Continuing with Prevention...From the Very Start
First an apology: It has been a very long time since I published a blog post, and I would like to apologize to my loyal subscribers who look forward to this blog. I absolutely over-estimated the amount of time and energy I would have this past year, and the combination of working as a veterinary technician and consultant, in addition to taking on more speaking engagements this year, left me unable to meet my commitment to all of you. I have re-arranged my priorities so that this shall not happen in the future. Thank you all for sticking with me.
I had the extreme good fortune this year to be able to speak for the Parrot Society of Australia in Brisbane, and this experience reminded me of the need for problem prevention in parrots from adoption onward. The reminder came because I was asked to speak on the topic of "A Holistic Approach to Aviculture." My most recent blog about prevention, Episode 17, addressed the issue of diet and nutrition. Today, I'd like to talk about the breeding and adoption of young parrots.
I realize that this can be an unpopular subject, especially among those involved in rescue and adoption. Many believe that there should be no further breeding of baby parrots, and that it is irresponsible for caregivers to even contemplate the adoption of a baby parrot when there are so many adult, previously-owned parrots who need homes.
I prefer not to get involved in such debates. The truth is that there will always be people who want to adopt young parrots. Given that, there will always be breeders. Therefore, I believe it extremely important for us all to be knowledgable about the breeding practices that result in well-reared parrots who are prepared in every way possible for life in captivity. No matter what we are purchasing, it is always important to "vote with our dollars." If there is to be some breeding, then it is important that truly excellent hobby breeders are supported and that production breeders are not. As Brian Speer, DVM once said, "Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members." I find that statement to be a rather chilling commentary on our current breeding practices.
Understanding this information can also be helpful when you do adopt an older parrot. Knowing how babies should be raised and understanding the type of personality that optimal rearing practices produce will enable you to better assess the older parrot in your home. Older parrots do not learn in the same way as babies do; they may take longer to learn. However, if you adopt an older parrot without good eating skills, or a parrot who won't play with toys, or a parrot who is afraid to take a shower, you will understand that he simply didn't have good learning experiences as a baby parrot. You will also understand that you can still teach him. In other words, understanding optimal rearing practices can help you to sort out why your adult parrot behaves in a certain way.
In preparing for this presentation in Australia, I interviewed several hobby breeders in the United States and was gratified to learn that all had, over the years, come to the same conclusions about which practices are most important in the rearing of parrots. They were the same conclusions to which I came when I was breeding African Grey parrots over 10 years ago.
When I use the term "hobby breeder," I am referring to those who produce a very limited number of parrots each year. By virtue of this fact, as well as their commitment to using the best rearing practices, they are not contributing to the rescue situation in this country and it is important to grasp this fact. Neither are these breeders making a profit. Instead they breed, as I once did, for the love of the species.
The two most important practices embraced by these breeders are those of (1) Abundance Weaning™, and (2) fledging. The term Abundance Weaning™ was originally coined by breeder and behavior consultant Phoebe Linden. This term refers to the fact that the young parrots are allowed to reach food independence at their own pace, without ever experiencing the hunger that so often leads to anxiety. Contrast this with the production breeders' practice of force weaning their babies in order to get them out the door as quickly as possible, in order to ensure maximum profit. In the wild, young parrots would never be allowed to become so hungry that they call repetitively for food, since this could attract the notice of predators. Instead, they are fed often and regularly.
During the force weaning process, babies are weaned according to a schedule that requires that feedings are dropped in anticipation of early adoption or transfer to a pet store. In young parrots, hunger results in anxiety. Thus, hunger and anxiety become inextricably linked, even when the parrot grows into an adult. Many are the feather picking African Greys who do not eat well, forever bouncing back and forth between the two.
