Archive for the ‘Ask A Question’ Category

A “Bird Attacking” Question

August 21, 2012 5 comments

Watching for subtle signs in body language such as the raised head feathers shown in this photos of Suki, the blue-fronted amazon.

Question: Hi Lara!  I have a bird “attacking” question.

I’ve had my Amazon since she was only a few months old.  I did have a couple of biting instances with friends and kids, so I’m pretty much the only one who handles her now.  In the last few months the problem has gotten much worse.

She’s fully flighted.  26 months old.  I do not seek out interaction with her – at least not interaction where I am holding her.  But she flies at my face constantly, lands in my hair and attacks my ears.  She also attacks my hands repeatedly.  This is not nipping.  This is grabbing my fingers in her beak and grinding to the bone.  And this has become EVERY interaction.  I have a house full of other parrots and dogs and I spend 98% of my time trying to deal with this bird.

I’ve taken a behavior analysis parrot class.  Studied all the ABA papers.  I don’t  use any kind of punishment , I don’t force her into anything (well, only if she’s got me to the bone, and then it’s only prying her beak off of me). All of her physical interactions with me are because she flies to me.  Her diet is well rounded (chop, Harrison’s pellets).  Her meds check out fine with the vet.  When I train her with positive reinforcement, she actually gets more aggressive (tail fanning, eye pinning and snapping).  She’s also impossible to motivate unless it’s something she REALLY shouldn’t have like butter or meat.  I can spend a great time with her, working on staying on the hand without biting, doing something OTHER than biting like holding a toy or keeping the head up.  Nope.  She nails my hand over and over again.

By the way, she does also express breeding behavior with me.  Wings down, panting, regurgitating.  I don’t encourage it, but it’s hard to get her off me at times and since there’s always a huge bit involved, I’m gun shy.

I’ve done everything.  I’ve tried to be quiet and calm.  I’ve tried to be peppy and upbeat.  Everything seems to upset her.

I’ve asked for help – but am shamed by the behaviorists who tell me that “I’ve created the problem.”  It’s humiliating when I’m trying to do everything to save this bird.  I’ve always wanted to be part of the parrot solution, not the problem.  I have excellent relationships with my other birds (even hard cases from rescues).  I really don’t want to give her up since I’m afraid she’ll be passed from home to home, but I don’t know what to do and my hands are sore and bleeding constantly.  I need to give some attention to the other animals in my home.  I need to read a book or watch TV without being attacked.

I’m tired of crying my eyes out.  I’ve spent thousands of dollars on behavior classes and books and everything I do seems to make matters worse. I need solutions, and fast because I’m running out of options.  😦

Thanks, Julia


Hi Julia.

So many areas to begin but first I want to commend you for seeking help. Your determination is obvious and I admire your dedication and persistence in working with your amazon. You definitely have a serious situation and let me see if I can offer a few different things that may help.

I am sorry to hear that anyone in the field of giving behavior advice has shamed you for or about seeking help. I’m glad their intention has not worked because what does this solve? Our goal as behavior analysts and modifiers should be focused on the best for the bird and their caretaker and giving the help needed to help create a stronger relationship so the bird keeps it’s home and the family can live happily as a whole.

Let me start with body language. You may already know your amazon’s body language well, but I would encourage you to look more

Watch what your birds eats from its food dish first. Those are potential valuable reinforcers that could be delivered throughout the day to reward behaviors you want to see increase.

intently at it. Body language can be so subtle but it is one of our (as owners/caretakers) biggest clues as to what the bird is trying to tell us. Julia, when I first meet a bird and before I begin interacting with it, I watch it. I observe how it’s body language changes as it interacts or observes its immediate environment. What does the bird look like when a loud sound startles it? How does that bird react when someone stops near its cage or playstand? What does the feather placement look like when it is preening, sleeping, or relaxing? What does the feather placement look like when it is not relaxed? I need to learn as much as I can about the bird’s body language because I am more than likely getting ready to interact with it.

I also sit back and observe what the bird’s body language looks like when it is interested in something or what the body language

looks like when it seems to be enjoying what it is interacting with. I look at all of this as a form of communication from the bird to myself and how I respond to that body language is a form of communication to the bird.

I pair learning the bird’s body language with use of the bird’s reinforcers. If the bird walks to his food dish I try to look to see what it first picks out of the food dish. Was it corn? Was it a nut? Or was it to make one swipe of its beak and push the majority of its food to the cage grate? Each of these three items are very important and we can learn from each of them. If the bird first goes for the corn, guess what the bird doesn’t get in his food bowl tomorrow morning? Yeah, corn! If that corn is valued by the bird, it is going to be of more value to the bird if it hasn’t had any in several hours.

The sound of your voice, the tone of your voice, or how enthusiastically you deliver attention can be a very effective reinforcer for behavior. Photo courtesy of Viki Bullock.

