Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Dominance in Parrots: Fact of Fallacy?

Dominance is hotly debated topic in the animal training world, and it’s one that I encounter daily in my consulting practices with both dog owners and parrot owners alike. But does it hold any merit? Behavior science says no.

A common misconception regarding companion parrots is that parrots possess an innate desire or personality trait that drives them to try to dominate their owners, and that their owners must establish and strongly enforce a higher rank over their parrots to maintain control. This idea seems to have a life of it’s own, despite not having any basis or backing in behavioral science.

Religion, education, the military, and corporate organizations all have one thing in common: they instill a sense of linear social hierarchies in us. From them, we learn to give commands to those “below” us, take orders from those “above” us, and constantly vie for a higher position. This life experience makes us prone to something known as “observer expectancy bias”, which means that we see (or think we see) in other species that which we expect, and this accounts for relentless idea that dominance is what causes a parrot to refuse to step up off of it’s cage.

The concept has been applied to any and every scenario in which a parrot might not do as asked, and that is especially true if the parrot displays any sort of aggression or fear response. “Height dominance”, “floor dominance”, “cage dominance”, “shoulder dominance”, and other concepts all revolve around the idea that it is an inherent trait in all parrots that causes them to have behavior problems like these ones.

What does science say?

Even scientists can’t decide on one definition of the word “dominance.” Though the technical definition usually involves any given animal’s access to valued resources like food, shelter, and mating rights, science does agree that there is no real way to measure, quantify, or define social dominance. Barnett (1981) states the following in Modern Etology:

“Dominance should be distinguished from an animal’s superiority resulting from its being in its ow territory. Dominance should also be distinguished from being a leader.” (p. 633).

Another aspect not typically considered is that several other factors – including prior learning experiences, motivation, and contexts – and these are the main basis for all behavior.

There is no evidence that suggests that wild flocks of parrots of any species have any social hierarchies, and if any evidence does appear, there is no reason to believe that the same concepts concerning wild parrots would have any impact on the parrot-human relationship.

A self-fulfilling prophecy.

When people have certain expectations for behavior, they act differently and tend to get exactly what they expect, and since “dominance” is generally considered to be a character or personality trait – something inherently present in the bird – the concept is shifted into something much more ominous: the bird is labeled as a “bad bird”, and since dominance is inherently present, the bird is inherently bad. This results in a very convenient excuse for getting rid of the bird instead of taking responsibility for our part in the bird’s behavior (we do, after all, control every aspect of a bird’s life by definition.)

The concept of dominance also gives owners an excuse (and in some cases, a reason) to use forceful techniques to “counter dominate” their bird, and absolves owners from searching for causes for and solutions to behavior problems since the act of labeling any given problem gives us a false sense of closure by giving the problem a name.

In short, there is no place for dominance in animal training. The concept is at best a flawed one since we are not parrots and parrots are not humans. If any such social hierarchies exist in wild parrots, they surely would not apply to companion parrots who live a very different life from their wild counterparts. Parrots do  not have hands or fingers, and don’t use towels, cage covers, “vet grabs”, or hitting to punish one another. Wild parrots can fly away from a conflict, whereas captive parrots usually cannot, and so learn to use their beak to gain a little control over their situation.

So if it’s not dominance, what is it?

In the next post, we’ll discuss the “ABCs” of behavior, and what’s really going on when your bird won’t step up off the top of her cage. Stay tuned!

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Choosing a Suitable Cage: Part 2

Yesterday, I touched on the importance of choosing an appropriately sized cage for your parrot. Today, I’d like to discuss some other important factors that should come into play when choosing a cage.

Of course, the most important factor in choosing a cage for your parrot should be size – preferably as large as is feasible for your living arrangement. Another important factor is cage shape. Round (or hexagonal) cages aren’t suitable for parrots because they don’t provide the security of a solid wall to hide against when enxious, and it is extremely difficult to properly place perches, toys, and dishes in them. Parrots in round cages don’t have any point of reference for location and territories, which is essential for them to feel confident, secure, and safe in their own home.

Round or hexagonal cages also tend to be tall and narrow, which – as we discussed yesterday – isn’t appropriate for parrots. Square or rectangular cages provide a maximum amount of space, but there are several decent corner cages on the market that are suitable for birds ranging from cockatiels to cockatoos as well.

What other factors should you consider when choosing a cage? There are several!

