Sunday, May 13, 2012

How to Address Fear in Parrots

Have you ever been really scared? Perhaps it was a moment when you did not have control. For example as a passenger on a turbulent plane ride, or you realized someone was targeting you to pick your pocket, or you were stuck in a big crowd of people pushing you opposite to where you wanted to go. The adrenalin rushes associated with those scary moments can be exhausting. Your body may shake, you may squirm, run or panic or even freeze.

Try hard to remember that feeling. It will make you a better parrot trainer.

So many people think what they are doing to an animal is no big deal because they know it is not going to hurt the animal. Think of the parrot that is being restrained against its will for a nail trim. Many parrots show significant signs of stress and fear when restrained by a towel. So much so they are terrified at the sight of a towel. I have also seen this happen with parrots who have been strapped into a harness involuntarily. While the humans may know no physical harm will come to the parrot, the birds dont know that. Their panic is real. Having empathy for that fear is important.

Getting past a fear response is not about forcing an animal through the experience until the event is over. An ideal strategy is to avoid creating the fear response in the first place. This may mean taking things a bit slower. And more importantly it usually meaning pairing things you know your parrot likes with the experience.

I was recently at a friend’s house talking about desensitization and counter conditioning procedures and the different processes that can be used. We decided to explore some of the differences with a cute little terrier named Blue. First we used systematic desensitization. Blue was resting peacefully on a chair. While she lay there we gradually moved a big scary vacuum closer and closer as long as Blue remained relaxed. We made sure she could see us moving the vacuum and watched her responses. Eventually the vacuum was right next to her and she showed no need to be anywhere else and continued resting peacefully.

In the next steps we moved the vacuum cleaner to the center of the room and put treats all around it. Suddenly her body language changed. She sniffed, licked and explored every inch of the vacuum. Later when we moved it to the side she wouldn’t leave it alone, even though all the treats were long gone. Her tail was wagging and her focus was on the vacuum. By pairing something Blue liked with the vacuum we went beyond tolerance to loving the machine.

I use these same procedures with parrots all the time. I certainly don’t want my parrots fearing things like scales, towels, nail trimmers, etc. I start with systematic desensitization and then switch to classical conditioning, and then many times start incorporating operant conditioning. I use shaping with approximations to teach my parrots to actively present specific actions related to the no longer scary object, such as stepping onto the scale or taking fluids from the syringe. But first and foremost I avoid creating a fear response at all costs. Because I know fear is not always easy to overcome.

It’s true I am comforted when a pilot tells me turbulence is expected and for how long. However the truth is I am still much happier when there are no bumps at all.  My flight is even better if there are movies to watch and snacks to enjoy.

Be empathic when your parrot shows a fear response. Take a little time to help him overcome what he fears. The end result is worth it.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2012


Meg said...

This is such a good point, and it really takes little effort in all by really traumatized parrots, it is like a game. I think my new vet should read this. I like her, but they take the aggressive approach.

Claudia had an emergency, but I was unable to take her (health) so a friend did. He had never really met Claudia, and knows nothing about parrots. First the vet got towels and gloves to grab her out of the carrier in a huge struggle- before my friend just reached out and picked her up, she is very friendly!!! Not to mention the fact that she is towel trained, and actually likes it, but you do have to approach it with politeness. Then they refused to give her the first dose of medicine- she is extremely, extremely strong- and the vet had me on the phone saying I really needed to give it to her as soon as she got home. Umm, yeah.

So I take the dose, put it on a tongue depressor, and she ate it right up! I train them for a reason, you know? I think maybe the vet did get the point after I gave her the medicine so easily, she was rather shocked.

Debbie The Parrot Lady said...

Great Blog comment and excellent use of an example of different training techniques. Also, had to say, great picture of Cassie, black capped caique. :)

Eric & Molly said...

What a wonderful post, and a good reminder to have compassion for our pets when they show fear for something.

You syringe training ebook was so useful with teaching my cockatoo not to fear syringes.

Charlotte said...

I am sincerly working on this with a little rescue. A sweet little Senegal who has no 'history' name (does now) and was very traumatized by dogs. And to make matters worse....I am brand new at this. He doesn't bite and will only step up when he panic flys and falls to the floor...but as soon as he sees his cage, he's off again. He seems to be afraid of my hands. I am so careful with this. He is ok when I feed him....but putting toys in his cage was an experience in I wait until he climbs to the top of his cage to do that. He is timid with new toys, but it doesn't take him long to start being a little singing clown and playing and slinging and chewing. He seems happy and is adjusting well....I have been researching like a madwoman and have got him on a great diet.....I've only had him with me for a month, but I do need to get him to the vet...we just need to get past the fear so we can get in the carrier. Am I being impatient? Does anyone have any advice?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Charlotte,
If your bird is healthy you may want to wait a bit before the vet trip and focus on building some trust. Certainly if he needs to see the vet due to a suspected health issue or because you have other birds in your home and he is being quarantined then you may have to make that happen sooner. However you will find taking it slow and focusing on avoiding creating a fear response will allow you to start training him to do the behaviors you need to manage day to day life with a parrot and to eventually visit the vet. Start training something simple like targeting to get started right away.

paul harvey said...