As you have learned from taking the classes you have, reinforcers can be more than just food. One of my bird’s most delivered positive reinforcers from me is my voice. Actually it is more than just my voice. It is my tone of voice and the variance in how I use it when interacting with my birds from different rooms. I’m mentioning this because our interaction with birds and beginning to rebuild that relationship with our bird does not have to be ‘hand’s-on’ in the beginning. I am suggesting this is one of the approaches you take with your bird. When your bird makes a cute noise, respond to it vocally. You don’t have to get up. You don’t have to walk over to the bird’s cage. Just repeat the cute sound and watch how your bird reacts to it. When it does it again, repeat it. How does he react to it? Does he react to it? Try it again. If he begins to react to it and repeat the noise, guess what? That noise is being reinforced and if your bird keeps doing it, he might be enjoying this ‘hand’s-off’ communication and interaction with you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t touch your bird again. This just starts paving a new form of communication between you and your bird. Touching and physically interacting with the bird needs to be re-shaped as I explain below.

Remember that corn or that nut that he first ate from the food dish? Begin incorporating that by pairing it with yourself. Keep those favored foods and ration them out throughout the day and incorporate them into your training plan everyday. What I mean by this is, when you need to walk into the room, or by the cage, set a piece of corn (or whatever the favored food item is) on the cage, the furthest distance between you and your bird or at a distance where the bird’s body language remains calm. You don’t want to push this area of comfort to where the feathers raise on the back of the neck, or the eyes pin, or the feathers begin to stiffen up. Begin at a distance where you know the bird is going to stay calm and comfortable while you place the corn, nut, etc. on a cage rung and pass by. Bingo! That was a training session. Training sessions do not have to be long. Most of mine last ten seconds to a couple of minutes. The importance is not in the length of the training session but the frequency throughout the day.

Repeat the walks by the cage while pairing yourself with the bird’s favored reinforcers as long as it takes. You can feed a piece of corn

Rebecca target training Suki, the blue fronted amazon from inside the cage. She’s delivering the reinforcer between the cage bars to better learn Suki’s body language before getting her out and interacting with her by recall training her.

or a small sliver of a nut several times a day. Then take it to the next step and begin setting the food reward closer and closer. Then get to the point where you can hand it through the cage bar. The cage bars are nice and a place to really learn to see if your bird will take the food from your hands without biting you. Hold the treat far enough away that the bird can’t bite you just in case you misread the body language. You don’t want the bite to happen at all, but this is a great way to make sure you are reading body language correctly before moving to the next step. Soon, you can open the cage door and set the food reward down on the perch and then walk away. Soon handing the food to the bird inside the cage, etc.

There is more training that can happen but it could take me several pages to write. Remember, the bird is always the one that decides the reinforcer, never us. We can reserve the reinforcers and give at times of training and this is how we can make that reinforcer of higher value to the bird. Just as it is the bird that decides the reinforcer, it is also the bird that decides the aversive. An aversive is something the bird doesn’t like, as you may already know. Watch the body language and the bird is going to be the one that tells you if he or she sees something as an aversive and when he/she does, you really don’t want that paired with you if you are trying to re-build a relationship.

Julia, if you go to my youtube page (LaraJosephBirdLover) you will be able to see several videos of me working with birds that have a long history of aggressive behaviors being reinforced. Take a look at some of my training videos of me with Molly, my eclectus. Take a look at some of the videos of me working with Willy the turkey vulture. I know it’s a turkey vulture, not a parrot but the approaches in training and use of reinforcers and arranging the environment for successful outcomes is the same.

Hailey training a blue and gold macaw to touch its beak to a stick. This is also called target training and is a handy tool to use, especially working with birds who have a history of showing any signs of aggressive behaviors. This allows the trainer to request behaviors with no contact and the target can guide the bird to different areas of the cage or room.

Without turning this reply into a book, I wanted to mention target training her. Train her to touch her beak to an object on cue, such as a stick. If she doesn’t like the stick you can re-shape the behavior of her staying calm while touching her beak to a stick. You can also shape the behavior of her touching the top of her beak to the stick if she is tending to want to bite the stick and pull it in the cage. This would help not only in redirecting her attention when you think she’s getting ready to bite you, this will also help when you think she might be getting ready to drop her wings and start panting. Don’t wait until either of these behaviors happens. Ask her to target when you think the chances are high of either of these behaviors happening. And just like crate training, don’t wait to begin crate training when it’s time to go to the vet. Crate train when a vet visit isn’t even scheduled so that way when it’s time to go to the vet, the training is already set in place. Don’t wait to target train when she’s on your hand and getting ready to drop her wings. Target train her after you have already trained her to stay calm when you pass by her cage.

