Into my third decade of Parrot husbandry, I ‘d like to share some of the techniques and methods that I’ve learned from teachers, breeders, friends, books and Internet searches and even more importantly what my Parrots have taught me about themselves and how it’s changed my thinking.
I hope that I’ve taught them some things they wouldn’t know, had they been living in their native forests.
Learning to live with a Parrot
“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I was fortunate - my first Parrot came to me already weaned, used to people, other Parrots and household noises and she’d been used to wearing a harness. So - the first piece of advice I’d give to someone before acquiring a Parrot is – search and find a breeder who cares for the physical and mental health of his birds.
Artha came from Barrett Watson in Suffolk and like the birds he raises to be pets, she hadn’t developed any behavioural problems that an inexperienced new carer like myself, wouldn’t know how to deal with.
And Barrett Watson, like other caring breeders I’ve met subsequently, patiently answered my frequent queries about every aspect of Artha’s development. She was a joy from day one and twenty years later is on my shoulder while I write this blog. I regret that she and Casper (bought from Barrett 18 months later as her possible mate) have never formed a pair bond and provided me with the pleasure (for my kids had left home at this point) of hearing the patter of tiny claws.
However, they became good friends and have remained so. When I take them in their harness on excursions to various places, they’ll sit still on my shoulder and if anyone asks, “Are they real?” I reply, “No, they’re electric.”
I’ve had the joy of looking after babies from different species most of my adult life, puppies, kittens, humans, foals, rabbits and chicks. But I’ve had to learn that birds are NOT mammals. Twenty years ago, our knowledge of bird intelligence hadn’t been researched in great depth. When Greys spoke English or any other human language it was considered ‘Parroting’ and having ‘a bird brain’ meant you were scatty.
This has all changed and as I’ve found out more about birds’ cleverness, I have seen signs of it in my own birds. What first convinced me of Parrot intelligence was learning about Alex, the African Grey.
Alex and his successors
Dr Irene Pepperberg bought Alex in 1977 and decided to study his cognitive and communicative abilities. How well could he understand human language and concepts? What she discovered over 30 years working with Alex was astounding. Alex knew the meaning of 100 words. He’d express his wants in English.
There have been criticisms that he was responding to operant conditioning; pet Parrot owners disagree. Everyone I know who keeps a Parrot has examples of their understanding of human speech and their empathy towards human emotions.
Alex died in 2007 at 31. His last words to Irene Pepperberg as she bade him goodnight in the laboratory. “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.”
Pepperberg has continued working with Greys and again achieved astonishing results. In a recent research paper from Harvard university, Griffin, another African Grey was tested. He had to choose which cup to turn over to get his reward. Griffin managed this test with 2, 3 and four cups.
Dr Pepperberg said, “Birds are separated from us by 300 million years of evolution, and their brains are organized differently than ours,” and she continued, “that’s why this was so exciting — because we were able to show that Griffin was working at the level of a 5-year-old, on a task at which even apes would not likely succeed.”
It was believed formerly, that birds had little cognitive ability because their brains have evolved differently to mammalian brains. They have no neo-cortex, a part of the brain that helps us (and our close cousins the chimpanzees, elephants as well as cetaceans like whales and dolphins) develop language and tool making. In the case of homo sapiens we were considered as being at the top of the evolutionary tree. That’s now been modified.
Although humans have developed language, writing and tool making to a far greater extent than any other creature, we appear to be the only species who are in danger of ruining our planet for ourselves and everyone else.
Convergent evolution has enabled birds to develop skills using different parts of their brains. What scientists discovered was that birds use another part of the brain, the medio-rostral, as the seat of their intelligence. Harvey J. Karten, a neuroscientist from the University of California, discovered, while studying bird physiology that the lower part of the avian brain is functionally similar to that in humans.
Not only have Parrots demonstrated intelligence through scientific testing of their language-using ability, but species of Parrot such like Keas and Cockatoos are also highly skilled at using tools and solving puzzles.
In training my own birds, I’ve found that the more I’ve learned about birds’ capabilities, both in the wild and in captivity has been an enormous benefit in teaching them how to adapt to a captive environment.
A method of training that fits in with what we know of bird’s capabilities helps the student (the bird) and teacher (the human) to develop a relationship based on mutual trust and I believe affection also. But that’s hard to prove scientifically.
The method is using positive reinforcement and the minimum of negative reinforcement to teach the Parrot what you want her to do.
Chris Shank is a Cockatoo expert in USA. Here’s how she describes positive reinforcement
Chris writes that positive reinforcement is the key to creating a positive relationship with your Parrot. Positive reinforcement training works with the understanding that we all (Parrots included!) respond better to praise than punishment.
Positive reinforcement means giving your Parrot something pleasant or rewarding immediately after she does a behaviour you want her to do. That reward makes her more likely to repeat the behaviour in the future. Positive reinforcement training is a very powerful tool for changing your Parrot's actions.
And the other term in behaviour training is negative reinforcement
Negative reinforcement (NR) is the removal of a stimulus following a behaviour that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of that behaviour. The student only works as hard as is necessary to avoid the stimulus, which is something unpleasant for the bird.
Parrots can learn behaviours this way, but no modern trainers recommend it. An example of NR: waving your arms to coerce a Parrot into their cage; squirting water to stop a Parrot chewing furniture; dropping the Parrot onto the floor.
As soon as the Parrot enters the cage or stops chewing your unpleasant behaviour ceases. So, some birds will comply to avoid the unpleasant stimulus. So why not use NR? The main reason is because rough, unpleasant, threatening actions cause the Parrot to distrust you.
I learned the hard way in my aviary of how NR affects a relationship. Perdy a year-old Cockatoo wouldn’t step up for the visiting photographer and flew away down the aviary. I was embarrassed - he’d come a long way, so I chased Perdy up and down the aviary many times. Eventually, I caught her because she was too tired to escape. And the result.
She would not come near me again. It took me 5 months of daily work with her before she trusted me again That was 17 years ago, and I learned my lesson.
Rebecca O’Connor in her excellent book remarks, Aggression, escape behaviours, a lack of engagement, and fear behaviours can be created with the use of negative reinforcement.
The real drawback of NR is that you’re teaching a bird what NOT to do instead of what to do. Rebecca O’Connor again: in comparison, if you train with positive reinforcement instead, the bird will go into the crate just because he has a history of being rewarded for doing so.
If there is no treat, he may be puzzled but then might offer another behaviour, perhaps walking farther into the cage or coming back out and going back in again in an effort to elicit the treat. The potential for a reward creates enthusiasm and encourages creativity.
Punishment is the presentation of an aversive stimulus or removal of a positive reinforcer that serves to reduce the frequency of a behaviour.
Punishing a bird is counter-productive. Actions like shouting, flicking the beak, dropping onto the floor, poking with a stick or blowing into his face can stop unwanted behaviour. “YOU see it worked. Show who’s boss.”
I’ve heard and read similar remarks. But in my experience, it doesn’t last, and punishing may, and often does, produce unwelcome results. I’ve met birds who have been punished and they can become depressed, apathetic or bite.
Punishment may prevent unwanted behaviours, but you run the risk of destroying mutual trust. A sad result of punishing may be ‘learned helplessness.’ An animal gives up and becomes listless and apathetic.
With my Macaws I dare not use any sort of NR or punishment because out of doors they are free flighted. When I call them down, they must want to come to me and expect nothing but something pleasant.
As the Macaws came here as from young chicks hand reared, they transferred the trust they had in their principal carer as I finished weaning them. This wasn’t the case with Mirt, a wild caught rescue Timneh who’d been kept in a cardboard box for 8 months.
I put the traumatised bird in the aviary. She was untouchable. I went at her pace. And my goodness, it took a long time. Two years after she arrived here, she’d step up and fly to me. I cannot claim gaining trust has always worked with every bird.
With a rehomed Cockatoo who’d been left alone in a rat-infested shed and now would bite anyone who approached, I never managed to assuage his fear and gain his trust.
When it is time to put my four pet birds back into their cages at night, they comply willingly because they expect a walnut for the Macaws or an almond or a peanut for the Greys will be given - once they step onto their cage perch.
Another lesson the birds have taught me is to acknowledge that they, like me have off days. They may not want to be touched and will show that by stepping away or flying off. I won’t go after them but wait a while and request again.
Whereas dogs’ cats and babies can understand NO - Parrots don’t seem to have the word in their vocabularies.
It’s far more rewarding to ask a Parrot to DO something rather than tell him NOT to do something.
Carers who shout at their birds and generally bully them, don’t achieve the results they wished for. They blame the ‘bad bird’ instead of examining their own behaviour.
Birds show empathy for one another and for us too - if we allow them to. One of the cruellest methods of trapping wild birds is tethering a bird on the ground and when its anguished cries bring its flock members down to the ground, a net can be thrown to trap them.
Some responses my birds have taught me
I try understanding their behaviour in relation to how wild Parrots would behave. Wild Parrots are curious and clever. They develop internal maps in their heads so they can find ripe fruit or seeds in their forests.
Many species mate for life and will always remain close to their partner. In clips of wild birds, you see that unless mated, they keep a distance between themselves. You can get bitten if you invade a Parrot’s personal space. I never confront a Parrot - either one of mine or a new one - face to face.
How Mitch gained Casper’s trust
Since my husband Wal’s passing last year, I’ve let off half our large bungalow to two young men - animal lovers but with little experience of birds.
Mitch was over-confident. He went up to Casper. ‘Step up,’ he said, firmly. Casper, who needs time to acclimatise to strangers, promptly bit him. Not hard - just a warning “keep off and keep away.” (Mitch and I do not agree how hard Casper bit.) Mitch said, “Casper doesn’t like me.” I disagreed. “Let him get to know you.”
To cut a long story short, Mitch followed my instructions and simply stayed in the same room with Casper. Now some weeks later, after daily interactions, Casper happily stays on his arm and lets himself be transported to the boys’ sitting room to spend a couple of hours being admired and played with. Of course, the reward of a pistachio nut helps.
However, much I learn and observe, I recall the words of Dr Susan Friedman, one of US’s foremost exponents of behaviour science. She says, “Each bird is the study of one.”
Websites and research articles on the Internet
Alex showing his observation of objects https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yGOgs_UlEc
Susan Freidman’s website will engross any Parrot lover for hours -
Steve Martin, world famous trainer’s website is full of instructive helpful articles Naturalencounters,com/
Barbara Heidenreich’s website is www.goodbirdinc/com
Barbara also organizes webinars on various aspects of behaviour and these are invaluable for novice trainers
Stephanie Edlund – a young Swedish trainer provides many useful insights
Parrots in the Wild – a natural history - Toft and Wright
A Parrot for Life - Rebecca K. O’Connor
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Dr Nathan Emery. Ivy Press 2016
The Alex Studies - Dr Irene Pepperberg 1999