Home > Behavior > Behavior…Thinking Outside of the Box….what watching wild birds can teach us about the birds that live with us.

Behavior…Thinking Outside of the Box….what watching wild birds can teach us about the birds that live with us.

I woke up this morning planning how my day was going to go. I know I have a full plate today. I have several deadlines to meet. A few of those deadlines are this weekend and the rest are next week. All of that and that doesn’t even really include the daily work I have. Calgon? Nah, as I sit here and type this, I’m sitting beside my Umbrella Cockatoo, Rico who is resting on the back of the chair next to me. He is now resting from the past hour of training and enrichment I’ve provided to him to keep him occupied while I fed the birds, cleaned the house, and emptied the dishwasher.

I’ve been wanting to write a new blog post, and one of my new year’s resolutions is to write here more often, even if it is a daily thought on anything avian or anything behavior related. So, before all of the hustle and bustle of the day starts, I was staring out the front window. Movement drew my attention there. It is the area which my husband provides food for the outdoor birds. A big flash of blue drew me in closer. Ah, the almighty blue jay. How they captivate me now that I’ve had the opportunity to really get to know them through having Pete, Nature’s Nursery’s program blue jay, stay here with me at the house for a few months while I trained him and watched him fledge. I watched this blue jay hop around and gather food in his pouch below his bottom beak. I knew that was what he was doing from watching Pete for several months. Boy was this blue jay big. Big and round and storing up for the winter months he was already experiencing. His colors were vibrant and his beak was massive. Anyone that watches blue jays, knows what they do with that beak and that beak deserves to be respected.

This blue jay was out there foraging for food along side a few other species of outdoor birds. I noticed the house sparrows. I always notice them. All of a

Pete, Nature's Nursery's program blue jay.

sudden something scared the birds. The cool thing was watching the difference in behaviors among the species. There were several. They all acted the same way and I’m sure they responded off of each other by taking flight the moment the first one started taking flight. It was such and experience because the house sparrows flew out, close, and around. Half of the flock went to the right of the house and half of the flock went to the left. They stayed low to the ground and stayed close in cornering the house. I didn’t see where they went but I knew where they went from watching them for so many years. The went to the bushes surrounding the house and the bushes across the street. The blue jay however responded to all of the birds flying away, but responded much differently. The blue jay was the last to take flight. He didn’t fly out and around. He flew up to the tree above the feasting sight. More birds flew through and away at that time again and I kept my eyes on the blue jay and he just flew up two branches. Do you know what I saw? I saw confidence, but that’s me being anthropomorphic. I saw an individual bird surviving without a flock of his own. I saw a bird that responds to his environment based on past experiences. This was a blue jay old enough to have learned and still learning from his environment. He didn’t find the need to scatter far as the house sparrows. The big, blue jay still stuck out like a sore thumb on a tree with no leaves. When he jumped up only two more branches at the next scattering of the birds, I saw a confident bird.

Watching the behavior of the outdoor birds continually keeps me learning about the behaviors of the parrots living in my house. Does this sound crazy? I sure hope not because there is a lot to learn just by looking outside your window. I watched that blue jay up in the tree. He brought his food up out of his pouch and held it in his foot and began banging away on it with that massive tool of a beak. I smiled because Pete showed me this and it was so cool to see a wild bird doing this. That blue jay had a lot of mental stimulation going on. That bird just foraged for its food, paying close attention to its surroundings, flew, perched in a tree extracting the contents of its find by cracking open whatever it was in his foot. All the while he had to pay attention above him and below him. He had to….his life depends on it. I smiled and walked to the bird room to get Rico.

Here is a video of Pete bringing food up from his pouch and caching it in a toy part I gave to him.

Here in our households live our parrots. Our parrots have evolved through millions of years. Those are millions of years that time has perfected the body and mind of the parrot to utilize every single part on its body. Open and avian anatomy book. What you will see is something far different from any mammal. It is astounding. Look at the number of air sacs and how they attach to the bones and what functions and effect that has to the health of the bird. Look at the bones and how they function and work in the ways we see our birds moving. Look at the feathers and how each section has a name and how important those names are in identifying what purpose they serve in flight. There has been much controversy over avian intelligence and how the avian brain lacks the folds that a mammalian brain has. It was assumed that avian intelligence wasn’t comparable to those animals we considered smart. Maybe hence the word bird brain, but anyone who cares for a parrot would consider being called a bird brain a compliment. We see the intelligence and studies are finding several fascinating and amazing details of the things birds are capable of. Read any book by Bernd Heinrich and search for his videos on YouTube.  Watch your bird move. Watch how he sees his environment. Watch what things in his environment attract his attention and what things cause him to move away. There…..there you will see the anatomy of the avian mind. It is vast, it is fascinating, and it serves a purpose.

