Here is how to cope with Parrot aggression.
Sudden onset of aggression towards caregivers
Elaine Henley P.G.Dip CABC
Full Member Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
Animal Behaviour Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist
In a previous article, I explored the reasons why Parrots might display aggressive behaviours towards caregivers who approach their cage, or who “enter” their cage by putting their hands inside. In this article, I will be exploring sudden onset of aggression towards caregivers.
Sudden onset aggression occurs when a caregiver and Parrot have experienced a more or less harmonious relationship with each other until– for no reason that the caregiver can understand– their relationship changes and the Parrot will display aggressive behaviour towards the caregiver.
Caregivers are understandably upset and bewildered when this occurs, as they cannot understand why the relationship has changed. Having a much-loved companion unexpectedly want to bite you can be scary.
Mary and Pepe: For eight years, Mary had lived with Pepe- -a 9-year-old male Sun Conure. Pepe would sit on Mary’s arm, allow her to stroke him, and fly to her when she entered a room. For reasons that Mary did not comprehend, one day he flew towards her and bit her neck.
These attacks became the norm and resulted in Mary’s being afraid to let Pepe out of his cage. She was very upset by the change in their relationship and felt guilty that he was spending more time in his cage.
Mat and Juno: Juno is a 3-year-old female Grey Parrot who, since she was 16 weeks of age, has lived with Mat- -her primary caregiver and his wife Julie. Juno and Mat used to hang out together, watching TV and enjoying games.
Mat could pick Juno up and move her to or away from something without issue. One day, when Mat approached Juno to take her out of her cage, she put herself to the back of her cage, fluffed up her feathers and screamed at him. This quickly escalated to her avoiding all contact with him and attempting to bite when approached.
Caregivers finding themselves in these situations often seek advice or reassurance from social media sources and will often receive replies which misunderstand the situation and label the Parrot as being “hormonal,” “in breeding mode,” or “trying to be the boss.”
Labelling behaviours is never helpful, as it often prevents caregivers from understanding why their relationship with their Parrot has changed and it may be a barrier to restoring the bond between them.
Reasons why there may be a sudden break down in relationship between Parrot and caregiver.
Single traumatic event: Parrots are highly emotional and intelligent, and all it may take is to experience a single traumatic event in the presence of their caregiver, and then they associate their caregiver with that event and the negative emotions experienced.
Fear: The main function of fear is to act as a signal of danger and to trigger adaptive responses, i.e., defensive, escape, or avoidance behaviours. Fear is a physiological response over which the Parrot has no control.
There is both a genetic and environmental influence with how a Parrot may react to a perceived threat, with some Parrots being more dispossessed to reacting negatively than others. Sensitive and robust, positive habituation to a variety of environmental stimuli as a chick may result in adult Parrots who are more resilient and less influenced by a single traumatic event.
Pain: Fear and pain are closely related: the more you fear pain, the worse the pain gets. The longer the pain lasts, the harder it can be to cope. It is only natural to develop negative thoughts and associations when in pain and thus compound the fear.
Certain health issues may result in a change in personality.
Changes to the environment or the Parrot’s routine: Less emotionally robust Parrots may not cope with sudden changes to either their environment or routine. The resultant stress from these changes may lead to negative alterations in both tolerance and personality.
Frustration/redirected aggression: Frustration/redirected aggression may occur when a Parrot is prevented from obtaining or approaching something that it desires or is aroused by something in the environment.
Caregiver behaviour: Often the caregiver does not recognize the warning signs before Parrots’ bite, so they believe that their Parrots have become aggressive for no apparent reason. Or, we may overreact to a situation; for example, wave our arms around or shouting when Parrots fly towards us, resulting in the Parrot’s being fearful of us.
Bringing resolution to these types of cases takes a great deal of detective work to establish the events and/or triggers leading up to the first incident and then advising a robust behaviour modification programme.
Mary and Pepe: The caregiver directed aggression was triggered when Mary was applying a strong-smelling cream to her knee in the living room and Pepe flew over to have a look. Most likely, Mary had tried to shoo him away at the same time as Pepe smelled the noxious cream.
Pepe was both frustrated and fearful, and he reacted by biting Mary. Being a hand reared, pet shop bought Parrot, he was not emotionally resilient. Thus, this single event led him to generalise the negative associations of this event with the frustration and fear.
Pepe was not aggressive towards Mary when she approached his cage or touched him in his cage. Nor was Pepe aggressive towards others in the living room when Mary was not present.
Pepe unconsciously chained unconnected stimuli together—that is, being out of his cage, the living room, and Mary; and, when presented together, all three prompted his aggressive response.
Solution: Use classical conditioning, desensitisation and counter conditioning to back chain all of the stimuli associated with Pepe’s aggressive response towards Mary, when he is out of his cage and they are in the living room together. A Clinical Animal Behaviourist may assist with the nuances of this specialist behavioural modification technique.
Mat and Juno: The caregiver aggression began when Juno became unsteady and fell off her cage and was trapped between the cage and wall. Without thinking, Mat approached the cage to assist Juno. at which point she retreated from him and screamed.
A barbaric mutilation of one wing had occurred when Juno was at the breeders. Instead of evenly cutting the primary flight feathers on both wings to allow for balance. When Juno fell, she hurt herself and the pain she experienced was associated with Mat.
Solution: Following the consultation, Juno was taken an avian vet who administered pain relief; this will continue until Juno’s feathers have regrown. The only approach that may be utilised in terms of behaviour modification is to couple the presence of the scary stimulus—the person–with something positive.
For this to work, no demands are made of the Parrot to approach the caregiver by bribe or coercion. During all stages, it is important that the Parrot remain calm and not fearful. A Clinical Animal Behaviourist may assist with the nuances of this specialist behavioural modification technique.
Prevention is better than cure! It can be very difficult for caregivers to purchase young Parrots who have not been hand reared and who have been adequately socialized and habituated to a wide range of environmental stimuli and, thus, come to them already emotionally resilient.
There are steps that caregivers can take to build resilience and, thus, decrease the likelihood of a single event resulting in caregiver directed aggression and other behavioural problems later in life.
1. Positive exposure to a variety of sensory stimuli by providing a range of objects of different colours, textures, and substrates, to chew, hold, and explore.
2. Using positive training methods to teach such skills as “step up,” “open-wings,” and “fly to me.”
3. Build up tolerance of being handled.
4. To involve others in the care of the Parrot, not just the primary caregiver.
5. Positively and safely expose the Parrot to a range of environments to include outside, car journeys.
6. Regularly take the Parrot for vet examinations. Ask the vet not to carry out any procedures including beak and nail clip in the presence of the caregiver.
7. To insist that you purchase only those Parrots who have not had their flight feathers cut. Parrots may take flight when they are scared. Not being able to do so will increase the likelihood of a defensive response.
Please remember, if your Parrot is not doing well when alone, you need to seek professional help. Qualified behaviour help is available from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors www.apbc.org.uk. Separation related issues and other problems lend themselves very well to remote consultations with a behaviourist.
Here are Elaine’s contact details
Elaine Henley P.G.Dip CABC
Animal Behaviour Clinic
Full member Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist (ABTC)
Certified Parrot Behaviour Consultant (IAABC)
Telephone: 01294 833764 or 07789112347