Resource guarding in parrots – and how to prevent it

I recently did an interview in which I was asked what the most common problem is that people that contact me have with their parrots.
In my experience, apart from an environment that fails to provide for the parrot’s basic needs, lack of trust is among the most common problems parrot owners have with their feathered friends.
“Lack of trust” is of course pretty arbitrary in itself, but this often manifests itself in a variety of observable ways, such as biting or fear responses. As always, carefully observing our parrots and respecting what they try to tell us with their body language at all times is key to maintaining trust between us and our birds.

Parrots are curious little creatures!

Parrots are curious little creatures!

One of the ways this lack of trust can express itself is through what I like to call resource guarding.
Resource guarding is more commonly associated with dogs, but my personal experience is that this is also a pretty big issue when it comes to pet birds. First off, I would like to say that this has nothing at all to do with “dominance” or parrots trying to gain control over their owners.
Parrots are nosy and curious, always getting their beaks in to things where humans have decided that beaks do not belong.  There is no reason to believe that parrots have a concept of “yours and mine”, nor that they understand- or care about concepts such as “being allowed” to do something. Parrots are independent beings that see the world for what it is: a neat place full of cool things that can- and should be investigated!

Hey, this thing must be awesome since you're paying so much attention to it! Let me taste!

Hey, this thing must be awesome since you’re paying so much attention to it! Let me taste!

So, it’s parrot playtime, and you have forgotten your glasses on the living room table.  Nosy-beak sees this, flies over and starts massacring your seeing-aides. What do you do?
Most people act on instinct in these situations and simply runs up to the bird and desperately start trying to pry the expensive glasses out of the bird’s beak.  In many homes, this isn’t a one-time occurrence, but happens pretty frequently. Sometimes it’s not an object, but a favourite place that we forcefully remove the bird from.
Let’s look at this from the bird’s perspective: people are unpredictable and kind of crazy. They run up to you when you least expect it and steal things, often while moving very fast and being generally disrespectful and scary. This leads to many parrots becoming very defensive of things and locations. Some parrots will start flashing eyes, fanning tails and just scream “don’t you dare come near me” when they are somewhere humans usually remove them from, are playing with something or maybe they are just sitting in their cage wanting to be left alone. My observation is that a lot of “unpredictable biters” bite without warning because they think a human is about to take something from them or do something scary. After all, you don’t give any warning, why should they?
The thing is, these feelings will quickly generalize to other situations as well. It doesn’t matter if you are super responsive to the birds signals when you are training for example, if there are still times outside of training sessions when you don’t respect the bird and use force, like when trying to get back an expensive or possibly dangerous object from it’s beak, the bird will probably still always feel like you are a bit unpredictable.

So how do we solve this? Luckily, training can help!
Of course we can’t just ignore it when a bird gets a hold of something dangerous or very expensive. What we need to do is instead to teach our parrots a cue, like “drop” or “give me”, and that letting go of items after hearing these cues will result in wonderful consequences for them.
Of course, setting you and your bird up to succeed by always trying to put non-parrot things away and trying to make those no parrots allowed-places hard for the birds to get to, and offering plenty of desirable alternatives and reinforcing the bird for sticking to those places, is the most important thing of all.

Teaching a “drop” cue is pretty simple, all you need is something your parrot really likes, some patience, and good timing. Give your bird an item that it is allowed to have, preferably one that isn’t easily destroyed and maybe a bit hard for the bird to hold on to if possible, like a hard plastic ball. Let your parrot play with the object until he drops it or lets go. As soon as he does, reinforce! Give the object to your bird again and repeat. Pretty soon your bird should be dropping the object very quickly after you’ve handed it to him. When that’s the case, it’s time to add a cue. Preferrably something short and distinct. Now as soon as you see that the bird is about to drop the item, give your cue and reinforce after the bird lets go. Repeat this, and as always when adding a cue, only reinforce the drops that follows the cue! If the parrot drops it without you asking for it, just give the item back to the bird and try again. Eventually you can start waiting longer and longer before giving the cue and also start to generalize the drop to lot’s of different items (and locations!), to make it really solid.

When the behavior is solid and we’re practicing this under controlled circumstances, I always make sure to reinforce extremely heavily (remember, this behavior needs to be a 100% even when the bird has something reeeeally desirable in it’s beak already!) and often give back the item they were playing with as a bonus.
If generalized enough, this cue will even work for getting your bird to drop desirable food items! And, most importantly, it will save you both a lot of unnecessary conflict and strengthen your trust in the long run.

