Carly Loyer, BA
I have a little Quaker Parrot (or Monk Parakeet). Her name is Kiwi, she’s about 12 years old, and I’ve owned her since she was a baby. Unfortunately, when she first came to live with me, I was young and inexperienced. Because of this, Kiwi has not had the picture perfect upbringing – not because I don’t love her dearly or because I don’t care about her behavior problems, but because I didn’t know better. As a result, she and I have some challenges to overcome, not the least of which is her desire to reduce my toes to shreds when they are placed in her line of sight. Plastic bags, salt and pepper shakers, hats, anything remotely stick-shaped, and anyone who has the audacity to come into her presence without the standard gift of applesauce are also on her List.
This latter hatred is my biggest concern with my bird, and I have been working with her fairly regularly to counter-condition her reaction when someone new enters the house. Kiwi’s fear aggression became particularly problematic for me when I decided to marry the human being she hated most: The Competition. My husband has been incredibly patient with Kiwi- the man should get a medal. She’s taken advantage of my distraction to bite him on multiple occasions- his toes, his ears (he really did want them pierced anyway), his face. And she’s survived to laugh about it later. (She reliably cackles maniacally when I rescue him.)
When Nick entered my life (and Kiwi’s), I didn’t understand much about associative learning or operant conditioning. Because Kiwi has always been fairly sensitive to new people and the way they react to her, and because Nick has not experienced birds other than Kiwi, they did not immediately get along. I did one of the worst things I could have done when she began to react badly towards him- I began to put her away every time he came over. The learning that happened was not “bird behaves badly and is timed out,” but “Nick arrives and bird is alone.” Birds are social creatures, and by returning her to her cage, even with her toys and treats in it, Nick’s presence came to predict isolation, which to Kiwi is the ultimate punishment. As Nick and I spent more time together, Kiwi’s reaction became increasingly worse, and Nick’s began to get defensive, and Kiwi figured out that screaming and rushing at him across her cage would make him go away. And her stupid mommy (me) would occasionally stick around and try to soothe her, which meant she was running the competition out and then receiving all of my attention once he was gone. As I have become far more learning savvy, it has become painfully clear to me how many things I did wrong with Kiwi early on, and how much more work I have to do with her as a result.
Enter the applesauce. I spent a fortune on twenty or more different kinds of baby food, a variety of yogurt, fruits, veggies, dried goods, etc, and discovered that the treat she really loves (and is easiest to deliver) is applesauce. Once this had been determined, we set out to change Kiwi’s association with Nick and isolation to Nick and gooey goodness. Every time Nick came to visit, he told me in advance, and Kiwi would be in her cage before he arrived, and we open the jar of applesauce, put it on a spoon, and Nick would bring it to her in her cage. At first, she attacked the spoon (she hates anything stick-like, as I mentioned before). But when she went to bite it, she accidentally got applesauce on her beak, which was enough to make her rethink the situation. We’d have Nick feed her a few more times with me watching from the doorway, and then we’d leave the room. A minute or two later, we’d return with more applesauce, and she’d rush the cage again, get the good stuff, and decide the spoon was not so bad.
Eventually, we could move Kiwi to the top of her cage and not worry about her flying at him, then we moved to the living room with her on the back of the couch, or sometimes sitting with me. The process has evolved now that we’re all in the same household, and we’ve had a number of setbacks. But here’s the step-by-step version of our “protocol.” We do change up the treat Nick offers her to make sure she doesn’t get bored (and if we accidentally run out), but generally she prefers gooey things that can be delivered on a spoon. We prefer those, too, since it means Nick doesn’t risk his fingers if she happens to be in a particularly wenchy mood. We are teaching Kiwi that all treats come from this guy, and she’s getting it! Here is the process that we’ve been using for her:
- Kiwi is on her playstand or on top of her cage, Nick has a bowl of Something Good. Nick approaches and talks nicely to her. At first, Kiwi would start whacking her beak on the playstand and screeching as he approached, then attack the spoon when he offered it. The benefit of gooey things on a spoon is that when she tries to bite the spoon, she accidentally gets the good stuff, which usually makes her pause for a split second to re-evaluate. CLICK-TREAT! As long as she stays quiet and calm, Nick clicks and treats her.
- If she starts screaming, he pulls the spoon away and we wait for her to quiet down again. In this situation, I do not ask him to walk away, because for Kiwi this would probably be a strong reinforce of her behavior- she screams, The Competition leaves.
- If the screeching continues for more than about 30 seconds, I’ll tell her “That’s enough.” If she quiets down, Nick clicks and treats her. If not, “Too bad” and she goes to sit on the towel rack in the bathroom with the door closed. When she stops screaming about it, I’ll bring her back out. I try not to use her cage for time outs because I really want her to be happy in it.
During training time, I try to be as neutral as possible. I don’t want to be the one reinforcing her, because she already loves me most of the time. We also try to keep the sessions to a manageable length. Kiwi has a small stomach and a limited tolerance for frustration, so if we push her to tolerate Nick for too long, she’ll be angry at the end of the session. When we’re done, she gets to have some cuddle time from me while Nick feeds her whatever is left on the spoon. We do change up the treat Nick offers her to make sure she doesn’t get bored (and if we accidentally run out), but generally she prefers gooey things that can be delivered on a spoon. We prefer those, too, since it means Nick doesn’t risk his fingers if she happens to be in a particularly wenchy mood.
We are teaching Kiwi that all treats come from this guy, and she’s getting it! Kiwi learns pretty quickly, and has been figuring this game out. We have gradually moved to the point where she is stepping up on Nick’s hand and spending some time with him. I came home from work recently to find them sitting calmly at the computer with her preening his ears and hair. This is not a reliable situation, and you can bet that he was paying attention to how frantically she preened, but it’s huge progress. Another bonus of this work is that she doesn’t feel the need to scream at him every time he enters the bedroom (where her cage is), and if I hug him in her presence she’s far more likely to give him a kiss than to take a chunk out of his neck. Progress!
We have a long way to go, but we’re getting there. I have resigned myself to the fact that it is going to take a while for a variety of reasons- I’m not as diligent as I should be, even Saint Husband gets angry once in a while when he’s a victim of Kiwi’s surprise attacks, and Kiwi is a middle-aged parrot and fairly set in her ways. But I don’t mind rowing a little upstream for these two.