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Question on Behavior & Training: My African Grey Consistently Bites His Nails and Flaps His Wings When He is Nervous

 Hi Lara,

I hope you can help us.  I have a two-year old male Congo African Grey.  He is a nail biter.  He’s been biting his nails for some time (over a year).  I’m sure at some point I must have reinforced this behavior and now it has become a habit.  He’s not biting his nails and hurting himself he just bites them enough so they remain dull and not shiny.  I know he does this when he is nervous or frustrated.

Like I said he’s been doing the nail-biting for some time.  As a matter of fact I cannot remember when he didn’t do it.  Here are a few examples:  

For the longest time he would bite his nails whenever he wanted to go from here to there but couldn’t because he was severely clipped (from the breeder).  So he would bite his nails and flap his wings until I would pick him up and take him where he wanted to go.  He still does both of these behaviors even though he is now fully flighted.  Why doesn’t he just fly to where he wants to go instead of biting his nails and flapping his wings?  Maybe he will figure this out one day. 

Very recently I moved the birds into a bird-room (I have three birds – Congo African Grey, Double Yellow Head Amazon, Red Fronted Macaw).  His nail-biting got worse when I first moved him in but has since gotten somewhat better now that he is more comfortable in the room.  If he is in the bird room and hears his favorite person come home he’ll start biting his nails.  Again even though he can fly he’ll start biting and flapping until he gets what he wants.  It also seems he is biting his nails whenever I mention the word “nite nite”.  For some reason he just gets all upset and nervous when it’s time for “nite nite”.  I’ll put him in his cage and he will frantically climb all over every inch of his cage.  Once I turn the lights out he takes his position on his swing and he’s good for the night.  I just don’t understand any of this.

Is there anything you can suggest I try to get him to stop? 

Karen,

Houston, Texas

Hi Karen.

There are so many things I want to say, but first of all thank you for all of the great examples of when your grey shows the behavior of biting his nails. From what I can tell from your examples, I also agree that this may be a behavior he resorts to in correlation to times of also showing signs of nervousness or frustration. You have the behavior of him chewing on his nails, that is where we want to focus our attention and to the event or events happening right before he chews his nails and the event or events right after he chews his nails. When we look for the details in the environment right before and right after the behavior, we can usually start using these events to change the undesired behavior.

Before we go too much further, I’d also like to point out that your african grey is two years old. You mentioned he has been chewing his nails ever since you can remember. Your bird is still pretty young so we have a smaller time frame from which he’s had to practice this behavior. This is also called the ‘history of reinforcement’. What this means is if this behavior maintains or increases, it has been reinforced, not rewarded, but reinforced. Something in the environment has caused or is causing this behavior to maintain or increase, and whatever is causing that behavior to maintain is what is reinforcing the behavior. The amount of time the bird has had to practice or repeat this behavior is called the ‘history of reinforcement’. At two years of age, you are still working with a pretty young bird but by no means does that not mean the behavior isn’t strong. It only means he has had two or less years for this behavior to be reinforced. No matter how old the bird though, one can always work on modifying behaviors no matter how long the history of reinforcement. It may take longer or smaller steps for each individual bird, and the approach to each bird and each behavior is just that…individual and pertaining specifically to that bird. For more information on reinforcers and reinforcement, please read the following blog post:  https://larajoseph.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/unknowingly-punishing-desired-behavior/

You mentioned he bites his nails and flaps his wings when he wants to go to a different location. While he was badly clipped, this was his cue to you that he wanted moved to a different location. If you moved him when you saw him doing this, this became a clear line of communication between the two of you. That is training and the nail-biting and flapping where his cues to you. He communicated, you responded. If when he still does this, you still pick him up and transport him, it could be that he prefers this form of transportation over the flying. He could be doing this for several reasons. If he wants your attention, he may choose this type of transportation over flying on his own. If he doesn’t know how to fly well, he may not be comfortable with flying.

I don’t remember you saying whether your african grey flies or not. If he does, I still want to post this for other readers. Just because birds have wings and they are fully feathered doesn’t necessarily mean that they can fly or feel comfortable with flying. If he wasn’t allowed to fledge (a short and critical period after hatching where the bird learns how to fly) as a chick, he may not know how to fly. One of the hardest parts that I’ve observed in birds learning to fly, is learning how to land. If a bird doesn’t know how to land as an adult and each landing experience is uncomfortable for him, such as crashing into a wall or feeling out of control, this could easily result in the bird not wanting to fly because paired with each experience of flying comes a painful or fearful outcome. If the breeder from which you bought your african grey doesn’t know how to give a proper wing clip, the chances of them not knowing the importance in letting a bird fledge could be higher also.