Being clear about our intentions – and how it makes life easier for animals

Everyone who knows me also knows that i am an advocate (to say the least) of teaching animals various husbandry behaviors, such as taking medicine from syringes, voluntary nail trims, and similar behaviors, using force free training techniques. I want to do anything and everything possible to reduce potential stress.

So, what’s the next best thing? Say if, for some reason, i would have to forcefully restrain an animal, maybe one that isn’t tame yet, for example to administer life-saving medicine one time a day for two weeks. I first have to catch the parrot in a towel and then force it to swallow potentially very bad tasting liquids. There is no way getting around that this will be an extremely stressful and unpleasant experience, and likely also one that will damage the relationship i have with that bird. But there are more layers to this story, and things we can do to lessen the damaging effects in every day life.

Animals, like this white peacock, are generally very good at communicating their intentions. We humans have a lot to learn there!

Animals, like this white peacock, are generally very good at communicating their intentions. We humans have a lot to learn there!

One way of doing this is to always be very clear about what we are going to do with/around our parrots, and communicate our intentions in a way they will understand.
Most people actually do the opposite when i comes to things the birds don’t like: we mask our intentions for example to make capturing the animal easier, with the intention of reducing stress in capturing. But this has some seriously negative effects on their well-fare as it reduces predictability.

There are quite a number of studies available that show lack of predictability of aversive events play a huge part in chronic stress. A lot of experiments have also shown that stress responses can be reduced significantly if we make these aversive events more predictable to our animals*.
So why is this? Well, for one thing, imagine if you lived with someone who held you down and forced bad tasting fluids into your mouth sometimes. You never really know when, just that it might happen. You’d likely be very stressed around this person at all times. Not very pleasant if you also happen to live with them.

How do we know if this greenwing macaw intended to bite, or just to cuddle? Communication! In this case, very clear body language with fluffed up head feathers and a relaxed posture. Photo by Inge Norberg

How do we know if this greenwing macaw intended to bite, or just to cuddle? Communication! In this case, very clear body language with fluffed up head feathers and a relaxed posture. Photo by Inge Norberg

I remember a story i heard at a workshop i think, about how increased predictability was used to reduce stress for a corvid that was very scared of people. This bird lived in an aviary that was passed by people all day long, and the bird freaked out every time. The bird was absolutely terrified of people entering the aviary to clean, which of course had to happen now and then. Any time someone walked by, there was a possibility of them entering the aviary, so the bird became extremely stressed. What they did to reduce stress was simple. The person that was going to enter the aviary always wore the same red cap. This was a clear signal to the bird that they were going to enter, and so the lack of this red cap on other people became a signal that they would not be entering. This, as i recall it, dramatically decreased the fear responses to people passing the aviary.

This is something we absolutely can implement with our birds at home. It is in no way a substitute for training husbandry behaviors and reducing the amount of aversive events we put them through in the first place, but it is very valuable to always keep in mind on those rare occasions when we don’t have an option.

Many times when i work on training behaviors that involve me doing something to the birds, like touching them, lifting a wing etc, i make sure to incorporate this in the training as well. It is a way to give bird even more control on the training process, and therefore make it more pleasant. For example, being touched without warning can be scary, even i think that. Clearly stating where i intend to touch the bird before i do so is one way to make it more predictable. But we can take it even further by making this into a question rather than a statement, and letting the bird answer with a yes or no.

Fluffy head feathers = cuddle approval!

Fluffy head feathers = cuddle approval!

When i taught one of my greys to let me lift his wings, i did just this. I taught him than when i ask “wing?”, touching a target (my finger) meant “yes”, which led to me touching the wing, and him earning a treat. Basically i told him what i wanted to do, asked for permission and did it only when he said yes. This gave me so much valuable feedback and made the training more fun for him. For one thing, if he didn’t answer “yes” as quickly, that was an indicator to me that i probably took it to far the last touch, which in turn made me able to take a step back, and he again increased the speed with which he answered gave me his approval. Again, it’s all about two-way communication!

So, to sum it up: always be clear about your intentions. It will increase predictability of potentially scary/aversive events, make life easier and less stressful for your companions, and give you a lot of information about what your animals are feeling and experiencing.

* An abstract of one of many studies of predictbility and well-fare:
http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591%2806%2900197-3/abstract

Guide to target training parrots

Target training is extremely useful, and it’s a great first behavior to teach your bird as it is easy for them to learn. It’s also great if you are new as a trainer as it is very easy to teach!

Check out this video where i show you how you can go about teaching your own bird to target:

Some additional tips for success:

  • If you’re using food treats, use small pieces that the bird can finish quickly. Combined with dividing the behavior into very small steps as explained in the video, this enables you to hand out treats frequently, which in turn will give momentum to your training, prevent boredom/frustration, as well as help you make quick progress
  • In the beginning, try to position the stick so that your parrot can only reach the very. tip. This prevents chewing, and also helps teaching that it is in fact the tip of the stick you want your bird to be touching.
  • Don’t move the target around while teaching this behavior. Later on in the training you can of course teach your parrot to follow a moving target as well. Doing so in the beginning stages, however, will only make your bird frustrated and mess up the training.
  • You do not have to use a “training stand”. In fact, i often recommend you start training wherever your parrot feels comfortable, especially if he or she has a tendency to be fearful or is not flighted. The bird should be able to easily move away from you anytime as this is an indicator to you that it does not want to participate right now. Being comfortable also helps the bird focus on the fun training.
    Just make sure the environment is calm and quiet. Sometimes it can be a good idea to remove some environmental distractions, like toys, too. Although that is not always necessary as you can see in the video.

Good luck, and have fun training! : )

Positive reinforcement vs Force free – is there a difference?

So many people have taken to training animals using positive reinforcement techniques and nothing makes me happier. Many people refer to themselves as “positive reinforcement trainers” and that is absolutely fine. But what does that really mean?
Many people, including some popular internet personalities, use positive reinforcement to teach their birds all kinds of cool tricks. Makes sense, since positive reinforcement works! But in many cases, that is not all that is going on.

This Kea is trained with positive reinforcement to participate in important research.

This Kea is trained with positive reinforcement to participate in important research.

For example, there is one video on youtube where a positive reinforcement trainer shows the viewer how to teach a parrot the “wings”-trick, which consist of the bird spreading it’s wings on cue. In the video, it is explained how there are many ways to get this behavior, like perching the bird on your hand and then lowering/dropping it quickly to make the bird loose it’s balance and spread it’s wings. The other example, which is the way the bird in the video is being trained, is by poking the birds wings with your index fingers until it is uncomfortable enough to lift it’s wings. After doing this, the spreading of wings is positively reinforced using a treat.

Two grey parrots being reinforced with treats for desired behavior

Two grey parrots being reinforced with treats for desired behavior

So what’s happened here? While we have indeed used a valued resource to positively reinforce a desired behavior, lot’s of other things have happened too. We have also used negative reinforcement; adding an aversive stimulus, and then removing it when the bird does what we want. This can definitely work, but also has the potential to make the bird uncomfortable and affect our relationship negatively. At some point, we have decided that teaching a specific trick is more important to us than the well being and trust of our bird. Here is where force free trainers differ from other positive reinforcement trainers.

Good relationships with are animals are so important. It enables mutual trust and makes everything more fun, both for us and our animals!

Good relationships with are animals are so important. It enables mutual trust and makes everything more fun, both for us and our animals!

For a force free trainer, the well-being of animals come first. For us, increasing wellfare is the whole reason we do this training thing to begin with. We use knowledge about how learning happens to train animals using a “most effective, least intrusive”-approach, no matter if it is a “silly trick” or working on a behavior problem. We also take on a more holistic approach to the relationships we have with our animals; recognizing that ALL interactions are training opportunities and can potentially affect both the wellfare of the birds and our mutual relationship. This means we also work proactively to reduce stress and minimize the situations in which we potentially have to put our birds through things they do not like. This is done for example by teaching them skills that will aid us in taking care of them, like voluntarily accepting medicine from a syringe, feeling comfortable in a towel, going back to the cage when we ask them or participating in a voluntary nail trims. It can also mean teaching them skills like letting go of stuff on cue, and other things which enables us to avoid using any kind of force (like forcefully prying an item out of their beaks) in our daily lives together; all using positive reinforcement techniques.

These lorikeets live in a huge flight aviary and are not tame. Yet, since we only use force free methods, we are able to teach them how to station using positive reinforcement in a way that makes them want to participate. Instead of capturing them with a net, we can now get their weights and give them medicine without any stress at all.

These lorikeets live in a huge flight aviary and are not tame. Yet, since we only use force free methods, we are able to teach them how to station using positive reinforcement in a way that makes them want to participate. Instead of capturing them with a net, we can now get their weights and give them medicine without any stress at all.

Therefore i think it is important to be critical of what you see, especially now when the internet is bursting with tutorials and trainers claiming they have all the know-hows, even if they claim to be positive reinforcement trainers. Same goes in the dog world where many people refer to themselves as “positive trainers” since they use treats and toys as rewards, but on the other hand have no problem with slapping an e-collar on a dog and using methods that are not compatible with high wellfare standards. Reflect on this and make sure to ask yourself what kind of trainer you want to be, and realize that just because someone has success in training one or several birds, that does not necessarily make everything they do/advocate best practice when it comes to wellfare.
And most importantly: always ask yourself how your bird feels about your interactions. If you want to teach him or her a certain behavior but can’t figure out how to do it without using aversives, no matter how small, reflect on whether it’s really worth it. And think some more on how to do it, because there is pretty much always a force free way to go about things!

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.

5 tips on decorating for parrots

When it comes to enrichment, the physical environment, i.e how we have built and decorated the habitats our parrots will be living in, is one very important aspect. By thinking about how we put it together, we can increase the chances of parrots in a group getting along (Social enrichment), encourage them to move around and explore, and much more. In this blog post i’ll give you some quick tips on what to think about: this is one area where details can make a difference!

Proper enclosure design is an important part of keeping parrots, whether they have their own enclosures or roam freely in our homes.

Proper enclosure design is an important part of keeping parrots, whether they have their own enclosures or roam freely in our homes.

First off is the the obvious factor: size. The bigger the enclosure, the easier it is for us to do a good job making it into a good habitat for our birds. Parrots are (should be!) very active birds, and they need a lot of space to thrive: even when you are not home. I do realize the definition of “a lot of space” differs depending on where you are in the world. In Sweden, where i live, the minimum cage size for a large macaw is by law 6,3 square meters. And that’s minimum! Many people with large birds therefore choose to close off a room or part of a room instead of going for a traditional cage. This is often much, much cheaper, and let’s you design the cage in such a way that it is much easier to clean. I’ve always built my own cages as well, and highly recommend it. (But that’s another post!)

Macaws in an 8m2 room that was rebuilt to house them during the days.

Macaws in an 8m2 room that was rebuilt to house them during the days.

Second: forget about dowel perches. Just toss them out or burn them; they’re completely useless! I realize getting fresh branches might be difficult if you live in a city, like i do, but most of the times we can work stuff out. My neighbors have become so used to seeing me drag everything from half a forest to bales of hay up to my third floor apartment, so they don’t even react anymore. If you don’t have a car, maybe ask someone to help you and stock up while you can. The reason for this is that natural branches are uneven in size and texture, and provides lots of exercise for their feet. It is not uncommon for parrots to develop gout from sitting on dowel rods. Natural branches also provide a lot of enrichment as the birds de-bark and chew them, and help keep claws trimmed.

This cage has been decorated in a way that allows the birds to fly, climb, and use all of the available space

This cage has been decorated in a way that allows the birds to fly, climb, and use all of the available space

Third: While you’re out in the forest, look at the trees! Ever seen one with branches that just shoot out from the stem in a 90 degree angle? Me neither. A good guideline is to try and mimic a tree as much as you can when decorating. Position the branches in different angles, fasten them so that they move a little as the birds use them. Ropes, swings and boings. This adds dimension to the enclosure and lets the birds move around in a way they have evolved to, using their muscles and their whole body in different ways, as opposed to just walking back and forth on a steady, horizontal surface all day.

A cage for two cockatoos, decorated with natural branches to encourage movement.

A cage for two cockatoos, decorated with natural branches to encourage movement.

Fourth: Don’t clutter. If the area is large enough, the birds should be able to climb as well as spread their wings and flying without hitting things in it. There really is no reason to hang toys, swings etc only from the ceiling and in the middle of the cage. By using SS eye-screws, you can hang toys from anywhere in the cage. This is also good because…

Fifth: scatter resources! A parrot has no reason to use all of the available space if you don’t give him a reason to.  Many people often assume that their bird doesn’t need a large cage since “they just sit there anyway”. Parrots are not mindless, winged zombies that just climb around aimlessly for lols: they want to explore and do stuff; important parrot stuff. By distributing toys, food and water, foraging devices and more, you are giving your parrot a reason to move around, explore, and make use of the space. This also provides healthy excersize and let’s them practice balance and coordination, if you have decorated properly! 🙂

Our birds should be able to move freely in their enclosure, without hitting toys and other items wherever they go.

Being able to move freely without hitting objects is important!

So here were a few tips, hope you found them helpful! It is always important to look at your bird, watch them interact with their surroundings and provide them with as many reasons as possible to make use of it in healthy ways, no matter if your birds live in cages or roam freely.