As far as working with reinforcers that aren’t the most nutritious for the bird, start with what works while gathering and making a list of others. Watch what she eats first out of her dish. Watch what she eats second. Pull those and reserve those for reinforcing throughout the day. Mix those in with what already works while slowly weeding out the not-so-nutritious.

Once again, I want to commend you for all of the steps you have taken so far to attempt to make a difference with your amazon. I understand your pain, frustration, and this emotional roller-coaster ride. I know that first hand. You, and situations like yours, are the reinforcers behind why I continue to do what I do.

Before I bring this post to a close, you may want to join me on my Avian Behavior, Training, and Enrichment page on FaceBook. I try to post behavior issues, training approaches, and different videos several times a week to help people.


Lara Joseph


A Question About an Issue with Nipping

June 2, 2012 11 comments

Rewarding small steps in teaching a new behavior earns the trust between the bird and the bird owner. Keeping the training sessions short and frequent can result in obvious progress.


Hi Lara.

Two people have highly referred me to you. I have a blue-throated macaw and she is really nippy and pulling new feathers out.    Her worse times with me is nipping.  She turned three on February 21st. She needs to trust more and needs more enrichment activities.  She free flies and has an aviary. From the time I got her until about the time she was a year old, I applied the positive rewards, her nipping just got worse.  Then I did the earthquake and things were better.  There are times she could be as sweet as can be then in a blink of the eye, she screams and nips.  I am the only one living in my house. I don’t  take her outside because I can predict her reaction (she flies and is scared) and I have not moved my hand. Actually I am not even touching her, just holding her against my head.   I was advised to spray her even if she doesn’t like it.  Well I did but now she shakes so I am not doing it anymore.  She does need to be sprayed.  An overhead mister that goes off if I am not around would be great.

Melinda – Ohio



Hi Melinda.

There are several things that can be addressed from your situation. First, you mentioned see needs more enrichment. Enrichment is unique to each bird just as it is to us and it is the bird that decides what is enriching, not us. It is up to us to identify their forms of enrichment and then offer them to the bird and in the bird’s environment. I was just telling someone yesterday that my birds’ favored forms of enrichment are flight games and flight training, positive reinforcement training, and foraging. I know this by watching my birds’ behaviors.

If you read other entries in my blog, you will find how I define finding reinforcers and rewarding effectively. If a behavior is increasing, it is because it is being reinforced. You mentioned you’ve tried positively rewarding other behaviors but the nipping increased. If the nipping increased, it is being reinforced. It is easy to take bigger steps than what our birds are ready for. The steps need to be small and at the bird’s pace. It is also the bird that decides the reinforcer, it is never us. If behaviors aren’t changing, make sure you are not taking too big of steps and make sure the reinforcers you are offering are of high value to your bird. The best form of communication from our birds is their body language. As you are interacting with your bird, ask yourself “Does this bird look completely comfortable?” I not, you could be pushing your bird too far. Take a step back in what you are training and reward from there.

If you are holding your bird and she bites for no obvious reason, I would try target training her. There is a reason and training may help you in identifying it. Target training is one of the first things I train with a bird because it develops a line of communication and it teaches the bird what you are asking and learning the new positive consequences. Positive reinforcement training is the best form of communication I have found to use with an animal, which is why I am a huge fan of it. Target training is when an animal touches a specific object with a particular body part. A very common form of target training is asking a bird to touch its beak to a stick when the stick is presented.

Here is a video of Rebecca, who trained Suki the amazon to target her beak to a stick during A Day With The Trainer.

I’ve target trained all of my birds to put both feet on my wrist when I ask them to step up. Yes, this is a form of target training. If they step up, I reward. I have several birds that had issues with biting or nipping and I used this form of training to train them the behavior of stepping on my wrist without biting. This is what I am training the green-winged macaw in the photo above. I’m not pushing him and I rewarded him for even putting his foot up before he stepped onto my hand. Once they do this, I reward and then ask them to step off and reward again when they do. If I know a bird has a nipping issue, I definitely do not want them nipping when on my wrist so one of the places I’ll begin is to ask them to step back off immediately before the bird has the opportunity to nip. If the bird nips twice, it is being reinforced so I want to ask the bird to step off of my hand before he has the opportunity to nip. Then I slowly begin increasing the amount of time the bird is on my wrist and then reward that amount of time. Once I ask the bird to step up and it does, I reward. Ask it to step off and it does, reward. Ask it to step back on, reward. Have it sit there for two seconds, reward. Ask it to step off, reward. Then reward for sitting on the wrist for four seconds, for six, for ten, twenty, etc. Do you see how this works?

Keep training sessions short and frequent. I often train a bird for 20 seconds to a couple of minutes and then the training session is over. I’ll then come back and train again thirty minutes later and have another quick training session. Training short and frequently often is more effective than training long periods of time infrequently throughout the day. With every interaction you have with your bird you are training it. The key question is “What are you training?”.

