Animal Health: Bird behavioral therapy

By ALEX CUKAN, United Press International  |  Feb. 24, 2003 at 12:00 PM
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Does your pet bird scream? Does your parrot show signs of aggression? Does Tweety, your canary, display signs of sibling rivalry?

If so, you might consider picking up the book, "Birds Off the Perch: Therapy and Training for Your Pet Bird." It is an authoritative guide to treating common behavioral problems in birds of all species.

Written by Larry Lachman, an animal behavior consultant who holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology; Diane Grindol, a companion-bird consultant; and Frank Kocher, a veterinarian, the book looks at the psychological side of our feathered friends.

A bargain at $12, it is jammed with suggestions on creating a safe and emotionally secure environment for some of the 15 million pet birds in the United States. But what makes the book invaluable is much of the behavioral advice applies to humans as well.

"By learning more about your pet the more you end up learning about yourself," Lachman told United Press International's Animal Health. "Much of the advice on positive reinforcement in dealing with screaming birds and bird sibling rivalry can work with screaming and sibling rivalry in children."

In another example, Lachman pointed out people and birds use the same courting techniques to create the right mood for romance and sex. Birds and people both take their romantic partners out to eat, drink and dance, they engage in "silly play," buy flashy new clothes and show off their "feathers," take their mates to cozy areas or nests, engage in a lot of touching -- sexual and non-sexual -- watch each other for non-verbal cues (an eyebrow here, a raised wing there), kiss or rub beak to beak and scare away the competition with threatening behavior.

Lachman said because 61 percent of bird-owning households consist of parents or couples under age 45 with children under age 6, structural therapy requires that all members of the family communicate with the pet bird consistently.

"While there is usually a primary caregiver to the pet, the pet interacts with the whole family and is part of a family system," Lachman said.

The book advocates using positive reinforcement -- refraining from accidentally rewarding inappropriate behavior, encouraging healthy behavior and practicing non-violent training.

"Pet birds are a social animal, a flock animal, but they are essentially wild animals and domesticated for only the last 150 years," Lachman said. "In contrast, cats have been domesticated for 4,500 years and dogs for 15,000 years."

Steve Martin, president of Natural Encounters, which produces live educational bird shows, said a dog will come when called because it interested in doing the owner's bidding.

"A parrot will not come when called, parrots never want to please a human, they will only do something if it finds it interesting," Martin told UPI's Animal Health. "Owning a parrot needs lots of information, patience, insight and time to be successful -- a parrot's highly independent."

As in human psychological problems, the authors suggest a medical examination to determine that a physical cause is not prompting behaviors such as screaming, feather plucking or biting.

It can be difficult for a bird owner to distinguish if a bird is ill, because birds are prey animals. They do not show outward signs of illness because in the wild such a display would make them vulnerable to attack and risk becoming a predator's next meal. The authors suggest regular visits to the veterinarian for wellness exams.

In trying to eliminate negative behaviors, the authors suggest that no family member look at, talk to, pet, feed or play with a bird when it misbehaves because doing so will reward the animal for behavior the family is seeking to eliminate.

On the other hand, the authors encourage family members to notice good behavior whenever it occurs, no matter how fleeting, by looking at, talking to, playing with or feeding the animal. Then the bird will learn quickly there is payback for good behavior. The book recommends adding something rewarding or pleasurable to increase the desire of the bird -- or the child -- to repeat the desired behavior.

"Don't give attention to the bird that screams for attention or the student who talks out of turn in class," Lachman said. "If you do, you've rewarded the negative behavior."

The authors suggest interrupting the misbehavior and after a five-minute pause redirecting the bird to something desired.

"Although many think they are doing positive reinforcement, a lot of people don't understand what exactly it entails," Martin said. "Someone will put a hand in a cage and grab at a bird and pull its toe to pull it out of its cage and then give it a kiss -- a bird might not know what a kiss means and may not like a big head getting close to it so the bird's had a pretty negative experience but the owner doesn't realize it."

Lachman said many behavioral problems could be avoided by taking proper care before a bird or any pet is chosen.

"Some birds can live for decades so it's essential to find the right pet that works not only with the owner's personality but with their lifestyle," Lachman said. "I suggest using the concepts of personality types developed by analytic psychologist Dr. Carl Jung, the protégé of Sigmund Freud."

Potential pet owners can take two tests designed to assess personality types: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter test.

The four base personality types are:

-- "SP" (Sensation/Perceiving) or the need to be free to act on impulse and yearning for action and fun;

-- "SJ" (Sensation/Judging) or the need to be useful to society, to belong and be appreciated by the social group for doing hard work;

-- "NT" (Intuitive/Thinking) or needing to be in the control, liking organization and seeking competence; and

-- "NF" (Intuitive/Feeling) or needing to be in the moment, being authentic and "feeling" things out.

"By taking either of the tests a potential pet owners can determine their personality type and match the right species of bird or other animal to that temperament," Lachman said. "Some species of birds also demonstrate the SP, SJ, NT and NF characteristics."

According to the book, the African gray parrots are the NTs of the bird world, while the yellow-naped Amazon and eclectus parrots are the SJs.

The book also includes a table of numerous bird species that indicates their loudness, size, talking ability, energy level, lifespan, cuddly quotient independence and whether the species is a suitable apartment candidate.

Martin agreed that prospective owners should conduct a lot of research on a bird species in order to find the right pet, but added even within species birds are like humans and exhibit individual personalities.

The book is available online at and will be in bookstores on March 18.

("Birds Off the Perch: Therapy and Training for Your Pet Bird," by Larry Lachman, Diane Grindol and Frank Kocher; Fireside; 224 pp; $12)

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