Hi All, I have 'adopted' a one year old Indian Ringneck and he is obviously scared of me. If I approach his cage he will just move away. He is eating fine and is healthy but won't dare come near me to take any food. Can anyone give me an idea of how long it could be until he will eat from my hand to be able to start training with positive enforcements?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Paul,

You will need to start with a smaller goal. Instead of wanting him to eat from hand, work on will he eat in my presence...even if you have to be six feet from the cage. You then working on slowly closing that space between you and the cage as long as the bird is willing to eat in your presence. Drop a high value food item in the bowl and step far enough away that he will eat it. Repeat this until and gradually make the diatance shorter each time. You will also have to gradually incorporate your hand once you are close to the cage. Always watch the birds body language and do al; you can to avoid creating a fear response. It does work, but it can take patience. The end result is quite rewarding!

Teka said...

I just recently got a Quaker parrot given to us by my husband's aunt. His name is Clover. We have had him since August. She had for a little over 5 years and I don't believe he has ever really had a whole lot of interaction. I mean he could talk but when it comes to step up or petting him or just loving him he bites. Now then since we have gotten him he talks way way way more than when we first got him. He is saying new things all the time. I got him a new cage because his old 1 made me feel bad for him not that it wasn't a good cage don't get me wrong I don't know I guess I just felt like if I were him I would want more room even if I was by myself. So I got him a bigger cage then his aunt's schedule that she had him used to I was upset with because this creature had no interaction. And he was never out of his cage at his aunt's house. Now from the time we get up to get the kids off to school until we go to bed which is like 11:30 at night his cage is uncovered and opened and he has free reign. This is why I think he is more talkative. He never had anything like this before. It also helps that we have 5 children all of which talk to him all the time. And here lately while the kids are in school I get a towel or a real soft Pajama sort to pick him up and when he's in that he don't bite and I am able to pet him but still having alot of biting and drawing blood. But I want him to trust me. So no matter what I keep trying. I figure if I keep showing that I'm not giving up he'll get tired of biting. When I'm working with him I move his cage out of the room. Because when he is in his cage or top he is very very aggressive. So I take that away. I don't know what else to do. I know that there is alot of progress to be made and alot has already been made. Asking I would like to add that he didn't know he could fly guess who knows how fly now?. I love him and I know eventually he'll finally understand.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Teka,
Sounds you like you have made a great number of improvements in his life. One thing that is throwing a monkey wrench in the trust building process is making him step up when he is biting. Rather that not backing down, a more trust building approach is to acknowledge the tiniest body language he gives you that says he does not like what you are doing in that moment. This way he learns he doesnt need to bite to get you to stop. And that you wont do things that cause him to want to bite. Instead find a treat he likes and start pairing that with your presence. Teach him taking a step towards you results in treats. This way he will look forward to interacting with you. You will find much more comprehensive resources on how to do all this on my FAQ page for behavior problems. Here is the link

Candi said...

I have a Sulpher Crested Cockatoo that is a foster bird from an area rescue. She is not aggressive but VERY VERY terrified of people. In the last few months I have had her I have been able to get her to step up on a long stick. She takes a shower in the bath tub and I will sit on the edge and talk to her with some hissing. When I get close to her she flees, weather she is on her cage or on a t-stand. I am just not sure how to proceed with her, I can't give her treats by hand, I can't use a chop stick she just flees and hisses. Any help would be wonderful. I want to help her go to a good home but I know that will be a long time and a lot of work.

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Devon i just got my male Indian Ringneck and I'm having trouble with him being scared of me. At first he wouldn't let me anywhere nere the cage, or put my hand in the cage to change the food,water, or newspaper without scraming and flying around in his cage. I read on the enternet about the towl trick and atempted to do it. It took me about two hours to capture him and when I finally did he was very unhappy and bitting my hand horibly.. I'm afraid I really messed up with his trust and I'm wondering what ways I can get Tukys trust back and be able to move on from this. Eventually I'd like to be abel to hand feed him and use the step up.. I also have to take him to the vet for a check up. I think hes in good health but I have to get his wings cliped. How whould I do this without hurting him or scaring him. I would also like to ask about a few things he does that I don't understand. He rakes his beak acroos the cage?? and he'll stare at me and close his eyes, if I do it with him he'll keep doing it does this mean he is playing with me or what??

Please Help

Jo said...


I have a rescue bird an orange winged Amazon a truly lovely bird but he has been badly treated in that he bit his owners child and the child has then hit his cage repeatedly causing him to fear anything approaching his cage. I have got to the point of placing my fingers through the cage and he holds my fingers but immediately backs off after doing it. He is so frightened yet wants to be touched. I feel also there are signs of her being in season the lowering of the wings and the state of mating etc then I am able to get close although I know you should ignore this state. She also screams repeatedly and I can't seem to stop her at all. For the family's sainity I have had to put her in another room as the screaming goes on even if she's with us all. What can I do about the screaming.


RoccosMom said...

I have a 5 year old african grey parrot that is all of a sudden scared to death of me and my son. We've had a couple of huge snow storms and even had a helicopter fly very low over the house at 4am one morning. Since then, Rocco's been petrified of us. He is fully flighted and when we approach him he flies around the room. I don't know how I'm going to get him to trust us again if I can't get near him. He used to be such a great and funny parrot. Now he doesn't even talk anymore and I'm very sad that I lost my little buddy. Please help me!!!

Barbara Heidenreich said...

I would highly recommend my webiner on Overcomming Fear Responses and Building Trust. It is very comprehensive. You can get a recorded version here