In truth, young parrots have an innate drive that directs their development and will result in food independence at the correct time, always after fledging. Obviously, if in the wild, a young parrot could not become food independent before it could fly. This fact should inform our expectations and our practices when rearing parrots in captivity. So, for example, it is normal for an African Grey to wean independently at approximately 16 to 20 weeks, since they routinely fledge at 10 to 11 weeks. On the other hand, a pair of Moluccan Cockatoos might not wean their babies until a year of age. I often hear the larger cockatoo species described as needy. These are not by nature needy birds. However, they certainly behave as needy parrots throughout their entire lives when weaned at 15 weeks as some breeders do. You simply can not ignore the natural development of a species and get a good result.
Abundance Weaning™ and fledging go hand in hand. I have seen over the past few years that more and more breeders are allowing their babies to fledge and many are becoming less willing to completely clip babies before adoption, encouraging a partial clip at most. This is a wonderful and important development. The young parrot who is able to fledge and learn good flight skills will be a completely different adult parrot from his cousin who did not have this experience.
When a young parrot fledges, he must first learn to land and control his flight. The urge to fly is instinctive, but the ability to do so must be learned and this takes at least a few weeks of practice Beware of the breeder who clips babies after one or two flights. The skills necessary to controlled flight and skillful landing take some time to develop.
Once these are in place, the development of the young parrot takes a completely different form. Now, he has the power to go where he wants and uses this to more fully explore his environment, as well as his social relationships. And, as he does, his confidence and coordination grow exponentially. He is the lucky parrot who is able to complete his development from fledgling to adult according to nature's plan and the results are extraordinary. No other practice will do more to ensure his success in captivity over the long course of his lifetime. Moreover, through this experience, he learns to think and to plan where he wants to go and what he wants to do. He develops neural pathways that babies who never fledge will lack.
Aside from these two most important practices, however, these hobby breeders have other practices in common. First, they begin by only setting up the most excellent breeding stock. Unfortunately, for many years, problem parrots have been relinquished by caregivers and placed into breeding situations. When this is done, it means that we are then breeding parrots who have already proven their unsuitability as human companions. It is crucial that this practice is stopped and that, if we are to breed parrots in captivity, that those who have proven themselves as human companions or have already produced successful human companions be allowed to breed.
Next, breeding pairs are housed in such a manner that they experience the greatest sense of safety and security. If employees are caring for the breeding pairs, care is seen that only the most trustworthy are employed, that staffing is stable and that these caregivers speak softly and behave in a predictable manner. Pairs are afforded privacy, are provided with large enclosures, plenty of enrichment and an excellent diet, and are allowed periods of rest from producing. All of these provisions are important. If breeding pairs are stressed or fearful, these emotions will be communicated to their young in the nest. Conversely, if pairs are housed in such a way that they remain relaxed and happy, and come to trust their human caregivers, these feelings about humans and life in general will also be communicated.
Equally important is that babies are left with their parents for as long as possible, often up to six weeks, if the weather and the temperament of the parents allow. The longer they spend with their parents, the steadier they will be as humans companions. Babies need to learn that they are birds before they go on to learn the skills that will make them successful as human companions. As human hand-feeders, we can not possibly communicate knowledge to baby parrots about what it means to be a bird.
Once pulled for hand-feeding, these breeders feed the babies in an interactive and responsive manner. Avoid the hand-feeder who gavage feeds the babies under her care. Gavage feeding is the practice of delivering hand feeding formula directly into the birds' crop from a metal feeding tube fitted to the end of a syringe. Breeders use this technique to feed babies because it is fast and creates less mess on the feathers. When this method of hand-feeding is used, the young birds do not even learn to swallow or to taste the formula, which slows the weaning process later.
As babies develop and begin to explore, they are provided with a wide variety of healthful foods, including pellets, whole grains, sprouts, vegetables and fruit. It should serve as a red flag if you encounter a breeder who weans babies to a seed mix. Seed mixes do not provide complete nutrition and are too high in fat, and a baby weaned to such a mix begins life at a disadvantage.
At about this stage, they are also provided with a wide variety of toys and colorful objects to investigate. There is a particular stage, as young parrots are developing, when they are naturally curious. It is critically important that they are provided with plenty to explore at this point. Exploration is curiosity in motion. Have you ever encountered a parrot who won't play with toys? Chances are, his natural curiosity was not stimulated appropriately as a baby. It is the wise breeder who provides babies with a wide variety of enrichment items to explore at this stage of development.