I don’t use the earthquake method if I don’t have to. The only time I’ll use it is if the alternative is worse, and even then, if I have to use it, I’ll use it once and then make sure I then work on the behavior issue causing the problem versus having to use it again. Here is the reason I don’t use the earthquake method, it doesn’t build the trust and the relationship between you and the bird when the bird is on you. If this method is used once in a while, it could keep nipping behaviors very strong because the bird may know when that method is coming, and may get nervous in the anticipation of it which could result in the sudden bite or nip. Using the earthquake method doesn’t teach the bird what you really want it to do. Teach the bird to do something else, like target it’s beak to a stick. This way if you think you may see a nip coming while the bird is on you, ask it to touch the stick instead. This way the bird knows if it touches the stick, the reward is coming and you can direct the bird’s beak away from your arm. I would then ask the bird to step off of you so a nip isn’t accidentally reinforced.

When you begin the target training, I would begin when the bird is not on you, this way if you see a potential nip getting ready to happen you can avoid being accidentally bit. This way, when the bird is actually on your arm and you ask the bird to touch the stick, it is already familiar with what you are asking.

How water is introduced to the bird and the consequences will be the underlying factor in the bird’s future acceptance of how it is presented. This is often how I introduce a bird to allow the hose in close proximity, prepping the bird to accept taking a shower from it.

I’m glad to hear you have stopped the spraying if the bird doesn’t like it. You can train her to like it taking the same small steps in positive reinforcement training that you’ll use in target training her. I’ve trained all of my birds that the mist from the shower or the mist from a hose is a good time. The approach was different for each bird, because each bird is its own individual. Often times I’ll take the hose and shower another bird that likes it and have the bird watch. That doesn’t always work on its own though. Many times I’ll have the bird drink the water from my hand to introduce it to the water coming from the hose. Then I’ll introduce the hose in close proximity and reward the bird for allowing the hose in close proximity. Then I’ll reward the bird from drinking from the hose. My goal is to reinforce calm behavior while in close proximity to the hose. Once the mist gets so close to the bird, I may have a few droplets of the mist touch the bird for a quick second and then reward with the bird’s positive reinforcers. If that is too much for the bird and it shows any sign of nervousness, I take a step back in introducing the mist to the hose and start over. Often times in this house, the bird’s positive reinforcers are attention from me and for the bird to hear how good they are. Slowly I begin having a few drops of mist hit the bird’s wing very quickly and frequently, each time reinforcing heavily. This pairs the bird’s most valued reinforcers with the mist hitting its wing. If I use the reinforcers effectively, the bird will begin looking forward to the presentation of the hose.

After positively reinforcing the introduction of the hose into the bird’s environment at the bird’s pace, I’ve seen most birds enjoy the opportunity for a shower.

Question on training a behavior; training a bird to trust me getting closer in proximity to him.

August 14, 2011 6 comments


Dear Lara,

        About a month ago I adopted what I was told to be a 6-year-old blue-fronted hybrid amazon parrot. When I got him I was told he was given up because the lady that had him got him to breed him and when he didn’t she got rid of him. Since I first got him he’s never really wanted anything to do with people. He would snatch food from our hand and then throw it, and wouldn’t come out of his cage. After about 2 weeks he got up the confidence to come out on his play-top and he isn’t rough at taking food from us anymore he has even started to mimic me as long as he sees the pieces of almonds I use to reward him. However, he is still very skittish when it comes to us getting too close. he wont step up, let us touch him, or even let us get within a foot of him unless he sees a treat. He is also afraid of a hand-held perch. I’ve been told different ways to deal with this such as forcing him to step up which only resulted in him being scared and my hand bleeding, and to just go slowly and wait until he’s ready…I’m in this for the long haul and love a challenge but was wondering if there was any tricks to help it progress a little faster or to help me gain his trust a little faster. He’s not really a biter or have an aggression problem it’s only when he gets cornered which I understand, but any type of advice would be appreciated. Thank you.


            Terri, Florida

Hi Terri.

First I want to thank you providing a home to a bird that is in need of one. I know I’ve spoke with you before and this bird is lucky to have found you. Time and patience can be exactly what this bird needs but one thing I’ve noticed in training, especially with birds who show signs of extreme fear, if we focus on minute accomplishments in the desired direction with these birds, we will see many of them. Keeping training sessions short and very frequent can produce desired results more quickly. Pending on the individual bird, when working with birds that are very hand-shy or fearful of the sight of us, I keep my training sessions anywhere around 10 seconds to about a minute and a half. I make these sessions very frequent though. If my training session lasts about 10 seconds, I may have twenty of these 10 second training sessions in the period of an hour or two. I’ll come back a few hours later and repeat the training sessions. Terri, I find this very effective and this repetition helps build the trust in expectations of us from the bird pretty quickly.

