Welcome and Blog Intent

At a time when animal behavior science is providing evidence of intelligence in birds, studies in the wild are revealing how integral flight is to everyday activities, and new technology in veterinary science is detecting an alarming rate of heart disease in companion parrots, I believe that we should re-evaluate the routine practice of clipping parrots.

In the language of animal behavior science, consequences that decrease or stop a behavior, biting for example, are called "punishers," while consequences that increase or maintain biting are called "reinforcers."  In this blog I will discuss these terms as they relate to flight and how clipping, while successfully used to modify some undesirable behaviors, can result in other undesirable or damaging effects in our relationships with our parrots. I would like to share resources and experiences with my companion parrot in creating rewarding ways to make a parrot's life as safe, fun and as full of choices as possible should you decide to bring home a flying animal for a pet.

The move to positive reinforcement training by professional trainers is a mark of the increasing awareness of the long-lasting consequences of aversive experiences. This is especially important with our parrots because of their innate need and capacity to conceal physical and mental problems so effectively that often intervention is too late.

All-seed diets and bored-parrots-surrounded-by-the-same-old-toys are so last century. Parrot keeping is improving with increasing knowledge about foraging, enrichment, positive reinforcement training, confidence, and ... empowerment. These are exciting times.  Welcome to The New Century Parrot.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Safe at home

No one wants to become one of the millions of owners who give up their pet to rescues because they find out too late they are not able to provide the minimum requirements to keep it.  The following is information I would have liked before I bought my parrot.

One of the top criteria for their environment is that the house or aviary will allow the bird to be a parrot with many activities to engage its intellectual curiosity.  Being a parrot means having things to do and space to maintain their mental and physical health.  


Casper is acrobatic.

Photo by Dorothy Schwarz, UK  

Keep your parrot physically fit and expert at flying.  Parrots have a hair-trigger escape response to being startled that includes flying off in a panic helter-skelter.  The antecedent to, or cause of, this mad dash can be anything and occur unpredictably - the approach of a guest with a certain kind of cap, the crash of a pot lid on the floor, a siren passing nearby, an earthquake.  Fit and adept parrots have superior mid-flight maneuverability to implement the sharp turn from or lift over objects.  Those with poor skills will likely crash into walls and objects and possibly sustain injuries or death.  

Parrots desire the company of a mate and/or flockmates.  The reasons are numerous, including intimate allo-preening, raucous social interactions, and security.  This is especially true for parrots 

such as African greys and Eclectus that, as prey animals, find safety in numbers.  They instinctively go with the flock, unless illness or injury prevents them.  There is a reason a caged parrot gets anxious and call out to flockmates when they (human or parrot) leave.  Another social animal, humans, for example form expatriate communities in countries they live in because it makes us feel safe, connected, and “at home” to be around familiar habits and languages.  Try as we might, we cannot have a fluent enough two-way communication with our parrots.  Not being able to speak the same language, literally and figuratively, with the people we interact with everyday is stressful for humans.  It is stressful for parrots too.  

pastedGraphic.tiff Of course the closer animals are to belonging to the same species or sub-species, the better they can read each other’s subtle facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.  In this way they understand when they are being invited to play, when they are being invited to come closer, when it’s time to back off a little.  Good communication reduces aggression and spilt blood. It is especially important  to communicate well when animals in homes do not have the space they need to stay out of each other's personal space or territory as ones in the wild 

In an effort to raise tame babies to sell, breeders usually do not give them time to socially interact with other parrots other than when as new-borns they might all be placed in the baby-holding container; most of their time is spent being hand-fed and cuddled by humans with the later result of “not knowing they are birds.”  They come to see their human owner as their mate and disaster occurs in too many households where the parrot attacks other humans who come into the same room as who they come to view as their sexually bonded mate.


Set up at least two perches in each of the rooms it will be in.  Your parrots will like having several approved and safe landing areas with different things to explore or swing and climb on.  Locating some adjacent to work-centers will allow it to be with you if they like - for example next to, but not on your desk - or on the countertop perch as you slice and dice and hand him little tidbits, instead of it tromping over your cutting board.  Of course this only works if staying on the perches are more reinforcing than going after your keyboard or standing roast.  You’ll have to provide alternative objects that are more reinforcing (meaning fun, engrossing, desirable, enjoyable) to pay attention to.  This is exactly what child psychologists recommend for children - instead of threatening them or doling out spankings or prolonged time-outs it is better for both the parents’ and child’s psychological well-being to be provide a variety of reinforcing activities or behaviors.  This allows them the option of doing something that is acceptable to you.  It’s more easily said than done, and often what happens instead is the quick fix of locking it up in the cage screaming or trapping the toddler in the playpen screaming ...UNLESS, you make the cage or playpen a reinforcing place to be.  Trust me.  This is way better.  Crying children and crying parrots are both proven to raise blood pressure.

Expose your parrot to all kinds of stimulations in its environment indoors and outdoors.  Introduce it to all kinds of environments so it knows about people who wear caps, coats, beards, carry purses, umbrellas, canes, suitcases, have booming voices.  Take it outside in a harness or a cage so it learns about loud garbage trucks, crows, barking dogs, airplanes.  Be sure to present new things in a non-threatening way with exposure to new things in small doses, always backing off when its body language starts to show discomfort (de-sensitizing and/or counter-conditioning).  This will take the mystery out of strange sounds outside, familiarize them to many situations and therefore reduce panicked flight. If it ever finds itself outdoors, it will be less likely to be spooked off by the garbage truck turning the corner, the sound of a lawn mower starting - just as he's getting comfortable enough to fly to you.