As babies begin to explore, good breeders understand the importance also of allowing the young birds to have control over their interactions with the world. Baby parrots learn in a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward manner. They may be quite brave one day exploring their environment and then need to hide for a day or two. These hobby breeders understand and provide for that need.
Really excellent breeders go even further. They expose the babies to other parrots and other household pets, always doing so in a safe way. They teach babies to take showers. They teach them about household activities and noises, such as the vacuum. They expose them to other people.
Lastly, babies are trained in husbandry and compliance behaviors. They know how step onto a hand. They are happy remaining in a cage for period of time. They are taught to go into a carrier. They trust people and find their interactions with them rewarding because they have learned under the care these breeders provide that humans can be trusted.
Young parrots reared with these practices will be hugely different from those raised through production methods where money dictates rearing practices. They will be confident. They will be coordinated. They will interact with humans in a trusting way. They will be independent and well able to entertain themselves. They will be athletic. They will be a whole lot more fun as human companions.
I always tell my clients: "You're not responsible for information you don't have." Conversely, once we have information, we are responsible for sharing this. I believe that, if we are lucky enough to share our lives with one parrot, we are responsible for parrots everywhere. We can act on that in a myriad of ways. Now that you understand how baby parrots should be raised and understand the great difference that these practices make in the quality of life the parrot has over decades, you might just want to speak up next time you encounter the friend who wants to buy that sad looking pet shop parrot with a dish of seed in front of him. As you vote with your dollars and encourage others to do the same, you will gradually raise the standard of living for parrots in captivity.
The following are questions that should be used to interview prospective breeders about their practices:
1. How many breeding pairs do you have at your facility? (There is no right answer here, but a large number of pairs could mean that breeding parrots receive a lower standard of care.)
2. How are your breeding pairs housed? (The response should provide information about privacy, enrichment, showers, size of enclosures, periods of rest, etc.)
3. What do you feed your breeding pairs? (If the answer is a seed mix, this should be a deal-breaker because it will mean that the breeding birds are not getting their nutritional needs met and may be suffering from low calcium levels.)
4. For how long are babies left with their parents? (The answer should be for at least two weeks and longer is better. Realize though that some parents will pluck their babies if left too long and weather can dictate that babies are puller sooner at some times.)
5. Do you incubator hatch babies? (If the answer is "yes," this should be a deal breaker. You do not want to adopt a baby parrot who had no exposure to his parents.)
6. Where are the babies raised once they are pulled for hand-feeding? (The best answer is in the living area of the home, where they will encounter conditions likely similar to those in your own home.)
7. How are babies hand fed? (Acceptable responses include syringes, pipettes, and hand weaning pellets. Avoid breeders who gavage feed babies until weaning.)
8. When are your babies weaned? (The answer you want is that babies are allowed to wean according to their own developmental time frames. If you receive the response that babies are all weaned at a particular time, this should be a red flag. Each baby parrot is different.)
9. To what foods do you wean babies? (The best answer is to a high-quality pellet without artificial colors, supplemented with fresh foods.)
10. What types of enrichment are provided to the babies? (You want a response that includes a wide variety of objects - wood, acrylic, and palm frond toys, including foraging opportunities. The optimal response would include playstands and alternate perches as well.)
11. What do you teach babies before they go home? (The optimal response would include bathing, to step up onto hands, to go to other people, to enjoy time in an outdoor aviary, and to stay happily in a cage for extended periods.)
12. Do you allow your babies to fledge and learn to fly? (If the answer is "no," this should be a deal-breaker.)
13. If so, for how long? (The response must indicate for at least two weeks, and the longer the better.)
14. Once they have fledged, when and how do you clip wings? (The answer MUST be that babies are clipped back gradually, if they are clipped at all. Flight should never be removed from a parrot all at once. Further, if wings are clipped, this should be done well in advance of the day the baby goes to his new home so that he can adjust to his newly-limited ability to move around.)