Secondly, I’d like to say, the progress you’ve said you’ve made so far with your amazon is pretty impressive. I just want to send a kudos where and when nice work has been done.

All body language is a sign of communication - an african grey raising its feathers in an approach - photo courtesy of Viki Bullock

Here is exactly where I would start in working with his confidence in proximity to you and the members of your household. Start with rewarding the proximity he will let you to him now while slowly shaping closer steps towards him. Shaping, as you may know is taking small approximations toward the desired behavior. How small of approximations? Your amazon will tell you. Look for the subtle signs he may show you that you may be getting too close. You will want to watch for all of the subtle signs he gives right before he thinks about moving away from you. Your goal is to have him not move away from you, right? Don’t forget to reinforce this. You will be reinforcing him for staying still and showing all signs of calm body language as you approach.

These subtle signs in which you will learn to read may be the raising of the feathers on the nape of the neck, the small lean away from you, or just glancing in the direction of his escape. Learn to read these and pay attention to these, as you may already be taking these steps.

In addition to the above, I would arrange the immediate environment for you to be able to reward the behavior you want to see increase. Since it is proximity in which you are wanting, it may be hard for you to reinforce because you can’t get close enough to reinforce him.

Forcing a bird to do a requested behavior can have many side effects as you have already seen one, increased aggression. Forcing a bird to do something takes his choice out of the environment and there are many side effects to this also and none of these are relationship building. One major problem with forcing a bird to do something is that it is often times associated with us. Isn’t it us in which we are trying to shape the behavior of trust with the bird? As you have seen, forcing a bird to do something often sets you way back in your training strategy.

It sounds as though you have successfully trained him to be trusting in getting close enough to him to calmly take food from your hands. For others reading this who may have a bird that they can’t get this close to yet, I would suggest setting up an attachable and mobile food cup on the outside of his cage furthest  from him. If that is still too close, pull up a rolling play stand with food dishes and place it next to the cage. Drop the treat in the dish furthest away from the cage so the bird has to climb off the top of the cage top and across the rolling play stand.

Using a highly valued reinforcer for the behavior of calm perching on my computer vs anything else. This is now a very desired spot for my bird to sit because he knows praise (a highly valued reinforcer of his) is always given to him for perching calmly here.

You may want to begin shaping the behavior of having him stay calm without seeing the treat. If he knows with each approach you are delivering a highly valued reinforcer of his, the quicker he will begin to learn you are always paired with this reinforcer. That happens through consistency and you have to make sure you are doing this every single time while shaping the behavior. Otherwise, if you are not delivering the reinforcer on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, you maybe putting his reluctance in your approach on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. By this I mean if once in a awhile you do not deliver the treat, he may be anticipating that once in a while and this can keep his behavior reluctance in letting you close to him very strong. When shaping a behavior, the trainer wants to make sure they are always reinforcing that desired behavior….always until the behavior is consistent and understood by the animal.

As I was saying, you might want to start shaping your proximity without showing the treat. Showing a treat to encourage a desired behavior is called luring and I will lure when trying to shape a behavior. The problem with luring is exactly the problem you are seeing. The bird will not give you the desired behavior unless he sees what is in it for him.

With fading out the lure, we need to re-think our strategy and approach and maybe take a few steps back and re-work in getting that desired behavior back without luring. Fading out the lure is shaping a new behavior, Terri. Based on what you’ve described in the behavior you have already trained, I have no doubt you can do this and if you love a challenge, I guarantee you that you’ll love this one. It is very rewarding when birds start giving us behaviors when requested without knowing what the reinforcer is or when it will be delivered.

I’ve recently trained a bird with luring him to go into his cage by showing him a handful of pine nuts. I have recently started fading out

Luring in shaping the behavior of recall to an african grey. - photo courtesy of Viki Bullock

the lure by showing him my closed fist while requesting him to step onto his perch. When he steps onto and only when he has both feet firmly placed on his perch do I open my hand to show the contents. I just have to make sure the contents are of value to him and the bird is the one that always decides. My next steps are to slowly fade out my closed hand having to be in such close proximity to the perch to attain the behavior of him stepping onto it. With time, patience, consistency, and fluency we will quickly see progress. The signs of progress can be very minute signs in body language and comfort. (3 videos of fading out a lure below)

Terri, I was going to suggest target training for your amazon in this reply but have decided to make that a separate entry because fading out the lure would be my next suggestion in your training plan. I’ll work on target training being one of my next entries because I think it would also be of high value in progress in your training strategy.

I hope this has helped. It was a pleasure responding to your questions.


Lara Joseph

luring a screech owl to step onto the glove (1 of 3 of a series of videos on luring and fading out the lure)

gradually fading out luring a screech-owl to the glove. In this video you will see me cue him and he doesn’t respond so I quickly show the lure but the lure wasn’t present in the beginning.

