by Gay Noeth


Three years ago I raised a male Red Bellied parrot. He was fairly unpredictable right from the start. I figured all would be well when he went to his new home but that wasn’t to be. Ultimately, I brought the bird back to my home, to let him be the Free Spirit he appeared to be.
He would tolerate no handling by humans. A step up request would almost always involve some bloodletting. He enjoyed sitting on you providing you never attempted to touch him. I let him be. Again, I had the notion he was a free spirit so I allowed him to live unhindered, rarely caged, fully flighted, just free to do his own thing. Here lies one of the problems with putting a construct onto a bird (or any animal); because I had classified him as a free-spirit it basically wrote off his behaviour, allowing it to continue and not taking any steps to correct or change it.
As life would have it, you can’t totally leave a bird free in our homes. It was necessary at times to step him up for his own safety. One day his bites reached the point where they could no longer be ignored. Human reflexes to hard bites just don’t allow us to continually ignore. Something needed to be done. After conferring with Dr. S. Friedman about Rico, she explained that he sounded like a bird that had no idea how to act upon and within his environment. I had allowed the biting to continue; I had never shown him another way. He had no way of knowing there WAS another way.
Generally when you look at problem behaviours you focus in very closely and determine the antecedents (the set up) to the behaviour and also the consequences (pay-off) for the behaviour. What is maintaining the behaviour? What sets it off? By the time I decided I needed to work on the problem, I couldn’t determine a specific antecedent and consequence. I actually decided that the biting initially started for a reason but the biting may have drifted away from that reason over time.

It may have started from a fear of hands; it may have started as a way to say No. The original consequence that reinforced the biting into
becoming a learned behaviour was probably gone. Past consequences are the learning. Past consequences form part of the antecedents. It was possible that the biting was now due to not knowing how to interact correctly within his environment. Biting got attention when attention was what was being sought. Biting moved the hand AWAY when distance is what the bird wanted.............biting became multi-functional.
It no longer mattered to me WHY he was biting. It was the only thing he knew. A bite gets the human’s attention for whatever reason. Rico had just never been shown anything else, nor was he ever taught that biting was unacceptable.
It was explained how I would need to make a special project of Rico, how I would need to teach him about positive outcomes and better ways to act within his environment. To begin to do this, I decided to start doing some trick training with him, as I was also doing for fun with a Meyers parrot.
It was a shaky start. We are talking about a bird that would casually bite for any reason and now I am in his face, requesting behaviours, trying to give food reinforcers. I discovered passing the nut bits (what Rico loves) from my fingers, was not going to work. Instead he would bite my fingers. What did seem to work was having a flat, open palm and the treat resting there.
Having never worked with a bird that bites like Rico, we had some bad days initially. At one point I again wrote Dr. Friedman and said I couldn’t do this. I was getting bit more than ever. I even went so far as to say, “It’s ok, he was fine the way he was, he can remain that way”. She encouraged me to continue for the sake of Rico but to make my sessions much shorter but more often throughout the day and to pay even closer attention to any teeny difference I saw in the body posture, feathers or eyes. I sucked it in and began again.
I tried doing 4 sessions a day but that didn’t always work depending on other responsibilities and how Rico was feeling. I always got at least 3 sessions in. Session times varied between 3 minutes and up to 8 minutes. I wanted to always end on a good note, and we did most of the time. Note:If the training session sours before you quit, you know you have pushed the bird too much or too long. I learned quickly how to tell what was too long for Rico.
Within 2 days I discovered that he was no longer biting at my fingers if I offered him the nut piece from them. Wow, a change of behaviour already!!!!! I was thrilled!
Our first days were doing simple things. Waves and step ups were the most requested behaviours but while asking for the wave I was able to capture him stretching and actually put it on cue so that added another behavior. When we first moved on to props (ball for basketball) I again had some difficulty, as the ball seemed to bring out a different attitude with Rico. I quit using it for a while and went back to the 3 simple behaviours and then introduced a target stick. This of course was just something for Rico to grab at first but he very quickly learned that grabbing earned him nothing whereas touching got him a reward. I slowly brought the ball back into training and did extremely short sessions with it until he would do the ball in the hoop.
I learned through our close training contact how his eyes would quiver before they even dilated preceding a bite. When I saw the quiver, the training session was over. Through this exercise of training I now have a bird that has only bitten me once in the last 7 months because I am far more attuned to what he is telling me and because he has learned what positive reinforcement in his life is and how he can earn it through our one on one times. While he still doesn’t desire to be touched or pet, which is his decision and perfectly fine with me, he still has a way of being social and earning reinforcers.