My Thoughts On Taming A Pet Parrot

Alright, I’ve got to speak my mind this month. I have heard so many people and seen so many web sites talking about ‘taming’ birds.
Thoughts on taming your pet bird by Cincinnati certified parrot behavior consultant, Lisa DesatnikKnowing what I know about behavior and being as compassionate as I am about other living beings, I hate that phrase. It makes me cringe actually because taming to me infers dominance and force. And dominance and force in no way helps build a relationship of trust and foster quality of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I used to get bit, and bit hard, by Dreyfuss until I began studying behavior with Susan Friedman, Ph.D. about 16+ years ago. Since then the only rare bites I have gotten have been when “I” have not paid attention to her body language.

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

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

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



Power Of Positive Reinforcement To Solve Parrot Screaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Solving Pet Parrot Phobic Behavior – Positively

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving Problem Parrot Chewing With Enrichment

(a Hyde Park Living column written a number of years ago when my dear Chester was still with us)

In the days before Barnaby joined our flock, there was just Chester, Dreyfuss and me living together in a large two bedroom apartment. It actually was a wonderful place with many of tips for solving parrot behavior problemsthe rooms being larger than those in my house and the large sliding glass window in the dining room made for a scenic view of the woods in the back. Pink floor length curtains hung from its side with a hand made valence (made by me) stretching across the top.

Chester and Dreyfuss stayed in the dining room, their cages arranged on a wall at either end of the table.

It made for some interesting meetings (I work from my home) and dinners with the family. Whoever thought only dogs begged for food has certainly never met my guys!

That was long before I had ever heard of behavioral analysis, and creating an enriching environment, well, that meant putting some acrylic toys in their cages, right??? I got them at the pet store, and they were labeled ‘bird toys’ after all.

I did a lot of things differently back then, and, as a result, so did the guys. Take for example those flowing, opaque pink curtains that were no longer transparent to the sun’s afternoon rays by the time I bought a house. If you’re ever looking for an awesome playgym for your parrot, I’ve got a suggestion. To Chester, they were the greatest thing next to safflower seeds. He’d slide down his cage stand, waddle across the floor and climb to his heart’s content. Up, down, right, left. If he was on the outer edge, he could swing it around so that only his head would stick out. And, if I didn’t find him while he was playing monkey on the curtains, he’d make it all the way up to the valence. I can’t tell you how many times I’d walk out to find him hanging upside down. When he’d see me, he’d tilt his head up as if to say ‘look mom, look at me!’

I was so frustrated because I couldn’t stop him, but at the same time, if you’ve ever seen an Alexandrine hanging upside down with such a comical look about him, you can’t help but laugh. It’s just so funny.

Then there was the time when I was on the telephone in a back bedroom and suddenly I heard C*R*U*N*C*H. That was the sound of a dining room chair being disassembled by a beak that didn’t have anything better to chew on. <sigh>

Needless to say, I was determined when we moved, that history was NOT going to repeat itself. And thankfully now, I have the knowledge to prevent it. (at least so far – and it’s been nine years)

It’s easy to look back on the situation now and see how Chester’s environment wasn’t setting him up for success, at least success through my eyes.

With a behavioral analysis hat on, let’s look at his curtain climbing antics.

Background: Chester is activity and Lisa deprived.

Antecedent: curtains were in view

Behavior: Chester waddled over and climbed the curtains

Consequence: sensory feedback – stimulation from his having to use his beak and feet activity – he was busy and engage; social – if I came out, he’d get my attention

Probable Future Behavior:  When Chester is activity and Lisa deprived, he’ll continue to climb the curtains

So, what have I done differently to set him up for success?

Well, honestly, I really just needed to do some antecedent changes to prevent him from destroying things here and it has solved our problem. I have created a much more enriching environment.  I even keep their cage doors open while I’m working in my basement and the only reason Chester will come off his cage is if something scares him. But I’m prepared for that too.

Chester, and all of my birds, have a lot to do during the day to keep them busy. I spend hours each week making strands of knotted hemp and beads that I hang all over the inside and outside of their cages. I wrap almonds in cloth or a box or paper cup for Chester and Dreyfuss. I have portions of a phone book wrapped in string on the cage floor of Chester’s cage and hanging toys for Barnaby, my Timneh Grey, to hang from.

The list goes on but you get the picture. They are busy if they want to be, and if they want to nap, that’s fine too.

But in the instance that Chester should come to the ground (and now I put him there too when I’m cleaning cages or watching tv), I’ve made some play stations for him. I got a mirrored toy from a human baby store and he can spend hours with it, so much so that I got a second one for the television room. (Scattering some beads or resting a tub of activity items next to it makes it even more reinforcing.) I bought a cheap   plastic round snow sled and placed an Orbit play gym on top, tying strands of beads to it. This is also in the television room, next to the mirror toy. Chester receives such positive sensory and activity reinforcement for playing with these toys that there’s no reason for him to search out a dining room chair or curtain.

And I’d much rather laugh at him rolling his mirror toy around than hanging from my hand made valence any day!


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!






Barnaby’s Family Scrapbook

I had forgotten that we had done this years ago. Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey, worked with me in creating this about his family. At the time Chester was still with us. It’s fun so I thought I’d reshare. You may have to click on the arrow to advance to the next screen if it doesn’t automatically load.

Solving Problem Parrot Screaming

(a past Hyde Park Living column)

Screaming is one of those behaviors many bird owners complain about because they can’t seem to get the behavior to stop. And let’s face it…that noise isn’t exactly pleasant – at least to most of us.

Eleven years ago I was among the statistic of those who blamed Barnaby for making a noise I couldn’t live with. Just like so many other bird owners, I tried everything I had heard to try. I tried putting him in his cage, talking to him in quiet words, telling him “no”, ignoring him. All to no avail. I was at the end of my rope when I stumbled upon Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and her behavior teachings. Not only has my whole relationship with my pets changed as a result, she has sparked this passion in me to educate others about using positive, scientifically proven strategies for modifying behavior.

What Susan teaches is that we’ve got to stop looking for answers by labeling behaviors or birds, or species generalities. It serves no purpose in helping to get at the root of the problem. The bottom line is that ALL behavior has function. No matter what the behavior is – whether it’s biting, not stepping up, chewing on furniture, or screaming – something occurred immediately prior to the act (antecedent) that may serve to “lead to” it, and something occurred immediately after the act (consequence) that impacts whether or not the behavior will be repeated in the future.

 We, as teachers, can influence behaviors by changing the environment including antecedents and consequences.

All of my earlier attempts, I was taught, were actually reinforcing his screams – definitely why he had never stopped screaming. There’s a scientific word for what I had been doing. It’s called “intermittent reinforcement”, meaning, sometimes I gave him attention for screaming without even realizing it. Intermittent reinforcement make a behavior more resistant to change (think of the addiction of the slot machine in a casino).

My challenge as Barnaby’s teacher, was to provide him with a more stimulating and satisfying alternative to his screaming. In summary, it boiled down to three basic steps –

1)     Ignore all screaming. Period. No attention at all, if I’m in the room, I calmly walked out with the other birds. With this step, I had to be prepared for an “extinction burst” where he screamed even louder to try to get my attention. Under no circumstances could I give in and go to him during this, or his problem would only worsen. The contingency I wanted Barnaby to learn was, “When” I scream “Then” the room is evacuated.

2)     DRA or differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior. Each and every time Barnaby would make a chosen sound (at first it was a whistle, then changed it to “mommy here”), I was immediately there with reinforcement. The contingency I wanted Barnaby to learn with this was “When” I make this sound “Then” mom gives me attention. Eventually I got to where I don’t come each time, sometimes I’ll tell him I’m busy.

3)     Thoughtful arrangement of the environment. I needed to make sure Barnaby had enough activities that HE was interested in to keep him busy. When I left his room, in the beginning, I would give him something to keep his mind occupied until I was out of sight. If he wasn’t interested in what I had given him, it meant that his gift wasn’t as stimulating to him as calling out to me, and so I had to find something else that was.

It has now been ten years since I first started learning about this. And I’ve got quite a little chatter box in my home. People ask me why Barnaby talks so much and I tell them it is because he gets attention when he talks. When he screams he gets no attention.

Of course there are still moments when the birds scream, they are, after all birds. But it is more the exception than the rule now.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!















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