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Managing Parrot Behavior :
Behaviour Problems and the Future of Companion Parrots

by Liz Wilson



Due to the increasing incidence of behavior problems in companion parrots, many psittacines are losing their homes. Problem behaviors manifest in a variety of ways. Despite being flock species in the wild, over-bonded "one person birds" won't allow interaction with anyone other than their favorite- even refusing the attentions of other family members. Over-dependent psittacids are unable to amuse themselves, requiring constant attention from their human caretakers. In complete control of their diet, food-rigid parrots are living on abysmal nutritional planes, eating only such things as junk food, corn and grapes. Sensitive adolescent parrots abruptly become phobic, often overnight- responding to their formerly beloved and trusted caretakers as if to deadly predators. High strung birds pluck incessantly, driving caretakers to distraction and making themselves look like something that should be cooked for dinner. Self-mutilating parrots appear to be attempting suicide. Previously gentle parrots abruptly won't allow caretakers access to their cages, so that reaching into the cage to feed entails serious personal risk. Biting and screaming are probably the most common complaints heard about companion birds; biting parrots terrorize families, attacking without provocation the humans can recognize. Screamers are getting caretakers threatened with evictions and/or divorces.

Despite all this, numbers of companion parrots are increasing rapidly- consequently, so are the numbers of parrots that are ending up in adoption and rescue organizations. It is important to understand that these aberrant behaviors can-at least to some degree- be modified. Education is the key to lessening these dilemmas.

Behavior Problems -General Etiologies

There are several reasons why behavior problems develop with companion parrots, and these must be addressed or no long-term resolution will be possible. Stop-gap measures, or what lay behaviorists call "quick fixes," do nothing to resolve the source of the problem, so they just postpone the inevitable result of the bird losing its home. What must be sought is a resolution of the problem, not a Band-Aid.

Physical or Management Etiologies

When the parrot does not have everything it needs for a happy, healthy life in captivity, problems will result. For example, when my own macaw had an annoying screaming episode a few years ago, investigation revealed (to my chagrin) that she'd knocked down her pellet bowl and was without food. Besides inadequate food and/or water, other management problems that can impact behavior would include: cage issues related to size, location, height and monotony (as in, boredom) and sleep deprivation.

Cage Size: Overly small caging is extremely common. One client kept her Moluccan cockatoo in a 20" x 20" cage, and could not understand why the bird self-mutilated. Part of a bird's medical history should include the brand and measurements of the bird's cage. I believe that birds should be housed in the largest possible cage with safe bar spacing, and feel that the absolute minimum cage size should be 11/2 times the bird's wingspan in width, depth, and height from the highest perch. This, of course, is judged after cage furniture (food and water cups, toys, etc.) is added to the cage space.

Cage Location: Depending on individual personality, cage location can be critical. If the bird is gregarious, being caged off in a room by itself often results in excessive screaming, as the bird calls for the rest of its flock. Nervous, high-strung parrots may become feather pluckers if caged in the middle of a high traffic area, especially if the cage shares a wall with a door. If so, the bird is constantly startled by people appearing without warning. Cage location is also an important factor with many screamers, especially if the bird's cage is against a window. With this type of placement, the bird has a full 360 degree view in which to watch for predators, and can therefore rarely relax. Relief can be virtually instantaneous if a hiding place is provided in the cage, or the cage is moved, at least partially, against a solid wall.

Cage Height: There is a definite correlation between altitude and attitude with captive parrots. Consequently, if a bird has an aggressive or dominant personality, this can be exacerbated if the cage allows it to sit above the human eye level in its environment. This is especially problematic with the so-called "cage-top playgyms" marketed with various types of cages. People often don't wish to give up their own living space, so tall but narrow cages and cage-top play areas are popular. Ironically, they also contribute to home-threatening behaviors. Aggressive or dominant psittacids can be lowered a couple of wayseither by lowering the cage, or by lowering the perches within the cage. Denying access to cage tops and removing the highest perches from tall climbing 'trees' can also help a great deal. If cage and playgym designs don't allow alteration, then (using Chris Davis' trick) one can raise the people. By placing a footstool or small ladder next to the cage, the owner thereby raises smaller humans to a position of higher rank.

If too high is potentially problematic with parrot behavior, so also is the opposite. A nervous, high-strung and/or phobic bird's condition can be worsened if its cage placement is too low. I also do not approve of the old technique of placing an aggressive parrot's cage on the floor. Being trapped on the ground must be terrifying to prey animals like psittacids, and the act of terrifying an animal has no place in behavior modification.

Height and Shouldering: As an addendum to the issue of height dominance, a common practice that can be especially dangerous is the ancient fashion of allowing parrots on shoulders. A popular custom over centuries of parrot custodianship, this practice probably didn't become especially dangerous until the advent of domestic-bred parrots. Wild caught parrots have a fundamental respect for humans as predators, whereas domestics have no such regard. As a result, domestics are capable of much greater violence towards people. Hence, allowing parrotsespecially adolescentsto shoulder is particularly dangerous, not just because of the superior altitude and therefore dominance of the bird. Shouldering parrots places the birds within easy access of extremely vulnerable (and valuable) parts of the owner's anatomy (eyes, ears, noses, lips, etc.), which are then subject to severe damage from the parrot's beak. This type of injury can permanently harm not only the human anatomy, but also the parrot-human bond. Damage can occur even if the bird didn't intend to bite but was startled into grabbing onto something to keep from falling. Knowing the parrot meant no malice does not decrease healing time. This is probably the only issue on which all experienced lay parrot behaviorists totally agree.1, 2, 3, 4

Boredom: Just as boredom is a major source of behavior problems in adolescent humans, it is a major factor for many companion parrots. Home alone for hours while caretakers work, many parrots are expected to just sit there. Dr. James Harris described the generic wild parrot's day as being divided into quarters: one quarter of the day is spent interacting with one's mate and/or other flock members; two quarters are spent locating, procuring and eating food; one quarter is spent grooming.5 The average companion parrot in this country is alone all day, has few/no interesting toys and has a food cup under its nose. No wonder that many birds get into aberrant behaviors such as feather destruction and excessive screaming. After all, what else is there to do?

Ideally, parrots should be allowed relatively small numbers of stimulating toys, rotated on a weekly basis to keep life interesting. (This also allows them maximum space in which to play.) Debbie Foush described four categories of parrot toys: chew toys, climbing toys, foot toys and puzzle toys.6 One toy from each category would satisfy most parrots' need to play, investigate and destroy, and also leave the bird room to move around its cage. Food can be offered in new and challenging ways, such as stuffing an empty tissue box with greens, or hiding a nut within view but not easy reach inside a puzzle toy. These are extremely intelligent animals and intelligent animals need challenges in their lives. So parrot caretakers need to spend time figuring out ways to keep their birds occupied, especially during the long hours alone. Foraging behaviors are not only natural parrot behaviors, they are also important activities in terms of physical and psychological health.

Insufficient Exercise: Parrots are extremely animated creatures in the wild, often flying many miles between roosting and feeding sites. Consequently, they are designed to be activenot sit quietly in their cages all day. Veterinary ethologists estimate most canine behavior problems would be solved by the simple expedient of having owners run their dogs daily. The same is true with parrots, and owners who encourage daily wing-flapping exercises and frequent, drenching showers, rarely have parrots that have serious behavior problems.

Sleep Deprivation: Since parrots are equatorial birds, they would be getting 10-12 hours of darkness in the wild, year-round, and as is the case with people, sleep deprivation can be the origin for many forms of behavior problems in companion parrots. I recommend an absolute minimum of 8 hours of sleep a night for adult parrots, and 10-12 is better. Those hours are counted from the time the humans exit the vicinity of the bird's cage and that area is dark and quiet, until dawn the next day or the first person in the house awakenswhichever comes first.

Since parrots are flock animals, they generally enjoy being in the center of the home, and that often means they are housed in the same room with the television. Caretakers generally assume parrots are sleeping if their cages are covered, even if humans continue their use of the same area. This is fine, except that parrots, as prey animals, are not going to sleep deeply while someone is moving around in the vicinity. Consequently, the idea of 'sleep cages' is excellent. A small, often portable and spartanly equipped cage is set up in a room that isn't occupied at night, and the parrot is put to bed at a reasonable hour, as one would with a small child. First thing in the morning, the birds are moved back into their regular 'day' cages, in the center of human activity. Problems like biting and screaming often decrease dramatically as soon as birds get more sleep. Incidentally, the quiet period most parrots have in the afternoon does not counteract this deficiency. Sleeping in the daylight hours cannot be a safe activity for a prey animal, so parrots nap very lightly. As with humans, a light nap cannot compensate for the lack of deep sleep.

