Elaine Henley P.G.Dip CABC
Clinical Animal Behaviourist
There are many articles written to assist caregivers with making a choice about which cage to purchase. These articles generally provide caregivers with information relative to choosing the proper size (bigger is better), safety issues, cage styles, cage composition, and ease of cleaning.
However, I become concerned when these articles refer to something called “height dominance,” and it was the use of this term that prompted me to write this article.
“Height Dominance” is a label assigned to any Parrot who is perched above the eye level of the caregiver and who displays aggressive behaviour towards the caregiver upon approach. Traditionally, when caregivers were aggressed upon by their Parrot from inside the cage, they were advised never to allow a Parrot to be able to perch above their eye level or to train the Parrot to step up onto a hand or perch on cue.
This narrow view of Parrot behaviour has become ingrained in Parrot culture, and I often wonder if this has influenced cage manufacturers to make the cages that they do --many of which I consider to be too short and not fit for their actual purpose.
Labelling behaviours is never helpful, as it often prevents us from understanding why the behaviour has occurred; furthermore, a label may be misinterpreted and not fully understood. Likewise, training is an action -- in this case, “stepping up” to prevent a behaviour, aggression might actually intensify the behaviour because the reasons for the behaviour occurring in the first place have not been identified or addressed.
Reasons why a Parrot might display aggressive behaviour: Aggression towards caregivers who approach their cage, or who enter their cage by putting their hands inside.
Territory: In the wild, competition over scarce nesting sites as well as competition over access to other limited resources is fierce. Their captive-living cousins are also hardwired for these behavioural traits, as living in captivity does not remove instinct. These are the
Parrots who may “fluff up” when you approach to clean their cages, to place or remove an object or food, and may defend their cage from perceived intruders. Often, these Parrots have learned that humans are not to be fully trusted around their cages.
Safe space: Every species of animal requires “chill time” – time to relax, nap, or simply switch off from the world. For many Parrots their cages are their space to relax. Then, while they are relaxing, we come along and disturb them as we want them to come out and entertain us or we want to give them a new toy or clean their cages.
In doing so, we have violated the safety that the Parrots feel in their cages. Sadly, we also teach them that we are not to be trusted.
Fear and apprehension: The majority of Parrots that display caregiver directed aggression in or around their cages are either fearful or apprehensive of humans approaching them. This might be because they have not been socialized properly with humans, have endured trauma when approached by humans, or they have not yet built up trust with a particular human.
The majority of caregivers who approach me for advice on how to tackle cage-related aggression issues have Parrots whose underlying emotion for the behaviour is fear. A Parrot will normally accept the approach of a feared human up to a certain point.
In Parrots, the aggression is normally exaggerated when the Parrot is confined and knows that s/he cannot fly away to safety. So, although fear is motivating the behaviour, the Parrot might use confrontation as a strategy to put distance between itself and the caregiver, i.e., the Parrot bites and the caregiver retreats.
The more the behaviour is used and is successful, the more it is repeated; thus, the behaviour becomes established as the “go-to” behaviour for the Parrot to create the feeling of safety it requires. The use of training to address the behaviour will not decrease the motivation for the behaviour. Therefore, teaching a Parrot to step up or to target will not solve this issue.
How do we treat cage-related aggression initiated by fear?
In the first instance, we must take a robust case history to include the following information:
Veterinary medical issues: If the behaviour has suddenly occurred, then a veterinary check-up is essential to rule out underlying medical issues.
Where is the cage positioned: Parrots feel safer with their cages in a corner and away from the bustle of the household to limit the number of directions from which people can approach.
What is the cage height: Parrots feel safer when they have a height advantage? Absence of this may cause them to be apprehensive.
How the Caregivers approach the cage: Parrots feel safer when caregivers approach their cages slowly, with head down and not staring at them.
Weaning and socialisation history: Parrots who have been raised by their parents with appropriate and positive exposure to humans are less likely to be fearful of them.
Whether or not wing clipping has occurred: Birds fly as a form of defence to escape predation. Parrots who have had this done to them are more likely to use aggression as a defence mechanism.
Details of negative experiences with humans around the cage: Parrots are very intelligent and will remember previous negative experiences and, from a desire not to have those repeated, might become defensive.
Simple strategies to reduce cage- related aggression.
Change the environment: This might be changing where the cage is located, raising the cage, and introducing new perches. Position one perch at the back of the cage and as high as is possible in the corner so that the Parrot can see his or her surroundings, but still feel safe. If possible, raise the cage so that the Parrot on his highest perch is higher than your eye level.
Change how we approach the cage: By approaching slowly, head lowered and moving hands slowly.
Give the Parrot choices: A Parrot needs to be able to choose whether or not s/he feels comfortable and safe enough to come out of its cage. In the case of my Roy, who came from an abusive environment, it took him 6 months to venture out of his cage, even though we had removed the cage door.
Use classical conditioning, desensitisation and counter conditioning: Fear is a physiological response over which the Parrot has no control. The only approach that may be utilized is to couple the presence of the scary stimuli (the person or a hand) with something positive.
For this to work, no demands are made -- either by bribe or coercion – to either approach the caregiver or to go to a certain perch to perform any behaviour. During each stage of behavioural modification work, it is important that the Parrot is calm and not fearful.
A Clinical Animal Behaviourist may assist you with the nuances of this special behavioural modification technique.
Read more about Elaine here
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