15. Do you ever send babies home fully flighted? (Hopefully, the answer is "yes.")
16. Can I adopt a fully flighted parrot from you? (Hopefully, you're asking this question. If you are not, please learn more about parrots and flight and living with fully flighted parrots before you consider adopting a baby.)
17. Do you teach babies to fly to your hand during the fledging experience? (If the answer is "yes," you'll know you have located an exceptional breeder who understands how behavior works.)
18. Can I visit your facility to meet the babies? (It is reasonable for a breeder to prevent access to the breeding pairs, but a responsible breeder will want you to visit the babies so that a good match can be ensured.)
19. Do you provide any sort of health guarantee? (The answer should be "yes" and should be for a period long enough that you don't have to rush the baby to your vet the first day you have him home.)
20. What do you want to know about me? (The responsible breeder will have an equally long list of questions for you and may even have conditions regarding the size of cage to be provided, etc.)
If you intend to adopt a young parrot, please do so with all the care you might use in adopting a human child. Be prepared to travel to visit a baby - these truly exceptional breeders are few and far between. You won't be sorry. Such a beginning will set you both up for a lifetime of success with each other!
Resolutions and Prevention
How are you doing with your resolutions? I'm referring to New Year's Resolutions. Remember those? I don't so much make resolutions as I do re-evaluate the progress I've made toward my existing goals and then tweak my efforts accordingly. For example, I didn't during the past year make as much progress as I might have liked toward my goal that I exercise on five out of any seven days. So, after some research I purchased an exercise DVD from the T-Tapp company. It only takes fifteen minutes to do and is an effective, if short, work-out. Now I'm more often achieving my goal. I'll worry about exercising for longer periods once I'm able to get this effort in place.
Too often, as humans, we wait until a real problem exists before we take action or get help. That's what resolutions are all about anyway, aren't they? I can't fit into my pants anymore, so NOW I'll make a resolution to lose weight. I can't drag the garbage can up the driveway without huffing and puffing anymore, so NOW I'll make the resolution to exercise more.
Wouldn't it be much better if we could prevent problems, rather than fix them once we have them? Intellectually, that's obviously the way to go. However, as anyone in the veterinary profession will tell you - prevention is a tough sell. It can be very hard to convince a client to spend $150 on routine lab testing, even though the very real alternative might be the need to spend $1500 down the line fixing a health crisis that the routine testing might have revealed and prevented with effective treatment early on.
I see the same thing occur with parrots and their owners, when it comes to behavior. Not only has problem prevention not gained much popularity among parrot caregivers, but small problems are often ignored until they become very big problems. Once a behavior problem exists, there is also often a relationship problem. When behavior problems go on for an extended period of time, the caregivers often come to value the parrot's presence in the house less. On top of this sad reality is the truth that there is often quite a lot that must be changed in order to resolve a well-established behavior problem.
Behavior problems don't usually occur when one caregiving practice is out of whack. Such a problem develops because there are significant factors in the parrots existence that aren't meeting that bird's needs. Often such caregivers are faced with making large and expensive changes, which require a whole lot of effort, in order to resolve a behavior problem in a parrot that they now care less about. Sadly, a good percentage of these owners decide to relinquish the parrot instead. I saw this happen even more frequently in this past year.
For years, I've recommended that caregivers obtain an annual "behavior check-up" by contacting a qualified behavior professional who can review their caregiving practices with them and help to implement changes before any real behavior problems occur. So far, I've never had anyone request such a check-up, but I keep waiting.
The truth is, it's quite easy to prevent behavior problems by doing the right things. If you set up an environment that meets the parrot's needs, feed a diet that insures optimal health, interact with the parrot in such a way that you prevent a pair bond from forming with you, and use sound behavior principles during your social interactions with the parrot - you're not likely to ever have much of a problem.
Therefore, I've been thinking that this might be a good year to focus on problem prevention with companion parrots...one subject at a time. In this post, I'll be discussing diet and nutrition. Not only is malnutrition at the root of many of the medical problems that parrots develop, but it's also at the heart of most behavior problems.