This is a video showing me calling the screech-owl to the glove while totally fading out the lure. The lure no longer exists. You may have noticed in this video and the last, I was also teaching the owl to a designated perch on cue after calling it to the glove. These are very casual videos of training but training strong behaviors.

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

July 5, 2011 13 comments

 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? 


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:

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

Question on behavior . . . Bird showing sudden signs of aggression after change in routine.

May 26, 2011 2 comments

Hey Lara,

I learned enough from your behavior seminar to know that SOMETHING is reinforcing this behavior but I was wondering about your input as to what started it. Boo (my african grey, male approximately 8 years old) has started being REALLY aggressive to the point of not being able to handle him. He shows all the signs and gives me warning (eyes pinning, feathers fluffed). There hasn’t been any trauma to speak of. His schedule was disrupted for the last week when my hubby was out-of-town. He usually gets him up and fed, etc for the day as he works from home. Boo likes to sleep very late most days….11 or so. He has his own (laundry) sleeping room/cage. While Dave was gone I had to get him up @ 7ish everyday that I worked. Boo wasn’t crazy about that but now we are back to the usual schedule.  He has been the same way to Dave since he got back. I thought maybe it was just ME doing all the care for the week that Dave was gone that threw him off. Then, just to throw a monkey wrench into the mix…he’ll be really sweet. Sometimes he displays aggressively, then when I ask him to step up he does willingly  (for which he always receives great praise).  It seems to be cage/territory related as it’s always when I am putting him back in the cage and sometimes when I’m getting him out, a lot of times to his request to get him. “Wanna come here?”  I try REALLY hard not to respond when he nails me but sometimes it’s so quick and hard that it’s hard not to yell out….I thought that was the game….and tried not to respond, I’ll just leave him on the door and walk out of the room to de-fuse the situation but it is escalating.  I thought that once he got back to his old schedule, it would die down….but not so far…(since monday) I’m using a perch to move him around because he has drawn blood a number of times.  I also noticed he is not eating near as well as he usually does.  He has plenty of enrichment opportunities.  He does not appear sick…is still vocalizing and whistling and interacting with us as long as we’re not in/around the cage.  The other variable is a new puppy that we have…I try to spend a little one on one time each night with Boo. I’m getting very wary of that because I don’t trust him…so, it’s kinda a catch 22…the less time I spend the more “wild” he gets….and the more “wild” and nippy…the less I want to handle him.  The other things I have considered are: 1) Don’t they reach sexual maturity about 8 yrs old?  2) The change in daylight hours lengthening…3) the new member of our “pack”…he seems to have accepted the new dog and they co-habitate well..meeting nose to nose (under my DIRECT supervision) and there is no striking. They have a healthy curiosity about each other than they go about their own way. Just wondering about any input you might have other than ignoring his strikes. I don’t know how to “punish” the behavior. He does say “Ouch” occasionally. No doubt he learned quickly from OUR responses but it’s really hard NOT to respond when the bites so quick and so painful. Other than TRYING to ignore the behavior, what do I do to defuse the behavior?


Columbus, Ohio

Hi Shelley!

It is very good to hear that you are recognizing the fact that something is reinforcing an undesired behavior you are seeing in Boo. It is also good to hear that you have recognized this through one of my workshops. It is good to hear from you and I’m glad you are touching base with me about your concern on where this behavior is going and what it is now turning out to be.

Before we move on in suggestions in behavior change, I always suggest a veterinary check up, especially since you’ve noticed a change in his eating habits. Once the veterinarian gives a thumbs up on health, it can rule that out of causing behavior issues.

You’ve noticed the correlation in the change in the environment (the disruption in Boo’s morning routine) and the change in his behavior. Environmental

Small variances in how we present food during feeding schedules may help in forming routines.

changes can and usually to have an effect on behavior. There are many things in which I’d love to share thoughts with you in your situation, so let me begin with this one.

Often times it is easy for us to follow routines in our daily lives. Routines help us keep on track and make sure daily rituals are accomplished. Schedules are great such as in the mornings we eat breakfast, in the afternoon we eat lunch, and in the evening we eat dinner. Routines are those in which become habit and we mostly stick to an order in how things are done in our daily schedules. Many times we can not avoid schedules but we do have the option to change routines. The reason I mention this is because when we stick to having routines with our birds, if there comes a time where life happens and that routine needs to be broken it may cause stress, confusion, or frustration with our birds such as you have seen with Boo’s routine with your husband’s daily work schedule.

Schedules still happen and we have the opportunity to begin varying routines. For example, every day Boo needs to come out of his sleeping cage and into a main living space to eat breakfast every morning. There may be plenty of opportunities to begin varying the time in which Boo comes out of his cage. For example, if Boo is used to coming out of his sleeping cage at 11a.m. change that routine a little by having your husband take him out at 10:45 a.m. one day. Fifteen minutes isn’t a huge change, but it is a slight one that may be able to be implemented in such a small step that it doesn’t cause stress to Boo. The next day take him out at 10:55. The next day 10: 40. Maybe on a Saturday you go in and get Boo out of his sleeping cage at 10:50. Once he starts getting used to this change, maybe one day you can move him from his sleep cage at 10:30a.m. Keep the time changes at small increments with the intention of incorporating change into his daily schedule.

Another change in a routine could be one day he gets his breakfast in his main cage. Maybe the next day he gets breakfast on his play-stand. The next day maybe he gets breakfast back in his cage and the next on the arm of the chair next to you. This allows us to still have a schedule while allowing us to break away from routine.

These are things I focus on in my household. I try not to keep the birds on many routines because if that routine is broken, I begin to see undesired behavior issues begin to develop. If Rocky was used to coming out of his cage and into his bird room every morning at 10 a.m., how would this effect him when I have a doctor’s appointment next week at 11 a.m. and I need him to stay in his cage until I get back? At this point, I feel my assumption of Rocky beginning to scream once he realizes his routine is being broken will be pretty accurate. I feel good about this assumption because I’ve learned from experience. Rocky used to be on small routines. I now focus on keeping daily schedules varied such as food variety, variety in presentation, in time, and in the time he comes out of his cage.

Providing individually appropriate enrichment in cages may help in keeping a bird occupied while varying out of a routine.

When I know I am getting ready to go out-of-town for an upcoming workshop, I will also start varying schedules in bigger increments to get my birds ready for a major change in plans. I am on my way home now from a workshop and last week I knew my birds would be spending a good majority of their times in their large cages until I got home. So, I began leaving them in their cages for longer periods of time at varying times of the day each day. I began varying which bird came out and when, and where they went when they did come out. I like to keep them used to change while paying close attention to frustration levels. I keep the changes small and varying based on the individual bird as to not cause stress or frustration. As they start getting used to the change, I start changing things on a larger scale to the point where I can really make large changes in daily schedules and watching how the birds adapt readily from it.

One never knows when life is going to throw them a curve ball and it has a major impact on our daily schedule. The more we can continually vary schedules into our bird’s lives, the better prepared for change they will be when change happens and the less amount of behavior issues you will see if any.

In your situation, Boo had a major and pretty big change in daily routine when you were having to get him up at 7 a.m. versus what he was used to. If Boo perceived this waking and moving as something he didn’t like, guess who this may be associated with? Yes, you. You also have seen that his behavior has changed toward your husband too. Why, without more detail I’m not sure, but the important thing is that you have noticed this. This gives us a place to start in changing behavior.

I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement training because of how great of an impact it has had on my birds’ lives, for the better and their behavior issues or lack of them now. When I ask a behavior from my bird, I always make sure there is something of value in it for the bird. Always. Otherwise, why would my bird want to give me the behavior I am asking if there is nothing in it for him? This is true with us also. Why would you want to go to work everyday if there was not anything in it for you? The reason most of us go to work is because there is something in it in return for us and that is usually the paycheck. Many people love their jobs and are willing to take pay cuts because their work environments offer other positive reinforcers such as a very rewarding boss, good friends, the ability to help others, etc. My point here is that each of our positive reinforcers is different and varies among person to person. Our positive reinforcers are decided by us. Not by our friends, our neighbors, or our bosses. You may like chocolate and would get up off the couch to cross the room to eat a piece of chocolate from the candy jar. I on the other hand, do not like chocolate and can’t think of one instance where it would ever be a motivator for me to expend the energy of standing up and walking across the room. If there was a bowl of macaroni and cheese across the room, that would be of high value to me and I would probably sprint to the other side of the room to get it.

This is the same for our birds. Make sure praise is of value to your bird. Is it a fair return for behavior performed from Boo and if so, is it of high enough value at that particular time? Praise may be of high value to Boo when you ask him to step up off of his play stand onto your hand so you can walk him across the room and deliver him to your husband, but that praise may not be of high enough value to Boo to give to him when you’ve asked him to step up onto your hand from his sleeping cage at 7a.m. Do you see where I am coming from?

The more we reserve a particular highly valued reinforcer or reward from a bird, the higher value that particular item or event becomes. For example, if Boo

The reward for requested behavior we ask from a bird coming out of the cage may be completely different from the reward given for the bird going back into the cage.

loves walnuts and he received walnuts at no other time than when you asked him to step up out of his sleeping cage and onto your hand at 8, 9, or 10a.m., my guess would be that Boo will be more willing to give you the behavior you are requesting with little time for him to think about it. The consistent pairing of this behavior and this highly valued positive reinforcer could be a fair trade-off for the behavior being requested and more importantly, this positive reinforcer is consistently being associated with you!

One of the many things I love about interacting with birds with positive reinforcement is you are consistently being paired with the ‘fair trade-offs’ for requested behaviors, often times the bird’s positive reinforcer begins to change from treats to you.

Shelley, I picked your question to answer this time because there were several great points you brought up and great areas to address which I hope help you and the many others reading this that are having some of the same behavior hurdles to jump. In the workshop I was involved in giving over this past weekend, one of the many things we addressed was a biting bird. Ignoring a biting bird is extremely hard to do, dangerous, and one I would never suggest a person try. If you remember from the workshop we defined many things and punishment and positive punishment were two of the terms. Punishment is an event that follows a behavior that decreases the future rate of that behavior. For example, Johnny sticks his hand on a hot stove. The behavior is Johnny sticking his hand on the stove. The punisher is the burn that the stove gave him. If the future rate of Johnny sticking his hand on the stove decreases, the behavior has been punished. The burn from the hot stove was added (+) to the environment. The hot stove is therefore the positive (+ added) event that caused the behavior to decrease, this is an example of positive punishment. When trying to modify or change the behavior of our birds one of the things we want to stay as far away from as possible is using positive punishment because the positive punishers are always things the bird doesn’t like. If we use positive punishment with our birds to change behavior, this means we are using something the bird doesn’t like to decrease the future rate of the behavior. If we are using things the bird doesn’t like to decrease the behavior, there are many reasons we don’t want to use these and one of them is the fact that we are consistently pairing ourselves with using things on the bird that the bird doesn’t like. More than likely with this pairing, the bird will begin to not look forward to our approach. I was just telling attendees of the workshop this past weekend, the only time it is ok to use a positive punisher on a bird’s behavior is when the alternative is worse. I would never suggest someone endure the duration and pain of a bite. Pull your hand away and into safety and begin your training plan in how to begin working on modifying this behavior.

Rocky flapping his wings on cue from a safe place on my arm. I positively reinforce the behavior of him perching where I want him to perch, on my hand.

For example, last week I was relaxing in the aviary and reading a book. I wasn’t paying attention and Rocky moved from my lower arm and up to my shoulder. Rocky is never allowed on my shoulder because for whatever reason, when he is behind me and higher by my head, he tends to lunge and bite. Why? I have no clue, but the important thing is to notice that he does it and to prevent situations from letting it happen again. I’ve used target training to ask Rocky to move to different safe areas and the use of punishment was avoided. On this particular instance though, once I realized Rocky was on my shoulder I immediately became very concerned. I couldn’t target him back down my arm because I didn’t have a free hand to use to target because my hand was now up and covering my face. I moved in front of a window to see what Rocky’s body language looked like and he was showing the same body language he does when he’s getting ready to lunge and bite. I had a quick decision to make, take a severe bite to the face or drop my shoulder and shake him off. I chose the latter. I dropped my shoulder and Rocky flew to the ground. I punished the behavior of Rocky standing on my shoulder. By removing a place for him to perch, I was associated with the aversive. I chose to take this route and then work and focus on not letting this happen again to make sure this behavior is not being reinforced.

If Boo bites you, I would suggest removing your hand and work on a training strategy such as using positive reinforcement for asking Boo to step up. Find his favored treats and offer them to him only at the times in which you need him to step up. Remember, Boo is the one that decides what these rewards or positive reinforcers are, it is never us. Ask for the behavior and then when he does it, give him the treat. That may sound easier than what it is. In the beginning you may have to show him the treat when asking for the behavior. Offer your hand, ask Boo to step up and show him the reward. This is a behavior called “luring”. I often lure a bird in the beginning stages of training a behavior. Soon when the bird realizes that every time you ask a behavior of it and it does it, it knows there is something of value in it for him and the future rates of behavior increase….positive reinforcement. If you are unsure of using your hand to request the ‘step-ups’, try beginning training with a perch. At the same time you are doing this pay very close attention to the body language. You will begin to better read when Boo wants to do something and when he doesn’t. Don’t force him to do something when he doesn’t want to do it. This often brings on aggression. Instead find a different highly valued positive reinforcer of his.

Target training is another behavior I highly suggest you try. This puts you in a safe situation while better learning the bird’s body language. It also helps the bird better read yours. Target training is when you ask the bird to touch a certain body part to an object. It could be asking the bird to touch its toes to your finger or its beak to the end of a chopstick as shown in the video below. Positively reinforce the behavior you want to see increase all the while by paying close attention to not push the bird in giving behaviors such as lunging and biting that you don’t want to see.

In this video is a workshop I co-hosted showing Connie teaching an amazon to target its beak to the end of a chopstick. This could come handy to Connie if she found herself in a situation with this amazon where she couldn’t read the body language to tell if she was about to get bit or not. If the bird was already target trained she could ask the bird to touch its beak to the chopstick while she repositioned herself in a safer position.

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

May 11, 2011 5 comments

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:

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.

%d bloggers like this: