Are you much of a Parrot man?’ barked David Drummond.
‘I have treated the odd Parrot or two,’ I managed to say.
‘There’s nothing odd about my Scarlet Macaw, I can tell you.’ Mr Drummond’s three chins quivered, saliva glistened on his lips. Then momentarily, his mask slipped, his shoulders drooped, his voice softened.
‘Though Aggie is proving to be a bit of a handful. Bites me a lot.’ He raised his right hand. Two fingers had plasters on them. ‘So what do you suggest I do?’ he queried.
At that moment, I was standing in Mr Drummond’s front room dominated by a large, metallic cage in one corner and a T perch in the other. On the latter sat a Scarlet Macaw. A fine specimen with her vivid plumage and white face mask which at this particular moment in time seemed rather flushed.
But I didn’t need that to know she was angry. Her head was dropped. Her beak open. The feathers on her shoulders and upper part of her back were fluffed up. Wings slightly away from her body, tail fanned.
Boy was she pumped up. Everything about her screamed ‘I’m in a paddy.’ And just in case I hadn’t cottoned on to this fact she emitted a long, deep growl as I approached her. It was enough to stop me in my tracks.
‘Not afraid of her, are you?’ roared Mr Drummond, waving his plastered hand at me.
‘Er …well … she does seem a little agitated,’ I ventured to say.
Mr Drummond suddenly sat down at a table and rammed his fist on it. ‘Well if you’re not, I certainly am,’ he confessed. ‘It’s all getting out of hand.’ He stroked his two bandaged fingers. ‘I have tried showing her who’s boss.’
Ouch . That was something I didn’t want to hear. But hear it I did when Mr Drummond went on to explain he’d tried yelling at Aggie. Tried saying ‘No bite’. Tried shaking a finger at her – only to have it bitten. He hadn’t tried beak grabbing and shaking. For obvious reasons.
‘I’ve even dropped her on the floor,’ he confessed. ‘In the hope that she’d be thankful I was around for her to climb back up again. But not a bit of it. Or should that be bite.’ He gave a rueful smile. ‘Oh and before you ask, I have tried putting her back in her cage. But of course, what does she do?’ He held up his recently plastered fingers.
There was no need to tell Mr Drummond that punishment was not going to modify Aggie’s behaviour. His finger count was proof of that.
‘It’s all to do with positive reinforcement,’ I said. ‘You need to avoid circumstances that elicit aggression from Aggie.’ On questioning Mr Drummond it was soon obvious what those circumstances were. One in particular.
‘It’s when Aggie doesn’t want to go back in her cage,’ he explained.
Ah, right. There we had it. A number of options to deal with that were at hand. Not that I mentioned ‘hand’ to Mr Drummond. It was a sore point – or rather finger – with him at that moment.
‘You could just let Aggie stay out of the cage,’ I said.
Mr Drummond shook his head. ‘Not safe when I have visitors.’
Aggie emitted a vicious growl to emphasise the point.
‘Maybe move the T-perch over to the cage and let her hop in?’
‘Tried it. She refused.’
‘Well, then you must go for the positive reinforcement I mentioned.’
Mr Drummond sighed.
I persevered. ‘You must reinforce good behaviour and ignore bad behaviour.’ I went on to explain that Mr Drummond should feed Aggie a titbit such as a peanut whenever his hand was near her and she didn’t bite. Also this could be used to lure her onto his hand. I also explained how to teach Aggie cooperation, to be done in small steps. I saw his doubtful look. But he said he’d give it a go.
I was in the local charity shop a week later, rummaging through the half-price Christmas cards, wondering whether I really wanted a robin with a woolly hat on, when I spotted Mr Drummond browsing through the book shelf. I saw him fumble with a book due to a heavily bandaged hand. He turned and saw me standing there.
‘Aggie?’ I said, staring at his hand in dismay. They must still be at loggerheads.
He shook his head. ‘We’re getting along fine now. It’s me that needs some retraining.’ He held up his plastered fingers and grinned. ‘This was due to a chisel.’
Malcolm’s memoir, An Armful of Animals, is available on Amazon at £7.99 and Kindle at £1.99
His website is: http://www.malcolmwelshman.co.uk