Understanding parrots’ vocalization and body language is very important in creating successful relationship with them. All parrots are intelligent enough to “tell” us if they are happy, sick, hungry, tired or angry. Parrots owners should learn to interpret their pets’ sounds and behavior, which will enable them to tame and train them successfully. Here are the meanings of some parrot’s behavioral patterns.
|Flashing pupils. Flashing or dilating pupils together with tail fanning mean aggression and nervousness. If you insist on the contact, the bird can bite you. This behavior is also exhibited in response to another bird or animal.|
|Barking. Even without any contacts with dogs, parrots can bark in excitement during chatter or display their dominance.|
|Growling. Growling accompanied with raised feathers on the neck and dilating pupils mean that the bird doesn’t want to be bothered. It’s better to leave the parrot alone for some time.|
|Purring. Purring is similar to growling, but it indicates contentment. The body of the parrot is usually relaxed.|
|Tongue clicking. This sign is typical for cockatoos and cockatiels; it means an invitation for communication or for play.|
|Beak clicking. A bird uses this sharp consistent sound when defending its territory or possessions. Neck stretching and the raising of a foot often accompany it. That means the readiness to bite.|
|Beak grinding. When a bird feels secure and content it grinds right before the sleep or during the sleep.|
|Beak wiping. In presence of another bird, this means that they are defending their territory. While alone, it indicates that something has stuck to the beak. Sometimes it means a display of aggressiveness that cannot be performed because the bird is caged.|
|Biting. Young parrots usually bite everything to experience the sensation of objects. Biting of human fingers is easily redirected to other chewable items. Adult birds show displeasure and aggression by biting the closest thing. Sometimes parrots touch their beaks to objects before stepping onto them.|
|Feet further apart, wings slightly off the body and the body lowered means the parrot is preparing to bite.|
|Feet together and the parrot standing tall means the bird is content.|
BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS AND THE FUTURE OF COMPANION PARROTS
Because of the increasing incidences of behaviour problems in companion parrots, many birds are losing their homes. Behaviour problems 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 favourite – 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 owners as if to deadly predators. High-strung birds pluck incessantly, driving owners 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 owners 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 that the humans can recognize. Screamers are getting owners threatened with evictions and/or divorces.
Despite all this, parrot ownership is still increasing and consequently, so are the numbers of parrots that are losing their homes and ending up in adoption and rescue organizations. It is important to understand that these aberrant behaviours can – at least to some degree – be modified. Education is the key to lessening these dilemmas.
BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS – GENERAL ETIOLOGIES
There are several reasons why behaviour problems develop with companion parrots, and these must be addressed or no long-term resolution will be possible. Stopgap measures, or what behaviour consultants call “quick fixes,” do nothing to resolve the source of the problem, so they generally only postpone the inevitable result of the bird losing its home. What must be sought is a resolution of the problem, not a Band-aid™. Consequently, the author will address possible causes for common behaviour problems in companion parrots.
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 the author’s own macaw had an annoying screaming episode a few years ago, investigation revealed that she’d knocked down her pellet bowl and was without food. Besides inadequate food and/or water, other management problems that can impact behaviour 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. The author believes that birds should be housed in the largest possible cage with safe bar spacing, and feels that the absolute minimum cage size – depending on species – should be two to three times the bird’s wingspan in width, depth, and height from the highest perch.
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 repeatedly for the rest of its flock. Nervous, high-strung parrots may become feather pluckers and/or biters 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° view in which to watch for predators, and can therefore rarely relax. In some cases, 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 play-gyms” marketed with various types of cages. People don’t want 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 behaviours. Aggressive or dominant psittacids can be lowered a couple of ways – either 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 play-gym designs don’t allow alteration, then 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 behaviour, so also is the opposite. A nervous, high-strung and/or terrified bird’s condition can be worsened if its cage placement is too low. The author also does not approve of the old technique of placing an aggressive parrot’s cage on the floor, since being trapped on the ground must be terrorizing to prey animals like psittacids.
