Category Archives: Aggression

Top Behavior Concerns with Our Companion Parrots

Building or rebuilding the relationship with a parrot is very accomplishable.
Building or rebuilding the relationship with a parrot is very accomplishable.

Yesterday I gave a webinar on Taking The Aggression Out Of Living with Your Parrot. One of the attendees was a volunteer at a shelter on the east coast and she is also a parrot behavior consultant.  We were all discussing the top three behavior concerns we are contacted about. By far, the number one reason I am contacted is for aggressive behaviors such as lunging, biting, and chasing. The number two reason I am contact is for screaming. The third reason I am contacted is probably cage-bound birds. By this I mean, the owners or caretakers cannot get their bird out of the cage because it doesn’t want to come out.

I was discussing with them one behavior issues I am least contacted about is feather destructive behaviors (fdb’s). I’m not necessarily sure why this is. I’ve talked to several people who have birds with fdb’s. The first thing I will ask is if they have ruled out medical conditions. If they have, the chances are highly likely this is a behavior issue. We also talked about something called ‘the history of reinforcement’. Undesired behaviors can be easily reinforced. These undesired behaviors exist because they are being reinforced. If they weren’t being reinforced, they wouldn’t exist. They key is finding out what the reinforcer is and many times it isn’t one event in particular.

One of the first things I will suggest is getting your bird to forage. On my list of behavior approaches in changing a behavior, foraging is a must! You can teach this behavior and it is taught to wild birds by their parents. Foraging is getting them to search for their food. There is an approach to teaching this.

The second on my list is start training the bird. You can teach an old bird new tricks. Absolutely! I do it here all of the time. You are training your bird each time it can see you or hear you whether you realize it or not. The key question is “What are you training it?” Make sure you do you research on your approach to training. I am consistently approached by people who have tried training from things they’ve read or watched on the internet. Please be extremely careful with this. Search for people willing to help you using positive reinforcement. I would also find someone that studies Applied Behavior Analysis. If you are using force or taking choices away from your parrot, this may work, but not without its consequences.

Third on my list is exercise. If the bird can fly, I will begin recall training immediately. Recall training is getting the bird to fly or come to you when you ask it to. Make sure there is something in it for the bird when they give you the behavior, otherwise they may not voluntarily do it again. Remember, we only use food here about half of the time as a reinforcer for requested behavior. If the bird can’t fly, I still begin the training on getting it to run to me when I ask. The bodies’ of most parrots have evolved to fly for several miles a day. Keeping these awesome animal in our care, we need to find a way to expel some of this energy. I will encourage flight or running by their choice and making sure they are completely comfortable with what I am asking them to do.

These are the three steps I begin with every bird. Forage, train, and exercise. It is easy for behavior issues to exist where other behaviors are not present or known. So, teach these alternate behaviors.

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Aggression Serves Its Purpose

Learn to read the body language. Learn what it looks like when it is alert, afraid, nervous, or not sure and begin interacting with positive reinforcers for calm behavior and requested behaviors.
Learn to read the body language. Learn what your bird looks like when it is alert, afraid, nervous, or not sure and begin interacting with positive reinforcers for calm behavior and requested behaviors.

All behavior serves a purpose for the animal, even aggression. All behavior happens for a reason. If you can identify that reason, then you have identified the reinforcer for that behavior. Once you have identified the reinforcer, you can then begin to change the behavior.

A reinforcer is something delivered after a behavior that causes the future rate of that behavior to maintain or increase. Many people think reinforcers are treats or rewards. This is not the case. Reinforcers can be treats or rewards but they can also mean it serves a purpose for the bird and that undesired behavior therefore will maintain or increase. Let me give two examples.

You ask your bird to step up onto your hand. It steps up and then you deliver a head scratch, a treat, or the opportunity to cuddle. If the future rate of that behavior increases, then the head scratch, the treat, or the opportunity to cuddle is a reinforcer for your bird. Reinforcers are not only food or treats. Around here, attention and the opportunity to get petted is a highly valued reinforcer of many of the birds. Your bird is always the one that decides the reinforcer; it’s never us. This is a key point I see very commonly misused.

So commonly I see aggression being reinforced in the companion animal world. My second example: If I ask a bird to step up onto my hand and it leans away from me, that is a pretty clear indicator that the bird does not want to step up. If I push my hand further, the bird may growl. If I persist, the bird may lunge. I have reinforced all of this undesired behavior because the undesired behavior maintained or increased. In this instance, it increased. When I pull my hand away from the open beak, the bird has learned the lunge or open beak gets it what it wants and it will resort to that behavior quicker with the next encounter because the lean and the growl didn’t work. We have reinforced all of these undesired behaviors.

I don’t want to get bit and try my hardest to never put myself in a situation where I will get bit. These forms of body language and communication serve a purpose for the bird. The first thing I will do is work at the bird’s pace and comfort level. I will not push the bird past its comfort level or I could easily reinforce the aggressive behaviors. I first identify the bird’s favored treats, foods, interaction (if any) and I will deliver them for the bird allowing me to get closer and closer.

Aggressive behaviors such as lunging, open beak, biting, flying at your head and hitting you, chasing you across the floor are all learned behaviors and that bird has learned these forms of communication work and serve a purpose for them. These forms of communication can be changed and you can teach an old bird new tricks. I do it all the time.

Identify the desired reinforcers and deliver them for close proximity or calm behavior. Consistently pair yourself with the delivery of these reinforcers while never pushing the bird past its comfort level. This is a very important point. If you do this in short amounts of time and frequently, you will begin to see the behavior change. Look for the really small steps of behavior change. Within these small steps you will see the change. When first trying to change behavior often I will have to use favored treats. If I am consistently pairing myself with the bird’s favored treats or other reinforcers, soon I see the reinforcers begin to change from food to the opportunity to spend time with me. This is reinforcing to me and this is the relationship I want with a bird that I will spend the rest of my life with.