  • Material – powder coated cages work well for most birds, but won’t necessarily last for your bird’s lifetime. Most will inevitably chip and rust, and eventually need to be replaced. For birds who chew their cage’s bars, stainless steel is the only way to go. Though the initial investment is pricy, a stainless steel cage will last a lifetime and then some!
  • Bar spacing – must be small enough that your bird cannot get his head through the bars. Bar spacing should be no larger than the space between your parrot’s eyes.
  • Bar thickness – be sure that the cage you’ve chosen has bars that are thick enough that they cannot easily be broken by your parrot. Use common sense here, and never underestimate the power of your bird’s beak. Larger birds (and birds with very large beaks, like Poicephalus) have very strong beaks capable of breaking bar welds or even actual bars. Know your bird, know your cage, and choose accordingly.
  • Ease of cleaning – the easier a cage is to clean, the cleaner it will be. Birds need a very clean living environment to stay healthy, and it’s important that you be able to clean both soiled papers and a soiled grate without ever opening the cage. This is especially important if you ever need to have someone else clean the cage for you.
  • Outside dish access – nearly all cages come with outside access doors for food and water dishes, and although I do not use the dishes that come with my birds’ cages, I know that should I ever need to have someone else care for my birds that both caretaker and parrots will be safer if dishes can be accessed without the main door ever being opened.
  • Make it escape-proof – parrots are intelligent, and a determined one can figure out how to open door latches just by watching you do it. Cockatoos and macaws seem to make up the majority of escapees, but my UnCape, Jardine’s, and Timneh all require cages with “bird proof” locks!
  • Dometop or playtop? – Playtop cages are great for folks with limited space who want to provide their birds with another place to hangout. I prefer dometop cages (or, more specifically “fan top” or “victorian top” cages) so that my birds get more natural light (and so that their artificial lighting is placed appropriately.) I just attach rope perches,  java perches, and grapevine “cage playtops” to the tops and sides of their cages, hang toys, and voila – instant play top cage! And I can change it around and mix it up as often as I like. With flighted birds, I especially find that the fold-down door on the fan top cages is essential during training, and being able to attach branches and toys to the top of the cage in any manner that I choose means that I can provide landing spots for the birds.

Once you’ve figured out what will best suit your bird and your lifestyle, shop around. Prices for various cages vary greatly depending on the seller, but expect to pay about $200.00 for a quality powder coated cage for a conure-sized bird, and several hundred for medium-sized birds. Stainless steel cages often range in the thousands, but are well worth the cost.

Choosing a Suitable Cage: Part 1

I’ve seen a recent trend towards so-called “space saver” cages; cages designed to be very tall, but very narrow. I’ve yet to see any of these cages that are appropriate for any bird, let alone the birds that they are marketed towards. Since parrots are, by nature, active, intelligent, and inquisitive creatures, housing them in such a small space is inappropriate and saddening.

This cage, for example. Dimensions are 27″ wide by 24″ deep. This is a decent cage size for a very small parrot – such as a lovebird – or for less active species, like cockatiels, but it isn’t roomy enough for any species larger, and certainly not large enough for a grey or Amazon. Although the cage goes nearly to the floor, at least the lower third of that cage is wasted since most birds will never venture down there, and anything placed in the lower 2/3rds of a cage designed like this will get covered in poop quickly.

Pyrrhura conures like Green Cheeks, though about the size of a cockatiel, need significantly larger cages due to their activity level. Phoenix Landing, a well known and respected avian rescue resource, recommends a minimum cage size of 32″x23″ for them – and other conures, Lories, and small Poicephalus – and I tend to agree. Unfortunately, most larger birds – like greys and Eclectus – rarely even get to live in a cage this large.

A main concern for caregivers is whether or not any given cage suits our home’s style, but there’s more to choosing a cage than just our personal taste in decor. Sure, we’d like for our birds’ cages to fit in with the rest of our furniture, but in order to choose a cage that will suit our birds, we need to see things from a very different perspective.

The cage we choose is more than just something that prevents our parrots from destroying the house. Their cage is their house, and just as much as we wouldn’t choose to live in small, cramped quarters if we had a better option, we should not force our birds into small spaces just for our convenience.