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 ownership, 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, this author feels domestics are capable of much greater violence towards people. Hence, allowing parrots – especially adolescents – to shoulder is particularly dangerous. 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. The problem is exacerbated by the human’s inability to see the body language that could warn him/her of impending trouble. The subject of shouldering and parrots is probably the only issue on which all experienced parrot behaviour consultants agree. , , ,
Boredom: Just as boredom is a major source of behaviour problems in adolescent humans, it is a major factor for many companion parrots. Home alone for hours while owners 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. 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 behaviours 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. Debbie Foushee described 4 categories of parrot toys: chew toys, climbing toys, foot toys and puzzle toys. One toy from each category will satisfy most parrots’ need to play, investigate and destroy, also leaving the psittacine 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 owners need to spend time figuring out ways to keep their birds occupied, especially during the long hours alone.
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 behaviour problems in companion parrots. The author recommends 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 awakens and starts to move around – whichever 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. Owners 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, Dr. Andrew Leuscher’s idea of a ‘sleep cage’ 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. (Personal communications, 2000) 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. Napping in the daylight hours cannot be a safe activity for prey animals, so parrots nap very lightly. A light nap cannot compensate for the lack of deep sleep.
An extremely common cause of parrot behaviour problems is the owner, and owner problems manifest in a plethora of ways. Often, owners 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 universe – which agrees with most of humanity’s perspective. However, as far as the author is concerned, 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 owners have serious misconceptions of a parrot’s normal behaviour. An important question to ask is, “Whose problem is it?” Many psittacine behaviours are normal for parrots and therefore are not the parrot’s problem at all. For example, chewing is a normal 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, not the bird’s.
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 parrot – he hates my husband!” I vividly recall one young woman who claimed her cockatoo was extremely well behaved. Questioning of 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 definitely getting rewarded for its aggression and there is little an outsider can do to alleviate this problem. The owner must want aberrant behaviour corrected, or nothing will change.
By far the most common source of psittacine behaviour problems is a lack of control by the owners. They set no behavioural 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 parrot – or any other companion animal – will not know how to be a good pet unless it is taught how to be a good pet.
When behaviour 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, as medicine well knows. Deadening the itch solves nothing long-term – true resolution requires curing the rash.
One aside regarding control: Contrary to some popular interpretations, the word ‘control’ does not connote force or aggression on the part of the human. The use of positive reinforcement is the ideal training approach and it works beautifully with baby parrots. It can be extremely effective with older parrots as well, but the author believes that other approaches are also viable with individual psittacines, as she has never found a single approach that works on every animal. As a result, she prefers to have a variety of approaches in her training repertoire, rather than depending on only one training method. It should also be noted that, contrary to popular perceptions, the word “dominate” does not automatically connote the use of aggression.
BASIC TRAINING – Curing the Rash, Not Deadening the Itch
No matter what the behaviour problem, true resolution requires that humans establish themselves in a position of benevolent control first. Once in that position, they can then make the adjustments necessary to resolve or decrease the occurrence of a negative behaviour. Changing a parrot’s actions virtually always requires a correlative change in that of the human. Successful behaviour modification, therefore, requires the cooperative effort of all the people involved with the parrot.
From the author’s 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. For example, the bird should not be allowed to make such important decisions as whether or not to get off the human’s shoulder, or whether or not it will return to its cage when the owner has to leave for work. Using the techniques of nurturing guidance, the owner teaches the bird to politely step on 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.
The neutrality of the training location is critical to the success of the behaviour modification training, especially with aggressive parrots. It is a rare parrot that 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, owners teach their parrots flawless responses to the commands, rewarding the birds lavishly with smiles, praising, petting (if the bird likes to be petted) and treats, whenever the bird performs correctly. Once the training is accomplished, the owner can start adjusting the parrot’s behaviours that have become problematic. Once again, this training is not a step that can be circumvented.
It should also be noted that the owner making major decisions does not deny a parrot the ability to make other decisions in its life. For example, the author firmly believes that parrots should be allowed to choose whether or not they wish to interact with their humans. Unlike domesticated animals like dogs, parrots have no concept of being “owned,” and caretakers need to understand that parrots have their own opinions about things. When approaching a parrot’s cage, colleague Chris Davis advocates asking the bird, “Would you like to come out?” The psittacine’s body language will clearly answer this question. If the response is positive, the bird might, for example, move towards the owner or lift a foot invitingly. If so, the owner can then open the cage door, offer a hand and the command to step onto the hand. If the bird responds negatively by moving away or turning its back, the owner should return later.
