It was great having a chance to present at Parrot Palooza again this year. My headline presentation was 5 Things you can do with your parrot today to improve your parrot's behavior.
Here is a brief summary of the talk followed by a video of the actual presentation.
#1 - Double up on toys
Parrots are extremely intelligent animals that get bored easily. They need a lot to keep them occupied. Otherwise they will find other ways to occupy themselves and these things generally don't mesh well with the household. If a parrot is out of the cage and bored, it may opt to fly around and chew on moldings, furniture, your keyboard or phone, and wreak havoc on a home.
Locked away in the cage, a bored parrot may be more limited in what it can get its beak on. If destroying toys isn't the go-to option, the next one will be destroying perches. However, when both of those are short to come by, their next favorite misbehavior tends to be screaming! Parrots love the sound of their own voice, which can be quite loud, and they can go on all day. Unlike you, parrots aren't prone to hearing damage or loss so there's nothing to stop them. When the screaming runs out, then parrots turn to feather plucking or self-mutilation. Once it starts, it is often difficult or impossible to reverse. Likewise, bad behavior is seldom untaught.
For these, reasons it is far more worthwhile to pile up the bird toys and shovel out hoards of splinters from the bottom of the cage than to leave the parrot to entertain itself. You will want about 8-12 toys in the bird's cage at any given time and 5+ perches to help them get around and get access to those toys. Not only do you need the quantity of toys, but also the quality. Find bird toys that will last your parrot about 2 weeks. That means that after about 2-4 weeks, there is nothing but the chain or rope left behind because the parrot destroyed all of the rest. Toys that last for less time are great too but you will have to keep replacing them frequently so it will get costly. Learning your bird's chewing abilities and habits will help you shop smart and find the toys that will be the right level of challenge to keep your parrot interested and chewing for a reasonable length of time.
Be sure to check out the selection of bird toys and particularly the Woodland Parrot line of artisan bird toys from the Parrot Wizard store.
#2 - 12 hours of sleep
It is very important to give your parrot 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep all year round. This not only ensures that your bird isn't misbehaving from being sleep deprived but also helps tone down the hormones. By reducing the effects of seasons, through variation in daylight cycles, you can largely reduce the highly undesired consequences of a hormonal parrot. A lot of biting, territorial aggression, excessive preference for specific people, and unpredictable mood swings can be curbed by managing the light schedule.
You can cover the cage with a black bed sheet when it is time for the parrot to fall asleep and until it is time to wake up. My preferred way is to have the bird room lights on a timer so that they turn on and off automatically to help control the bird's sleep schedule. Some black out curtains or automatic shutters on a timer are also important in order to keep the sun out when the natural daylight period is longer than 12 hours.
#3 - Provide a tree stand
A fantastic way to improve or maintain your parrot's behavior is to provide a tree stand or activity center for your parrot away from the cage. All too often, people allow their parrot to hang out on top of the cage or playtop. This breeds some pretty strongly undesirable behavior. Parrots tend to be territorial and weird around their cages as it is. And on top of the cage it only gets worse. With a tall cage it is difficult to reach the bird so it runs to the distant ends of the cage while you are chasing and it only makes things worse. Instead, having the daily routine of taking the bird to a remote playstand every day not only provides the parrot with something to do but also strengthens the bond.
It's important to provide an extensive, exciting, climbable tree stand with the ability to hang toys. A simple Training Perch or Tabletop Perch is not suitable for this particular purpose. Simple perches are great for the purpose of training or interacting with the parrot. However, when you wish to put the parrot down and for the bird to keep itself busy, a complete tree stand or activity center is required.
Now having a bare tree stand alone isn't enough either. Just like in point 1, double up on those toys! Don't let your bored get bored and revert to undesirable behavior. Outfit the tree stand with toys, ropes, swings, foraging opportunities, and as many things to do as possible. Don't fill the food bowls with food though! Fill them with foot toys and activities instead.
The Parrot Wizard line of NU Perch Climbing Trees provides tree stands ideally suited for this purpose! These, ready to ship online, purpose built tree stands are designed so that your parrot could actually get around on them and reach the toys and activities you set up. The Parrot Wizard Trees are highly customizable to assist you in creating a captivating out of cage experience for your bird! Explore the Parrot Wizard Lifestyle to further learn how you can use the complete line of Parrot Wizard products as behavioral bird furniture to perfect your parrot keeping experience!
#4 - Enrich with variety of foods
Keep your parrot engaged with a more interesting variety of foods. Mix things up and keep it entertaining. Now this isn't to say to feed your parrot unhealthy. It is very important that you research and determine a healthy staple diet for your parrot's well-being. About 50-80% of the diet will be for nutritional purposes. However, for the remainder of your bird's daily intake, providing alternative, fun, and interesting foods will enhance their behavior as well.
Rather than just giving your bird it's favorite treats all the time, holding them back and getting your parrot to explore an assortment of tastes will actually drive better behavior! The parrot will be kept more busy weaving through the different foods, picking and choosing, deciding what it likes and doesn't like. Getting favorite foods all the time just doesn't do that. And a great benefit of this is that the favorite foods will become even more effective treats for training.
