My Thoughts On Taming A Pet Parrot


NOTE:  I have a new pet behavior blog located at  Thanks!

(one of my past Hyde Park Living columns)

Alright, I’ve got to speak my mind this month. I have heard so many people and seen so many web sites talking about ‘taming’ birds.

Knowing what I know about behavior and being as compassionate as I am about other living beings, I hate that phrase. It makes me cringe actually because taming to me infers dominance and force. And dominance and force in no way helps build a relationship of trust and foster quality of life.

Let me share some excerpts of ‘taming’ tactics suggested on web sites.

“If you make a fist and bend your wrist as far as it will go, you’ll notice that the skin on the back of the fist becomes very tight.  Bring your fist up to the bird very slowly, finding out where its striking range is….The Fist, brought slowly toward the bird’s beak, can be used to control the bird, move it away from you, hold it off and let it know that you are not about to be driven out of the territory.”

“If your bird is so aggressive that you cannot safely place your hand inside its cage, try wearing thick oven mitts on your hands. If your bird bites the mitt, gently push in towards his beak rather than pulling away. This will eventually teach him that no matter how hard he bites you, he cannot make your hand disappear.”

“You have to expect the bites and be prepared to take them if need be..reacting to those bites is just about the worst thing you can do. Once the bird discovers that his bites WILL NOT back you down..he will stop trying.”

Let me repeat that with a BIG question mark. “Once the bird discovers that his bites WILL NOT back you down…he will stop trying.” REALLY? Some months back I devoted an entire column dispelling the reasons people use for why parrots bite. I’ve pulled a paragraph from it below.

Why then do birds bite humans? Well, for one humans who get bit generally aren’t very good listeners when it comes to watching their bird’s body language. They don’t allow their bird to nonagressively warn them to back off. Instead they push the limit and they have their body parts where they shouldn’t be (that’d be too close to a bird’s beak when the bird doesn’t want you there).  They teach their birds that nonaggressive body language just doesn’t work in communicating to aggressive, grouchy or dominant humans.

I used to get bit, and bit hard, by Dreyfuss until I began studying behavior with Susan Friedman, Ph.D. about 10 years ago. Since then the only rare bites I have gotten have been when “I” have not paid attention to her body language.

My compassionate side shutters to think of that poor bird who has to come face to face with a person’s fist in order to learn how to be calm. In science, they call this ‘learned helplessness.’ It is when an animal is subjected to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape and it eventually stops trying because learns it is utterly helpless to change the situation. A great example of this is Jaycee Dugard, who stopped trying to escape her kidnapper, abuser and father to her children, after she realized it would do her no good to try.

Think about under what circumstances you are most eager to learn and you are most likely to succeed. Think about your favorite role model or teacher growing up or a favorite boss who inspires you to do your very best simply by believing in you and letting you learn from your own experiences.

That’s the type of person we need to be to our pets – a partner, friend and cheerleader, not a dictator and punisher. Instead of thinking about ‘taming’ your pet, think about setting your pet up for success. Your role should be to evoke joy in living, to make learning pure fun, and to make being with you the best choice ever because only good things come when you are around.



Power Of Positive Reinforcement To Solve Parrot Screaming


NOTE:  I have a new pet behavior blog located at  Thanks!

This is one of my past Hyde Park Living pet behavior columns. Sadly Chester is no longer with us but I thought this information was important to share.

Every once in awhile you get to read about one of my own personal stories. This happens to be one of those times. I felt like I needed to write this for all of those people out there who think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks - or for that matter, birds - and for everyone, who blames their pets’ behavior issues on their pet.

This is the story of my dad and my birds, Chester and Dreyfuss in particular. Three totally different living beings, all of whom I care very much about, but until recently didn’t care much for each other. In fact, it would be a fair argument to say that description was being polite.

In case you’re new to my column, I’ve got three beautiful birds – Barnaby is my Timneh African Grey, Chester is my Alexandrine Ringneck, and Dreyfuss is my Maximillum Pionus. Of course, everyone loves Barnaby, my little grey talking teddy bear. But for the 11 plus years that I’ve had Chester, my dad has never been fond of him. It’s actually kind of been a mutual thing. My dad would walk in the door and Chester would scream. Then the minute Chester would scream, my dad would say, “I can’t stand that scream.” And shy little Dreyfuss would just run to the farthest corner of her cage and sit totally erect until danger left the room.

I’ve been a student of animal behavior for many years. I consider myself very fortunate to have met and learned from internationally renowned behaviorist Dr. Susan Friedman and trainers  who use only positive reinforcement techniques – Steve Martin and Barbara Heidenrich. Through them I’ve learned that it’s not only possible, it’s most effective to change behaviors in the least intrusive, most positive way – without the use of punishment.

Earlier this year, armed with my new found knowledge, I was determined to change that unhealthy relationship. And, you know what, it not only worked, we were able to correct a problem over a decade old in less than a week.

Before I explain our plan, let me explain my thought process. Number one was that in any modification plan, it’s very important that you always progress at the pace and comfort level of the bird. In other words, my dad was to stop moving toward any of the birds as soon as he noticed a sign of distress (like feathers puffed, leaning away, etc.). In giving a bird a seed, he was to stand arms distance away waiting for the bird to ‘invite’ my dad into his space with body language (leaning toward him, etc.) Number two was that it was very important to not reinforce Chester’s screaming behavior, while also immediately and consistently reinforce Chester for being quiet every time. And thirdly, was to keep in mind that for the time being anyway, I was much more rewarding to the birds than my dad.

Here is a condensed version of our plan. When we walked into the birds’ room, both my dad and I had seeds. We walked toward Barnaby’s cage (me on the side closest to Chester), completely ignoring Chester who started to scream, while lavishing Barnaby with attention and seeds for his being quiet and willingly accepting seeds. The second that Chester stopped screaming *I*  turned around and gave him a seed. If my dad turned around and Chester screamed, we’d both calmly turn our backs and continue doting on Barnaby. Eventually we wanted to phase in my dad being able to turn around and give Chester seeds.

Chester’s a pretty smart guy. Because of the immediacy with which I reacted to his either being quiet or screaming, he was able to develop a relationship in his mind fairly quickly that *if* I scream, *then* Lisa and her dad will ignore me but *if* I am quiet *then* I get seeds. Within a matter of 10 minutes in the very first session, my dad was already able to give Chester a seed (from an outstretched arm). Chester also did his *stand tall* and *wave* for me in front of my dad.

The second day went even better, and by the third day, a magical thing happened. For the first time in more than 11 years, my dad walked into their room and not only were none of them displaying any level of discomfort, they were actually showing signs of eagerness. Chester immediately began *standing tall* and *waving* and Barnaby just kept turning round in circles (one of his tricks). Even Dreyfuss, was at the front of her cage leaning forward toward my dad. And, not one single scream. Instead of relating my dad to negative experiences, they were associating him with positive reinforcement. It was absolutely an amazing moment. I never thought I’d see the day that my dad would ask to feed the guys seeds – or the day that the guys would be eager to see my dad. But it has definitely happened.

I hope that my story will serve to inspire other pet owners, especially those who believe in the power of punishment because it’s the power of positive reinforcement that we should focus on instead.

Solving Pet Parrot Phobic Behavior – Positively


NOTE:  I have a new pet behavior blog located at  Thanks!

Note:  This is a past column from my Hyde Park Living pet behavior column.

Every once in awhile you have the opportunity to read about my personal stories as they pertain to modifying pet behaviors in the most positive, least intrusive ways. I’ve been studying this for nearly four years now. Not only has it completely changed my relationship with my three parrots, I find it absolutely fascinating.

This month, I will focus on fear. With birds especially, I’ve often heard people talk of their pet’s sudden neurotic, phobic behaviors. Out of the blue, for no apparent reason, their loving companion will scream, lunge or try to escape the hands that up until that moment had only been associated with positive things.

I know about this, unfortunately, from firsthand knowledge. My loving Barnaby Timneh African Grey, who normally would be very happy spending his entire day with his face pressed against mine (of course it would have to be with the occasional play break), would suddenly ‘out of the blue’ panic when he stepped onto my arm. He’d scream with horror in his voice, breathe heavily, and then take off. If you’ve ever experienced the unconditional love of an animal, you can probably understand it is completely heartbreaking when you are thrust into the portrayal of some evil monster – and you don’t even know why.

Each time it would happen with Barnaby, I’d have to go through a systematic desensitization plan to help him overcome his anxiety. Because we have a long history of trust, we were able to work through this fairly quickly, but my training taught me there had to be a reason for this reoccurring behavior. And there also had to be a way of eliminating or minimizing the frequency of it. Behavior, I know, doesn’t ever happen willy nilly. It is always triggered by something in the environment. And the consequences of that behavior are what either maintains, builds or extinguishes it.

 Hmm. Actually it became fairly easy to figure out once I put on my behavior analysis hat.

There is a window in the birds’ room that faces the street. On sunny days, when a car drives past, the light that reflects from the metal and glass makes a brilliant pass from one wall to the next. A pretty scary demon to a Timneh teddy bear no longer than a ruler. If my neighbor parks her car in a certain spot at a certain time of day and Barnaby happens to be way up high, that same evil light hovers. Each time that Barnaby jumped on my arm, only to be terrified, that same ‘trigger’ light just happened to be coming from the street.

My mentor and teacher, Dr. Susan Friedman – a respected psychologist and behaviorist – helped me to understand. Purely based on my poor timing, in Barnaby’s mind, I got associated with the light. And that was not a good thing to be paired with.

Barnaby had two types of behaviors going on. One was an automatic, involuntary response to a bright light (panic scream, escape). In scientific terminology, this is called an unconditioned or respondent behavior because it wasn’t something that Barnaby learned in the way that he came to know stepping up generally meant only good things would follow. On the other hand, his stepping up behavior is most definitely learned. Scientists call that operant learning.

Now, think of the use of a clicker. The clicker in and of itself is meaningless to an animal. It only acquires value to that animal when a good trainer repeatedly pairs the sound with a treat. Then the click acquires reinforcing value.

This same type of association was going on with Barnaby, only it was a negative one. Being on my arm – something that had always given him positive reinforcement in the past – when the light (remember, something that causes an unconditioned fear response) came through the window, was being paired with that fear response. Just as the words ‘good boy’ have become associated with safflower seeds, his being on my arm had become associated with that awful light.

Once this became clear, working toward a solution really wasn’t that difficult. What I learned from Susan (and so many great people on Susan’s international parrot behavior listserve) is how to modify Barnaby’s environment so as to set him up for success. When I’m working from home, I try to remember to close their shade at a certain time. But if the shade is up, and there is that dangerous light outside (at least in his eyes), I absolutely will not pick him up. Instead, he’s learned to go inside his cage at that time. That one small adjustment has meant the difference between a pet who became instantly phobic of me – on a more frequent basis – to one who hasn’t exhibited those behaviors once since I figured it all out. So, it really wasn’t just some irrational fear after all.

This isn’t to say that something else in the future may pop up, that will cause that same fear response. Barnaby is a living being, and, as life goes, behaviors evolve all the time to adapt to the environment. But next time, I’m going to be better equipped to send those awful monsters packing so Barnaby can just focus on having fun.

Should Pet Birds Be Allowed On Shoulders?


NOTE:  I have a new pet behavior blog located at  Thanks!

I’d like to address a question that is often asked by those who have birds.

Should birds be allowed on shoulders?

Well, let’s first ask – is there really such a thing as height dominance?

Steve Martin, renowned trainer and president of Orlando-based Natural Encounters, wrote about it in a paper actually. “To put it bluntly,” he said, “height dominance does not exist in parrots.”

Talking to those in the know – ornithologists, field biologists, and wild bird behaviorists – there is no such thing as an alpha parrot. Aggression between wild parrots is brief, and a parrot that loses in one confrontation may very well win in the next.

A frustrated bird owner may question that. “Well, of course my bird gets dominant when he’s up high. He bites me every time I try to pick him up from somewhere high,” that person may say.

My response to that? Let’s do a little behavior analysis and look at a scenario that bird owners frequently use as an example of their pet showing ‘dominance’. Butch – a macaw – is on top of his cage playing with a toy when his owner, Suzy, needs to put him into his cage. She reaches for him and when he steps up, ‘without any warning’ (as is often described) he nails her.

Let’s look at some potential things that could be coming into play here.

• Birds are more comfortable stepping up. However since Butch is up high, unless Suzy gets on a chair, more than likely he is needing to step down to her and may even catch his long tail on the cage. Not very fun for Butch.

• Butch was perfectly happy playing with his toys. His past experience of stepping up for Suzy when he’s playing with his toys is that the consequence of his stepping up means he goes into his cage more often than not. And being inside that cage is just not as fun as being on top of it. (He’s at least taken away from doing something that he was enjoying doing.)

• Before Butch actually bit Suzy, he tried to show her he didn’t want to step up by pinning his eyes or other body language but she ignored or didn’t pay attention to it. Therefore biting her is the only behavior he can do to get the message across that he really does not want to step up at this time.

So, now, is this really a case of height dominance or is the bird simply behaving to escape something negative from the bird’s point of view?

Now back to the original question. Is it okay to wear your bird on your shoulder?

Well, there are a number of factors to take into consideration with regard to that decision. None of them have to do with height dominance.

• What is your relationship with your bird? Does your bird reliably ‘step up’ onto your hand?

• One problem with having your bird on your shoulder is that you can’t see his body language. Therefore you can’t effectively allow your bird to communicate a fear or aggressive response, thus you may be setting both of you up for a possible bite.

• Another consideration is that, while it’s fun companionship to wear shoulder birds it’s healthy to offer a variety of enriching activities for your pet that encourage independent play, foraging, and more. Encouraging your bird to stay perched in one place for long periods of time limits the time he could be learning and playing in different ways.

Right now I only allow Barnaby on my shoulder. Dreyfuss is my hand bird. While both of my birds are fairly fluent in ‘step up’ (Barnaby much more so than Dreyfuss, although she’s getting better), Barnaby has a much more predictable calm behavior than Dreyfuss. It’s not so important for me to keep an eye on Barnaby’s body language. However, Dreyfuss can be a little on the unpredictable side. It’s very important for me to watch her body language as I have her ‘step up’, therefore it is not a good idea for her to perch on my shoulder.

I do want to just mention that if it is a goal of yours to wear your parrot on your shoulder, a good first goal would be to teach a reliable ‘step up’ behavior.

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