If your bird doesn’t understand or fears flight, I would suggest teaching him to be comfortable with flight, and where we might start teaching may be teaching him how to land. There may be several approaches to this and one I recommend is have your bird perch on your arm about 2” over the top of the bed and ask him to hop off. Start from an area that the bird can easily accomplish. Once he hops off positively reinforce him with praise or a treat, whatever your bird values. When he’s doing this with ease and without hesitation, move to the next step and raise your arm an inch higher and request the same behavior. I wouldn’t suggest tossing him. Let him have a choice in this and when he makes the desired one, make it highly rewarding for him. Then move an inch higher, and higher, and higher without moving to the next step until the current one is well-practiced and he is very comfortable with giving the behaviors you are requesting. This will cause your bird to start spreading his wings for balance and control when he’s hopping down. Soon that hop will turn into a flap, then two flaps. I have several videos and several approaches in doing this. I will post them soon. For now, here is one video in a series of steps in which I used to encourage my Moluccan Cockatoo, Rocky, to fly.

Once your bird starts learning how to maneuver his wings, you can put his hops, jumps, or flights on cue such as saying “Come” or “Hop down”. Pair this cue with each time you request this of your bird. This way, when you are standing in the kitchen and you see him on his play stand in the living room and he looks like he might start biting his toes, cue him to “Come” or “Hop down” and make it easy for him to do. This way he is already familiar with the cue and knows what it means. You are going to try to prevent the behavior of nail-biting before it even has the opportunity to happen by watching his body language. For example if he starts moving his body in more rhythmic motions right before he begins biting his nails, that is your cue the nail-biting is getting ready to happen. Cue him to “hop down” or “come” before the nail-biting has the opportunity to even happen.

From reading your examples, you seem to know when the behavior of his nail-biting is getting ready to happen. Train him to do something else such as “go get your ball” “ring your bell” or “toss your ball”. Each of the three behaviors I just mentioned are behaviors that your african grey cannot do while he is biting his nails. This makes it impossible for him to bite his nails at the same time he is tossing his ball. If we train a bird to do a behavior that is incompatible with the behavior we want to eliminate, then there is no opportunity for the bird to practice the one we want to see disappear. Otherwise, the behavior of nail-biting is not being reinforced because it is physically impossible for him to bite his nails while he is ringing his bell.

So, when do we begin training the behavior of “getting the ball”, “ringing the bell” or “tossing the ball”? Now! Now, before the time comes when your grey’s favored person walks in the door. Now, before the opportunity happens for your grey to bite his nails and flap his wings because he wants moved from point A to point B. This way when five o’clock Monday afternoon comes, instead of your african grey immediately biting its nails when he sees your husband walking up the sidewalk, you can cue him to “go get your ball”. Positively reinforce your grey  with things that are of high value to him when he does do the things you are asking him to do. When he does go get that ball when the favored person walks in the door, the positive reinforcer at that time may be the praise and attention from the favored person. If the bird knows that the consequence in giving a requested behavior results in something of value to the bird, the more the bird will do the desired behaviors. This is how the world works and everyone and everything living in it. We all move toward things that bring about desired outcomes and move away from ones that do not. When animals are living with us under our care, many choices are taken away from them such as when they can fly, when they can get out of their cage, when they eat, and what they eat, etc. Positive reinforcement interaction provides a way to help increase the opportunity for choice back into their living environments.

When you moved your african grey into the bird room with the other two birds, some of his choices were taken away from him. Sometimes situations occur where we do have to take large steps like this. Well, let’s put some decision-making skills back in to his environment to give him more of a sense of control over his environment. There are several different approaches to this situation and one would be to introduce him to the new bird room slowly for an hour at a time, for example and only while you are in there with him. Them as you see him staying comfortable start leaving the room for periods of time, all the while positively reinforcing him for remaining calm in the room without you. Then move to leaving him in there a few hours at a time. Then leave him in the bird room most of the day with each day him still sleeping in the cage where he is used to. Provide the cage in the bird room with all of his favored toys. While leaving the other cage more undesirable than the one in the new room. Soon, leave him over night. Make the new cage and the new room more desirable than the old cage and the old room. As long as the new room is more desirable, and it is up to us to make it that way most of the time, then you are giving the choice back to your bird. You are arranging the environment for your bird to make the decision you want it to, but your bird is the one still having the opportunity of choice.