Explore a variety of natural fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds for your bird. Not the typical seeds you see in a bird-store seed mix, but completely different stuff. Flax seeds, quinoa, sweet potato, papaya, and other exotic things like that. You can shop for some special mixes or come up with your own. But as you expand your parrot's pallet from just pellets + seeds to a wide variety, your bird will be more engaged and also drive a higher motivation for training. Which leads me to the 5th thing you can start doing to improve your parrot's behavior.
#5 - Clicker Training
Incorporating clicker training into your daily routine with your parrot will greatly improve your parrot's behavior in so many ways! First and most obviously, you can use clicker training to practice essential skills with your parrot such as step-up, handling, and flight recall. However, the benefits go far beyond just the basics. As you continue teaching your parrot more and more things, you will inadvertently be making the more basic things second nature.
In order to perform many of the tricks that you can teach, your parrot will inevitably have to step-up, be touched, or be in close proximity to hands in the process. As the parrot focuses on dunking the basketball or sorting colors, it won't even notice the proximity to hands or step-ups that it is doing while focused on a goal. This builds a much higher and more automatic level of good-behavior for general pet interactions with your bird throughout the day.
Not only does a daily training habit help build a relationship, it also helps the bird burn off energy in a productive way. Rather than screaming, getting overly amped up and biting, or becoming too destructive, by performing daily training you are having the bird spend energy in a beneficial rather than harmful way! It's a win-win. The bird learns good behavior and the bird is less tempted to engage in bad behavior simultaneously because it is more calm and relaxed after training!
Treat training as a necessary part of your daily parrot care routine. Just as it is important to change food, water, and cage papers, treat training as an equally simple, quick, and essential part of parrot care! Just a few minutes of focused training every day will go a long way in improving your parrot's behavior both directly and indirectly for life!
Grab a copy of my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. It comes with a free bonus clicker and target stick to get you started right away! In addition, you'll want a Parrot Training Perch Kit as a comfortable platform for engaging in the training. Not only are the Training Perches going to make it easy to do the training, they will also help your parrot focus and be in the mood for training every day!
So, there are 5 things you can do to start improving your parrot's behavior! Of course, there is a bit more to it, but these 5 things are a great start. You can start making big progress toward having your perfect magical parrot keeping experience with these 5 things. I hope that this advice can help you improve your parrot's behavior and I hope that the Parrot Wizard supplies I came up with will aid you in making this parrot behavior be as simple to achieve as possible! Wishing you success.
Here is a video of my presentation at the 2019 Bird Paradise Parrot Palooza:
Having visited a number of parrot performances at zoos and wildlife parks, I'm noticing a lot of similarity in their methods. After watching the shows, I usually manage to get a few questions in to the trainers that I am very interested about. The questions are tough and they are reluctant to answer but I have ways of getting information out of them.
Some of the parks I've visited that have parrot shows include: Gulf World Florida, Zoobic Safari Phillipines, San Diego Zoo CA, Sea World CA, and Wildlife World Zoo AZ. I've also seen other raptor shows and marine mammal shows and had opportunities to speak to the trainers. What is most amazing is that there is far more agreement in methodology across professionals than there is in the amateur training community. There are still many ineffective approaches being used and advocated that could never hold in a professional environment.
Outdoor Freeflight Green Wing Macaw at San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Yet, the biggest question is does the methodology used by professionals belong in the home and how can parrot owners apply it? That is what I am here to share with you.
I already know how staff for shows train the parrots. It's the same way I do and the same way I share with you. What I am more interested about is how they attain reliability, balance ethics, and how they deal with a brilliant animal trying to outsmart them at every opportunity. I suspected and they have confirmed that it has mostly to do with: weight management, habit, routine, habit, and some luck.
More of the show is people performing in animal costumes than actual animal tricks. It's easier to dangle some money in front of a person to hang from a wire and make a fool of themselves than it is to get the birds to actually complete their flights! Green Wing and Military Macaw Fly at Sea World in this video.
Interestingly, most of the recent shows I've seen all keep flighted parrots. Now some are exclusively indoors but many are actually outdoors. The old school dog and pony show of parrot entertainment with a dozen clipped birds that perform one trick each is on its way out. There are still some oldsters that present this way, but it seems that a greater appreciation of the parrot as a complete and flighted performer is taking over. I love the indoor flighted parrot shows and agree that this is the very best compromise of freedom and safety. However, I think the main reason that outdoor flight shows exist is less for the purpose of being outside as it is about the large audiences they bring (leading to the impracticability of having the show indoors).
If plainly asked, "what do you do to get your parrot motivated to perform" or "how hungry do you have to make your bird to perform," trainers will get very elusive in their response. They'll start talking about how food is closely monitored, how the animals are healthy, how the animals like to perform, that they used positive reinforcement and treats, etc. Yet they will walk around telling you the fact that the birds' food is heavily managed. I am trying to avoid words like deprived, starved, underfed, etc because I am not out to judge or imply anything (positive or negative).
They tried hard to teach the dolphin to fly. Better leave that to the birds...
I use appropriate jargon and ask questions in ways that get them to actually tell me what kind of food management they actually use. Every place is somewhat different but overall it goes something like this: birds are fed only one scheduled measured meal per day (obviously after shows), weight is monitored and managed by meal portions, weight is usually reduced 10-20% from free feed, and all other food is earned as treats during shows or training. Some venues host only one show per day while others use the birds multiple times.
In order to keep "talking" parrot performs from flying off during shows or to keep performing birds still while the trainer is talking, treats are given to the birds regularly just for staying put. This is something that the old school wing clipping trainers never bothered with because they were able to keep a dozen parrots on stage because they could not go anywhere. This brings an interesting lesson back to pet owners. Yes parrots are hyper and want something to do all the time. They may not be content to sit on your hand for minutes non-stop just because you want them to or to show them to guests. You have to give them a good reason to grace you with their presence.
Military Macaw zooms overhead during Blue Horizons Dolphin/Bird Show at Sea World
Now when it comes to unrestrained outdoor flight, the secret behind the approach shows use (and also a damn good reason you shouldn't) is:
1) The parrots are kept very hungry. They have pretty much no choice but to make the couple flight passes that they are expected to and then be put away to eat. It's like the low fuel light comes on in your car, you don't have the luxury of choosing the cheapest gas station.
2) The parrots physical capabilities are highly limited. Their wings are atrophied and they aren't the strongest fliers. They are kept in cages or aviaries that are not conducive to flight. They rarely/never have opportunities to fly other than training or shows. This may not be done intentionally for this purpose but the byproduct is that their strength is only enough to fly their show routine. The bird would not be capable of bailing and flying too far away. This is like giving a teenager a run down car that will break down before they could jump town. Many parrot owners who keep their parrots flighted with a lot of out of cage time, may have stronger fliers that could get further away outdoors.
3) The parks own the grounds for a big radius around the performance area. Most likely if the bird were to get out, because of it's limited flying abilities, it would still end up landing somewhere within the park
4) The outdoor flighted parrots were bred and raised specifically to fill the role of flying outdoors for shows. They experience nothing else and are not kept as pets. This is the only lifestyle they know so they feel little choice but to comply. On the flipside, parrots at home are usually accustomed to much more freedom so outdoors they could take advantage of it.
5) Lastly, it's just that they don't care enough. The birds are expendable and having the show is important to bring in visitors. I'm not saying that the shows lose birds often (mainly for the reasons above), however, it's a chance they are willing to take. A pet owner with a personal relationship to a single bird is far less likely to consider this a worthwhile risk.
At most of the shows I attended, I only got to ask a few questions of the trainer after the show. However, during my June visit to Phoenix for the Parrot Wizard Bird Show & Seminar, I got to meet Josh the Education Curator and trainer. He took me for a private backstage tour of the show animals facility and chatted with me for nearly two hours about training. Josh admitted that parrots are the most difficult of birds to freefly and that they are less food motivated (thus probably requiring extensive weight management in order to be able to get the motivation). Their social motivation may be great for pet owners but is unreliable or even detrimental to shows (like when the birds prefer to fly to play with the audience than obey cues).
Josh demonstrates outdoor freeflight at World Wildlife Zoo
I would think performers would come to rely more heavily on variable ratio reinforcement schedules but it turns out that most of them stick to continuous. I'm not sure that this is so much a conscious decision as a matter of habit or unawareness though. In the home of course, variable ratio reinforcement is very handy and encourages good parrot behavior all around. However, some performers like Josh try to change out birds and schedules to keep things interesting both for trainers and the birds. He also told me about stories of how they lost certain freeflight birds and how they would get them back. There is a lot to it and it's a tough job. I'm glad Josh was very candid with me and gave me the real perspective instead of the perfection they strive to show their audience during performances.
Josh did a private demonstration of some parrot tricks and freeflight because they don't normally fly the birds in the hot Arizona summer. Video also shows a kookaburra making its vocalization.
If zoo and parrot performers can achieve such major success and reliability with their performing birds, then so can you. Believe it or not, you have the deck stacked in your favor because you can spend more one on one time personally working with your parrot. The professionals at these places are typically working with a multitude of various animals, juggling educational programs, and begging for funds. You can cut straight to the chase and work on things with your pet that bring you the relationship you seek.
When it comes to weight management, if professional trainers can safely manage their parrots' weight to 20% lower than freefeed weight with only one feeding a day, then you can rest assured that aiming for 10% and 2 daily feedings with your parrot is perfectly safe. Not only is it safe, but it is actually healthier than being overweight on freefeed. Hopefully this will convince you that using a more modest food management strategy with your parrot can achieve better behavior while also being more generous. There is no need for the same levels of food management in the home as in shows, however, I hope this convinces you not only that it works but that it is safe and healthy.
Here are some clips from my 2 hour long interview with Josh from Wildlife World Zoo in Phoenix Arizona: