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Ask The Behaviorist
Birds: Sally Blanchard answering questions
Please be aware that the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 9, 1998 | previous set | next set


Question:

With the right kind of "parenting" in raising parrots, how much may we expect them to be sociable (introduced to new people) and affectionate and truly loving?

Jackie Simons
El Segundo, CA
jsimons@wareforce.com



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

While "parenting" and early socialization is essential in raising a sociable and affectionate companion parrot, the continuing tameness of parrots will depend greatly on nurturing interaction with people. Parrots are creatures of patterning and are capable of being taught new behaviors. If we provide and maintain guidance and rules, it is possible for us to pattern new behaviors which can override many of the instinctive responses which often cause unpredictable behaviors in companion parrots. For example, if parrots are introduced to new people in non threatening ways which take into consideration the "flock territory," most parrots will remain sociable to new people. But if strangers are allowed to come into the room and try to grab the bird out of its cage, birds will quickly become wary of new people.



Question:

We have a small Toucan, Jake. He is a great bird except for his habit of biting my wife, and just about anybody that crosses her path when she is angry (which is much too often). We are also about to have a child and are concerned that Jake will take his aggression on our child. We saw in the PBS show how an aggressive dog was given Prozac to calm her down. Is Prozac a possible option for Jake?

Geo Catano
Santa Clara, CA
geo56@earthlink.net



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

I do not consider myself to be an expert on Toucan behavior although I have worked with several over the years. I find it more difficult to train Toucans than it is to work with parrots. I am not quite sure why this is true but it seems that lessons stay with parrots more readily than they do with Toucans.

Because they have a tendency to be territorial, I would certainly recommend working with Jake in a neutral room - a room where he is not used to being. Spend some calm, relaxed time playing with him and giving some one on one focused attention. This may settle him down a bit, but my best advice would be to avoid situations where Jake becomes aggressive and bitey. Letting him run loose on the floor is good for exercise but it also gives him an opportunity to bite at ankles, one of a pet Toucan's favorite misbehaviors. I do not know if Jake will pose a problem with your child but my guess is that he will unless you work to establish better control of him now. As far as Prozac is concerned, I am not an avian veterinarian. I do not even know if Prozac has proven to be effective with Toucans. I would recommend working with Jake's behavior first.



Question:

I have been training animals and macaws for 25 years +. Training behaviors (tricks) is fairly black & white—the animal performs the behavior or doesn't. Social behavior and correction of behavior problems is more a subtle art, with a lot of subjective and "gray area." Some suggestions by behaviorists would seem too simplistic at first, but ultimately achieve the desired result—my feeling is that it isn't so much the approach used as much as it is a result of putting the bird (and owner) into a consistent and structured program. What are your thoughts on this?

Doug Cook
Detroit, MI
Pier6sealions@webtv.net



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

I believe that trick training for specific behaviors in birds who perform in bird shows is a vastly different concept than maintaining a lifelong positive relationship with a companion parrot. While some of the black and white behavioral modification principles may be used successfully with parrots, others are totally inappropriate. I believe the major "gray area" is the many variables presented in the relationship and interaction between people and their parrots on a day to day in-home basis. In my consultations, I strongly recommend consistent and structured guidance using nurturing and patterning exercises. For a parrot to remain a predictable pet, the owner has to provide as much predictable guidance as possible.



Question:

We have a green-cheeked conure. He has been the sweetest pet ever. He stays on our shoulders all the time we are at home. He keeps us laughing and playing the whole time we are at home.

He never has liked eyeglasses but has learned to put up with them. That is until two days ago. We have no idea why, but now he goes ballistic!!! He latched onto my nose and I could not get him off. When I did he bit my hand, both bled. We have tried everything we can think of including not wearing them. He does not care, he's biting us anyway. The only thing that I can think that is different is I had a cold and stayed away from him as much as possible and by voice became very rough!

We really love him very much BUT are unwilling to live with the biting. He is so spoiled, we have to give him away (he may never find a home where he gets to run free and mass on everything without getting in trouble). Do you have any idea what could have gone wrong with him or do you have any suggestions. Thank you for your time and help!

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

The best clue you give as to your problem with your green-cheek is that he is "spoiled." One of the main truths about parrot behavior is that when people just let their parrot do anything it wants to, they eventually will have behavioral problems. Green-cheeks are high energy and often aggressive little parrots who need for their owners to set rules and provide guidance. As long as you let him spend all his time on your shoulder, you will always take the risk of having him attack your face - whether you have your glasses on or not. It is not too late to work with him to set rules. Start by teaching him the "up" command in an area away from his cage. Every time you pick him up, use the command. When he tries to run up your arm to your shoulder, bring your other hand in and use the "up" command to pick him up. It may take some time and consistency from you to keep him off your shoulder. A parrot should never be allowed on a person's shoulder if they are aggressive towards a person's face.



Question:

How do I stop my cockatoo's feather picking?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

It would be impossible for me to answer this question without much more information. Feather picking in cockatoos is an extremely complex topic. If you have not taken your cockatoo to a competent avian veterinarian, I highly recommend doing so as soon as possible. Most veterinarians have a series of tests to try and determine any physical causes. Often the feather destructive behavior starts for physical reasons such as a low grade infection, malnutrition, lack of bathing opportunities, localized injuries, or even itchy skin. Then because the owner's response and concern can be an attention reward, the feather picking behavior becomes entrenched as a behavior problem. Sometimes with cockatoos who have not been well-socialized and/or have not learned to be independent and therefore are spoiled with attention when they are young, the gradual lessening of attention will create an insecure bird who may start feather picking. In this case, feather picking is a symptom of a greater problem. Setting consistent rules, providing guidance and giving your cockatoo daily focused attention will help his sense of security.



Question:

I need some advice on my male gray-cheeked parakeet, Ike. Ike has lived with me for 2 years. He is an imported bird; he came to me as a rescue from an abusive home (I don't know any details - how long he was there, exact type of abuse, etc.) From his former name of "Einstein" I read into as sarcasm. From his extreme fear (still) of the backs of hands I assume being backhanded was a part of his abuse. Because of that fear, he has never been able to "step up" as normal birds do. He will only "step up" into a cupped hand, into which he steps & immediately puts the top of his head down; if he is not covered with my other hand right away he panics and jumps out.

The poor little guy is extremely excitable and nervous, almost going into overload even at the thought of being asked to "step up" and brought out of his cage. Once he calms down he will only perch on my outstretched thumb with my other fingers over his back (my hand held in a "C" shape). It took about a year of me handling him every day for him to reach the point of being able to perch without my other hand held up for him to use to duck behind and shield his head when he began to feel anxious. Up until the recent flying period (see below) he could tolerate his head being in the open for 5-10 minutes at a time. He was even to the point of occasionally getting so relaxed while on my hand that I could give him a almost-full-body rub and preen his feathers. He enjoys sitting on my shoulder if covered by my hair. He has never been able to simply be put down onto a surface or perch outside of his cage. I have set up a little platform extension from his cage door so when I'm home & the cage door is open he can sit just outside his cage if he wants (which he does now daily).

When he is inside his cage he acts completely normal - he is relaxed, very curious about any food or toy, and totally unafraid of anything new inside his cage. He's a very sweet, gentle bird - no aggression, biting, etc. One thing I have NEVER seen him do is flap his wings. I talked with an expert about this at a conference recently. The expert suggested letting his flight feathers grow out and carefully allowing him fly for a few months to give him more self-confidence (however she added that since her experience is mainly with her own wonderfully-socialized babies, her knowledge of aberrant behaviors is limited). This experiment proved fairly disastrous—after about a week of flying I clipped Ike's wings again; he was more traumatized each time he flew and I saw that he was taking steps backward in his progress. We're back to step one when he's out of the cage; he can't deal with his head being uncovered.

I really need some advice on how to help this bird with his emotional rehab. On the wing flapping: aside from the psychological health, I am concerned about his physical health with this lack of exercise. I haven't been able to find much written on previously-abused birds. Note: I plan to contact an animal communicator soon to see if Ike can indicate anything more I can do to help him. A long time ago someone (a bird breeder) told me never to take in a previously-abused bird because "they will break your heart." I finally understand what she meant—it's hard for these birds to break free of their past. It is obvious to me from his body language that Ike wants to join in and interact, he is unable to move past a certain point. Thanks in advance for your help - I really want to help this bird.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

This is a very complex question which requires a far more complex answer than I can provide here. I would recommend continuing to provide him with nurturing attention based on his needs and willingness to accept new steps. At this point, if he will sit on your cupped hand, I would not worry about making him sit on your index finger. I think most people establish better control of their parrots when the birds sit on their index finger, but in this gray cheek's case, we are not concerned as much about establishing control as we are developing trust. Make sure that you are not too assertive with him or that may threaten him at this time. Try to avoid making direct eye contact or overpowering him from above.

I have found with abused, neglected, and/or traumatized parrots, it may take a few years of gradual calm and gentle handling for them to get past their fear and develop a trust with their new owner. It is important to be consistent but watch his body language very carefully for his willingness to go to a new level of trust. When he relaxes with the level of attention you are giving him, it is time to increase your activity slightly and ask him to accept a little bit more without overwhelming him. This process can be one of two steps forward-one step back and if something happens that frightens him, just go back to the beginning and slowly start again.



Question:

My delightful 8 month old, sex undetermined, quaker, Shake, has a not so delightful three-fold habit. She's a biter. I have been very consistent about giving her time out in her cage for each intentional bite, and I do my best to ignore or redirect unintentional bites, but it is a problem.

The first part of the problem is that she often doesn't realize she is nibbling too hard. Sometimes I'm pretty sure she thinks she's preening while I'm in pain! For example, this morning she bit me hard, then immediately regurgitated on my hand. To me this seems contradictory- can you explain it to me?

The second part of the problem is the rest of my family - she is strongly bonded to me, and abhors them. The other night she was on my arm as my husband and I watched TV from the couch... she suddenly hopped up and literally ran down the back of the couch, beak opened trying to chase him away - it got her a trip back to her cage. My 7 & 10 year old sons have sworn off contact with her. My husband doesn't understand that birds are completely unlike dogs - they don't respond to the same kinds of discipline in the manner intended. Since I don't allow anything the bird would perceive as violence, much less any actual violence, he will talk to her but has lost interest in holding her.

And then there are the intentional bites. Sometimes she just seems to bite for the sheer fun of it.

What advise can you offer me? I adore this little green pest and want her to get along in our world! It makes me feel bad when I hear her chanting, "Don't bite! Hurts! Bad bird!" I don't want to be scolding her all the time!

Kellie Sisson Snider
Irving, TX
Kellie@worldnet.att.net



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

Giving your quaker time-out in her cage after she bites you will probably not teach her anything about not biting. We need to figure out why she is biting and treat the cause and not just the symptom which is biting. Biting does not necessarily mean a parrot does not like you. In some cases, it can actually be misguided affection. Exploring with the beak is a very different behavior than biting but we can actually turn it into a more aggressive game if we respond with drama by wiggling our fingers around. The mantra "Don't bite! Hurts! Bad bird!" is a clue that she is getting quite a drama reward for her biting. Quakers can be territorial about their perceived territory and they are also usually excitable birds. Often with birds like this, there is a limit to the amount of time they can be out playing with you before they become too excited. They can become over stimulated and go into "overload." If we pay close attention to their body language, we can often determine when they are going to go into "overload" and put them on a stand or the arm of the chair (or even in the cage) before they get too excited. This is not punishment but a way to slow down the stimulation and calm them down preventing the overload biting behavior.

The only way to create a situation where your Quaker will be friendly to others in the family will be for them to create their own relationship with her. This should happen in a room away from the care where she is not used to being. Since she has such a strong bond with you, you should not be in the room. Away from her perceived territory and mate, she may actually be quite friendly. However, if your family has reached the point where they are really afraid of her and do not want to work with her, there will not be much that can be done to change her aggressive behavior towards them. If this is true, it may be best to learn to manage her time so that she is not going to get into trouble with other family members.



Question:

I have a Blue crowned conure that I acquired from my veterinarian. I have no idea how old the bird is. The previous owner died and the bird was given to my veterinarian who in turn gave him to me. My vet would be the obvious person to speak with about the bird but unfortunately the doctor has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and retired rather suddenly. The bird is terribly MEAN. When I put my hand in the cage he "shrieks" and climbs into the corner, if I try to touch him he tries to bite. A conure breeder suggested grabbing the bird in a towel and exposing only his head and try stroking him to relax and familiarize him to me. I have tried this...the bird seems VERY upset even when I finally get him into the towel. If I stroke his head he seems to relax. The last time I tried this therapy with him he was seemingly "relaxed" when he had the opportunity to reach one of my fingers..........he clamped on to my forefinger with such tenacity that my fiance had to pry the birds beak apart. Thank you.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

I have found that most blue-crowned conures will eventually tame down if they are worked with in a nurturing manner over a long period of time. The towel technique does work but it is far more effective if the bird is approached gently instead of being "grabbed" and if the bird's head is covered loosely like with a hood. Make sure that you are very calm before you work with him and that there are no distractions so that you can focus your total attention on him. Remember that parrots are prey animals which means predators eat them in the wild. He is most likely biting out of fear. Try to towel him from the front so that it does not appear that you are "attacking" him from the back like a predator looking for lunch. Fear is not a good way to start what should be a trust-building exercise. Once he is in the towel with his head covered, slowly reach your hand into the towel and start gently petting the top and back of his head and around his beak. If you do it calmly enough, he should become very relaxed. Although this does not mean he will be tame to you out of the towel, it is a beginning to teach him to trust you.



Question:

How can I get my cockatiel to stop biting my hand. She usually does this in the evening. Is this normal?

What is a good pellet food for her? I give her a mixture of rice, corn, dried fruit and sprinkle seeds on top. Is this o.k. or should I eliminate the seeds altogether?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

Your cockatiel is probably biting to get your attention and maybe a little bit of a dramatic response. Maybe she has turned this into a little game with you and you are playing right along by wiggling your fingers around and talking to her excitedly when she is chewing on your fingers. It is important to stay calm and not give her a lot of dramatic attention when she bites on your fingers. I would recommend finding a textured hand toy and sticking that in her beak and letting her play with it instead of your fingers. As far as pellets are concerned, Scenic Bird Foods is one of several companies that makes a very nice cockatiel food. The diet you are feeding sounds like it is missing some important things. If your cockatiel is eating the good foods, it won't hurt to give her a little seed but if she just wants her seed, I would recommend gradually converting her from seed to a cockatiel pellet. I also would recommend feeding her some greens - well-washed carrot tops would be healthy as well as some grated carrots and other fresh vegetables.



Question:

I have a ringneck that I purchased as a pet over a year ago. The seller claimed the bird was hand reared, but I really question that. The bird has become a true character and entertains us continually: clown, acrobat, etc. However, he refuses to step up. He will leave his cage and stroll on top, but when we try to get him to perch, he refuse. If he flies off the cage, however, he will step up. Is there any way to encourage this bird to step up and allow us to touch him?

David
Severna Park, MD
caldwda@erols.com



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

Hand-reared and well-socialized are not always the same thing. Ringneck parakeets are in the Psittacula family and these parrots tend to be independent birds who may not enjoy handling or touching unless they are taught to appreciate it as part of their early socialization. You have, however, noticed the greatest characteristic of your ringneck - his acrobatics and entertaining antics. I have met several Psittacula family birds (ringnecks, Alexandrine’s, Moustaches, and Derbyans) who have been trained to do some pretty impressive tricks. You may be able to work with him to teach him the "UP" command by taking him in to a room he is not used to being in and calmly patterning him to step from hand to hand using the command each time. Also, use the command every time you pick him up off the floor. It may take you a time for him to allow you to pet him. Be patient and don't try to force him to do anything. Teach him a few basic tricks to keep you and him entertained. Some of the easiest tricks take advantage of a parrot's natural behaviors. For example, if he lifts his wings to stretch, you can provide a label for the behavior by saying something like "eagle-boy." If you are consistent in labeling the behavior over time, he will associate the behavior with the cue and will spread his wings when you say "eagle-boy." By concentrating on his best characteristics, he will be a terrific friend for you.



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