Parrots as pets; Training Parrots
Today, I have two articles to share. One is regarding the potential pitfalls about owning parrots which appeared recently in my local newspaper. The second one is about handling and training parrots – and if a parrot owner knows how to properly train their parrot, there’s a lesser chance that the parrot will end up at the zoo. At the end, I have placed links to a few resources on how to teach a parrot different behaviors in a humane manner that should be enjoyable to both parrot and owner!
Article One: Talking about parrots
Do your research if you are considering a bird for a pet, expert says
Sydney mumbles a lot, so does Lucky.
Ruby? She’s a bird of few words, but when she does speak, “Hello” is a favourite, so is “Oh my god.”
Rhett, on the other hand, is a veritable motor mouth by comparison, with a vocabulary of more than 100 words.
“They don’t talk on command,” says Jesse Popowicz, “but they talk.”
Jesse is Edmonton Valley Zoo’s parrot keeper.
She takes care of a blue and gold macaw, a sulphur-crested cockatoo and a pair of Eclectus parrots.
“Each of the birds was a private donation from a pet owner that could no longer care for them,” says Jesse, which is a cautionary tale for people who are considering birds as pets.
“Sydney, our cockatoo, has been here for over 30 years. Lucky, our macaw, was donated because she began to show aggression toward the owners’ family.
“Rhett and Ruby, the Eclectus parrots, were given to us because their owners were having a family and didn’t have time for the birds any longer.
“We get calls all the time from parrot owners who want to give us their birds, for whatever reason. We have to turn down the majority of them.
“Parrots are highly intelligent and social birds that require specialized care and a long-term commitment. Some, such as macaws and cockatoos, can live upwards of 80 years.
“They are loud and destructive and require huge amounts of attention, and that’s just for the well-adjusted birds.
“Generally, as they grow sexually mature, parrots will often bond to one particular person in the family and begin to show aggression to others. They have very strong beaks and can inflict a fairly serious bite.
“To put it in a way that helps people understand, these animals have the intelligence and emotional maturity somewhat equivalent to that of a human toddler.
“They need mental stimulation, time for play, and will often act out in temper tantrums if they don’t have a regular routine.
“Often they will turn aggressive toward themselves or their owners if their needs are not being met.
“This, combined with their long lifespan and the time needed to care for them, inevitably makes a lot of owners think twice about wanting to keep them. This is when we get phone calls.”
Jesse says if you’re interested in getting a parrot as a pet, first do your research.
And, she says, don’t go to pet stores.
“Their objective is to sell you a pet, not educate you,” says Jesse. “Find a reputable breeder and ask questions.
Article Two: Interview: Barbara Heidenreich about clicker training parrots
Barbara, it so happens that this morning I got an email from a fellow Examiner, Catherine Wallace. She wanted to know if clicker training could solve the problems she was having with her Umbrella Cockatoo, Skylar.
Here’s her story – Catherine saw an ad for the Umbrella Cockatoo, and for six weeks she drove 90 miles (each way) to visit Skylar. She loved Skylar and he always seemed happy to see her. The day came when she brought Skylar home to live with her other parrots, a Moluccan Cockatoo and a Noble Macaw. During the trip Catherine stopped for a Chik-Fil-A lemonade and fed Skylar through the straw as she drove home. He even learned a new whistle!
Within a week of bringing Skylar home, things changed dramatically. Skylar ran from Catherine, he bit her, and one day actually attacked her, causing injury to her face, and to her sweet soul. In the meantime, Skylar became best friends with Catherine’s husband.
Barbara, what are the warning signs we should look for before being bitten?
There are two common circumstances when a parrot will bite. The first is because the parrot is afraid or uncomfortable. You’ll notice the parrot will lean away from you and his eyes will be looking for an escape route. His feathers will be held tight against his body, he’ll stand up as tall as he can, with eyes wide open and beak possibly slightly open. In this case the bird will bite because he feels cornered and sees no way out.
The second circumstance is aggression. Parrot aggression can sometimes be territorial in nature. In the wild parrots form strong pair bonds. Parrots will try to protect their territory and their mate by driving other birds away. Aggressive birds will show the same kind of behaviors as excited birds. Since overly excited birds can easily flip to aggression, whenever I see any of these signs, I will back off and wait until the parrot is calm to proceed with my training. The signs of aggression are eyes pinning (when the pupils contract), crest up, tail fanned out, and certain feathers will be fluffed up like those over the shoulders and nape of the neck. The parrot may hiss as well.
