First a word about each parrot's personality and the role it plays in the flock. Kili is the oldest (at least in my mind because I got her first, in hers as well I'm sure!) and for sure the most aggressive. As a Senegal Parrot, it's just in her nature. But I have trained almost all of that aggression out of her so she is super well-behaved. But there is no guarantee that she won't try to attack Santina and start a dangerous war. Truman is an easy going Cape Parrot. He has been bullied by Kili all his life and has become accustomed to having to yield his perch. He is absolutely non-aggressive and doesn't start fights. He is, however, stubborn and provoking. Until Kili gives him a good bite, he doesn't want to yield. Santina, being a green-winged macaw, is the biggest parrot. She is also a rescue with not a fully known history. She is extremely friendly and non-aggressive with me but she has been known to bite others. I have to be careful with her because she has the potential to hurt any of the other birds. But on the flip side I also know that she doesn't hurt anyone she likes. It will be important to get everyone to be on her good side.
The very first step in the introduction process has been to not do anything and just let the birds see each other through the bars from a distance. I did not want to overwhelm anyone by forcing an interaction prematurely. The next portion of the process is to begin the introduction in safe foolproof ways. There absolutely cannot be a fight or provocation. The birds must only get used to being near each other but without resorting to fighting. Since I am limited in being able to control what my parrots do, I have to shape the environment and interactions for success. The essential thing to prevent for now, is for two parrots to end up in close enough proximity to be able to start a fight for any reason. Thus the challenge is to bring the parrots closer together while keeping them apart.
To bring the parrots closer together without potential physical contact, what I have been doing is getting Kili or Truman in a grab (they like being grabbed so it's no problem) and holding them near Santina. I kept them out of biting range for sure. At first I kept them at some distance but progressively approached closer. This is a way to directly control the first interactions and helps me establish the relationship for both birds simultaneously. What I don't want is for them to establish relationships on their own terms because I don't know what those terms might be. I would rather take it slowly and ensure tolerance and ideally friendship between everybody. While holding one of the old world parrots in my grab, I would use my free hand to give scratches to both. I'd alternate between giving Truman a head scratch and then Santina.
By alternating my attention between the two birds, I deter jealousy and encourage mutual cooperation. You may recall that I encouraged cooperation between Kili & Truman by using the prisoner's dilemma in making them have to work together to get mega-treats. I would recall the birds to fly to me together and unless both came, neither would get the treats. They learned to work together for mutual success. Likewise, by requiring both Santina and Truman to be calm in each other's presence to earn head scratched, I am able to build a similar experience. Both birds were earning welcome head scratches that they would not have been getting otherwise at that time.
While holding Kili or Truman in a grab near Santina, I was carefully assessing each bird's body language. I was careful not to evoke any aggression while promoting responses most closely associated to contentedness. Nothing bad was happening to any bird but only good things. Interestingly, Santina was very calm. Although she showed some modest interest, she did not show the aggressive body language I have come to recognize that she makes when she ultimately ends up biting people. With Truman's approach, Santina simply turned her head around backwards and proceeded preening. This is definitely a sign of calm and trust. Likewise, Kili & Truman showed no aggression and enjoyed extra scratches.
By keeping the guest parrots in my grab, I was able to get Santina to associate some of the happiness she feels in seeing me toward seeing these other birds. They were a sort of extension of my reach. Santina's trust of the fact that anything I present to her is good, also helped. I repeated this grabbed showing exercise a few times.
The next step was to introduce some closer interaction with greater freedom without letting the parrots cross paths. I began working on flight recalls in the bird room with Kili & Truman. With Santina on a stand at the far end of the room, I gave Kili & Truman the freedom to fly in the same room as her. So even though they could fly up to her and start a fight, they didn't. They know how to focus on a training session and ignore all else during this time. This is where a focused training approach comes in really handy when introducing birds. The birds don't even have to know how to fly or do complex tricks. Just getting each bird to focus on some sort of known positively reinforced behavior (such as target) is a great starting point. The training creates sufficient distraction while also inadvertently reinforcing the parrots for being in proximity without contact. Santina wasn't neglected during this training time either. While Kili & Truman would be eating their treats, I would continue training with Santina as well.
By using pellets as treats for all birds, I was able to buy sufficient consumption time that I never had more than one unoccupied bird at a time. While the parrots were occupied eating their treats at distant ends of the room, there was no opportunity for aggression. With time and progress, I would have the birds end up closer to each other. I had Kili or Truman buzz right by Santina in flight to recall to me. They would ignore her presence and focus on flying to me instead. Since Santina was preoccupied eating her own treat during that time, she had little reason for concern either. Interestingly, Santina was not bothered or surprised to see these flying birds despite being clipped and living around clipped birds.
To take things even further, I began finding reasons to give a nut to each bird and putting them near each other to eat it. A nut is a really big deal for all of my birds and it keeps them so occupied that they notice little else while consuming it. I would have each bird do something to earn a nut and then put each on adjacent perches. None of the perches were in stepping distance of each other but the flighted parrots could easily hop or fly the gap if they really wanted to. But since all birds were preoccupied enjoying their nuts, nobody went anywhere and the all of the parrots had practice being in each other's proximity without doing anything undesirable.
These early introductions have been very successful. I will continue training the parrots near each other while maintaining separation. With time the separation will be reduced. I will also take the parrots places together. I have found that travel and socialization really brings parrots together in their familiarity with each other but not the new places. Lastly, at some eventual times the parrots will inadvertently come in each others immediate proximity and I will be evaluating the outcomes and whether or not they can be let together for any extended or unsupervised spans of time.
This is not an absolute approach to parrot introductions but it works well for me. This is the method by which I originally introduced Kili & Truman to each other and it worked. Now I am using the same for Santina. Having a good training background and well-behaved parrot in the first places are important requisites to having success with this introduction approach. So if you haven't already, check out my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots to help you get to a point where applying this kind of training, being able to grab your parrots, etc are all possible in order to take advantage of these introduction techniques.
I hate getting bit. In fact I hate it so much that I make sure that I don't. I have approached countless birds – that aren't mine – at stores, rescues, and other people's homes and I rarely if ever get bit. This is because I don't put myself in harm's way. I adjust to the bird and let the bird adjust to me. I read the bird and act in a predictable way to help the bird read me. This article is about offering food to a parrot from your hand that you don't know or think will bite.
If you don't personally know a bird (and by personally I mean where it has stepped up for you before; just cause it has stepped up for others doesn't mean you know that it will do the same for you), the safest approach to keeping your blood inside your skin is to take caution as though the bird could bite. On the other hand, if you already got bit by the bird offering food in the past or know that others have, then you especially need to follow these steps. Even if your bird doesn't bite you, you will still want to familiarize yourself with these steps in case you encounter someone else's parrot or someone else needs to encounter your parrot!
Being able to read and understand body language is important but sometimes you just don't know. If it's your own parrot that you have a long experience with, you may be able to read the body language and avoid a bite on yourself or someone else. But if you are visiting a bird or just acquired a new one, until you see body language in context, you just may not know.
Offering food from your hand is the first essential step to being able to apply positive reinforcement training to teach the bird to step up, accept head scratches, and more. Until you can get within touching range of the parrot, inevitably you will end up relying on negative reinforcement and positive/negative punishment. So to have greater success with the parrot and to get it to like you, it is important to get to the point of being able to safely offer food as soon as possible. There are safe ways of offering food and then there are ways to get bit instead.
I really came to realize the importance of this procedure when my friend Ginger, from Ginger's Parrots Rescue, got bit by Santina. Here is someone who deals with many birds and surely knows what to do but still mistakenly put herself in harms way. A few weeks prior, my little sister got bit while offering food to Santina as well. On the flip side, I watched my brother use my same approach and was able to handle the large macaw with no trouble.
One of the problems I have is that Santina is super sweet to me and never bites me (since I brought her home from the rescue) so I don't really know her aggressive body language. It kind of has to do with dancing around and being fluffy but then again she looks much the same way when she wants a head scratch from me. Since she has experienced so few other people, inevitably the first few end up being test dummies to see if she will bite and what kind of postures she displays at that time.
