Home > Ask A Question, Behavior, Changing Behavior, Enrichment, Training > Question on behavior . . . Cockatoo wants to be on us at all times!

Question on behavior . . . Cockatoo wants to be on us at all times!

This is something new I’ve added to my website and wanted to share it here on my blog. I receive many questions weekly on behavior, training, or enrichment. I have decided to create a page on my website where I can share the question and the advice I give in hopes that it may help other viewers having similar situations.

If you are interested in asking a question, feel free to submit the question here: http://www.larajoseph.com/LaraJoseph/Question.html

Here is this weeks question and answer.

Dear Lara,

We have had our cockatoo, Shayna ever since she was a hand fed baby, 22 years ago. She is the most loving parrot and loves both my husband and myself. She prefers my husband when we are both with her.

Our problem is that she wants our attention constantly, and will NOT stay on her playground. She is always coming down to be with us and climbing up on us! I have tried repeatedly, putting her back and saying authoritatively “stay”…. to no avail. I end up just putting her back in her cage.

It would be so wonderful if sometimes she could just enjoy being OUT of her cage NEAR us, not ON us. I understand your philosophy about reinforcing bad behavior, and I think that we are “punishing” her undesired behavior by returning her to her cage, not reinforcing it. What are we doing wrong and how can we change it? Thank you so much for your advice. I look forward to your newsletters and now am looking forward to your blog.


Hi Blanche.

Please don’t feel you are alone on this. This is a problem or concern I hear in many households.

Before I go any further, I want to commend you and your husband for your commitment to your life and responsibility in living with Shayna.

Rewarding the bird for the behaviors you want to see increase. In this photo is Rico, my cockatoo stationing on a boing next to the kitchen.

I wish it were more common to hear of a 22-year-old bird still living in its original household. Your dedication is already obvious. You have identified what Shayna wants or desires….you and your husband’s attention. You can both use this to your benefit. Give this to her when she’s showing behaviors you want to see increase. This is a loaded recommendation and you’ll need to start with rewarding small approximations toward the desired behavior. The desired behavior, also called the target behavior, is the behavior you want to see increase in Shayna. This will require you and your husband to watch for the desired or target behavior and be consistent in delivering the reward or positive reinforcer. Keep in mind that the reward or positive reinforcer is always decided by Shayna. Many times I see people trying to reward a desired behavior when the bird has absolutely no interest in what the caretaker is trying to deliver. If the bird doesn’t accept it, it isn’t of value to the bird.

I would suggest beginning by watching for when Shayna is performing behaviors you want to see increase, such as playing independently on her play-gym contently and by herself. Deliver a reward or positive reinforcer to her at this time. If it is your attention, you or your husband may want to go up and tell her what a good girl she is being and give her a scratch on the back of the neck or a kiss on her head. You may question me and say “Well, if she’s playing there quietly and I give her attention, won’t this divert her attention and make her want to come and play with me instead?”. My reply is, “Yes, it may very well cause her to want to be with you instead of continuing to play independently.” You could do one of two things in this instance. You could ignore her when she begins walking toward you or calling for you and wait for her to go back over and start playing with her toy. When she does this though, you have to make sure you go back and reward or deliver her positive reinforcer. If that reward or positive reinforcer is your attention, you will want to make sure you deliver it as consistently as possible while trying to train this behavior of her playing independently.

Another option and one that can be done simultaneously with the one above is build your list of reinforcers. A reinforcer is an event (a sound, action, object, etc) that is delivered after a behavior that maintains or increases the rate of that behavior. Positive reinforcers are reinforcers that are added to the environment after a behavior that cause those behaviors to maintain or increase. Positive reinforcers are also called rewards and as I had stated previously, these are always decided by the bird. I would suggest to start paying close attention and documenting all of Shayna’s positive reinforcers. You have already identified she likes you and your husband’s attention. Bingo, there is one positive reinforcer identified. Start searching for her favored food treats. Does she like almonds? If not search for more. If so, start conserving the delivery of these favored foods. Make sure these favored foods aren’t a main staple of nutrition in her diet. I say this because I am going to suggest you not deliver her favored treats unless and only unless she gives you a behavior you want to see maintain or increase.

For example, your husband walks in the door and head’s to the refrigerator to get a snack. Shayna remains on her play gym watching your husband but still interacting with her toy. Before Shayna has the opportunity to drop that toy and start heading down her play gym to run to your husband, tell her “Good Girl Shayna” and go and deliver an almond or a part of an almond. Be consistent with this Blanche. Shayna is soon going to start wondering what it was that earned her that valued reward. Watch for the next opportunity when Shayna is doing anything else you would like to see increase such as singing or dancing. If you catch her singing or dancing, immediately reward her. You will have to identify what her reinforcer is at that time. Is your attention of high value to her at that moment or is the almond of higher value to her? Figure out which one it is and deliver it to her. Once you begin doing all of these consistently, Shayna’s going to start giving you behaviors that she thinks will earn her your attention or that almond.

Identifying and building lists of positive reinforcers, whether food or a scratch, comes in very handy when looking for ways to reward requested behaviors.

Keep looking for even more positive reinforcers and start saving them and delivering them only at times you see Shayna showing behaviors you want to see increase. When you deliver these positive reinforcers or rewards sparingly, they will become of higher value to Shayna. This will cause Shayna to start paying attention to what exactly it is that she is doing that caused her to receive that reward. As long as that reward is of value to Shayna, she’ll start doing more of what it was that earned it.

If Shayna gets more of your’s and your husband’s attention when she’s on her play gym than when she’s on your shoulder, you will see the behavior of her staying on a particular play gym more. If she is on your shoulder and you are leaning over and kissing her and talking to her or trying to adjust where she is, she’s receiving a lot of your attention there. Why wouldn’t she want to be there?

I have a boing that hangs at the kitchen’s edge. Rico flies to it when he wants my attention. I make sure I deliver my attention when he flies there. If I have identified his positive reinforcer correctly, he will continue to stay there as long as that is where I deliver it. If he flies to my shoulder, I need to make sure I don’t deliver his positive reinforcer. If that means me not talking to him, I don’t talk to him. If that means me stopping doing whatever it is that I am doing, then I stop. If Rico finds that he’s not receiving any reward or positive reinforcer, more than likely he will fly to where he needs to go to in order to get it. What I usually see is Rico flying back to his boing. As soon as he lands I tell him “Good Boy Rico!” and go and deliver his positive reinforcers. For him, sometimes it is my attention, a small treat, or some belly kisses. I’ll see him sit there a little longer waiting for it. Before I he has the opportunity to fly back to me, I better hurry and deliver it again. I continue to do this all the while increasing the amount of time between each delivery and varying the positive reinforcers. I’ll wait 10 seconds and then tell him “Good” and then go and give him a quick kiss on the top of his head. I’ll go back to what I was doing and wait 15 seconds and tell him “Good” and go and deliver a pine nut. I’ll then see if I can wait 25 seconds. If he waits, I deliver the reinforcer. If he doesn’t and he flies to me, I have taken to big of a step and need to back up to maybe 20 seconds and deliver the positive reinforcer there. In the meantime, I’m still not delivering it when he flies to me, not if I want him to remain on the boing.

Parrots are intelligent and many times like to socialize with us. There are times that I do sit on the couch and hang out with one of my birds on my lap for a long period of time. If I see undesired behaviors increase, such as screaming when I walk out of their sight or when they aren’t on me, I recognize that behavior issues are starting to develop and I may go back and take my own advice that I have given you above.

Providing an enriched environment or numerous environments is another  way in creating more independency in Shayna. Keeping these

A separate area, such as a bird room can help provide additional areas for birds to play independently. Do you see the two cockatoos?

environments changing such as different locations or changing in new toys may help immensely. As many people already know, I am a huge fan of providing toys and opportunities for our birds to forage, Blanche. Foraging is the act of searching for food. There are plenty of toys out there and plenty of ways to make our own foraging toys for our birds. If Shayna is spending her time manipulating a toy or object while tryingto retrieve her almond, that is time she is not spending hanging out on you or your husband. When you see her foraging, you can walk by her and give her a kiss on her head. 😉

Video of Rocky, my Moluccan Cockatoo stepping up on his play station in order to receive the head scratch, which is one of his favored positive reinforcers. The hand signal I give him is a common cue used in letting him know a head scratch is coming if he gives me the behavior in which I’m requesting. He doesn’t react to the cue so you’ll see me nuzzle him in the neck with my nose. I often do this when I pet him and he associates that with being petted. You’ll see he then quickly recognizes what I’m asking and what he’ll receive in return if he gives the requested behavior.

  1. blanche
    May 12, 2011 at 5:41 am

    Thank you for your remarks about our dedication to Shayna. We love her so much and she is such a huge part of our lives that we could not imagine being without her. Maybe we have given her too much attention and that is why we hardly ever see her playing independently with toys. Her goal is to be with us at all times. I do supply her with toys and things she can chew and pull apart. She does participate in this activity only when we are not present. I have hung new toys in her cage which she ignores completely, showing
    absolutely no interest in them, even as time passes!
    She loves nuts, and I have learned from you that I should stop giving them to her as isolated treats, and begin to use them only to reinforce targeted behavior.
    I will save your advice, refer to it frequently, and really begin to scrutinize her behavior , and act accordingly to reinforce her desired behavior. Thank you again. Our goal is to nurture our bird who loves us, wants to be with us, but who also will be a happy, contented bird when she is alone.

  2. dorothy long
    May 13, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    thank you lara so much!again..you are amazing!thanl you blanche for your question to lara about your shayna!that is exactly my problem with my senagal”lucky” mostly & my african grey”echo”.like you said i love my babies so much with all my heart & soul I could never picture my living life w/out them<3

  3. June 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Awesome Advice Lara 🙂

  4. June 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you. I love it when people leave replies and let me know what they think. That way I know what to write more of. 😉

  1. May 10, 2014 at 10:18 pm

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