THE MOST COMMON BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS
Biting and excessive screaming are the most prevalent complaints parrot behaviour consultants hear about – especially in the spring – so the author will address each of these issues in depth.
Oddly enough, the term biting first needs to be clarified. Contrary to the belief of some inexperienced owners, 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 questions such as, “Did you bleed?” Either bleeding or bruising characterizes a real bite, and “nipping” would be defined as pinching, sometimes with minor bleeding.
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 defence 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.”) True, beaks are used to grab at other birds with much shrieking and screaming, but apparently no injuries occur. Consequently, beaks are used for climbing, eating, playing and preening … not for actual 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 behaviour, so biting behaviours are not, in the author’s experience, a difficult problem to resolve. Biting is probably an example of what ethologists call a displacement behaviour. Natural behaviours 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 behaviours. These improvised responses are not all negative, incidentally. A positive example of displacement behaviour 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, I believe psittacines 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. (Veterinary 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 behaviours that would fall under the category of survival would include hormonal behaviour, cage territoriality, and veterinary appointments. Under the category of control would include, for example, biting the owner when the bird is being returned to its cage. Survival and control will be discussed in detail in subsequent paragraphs.
Reproductive Hormone-Mediated Behaviour
Reproductive hormone-mediated behaviour (i.e. “spring behaviour” or “nesting behaviour”) is related to procreation, so aggressive behaviour during nesting season is easily categorized under survival. An increase in aggression is common with many life forms when sexual 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 position of control 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 behaviour is one of many reasons why experienced behaviour consultants strongly recommend parrot caretakers perch train their birds, in addition to handing train them. This eliminates the handling dangers if a bird becomes seasonally aggressive.
Survival Situations – The Veterinary Hospital
A prime survival situation, as far as a parrot is concerned, is encountered in the office the avian veterinarian. Many practitioners are extremely short on time, so they may neglect to introduce themselves to the psittacine patient. The veterinarian or veterinary technician exacerbates this negative situation by swooping down from behind with a towel, to capture the unwary parrot.
As an avian technician who trained veterinary students twenty years ago, I admit to personal guilt in this area, since she taught countless vets and veterinary students how to capture in exactly this manner. Indeed, with wild-caught 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 seen in the US are domestically raised and do not perceive most humans as predators. Hence, the Harpy Eagle Catch is not only unnecessary – it is seriously detrimental. I have found that the stress of handling and restraint is greatly assuaged by what I call the Frontal Towel Approach . This technique is not only friendlier, but 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 visceral 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 fight or flight response. Using the Frontal Towel Approach, the handler steps the parrot onto his/her hand, and talks to the bird (not the owner) in a quiet and friendly manner for a couple of minutes. Care is taken to talk directly to the psittacine patient, not over its head as adults often do with small children.
Then, explaining to the bird what is about to happen (i.e., “I’m going to wrap you in the towel, and groom your wings and nails. You won’t like it, but you will be all right and it will be over very quickly.”), he/she should firmly but gently pin the bird’s feet with the thumb. Catching a corner of the towel in between the fingers of the hand on which the bird is perched, the towel (kept low) is offered to the bird to touch or bite if it wishes. Continuing to talk calmly with a friendly facial expression, the handler then uses the other hand to slowly and smoothly bring the other end of the towel up and around the bird [Figure 5], therefore covering it [Figure 6]. The patient can then be placed under restraint.
This technique can also be used with a parrot that is terrified of towels. Wary but not terrified when the towel is caught between the fingers, this parrot will generally panic and flip backwards when the rest of the towel approaches to wrap it. If so, the handler can simply enclose the inverted parrot with the towel, lower the wrapped bird to the exam table and place it under restraint per usual.
Using this approach, I have not yet been bitten, even with parrots that panic at the sight of a towel. Apparently the parrot is too worried about the towel’s approach to concern itself with the fingers that are pinning its feet.
Some individuals (especially the smaller species) will flip backwards and twist, and if so, these birds must be released rather than allow damage to the feet and legs.
