Liz Wilson tells us how to build trust with your Parrot.
I vividly remember many years ago having the breath-taking epiphany that you could tell what an animal did for a living by the position of its eyes on its head. What a stupendous thing!
The eaters, animals that ate other animals, had their eyes on the front of their face so they had the binocular vision necessary for a successful hunt. The eatees, the animals that were someone else’s lunch, had their eyes on the sides of their heads so they could look over their shoulders all the time.
That way they can watch for the eaters so they wouldn’t be someone else’s meal.
Despite how aggressive and swaggering and self-confident some of our Parrots seem at times, they are eatees. This is a crucial piece of information to use when dealing with psittacines since we humans are the quintessential predator, the top of the food chain on this planet. We have the ultimate two-eyed hunter’s stare.
For obvious reasons, it is not conducive to a trusting relationship with our Parrots to remind them of that fact.
Remember playing the game of tag as a child? Remember the thrill of fear you felt when you ran frantically away from the child who was It? You knew perfectly well you were not about to die, but there was that fear, anyway. That is the fear that you never, never want to illicit from your Parrot.
How Frightened is Frightened?
One client told me her Cockatoo was “phobic” about her boyfriend, except when they went for a ride in the car. I pointed out to her that the cockatoo’s behaviour is therefore not a phobia.
I am phobic about spiders and it does not matter WHERE I am, I still have the same embarrassing reaction to them. So whatever it was that was happening between the boyfriend and the cockatoo, it was not a “phobia.” Fear, perhaps – but not a phobia.
Well, what is a phobia, then? According to psychiatry, it is an uncontrollable, irrational, reflexive fear response – such as my gut-churning, uncontainable and humiliatingly girlish response to being startled by a spider.
And it’s irrational because I’ve never been injured by a spider and have no reason to fear them. If, on the other hand, someone has threatened a Parrot, it is not irrational for that Parrot to be afraid of that person. Hence, that is not a phobia. Incidentally, some veterinarians are labelling a so-called “phobic” behaviour as “neurotic fear.”
Positive Reinforcement Training
If a Parrot that will approach your fingers to take food and eat it, then it is not afraid of you – unless it will only do this from inside its cage. In that situation, the cage bars are the bird’s protection from your encroaching too much, too fast, too…. something.
So the bird can move away if it wishes, so it is controlling your interaction because it has not yet learned to trust you. This is quite fair. Trust must be earned. It isn’t awarded just because your name is on the store receipt.
If that same bird that will take food from your hands then runs away when you ask it to step up, this is a different issue. It is resisting stepping up, it isn’t afraid of your hand. It might be resisting for a plethora of reasons.
Many people only step up a Parrot to put them away in their cage. Some people’s hands are not steady enough for the bird to feel secure. Whatever the reason, there is a negative association that needs to be changed before the Parrot’s behaviour will change.
The best approach to training away fear that I have yet encountered involves positive reinforcement. By earning something it values every time it does a behaviour, a Parrot quickly learns that this is a great behaviour to do. So if a Parrot is lavishly rewarded for stepping up instead of getting locked in its cage, it will learn that stepping up is a good thing.
Once that behaviour is clearly established (and Barbara Heidenreich has excellent videos for teaching this, featured on this website), then the human can add the cage into the mix.
Step the bird up on the hand and then down into the cage for a second, then remove it and offer a reward. Repeat this several times, until the bird is happy and quick in its response. Then start closing the door for a second, open it and treat; do this many times as well.
The more you repeat the training (within reason, of course), the more solid the training will be. Adding a delightful chunk of reward in the food bowl is another lovely way to convince a Parrot that going into its cage is a happy thing.
My Blue and Yellow Macaw Sam knows she will always earn a luscious nut whenever she enters her cage politely, and that is grand as far as she is concerned
Dealing with Neurotic Fears
I often use the parallel of dealing with a frightened Parrot as being like trying to tame a wild sparrow. You cannot force such a creature to trust you; you can only prove it, at the bird’s own speed. Exquisite patience is needed but richly rewarded.
My esteemed German colleague, IAABC-certified () Parrot behaviour consultant Hilla Neumann has some excellent advice in dealing with this situation:
This is a problem I am often confronted with. A lot of people buy parent-reared birds here [in Germany] and those birds are almost often afraid of hands and people. The first thing I recommend is to put them on a good [formulated] diet [so] they get everything they need.
Let them eat this food for two weeks and then offer some millet in tiny pieces (5 cm) from your hand. Show the millet for a short moment (30 sec) and then put it away. Try again in a few moments. If the birds show any fear response show the millet only in one place so the birds can decide by themselves if they want to come to you or not. Slowly reduce the length of the millet so the birds get in touch with the fingers. .
Then begin to feed through the open door and put the millet on the flat hand.
This is a slow way but it works very often. As the owners do not clip the birds here and I often work with parent reared Parrots, I have to work in very small steps.
Small Steps, Slowly Accomplished
Eye Contact: It is crucial with frightened birds to avoid direct eye contact completely. Just as your mother taught you, it is impolite to stare!
As predators, we humans have a two-eyed predator’s gaze which can increase anxiety and fear in such a bird, so use what colleague Sally Blanchard calls “soft eyes.” She advocates looking at a bird from the corner of your eye, then looking down again.
The So-called ‘Magic Circle’: There appears to be an invisible circle around a fearful Parrot’s cage. While outside that circle, a Parrot will tolerate your presence. Set foot over that line and the bird panics. Aviculturist and trainer Joanie Doss suggests the use of that circle to help relax a frightened psittacine.
Watching the bird’s body language carefully for subtle signs of fear, the owner can identify that otherwise indiscernible circle. Once done, the owner should then step back from it and put a masking tape mark on the floor. Then a few times a day, he/she should stand at that mark and sing songs or talk to the bird, still avoiding direct eye contact.
Once the Parrot’s body language indicates it is relaxed, take a step forward, mark the floor again and repeat the singing or talking or whatever. Move forward only at the Parrot’s speed. This process cannot be rushed.
Blanchard suggests the use of a chair placed at the outside of that invisible circle, chair back to the cage but canted slightly sideways so the human can see the bird via peripheral vision. The person should then sit comfortably and talk or read aloud to the bird. Pictures can be shared with the bird with appropriate comments.
Mattie Sue Athan added the creative trick of using a jigsaw puzzle set up near the cage, for the human to work and the bird to observe. Lots of quiet but animated discussions can ensue regarding the various puzzle pieces.
With each of these techniques, decreasing the distance to the cage is done gradually, based entirely on the relaxation of the Parrot’s body language. When the cage is eventually reached, the door can be opened, with the human continuing to avoid any eye contact.
The bird can then be allowed to exit the cage if it wishes, perhaps joining the human on the chair or in the complex working of the puzzle. Should the puzzle technique be used, be sure it is not a favourite. Jigsaw puzzles rarely survive intact when Parrots participate!
Throughout these exercises, people should continue a pleasant conversation with the bird. Whatever moves they make should be verbally explained, such as: “I’m going to move the chair a tiny bit closer now, Smokey. See?” When stalking their prey, predators are silent and owners need to avoid creating that impression.
The Caretaker’s Approach: While learning to observe a Parrot’s body language, it is also important for caretakers to be aware of their own non-verbal communications. Parrots are extraordinarily empathetic and will instantly pick up on such things as a human’s anxiety and/or nervousness.
Hence, humans need to lower their own stress levels prior to approaching a frightened Parrot, and deep breathing exercises can be extremely helpful with this.
The daily task of servicing the cage needs to be accomplished with the same low stress level, with calm and friendly explanations of everything the human is doing. As always, eye contact is strictly avoided.
As previously mentioned, very small steps are the key to overcoming serious fear in a Parrot. As a result it is crucial to keep a daily diary. Otherwise, an owner will likely miss the tiny but important signs of improvement and get discouraged.
This process is often characterized by the old saying of two steps forward, then sometimes 3-4 steps back… As with dieting, plateaus can be reached where there is no discernible improvement for a period. Don’t give up!
Earthquakes and Veterinary Visits – Unfortunate Connections
Years ago, Sally Blanchard noticed a phenomenon associated with the earthquakes that often happened in her home of California. After every earthquake, she would receive a plethora of calls regarding Parrots that had suddenly become pathologically afraid of their owners. With insight and investigation, Blanchard concluded that owners were inadvertently setting themselves up for this.
When earthquakes occurred, the owners in question usually rushed to their Parrots’ cages, saying such things as, “My God, are you alright, Baby.” By inserting themselves into that terrifying situation for the bird, the owner was unintentionally drawing a clear connection between terror and the owner. Hence, the owner becomes the source of that overpowering fear.
The same thing can happen when a Parrot accidentally falls to the floor. Caring owners, in an attempt to rescue the bird from possible injury, rush to its assistance. Again, making that fateful connection between the sensation of fear and owner.
We have since realized that humans should stay back briefly when a Parrot falls. If they rush over, they often trigger an escape reaction, causing the bird to run from them. Instead, caretakers should stop and wait until the bird stops and turns to face them.
Then the owner can quietly and slowly approach to pick the bird up and check for injuries. That brief pause allows the bird to calm down, providing a separation between trauma and owner.
We have made an additional connection between traumatic veterinary visits and neurotic fears aimed at the owners.
One avian veterinarian I knew was deathly afraid of being bitte. She trained her staff to capture and handle Parrots in an extremely aggressive manner. Once the examination and testing were done, they would release the traumatized bird directly to the owners for comfort.
While problems did not result in all cases, several of such episodes resulted in situations in which owners could no longer approach their high strung but previously trusting Parrots without triggering a paroxysm of fear. As a result, I received several phone calls about newly ‘phobic’ birds right after a veterinary appointment.
I admit to being unable to change this particular veterinarian’s mind about the extremely antagonistic handling the practice used (a subject for another article), but I was able to convince her to have her personnel release the bird to its carrier instead of the owner. Owners were to be instructed to ignore the bird completely until getting home.
The carrier was to then be opened and the bird allowed to come out on its own. By this time there was no danger of a connection between the caretaker and the terrors of the veterinary examining room, and the bird was happy to seek comfort from the owner.
One last note
If you are dealing with severe fear episodes in a Parrot, you are likelier to be successful if you work with an experienced Parrot behaviour consultant. Such people can be located via the website of the previously mentioned Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (www.iaabc.org).
Click on “Find a Consultant” at the top of the page to find the person you need. Experienced Parrot behaviour consultants are comfortable working over the phone so this will not be a problem if they are far away. Fear issues can be tricky, and ‘reinventing the wheel’ is not only a much slower approach.
Instead, faulty handling of such a situation can severely aggravate the problem, sometimes inadvertently doing terrible damage. Please get experienced help as soon as possible.
Get more advice on training and behaviour here.