Catherine says that Skylar loves her husband, and hates her. This seems to be a common experience with parrots in the household. What can be done about it?
It’s true that parrots will often latch onto one person, like they would a mate in the wild. But this behavior is not inevitable and it can be modified. For instance, I used to train parrots in a show. There were several trainers and we all had to be able to handle every bird. Sometimes we could see that a parrot was becoming more attached to one trainer. That trainer would then spend less time with that particular parrot. In a family situation, the person who the parrot likes best needs to address the situation by limiting reinforcers. In other words, when Skylar is on Catherine’s husband’s shoulder he should not give any treats. Let Catherine become the treat dispenser in order to increase her value in Skylar’s eyes.
What often happens is that the parrot picks a person, and that person ends up spending more time interacting with the parrot than other family members, which then reinforces the behavior. Especially if you have a young bird, be sure to expose the parrot to lots of people and link the experience to positive reinforcers (treats).
Catherine reports that if she gets up early before sunrise, Skylar will allow her to pet him. I actually have recently adopted an Amazon who won’t let me touch him – until late in the evening, just before my bedtime. Why is this?
In the wild, when birds roost at night, they preen each other. It seems your birds feel relaxed when it’s dark out. So you see, biting is not a permanent state. It occurs under certain circumstances.
How can Catherine handle the bird when he runs from her or bites her?
I always tell people not to start with asking the bird to ‘step up’ on their hand. That takes a lot of trust on the bird’s part and the parrot may not be ready yet. Many parrots learn to be afraid of hands when people try to insist a bird step up.
Is this where clicker training comes in?
Yes! I advise people to ‘target train’ the parrot first. It’s easy, it doesn’t require your hands on the bird, and is a basis for other behaviors you’ll teach.
What can you use as a target?
I use my closed fist, mainly because it’s convenient – I always have it on me! But many parrot trainers use a chopstick. In Catherine’s case, since Skylar seems afraid of her hands, a chopstick could work well.
What do you recommend for treats?
Every species and every individual bird will have different favorite treats. Cockatiels and small conures like millet spray, so I will break off a piece of millet spray. Larger birds like seeds and nuts – sunflower seeds, pine nuts, almonds – always raw and unsalted. Be sure to cut up the nuts into small pieces. You don’t want the parrot to get full too fast.
Are you saying the parrot should be hungry when you train?
No. A hungry bird is too anxious. I like to think of it as the bird has had dinner but has a little room left for dessert. And only use the treats for training. Whatever you’re using as a training treat, don’t feed it with the parrot’s regular meal. Make it special so he will be motivated to earn it.
Do you have any particular philosophy on parrot keeping? Should they be around the family? Do you leave their cage doors open?
I am very flexible on that. For instance, I have a Blue-Fronted Amazon who never learned to fly. His cage door is always open and he’s allowed to be on his cage. However, my other Amazon is a very good flier. We only let him out when we’re around to supervise and make sure no doors are accidentally opened. Then I have two Cockatiels and I wanted them to learn to fly. So, they live in our bedroom with the door shut so they can fly around all they want. You have to do what’s right for your situation. If you have a bird that flies well, you don’t want to leave his cage door open in a household where children are running in and out all the time. By the way, I’ve just filmed a DVD on how to retrieve a parrot that has flown outside. It will be available on my website soon.
How does clicker training affect the relationship between the parrot and owner?
My tag line is “Fostering the human-animal bond with positive reinforcement.” You can have a parrot who steps on your hand because he has to, or you can have a parrot who steps on your hand because he wants to. I would rather have a parrot who enjoys being with me. You need to let go of the idea that the bird has to obey or be dominated. Parrots respond really well to positive reinforcement. The training enhances the relationship. When the animal responds to you voluntarily, it’s really cool!
Barbara’s informative website is: http://www.goodbirdinc.com/
Okay, webmaster here again. I’ve used the general strategy described above (target training parrots using clicker training before asking step-ups) and it works great with aggressive or scared parrots.
I’ve written about clicker training here:
The “Good Bird” website linked to at the end of the article is also a very useful resource and you can subscribe to a magazine about parrots there. There are also videos and books to order.
I personally like the book, “Clicker Training for Birds” by Melinda Johnson as well.