As one might assume, this technique is not successful with every psittacid, but I have found it to be unsuccessful with only a very small percentage of the birds I handle. What matters more, as far as I am concerned, is the extremely large percentage of parrots that respond positively to this method. As a result, these birds are significantly less stressed by this technique than they were by the aggressive and predatory technique formerly used.
As with any restraint method, the frontal towel approach requires practice before it can be accomplished with ease and self-assurance. Learning restraint methods is, of course, NEVER done on sick birds, so rehearsal is therefore necessary before working with patients. Having in-hospital workshops for the staff to practice on healthy parrots works well for this purpose, using the staff’s own pets, or volunteer birds belonging to understanding clients.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to demonstrate this non-aggressive towelling method at the 1998 annual conference of the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Since then, I have received numerous messages from veterinarians worldwide who have successfully utilized this technique. Avian practitioners have been pleased at the decreased levels of stress incurred not only by the parrot patients, but also their owners. Feedback has been astoundingly positive.
How To Turn A Nice Parrot Into A Biter
If biting in parrots is a displacement, not an instinctive behaviour, it is logical to assume that the behaviour must be reinforced 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 often 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 generally interpret it as positive feedback, since it is a drama reward. The groundwork has now been laid for the parrot (baby or adult) to bite again, because the behaviour was inadvertently rewarded.
The Indecisive Pick Up
This scenario usually happens when inexperienced owners are not clear in their signals to their parrots. For example, when offering a hand for the bird to step on, novice owners 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 worker 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.
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 a play behaviour between parrots. So once again, in the human effort to give negative feedback 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.
Needless to say, the ancient, aggressive advice to throw or drop a biting bird on the floor is totally unacceptable.
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 head of the flock 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 momentarily giving the bird an extremely dirty look. Parrots are extremely empathic creatures that watch facial expressions closely. A parrot will understand the owner’s displeasure if the owner frowns sufficiently.
If the bite was particularly vicious or the bird is extremely aggressive, the owner can step the bird from one hand to the other a couple of times while saying Up in a very firm and negative but not loud voice. I consider this a non-abusive technique to give the parrot negative feedback. This technique is called laddering and it is an exercise in control – reminding the bird that it does not have high enough rank in the flock for that kind of behaviour to be tolerated.
If the owner is firm and consistent, reminding the psittacid of this ranking 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.
Exception: If a biting bird is extremely hormonal, it will not appreciate being laddered, and owners may get bitten badly if they attempt this technique. Extremely aggressively hormonal birds should be returned to their cages until they settle down.
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 brief frown. The young parrot will understand that the human is unhappy and will try very hard not to do it again. Under NO circumstances should the owner show any aggression at all, since aggression begets aggression and facilitates a lack of trust. When humans are interacting with baby parrots, it is also often useful to have a favourite 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 from happening.
Excessive screaming is a more complex problem and it is not 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 required 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 or a fish.” However, screaming non-stop for hours at a time would obviously be considered excessive. Any individual who repeatedly engages in the same behaviour repeatedly 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 behaviour, and if not rewarded by the owners, the birds will settle back down on their own after a few weeks.
Time Limits and Problem Owners
The problem of unreasonable noise is often exacerbated by a limited time frame, because many owners do not seek help until family members, neighbours, landlords or local police, have set an ultimatum. It takes time to create behaviour problems and it takes time to change them. Consequently, these issues are not fixed overnight, which is of course what the owners need. However, the judicious use of earplugs can often prevent the dilemma from worsening while the owners are trying to improve the situation. Often, angry neighbours are mollified when they hear the owners are actively working on resolving the problem. However, the primary obstacle to improvement in parrot behaviour is the impatience of the owners.
Parrots who scream constantly are birds that 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 them to stop. So they offer treats, or release the birds from their cages, pick them up and carry them around, etc., thereby rewarding the behaviour. It is also no mystery why so many screaming parrots end up abused.
To change an unwanted behaviour, the owner must be clear, consistent, and above all, patient. The owner must also change his/her behaviours that created or exacerbated the bird’s behaviour. 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 will undo any progress the others might make.