Be a good neighbor.  Parrots scream, yell, squawk at ear-splitting decibels at the beginning and end of the day as well as when they are excited or at play.  This is normal behavior.  They also scream when there is a perceived danger or when there is a break-down in communication, usually with you.  Think about this before getting a parrot.  Your neighbors might get angry, the landlord might kick you out, or you might go insane from the noise first.  Be good to yourself and your neighbors by providing the right housing and being a good pet owner and trainer.

Learn the basics of positive reinforcement.

It’s not hard, and it is the most effective way - especially in the long run - of interacting or training dogs, horses, dolphins, co-workers, bosses, children.  I highly recommend two resources.  The first is the classic by Karen Pryor, “Don’t Shoot the Dog.”  It is still one of the best-written books today.  The other is the free-with-charity-donation on-line course, Living and Learning with Parrots, taught by Dr. Susan Friedman.

Learn parrot body language.*  Your parrot may not get along with other birds or people in the same household.  Recognizing the early signs of aggression might allow you to thwart flying attacks. 

pastedGraphic.tiffWhat does this African grey’s body language indicate?  Is this a good time for Barb to ask for a step-up?

Visual obstacles on glass and mirrors help you teach parrots about them.  Hey, we'll all do this at least once in our life - walk bang right into a mirrored wall, or sliding glass door.  Parrots fly faster than we walk so they hit harder.  There are all kinds of decals and stylish beads to hang on windows, doors, and mirrors.  Don't forget the high windows. They can be removed one decal at a time after the parrot has learned they can't go through. Remember to do the same to all windows and mirrors at other places you visit with your bird.  For other places like pet stores where you can't control the environment, a harness is a really good idea.

Just like the human toddler, supervision is required at all times. You can gather by now that parrots are wild animals with the curiosity and common sense of a toddler. If you need to go to another part of the house, take the parrot with you, or place it in its cage.  This is the same as parents doing chores all over the house with their toddlers hitching on the hip or putting their toddlers in a playpen, or crib... a temporary jail but with good things in it to play with.  The difference of course is that toddlers are usually confined to the bottom 4 feet of the house and they will eventually mature.

Place signs on every exit of the house.  This is to remind you every time you or your guests open the door, you check your shoulders, head, clothing, and the space behind you to make sure there isn't a parrot there to fly out.  Be sure to check the floor too - a lot of parrots are walkers.  The sign should also instruct everyone to close the door firmly.  The door can get blown open by the wind, or pushed open by scratching dogs or cats.  You might want to do this for your outside aviary gate as well.

Block access to the toilet.  Even if you can remember to close the toilet lid after every time you use it, guests might forget even if you tell them to.  Make a sign that says something like "Keep the toilet (or door) closed, for birdssake."  It can be framed and placed on the inside of the bathroom door. 

Either put your parrot in its cage or aviary or put dangerous things away.  If you have paint jars out to paint your model airplane, have knives out with yummy pieces of food stuck to them that parrots would like to lick, or are cooking yummies on the stove, etc ... cage your bird, place in another room, or put away the dangerous items. 

Make sure gas burners don't blow out.  This can happen to a burner that is on low simmer when large parrots fly by.  Their flapping can extinguish the flame and you might not realize it because of the pot over it.  By the time you smell it in another room, it may be too late for smaller animals.  Some modern ranges self-reignite - get this feature if you can on your next purchase.  Always have the exhaust fans on - your burners work more efficiently that way, anyway.  Slow simmering can be done by placing a pot brought to a boil in a pre-heated 350ºF oven.  When cooking corn on the cob, boil water with the lid on, add the ears, replace the lid, return to a boil.  Turn off the heat, wait 3 minutes and they’re ready!  No need to boil 20 minutes - the cob doesn’t need cooking - just the kernels!

Disable ceiling fans.  Remove or tape the fan chain securely so that parrots can't pull it with their weight when landing on it.**  It is best to remove it completely or cut the power to it so it can not be switched on.  

Be knowledgeable about things that are dangerous to inhale or eat.  There are many websites that list possible and known poisons to parrots.  There are well-known things like lead-wick candles, Febreze, avocados, off-gassing of heated non-stick pans. However there are many other things that are dangerous to our parrots especially when the toxic elements are present in things one wouldn't normally expect them to.  Google them.

Don’t expect a well-kept house.  If your parrot shows interest in objects of value to you, store it away or display it in a part of the house designated for non-parrots.  It is better to set the environment up so that your parrot will hear multiple times more praises than the word "no."  Of course, whenever you take an object or activity away, be sure to add a different interesting object or activity.  If it finds your pen, be sure to trade another toy or food for it, instead of yanking it away.  Having a parrot has restrained me from buying knickknacks for my house, thereby saving money that I can spend on bird toys!  Just be warned, most of them like chewing on the house itself too.

As you can see, there is a lot of putting things away or caging the bird. Make sure you have housing, like an aviary, that will allow the bird to be out of its cage the majority of the time than not.  Again, one of the top criteria is that the parrot's house have lots of interesting things for a parrot to do and space to maintain its mental and physical health.

I'll be adding to the list...

Let me know if there's anything you think should be included here.

* www.GoodBirdInc.com has an excellent DVD on parrot body language.

** Thanks to Barb S. for this tip.