Owner Problems

An extremely common cause of parrot behavior problems is the owner, and owner problems manifest in a plethora of ways. Often, caretakers have unrealistic expectations about parrot ownership. Since most purchases are made on impulse, these people did no research and have no realistic conception of what a parrot is...and is not. Parrots are genetically wild animals, whether born in captivity or not. They have no conception of being "owned" or a "pet." Most humans are accustomed to dogs and assume all other animals see people as dogs do. Dogs perceive humans to be superior, god-like beings who are the center of the universewhich agrees with most of humanity's perspective. However, as far as I know, this is an opinion shared only by dogs and humans. Parrots certainly do not view humans in that manner, and this can be quite a shock to many people.

A parrot is a loud, boisterous, highly social creature with a talent for destruction and a gift for making huge messes. A parrot is NOT a little person with feathers, a dog with feathers or a surrogate child. Often caretakers have serious misconceptions of a parrot's normal
behavior. An important question to ask is, whose problem is it?7 Many psittacine behaviors are normal for parrots and therefore are not the parrot's problem at all. For example, chewing is a normal, natural parrot occupation. It is the owner who perceives the bird's chewing as a problem, therefore the bird's chewing is the owner's problem.

Other owner issues can include those who have difficult relationships with other humans, such as marital problems. Hostility is hardly veiled when an owner smirks while proudly stating something like, "I'm the only one who can touch my parrothe hates my husband!" I vividly recall one young woman who claimed her cockatoo was extremely well-behaved. Questioning other family members revealed that the bird routinely attacked and drew blood on her husband, and had repeatedly chased her mother out of the house. One must assume this owner has difficulties with repressed hostility. In this situation, the parrot is unquestionably getting rewarded for its aggression and there is little an outsider can do to alleviate this problem. The owner must want this aberrant behavior corrected, or nothing will change.

Control Issues: By far the most common source of psittacine behavior problems is a lack of control by the caretakers. They set no behavioral guidelines for baby parrots, allowing the birds to do anything they please. Then these same people get rid of their parrots as they mature because the bird isn't a good pet. Yet it is a fundamental concept that a parrotor any other companion animalwill not know how to be a good pet unless it is taught how to be a good pet.

When behavior problems develop with parrots, it is perhaps human nature that many people are concerned only with fixing the symptoms of a problem, without addressing the actual underlying cause, which is a lack of control on the part of the caretakers. Addressing only symptoms fixes nothing. Deadening the itch solves nothing long-termtrue resolution requires curing the rash.

Basic Training-Curing the Rash, Not Deadening the Itch

No matter what the behavior problem, resolution requires that humans establish themselves in a position of higher rank first. Once in that position, they can then make the adjustments necessary to resolve or decrease the occurrence of a negative behavior. Changing a parrot's actions requires a correlative change in that of the human. Successful behavior modification, therefore, requires the cooperative effort of all the people involved with the parrot.

From my experience, the easiest way to increase the humans' rank in the bird's eyes is for the human to assume a major decision-making role. The bird is no longer allowed to make such important decisions as whether or not to get off the human's shoulder, whether or not to come out of -or off of- the cage, etc.. Using the techniques of nurturing guidance, the owner teaches the bird to step onto and off of the human hand on the commands of 'Up' and 'Down.' The bird is patterned to respond to these commands during short, upbeat daily lessons that happen in 'neutral territory'-out of sight of any area in the environment that the bird considers to be under its dominion. True to the tenets of behavior modification, the lessons must end on a positive note.

The neutrality of the training location is critical to the success of the behavior modification training, especially with aggressive parrots. It is a rare parrot who will bite their human in truly neutral territory. Parrots are prey animals, and it is illogical that they would chose to alienate the only familiar being when placed in a completely unfamiliar surroundings. This explains why the terrors of the veterinary exam room can transform a normally homicidal psittacid into a sweetly gentle bird with the owner-at least temporarily.