Step By Step
Dealing with screamers requires a step-by-step approach. First, a medical work-up should be done, 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 owners 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. The author remembers 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 that are unable to amuse themselves in acceptable ways, so this problem can be perceived as a failure of independence. Consequently, the owners 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. Owners who give their parrots frequent long, soaking showers and flapping exercise times often have substantially quieter birds.
The next step would entail having owners train their parrots as explained previously, thereby establishing themselves in a position of higher rank. Otherwise, parrots generally respond best to those they perceive as higher in rank.
It can be extremely useful to owners 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 time of day, day of the week, phase of the moon [if they know it], mood of the people around the bird, what is happening at the time, and any other information that might have a bearing on the parrot’s behaviour. After 10-14 days of this, the people get together and review the information, looking for patterns in the bird’s excessive vocalizations. They are 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 owners have company. If so, owners 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 lots to do in its isolation, and likely prevent the problem from beginning. So the owners must stay ahead of the behaviour, not wait until it begins. As an aside, getting complaining neighbours in this activity can be very positive, since they have now become a part of the problem resolution process.
Rewarding Good Behaviours 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. So 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 be instructed to 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 their feelings, since this is what parrots do when they are not pleased with something. If the racket continues, they are to give the parrot another dirty look and leave the room.
The absolute worst thing the owners 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, the owners can do absolutely nothing. Any attempt at reprimand would be perceived as a reward, since the birds are getting the attention they crave. As an alternative, the owners should wait until the birds stop squawking – even for a couple of seconds – and then enter the room. They cannot enter the room while the birds are screaming without inadvertently rewarding the behaviour. If the owners are consistent, their parrots will learn that screaming does the opposite that it used to do – but this will take time and owners must be patient.
Under NO circumstance are people to use punishment or aggression. Negative feedback can destroy any potential for a trusting relationship with their parrots, and it does not work, anyway. Again, there must be full cooperation from everyone in the environment. Birds will not change their behaviours 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 behaviour. Since the birds have been rewarded for their racket, they have learned that yelling is a successful activity. Instead, owners have to teach their birds that other behaviours are more successful. By replacing the excessive screaming with new, lavishly rewarded behaviours that become habits, the old behaviour of excessive squawking becomes extinguished.
Parrots seem to have an instinctive need to vocalize loudly when the human flock comes home, and instinctive behaviours cannot 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 greeted, then given a treat to eat and returned immediately to its cage. Owners can then go about their business, leaving the psittacid to munch at leisure.
The Contact Call: For a parrot, the flock represents the safety and protection of numbers, and a parrot that becomes separated from its flock is likely to become another animal’s lunch. Consequently, a prime function of that powerful voice is to enable parrots to communicate with each other when other flock members are not visible, for example when feeding in heavy foliage.
The call they use in this circumstance is called a contact call, and when using it, a parrot is simply checking to make certain they have not become separated from the security of the flock. Companion parrots also do this, and they are simply making certain they are not alone.
Jane Hallander described African greys as learning what she called human contact calls, such as the ringing of the phone, and the beep of a microwave. Greys have therefore learned that certain sounds in the human habitat always get a response, so they mimic these sounds when they are seeking contact with the members of their human flock.
In the same manner, when a parrot’s contact calls are not answered they can often escalate to a scream – which generally gets a response. In so doing, humans inadvertently teach a parrot that a polite contact call is ignored. Consequently, the parrot learns to use excessive noise instead.
Therefore, when people realize their parrot is making a contact call, they need to answer the bird’s polite vocalization from wherever they are in the house. Otherwise, they risk teaching their parrots that only loud, obnoxious noises get the response the birds need.
By establishing themselves in a position of higher rank through the patterning and constant use of simple commands, parrot owners place themselves in a position of authority with their companion birds, giving them clear guidelines for acceptable behaviours. Then as behaviour problems manifest, the people use positive reinforcement to replace negative displacement behaviours with ones that are more acceptable in the human habitat.
With a clear understanding of what parrots are and are not, clients can get a better grasp of what can be expected from their psittacids in terms of behaviours. By not inadvertently rewarding unwanted conduct with confusion and drama, annoying behaviours need not become established. Clear controls, consistency, patience and non-aggression will prove to be successful when dealing with common unacceptable behaviours we see in companion parrots.