You don’t think so? You may want to think again. Once this action was brought to my attention by sitting back and evaluating a situation, I couldn’t believe how often it had happened, and right in my own house with my own birds. I sat and watched another interaction I had with my birds and I saw the behavior of “teasing” my birds being a factor yet once again.
I believe many negative behaviors we see in our birds arise out of us unknowingly teasing them. Another thing I had noticed was the bird’s reaction after being teased. Then I noticed the bird’s reaction after being teased in the same situation once again. The bird’s reaction often turned aggressive toward me and I can understand why, after sitting down and thinking back about what had happened. Let me give you an example.
I was standing at the kitchen counter reading the mail. My Umbrella Cockatoo, Rico, came flying into the room and landed on the floor near my feet. Having a cockatoo near one’s feet is a quick way to get your attention. Rico scurried across the floor and headed to a set of cupboards that I had opened. This cupboard contains all of my bird’s food and treats in clear, plastic containers. I saw Rico running toward the cupboard of goodies and I immediately dropped my mail and headed in his direction. I bent over, picked him up, turned and placed him back on his playsystem in the bird room. I then returned to reading my mail. Only seconds went by when I heard the wing beats coming back into the kitchen. There Rico flew to the floor once again and scurried to the same cupboard. I bent over to pick him up again. He saw me coming and tried grabbing onto the shelf with his beak. I reached him before he got hold of the shelf. I wrapped my hands around him to pull him away. He looked down at my hands wrapped around him as if trying to figure out how to get away from them. I returned him to the playsystem. Once again he flew back to the cupboard. This time, I reached for him and as a result of his former consequences to this scenario, he bit me. This should not have been a surprise. It was a situation that seemed so casual that ended in a bite. Well that definitely got my attention and made me think of the situation and what had happened, what was continuing to happen, and how my pulling him away did not stop the behavior. Most importantly, I taught my bird how to bite. The bite was a form of communication that I had unknowingly encouraged. The communication was a bite which I feel was resulting from the bird’s frustration level of seeing a clear invitation but having absolutely no control or choice in the outcome. The whole scenario bothered me enough that I sat down and thought about what had happened.
After I thought about it, I could clearly see and better understand exactly what had happened and why. There was an open cupboard full of exciting foods from the eyes of a cockatoo. Why wouldn’t he attempt to investigate?
In thinking back about this, maybe I shouldn’t have had the cupboard opened for an invitation for an unwanted behavior to happen in the first place. That unwanted behavior was going to turn out to be Rico chewing through plastic containers and probably filling up on many treats. Second, instead of attempting to punish his behavior by pulling him away and causing frustration which often times leads to aggressive behaviors, perhaps I should have opened one of the containers to which I saw him heading and offered that bit of food in return for him stepping onto his boing and then shutting then cupboard. It was a scenario I had given an open invitation to happening in the first place, so why punish him for it? If I were to offer him this treat in return for him stepping onto his boing, I see no need for frustration to be involved in this situation. If there is no frustration from the bird, there would also probably be no reason for the aggressive behavior of him biting in the first place.
Now if I sit back and give it more thought, the first time I removed Rico from the cupboard he did not bite me. He clearly leaned in the direction of the treats as I was pulling him away. As I was pulling him away from the cupboard he had his feet stretched out in the direction of the objects he wanted. He even glanced down at my hands as I was removing him from the situation as if to see what force was taking him away from something he clearly wanted. All of these behaviors were clear signs of communication of what Rico wanted. All of these behaviors were ignored by me and more importantly, Rico gave me numerous signals telling me what he wanted before the bite occurred. All signs and signals given were ignored by me. Am I saying that a bird should always get what they want? Not at all. There is a way to control behaviors and environmental factors by giving the bird a choice in the matter. What I am saying is that the behavior of him taking the next step and chewing through the containers could have been avoided in the first place by me shutting the cupboard before the behavior had the opportunity to present itself. Well, that was too late and a fairly simple oversight on my part. I could have offered Rico a piece of one of the treats that he was clearly trying to get in his grasp. I overlooked that also. I took all of the choices away from Rico in his environment by removing him from the behavior I did not want to happen. I removed him a second time and that is when I observed frustration building in him. I removed him a third time and his frustration turned to aggression in the form of a bite. What was even more disturbing to me was the fact that I was the one who taught him that form of aggression by ignoring the signals from him and by taking his choice out of the situation. In thinking back, if I would have paid closer attention to the objects in the environment that may be an invitation for unwanted behaviors and arranged the environment for the unwanted behaviors, it would not have happened in the first place. If I didn’t have time to arrange the environment I could have paid attention to what Rico was heading toward and used that item to reward him for stepping onto the boing next to the cupboard. After he stepped onto the boing, I would have turned and shut the cupboard doors while putting a few extra treats into a foraging toy hanging next to the boing. No punishment involved, no frustration level building, no aggressive behaviors taught. One of the tag lines that I use is “Positive reinforcement puts the animal’s choice back into behavior modification.” Yes, negative behaviors can be changed while providing choices for the bird.
An aversive is an event or object in which the bird finds unpleasant. In thinking back about the situation, when I grabbed Rico, my hands were being used as an aversive to Rico. The last thing I want with my birds is for some part of me or anything pertaining to me to be seen or associated with an aversive. Another thing I had noticed was that every time I put him back, he almost immediately returned to the cupboard. This was a very important observation because his behavior of running to the cupboard was actually being reinforced because it maintained or increased in frequency.
Since this incident, I started paying closer attention to all of my interactions and reactions with my birds’ behaviors. I was very surprised. I realized there was a whole lot of teasing going on and I saw the consequences these had in association with our relationship.
There was yet another event that had taken place in the kitchen, but this time I corrected my behavior before a “teasing” situation occurred. I was wiping the kitchen counter top with a paper towel. Murray, my Green-winged Macaw was watching me and his head was moving back and forth just as fast as my hand was scrubbing. I noticed him walking toward me with an open beak and my hand continued to scrub back and forth. Once he came closer, I removed my hand with the paper towel. Murray’s beak remained open and in the direction of the paper towel. I moved to a different spot and started scrubbing again. He came running to me yet again. This time I stopped scrubbing and left the paper towel rest under my hand. Murray came over and investigated the paper towel, my hand, and the environment. He then found it uninteresting and walked away. If I would have continued scrubbing while moving my hand away from him, not realizing that I was continually teasing him and ignoring his open beak coming toward my hand, I can guarantee you he would have approached faster and a bite would have resulted. I know, because I tried that one too. Murray was clearly curious as to what I was doing. I provided the opportunity for him to investigate the situation and he did. He found it uninteresting and he moved on and I continued to scrub the countertop. No force was used. Murray had a choice in his environment and no aggressive behaviors resulted. I was beginning to catch on.
There is one final and very important observation I’d like to point out and share with you, the reader, because of its relevance within many companion parrot households. Many of us live with clipped or non-flighted birds. Three of the four of my birds are flighted but only one is an avid flier. (I take great care in providing safe flight within my home and I have an outdoor aviary which connects to my house, so none of my birds can fly away). Two are in the beginning stages of flight with much training and one was never fledged and doesn’t fly. I see a major difference between the one that is an avid flier and the other three that either can’t fly or can’t fly near as well. With the one that can’t fly or the ones that don’t fly as well, they are dependent upon me for their mode of transportation. I take this into consideration when moving them about the house or requesting certain behaviors from them. They seem more sensitive or react more dramatically to changes in the environment and I believe it is due to their dependency on me for transportation. It would be very easy for me to ask them to step up onto my hand and then completely take their choice away from them on where they would like to go. If I am depending on you to move me from my bed, through the house, and onto the back screened in porch, I can tell you when I’d like you to stop or I could tell you to please move me to the refrigerator so I could get something to drink. When we walk our birds through the house to the back porch, are we paying attention to what they are telling us or even asking of us? Many times I think this is overlooked and it is times like these that are a prime opportunity for frustration, anxiety, and levels of nervousness to rise in the bird.
When I ask one of my birds to step up onto my hand, I try and pay very close attention to how eager they are to step up. If they chose to remain in their cage, then I give them the power to make that choice. I offer at a later time a ride to a different area of the house and they usually take it. When they step up onto my hand, I pay attention to where they are looking. I try to hold them higher so they have a clear line of sight over my head. This allows them to see all around them without me blocking their line of sight. When I provide them with the choice of looking all around them and give them the time to stop and look at their environment, I see them observing and then settling in. I feel if I offer this mode of transportation and give them the time to observe, the trust between us builds stronger and their level of security rises. If they focus on something they find interesting or want to look at longer, you can usually feel their body weight shift in the direction in which they are interested. It is at that time that I will stop and let them observe where they are looking. When they relax, I continue to move toward the bird room. Try it! You will see exactly what I am explaining here.
As noted above, our birds rely heavily upon us for transportation. If there is a destination to which I want them to ultimately go, I make it worth their while to go there. If I am asking them to step up onto their playstation from my hand, I give them a reward for doing what I had asked. I make the behavior I ask of them worth their while, otherwise why would they want to do that behavior? By providing them the opportunity to make choices and making those choices very valuable to them, we have given them a say or a choice in how they live in their environment. The more choices we provide to our birds, the more enriching and empowering it is for them and it shows in their confidence and trust levels. From what I observe by providing this way of life to my birds, it is very rewarding to them and very rewarding to me as I watch the trust and the relationship grow. I find it very exciting to offer the choice to my birds and see them turn to me after they have performed the behavior and get excited when I tell them “Good bird!” That alone could be all the reward that they are seeking….my satisfaction and their choice. It is a lovely balance in loving and living together.