Behavioural Basics

By Dr Colin Walker  BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc (Avian health) and Dr Corrie Pinkster BVSc

Most parrot species live for many years, and can be a much loved and involved member of your household. Apart from providing a good diet, investing time into training your bird is essential for a happy healthy bird. This is a very basic summary, and further reading is encouraged – see end of article for resources.

General Principles
• Reward good behaviour but ignore bad behaviour.
• Rewards include:
Food treats (favourite fruit, nuts, seed, wholegrain bread, etc)
Interaction with you (talking, fussing over bird, head scratch, etc)
Toys
This must be tailored to your bird and must be something the bird really enjoys.
Favourite foods work best if they are not given in the normal diet, only for good behaviour.
Tiny treats will allow for more repetition and learning before your bird gets full. For example, try breaking seeds into small pieces – my Galah will work for a sesame seed or 1/8th sunflower!
• Always make training a positive activity for your bird, use rewards that motivate them and stop if your bird is not interested.
• Remember “Baby Steps” or small approximations
Don’t expect a full behaviour to happen all at once.
Reward for every little step or movement which is an approximation of what you want your bird to do.
• Do NOT yell at or hit your bird in any way. Yelling just excites them, and hitting them will break their trust and make them fearful of you, possibly leading to more aggression problems.
• If behaviour does not get the desired response, the bird with stop doing it.
Behaviour we do not want needs to be ignored.
This works best if a replacement behaviour is rewarded – such as rewarding talking rather than screaming.
Always continue to reward good behaviour – don’t take it for granted.
• Consistency and repetition are essential.
• Aim to always give your bird the choice whether to do something or not. It is your challenge to make everything you want into a positive experience for your bird.

Basic Lessons
Target Training – teaching your bird to follow a target has many advantages. The target can be a piece of dowel, chopstick or even your hand. The bird is rewarded EVERY time his beak touches the tip of the target. To start with, hold the target directly in front of his beak so this is easy. As he gets the idea, move the target further away so he has to move towards it. Do lots of practice in an area where your bird is comfortable before challenging him to new places. Once trained, targeting allows you to direct your bird to different places, making getting him in and out of the cage and other tricky places much easier.
Step up – This is asking your bird to step onto your hand or arm. Some birds will do this happily. Others will be very wary of a hand. If your bird is scared, start with some target training to move the bird across a perch and back again. Then hold your hand level with the perch and hold the target over your hand. Initially reward for lifting a foot towards your hand, then placing one foot, then both feet. Don’t try moving your hand until your bird is comfortable and start off with very small, slow movements. Alternatively, try this with a second perch or wooden dowel. Once your bird is comfortable moving onto your hand, hold it just in front of the bird at about the level of his knees and use the target if needed to coax him up. Never push the dowel or your hand into the bird, this is not a positive way to teach and can lead to biting problems. Keep rewarding for every tiny step, be patient and your bird will start to eagerly hop onto your hand for you.
Step down – move your hand to a surface so that it is now in the same position as your hand was for step up. Say “step down” and reward when he cooperates.
Stay – having a safe and convenient area for your bird outside the cage is important, and getting her to stay there equally so.
While she is sitting quietly, randomly talk to her and offer rewards.
If she moves away from the safe area, ask her to step up, put her back where you want her and say “stay”.
Avoid the temptation to talk to her when she wanders, as this is actually encouraging the behaviour.
Your bird will be happier on her play pen or perch if she has toys and food to keep her amused while she is there.
• Be creative with whatever you wish to teach your bird, they are surprisingly intelligent and will learn new tricks very quickly, just stick to the general principles.

Using a training perch
Photo 1. A cockatiel on a training perch. An easy-to-make training perch, such as this, helps give more control over a parrot during training.

Sexual problems
In a wild free flying flock it is only natural for a bird as it approaches puberty to select a sexual partner. In the same way a developing bird will often select a ‘mate’ from its human flock. This ‘preferred human’ is often the one that provides what the bird needs i.e. companionship and food. Although this can appear a bit humorous at times it is fraught with problems because even if the human wanted to be the birds mate no matter what effort is put in the relationship simply doesn’t work almost invariably resulting in sexual frustration on the bird’s behalf and the development of abnormal behaviours. Birds who form an inappropriate ‘mate type’ relationship with their preferred human often try to mate with them, will courtship feed them, want to preen them and be groomed by them, want to spend a lot of time (or all of their time) with them and sometimes be aggressive towards other members of the human flock that go near them. We have had several unusual situations at the clinic where birds have imprinted on unusual objects. We had an Indian Ringneck form a sexual bond with its owners foot with its pink nail polish (the owner joked that the bird had a foot fetish). Budgies are quite commonly presented with unusual behaviours which have a sexual base. Most people are familiar with a pet budgie falling in love with its own reflected image in its mirror or bell. One budgie patient of the clinic was bonded to a small plastic dinosaur that was kept on the floor of its cage and became nervous and agitated whenever it was separated from it. Another case which was particularly sad was another budgie called ‘Neddy’ who ‘loved’ a small plastic ball with a bell inside. ‘Neddy’ groomed, fed, defended and mated with his ball and when it failed to return his affection pulled out a lot of his feathers.

Budgie and ball
Photo 2. The ultimate sex toy? ‘Neddy’ with his plastic ball. This blue budgie had sexually imprinted on this object. He groomed, fed, defended and mated with his ball and when it failed to return his affection pulled out a lot of his feathers. A mass of regurgitated seed, the result of ‘courtship feeding’ can be seen beside the ball. The white material over the ball is dried sperm.

It is important that multiple people are involved in a bird’s care so that the chance of a bird’s attention being focused onto one person is reduced. In cases like ‘Neddy’s’ veterinarians often use libido reducing drugs such as GNRH blockers and the inappropriate object is substituted with multiple interactions with many other members of the human flock. In some situations like this substitution with an actual bird and the encouragement of actual reproductive behaviour is an option.

One bird or two?
Should a pet bird be kept by itself or with another bird? And will this make them less tame? In a humanised bird its need for companionship can be met by humans and so provided people have enough time to spend with that bird there is no need for another bird. For a non-humanised bird i.e. one that is frightened of people the provision of a companion bird can be a good idea. The companion bird does not have to be of the same species with what might appear some very unlikely ‘couples’ becoming good ‘friends’ and quite adequately satisfying each other’s needs for companionship.

Eclectus and Sun Conure
Photo 3. A Sun Conure and Eclectus parrot ‘courtship feeding’ each other. Despite the great differences in colour, size and original geographic distribution of these two species, these two birds are able to meet each other’s need for companionship. Both birds are males.

To keep an intelligent interactive species of bird such as a parrot alone without any companionship is not regarded as fair on the bird and often, predictably, results in the development of a variety of abnormal behaviours. In the same way an intelligent working breed of dog such as a kelpie locked in a small yard by itself might start to display abnormal behaviours such as excessive barking or destructive chewing a parrot may manifest similar frustrations by excessive screeching, self mutilation or display repetitive compulsive behaviour (such as repetitively walking backwards and forwards on it’s perch).

Birds do not become less tame through the provision of an avian companion. If they were not frightened of people they will not become frightened of people. If, however, their need for companionship is met by another bird they will not seek human companionship to the same extent.

If ever there was a case that highlighted the need for bird owners to understand and correctly interpret their birds’ behaviour, it was a case that was presented recently at the clinic. To me, the case seemed particularly sad. The bird had been presented for veterinary examination because of its feather loss. The bird was an old male, self-mutilating, frustrated, Sulphur-crested cockatoo, which had been kept as a single bird in his tiny cage for an incredible 35 years. He was not allowed out because he would bite. Incredibly, once brought into the clinic and after applying basic behavioural guidelines, the bird not only allowed itself to be stroked but also held within only a few days. The term ‘love sponge’ is sometimes applied to these birds and it was certainly apt here. It was as if he was trying to catch up on the 35 years that he had missed out on in just a few days. One would hope that even a single visit to an avian vet these days would be enough to prevent a repeat of this type of situation happening. As I said at the start of this article, parrots can be an involved member of a human household and investing time into understanding their behaviour and training results in a not only happier bird but a much more rewarding bird-owning experience for us.

Keep Learning
Owning a bird is often a lifelong commitment, which will often present you with many challenges and also much joy and love. You will find the whole experience much more rewarding if you spend some time reading about training and putting it into practice. Aim for at least three 15 minute sessions a week. You will find this is great quality time to spend with your bird and it should be fun for both of you.
• Barbara Heidenreich is an excellent educator in the area of bird behaviour. She has two books – “Good Bird” and The Parrot Problem Solver, both wonderful resources for the parrot owner. She also has a web site – www.goodbirdinc.com which is well worth visiting and signing up for her free email list.
• Jim McKendry has a great website at www.pbec.com.au . Here you will find several of his own articles, as well as some gems from Barbara Heidenreich, Susan Friedman and Steve Martin, all well regarded bird trainers.

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