Here is a video of Rocky, my Moluccan Cockatoo I brought in as a re-home over 4 years ago. With his foot, Rocky is selecting which hand the toy part is in. In the end, he quickly outwitted me to get what he wanted from his environment.

Animals learn from their environments. Our birds learn from their environments such as their cage, their play stations, their physical activity whether that’s hopping, running, or flying. This is why I’m such an advocate of enriched animal environments, especially those of our parrots. I’m fascinated with birds but especially parrots because of how quick they are in learning and manipulating their environment. Their minds are built for that. The ability in how quick on can manipulate its environment is a sign of intelligence. Our parrots are as intelligent as the environments we provide to them! And that my friendly readers, is a powerful statement.

Think outside of the box. There is enrichment all around us that we can safely provide to our birds to keep them learning. The mind of an animal under human care that is continually learning is one that is enriched and enriched environments play a big role on their happiness and mental and physical health. Many studies show this. Ok, I threw in the happiness but I see behaviors in birds that I label as happy correlated with enriched environments based on that individual bird or animal. Not all cockatoos like to untie knots. Not all macaws like to destroy wooden blocks. Not all birds play with toys…..so teach them! This absolutely can be done. A bird that sits in a cage all day and interacts with nothing pulls heavy on everything inside of me.

This morning I brought Rico out to fly around the house and get his exercise and mental stimulation outside of one of the environments I call his cage. The smarter the bird, the easier it is to label them. Smart birds search for novelty (new things or experiences) items in their environments. These are the birds that are quickly labeled “trouble makers” or “always getting into something”. This makes me laugh and I so look forward to interacting with this type of bird. Taking five minutes to watch them can teach you an enormous amount about what they are thinking, what they like, and how their mind works. This information can then be used to enrich their environments.

Rico was flying around the house and coming to my hand on cue. That was only going to last for a short time because his reinforcers for this behavior are going to and did quickly change. The pine nuts are only going to be attractive until he’s had his fill of them so I need to identify another reinforcer for future desired or requested behaviors. It was the tone of excitement in my voice that kept him on my hand and doing back flips for a short while. That would soon change too. I knew he was hungry and knew he hadn’t eaten yet today so I filled his foraging toy with food. That would only last so long too, right? I see many parrot owners reading this and nodding their head because they know exactly what I’m experiencing. Your heart rate is probably starting to race and your rate of breathing increasing too, right? Because you know exactly the attention this take and at what pace I am moving. I’m smiling as I’m typing this and I’m making this sound tougher than it really is.

When Rico was finished with his foraging toy, he flew right to the opened dishwasher. From past experience I knew this would probably attract his attention and it did. So each time I have that dishwasher open, the more opportunity I’m giving him to learn to fly to it faster and start going after whatever it is that is attracting his attention. The dishwasher is just a $500 parrot toy to an inquisitive parrot. He flew to it. Instead of pulling him away from it and teaching him to grip harder onto it and bite me if I forced to pull him off of it, I pulled him up to perch on it and then quickly thought of something else I had that he might like. I pulled out a dishwashing utensil basket we never use from the cupboard beside the dishwasher. He saw it but was it more exciting that the huge dishwasher itself right in front of him? Probably not, but the yummy almond slivers that he hasn’t received this morning probably are. I asked him to step up and he knows in situations like this, the chances are extremely high he’s getting a huge reward. He stepped up and I showered him with praise and then almond slivers. Rico loves trying to figure out how to manipulate objects to get what he wants. So, I grabbed a close by toy and threw it in the utensil basket. Living with Rico, I know through observation that most of the reinforcer in interacting with challenges like this, is mostly the challenge, not necessarily the toy.

Here is a video I shot this morning of the quick contraption I put together that kept Rico busy many times throughout the day. Here is a video clip I shut off after a minute and a half. He quickly figured this out and each time he did, I had to figure out a way to make it harder for him to unlock the top of the basket.

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  1. January 7, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Great article, Lara! I too enjoy watching behavior of our local wild birds, in part to see parallels between them and my birds. Discovering the amazing internal world of my birds has opened my eyes to all species, really!

    • January 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm

      Thanks Tina. I was worried I may have been too long winded in this entry. My parrots also were the gateway to opening my eyes to all birds. There is so much we can learn there. 😉

  2. Pam H
    January 11, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Hey girl! Great article! I too watch the outside birds and see such similarities in some of what they do. I love seeing Pete’s videos. He taught me so much (through you, of course)!! One thing I found pretty amazing (when you think about it) was the fact that Rico’s beak could have easily broken the basket and opened it, but he wasn’t trying to break it; just figure it out. Not to say that he won’t break it in the future!! As far as intelligence, brain size, brain shape … think octopods!

    • January 11, 2011 at 7:53 am

      You know it, Pam! Maybe a trip for the future, going on an octopus adventure. Maybe a trip to Hawaii, I think that is where Dr. James Woods is now working. 😉 Hint.

  3. Pam H
    January 12, 2011 at 12:03 am

    I’m there. Name the date!

  4. Cathy Roesler
    February 22, 2011 at 5:50 am

    I’m captivated by your writing Lara. As I read your description of the birds’ behaviors & the way they think it rings a bell inside me. You bring an understanding as to why birds behave the way they do (whether positive or “negative”).

    My Moluccan still needs work with the screaming (like your Rocky did), although he’s far better than when I adopted him 5 yrs ago (he was a neurotic screaming mess). I have learned over the years that the method usually advised..to ignore the bird….doesn’t fit all species or each individual bird. Because he was so neglected in a tiny cage all alone, I think ignoring HIM is exactly the wrong method. Would you agree? With him, he is the happiest, sweetest (& quietest) bird when he is stimulated mentally. Sometimes in the middle of the night, he even shoots me a soft wolf whistle just to hear my voice say “it’s okay Sassy, I’m here”. Then he goes back to sleep. He’s my only bird that does that.

    Your blogs are helping me to understand him more deeply the way he thinks & what his needs are. Keep writing! As much as possible please….because I really like your thoughts on ways to make our birds’ lives more rich & stimulated. Thank you for helping me & others “get inside the heads” of our beloved birds.

    • February 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

      Wow, what an awesome compliment, Cathy. Thank you.

      Ignoring negative behaviors can be hard to do. Pending on the behavior you are ignoring it can cause a lot of stress. I know I read in a study somewhere that the inability to escape undesirable noise has a major effect on behavior and mental well being. Huh! This threw many homes of parrots into my thoughts.

      The key to changing an undesirable behavior, such as screaming is to find out what is reinforcing it. What is causing it to exist in the first place? Then once you find it, stop delivering it or create an environment where not delivering it is easier to do. This is a procedure called extinction, where you stop delivering the reinforcer for a behavior. At the same time you do this, find another behavior that is easy to live with such as a whistle, like you described and then reinforce that behavior while continuing to extinguish the other. Once you find the reinforcer, for example your attention, stop delivering it when the bird is screaming (extinction) and deliver it when the bird is whistling. If your attention truly is the reinforcer and you take this approach, you will see the value of your Moluccan’s whistle shoot through the roof while the value the scream becomes used less and less.

      If the scream has been reinforced for a long period of time, you may and will probably likely see your Moluccan revert to it again in the future if you stop paying attention to the whistles. If you reinforce that scream once, you’ve just conveyed the message to your Moluccan that it still has value once in a while. When a behavior has value once in a while, those behaviors may be quickly reverted to and hold value because they’ve worked for the bird once in a while.

  5. Cathy R
    February 22, 2011 at 5:58 am

    p.s. — My Moluccan is the bird that LOVES to see his harness come out. He loves more than anything to go in the car & be adored by new people. Even a drive-up window. He loves for other people to hold him provided that I’m close by. He is so absorbed by his surroundings when out & about, that he is such a pleasure & a perfect gentleman. His favorite thing is to help out at my mom’s garage sales….he loves the action of people coming & going & being adored by all. lol. He turns his head upside down (that’s his flirting/come hither method of sucking people in closer)…lol. He’s thrilled if they will offer an arm for him to perch on so he can get a closer look at his new friends.

  6. February 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Keeping a bird socialized is one of the most important things we can do for our birds. It secures their future too. We don’t know how long we will live, but if we set our birds up for success for when we are gone by keeping them socialized to others, it sets up their transition to future homes more likely and with less stress and anxiety on the bird. Kudos to you. It was cool to read how well your Moluccan reacts to others. Nicely done. 😉

  7. November 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Some of my parrots inter-react with wild birds.
    I remember one summer years back when my 40 year old African Grey was sitting on our porch railing outdoors. He started making a very loud screeching noise that sounded just like a Blue Jay.
    Within minutes he had a very angry Blue Jay “Dive Bombing” him numerous times, but he kept up the screeching, and the Jay made several more passes at him before it finally stopped.
    That was a sight to behold!

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