You mentioned that when he’s in the bird room he’ll start flapping his wings and chewing his nails until he gets what he wants. If this is the case, then you would be reinforcing this behavior if you are giving him what he wants. If he’s getting what he wants by flapping his wings and chewing his nails why would he do anything different? It is working for him. I would suggest teaching him other things that gives him what he wants. Positively reinforce, or reward, the other behavior while ignoring the behavior you want to see disappear. This will place value on the other behavior for your bird while the nail-biting eventually becomes of no value because it is no longer serving him a purpose.

You may be putting his nervousness in climbing all over the cage at night on cue by telling him “nite-nite”. If he seems nervous and agitated by climbing all over his cage at night, I would look for a way to extinguish this behavior. By extinguish I am referring to finding what is reinforcing the undesired behavior, and then stop the delivery of the reinforcer. You mentioned that once he’s on his perch and the lights are out, he’s quiet for the evening. Karen, here is exactly where I would start. It is his sleeping perch you want him on when it is time to go to retire for the evening, right? I would start training this during the day. Begin training him to go to his sleeping perch on cue and once he is there and only at that time do you give him a huge positive reinforcer, for example a huge piece of walnut or an almond in the shell. At that time and only when both feet are placed on that perch does he ever get an almond in the shell. This is called contingency….”if….then”. When a whole almond in the shell is given only when both feet are on this perch, then the mother load of positive reinforcers is delivered. This makes the almond in the shell of high value to the bird and the more likely the bird will give you the requested behavior and give it to you pretty quick. This is a behavior that will need to be trained but you can train that during the day. Take the cue or words “nite-nite” completely out of your vocabulary for now because right now they are being paired with something he does not like and seems to cause him to show nervousness and climbing all over the cage. I often use the word “perch” when I’m asking a bird to go to a particular spot in its cage. Watch for your bird to start finishing up his almond. Based on what you have said, once the lights are turned out he settles down quickly and the signs of nervousness stop. Right when he puts his foot down from eating the almond and before he has time to move, slowly switch off the light and gently shut the bird room door. This gives the behavior of climbing all over the cage no time to be reinforced. I would be very consistent with this every single night. Once you have been consistent with it and your grey knows the lights go off when his foot hits the perch, I would then start increasing the time between his foot hitting the perch and the time the lights go out if you wanted. Count one second then turn out the light. The next night count two seconds and then turn out the light, and so on. All the while, pay close attention in making sure he doesn’t move from the perch.

Happy training, Karen. Positive reinforcement training and interactions with our birds helps take the stress out of their environments and builds stronger relationships with the people who take care of them. Being our companions in our homes, they sure are worth it.

Take care Karen,

Lara Joseph

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  1. Karen
    July 6, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Hi Lara,

    First, thank you so much for your reply. I feel a little overwhelmed and not sure where to begin.

    Sorry I didn’t mention if my Grey was flighted. Yes, he is fully flighted but only flies if he has to (if spooked) or very recently he will fly if he really, really, really, really wants to be somewhere and all his nail-biting, flapping and chirping attempts go unanswered. Let me explain. The birdroom is upstairs. If my grey wants to come downstairs, after I’ve offered to take him downstairs and he refuses, he’ll fly downstairs but will fly into and cling to the drapery for a soft landing. From the drapery he may fly into another set of drapery or fly to and make a perfect landing on his stand!!!! I wish he would fly from upstairs and land perfectly on his stand more often. So he can fly and he can land but chooses the curtains, which by the way is he beginning to destroy!!!! To get him off the curtains all I have to do is show him a stick. This may be wrong but I don’t go near him with the stick, just seeing it is enough for him to fly off .
    Yes, I do know when my grey will begin biting his nails – saying the word nite-nite, when he hears his favorite person come home, or when he wants something or go somewhere. You say to begin to train the behavior of “getting the ball”, “ringing the bell” or “tossing the ball” before the opportunity happens for my grey to bite his nails and flap his wings. Should I remove him from his birdroom and go somewhere it is quiet? I understand what you are asking me to do; however, I have not found that one treat/toy/etc. of high value that my grey will go absolutely bonders over so he ignores me and starts his nail biting/flapping/chirping. Is it possible to train any of these to a bird without a high value reinforcer?
    The only treat he seems to like is almonds in the shell. I can remove them from his foraging toys and save them for training.

