick a Principle” Good Bird Magazine. Volume 1 Issue 4.
Heidenreich, B. (2004) “Clicking with your Bird!” www.ParrotChronicles.com. Nov-Dec. Issue 19.
Heidenreich, B.E. (2004). Training Birds for Medical and Husbandry Behaviors. Proceedings Association of Avian Veterinarians annual conference.

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Barbara has been a professional in the field of animal training since 1990.   She owns and operates a company, Good Bird, Inc., (www.GoodBirdInc.com) that provides behavior and training products to the companion parrot community. These products include books, videos, and training/behavior workshops. She is the author of “Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companion Parrots” by Avian Publications and also “The Parrot Problem Solver. Finding Solutions to Aggressive Behavior” by TFH Publications. She is the past president of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (www.IAATE.org).

Barbara’s experience also includes consulting on animal training in zoos and other animal related facilities. Her specialty is free flight bird training. She has been a part of the development and production of more than 15 different free flight education programs. Barbara continues to provide consulting services to zoos, nature centers and other animal facilities through her other company Animal Training and Consulting Services (www.ATandCS.com). In her career she has trained animals, trained staff, and/or presented shows at facilities around the world.

Copyright 2006 Good Bird Inc. First Appeared in Bird Keeper Magazine. www.BirdKeeper.com.au. Cannot be reprinted without permission.

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Bird Bites - Don't Blame the Bird!

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

Bird BitesAn all too common complaint from bird owners is that their bird bites. Indeed, most of us have been unexpectedly bitten by our birds at one time or another, seemingly for no reason at all. Bites can range anywhere from playful nips to severe bites causing blood loss, scarring, nerve damage and disfigurement. Being on the unpleasant end of the beak is not fun and it can hurt both physically and emotionally, if we let it.
The truth is, aggressive biting is not a behavior that is commonly observed in parrots in the wild. In the wild, parrots are able to effectively communicate with their flock through the use of body language and vocalizations. Parrots in captivity, although driven by the same instincts as their wild counterparts, are forced to live in an "unnatural" setting where they often aren't afforded the same opportunity to choose flight to defend themselves and/or have their communications clearly understood by their human flock.

Although some biting is instinctually based, biting in captivity is largely a learned behavior. Given that, we can choose to take steps to eliminate this undesired behavior in our birds and learn to stop being the "victim". If our birds bite, the root cause is largely our own lack of understanding or sensitivity to their expressions of their needs. Biting often serves as a means of communication for a bird when all else fails.

Why Do Birds Bite?

The key to resolving biting issues is to first understand the nature and the context of the bite. Once you understand the reason, you can then determine the appropriate solution and alter the behavior. Bites can be classified in several ways:

Exploratory/Play Biting

The first question to ponder is, "was it really a bite"? Not all biting is based in aggression. For example, play biting and beak exploration is a developmental activity for young birds. Baby birds rely heavily on their beak to explore and test their surroundings. As a result, they often chew on the fingers and other interesting body parts of their caregivers (i.e., ear lobes, noses, eyebrows, etc.) Sometimes this exploration can be a little painful as they don't realize that this activity may cause discomfort.

In this instance, some gentle guidance via a firm but quiet NO and a short time out will help young birds to learn play boundaries. Also, having an alternative chewing object for distraction on hand will be very helpful in teaching them what an acceptable chewing outlet is. If young birds are prone to rough-housing, be sure to offer praise and lavish lots of positive attention when they are calm.

Territorial Biting

By nature, birds are territorial creatures and can react instinctively in an attempt to protect their "nests" or their favorite person from intruders. Since this type of biting is an instinctual reaction, it can be a difficult behavior to modify.

If your bird demonstrates territorial aggression when you are feeding or cleaning their cage then a common sense approach to avoiding a bite is to remove the bird first before changing dishes, hanging new toys and cleaning their cage. Stick training will also be of great value in getting a bird from the cage and moved to a more neutral area. Additionally, having multiple play areas within in the house for your bird to "hang out" will make them less prone to territoriality.

Hormonal Biting

Sometimes birds are more prone to biting during breeding season. This is more common to some species(for example Amazons and Cockatoos) than others. During these periods our feathered friends can be prone to rapid mood swings. The good news is that the breeding season, for most birds, is temporary and steps can be taken to reduce the impact of the season (check out our article: The Seven "Hormonal Parrot" Dwarfs)

To avoid bites during hormonal periods, take great care in handling your birds to avoid over-stimulation which can trigger aggressiveness. Avoid all touching and petting on their backs and under their wings. Watch their body language for signs of "overload" such as pinning eyes, fanned tails and aggressive posturing.

Stress Biting

Stress is a physiological reaction to a real or perceived threat. Stress causes a release of hormones that temporarily alters the physical body. This is called the "fight or flight" response. Stress can result from a wide variety of circumstances (check out our article: Avian Stress). Also, many birds are very empathic and have the ability to sense our moods. If you are in a highly stressed state, you are more likely to be bitten.

Once you can identify the cause of your bird's stress then you can work towards eliminating that source. Stress can simply arise out of "forced" interaction when a bird is tired or does not want to interact. Respect your bird's body language and take the time to understand your bird's daily patterns. For example, are they more receptive to interaction at a particular time of day? When do they like to nap, preen, bathe, eat, play and vocalize? Don't push a bird to interact if they want to be left alone.

Fear Biting

Parrots may bite if they become frightened. This is an instinctive self defense response (fight) to a perceived threat when they do not have a means of escape (flight). This type of bite can be triggered by loud unexpected noises, pain, "strange" people or objects and situations such as grooming activities or vet visits.

Anticipate situations that may stress or cause a fear reaction in your bird and remove the bird from that situation if possible. Early socialization and exposure of your bird to a wide variety of different foods, toys, environments, people and other birds will all add to your bird's learning experience and set the stage for how well he develops in his ability to form successful human bonds, adapt to change and to be a happy, less fearful bird. Also:
  • Don't force a reluctant bird to interact with another human they don't like
  • Don't hand off to strangers if they are not socialized to accept strangers.
  • Have family take part in the daily routine with the birds and take part in training activities.

Displacement Biting

Some birds will bite their owner in an attempt to warn and protect them from a perceived danger. This is called displacement aggression and it is an instinctive reaction. Your bird is trying to get you to flee.

Never let a bird prone to displacement biting sit on your shoulder.

"I Don't Wanna" Biting

"I Don't Wanna" biting is a learned behavior. Through our reactions to certain situations our birds have learned from us that biting gets them something that they want or helps them avoid something they don't want. Examples of what this might mean to a bird are:

  • Hey, I'm bored. Pay attention to me!
  • Leave me alone!
  • Give me some.
  • I don't wanna go in my cage/carrier.
  • I don't wanna share your attention.
Remember the equation: Reaction = Reinforcement. Take care not to react in any way that rewards and reinforces your bird's biting behavior.

Final Words of Wisdom

    • Always practice patience, careful observation and consistency in your interactions with your bird.
    • Become a student of and develop sensitivity to your bird's body language so you can tune into and better understand their primary means of communication.
    • Successful relationships with birds are built on trust and respect. You can't control or dominate your bird and attempts to do so will result in more, not less, aggression. NEVER, EVER hit or throw your bird to the ground. This is abusive, both physically and emotionally.
    • Utilize positive reinforcement training methods to teach fun behaviors and basic step up and step down maneuvers that can be used as a distraction technique to avoid a bite.
    • If bitten:
      • Remain calm.
      • Put your bird down and provide negative reinforcement for the behavior by quietly withdrawing all attention for a few minutes.
      • Take a moment to review the circumstances leading up to the bite to determine the trigger.
      • Don't take it personally, don't give up and Don't Blame the Bird!
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Do Parrots Have Emotions?

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

Parrot EmotionsScientists have long accused pet owners of anthropomorphism which is the act of attributing the human characteristics of thought, feeling and consciousness to pets.  Even though supporting the notion of animals having emotions is the equivalent of committing heresy in the scientific world, there is an increasing acceptance that animals do have and feel emotions.  

From the pet owner's perspective, humankind is not alone in it's ability to think and feel.   Anyone who has lived with a parrot knows that they not only have an amazing intellectual ability but also a desire for companionship and the capacity to feel and express emotion.  Every day the evidence is right before our eyes, our parrots emotions are expressed through their eyes, body posture, behavior and vocalizations which are often verbal.

The bond we have with our birds is primarily one of emotion and it is this emotional relationship that enriches our lives.  Does this emotional interaction have the same impact on our parrots?  We just don't know for certain but for that matter, do we even really know what another human being feels?

Our birds have the ability to demonstrate a host of emotions:

  • Love  - as expressed by their eagerness to be close to their "chosen one", desire to be touched, excitement when you enter the room and through their contact calls.
  • Fear - primal emotion common to all animals that in birds triggers an automatic defensive behavior such as escape flight.
  • Joy - as expressed through vocalizations and body language especially when their owner returns home and through their independent play activities and vocalizations (singing, whistling)
  • Loneliness - most often indicated by development of stereotypical behaviors when deprived of social contact and companionship.
  • Boredom - most often indicated by development of stereotypical behaviors when lacking in mental stimulation and play opportunities.
  • Grief - a parrot often acts depressed or listless when an owner or mate dies
  • Jealousy - perhaps with the arrival of a new family member (i.e., baby, spouse, another pet)
  • Anger - as demonstrated via body language or a provoked or unprovoked bite.
  • Distrust - wariness of a stranger

Many parrot owners have also reported that their parrots, especially African Greys,  are very empathic which is the capacity to understand another's 'state of mind' or emotions.   Parrots are very sensitive to our emotions, sometimes better than we are.   Our birds are keen observers of our facial expressions, body language, tone and even energy levels and therefore we have to be cognizant of how our emotions can impact our birds.  If our home life and relationships are stressful our birds will pick up on this and may feel threatened and start exhibiting negative behaviors.  The emotional health of all members within the human flock can influence a bird's sense of security.

If we pay equal attention to the clues they provide us through their actions, tone and body language perhaps we can better understand and address our bird's emotional needs.

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Giving Parrots the Attention they Deserve

Written by Administrator. Posted in Social Interaction

Giving Attention to ParrotsParrots thrive on attention from their human flock and it is vital to their emotional well-being.   Being locked up and abandoned in a cage to spend hours alone does not make for a very rewarding life.   How much attention is too much?  What type of attention is best?
There are three levels of attention that you should integrate into your daily routine:

Quality One on One Time (recommended 10-15 minutes twice a day) -  This is where your undivided attention is focused on your bird without competing distractions.   This time is great for training, cuddling and playing with your bird.  Engaging in interactive play such as playing simple games with your bird will help to not only stimulate their bird brains but also foster a healthier relationship.  Favorite games in our house are peek-a-boo, ball toss, hide and seek and “gonna get a bird”.

Shared Attention (recommended minimum 20 - 30 minutes a day) - This occurs any time you spend while in physical contact or close proximity to your bird while you are also engaged in other activities such as watching TV, talking on the phone, washing dishes, interacting with other family members, taking a shower, etc.   

Indirect Attention (recommended minimum 2 hours per day) - Parrots love to observe other flock members and their daily routines while quietly amusing themselves with a toy on their T-stand.    Just taking a few minutes to talk or hand out a treat will help remind your bird he is an integral part of the family.
Parrots also have the need for social connection thru vocalizations and contact calls.  Sometimes all your parrot wants is a reassuring call back from whatever room you are in.    Simple hello and goodbye greetings also fall in the category.

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Providing Positive Guidance to Parrots

Written by Administrator. Posted in Social Interaction

positive guidance for parrotsJust as human children do, parrots need to receive constant guidance as to what constitutes good behavior.  Consistent limits and boundaries must be defined.  This can be successfully achieved through the application of nurturing guidance principles and the use of positive reinforcement training techniques.

Nurturing guidance is a concept originated by Sally Blanchard (Companion Parrot Quarterly) and promoted by many avian behaviorists. A few of the basic tenets are:

  • All interactions with your parrot should be trust building, not trust destroying.  Never use aggressive handling, punishment or deprivation techniques with your parrot.  
  • Use 4 basic commands to establish your role as the flock leader.
    • Step Up (to ask a parrot to step on your hand)
    • Down (to ask a parrot to step off your hand)
    • Okay (to give permission to your bird)
    • No (to express disapproval)
  • Behavioral problems are NEVER the parrot's fault.  Many problem behaviors are a reaction to our own behaviors or a poorly managed environment.

Parrots do not grasp the concept of punishment and it should NEVER be used.  Positive reinforcement techniques whereby you use motivation and rewards (treats, cuddles and praise) to obtain a desired behavior is very effective.

For more information check out an excellent article:  An Introduction to Positive Reinforcement Training and its Benefits by Barbara Heidenreich.

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The Importance of Social Interaction

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

Social Interaction for your parrotParrots are flock animals with an innate need for companionship  and social interaction.  A parrot  derives it's greatest sense of physical and emotional security from living within a flock. Parrots are rarely alone in the wild.  The social nature of a flock is very important to a bird's emotional well-being. Flocks participate in many activities together such as eating, traveling, preening, bathing, climbing, playing, roosting, vocalizing and socializing.

One of the most difficult of all things for a crow, a raven, a wolf or a human is to feel alone and separated from one's own kind.  A sense of belonging is one of the most universal of all feelings.   - Lawrence Kilham, 1989

A bird left in isolation without love and attention will have a poorly developed sense of security or belonging.   Parrots are social beings and isolation can lead to the development of negative behaviors, depression and even insanity.

Within our homes it is important that we provide for our birds need for social connectedness.   Fortunately, our birds exceptional intelligence in combination with their innate social nature enables them to relate to their human family as their flock.

You can help your bird feel as though he is part of your flock by:

  • Respecting and interacting with him as a full fledged, equal member of your family.  
  • Including your bird in routine day to day activities.  Even folding laundry can be great fun to a bird.
  • Sharing meal time.  Eating is a flock behavior and your bird will relish opportunities to share healthy meals with the family.
  • Establishing fun rituals to enjoy with your bird every day (interactive games, songs, greetings, goodbyes).
  • Acknowledging and responding to your bird's contact calls to reassure him when you are in other parts of the house.

To set the stage for successful social interactions between your parrot and its human flock it is imperative to know how to socialize your bird as well as how to give your bird attention and guidance.

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The Seven "Hormonal Parrot" Dwarfs

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

Hormonal ParrotsOnce upon a time, in a land not so far away there lived a woman with seven dwarf parrots.  All was peaceful and good until an evil magic came to the land blowing in on the warm air currents of spring.   The woman's normally loving and happy dwarf parrots transformed right in front of her eyes into the seven evil hormonal dwarfs, who then came to be known as Screamy, Itchy, Plucky, Chewy, Clingy, Horny and Psycho......

Does this sound familiar?  Are you stocking up on band aids and ear plugs yet?  Peaking around the corners in your house to make sure the coast is clear of your spouse's cute little birdie?  Perhaps things don't have to look as Grimm (forgive the pun) if we try to understand what our feathered friends are starting to go through this time of year and investigate how we can make their lives (not to mention ours) a little easier.  First of all, it is important to recognize that hormonal behavior is a natural behavior and it is also a temporary one.  A little patience and a little knowledge will help both you and your bird.

Spring brings longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures which cue in the breeding season.   Your bird's hormones are telling your bird that it is time to mate and, basically, it's out of their control.   The degree of impact can vary by species, the stage of sexual maturity and the sex of the bird.   Fortunately, not all parrots are slaves to the spring hormonal surge.   

Recognizing the signs of hormonal behavior:

  • Excessive Screaming (Screamy) -Vocalizations are normal for a parrot and they certainly can be LOUD at times.  What we might think is obnoxious is completely natural and instinctual to our birds.  Prolonged and intensified screaming can be the result of hormonal influence and can sometimes push even the most patient of bird owners towards the edge.  For more info on how to cope with screaming, refer to our article Why Does My Bird Scream?
  • Moulting (Itchy) -  Moulting is the result of a hormonal process and can be a physically stressful time for a bird.  During a molt, your bird's body demands a higher level of energy and nutrients.  Therefore, dietary supplements may be beneficial.   Making sure your bird has adequate opportunities for bathing will also help alleviate some of the itchiness factor for your bird.
  • Feather Picking (Plucky) - Some birds resort to plucking especially on their chest and between their legs when breeding season arrives.   The first step to take if your bird starts feather picking is to have him examined as soon as possible by your avian vet to ensure the picking is not medically related (i.e., due to malnutrition, injury or illness).  Providing preening toys may distract your bird from over preening or plucking his own feathers.
  • Nesting behavior (Chewy) - Is your bird crawling under the blankets and pillows, chewing everything in sight, hiding out under the furniture and/or laying eggs?  If so, that's nesting behavior.  Limit your bird's access to sites that may look like good nests, provide plenty of  acceptable chewing outlets (destructible toys) and if your bird is laying eggs, leave them alone and supplement your bird's diet with calcium.
  • Less independent (Clingy) - Suddenly the bird who has never had a problem entertaining herself wants to be with you 24/7.   Providing lots of new entertaining distractions may help to mitigate this desire (i.e., foraging toys, destructible toys).
  • Masturbation (Horny) - Does your bird have a joy toy in his cage or have you become the object of affection?  If so, remove the toy from the cage or calmly place the bird back on his play stand or cage when they start to do the wild thing.  Avoid over stimulating your bird by touching them on their back or under their wings or tail.  Grabbing their beak is also a no-no.   Scratching their head and neck is just fine.
  • Aggressive Body Language (Psycho) - Flashing eyes, fanned tails and raised neck and crest feathers are all warning signs.  When hormonal, birds tend to become very territorial and sometimes very possessive of their chosen one. Very hard bites are often the result of ignoring the warning signs. For more info, refer to our article "Understanding Your Bird's Body Language"
  • Regurgitation (Barfy, OK that makes eight but who's counting) - Parrots regurgitate to feed their babies and their mates.   Don't encourage this behavior as it will add to your parrot's level of confusion.  If your bird tries to feed you, put him down for a few minutes or distract him with a play object or new activity.

What else you can do?

Change your bird's environment around (inside and outside the cage) to discourage nesting behavior.  Remove boxes and toys from your bird's cage that may be the focus of obsession.

  • Control your bird's diet to limit high calorie and high fat foods that trigger hormone production. Avoid grapes, corn, meats, sweet potatoes and instead supplement your bird's diet with more fresh veggies and lower sugar content fruits.
  • Avoid feeding soft warm foods that might remind your bird of regurgitated food from a mate (oatmeal, cream of wheat, etc.)
  • Control your bird's exposure to light (both natural and artificial) by making sure they get only 10-12 hours of light.   A little extra sleep won't hurt them. Utilize a cage cover or blanket to darken their environment.
  • Distract your bird with lots of mental jobs, exercise and environmental stimulation.
  • In the case of overly aggressive behavior, be sure to supervise your bird very closely or leave them in their cage when unsuspecting visitors are around.
  • As stated previously, hormones influence various species differently.  Do your research and understand as much as you can about the species of birds in your home so you can more effectively meet their needs.

Armed with this new knowledge, the woman took pity on the seven little evil dwarfs, took note of and changed her own behavior and showered them with all the proper enrichments.  Peace reigned again and, of course, they all lived happily ever after.........

Optional sing-a-long:

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho it's off to work we go
To make our bird's lives happier
Heigh-ho, Heigh ho

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Understanding Your Bird's Body Language

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

Understand Bird Body LanguageLearning your bird's language is key to having a productive, respectful relationship with your parrot. Birds can communicate in a variety of ways. If we are lucky, they use our own language to let us know what they want but certainly, they always convey their moods using their own unique vocalizations and body language.
By taking the time to observe and interpret your parrot's body language, you will soon be able to easily discern when they are happy, want to play or eat, tired, angry, sick or even when they are about to poop! Gaining an understanding of the subtle clues your bird provides will enhance your relationship with your bird because you'll be able to earn his trust by respecting his moods and responding to his needs better. Not to mention, it will also help you to avoid some unwanted bites!

Body language can vary from species to species and even within a species but generalizations can be made regarding various body postures. Some signs are very clear, but many aspects of a bird's body language can be very subtle and many have dual meanings. Therefore, a particular movement or position can often only be accurately interpreted in conjunction with simultaneous postures, vocalizations and awareness of what's happening in the environment. A bird's eyes, posture, feather position, wing position and tail all provide valuable clues.

How to Recognize when your bird is.......

Happy or content
  • a fluffing and quick shake of all the feathers is a greeting and sign of pleasure towards a bird's loved one (very glad to see you)
  • a tail wag consisting of a quick side to side movement often accompanies the fluff and shake move
  • beak grinding
  • tongue clicking (cockatoos and cockatiels)
  • A lowered and fluffed head (please scratch me)
Fearful
  • crouched and ready to fly (escape)
  • crest slicked down (cockatoos, cockatiels)
  • feathers held tight to the body
  • eyes wide open
  • frozen posture
  • growling (African Greys)
  • hissing (cockatoos, cockatiels)
Aggressive or excited
  • constriction of iris
  • feathers slicked back
  • crouched posture
  • tail fanning
  • crest up (cockatoos, cockatiels)
  • feathers hackled (the "I'm a big bird, don't mess with me" look)
  • beak open
  • foot stomping (cockatoos)
  • blushing (macaws)
Relaxed
  • tail preening
  • resting on one foot
  • wing stretching
  • beak grinding
Playful
  • flapping wings
  • leaning forward with wings out
  • foot up (pick me up)
  • crest up
  • rocking back and forth on perch
  • hanging upside down from top of cage
  • head bobbing
Sick
  • fluffed feathers for prolonged periods
  • tail bobbing
  • panting or labored breathing
  • also see Signs of a Sick Bird

For more information on understanding your bird's methods of communicating see our article: Understanding Your Bird's Vocalizations

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Understanding Your Bird's Vocalizations

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

Parrot VocalizationsVocalizations are essential to a bird's existence in the wild.  As social flock animals, they need to communicate with the other flock members about a host of topics - where the best eats are, where to meet up after a long days work to roost, to warn or scare away predators, to attract a mate or to warn off someone encroaching on their nest.   In nature, the most vocal periods for bird are at sunrise and again at sunset.

There are several types of vocalizations:

  • Contact Calls are used to locate flock members when they are separated within the thick forest canopy.  (Sort of a Marco Polo technique to guide a separated bird back to the flock.)
  • Warning Shouts to make the flock aware of a predator.
  • Angry Shouts when someone encroaches on one's territory.
  • SOS Calls when a bird is in distress, under attack or injured.
  • Love Songs or chatter between mates.
  • Begging sounds made by hungry babies in the nest.

In our home, often a parrot's vocalizations are expressions of their emotional needs to the rest of his flock (you and your family).   The number one reason bird's vocalize is to get our attention. They are constantly calling out to their human flock with the equivalents of:         

  • "Where's dinner?  to let us know they are hungry
  • “Hey, where is everybody”  to find out where we are
  • "Help!"  because something scared them
  • "Get the heck out of here!" - to warn us of danger
  • “Time to get up and going" to greet us in the morning
  • "Yea! You're home!"  to greet us when we get home from work
  • "Gotta go nite nite" when they've had enough for the day

They also vocalize:

  • just for fun ! (singing, whistling)
  • to engage us in play
  • to compete with other noisy activities in the house (vacuum, TV, music, kids)
  • to respond to or imitate noises in the house that usually command our immediate attention (telephone, doorbell, microwave beep)

Bird owners should listen to their bird’s calls and try and interpret them relative to what is going on in the environment and what time of day it is and then you can appropriately respond to their needs.   By responding to there contact calls you will reassure them that their flock is intact.

Vocalizations are normal for a parrot and they certainly can be LOUD at times.  What we might think is obnoxious is completely natural and instinctual to our birds and, as such, we must learn to accept "normal" noise.  However, not all noise is "normal".  There is also "learned screaming behavior" that puts a lot of bird owners over the edge and often results in birds being passed from home to home.  See our related article Why Does My Bird Scream? for insight on excessive screaming.

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What is Socialization?

Written by Deb White. Posted in Social Interaction

What is SocializationSimply put, socialization is the mechanism through which we teach our birds to function successfully within a human flock.    In the wild, baby parrots remain with their parents for up to 2 years after they are weaned and fledged.   This is a much longer developmental period than exhibited by other species of birds.  During this extended training period they learn how to survive in their environment (what to eat, where to find it, how to eat it, how to remain safe from predators) and how to communicate with and participate as a member within their flock.
 
In our homes, it is through the socialization process that parrots are taught acceptable ways of interacting with their human companions, what behaviors are frowned upon and which are encouraged.  Early socialization is the foundation for ensuring the healthy emotional development of a baby parrot and ultimately the potential for a successful relationship with humans, one based on trust.   Properly socialized  birds are self confident, outgoing, active, playful, have independence skills and adapt well to change.  Poor socialization inevitably leads to behavioral problems (i.e., phobic reactions, neediness, feather picking, mutilation, aggressiveness, etc.)
 
Socialization is primarily accomplished by providing safe opportunities for experiential learning that are appropriate to the bird's stage of development and through nurturing guidance.    It is through experience that all species learn what is safe, who to trust, what to eat, who's the leader, etc.     Exposure to a wide variety of different foods, toys, environments, people and other birds will all add to your bird's learning experience and set the stage for how well he develops in his ability to form successful human bonds, adapt to change and to be a happy bird.

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