Many years ago, the commonly accepted diet for parrots large and small was a seed mix. It was eventually discovered, however, that feeding such a diet contributed to poor health after some time. Not only does such a mix not offer balanced nutrition, but the overall fat content can contribute to conditions such as fatty liver disease. Feeding a seed mix as a staple in the diet can cause calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D3 imbalances, as well as deficiencies in vitamin E, selenium and other vitamins and minerals.
And yet, I still find people feeding seed mixes to their parrots. Manufacturers, cognizant of the health problems a seed mix can create, now mix colored pellets into their seed mixes, offering the assurance that this now creates balanced nutrition. Caregivers use this as good reason to continue doing the easy thing - feeding the mix. The problem is, the majority of parrots eat the seed and ignore the pellets in these mixes. Other caregivers are troubled by the fact that they are feeding such a mix, knowing that it doesn't offer the best nutrition. However, after having tried to introduce other foods, they've given up. Believe it or not, if you know the right things to do, it's actually very easy to teach any parrot to eat a healthier diet.
If you think that the diet you feed your parrots can be improved, it's best first to decide on the optimal diet and then formulate a plan for conversion. Most experts now agree that the best diet for the majority of parrot species is an appropriate formulated diet, supplemented by a variety of healthy fresh foods, primarily live, raw fresh vegetables and whole grains with a moderate amount of low-sugar fruit.
There are lots of good reasons to feed a high-quality formulated diet. For one thing, we all need a "default diet" - something that we can pour out of a bag when the provision of fresh foods is more difficult. From natural disasters to relocation, there are any number of reasons why we might not be able to provide our usual array of home-prepared foods at some future point. The "default diet" is going to be either pellets or seed. As I hope I've already convinced you, seed is the poorer choice. Harrison's pellets are my favorites and are what I feed to all of my parrots. Not only are they organic, but they contain a much longer list of healthful ingredients than do most other pellet brands. I have a personal bias against colored pellets. I don't feed them and I don't recommend them, even though I admittedly see lots of parrots do well on them. However, as a cook and baker I know very well just how much artificial coloring has to be added to get a pellet that dark a color. Believing that the best results will be achieved by keeping things as natural as possible, I choose not to feed artificial coloring to my own birds.
In addition to Harrison's pellets, I also use the Lafeber Nutri-Berries, Avi-Cakes and Nutri-An Cakes. I often see very prejudicial comments about these foods on the Internet and, for the life of me, I can't figure out why. Parrot caregivers don't bat an eye about feeding a seed mix that we know for sure will contribute to disease, and yet rail against feeding these formulated diets that do offer balanced nutrition. In my experience, these foods not only offer appropriate nutrition but are very helpful in converting seed-eating parrots to better diets. Since these foods do contain some seed, they are often more readily accepted than pellets in the beginning of the conversion process.
Caregivers often complain that they can't get their parrots to eat a better diet because, not only will their birds not eat pellets, they won't eat many vegetables or fruits either. This is easily explained. When a parrot won't eat a particular food, it isn't usually because they don't like it. The explanation lies instead in the reality that parrots are prey species and are usually wary of new things. If you've fed corn, peas and carrots for 11 months and then offer a blueberry, there is very little chance that the parrot will try it. Too often, however, the caregiver assumes that the parrot just doesn't like blueberries and stops offering them.
The key to getting a seed-eating parrot to consume a balanced diet is to start with what they know and like - the seed mix. By creating a salad with a great deal of variety, including the provision of both cooked beans and grains, and then mixing the seed into the salad you can begin the gradual conversion process. By mixing the seed into the salad, you create an opportunity for the parrot to begin sampling some of the fresh foods. Once this is observed, the seed mix can then gradually be reduced. In the meantime, pellets are placed into the cage in a separate dish so that the parrot can get used to looking at them. Once the seed mix has been reduced significantly, the parrot will begin to eat the pellets and other formulated foods. As the quantity of seed mix is reduced, the parrot is forced to look elsewhere for a suitable source of dietary fat. Pellets are the best choice, since the salad mix is too low in fat to meet the parrot's needs for this. This always works, if a lot of table food or snack food is not also offered. I have long provided my clients with the instructions for making this salad mix and converting the parrot to eat it. I have provided these same instructions, titled Recipe for the Layered Salad Mix and Diet Conversion, on the "Articles" page of this website.
Lately, I've been experimenting with another way to provide vegetables and other good things in a salad-type preparation. I watched Patricia Sund's video on how to prepare "Chop!" at her website www.parrotnation.com. While I find the lack of a recipe slightly daunting, this idea has several advantages over the Layered Salad recipe. The ingredients are more finely chopped, making it much harder for a parrot to pick out only his favorite items. And, the mix can be frozen after preparation. This mix could be used the same way to convert a parrot from a seed mix onto healthier options.
Another way to improve a parrot's diet is to offer home-grown sprouts. Again, I've seen a lot of advice warning parrot owners away from making sprouts for safety reasons. It's true that sprouts can harbor harmful bacteria if they are not produced and stored appropriately. However, if grown and used quickly under the right conditions, they make an excellent addition to any parrot's diet. The following link will take you to a video I produced that demonstrates exactly how to safely sprout for your birds: http://youtu.be/sUUD0SA2EUY
In addition to knowing what to do, it's also important to understand what not to do when it comes to feeding parrots. By far, the mistake I see caregivers make most frequently is that of offering too many fats and carbohydrates in the diet. Parrots are very good at teaching humans to give them the things they want. Parrots want to eat carbohydrates and fats. Humans want to make parrots happy. And thus, it's not at all uncommon for me to discover upon doing a consultation that the majority of foods the parrot is eating are carbs and fats. My hypothesis is that parrots are instinctively programmed to load up on these foods when they find them. This is a trait that would serve them very well in the wild, where energy expenditures are high and these food are in relatively short supply.
The foods fed most often to parrots that are high in fat include seed mixes, snack foods, cheese, and nuts. Those high in carbohydrates are birdie breads, pasta, white rice and other processed grains, potatoes, corn, peas and fruit. When we feed these foods in any but the smallest quantities, a host of problems result. First, these categories of foods provide energy to the body. In captivity, energy expenditure for most parrots is relatively low and consumption of these foods often results in more "amped-up" behavior - more screaming and more biting. It's like feeding a race horse diet to a pasture horse. Second, these foods satisfy the appetite very quickly, so a parrot eating these foods will often refuse to consume healthier foods like pellets and vegetables. I always know when I've tipped the limit by feeding too many carbs and fats to my own parrots because I see them eat less of the healthier foods I provide. Lastly, we now have plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that over-consumption of these categories of foods contributes to increased production of reproductive hormones. When this is the case, it sets the stage for other problem behaviors to develop, which may range from cavity-seeking behavior to chronic egg laying.
If you suspect that you could be doing a better job of caring for your parrot, diet is the place to start. Make a commitment today to improve your parrot's diet. That single change will help to ensure that you deal with less problem behavior in the future and that your parrot will live a long and happy life.
A whole roll of white unscented toilet paper (Scott Tissue is best for this because it is so tightly wrapped) placed on a 7-inch SS Ring (Available from www.fowl-play.com or from www.rosespet.com). For a variation, you can use a roll of Scott Naturals (less tightly wrapped) and stuff small pieces of nuts, whole almonds, or sunflower seeds down between the layers to provide a foraging opportunity.
A fresh, uncooked artichoke placed onto a food skewer with small pieces of different nuts, small seeds, small pieces of whole wheat pasta, and other items of interest stuffed down inside the leaves.
A frozen whole wheat bagel placed on a SS Ring. (If your parrot eats much of this, then don’t use this one. Most parrots simply rip this up.)
A whole head of cabbage cut in half along the “equator”, spread with a very thin layer of warm nut butter on the cut sides, than placed back together and threaded onto a food skewer.