Companion parrots usually have the ability to fly removed via wing feather clipping, and unless an aviary is provided, even unclipped parrots in a large cage will not fly. Instead, they climb along perches, toys, and cage bars using their feet and beak. They move laterally – from one side to another – and being prey animals who have evolved to equate height with safety, they’ll spend the vast majority of their time in the “canopy” of their cage: the very top. For a grey in the 27″x24″ cage above, their home is going to consist of little more than a two foot cube, and considering that the average adult Congo grey has a wingspan of about 20″, this doesn’t leave much room for toys or wing flapping inside.

Some ground foraging species – like ‘tiels and greys – may venture down to the grate to explore, but are much less likely to do so if the grate is inches from the floor, or if the grate is level with the head of a predatory canine.

We already know that parrots aren’t like cats or dogs, but keeping a parrot as a pet also requires a lot more real estate within our homes than do cats or dogs who generally are happy with a sleeping area and a box of toys, and perhaps a crate or room for confinement during training. Parrots, on the other hand, require large, spacious cages, several play areas outside of and away from their main cage, and possibly a night/travel cage for sleeping in. For most people, providing appropriate cages and play areas is something they only think about (or are made aware of) after they’ve already bought a too-small cage from a untrained sales associate at a local pet store. Sometimes, it’s a matter of how much space they have available for a cage and play area. Sometimes, it’s the result of the bad (and incorrect) advice that a bird in a small cage will be more eager to get out of it when asked to step up.

Regardless of the reason, I’d love to see the trend swing towards providing roomy, fun-filled cage environments that are significantly longer than they are tall, and at least half as deep as they are wide. It’s important to remember that these are creatures born to inherit the vast expanses of the skies and the trees, and they deserve the best – and the biggest – that we can afford.

Our Thanksgiving Parrot Menu

Thanksgiving isn’t just for humans anymore. I’ve long been preparing meals for my four dogs, and I can’t remember a time in my life where the pets in my house didn’t get something “special” on Thanksgiving. So, when I got parrots, it was only logical that I share with them, as well. Obviously, parrots cannot eat everything we eat, and certainly not after we’ve added all the sugar, salt, butter, and other things that make it all so unhealthy but delicious, so we’ve come up with a few healthy treats you can use to spoil your parrots without compromising their health today!

Pumpkin Muesli

  • 1/4 Cup Bob’s Red Mill Old Country Style Muesli
  • 2 Tbsp. canned pumpkin
  • 1 Tbsp. Unsweetened almond milk
  • Dash of powdered cinnamon or a pinch of chipped whole cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a microwave safe bowl and heat until the grains are tender and let cool. Add pumpkin and/or almond milk to desired consistency – my birds like it thick and sticky, but yours may prefer it thinner. Provides essential vitamin A, calcium, and B-vitamins. For added nutrition, mix in fresh chopped greens. This will feed approximately four medium parrots.

Apple Delight

  • Four small apples
  • 2 tbsp. wheat germ
  • 2 tbsp. chopped raisins, dates, or figs
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts
  • Dash of cinnamon
  • Optional – Coconut oil and/or Palm oil

Core apples and place in a glass dish. Combine wheat germ, chopped fruit, chopped nuts, and cinnamon and fill cored apples. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes, or until desired tenderness. Provides several vitamins, including B vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. To increase vitamin A content, drizzle with Palm oil. Coconut oil is a fantastic skin and feather conditioner!

Sweet Potato Chips

  • One (or more) large sweet potato
  • Cornmeal or flour of your choice (my birds prefer millet or garbanzo bean flour)
  • Crushed red pepper or ground cayenne

Peel one large sweet potato and cut into 1/4 inch slices (or strips, if you’d like “fries”). Rinse under cold water, and coat chips or fried in mixture of cornmeal/flour and pepper. Spread over a foil-lined cookie sheet in a single layer, and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Provides essential vitamin A, protein, and various other nutrients depending on your coating choices.

Whole Grain Birdie Stuffing

  • 1 Cup Cubed 12 grain bread
  • 2 tbsp Fresh or sulfur-free dried cranberries
  • 1/4 Cup Grated carrots
  • 1/8 Cup Grated apples
  • Cooked or sprouted chick peas
  • 1/2 Cup boiling water

Mix cubed bread, cranberries, carrots, apples, and chickpeas (if cooked) together well. Add boiling water and let the mixture sit until all or most of the water is absorbed. If using sprouted chick peas, add them when the mixture has cooled to preserve their raw sprouted state. Provides vitamin A, B vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and protein.

These are just a few of the treats that my birds will be receiving today, along with millet flour muffins with lentils and greens, and their usual offerings which consist mostly of chopped greens and veggies.

We hope your birds enjoy them as much as ours do! Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Safety!

Though this time of year is fun for Americans, who get to visit with friends and family, and eat fabulous foods, it isn’t without serious risks to our feathered companions. Even though it may not be apparent, Thanksgiving presents several health and safety risks to parrots whose owners aren’t prepared. To be sure that the festivities are fun for people and parrots alike, keep the following things in mind.

Avoid sharing holiday foods with your birds.

Many of the foods that we prepare for Thanksgiving are actually very nutritious, however, it’s how we tend to prepare them that makes so many of our holiday dishes inappropriate for sharing with our companion parrots. Sweet potato, squash, and yams are all high in vitamin A – an essential nutrient for our parrots – and can be shared, but be sure to set some aside before you add butter, salt, and other flavorings, and make sure that your guests are aware that sharing with your birds is a no-no.

Keep decorations at a safe distance.

Birds are inquisitive, and many of our decorations are simply too tempting to our feathered companions. Popular Thanksgiving decorations often include candles, flower bouquets, and cornucopias full of (real or synthetic) fruits and veggies, many of which contain shiny, birghtly colored components, and all of which pose serious safety hazards to curious beaks. To lessen temptation, move your bird’s cage (and play areas) away from areas you’ve decorated, or decorate only areas away from your bird’s cage and play stands.

Take a moment to speak with your guests.

Though many people have a strong interest in parrots, few know much about keeping them as pets. Take a moment to remind your guests that parrots do not behave like dogs or cats, and that interacting with the bird (if you allow it) may result in being bitten, scratched, or pooped on.

Keep your bird out of the kitchen.

The average kitchen poses a serious risk to parrots on any given day, but especially so on holidays. Thanksgiving is a holiday that revolves around food, and that means mixing, chopping, dicing, shredding, mashing, boiling, broiling, and baking, and all of the utensils that go along with those actions. Silverware, particularly knives and forks, have sharp points and edges; food processors and blenders have the allure of a tasty meal coupled with the danger of falling in and coming into contact with those sharp blades. Hot ovens and stovetops pose burn risks, and unattended parrots might find themselves in a too-hot dish of freshly cooked food. (I also hear that not every human is okay with pre-beaked bread or parrot tracks on their pie!)

Keep other pets safe, too.

If you have other pets, or if your guests bring along theirs, keep them – and your birds – safe by preventing contact with your parrot. Things may happen quickly, and this is doubly true when animals are in stressful situations!

Listen to what your bird tells you.

The holidays are stressful for everyone, and that includes our birds. Even well socialized birds may get stressed from the noise and activity that comes with having several guests in their home, so keep a close eye on your parrot and listen to what his body language and behavior are telling you. Look for cues that he may be feeling overwhelmed by the festivities, and do your best to place him (along with the familiarity of his cage and toys) in a calm, quiet room.

A special note for flighted parrots:

To avoid heartbreak, flighted parrots should be housed in a secure cage for the day, and this is especially true if your parrot is not yet reliably trained to come to you when called. Flighted parrots should always be securely caged when the oven or stovetop are in use, and when there are sharp or otherwise dangerous items available that your parrot may come into contact with.

If you feel your parrot must come out at some time during the day, be sure it is after all cooking and baking is done, and knives and other utensils are away. Be sure to securely lock and door that leads outside using more than one lock (for example, use both the lock on your door knob as well as a chain lock) and post signs around all entryways stating that your bird is out. Please, for the safety of your bird, do not leave a flighted parrot unattended during the hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving!

Enjoy your holiday, and stay safe!

Keeping Your Birds Warm This Winter

Even though we’ve been having some unusually warm November weather here in New England, we’re well aware that one of our harsh winters is fast approaching, and now that we have both a “baby” (our seven month old Timneh) and an “older” bird with health issues (our ten year old “UnCape” parrot) living in our drafty house, I’m more aware of things like ambient room temperature and providing warmth for their special needs.

Grey Headed (or "UnCape") Parrot

Grey Headed (or "UnCape") Parrot

All my birds sleep in designated “sleep cages” – travel cages or small dog crates – in our bedroom. Not only does this help with cage territoriality (and it makes cleaning in the morning easier since they’re not there to “help” yet!), but it also ensures that they get to spend their nights in the warmest room in the house. These small cages are equipped with each bird’s favorite type of perch and either a tent or something to snuggle to up, depending on each bird’s preferences. (Having the tents only available at night in the sleep cages gives them a safe place to sleep without encouraging nesting behaviors.)

But with winter approaching, and the potential that Miss Dolly the “UnCape” may be arthritic – along with her healing bumblefoot and weak foot & leg muscles – because she lived for ten years on macaw-sized concrete and dowel perches, I’m considering other options. She spends her days (and nights) on rope perches, preferring them to the various wooden ones, and it’s my understanding that the ropes are easier on a bird’s feet than other types of perches. I’ve been thinking about getting her a heated perch for her daytime cage, but she takes anything attached to the outside of the cage that she can (maybe) reach as a personal challenge, and I’m concerned that she will somehow get to the cord and/or break the mounting hardware or the perch itself.

So I’m exploring other options that don’t involve moving day cages into my already packed little bedroom. I’m certainly open to creative suggestions!

The Cost of a Parrot’s Companionship

Contrary to the idea that pet store employees would like you to believe, parrots are not cheap or easy pets. They are noisy, messy, demanding, and expensive well beyond the initial cost.

The ASPCA says that, for a small bird (like a budgie or cockatiel), a cage will run about $75, and the annual cost of food and toys will amount to about $105 for food, toys, and treats. According to them, they “toys and treats” portion of that equasion is only about $30. I’m not sure what planet they’re getting these cost estimates from, but it is certainly not the same planet I live on. It’s true that the initial cost of acquiring a parrot is the most you’ll likely spend at once on your birdy buddy, but the reality is that parrots – even very small ones – are very expensive pets.

When I bought my first parrot, a lesser Jardine’s, from an exotic bird specialty store, my initial cost was close to $2,000. The breakdown for that price looks something like this:

  • Parrot: $1,200.00
  • 22″x17″ cage: $275.00
  • Several pounds of food, treats, & supplements: $100.00
  • Toys, perches, and other cage accessories: $200.00
  • Playstand: $200.00
  • Wing & nail membership: $25.00

And that was just the initial cost. The playstand was made of pine, and she reduced it to toothpicks in about three weeks. We only utilized our wing & nail membership once, and only to have her nails trimmed, but I didn’t like the way she was handled and I didn’t like that I was harassed for letting her flight feathers grow in, so I never brought her back. The toys were demolished in a month and had to be replaced, and three months after buying that $300 cage, I decided that it was just too small for her. I felt guilty that she could barely spread her wings, and that the cage didn’t really provide me with enough room to give her enough toys to occupy her throughout the day while we were away. So I spent another $450.00 on a much larger cage. I also got her full spectrum and UV lighting, which came to about $100.00; the bulbs are about $30.00 and need to be replaced every six months or so.

Once I got her switched to a healthier diet that included organic pellets, organic sprouts, whole grains, and lots of fresh fruits and veggies, I was able to get a real figure for what it would cost to feed her every month. That breakdown looks like this:

  • Organic pellets (4lbs): $25.00
  • Organic sprouts: about $10.00, give or take (I buy them in bulk at the rate of $140.00 for 20 pounds including shipping.)
  • Whole grains: about $15.00 (various types bought in bulk at the health food store.)
  • Various fruits & veggies: about $50.00 (organic when possible)

Please don’t feed your parrot a seed-based diet. For the vast majority of parrot species, a diet based on seed is seriously detrimental to their health and results in nutritional deficiencies very quickly. Dry seeds should not be more than 10% of most parrot’s diets.

That’s a total of about $100.00 just for food every month, and that doesn’t include treats like Harrison’s Power Treats, which go for about $10.00 a bag retail, or training rewards.

When it comes to toys, she is my One Bird Wrecking Crew. She enjoys toys both large and small; she buzzes through wooden toys, shreds paper and palm based toys, and breaks plastic toys. Not even toys much larger than her last very long. Unless, for some reason, a toy doesn’t hold her interest, it rarely lasts more than a week. I’ve learned to get crafty and fashion new toys out of remnants of store bought ones (or out of household items), but that has only cut my store-bought-toy-budget by about 30%. I still spend about $50 a month on new toys for her, and at least an hour each week putting together new toys. And this is just for one big-beaked little bird.

Some of the cost from her diet and toys are absorbed by the other birds. For example, I waste less fresh produce because I’m splitting it between four birds, and some toys that one bird isn’t interested in can be given to one of the other birds if safe and appropriate. All the birds can use the same play stands and shower perches, so I didn’t have to buy multiples of those. However, I spend more on pellets and sprouts – about double what I spent on just one bird. So now we’re at $150.00-$200.00 each month just to feed four small/medium parrots, depending on the produce I get. Since they all spend a good deal of their day foraging and I’ve invested a lot in re-usable and “indestructable” foraging toys, I spend less overall on toys for everyone. I also spend about four hours each week making foraging toys and non-foraging toys alike. My toy cost still comes to about $100.00 for all of them for the month.

For these four, I spend about $250.00 each month, and that’s the low end of the estimate. This number also doesn’t include annual vet costs, which amount to about $200.00 per bird for a simple exam and bloodwork. When my Timneh developed a yeast infection recently, it cost about $300.00 total for the exam, testing, and medication. When I first adopted my “UnCape” parrot, who is about ten years old, the initial vet visit cost me over $500.00. When I adopted my six year old Senegal, his first vet visit cost me about $400.00 to do blood testing and rule out any medical problems for his feather destructive behavior. My healthy little Jardine’s vet visit this year still cost me about $170.00. And most vets won’t give you a “bulk discount” if you own multiple parrots, either.

Then there are all of the things that people – especially people who don’t already have any pets – won’t think of until after their new parrot is home. Things like air purifiers (essential for anyone with a “dust” bird like a Grey, Cockatoo, or Amazon), a high quality floor vacuum, a good hand vacuum, timers for any full spectrum lighting, a gram scale, bird-safe (and bird-specific) cleaning supplies, bathing supplies, a cage cover, and storage for all of the supplies you’ve just bought.

In general, you can expect to spend at least the same amount that you spent on your bird each year for supplies. So if you paid $1,000.00 for your parrot, then you can expect to spend at least $1,000.00 each year on food and toys, and this is likely for bare-bones necessities, not spoiling.

Now, I have no doubt that costs are much lower for much smaller birds,  but my parrots are considered “small” by most parrot people’s standards. For macaws, the estimates range from $100.00 to $1,000.00 each month for general upkeep, depending on size and dietary requirements. Large macaws, especially Greenwinged and Hyacinth macaws, require a lot of in-shell nuts in their diet, and consume (and waste) a lot of produce.

Are you prepared to spend this much money on your parrot? Seriously consider whether or not you can put in the time, effort, and money that it takes to properly care for a parrot before you bring one home!

Raising an Independent Parrot

Parrots are, by nature, very social creatures. Being flock – and prey – animals, they are programmed to crave nearly constant social contact with their flockmates for safety, and are only rarely seen alone in the wild. But for our companions, especially those who live in single-bird households, the need for social contact can become troublesome.

Fugi, our Jardine’s parrot, was our first bird, and she fit right in from the day we brought her home. Jardine’s, along with the other Poicephalus parrot species, are generally capable of entertaining themselves while you’re busy or away, and she was no different. She didn’t seek constant visual or vocal contact with us, and was about as low-key as a six month old parrot could be. That is, until, I brought home a young Hahn’s macaw who had been neglected, tossed from home to home, and likely abused.

That tiny macaw came with all sorts of behavioral problems, including almost non-stop screaming, an intense fear of hands, blankets, towels, and anything else made of fabric, a “seed addiction”, and an inability to play or otherwise entertain himself. He was a DNA’d male, and testing showed that he had severe liver disease, which likely accounted for some of his behavior problems.

Jax was “vet grabbed” and “toweled” as punishment in the past, and while that accounted for his fear of hands, physical contact with humans, and any cloth items, it did not account for his inability to entertain himself. He had a fantastic vocabulary, and would say things like “Hey baby!” and “I love you!” to get my attention, and he was a master at making kissy noises, so I knew that he had been well loved at some point, likely as a very young parrot. That was also likely why he hadn’t learned how to play with toys, but knew that screaming and talking would get our attention in a snap.

Jax, my 2-3 year old Hahn's

When purchasing a baby parrot, you often hear one of two very different things. You’re either told to be careful not to “spoil” the bird with “too much” attention, otherwise he will come to expect all that attention all of the time; or you’re told to dote on your new baby and give him all of the attention and affection he desires. What you’re not told is that neither of these two choices are really “the right one”, and that you really have nurture your baby while teaching him to be confident and independent. (Moms out there will recognize this concept!)

Baby parrots are doted on by their parents in much the same way that baby humans are. They are fed by their parents for much longer than they are typically fed when hand raised for the pet trade, and adult parrots will continue to feed their babies, even after fledging and weaning occur, seemingly for comfort. Hand-raised babies rarely have this same opportunity, and will often beg for food or otherwise seek comfort in their human caretakers, even after they are weaned and eating enough food on their own to maintain a healthy weight. If your baby is frightened or bothered by something, by all means, make an effort to make the situation better and comfort your baby! Baby parrots deserve the same comfort and attention in captivity that they would receive in the wild, and they are programmed to need this attention for survival.

However, when a baby parrot never learns to be independent, and to occupy its time appropriately, it will develop behavior problems – like screaming for attention – in the future. As parrot owners, we have an innate desire to coddle baby parrots and keep them with us constantly, but this doesn’t serve our parrots well. There are several things that parrots in captivity need to learn that do not suit their wild nature, and those things include spending time in a cage and entertaining themselves. We can teach them how to enjoy these things by ensuring that all of their needs are met. Even if your baby is weaned and eating enough on its own to maintain weight, offer it a warm, nutritious meal either in a dish in its cage, by spoon or syringe, or by hand periodically. A youngster with a crop full of warm food is more likely to explore new foods and play with new toys than one that is hungry, just as humans who eat a nutritious meal perform better than those that are hungry.

Blue Fronted Amazons eating "mash" from a spoon.

Foraging is an important part of life for all parrots, but it is especially helpful for teaching baby parrots to be independent. By incorporating food into toys, parrots learn that playing with toys pays off. Studies have also shown that parrots presented with the opportunity to forage will choose to work for their food, even if the same food is available in a dish, so foraging provides the dual benefit of keeping your parrot busy filling his crop while he plays with toys. You may need to show your parrot that there is food in the toys, and keep things simple, at first, but as your baby grows, gains confidence, and learns to play, his toys can be made more intricate and difficult.

It took my little Hahn’s, Jax, a month to try new foods. It was almost another months before he played with a toy – a food skewer with apple slices and coffee filters filled with small amounts of seed and pellets, twisted into small “packets” – but once he got the hang of it, he was swinging around and tearing his toys apart, even if he didn’t always eat the food items he found. He had learned that toys were fun because sometimes, you got yummy food out of them, and his screaming lessened considerably as his ability to entertain himself increased.

Sadly, Jax passed away from liver disease in June of this year. Though he was only with me for four months, I have no doubt that he taught me even more than I taught him. Most importantly, I think we both learned that giving up just isn’t an option. Even a clingy, fearful parrot who screams incessantly when their favored person is away can learn to be more confident and independent!

Do you have a bar chewer?

My seven month old Timneh grey hen has a new favorite passtime: biting the bars of her cage to make a monotonous “clink” noise that entertains her for hours. Literally.

Why do birds bite or chew their cage bars?

Often, bar chewing or biting is the result of boredom. It’s a way for them to entertain themselves in an unstimulating environment, or to cope with the stresses of a too-small cage. Sometimes, birds develop neurotic behavior, and they repeat the same functionless behaviors over and over again. Sometimes it’s just to get attention, or it may be a game.

We may never be able to get inside their heads and find out the exact cause, but we can examine their environment – their cage, cage placement, and toys – and taking a look at things like nutrition, enrichment, and training to figure out what may help them stop biting those bars.

Goose: A Case Study

My Timneh Goose has only been home for a few weeks and is in quarantine, so her cage is not as large as I would like, but it is sufficient for now. It’s stocked with a variety of toys – including wood, shreddable, leather, and foraging toys – and at least one of those toys is rotated out for a new one every day. She has no problem entertaining herself.

She has hiding spots, several different perches, and opportunities to retreat from the hustle and bustle of my busy home when needed. She eats a variety of different fresh and cooked foods, organic soy-free pellets, sprouts, and nuts, and is still offered one hand-fed meal each day. She goes in the shower with me at least every other day, and gets at least two hours out of her cage. She spends out of cage time either playing independently on one of two play stands, sitting on a shower perch stuck to a window in the kitchen, actively training with me, or just hanging out while I read (or, in this case, write.) She is also flighted and fairly well trained to fly to and from play stands, her cage, and me, on cue, so she gets a decent amount of physical exercise each day as well.

She has also been to the vet and has a clean bill of health.

So why is she chewing on the bars of her cage?

Since I’ve ruled out health issues, an inability to play independently, boredom, and stress, it leaves me with one option: when she bites or chews her cage bars, she gets attention (eventually) in the form of someone asking her to stop. Someone in the house will, after several minutes of hearing the irritating “clink..clink..clink” of her biting the cage bars, say her name, make eye contact, or otherwise call something to her from another room. And guess what? Whenever that happens, she stops immediately.

For Goose, contact with anyone in the house – especially me – is extremely rewarding, and we have inadvertantly rewarded her (a lot!) for chewing on the bars of her cage, and now we have to work towards un-training that behavior. S0 now, bar chewing behavior means that any human present in the room immediately leaves her line of sight, and remains out of sight and as silent as is possible until her bar chewing stops. When she is busy chewing on her toys and entertaining herself appropriately, she may get a “good girl, Goose!”, a special food treat, or a short visit for a scritch on the head.

So to recap…

  1. She chews her cage bars to get our attention.
  2. When we hear that tell-tale “clink”, we leave the room, stay out of her line of sight, stay as silent as possible, and stay that way until the “clink” stops. On our way out, we make a point not to say anything to her, and not to make eye contact.
  3. When the “clink” is absent for at least three seconds, we return to the room.
  4. If, when we return or while we are in the room, she is entertaining herself appropriately with a toy, she gets a “good girl!”, a food treat, or a scritch.

I suspect that we will see a significant decrease in bar-chewing behavior over the coming week!

We help people help parrots.

Thanks to many advances in aviculture, keeping parrots as pets is easier than ever. There are dozens of companies that produce beautiful cages to house our parrots in, hundreds of companies offering nutritious food to keep our parrots healthy, and thousands of companies crafting wonderful toys to keep our parrots stimulated.

Unfortunately, there are also thousands of organizations operating as rescue agencies and sanctuaries for the millions of parrots that are given up due to behavior reasons, and more of these organizations are cropping up out of necessity each year. Here at First Class Feathers, our aim is to keep more parrots in their current  homes by helping owners work through common but difficult behavior problems.

Who is First Class Feathers?

My name is Ashley Porter, and I am a professional animal trainer and enrichment expert with nearly a decade of experience working with several species, including dogs, horses, cats, wolves, rats, and parrots.

I began working with animals at local shelters as a child, and began assisting with training the shelter dogs as a teenager. I persued a career in veterinary technology, earning an Associate of Science degree through Penn Foster College, however, my passion was behavior and I chose to move in a different direction.

I began training dogs professionally in the spring of 2006, assisting families in choosing a dog, preparing for the dog’s arrival, and teaching their new companion manners and appropriate behavior. In the fall of 2007, I chose to specialize in helping families who were experiencing severe behavior problems, including aggression, reactivity, and separation anxiety.

In 2007, I also developed an interest in working with parrots after meeting a client’s Moluccan cockatoo. I began taking courses on companion parrot behavior and learning all that I could, and in the winter of 2008, I brought my first parrot home.

My passion for parrots lead me to work with them on a part time basis at a locally owned and operated parrot specialty store, where I partake in the day’s necessities, like feeding and cage cleaning. I also assist with hand-rearing baby parrots, and help customers and clients prevent future behavior problems and work through already existing behavior problems.

Why First Class Feathers?

I have owned and operated First Class Canines Training and Behavior Consulting since 2006, and following my passion for parrots, First Class Feathers was a natural progression. I now split my consulting time nearly evenly between working with dogs and working with parrots, but my goal is always the same: to keep pets in their current homes, and to help those without homes to find one.

The number one cause of death in companion animals in the United States is not a communicable disease, it is behavior problems. Simple but persistent behavior issues (like house soiling in dogs and screaming in parrots) often result in the animal being given up simply because owners reach the end of their rope – they don’t know what to do and cannot find reliable and trustworthy assistance from an educated professional.

I’m here to change that. I plan to focus on topics important to companion parrot owners, including diet and nutrition, enrichment, plucking, screaming, and training. I’m here to share my expertise with companion parrot owners, so you can look forward to tip lists, how-tos, and videos in the future!

What would you like to learn today?

In order for First Class Feathers to help companion parrot owners, it’s helpful for us to know a little about you. Tell us about your birds! Share your experiences, challenges, and questions by leaving a comment, and let us know what you’d like to learn today!

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