Giving control back to parrots – for better relationships and wellfare

Do you like being hugged by your significant other, or maybe another family member or close friend? It can be a sign of affection and release lot’s of cozy oxytocin; a hormone that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, help us bond, trust each other, and even reduces stress. I love hugs, especially a really tight one!
So imagine if a stranger walked up to you on your way home late at night and grabbed you. You beg him/her to let you go but they refuse, and maybe even squeeze you harder.
Can you just feel your stress levels rise in this scenario? I know i can. And yet no physical harm has come to you. Just a very tight “hug” from stranger who is much stronger than you, refusing to let go. Why do we instinctively react negatively to this? What’s the difference? It all comes down to control.

Curious palm cockatoo

Curious palm cockatoo.

Control is a primary reinforcer: something that animals are naturally willing to work for and find reinforcing, like food or safety. Lack of access to these are also associated with bad feelings and stress. That makes a lot of sense, as lack of control can be the difference between life and death if you’re living in the wild, just like food or shelter.
The fact that control is reinforcing has probably been noted by anyone with a toddler, seeing how they light up (pun intended) when they discover the delights of the awesomeness that is a light switch. They do something and something happens. Wow. They have the power over light and darkness. And some kids can flip that switch endlessly, for the feeling of control alone.
Tonnes of experiments have been made that show animals are no different. They desperately need control to thrive; to feel like they can influence their own situation and/or their environment by behaving. Both humans and animals are even willing to put themselves through physically painful experiences for it. It’s what we all; human and parrot alike, are born to do. In fact, lack of control is part of the very definition of stress.

Here’s a clip of my tag, Echo, being swung around by me, having a blast. If you watch carefully, you will see that i only do this after he has “flipped over” by his own free will. He is in control of when i swing him around, i never do it if he hasn’t asked for it. Do you think he would enjoy this experience as much if i just grabbed him and started swinging him around without him asking first?

So what happens when we are denied control? If we’re way too hot but unable to cool down, super hungry but can’t get any food, or held down against our will like in the example above. Or even if we’re just in an environment that is too “empty”: we have absolutely nothing to do and no way to change that.
We panic. Few of us humans have actually been in this kind of situation, so it’s very hard for us to truly imagine what it is like. And that’s a good thing, trust me, since i wouldn’t wish that feeling even on my worst enemy, talking from experience. Yet many of us do exactly this to parrots on routine, without even being aware of it most of the times.

Showering is super awesome, but only when you want one...

Showering is super awesome when you want to. Getting whet when you don’t is a whole other issue, and the same goes for parrots!

Parrot doesn’t want to step up? Push his belly until he does, ignore possible bites and body language. Doesn’t want to go in the cage? Hold his foot so he can’t fly away. Parrot doesn’t want to be pet right now? But he usually loves it, pet him anyway! Parrot has long claws? Get that towel and hold him down, time for a trim! This might not seem as bad as starving to death, but it is actually the exact same principle. Just like loosing our job and/or being broke is very far from being eaten by a tiger, but still triggers a similar (though not as intense) stress response in our bodies.
Truth is it doesn’t matter if “it has happened a hundred times, he knows nothing bad is going to happen.” It still results in the same physiological and psychological responses. Just by being held against his will, something extremely bad and terrifying and horrible has already happened! We also do more passive things, like expect birds to just sit there all day, often in too barren environments. How much control does that give them?
We do this in so many ways it’s impossible to describe them all. And this has disastrous effects both on our relationship with our birds, as well as their own well being. Lack of control increases stress and plays a big role i many common behavior problems, like biting, screaming and over preening. As a parrot owner, i would say the number one thing you can do to increase the well being of your birds is to constantly ask yourself how you can give them more control over what is happening to them, both in formal training sessions and every-day life.

In this clip Echo is getting his nails trimmed without restraint. We can teach all kinds of amazing things to parrots so that they can be voluntary participants in their own care, all using force free, positive reinforcement training methods.

And before you stop reading because you think i’ve lost it, i do not mean we should let our birds bite us, never step up, and neglect them by letting claws grow too long. Luckily for us, these are not the only options we’ve got. Just because we give ours birds control (choices), does not mean we have to give it up ourselves. My parrots get their nails trimmed, step up, go back into their cages, all without me ever having to force them. All i have to do is teach them what my requests mean, and that if they do what i ask, they get desired consequences. Instead of going into cage -> left alone in a boring little wire cube (i would fly away, too), i make sure that go back to cage -> explosion of fun, tasty treats, toys and company. Both of us end up happy and in control. Win-win!
The better you are as a trainer, the less force you need to use, and as a result of that: the better the relationship with your pet will be.

So, anytime you ask your parrot to do something, or you do something to your parrot, ask yourself this:

  • Does my bird want to do what i ask?
  • If not, why might that be?
  • What can i add or remove so that he will be more motivated to do it?

Since, like i said earlier, control is a primary reinforcer, it is important for us to consider in training specific behaviors as well. Especially when working with scared or aggressive birds, this yields such amazing results. The first thing i always tell people to do when taming a bird is to teach the bird that it can control your movements. This is done by carefully observing body language and moving yourself away at the slightest sign of discomfort in the bird. This way they quickly learn that, if they would want to, they can easily remove you. This results in an empowered bird which will be much more confident, and, somewhat contra intuitively, less likely to ask you to move away (you’re not as scary if you can be removed on request, so it kinda does makes sense after all); thus making it easier for you to get to a stage where you can start delivering positive reinforcers like treats to show that you are not only not dangerous, but really awesome to be around. You are establishing a two way communication system, basically. And that is really what training animals is all about.

For some further reading on this very important topic, please see these links:
How to adress fear in parrots, by Barbara Heidenreich
Empowering parrots by Susan Friedman, PhD.

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