A large bell pepper with the top cut off, threaded onto a food skewer and then filled with chopped fruits and vegetables, and then topped off with a whole grain rice cake also threaded onto the skewer.
Slice 2x3 inch or 2x4 inch pieces of lumber (pine or fir) into 1/4-inch to 1/2–inch slices with a power saw, drill holes in these and string interspersed with beads onto leather laces or food skewers.
Take a cardboard egg carton and cut this in half with a serrated knife so that each half would hold 6 eggs if still used for that purpose. Place a small amount of shredded, crinkled paper into the bottom (available from most Dollar Stores). Take six small treats and put each one into a 3 oz Dixie cup. Squash the cup around each treat. Put each cup into each of the six indentations. Close the egg carton and tape closed with masking tape. Place this inside a paper lunch bag and tape this closed also. Put the whole thing onto a food skewer. (Just omit the shredded paper if you don’t have it.)
Take an empty toilet paper roll and smash it flat. Then, use masking tape to close one end. Create a hole through both sides near the other end. Fill the tube with treats wrapped in paper, then hang in the cage by threading hemp twine through the holes at the other end. (Twine is available at most Wal-Mart stores in the craft section.)
Treat in Jail toy: items needed include a toilet paper roll (empty), several plastic drinking straws, a length of jute twine and a small scissors with sharp tip. Cut the drinking straws into 2 to 3-inch pieces. Flatten the toilet paper roll and make a hole with the scissors through the very middle, then thread the hemp twine up through that hole, tying a knot so that the toy won’t slip off the twine. Also make a loop in the other end of the twine so that it can be hung in the cage or on a playstand. Make about 6 other holes on either side of the middle hole (these need to be drinking straw-sized). *Do not make the holes with the scissors held in an “open position” – you will cut yourself. (It may be easier to first make small holes with a skewer and then enlarge these with the scissors.) Once you have your holes made, put a favorite treat (like a whole almond or peanut in the shell) in the very middle of the roll, as close to the twine as you can get it. Then, flattening the roll again, thread a piece of drinking straw through each hole so that it extends out of both sides of the roll. When you’re finished, you have a “treat in jail.” This toy is a hassle to make, but the birds love it and it’s cheap. It does get easier with time.
Use plastic berry containers (when empty), filling these with food items and small treats wrapped in paper, and then tying them closed with twine to be hung in the cage. *Keep the length of twine short for safety.
Measuring cup toy: purchase a set of inexpensive metal measuring cups that have a hole in the end of each handle. You will also need some poly cord about 1/8-inch in diameter (available from most hardware stores. Take two long lengths of the poly cord, place them side by side, and then tie a slip knot in the middle so that you have created a loop from which to hang the toy and have four lengths hanging downward. (It’s best if you can make the length of each slightly different.) Tie a measuring cup onto the end of each cord. Fill each of the four measuring cups with a treat. You can make the toy more difficult by enclosing each treat in a piece of paper, or cupcake wrapper, or Dixie cup before putting in the metal measuring cup. Cover each of the four measuring cups with a piece of printer or colored paper and tape this in place with masking tape.
So far, that's the extent of my list, but it provides enough variety that my birds stay busy and happy on the days when they must sit still in their cages. If you try any of the above with your own parrots, please supervise the first time or two to make sure that your own parrot interacts with each project safely.
And, while we're on the subject of great projects and foraging toys, check out Kris Porter's new Fantastic Foraging Blocks at www.parrotenrichment.com. They are affordable and parrots love them!
Reactions as Reinforcers
It often comes as a surprise to parrot owners that a reaction they had intended as punishment for misbehavior has instead served as reinforcement, actually strengthening the behavior rather than suppressing it as they had expected. A classic example is the parrot who learns to scream louder and longer when the owner reacts by yelling back or covering the cage. This type of reaction often stops the behavior in the moment, but serves to strengthen it over time.
While it's easy to see that reactions like this don't resolve the behavior over time, I didn't feel that I had a good explanation for this until recently. After all, dogs and cats don't seem to increase problem behaviors when punished in this way. People too are usually at least intimidated by punishment. If they don't stop their behavior after such punishment, they at least get sneakier about it. Parrots, though, often seem completely unaffected by such maneuvers of ours and instead will actually increase the problem behavior in response to such a reaction from us.
This week, however, I had an "Ah Ha!" moment when thinking back to Temple Grandin's discussion of SEEKING behavior. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, SEEKING is a core emotion in animals and birds that was originally identified by Dr. Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience. When animals are engaged in SEEKING behavior, they are feeling "intense interest, engaged curiosity, and eager anticipation," to use Dr. Panksepp's words.
It's quite clear that parrots are avid and incredibly talented SEEKERS. After all, this is their main occupation in the wild - foraging for food and exploring to identify other items of value. It's also very obviously true that parrots in captivity are, generally speaking, bored out of their minds. Even for those of us who have figured out the trick of providing new enrichment each day, it's still tough to keep an active and curious parrot as busy as he would be if living in the wild.
It is my assertion that parrots often choose to use problem behaviors as a form of SEEKING behavior. Studies have shown that the SEEKING circuit fires during the search for and anticipation of finding food or other reward. Parrots love to anticipate and they love to predict. For a bored parrot, issuing a blood curdling scream is just another way of SEEKING an anticipated outcome. If other forms of SEEKING aren't enabled and encouraged, this will become a parrot's fun at the owners' expense.
Assuming that I've got this right, this also explains why simply teaching a parrot new tricks or behaviors usually has the happy side-effect of diminishing problem behaviors, even if this is the only change you make. When you offer positive reinforcement training, it allows the parrot to engage in SEEKING behavior wherein a more highly-valued reward can be earned. There is no longer the need to seek less-valued reinforcers, such as a human's impatient reaction.
I see this concept as virtually unexplored territory for us as parrot caregivers, in terms of the many ways we might be able to stimulate SEEKING behavior in a manner that results in desirable behavior. Providing foraging opportunities and positive reinforcement training is a beginning, but I wonder what other ways we might be able to expand on this idea. I know that Kris Porter routinely "hides" things on kitchen counters and around the house that the parrots can "discover," thus keeping them away from human possessions. I've found it very effective to offer food items on different playstands that they wouldn't ordinarily get in their food dishes, such as oat groats, cinnamon sticks, dry anise, dry whole wheat pasta and Lafeber Avi-cakes. I learned of a great toy (but unfortunately can't remember who "invented" this idea) - take a corn husk, roll it around a treat and then ziptie the ends closed. These can be left in "parrot approved areas" also ready for the discovery.
Of course, this leads us to the necessity of providing a number of different areas around the house that belong to the parrot. (You certainly wouldn't want to hide a foraging item on top of your bookcase, unless you wanted him to regularly visit your bookcase; from personal experience, I'd advise against that.) Sadly, I find many caregivers resistant to this idea. I don't blame them for wanting to keep their house looking nice, i.e. not filled with different hanging perches, playgyms and cages. However, as we move forward in our thinking in terms of improving captive parrot welfare, we've got to realize that parrots need their own "furnished" spaces - many of them - and that they need to be able to travel around to these during the day. I'll admit, it's a tough compromise to tackle. One solution may be to devote an entire room (if you've got it) to the parrot(s), filling this full of hanging perches and play areas, while still keeping the main cage in the living area. This way, he could enjoy a form of "indoor aviary," but keep the mess confined to one room. And, if course, the outdoor aviary can be filled with a huge variety of foraging opportunities. Let's keep thinking about this!
At any rate, the bottom line is this:
We've got to embrace the fact that parrots need regular, steady reinforcement from the environment (this includes us) and will constantly be SEEKING in order to get this. If they can't get the things they'd really like to have (small food treats and affectionate social attention), they'll readily go after whatever else might be offered. We've got to live consciously with them and offer them the opportunities they need to earn reinforcement for positive, desirable behaviors. This one practice will do much to increase our own enjoyment of our parrots and perhaps to decrease the number of these magnificent creatures relinquished each year.