First, you are going to need to find out what the parrot actually likes as a treat. Offering something the bird doesn't like won't protect you from a bite. On the other hand offering something the parrot would like can quite likely become a sufficient distraction from biting. Finding out the bird's favorite treats was already covered in this article. But if you're approaching a bird without knowing what it likes, some go to treats include millet spray for budgies/cockatiels, sunflower seeds for small parrots, almonds for medium parrots, and Brazil nuts for large ones. Not only are these treats favored by most parrots but they are also large (relative to the size of the bird's beak). This will improve the likelihood that the bird's entire beak will be occupied by the treat and not leave room for a bite. Also, the treat is so big that you can protect yourself behind the extended treat as I will explain.
The first step is to leave the bird alone! All too often people get too excited about wanting to handle a bird that they overwhelm it. Instead, give the bird some time to get comfortable with your presence. If you have a visitor apply the same procedures to guide their interaction with your bird. At first, ignore the bird completely. Don't even look at it. With a little more time, from a distance begin to interact with it remotely. Make slow but deliberate steps toward the bird with the special treat in hand. If at any point the bird begins to flip out (jumping off perch, flying away, snap biting toward you in the air, etc), you've got a lot more of an issue than just offering food without getting bit. That type of situation is beyond the scope of this article, please refer to my book instead. But if all you are dealing with is slightly aggressive posture, eye pinning, or other agitation that is not extreme, continue slowly moving closer. Maintain a pace that evokes the least of this type of reaction until you can get into range.
Never put yourself closer to the parrot than the distance it would take for the bird to bite you. Except in some extreme cases, most flighted parrots will not fly to attack you. If they get too scared they will just fly away. If in a cage or clipped, the parrot is left with no choice but to bite if it feels trapped. This is why we are going to work on the careful no-bite food exchange to show the bird that first of all absolutely nothing bad will happen (negative reinforcement) and that in fact something good will happen (treat, positive reinforcement). At first the negative reinforcement element actually plays a more substantial role in early training but if the treats are desirable, positive reinforcement will quickly take over.
When you can reach the distance within a few feet from the bird, it is time to slow down and exercise greater caution. Show the treat in very plain sight. Maybe even pretend to eat it and make a big deal about how nice it is. So while up till this point the goal was to move closer to the bird without freaking it out too much, from this point the goal is to move the treat toward the bird without getting bit. Realize that the bird has different ranges of reach. It can bite what is right at its beak, it can reach forward and bite and it can make a lunge snap bite that can reach furthest. What I do is walk up to a point where I can reach the bird with my arms without moving my feet any more. I reach the treat at a slow but constant rate toward the bird. I keep going closer and watch for the bird to teach to take it. I put the treat just far enough that the bird can stretch its maximum range to try to get it from me. If the bird is looking at and reaching for the treat, I am strongly assured that the bird wants the treat and shouldn't bite. I don't let my guard down completely yet. While holding the treat at the furthest point, I continue to reach it closer toward the bird until it is just close enough to take the treat but not close enough to bite yet. I hold the treat loosely and make it easy for the bird to take it out from between my fingers. As soon as the bird grasps the treat I take my hand back out of bite range but I don't go away. I stand around while the bird eats the treat to build more trust. If the bird avoids eating because I am imposing too much, I might take a step or two back but I still try to stay close while it eats. Then I recede to get another treat and try again.
After several treats, the parrot should start to become more at ease because it knows that all you want to do is provide a treat. On the other hand you should be able to get more confident that the bird isn't trying to bite. Depending on how aggressive/scared the bird is, the rate of your continued progress will vary. Maybe you have now gained the trust of an already tame bird and it will let you scratch its head and step up. Or maybe this is just the beginning of a long taming process. But either way, with the power to apply positive reinforcement in your training, things have the potential for major improvement from this point further.
Try to make the first approach happen within the span of about 30 seconds from when you begin to approach the bird to when the treat is in the beak. With success, keep trying to cut that time in half. You don't want to take too long any more than you want to rush. A rush can scare the bird into biting. But drawing the process out too long can lose the parrot's interest in the treat and hinder your chances at success.
If the parrot drops the treat but doesn't bite, try finding a more desired treat. Look for greater interest from the parrot's gaze. If the parrot bites, end the session and focus more on finding very desired treats and practice your approach to be able to bring in a treat without giving the parrot enough reach to bite. If done properly, you should not end up receiving a bite using this approach. The more times the parrot can take food without biting, the less likely the bird will consider biting as something to do in similar circumstances in the future.
This approach helps you have a more confident approach because it protects you from being bit but also is more comfortable for the parrot (thereby reducing the desire to bite just the same). The parrot will learn just to get treats for nothing and success will come with practice. For more information about taming and training parrots, please refer to my complete approach presented in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. Here is a video in real time of me teaching Ginger to approach Santina in a way that gets her to take the treats rather than bite.
It is winter. It is cold. We value days of warmth more than ever and so do the birds. This has been an especially cold winter and opportunities to get the birds outside for some natural sunshine have been very limited. This is why the moment it is sunny and not so cold I jump on the opportunity to get them out!
Yesterday it was a warm 46 degrees Fahrenheit. So I took Santina out briefly and she had her first encounter with snow. Since Santina comes from a warm room and heated rescue, I did not venture to keep her outside for long. She is not adapted to the cold. Kili and Truman on the other hand sport really thick down coats. When I pet their feathers, I notice an unusually thick layer of poofy white down beneath. The reason is because in the fall I continue taking them outside in the cold and also drop my apartment temperature some. They become acclimated to lower temperatures so brief encounters with temps above freezing are not a problem.
Since yesterdays outing was not expected, the birds were already fed and the timing was bad so they didn't care to fly much. Today, I checked the weather and realized it would be warm again. So I skipped morning flight training at home and got them outside for some freeflight instead. They're not used to flying in such weather but they did a stellar job none the less. They have been training up for this moment and keeping their muscles in shape with 1-2 mile nightly training sessions at home.
Truman seemed really eager so I let him fly first. He did one flight recall off the bat but refused to do anymore. He went back on his leash while Kili showed him how it's really done. She zoomed all around the park like a flying ace. She had not forgotten a thing in the months since her last freeflight. Truman was burning with jealousy and when he got his turn flew better than ever before. He flew longer, further, and more reliably. They both did a stellar job on this cool, sunny, February winter day!
Stress is necessary for your parrot's well-being. "Whoa, did he really just say that!?" Let me talk about stress and why it's important to expose our parrots to it rather than to shelter them.
I talk to many parrot owners and get to experience stressed parrots. In most cases, the parrots that are overwhelmed with stress (which may manifest itself as plucking, pacing, biting, freaking out, etc) are the ones who were not sufficiently exposed to it in the past. To contrast, my parrots have a good dose of stress and strain in their lives. So when something scary happens, they can keep a head on their shoulders and deal with it rather than becoming overwhelmed.
As you challenge your parrot with more stressful situations (that are absurdly rare and unlikely to recur), you will actually ensure that your parrot lives with much less stress in its day to day life! Think of it as watching enough scary movies that nothing in ordinary ones can scare you. This concept prepares your parrot to deal with rare difficult situations and also makes it immune to excess fear during all normal routines.
Now I'm not saying to suddenly take a sheltered parrot and to start doing all sorts of scary things to it at once. Stress tolerance needs to be built up gradually. You can do this by constantly challenging your bird a little more than before. If you maintain this as part of your lifestyle, within a few years the bird will become much more hardy. Let me get into examples of good ways to stress your parrot to save it from being harmed by stress in the future.
A degree of stress in a parrot's life is perfectly natural. In the wild, parrots will have to deal with stressful situations from time to time. So if anything, the annihilation of stress in a captive parrot's life is the less natural lifestyle. The parrot that lives in a sheltered cage, with a bowl full of food, and no changes in its life is at highest risk of stress related problems. Likewise, boredom (and related problems like screaming or plucking) is a byproduct of insufficient stress in a parrot's life.
Instead, prepare your parrot to deal with stress in its life through a controlled and continued exposure to stress inducing situations. Providing challenges through foraging and training, socialization, travel, and outings, are great ways to apply modest amounts of stress on a parrot that will prepare it for more.
Folks marvel at how my parrots could venture all over New York City without being scared. I've received many comments of amazement how a fire truck went by and my parrots were not even phased. This is because they have been exposed to similar situations in the past. Even if they haven't seen a fire truck before, they have been to carnivals and other bustling situations in the past. This deliberate exposure to stress has ensured that they do not become overwhelmed in unforeseen circumstances. Not only that, but it has equipped them to enjoy and have fun in all the travel and things we do. Since these things are no longer frightening, they counteract boredom and improve the parrots' quality of life.
I also physically stress my parrots and improve their endurance through extensive flight training. At home, the two trained parrots regularly end up flying dozens of flight recalls. This is tough on their cardio-respiratory systems as much as on their muscles. But this keeps them fit and healthy.
I extend this concept even further. I don't worry much about my parrots. I don't tiptoe around their cages or fiddle with temperature controls too much. While at first, these may have been greater concerns, with time I've allowed them to get used to more variation. They have learned to deal with it and not be bothered. If food or water isn't available while we're traveling a bit longer than usual, they have no trouble dealing with it. Or if the food I have for them is not what they are used to, they are adaptive and can try the new food on the spot. Whether an emergency, or a planned life change, a parrot that is accustomed to dealing with stress in the long term, will be best prepared and least affected.
Kili, Truman, and I had an awesome time traveling around Texas for our recent book signing tour. It all started with an 11 hour non-stop flight from Linden, NJ to San Marcos, TX. The flight was initially supposed to take 10 hours but due to headwinds and barely sufficient fuel, I had to slow down to stretch things a little. The reason for going to San Marcos was to take advantage of a special $1/gallon fuel promotion they were running that month.
While in San Marcos, the birds and I took advantage of the time and car rental to go see downtown San Antonio. The parrots remembered the Alamo and strolled down canal ways of San Antonio.
We met the Vintage Mooney Pilots group at San Marcos airport for lunch. The birds showed off some tricks and flying. The more fascinating aspect of this encounter was that I had the birds flying around a conference room enclosed by glass windows on all sides. Despite the amount of potentially crashable surfaces, the birds never hit anything and new exactly what they were doing. I wish I had a picture to share because for a bird that does not grasp the concept of glass, this room could have been a death trap. Kili & Truman understand perfectly.
After gassing up for $88 in San Marcos, we flew onward to Phoenix. We went on a Sunday morning group parrot outing at Joe's and then visited the Arizona Exotic Bird Rescue for a book signing event. I stayed the week with Ginger and worked on a secret project (that you'll have to wait a bit to find out about) and helped out at the rescue. I took care of the morning routine with the parrots by changing food, water, and papers. It's not hard but when there are that many birds, it can take quite a while. Luckily, there's always a bird around who's willing to come along and help out.
Learning that Ginger never gets out for a vacation, I dragged her out and made her forget about the birds for a day. I took her up to Las Vegas which was just a two hour flight in my plane. We walked around the strip and joked about how many parrot themed things we could spot. After gambling away the rescue's veterinary fund (just kidding), we flew back to Phoenix.
As close as Ginger has ever been to New York, New York. But in Las Vegas.
When the week ended I bid Ginger goodbye and returned to Texas with the trained parrot duo for some more weekend book signings. We did a performance for the Tree Top Bird Center in Dallas and then another event for the Fort Worth Bird Club the following day. The birds performed very well and in fact I had to fly them for more treats after each to satisfy their desire to show off, exercise, and get treats. Many books were sold and signed and the events were not only a success but a pleasure as well. Kili & Truman are big showoffs and love a crowd.
Between events, the birds went all over Dallas and Fort Worth with me. They visited Downtown Dallas and paid homage to JFK (this is the place where Kennedy was assassinated), they paid a lot of attention to frequently passing trains, they saw fish at an aquarium, and they showed off to restaurant patrons at the west end. In Fort Worth, they visited the downtown area and the Stock Yards. The birds had lunch with me outside and watched the famous cow drive. Truman was really intrigued and said he wanted to be a cowbird or at least a cowparrot.
Truman playing dead by the book repository building
Here's the trip summary video with Kili & Truman touring San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth: