Pictured top (featured image): Buttons has eaten well and is now offering a relaxed step up with a curious expression. A bird in this state would potentially respond well to a short training session.

We all know the top problematic behaviours that often lead to the surrender of a pet parrot: screaming, biting and feather destructive behaviour. All these behaviours are very hard to live with, both for the human and the bird! These are complex behaviours and, if a bird is demonstrating one or more of them, any underlying physical causes must first be ruled out by a qualified avian vet. However, there is also a great deal that the human/s in the relationship may be doing to contribute to these problematic behaviours. Some of these mistakes in bird parenting may seem extremely harmless to begin with and the well-meaning human may have no idea that he/she is actually teaching the bird to do the very things which may ultimately end up making the relationship unbearable or even outright dangerous!

Pictured left: Cody becoming irked at the presence of a predator. 
Pictured right: Cody showing very clearly aggressive body language at the cat he spots through the window!

In this post I would like to focus on emotional arousal in birds and how to manage yourself around a bird in an aroused state. I am not referring specifically to sexual arousal or hormonal behaviour, although that certainly comes into it!  By emotional arousal I mean any heightened state including, but not limited to: excitement, happiness, exuberance, curiosity, joy, playfulness, affection, surprise, anger, aggression, rage, jealousy, fear, frustration etc. This may seem like a confusing list of emotions to lump together at first glance!  After all, some we regard as positive and some as negative, some are desirable and some are highly undesirable! So what is the point of understanding and considering them together? Shouldn’t we separate them out and look for some while avoiding others?  Yes and no.  For the purpose of this exercise I would like us to note that what they have in common is the intensity of the emotion, the propensity for one state to quickly convert to another, and the fact that any one of them could easily be a precursor to aggression and/or screaming and self-harm.

Pictured left: Cody seconds later. I cut off visual contact with the cat and waited for this picture before approaching him.
Pictured right: A happy and relaxed Merlin. He is completely comfortable with head “scritches”. 

First of all I want to state very clearly that I am NOT saying that arousal, in and of itself, is a bad thing!  Far from it! Without the capacity for arousal any animal would be severely depressed or even dead! Arousal is the source of motivation to go out and seek food, company, enrichment and new experiences. Without arousal life becomes grey and not worth living! So when I say that we need to watch out for these emotional states in our birds I am by no means saying that we want to eliminate them entirely, especially the ones on the “happy” end of the spectrum! However, we need to be extremely self-conscious of which behaviours we reinforce while our bird is in one or more of these states and, perhaps more importantly, which we do not!

I recently watched this excellent video by Jamieleigh Womac of BirdTricks: Parrot Body Language 101.  It is well worth watching in its entirety as her points are illustrated by some excellent parrot footage that is highly educational! In the video Jamieleigh discusses behaviours which can be precursors to aggression. Most will surprise you! She discusses talking, playing, dancing and eye pinning. All cute behaviours that most of us love to see in our birds! However, if misunderstood or allowed to go too far they can turn into aggression. The reason for this is that birds typically learn or demonstrate these behaviours while in a heightened state (be it positive or negative). One of the possible states which may manifest when emotionally aroused is aggression. This aggression may be directed at you or be turned inward and manifest as plucking and/or self-mutilation. 

Pictured left/above: Churchill breaks his flight feathers. We are trying to address this by giving him lots of foraging toys and it does seem to be getting better!

Why is this?  Why does a happy or excited bird not just stay happy and excited? Why is it prone to turn into something darker far too often? Birds are extremely emotional creatures, but like many humans (especially young ones) they may not have learned emotional control!  My parents used to have an Afrikaans saying when I was playing with my friends and things would get a bit over the top.  In a warning tone they would say: “Na lag kom huil.”  Which means “after laughing comes crying.” It was their way of asking us to take it down a couple of notches before some kid ended up in tears for whatever random reason!

We all love our birds and part of delighting in them often includes rolling around on the floor or the bed playing a favourite game with them. Or putting on their favourite music and watching them dance. Or rewarding them for saying a really cute word or phrase. I am not trying to be a kill-joy and saying we should instantly stop all these things!  What I am saying is that we need an in-depth understanding of the whole behaviour, what it means in our individual bird, and when it is time to change things up to prevent the “game” from turning ugly.

Shown above: An impromptu, silly moment with my bird, including bad singing and cute dancing. Cody’s choreography perfectly expresses the emotion of the song. After the song ends you can see he is still into it! I quietly did something else to let the feelings dissipate before interacting with him again.

Here are a few tips on emotional arousal in your bird and how to deal with it:

  1. Know your bird! What is an innocent behaviour in one bird might be something entirely different in another. Don’t generalize between all birds or even all birds of the same species. While there are common traits that are important and helpful to be aware of, each bird is an individual and should be treated as such.
  2. Reinforce CALM behaviours far more strongly and repeatedly than excited or aroused behaviours. Get as many calm behaviours on cue as you can so that you can call on them in an emergency. Reinforce your bird for being quiet, showing relaxed body language, stepping up without using his or her beak (unless physically disabled), doing a trick “cleanly” without any silly or over-the-top behaviours attached to it.  In so doing, not only will you have valuable skills to call on when you need them, you will be changing the whole character of your bird to one of a calm, well-adjusted being.
  3. When allowing your bird to become aroused, understand what you are doing and take precautions!  For example I absolutely love it when my Goffin’s Cockatoo dances. But I never encourage him to dance when he is on me and I don’t physically touch him in any way while he is doing so! This is behaviour I enjoy from a distance!  I also don’t encourage it all day every day or I would have a screaming, biting Too in no time flat!
  4. Understand the most powerful reinforcer you have and how to use it!  Your presence and attention! If the bird is exhibiting undesirable behaviour the most effective way to “stop” it is to withdraw your attention and even remove your presence by walking out of the room!  This is what behaviourists refer to as “negative punishment” – it sounds bad but it’s the “good” kind of punishment where you simply take away something the bird wants when he/she is doing something undesirable and then you can reinforce the desirable behaviour by adding the desired reward (positive reinforcement).
  5. When you dial it up, make sure you know when and how to dial it down! You might encourage your bird to talk, dance or play but make sure you develop a strong intuition on when the cute behaviour is about to become something decidedly un-cute! End it or cue an incompatible calm behaviour several notches before this occurs!  This goes back to really knowing and understanding your individual bird by spending thoughtful, reflective time with him/her. It is about being intentional about the quality of the relationship you wish to create!
  6. Give your bird plenty of opportunity to play, exercise and have fun away from you as well as with you! Allow him/her to take out his exuberance/playfulness/aggression etc on that chunky toy rather than your delicate person, or on him or herself!  Never allow yourself to become a chew toy! Discourage them from damaging their feathers or hurting themselves by giving them toys to annihilate and providing plenty of foraging opportunities!

Shown above: This bird is showing hormonal behaviour with eyes pinning like mad. Do not approach!

We need to understand that these aroused states are often on a continuum and may well balance on a knife edge! Joy and rage live very close together in many animal brains, including our own, and one can become the other in a split second or even be experienced simultaneously!  Ask any Cockatoo parent! Have fun with your bird but do it wisely and responsibly in order to set yourself up for a lifetime of happiness together!