    I really appreciate all your help.

    • July 7, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      Hi Karen. If you are feeling overwhelmed due to the information that I have given you, then that is a situation I need to work on improving on my end. I will absolutely work on that.

      You did mention that your grey would fly, but I didn’t know to what extent so I wasn’t sure where to begin. I chose to approach from two different angles in case readers were wondering where to start. It sounds as though your grey will fly if he absolutely has to. If this is the case, I would still refer to the approach on teaching him how to land. If he is choosing to give a serious amount of time to flapping and nail biting vs just flying to you when flying to you would get him quicker satisfaction, it sounds as though the end result of him flying ( crashing or feeling unstable) is playing a serious roll in his decision. Flying to the drapery from a long distance gives him a wide area to land if he is not secure in his landing skills. Then flying from the drapes to the perch isn’t as hard of a task in focusing on an area which he has to focus to perch, such as a dowel on a play stand. Birds that are not comfortable in their landing skills will choose a large area to land where they know their chances in landing safely are a lot higher than landing on a focused area such as a tree limb or dowel.
      If he is destroying the drapery after he lands, this could be a form of displaced aggression. If he’s feeling forced, as a last result, to land on the drapery when he is not comfortable in landing, this could cause displaced aggression and he could be taking this frustration out on the drapery by chewing holes in them.
      Displaced aggression is the behavior shown when the bird doesn’t have the option to take the aggression or increased frustration out on the item it is truly frustrated with so it takes it out on something in closer range. A great example could be with a bird that is clipped and doesn’t have the ability to fly. It is perched on the arm of its favored person when all of a sudden the spouse walks in the door and the bird has a clear and proven history of not liking the spouse. The spouse walks in and because the bird is clipped and can not fly and bite the spouse, it choses to bite the person in which it is perched upon. This is a clear example of displaced aggression. This could be very likely what your grey is doing to the drapery. If so, he may need to be taught how to better land. Landing for a bird takes a lot of concentration, skill, and practice. Birds that are flighted travel faster than humans or a bird that walks or runs. A bird that is used to making decisions based on how quick they get to point A to point B based on running or walking is a lot different than a bird that is not used to flight having to make split decisions at such an increased form of transportation. That’s a huge deal to a bird. That is a huge deal to humans! Crashing in an airplane proves far more dissasterous results than crashing into someone on our walk through the park.
      Karen, you are asking some very awesome questions! It shows that you really want to know and are really concerned and willing to work at making a change. Great questions on where to begin as far as a reinforcer. Karen, if an almond in the shell is a valued reward for your grey, then I would absolutely pull it and give it at no other time other than when you are working on your training. with him. If you refrain from giving him an almond in the shell at any other time than when you are training him, the value of that almond to him is going to sky-rocket. Since an almond is not a major staple in his diet, I would refrain from giving him an almond in any form at any other time than training. This will place even higher value of the almond to your grey, this way any form in which you chose to present the almond (chopped, slivered, chunks) are going to be of high value to him. Being able to deliver the positive reinforcer (the almond) in smaller increments allows us the opportunity to request more behaviors before the bird gets full or satiates on the reward or positive reinforcer. Delivering the almond or almond bits at no other time than training time, makes that almond of higher value to your grey.
      Great questions, Karen. I’m really excited to hear of the changes you see when your training begins.

  2. Karen
    July 14, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Hi Lara

    He is just flying over to the shades and destroying them by just doing that. Not chewing on them or anything. Just his landing on them is damaging them. From there he’ll fly either to his stand or to my hand.

    He’s frustrated which makes me extremely frustrated which I’m sure adds even more of his aleady frustrated condition. Such a vicious cycle. It sounds very easy but when I try to implement any of the ideas he already has his foot in his beak. Take for instance teaching him how to land. He would never just hop off my arm on to the bed. Even if he was very relaxed state and had not had an almond in a 100 years he just wouldn’t do it. What he would do however, is stick his foot in his beak and start chewing his nails, flapping his wings and chirping nervously.

    You said I should try to prevent the behavior of nail-biting before it has the opportunity to happen by watching his body language. I sometimes know what triggers him to start his nailing biting/chirping and sometimes I don’t. Until I find that special treat that he will drop anything and everything for there is no way to cue him to do anything. This is serious without that there is no hope of changing his behavior.

    Here’s an example: I know that when it’s time for the birds to go to bed he gets very anxious/nervous (the birdroom is upstairs). So if I have my grey downstairs with me and it’s “that time” he knows just by us walking toward and climbing the stairs that it’s “that time” and starts the nail biting as we are walking towards the stairs. Once in the room I will let them play for a little longer but will also let them know that in 10 minutes, 5 minutes they go to bed (I like them to know what is going to happen before it does). They may grab a bite to eat or drink before they find their sleeping spots. My grey is high on his net biting his nails and chirping. The other two have found their sleep spots and are settling in. I’ve tried dimming the lights and letting him find a comfortable spot to sleep (his net above his cage is where he likes to be) but he is not interested in doing anything but bite his nails and chirp. If I leave him on his net to sleep, before I have a chance to close the birdroom door and leave he’s flapping his wings and will fly out of the room. I’ve tried putting him in his cage with the door closed, with the door open, with the cage covered, uncovered. What I end up doing is putting him in his cage with the door left open, shut the lights and make a speedy exit out of the room and close the door. He seems fine after a minute or two. In the morning he is right where I left him unless he’s decided he wants to play and he’ll be on his net. So What could I do to prevent the nail biting in this situation? We have to use the stairs to get to the birdroom. If we’re already upstairs in the birdroom and it’s that time he knows then too without me having to say anything. Wish I could post a picture of my setup.

    Just to refresh your memory I recently moved all 3 birds into their new “birdroom” and it has taken my grey a good month to get used to it (so I thought) Maybe he’s afraid of the dark (never has been before). Can they sleep with the light on?

    • July 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Karen. It sounds as though you already have a good idea part of the time when he’s going to begin chewing his nails. Changing behaviors doesn’t always happen quickly. Many undesired behaviors that are well practiced may take longer in identifying the reinforcer(s). Starting a journal works for many people and this is something I do on a daily basis when focused on changing a behavior or working on training a new one. In this journal notes can be taken when identifying possible reinforcers, highly valued rewards, and particulars like people in the birds surroundings and coincidences. Also note the times when he doesn’t do it. This is so important because we can start training other desired behaviors that will eventually take the place of the undesired behavior.

      Birds have positive reinforcers in their daily lives. These can be better identified by sitting back and watching your bird. Watch what things your bird’s surroundings that attract its attention and interaction. This is how I identify positive reinforcers (rewards) of any bird before I begin interacting with it. High value is placed on these positive reinforcers when we use them sparingly. If a bird is used to me giving it a hand full of pine nuts every few hours, the pine nuts won’t be as valuable to the bird say if I were to use them sparingly and only when working on training a particular behavior such as stepping down off of me. This is a behavior that will need to be shaped and by shaped I mean taking small approximations toward the desired behavior. Teach these small approximations and reward each one successfully.

      Let me work on writing and video taping more entries focusing on what these steps look like. Let me also look for strong undesired behaviors in a bird and I’ll work on video taping how I shape alternate behaviors that become of high value to the bird due to working with positive reinforcers. I have a bird I’m getting ready to begin working with who is developing a strong history of showing many behaviors often labeled as ‘phobic’. I will be starting a continual page on my facebook page dedicated to this bird. When I get the bird home, I’ll send you an e-mail.

  3. truckerdot
    July 14, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    hi lara!its dot frn nj. r u comin 2 parapaloza thhs yr?didnt c ur name in tha adv.

    • July 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      Hi Dot. I went looking for your post about this on my FaceBook page the other day and could not find it.

      Yes, I will be speaking at ParrotPalooza again this year and will be there all three days. I’m looking forward to it. Are you coming?

  4. i love my parrot
    May 27, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Can you help me lara!!!!

    • May 31, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      Yes, I can. You may want to check your e-mail. I’ve sent you a couple of e-mails.

  5. helena
    September 27, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Hi i have an Two year old africangrey, he pul his wing not out but when he puls it then he screams. This is not a nice sound.

    • September 30, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      Hi Helena.

      Have you had your bird in to an avian vet for a full medical work-up?

      • Helena
        September 30, 2013 at 10:43 pm

        Yes I took him to an vet Dr Blunden he said Angel is in good health

  6. September 2, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Are you aware of The Parrot Project that I have? https://www.theanimalbehaviorcenter.com/projects/

  1. August 30, 2017 at 7:39 pm

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