Working in neutral territory, caretakers teach their parrots flawless responses to the commands, therefore establishing themselves in a position of higher rank. Once this is accomplished, the owner can start adjusting the parrot's behaviors that have become problematic. But once again, this training is not a step that can be circumvented.

The Most Common Behavior Problems

Biting and excessive screaming are the most prevalent complaints the lay behaviorists hear of especially in the springso this article will address each of these issues in depth.

Biting

Oddly enough, the term biting first needs to be clarified. Contrary to the belief of some inexperienced caretakers, biting does not include a human just being touched by a bird's beak. A good rule of thumb for estimating the true severity of a bite is encompassed by questions such
as, "Did you bleed?" A real bite is characterized by either bleeding or bruising, and "nipping" would be defined as pinching, sometimes with minor bleeding or bruising.

Biting Isn't "Natural" ??

It is important to understand that wild parrots rarely seem to use their beaks as weapons against other flock members. If necessary, the beak is used as a defense against predation, but not against other members of their own flock. In their natural environments, competition and/or conflict between parrots rarely appears to escalate to physical violence-instead, they vocalize or use body language by strutting, posturing, and fluffing feathers to make themselves look bigger. (This appears to be the psittacine equivalent to the popular street phrase, "Yo' mama.") Consequently, beaks are used for climbing, eating, playing and preening... not for fighting. In a dangerous situation, flight is the first choice of prey animals such as parrots-not warfare. However, for the captive parrot, flight is curtailed by either wing clipping or caging; therefore, biting becomes the primary solution if a bird finds itself in close proximity with something it perceives as a threat.

This means that biting may not be an instinctive flock behavior, so biting behaviors are not, in my experience, difficult problems to resolve. Biting is probably an example of what ethologists call a displacement behavior. Natural behaviors designed for survival in the rain forest are not generally possible in the average living room, so others take their place and these are displacement behaviors. These improvised responses are not all negative, incidentally. A positive example of displacement behavior would be a parrot's ability to bond to a human in the absence of other psittacids, and to accept the humans it lives with as members of its flock.

Why Is The Bird Biting?

The first question to ask when dealing with a biting parrot is why- under what circumstance is this happening? Generally speaking, birds bite for one of two reasons: survival or control. The category of "survival" would include a bird biting when it is terrified (i.e., when a smoke detector goes off and a shouldered parrot freaks out and bites off a chunk of a person's ear) or when it is hurt. (Vet hospital personnel have learned from experience that the old saying that "Animals can sense if you're trying to help them" is not a truism.) Other behaviors that would fall under the category of survival would include hormonal behavior, cage territoriality, and veterinary appointments. Under the category of control would include, for example, biting the owner's significant other, or biting the owner to keep them away from their significant other. Survival and control will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent paragraphs.

Hormonal Behavior

Hormonal behavior is related to reproduction, so aggressive behavior during nesting season is logically categorized under survival. An increase in aggression is common with many life forms when hormone levels are raging- human teenagers being a good example. However, if controls are established before puberty's onset, the frequency and severity of aggressive incidents are greatly reduced. A parrot in a dominant position will give orders and expect them to be followed, often enforcing its wishes with violence. Conversely, parrots in a submissive position within the human flock will look to the dominant flock members for direction, thereby decreasing aggressive incidents.

Learning a bird's body language will go a long way toward preventing problems during this time and the advice is simple: when a parrot is in full sexual display, the owner should not reach for it. Instead, it should be left alone until it settles down. Hormonal behavior is one of many reasons why experienced lay behaviorists strongly recommend parrot caretakers perch train their birds, in addition to hand training them. This eliminates the handling dangers if a bird becomes seasonally aggressive.

As an aside, despite common opinion, increased aggression is not always the hallmark of hormonal behavior. Indeed, some parrots become incredibly affectionate during this period, soliciting physical attention much more than at any other time of year.

Survival Situations - The Veterinary Hospital

A prime survival situation, as far as a parrot is concerned, is encountered in the office of the avian veterinarian. Many practitioners are extremely short on time, so they may neglect to properly introduce themselves to the psittacine patient. This negative situation is exacerbated by the veterinarian or veterinary technician swooping down from behind with a towel, to capture the unwary parrot.

As an avian technician who used to train veterinary students, I admit to personal guilt in this area, since I taught countless vets and veterinary students how to
capture in exactly this manner. Indeed, with imported or untamed parrots, this is still the capture technique of choice to protect both the bird and the handler.

However, a majority of the parrots currently seen in the US are domestically raised and do not perceive humans as predators. Hence, the Harpy Eagle Catch8 is not only unnecessary, it is detrimental. I have found that the stress of handling and restraint is greatly assuaged by what I call the Frontal Towel Approach.9 This technique is not only friendlier, it is also more realistic. Prey animals like parrots have their eyes on the sides of their heads, so their peripheral vision warns them of a forthcoming predatory attack; therefore, the Harpy Eagle Catch serves only to throw a parrot into a full fight or flight response as it is captured in the towel. Once this physical response is initiated, the resulting adrenaline rush causes the bird to fight the restraint frantically. An autonomic nervous system response is not a process that is easily shut down like a light switch.

The Frontal Towel Approach

In contrast, the Frontal Towel Approach does not elicit this kind of response. When placing a parrot under restraint, I do the following. Talking quietly, I step the parrot onto my hand and pin the feet, while smiling in a friendly and relaxed manner. While talking to the bird (not the owner), I catch one corner of the towel in the fingers of the hand on which the parrot is sitting, and wrap the towel around the parrot while it sits on my hand. Then, I gently put the bird under restraint. Even parrots that are terrified of towels can be captured in this manner. These birds generally flip backwards as the towel approaches, but since their feet are pinned, they cannot escape. The towel is then wrapped around the upside down bird, it is lowered to the table or floor, and restraint is commenced as usual. Consequently, a full autonomic response has not been initiated, and the bird settles down very quickly.

This capture technique can easily be done by the owner, who then hands the towel-wrapped parrot to the veterinarian or technician. If the veterinarian is not comfortable having the owner do this, then the veterinarian or technician can accomplish this in the same friendly, non-aggressive manner. It is absolutely unnecessary, in my opinion, for a tame parrot to be grabbed from behind or by first turning off the exam room lights. I have been using this frontal approach for over a decade, and have not yet been bitten using this technique - and thanks to this method, most birds seem dramatically less stressed by restraint.

How To Turn A Nice Parrot Into A Biter

If biting in parrots is a displacement, not an instinctive behavior, it is logical to assume that the behavior must be rewarded in some way or it would not continue. In other words, if it did not accomplish something positive in the parrot's experience, then the parrot would not continue to do it. It is vital to understand that companion parrots are actually rewarded for biting - by humans who simply do not understand how differently parrots can perceive things. The following are classic examples.

"The Teething Stage:" Young parrots often have no idea what their beaks can do, especially if they were raised isolated from other baby parrots. During "The Teething Stage," the baby parrot is learning to eat and explore with its beak, and an unfortunate scenario is often acted out. The youngster, in the process of investigating with its beak, encounters those fascinating things called fingers. If the human makes the mistake of using these extremities as toys in the baby's mouth, sooner or later the baby will bite down harder than the owner of the fingers might like. If the human responds to this accidental nip by yelling (as in, "Ow, NO BITE!!!"), then they have inadvertently taken the first step towards actually teaching their baby parrot to bite.

Contrary to human beliefs, parrots often enjoy it when humans shout at them. Parrots frequently scream simply for the fun of it so it is a fallacy to think they perceive that yelling is a reprimand. On the contrary, they may interpret it as positive feedback, since it is a drama reward.10 The groundwork has now been laid for the parrot (baby or adult) to bite again, because the behavior was inadvertently rewarded.

The Indecisive Pick Up: This scenario usually occurs when inexperienced caretakers are not clear in their signals to their parrots. For example, when offering a hand for the bird to step on, novice caretakers often aren't quite sure of themselves so their hand motion is uncertain. A young parrot is generally eager to climb on, but like a workman unsure of the stability of a ladder, it will reach with its mouth to steady the human perch, using its beak as a hand. Humans who are afraid of the beak, then pull their hands away. Confused but still eager for interaction, the baby will probably grab the hand with its beak the next time it is offered. Once again, the bird has now taken the first step in learning to bite a human for control.

Fear = Lost Control: When people pull away when parrots reach with their beaks, the birds begin to learn the use of lunging and biting as an effective technique with which to control the humans, and the birds will remain in control for as long as the humans remain afraid. Parrots can sense when someone is frightened and will take advantage of the situation every time. If people cannot get over their fear response, then they will probably never gain control of their parrots.

Bad Advice: There is a lot of outdated and incorrect advice being given about biting parrots. People are often told to grab the bird's beak and shake it and yell NO!! This doesn't work because ornithologists have now realized that grabbing a parrot's beak (what experts call "Beak Wrestling"), is considered to be play behavior between parrots. So once again, in the human effort to give negative feed-back to parrots, they have only succeeded in rewarding them.

It also doesn't usually work to punish by putting a parrot in its cage. By the time the door is closed, it has probably completely forgotten the connection between biting someone and being locked up. Obviously, the bird can't bite anyone again because it has been removed from human proximity, but it hasn't learned anything about not biting. In addition, since parrots often spend prolonged periods in their cages while caretakers work, it is not logical to use the cage as punishment.

Effective Response

In actuality, it is quite simple to discourage a parrot from biting. If the owner has already established a relationship of nurturing guidance with their bird, then the bird already perceives the person as higher in rank and it is already trained to step onto a hand when told "up". To reprimand the bird, the owner needs to do the following things immediately.

First, the owner should show displeasure by giving the bird an extremely dirty look. Parrots are extremely empathic creatures who watch facial expressions closely. A parrot will understand the owner's displeasure if the owner frowns sufficiently. Simultaneously, the owner should step the bird from one hand to the other several times while saying Up in a very firm and negative but not loud voice. This is a non-abusive technique to give the parrot negative feedback because parrots really understand this as a reprimand. This technique is called "Laddering" and it is an exercise in controlreminding the bird that it does not have sufficient rank in the flock for that kind of behavior to be tolerated. If the owner is firm and consistent, reminding the psittacid of this will put it back under control. Without the positive feedback that it inadvertently received before, and through the judicious use of the laddering exercise, the biting should be curtailed. For this reprimand to be most effective, it must be done the second the bird bites. The owner should not take the bird into a neutral room to perform this exercise - the time lag will negate the effectiveness, since the bird will probably not make the proper association. Under NO circumstances should the owner show any aggression at all, since aggression begets aggression and facilitates a lack of trust.

When dealing with a youngster in the Teething Stage, it is also quite simple. When a baby bites too hard, the owner should say No in a firm but quiet voice and give the baby a dirty look. The young parrot will understand that the human is unhappy and will try very hard not to do it again. When humans are interacting with baby parrots, it is also often useful to have a favorite small toy within reach. If the bird starts getting too excited and overly rough, the owner can introduce the toy as a distraction, thereby preventing a bite. The human should also immediately lower the parrot's excitement level by slowing and quieting the activity.

Excessive Screaming

Excessive screaming is a more complex problem and not as easily resolved. Parrots are not by nature quiet animals, as attested by those who have observed them in the wild. Nature has equipped them with prodigious voices, and they seem biologically driven to use them. "Normal" sound levels vary with species. Cockatoos are known to sound off with an ear-splitting racket twice daily, dawn and dusk, whereas the macaws seem more inclined to vocalize (loudly) off and on throughout the day. Some species are reputed to be "quiet," but this is completely relative. To be considered quiet in the parrot world, a species need only be quieter than the avian species that are considered to be noisy, which would be like saying a terrier is quieter than a beagle. As the saying goes, If you want a quiet pet, get a reptile.11 However, screaming non-stop for hours at a time would obviously be considered excessive. Any individual who repeatedly engages in the same behavior over and over can be said to be obsessive.

Incidentally, the time of year can also be an important factor with excessive noise. The moment the days start to lengthen, many parrots respond by starting to scream much more than is "normal." This is strictly seasonal behavior, and if not inadvertently rewarded by the caretakers, the birds will settle back down on their own after a few weeks.

Time Limits and Problem Humans: The problem of unreasonable noise is often exacerbated by a limited time frame, since many people do not seek help until an ultimatum has been set by family members, neighbors, landlords or even the local police. It takes time to create behavior problems and it takes time to change them. Consequently, these issues are not fixed overnight, which is of course what the caretakers need. However, the judicious use of ear plugs can often prevent the dilemma from worsening while the caretakers are trying to improve the situation. Often, angry neighbors are mollified when they hear the caretakers are actively working on resolving the problem. From my experience, the primary obstacle to improvement in parrot behavior is the impatience of the caretakers.

Simply put, parrots who scream constantly are birds who have been rewarded for screaming. Giving birds what they want to silence them is easy to understand, since obsessive screamers can be a nightmare with which to live, and people reach a point where they will do almost anything to get the birds to stop. Consequently, they offer treats, let them out of their cages, etc., thereby rewarding the behavior. It is also no mystery why so many screaming parrots end up abused.

To change an unwanted behavior, the caretaker must be clear, consistent, and above all, patient. The caretaker must also change his/her behaviors that created or exacerbated the bird's behavior. If there are multiple humans in the household, there must be a group effort whereby all members have to be consistent in their approach to the bird. With biting problems, one member of the household refusing to work with the bird does not impact the rest. Regrettably, this isn't the case with the excessive screamer, because one person rewarding the bird for inordinate noise will undo any progress the others might make.

Step By Step: Dealing with screamers requires a step by step approach. As with all "behavior problems," a medical work-up should be done first, to make certain there is not a physical reason for the racket. Other fundamentals need to be reviewed, such as proper diet (meaning not what the caretakers feed, but what the bird actually consumes), hours of sleep, and cage placement. The normal noise level of the home must be reviewed as well. I remember one phone call from a woman complaining bitterly about her noisy parrot - but the conversation was almost obliterated by the background noise of a blaring television, barking dogs, and shrieking children. Noisy environments beget noisy parrots.

Redundant screamers are birds who are unable to amuse themselves in acceptable ways, so this problem can be perceived as a failure of independence. Consequently, the caretakers need find to lots and lots of acceptable activities for the parrots, such as chewing wood, beating up on wonderful toys, eating (and throwing) lots of interesting and delectable foods. The birds need to be encouraged to find other outlets for their energy. Caretakers who give their parrots frequent long, soaking showers and flapping exercise times often have substantially quieter birds.

The next step would entail having the caretakers train their parrots as explained previously, thereby establishing themselves in a position of higher rank. Parrots respond best to those they perceive as being higher in rank.

Keeping A Diary: It can be extremely useful to caretakers to see if there are patterns to obsessive screaming episodes, so all people living in the household should keep diaries for a couple of weeks. Whenever the bird has a screaming incident, they should note such things as:

a. time of day

b. day of the week

c. phase of the moon

d. mood of the people around the bird

e. the bird's apparent mood

f. what is happening at the time, and

g. any other information that might have a bearing on the parrot's behavior.

After 10-14 days of collecting information, the people get together and review the information, looking for patterns in the bird's excessive vocalizations. They should not to go over their notes or discuss the content prior to that time, so that artificial patterns are not created. If there are patterns to the screaming episodes, then they can change the pattern before the screaming starts, thus preventing the problem from even beginning. For example, most dominant birds scream when the caretakers have company. If so, caretakers can move the bird (in cage) to a quiet part of the house before the company arrives. Giving the bird a soaking shower prior to the move, then a new or different toy, lots of safe branches with bark for chewing, etc. will give the bird plenty to do in its isolation, and likely prevent the problem from beginning. Caretakers must stay ahead of this behavior, not wait until it begins. As an aside, getting complaining neighbors in this activity can be very positive, since they have now become a part of the problem resolution process.

Rewarding Good Behaviors and Ignoring The Bad: Human flock members need to start rewarding their birds for sounds they like, and ignore the sounds they don't like. Consequently, if a bird talks, people should answer it. If it whistles, they should whistle back. If it screams while people are in the same room, they should give the bird a dirty look and turn their backs on it. This is an example of using the bird's own body language to express feelings, since this is what parrots do when they are not pleased with something. If the racket continues, they should give the parrot another dirty look and leave the room.

The absolute worst thing the caretakers of a screamer can do is yell back, since that is a prime example of the drama reward. If the bird is screaming in another room, caretakers can do absolutely nothing. Any attempt at reprimand would be perceived as a reward, since the birds are getting the attention they crave. Instead, care-takers should wait until the birds stop squawking- even for a couple of seconds- before entering the room. They cannot enter the room while the birds are screaming without rewarding the behavior. If caretakers are consistent, their parrots will learn that screaming does the opposite that it used to do- but this will take time and people must be patient.

As always, under NO circumstance are people to use punishment or aggression. Aggression and punishment can destroy any potential for a trusting relationship with parrots and it doesn't work, anyway. Again, there must be full cooperation from everyone in the environment. Birds will not change their behaviors if even one person is yelling at them and therefore reinforcing their noise with drama.

So the process of rehabilitating screamers is not to 'unlearn' the behavior. Since the birds have been rewarded for their racket, they have learned that yelling is a successful activity. Instead, caretakers have to teach their birds that other behaviors are more successful. By replacing the screaming with new behaviors that become habits, the excessive squawking becomes extinguished.12

The Exceptions: Parrots appear to have an instinctive need to vocalize loudly when the human flock comes home, and this is not a behavior that can be eliminated. Instead, the human caretaker needs to respond to this call. Rather than ignoring the bird, the human should go directly to the bird and greet it. Ideally, the bird should be removed from its cage and physically acknowledged, then given a treat to eat and returned immediately to its cage. Caretakers can then go about their business, leaving the psittacid to munch at leisure.

The other exception is one that can cause far-reaching ramifications if the caretaker mishandles the situation. Very young parrots can go through a stage that aviculturist-behaviorist Phoebe Linden calls "Lost in the Woods." Ms. Linden feels this happens around the time parrots fledge13, and these babies often act extremely anxious and vocalize excessively. Ms. Linden says:

"A baby who feels 'lost in the woods' may call repetitively and plaintively, pace or weave back and forth as if they are going to jump from their perch, jump down from the perch, seem unsettled and nervous, and crave attention." 14

Ms. Linden feels a baby like this needs comfort and reassurance and caretakers should respond to the bird's crying. This stage should last less than a month, at which point the youngster should settle down again.

Conclusion

By establishing themselves in a position of higher rank through the patterning and constant use of simple commands, parrot caretakers place themselves in a position of authority with their companion birds, giving them clear guidelines for acceptable behaviors. Then as problem behaviors manifest, the people can use positive reinforcement to replace negative displacement behaviors with ones that are more acceptable in the human habitat.

With a clear understanding of what parrots are and are not, caretakers can get a better grasp of what can be expected from their psittacids in terms of behavior. By not inadvertently rewarding unwanted conduct with confusion and drama, annoying behaviors need not become established. Clear controls, consistency, patience and non-aggression will prove to be successful when dealing with common unacceptable behaviors we see in companion parrots.

This article was printed first in the proceedings for the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic States Association of Avian Veterinarians, April, 1999.

1 Blanchard, S. "Problems With Parrots On Shoulders." The Pet Bird Report, Issue #25, 1995.

2 Athan, M.S. "The Importance Of Being Tall." Guide to a Well-behaved Parrot. Barrons, 1993, 64-66.

3 Davis, C. "New Techniques in Pet Avian Behavior Modification." Proceedings of Annual Conference, Association of Avian Veterinarians. 1989, pp. 183-189.

4 Wilson, L. "Behavior Problems in Adolescent Parrots: Guide to a Well-Adjusted Pet." Proceedings of Annual Conference, Association of Avian Veterinarians, 1995, pp. 415-418.

5 Harris, J. Behavior round table discussion, AAV Annual Conference, 1996.

6 Foush_, D. "Play Therapy." The Pet Bird Report, Issue # 23, pp. 30-32.

7 Doane, B. My Parrot, My Friend. Howell Book House, NY. 1994, pp. 110-155.

8 Blanchard, S. "Trust Building Towel Handling Techniques," The Pet Bird Report, Issue #14, pp. 36-37.

9 Wilson, L. "Phobic Psittacine Birds - An Increasing Phenomenon?" Proceedings of Annual Conference, Association of Avian Veterinarians, 1998, pp. 125-132.

10 Blanchard, S. "Games Parrots Play." Bird Talk, Nov. 1991, Vol. 9, No. 11.

11 Anonymous

12 Athan, M.S. Personal communications, 1999.

13 Fledging, the developmental stage prior to weaning, generally happens around 21/2-3 months of age for medium-sized birds [amazons, greys], and at 3-41/2 months for large macaws and cockatoos.

14 "Socializing Baby Parrots", The Pet Bird Report, Vol. 2, No. 6, pp. 12-15, 1992.

 


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