All material Copyright © 1991–2002 by the Canadian Parrot Symposium unless otherwise noted. For permission and information about reprinting articles, please e-mail your request.
Some Basic Principles of Avian Behavior Modification
Parrots have always been kept as pets by people living in the jungles of Central and South America. One tribe actually reveres scarlet macaws as their spiritual guardians, and honors them accordingly. Often, in the wilder areas, pet birds are allowed to fly free. They come and go at will, visiting with their people whenever they feel like it.
In past times, the physical and emotional needs of the birds were usually not addressed from a humane perspective. Many were destined to a lifetime spent within the confines of a tiny cage, or chained to a perch. Usually wild caught, they were seldom tamed and those extremely loving, intelligent and social creatures received very little affectionate interaction from the people who kept them.
Over the past 20 years, birds have become one of our most popular companion animals. Their relatively small size, sociable natures and long lifespans make them a good choice for apartment or condo dwellers, as well as for people who dread the loss of a beloved dog or cat every 10 or 15 years. In many cases, birds also fill the role of a surrogate child.
The recent increase in domestic breeding of many hookbill species has exposed animal lovers to birds that are already socialized to human interaction. This has changed the experience of bird ownership considerably. No longer needing to wrestle with the moral dilemma that resulted from the importation of wild birds, people were free to enjoy all the attributes of avian ownership. Although socialized birds can make wonderful companions, there may be problems. Conditioned to keeping domesticated animals, people expect a parrot to fit into the existing family as easily as a dog or a cat; but, many people find this not to be the case.
When birds are young, they tend to be quite tractable and people assume that they will always remain so. Therefore, initially, the bird may do very well in its new home; however, in the majority of cases, its behavior will change as it becomes older. Sometimes, the change will be negative in nature. Bewildered and angry, people will often misunderstand the reasons for their bird's behavior and respond in ways that actually exacerbate the problem.
Although dog and cat behavior can also change as they mature, a "misbehaving" bird seems to make a great negative impact on its owner. In fact, the change in behavior is often completely unexpected. This is usually because the person does not clearly understand that parrots are quite different from dogs and cats in their perceptions of the world and in the ways that they react to it. However, once the bird's situation is understood, many so-called "problems" fall by the wayside, and a loving relationship can continue to develop.
What are some of the more common problems seen regarding avian/human relationships and why do they develop? Again, it is important to remember that it is usually the misconceptions of the people involved that actually create the problem. Instead of discussing various techniques for modifying behavior, let us explore the world from the bird's perspective. Once this is understood, we can work at avoiding potential problems and eliminating the situations that have created existing ones. Often, after this is achieved, negative behaviors will either decrease or be eliminated completely...without confrontation.
Traditionally, humans believe that a superior companion animal fills a certain set of criteria. They are obedient, responsive, quiet and non-destructive; they also are respectful of humans. Unfortunately, this describes a dog or a cat, but not a bird. We often don't take into consideration the fact that dogs and cats have been domesticated, or bred for the aforementioned desirable traits for thousands of years. However, birds, or their relatives, have been in existence for millions of years, and have never been genetically altered for increased compatibility with people. Consequently, birds are still, technically, wild animals!
Once birds' wild origins are taken into consideration, it is easy to understand why people occasionally find themselves having problems with them. If behavior is to be modified in a logical, linear matter, it is important to understand the world from the bird's point of view. Then, we need to interact with it in a manner which it clearly understands and is comfortable with. It is also important to apply appropriate behavior modification techniques, when needed. When doing this, it is imperative that consistency and clarity be maintained, as well.
Each bird, each bird owner, and each environment is unique. Because of this, individualized behavior modification techniques, with the assistance of a behaviorist, is often needed, especially in situations where the behavior has continued for longer than 4 to 6 months. After several months, most behaviors can be considered to be habitual and may be difficult to remedy with generalized "shotgun", or "cookbook" techniques of modification.
Although it is easy to suggest some basic techniques for behavior modification; it is more important to understand the world from the birds' perspective; also, it is important to understand what constitutes negative behaviors and how they develop, before deciding which technique of modification to use.
When considering the world from the birds' perspective, it is important to understand how their society functions and how that affects their relationships with us. In the wild, most large hookbills are members of a protective unit, the flock. Within the flock, there is a hierarchy. This is a stratified society, with the dominant birds occupying the highest areas in the trees. Other, "lower" status birds occupy correspondingly lower branches, interacting only with birds of the same level. Birds that step out of their social level, into a higher one, will be pecked at and encouraged to return to their own group.
The birds' stratified society can work either for, or against, the people in the environment. Unfortunately, unlike dogs or cats, birds do not see humans as being superior to them. They can only interact with us in the same manner that they would interact with any other member of their flock! Consequently, if we "tell" them that we are inferior to them (with body language, inconsistent, or tentative behavior) they will treat us accordingly. Often, this is where many problems begin to occur.
For example, if a bird spends its time sitting where the top of its head is above the heart level of its humans, it will feel superior to them and problems may ensue, especially in more aggressive parrots. If the people try to correct the bird's behavior, or try to take it from its dominant position, it may bite them. If the people, in turn, become angry with the bird, it will only become even more angry with them, because it will not see them as having the right, as submissive individuals, to make it do anything it does not want to do! These birds will often begin to strike out, or scream because of frustration.
If the bird is placed in a position of vulnerability, it may behave as if the people in the environment are predators and can become fearful of them. It may respond, accordingly, with feather picking or extreme nervous behavior; also, these birds may scream from fear.
When the top of the bird's head is kept at heart level to their (standing) owner, they will hear the person's heartbeat and will feel loved and secure. This creates an experience similar to when the mother keeps her babies warm and comfortable. When interacting with them from this perspective, they will usually not exhibit the dominance or fear related behaviors mentioned in the two other situations. As a result, these birds also become quite happy with their position in the family "flock" and become more tractable. Loved and secure, they will have the freedom to play and to enjoy their lives much more than they did when they had to try to control their environment, or when they feared everyone.
Although this concept seems simplistic, it addresses the major components that comprise many difficult, or undesirable, behaviors and is the closest thing to a working "shotgun" technique for controlling problem behaviors in pet birds.
As with children, consistency and clarity are extremely important when working with behavior molding, or modification. Most people are not clear about what they require of their birds. Consequently, they give them mixed messages, in which the bird is dominant one minute, and submissive the next. Both human and bird then become increasingly annoyed and frustrated with each other and the relationship becomes strained.
It is also important that behavior problems be worked with as soon as possible, and not allowed to persist. If the owner is alert, and makes the required changes early enough, relatively little damage may ensue; however, in more serious cases, irreparable harm may be done and the relationship may never return to normal levels.
When working with birds, it is important to be aware of the ways in which we inadvertently "reward" negative behaviors. "Rewards" may come in a variety of ways, to a bird's way of thinking. Talking to them (even in anger), looking at them, touching them, and entering the room in which they are housed, all reward the bird. If the bird is misbehaving when one of these situations occur, then the negative behavior is reinforced, or rewarded. Only positive behaviors should be rewarded.
Before modifying behavior, we need to clearly understand the birds' capabilities and interact with them on a practical level. For example, we often comment on how much our birds remind us of human children. Emotionally, the large hookbills function on the level of a 2 to 3 year old child; and, intellectually, if they are stimulated at a young age, they may function at about the level of a gifted five year old child. However, even though we may be aware of their sophisticated abilities, we frequently do not interact with them at that level. For example, we often try to get them to remain on a perch for a long period of time, or leave the same toys in their cages for weeks, or even months. We do not give them enough mental, visual or verbal challenges, which makes life dull and uninteresting for them. Remember, these conditions are no more appropriate for them than they would be for a human child who was at a similar level of comprehension!
Whether working with a child or a parrot, it is important to be conscious of their needs and of their capabilities. When a bird that is sitting on a perch becomes bored or restless, it is usually not to blame, because it is up to their people to monitor the situation! Some relatively simple things, like returning the bird to its cage for a while after having it sitting out for a long period of time, or offering it a new toy or food for entertainment prior to its becoming restless, will reward their good behavior. It will also help to avoid the development of negative behaviors.
Simple awareness is helpful when working with behavior. For example, some people will find that their birds misbehave after a certain time each evening. Interestingly, if a small child were to behave in the same manner, the people would simply give it an earlier bedtime and the negative behavior would cease. Ironically, when a bird exhibits exactly the same behavior, their people usually become angry and may attempt to punish them. Gradually, the trust and love between the humans and their parrot will become eroded...not by the bird's behavior, but by the person's improper response!
An example of some of the situations in which birds may seem to "misbehave", include: illness, fear, discomfort (mental or physical; real or perceived), or any other environmental change or upset. Emotional responses such as jealousy, or anger, can also be seen...especially if another individual (human or animal) joins the household. Taking some of these things into consideration, imagine how unjust it is to merely punish the bird and to not take the reasons for its behavior into consideration!
Obviously, if a problem has developed as a result of the environment, then it is important to deal with that, before arbitrarily correcting the bird. Sometimes, the assistance of a professional behaviorist is needed. Interestingly, what often begins as an appointment with a behaviorist to work with the bird, becomes a session in which the person's behavior and environment are examined and altered! Humane intervention for both the person and the bird is essential if a harmonious solution to the problem is to be reached. If the bird's behavior is due to environmental factors, then merely correcting it without making essential changes to the environment can cause permanent damage to it! Do not punish anyone...human or animal...for expressing fear or discomfort.
How each bird reacts to behavior modification will also depend on its basic personality. For example, a bird that is easy-going by nature, will be less likely to turn aggressive, even when it is physically placed in a "dominant" position. Conversely, a bird that is basically a dominant individual, may always need to have the height rules strictly adhered to, because it will always try to dominate. This does not mean that they are less desirable as companions...only that they will tend to keep their people "on their toes"!
Once the environment and all social interactions are examined and dealt with, whatever behavior remains may be worked with on a subjective basis. The types of corrections used, of course, will be dependent upon the reasons for the bird's behavior, as well as its basic personality. For example, an extremely sociable individual will usually be responsive to being "shunned" by its people for about 10 minutes. Any longer time period will be ineffective because the impact will be softened. Shunning consists of either leaving the room that the bird is in, or returning it to its cage (if it is close by) and completely covering it. Do not talk to, or look at the bird, because this will reward it; also, cover all potential "peeky" holes because they will only serve to entertain the bird as it peers out at you.
Shunning may be used for a variety of behavior problems, including screaming, biting and feather picking! People are often concerned that their birds will not like their cages if they are used for correcting problem behavior; however, if the technique is properly implemented, they will still continue to enjoy playing and sleeping in them. It is similar to when a small child is sent to its room for negative behavior, when it knows that it could be out doing something else. They may become upset about being required to stay in their room; but, they will still enjoy playing there when they want to. Birds will dislike their cages only when the corrective technique is not used in a clear and consistent manner.
If the bird is a "homebody" and wants to go back to its cage, then leaving it on a perch while shunning it may be a more effective technique. If the bird is tired and is trying to tell you that it wants to go back, then it is up to you to be aware of its needs and try to anticipate them. This will serve to avoid, or circumvent potentially negative behaviors.
If a bird is feather picking, or mutilating, in addition to investigating the probable causes for the behavior and tending to them, it is also imperative that the bird receive a complete veterinary check before being worked with behaviorally. Often, especially in African greys and cockatoos, the behavior may be the result of some illness, or low-grade infection. Any potential physical cause must be eliminated before the behavior is corrected.
Once it is determined that the bird is a behavioral feather picker, it is important to offer them toys that duplicate the type of feather picking it is doing. For example, if it is snapping its feathers, dried pasta and ice cream sticks may be a likely substitute. For shredders, things that can be torn, peeled and shredded will have the greatest appeal. There are a number of commercial toys available that fill this need. Clean bits of cardboard and paper, as well as natural bristle whisk brooms and brushes can also be offered.
Care must be taken to avoid rewarding the father picking behavior. People often sit and stroke their feather pickers to get them to "stop"; however, if they decide they need a little more attention, the birds will only redouble their efforts in the future...in essence, their people are "training" them to destroy their feathers!
Time and again, the owners of the birds and the environments that they provide for them play a strong part in the development of behavior problems. If caught early, most problems can be dealt with quite simply by examining all factors that may be contributing to the behavior and dealing with them before implementing corrections. As in any other situation, corrective techniques need to be clear and consistent.
Most people do not offer enough praise to their birds. Humans spend a lot of time telling everyone around them about what they don't like about them, but they tend to be stingy with praise. If the bird is frequently praised (talked to, looked at, tickled) for doing nothing in particular, it is going to learn that this is a good alternative to getting into mischief. If this is done, they WILL begin to behave in a more desirable manner.
In conclusion, there are only a handful of actual behavior modification corrections and most people have heard or read about them; however, they are useless if implemented without understanding the reasons for each bird's negative behaviors. It is more important that the principles of good and problem behaviors be understood and that contributing factors in the environment be modified, before arbitrarily correcting problem behaviors.
Of all the creatures that I have known and worked with, birds are the ones that have the capacity to profoundly change people's lives. Often, we become so wrapped up in our need to control all who are around us, that we forget how precious our relationships with these magical creatures really are! How frequently do we tell them, or show them, just how wonderful we think they are? How often do we think back to those times that they have amused us, or brought us comfort during times of sorrow? How often do we really think about what huge hearts these wonderful creatures have...and how we have been touched by them? How often do we talk to them with the focus and intensity that their intelligence requires, instead of in a preoccupied and peripheral manner? How often are we truly grateful for their places in our lives and, why do so many of us only think of this after they are gone?
I think that the relationships shared by humans and all of their animal friends are among the most precious in the world. They are the chosen relationships. The love and care is given freely, from the heart; and, for many people, the only truly unconditionally loving relationships they have ever had was with their animals. However, it is usually the animal who loves unconditionally on a consistent basis...and, not the human. It is interesting that we all value unconditional love, but most of us cannot practice it...it takes an animal to teach us how.
Sometimes, when our animals misbehave, they are just telling us that we have been away too much, or have been too preoccupied to honor our part of the bargain. It is important to remember this and to offer love and affection to them, especially if we have been neglecting their emotional needs. After all, WE are the ones who chose to share our lives with these most sociable companions. They need us, but, I suspect that WE need them even more...
For over 20 years as a professional avian behavior consultant, I have told people that I think that it is most important to remember that the birds are our friends...often, our best friends; and that, above all, it is important to love them for what they are...and not for what we want them to be.
Chris has earned the right to be called "The Bird Lady". She is a parrot behaviorist, trainer, writer and lecturer; performed in the Trained Parrot Show at the Lion Country Safari for five years, as well as in the Animal Actors Show at Universal Studios. Chris has authored chapters in a number of books, has been a columnist and freelance writer for a number of magazines, and has lectured at a number of universities. Veterinary practices and pet stores across the USA and Canada and clients worldwide consult with Chris on avian behavior.