Psittacine Behavior, Handling, and Restraint

Key Points

  • Study principles rather than methods. The mind that grasps the principles can develop its most effective methods.”—Author unknown
  • Any behavior that is being increased is being reinforced; any behavior that is being decreased is being punished.
  • “Old-school” capture and restraint focuses on physically overpowering the bird. Problems associated with this approach may include an increase in learned fear-eliciting stimuli and learned aggression.
  • Keeping sound behavioral science in mind when handling and restraining companion parrots, will result in increased sensitivity to their behavior and an earlier appreciation of fear-associated responses allowing us to adjust our technique for optimal comfort of the patient.
  • When getting a bird out of the cage or carrier, systematically take a brief period of time to sort through all potential fear-evoking stimuli as well as favorable stimuli to the bird.

The bird in its natural environment and in captivity

Behavior is the most direct tool a wild bird has to respond to its environment, and it ultimately determines whether it survives and breeds in its natural environment. There are two functional categories of avian behaviors: self-maintenance behaviors and social behaviors. Self-maintenance behaviors accomplish some specific task to maintain the physical condition of the individual. With captive parrots, feeding, feather care, communication and display behaviors are commonly observed daily maintenance behaviors. Social behavior is intended to communicate information to another individual. Birds engage in a large number of behaviors that are predominately undertaken for the purpose of communication or signaling. These behaviors, in general, rank among the most complex of all avian traits. A communication signal is an action or behavior that sends a message. A display is a ritualized signal intended to convey a specific message. Some displays may be accurately described as innate behaviors. Enrichment of these daily maintenance and social behaviors in captivity has been shown to be of great benefit to avian health and welfare. Conversely, abnormal behaviors in these general categories encompass most of the common behavioral disorders of companion parrots.

Pacific parrotlets

Communication and display behaviors are commonly observed daily maintenance behaviors in the companion parrot. Photo credit: Geek2Nurse via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

Fundamental laws of behavior and their applications

Learning and training

Learning is broadly defined as a change in behavior resulting from practice or experience. Training is a type of learning; a change in behavior resulting from practice dictated by humans. Animals continually gather, process, and learn from information. For instance, a pet parrot may know when he hears the sound of the owner’s car in the driveway, that means that the owner is coming home, prompting contact calls or other vocalizations. The owner may not even be aware of the subtle environmental cues triggering the bird’s behavior. Four types of learning have been described in animals: habituation, classical conditioning, operant conditioning and complex learning.

Habituation is the waning of a behavior as the result of repeatedly presenting a stimulus. For example, a bird that is dramatically frightened of the towel used for handling can be habituated to the sight and feel of the towel. Exposure to the towel is repeated multiple times, in varying manners and settings without overwhelming the bird. With time, the bird’s reaction to the towel and potential imminent restraint can become imperceptible. In this example, the stimulus changes from being perceived as aversive to being neutral.

Classical learning or conditioning is the process through which a new stimulus is learned and linked to an existing or innate behavior. This type of conditioning does not involve any voluntary choices made by the animal; instead it is just a reflex response or reaction. The classic example is Pavlov’s dog salivating when it smells a savory food item. In the companion bird setting, a pet black-capped caique may immediately jump and try to escape whenever a specific sound is heard.

Operant conditioning shapes or modifies animal behavior. With operant conditioning, the animal “operates” on the environment thereby leading to a reward. The animal receives a reward or avoids an aversive stimulus by exhibiting a particular behavior. For example, a bird flies to the hand of its trainer and receives a food reward. After making this association, the bird is more likely to willingly fly to the hand of the trainer in the future. Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behaviors are altered or learned primarily by regulating the consequences that follow them. Two of the most important characteristics of effectively delivered consequences are contingency and contiguity. Contingency is the dependency or relationship between the behavior and the consequence. Contiguity is the closeness or timing with which the consequence follows the behavior. When a consequence is delivered inconsistently, it is hard for the learner to associate the two events. If the consequence is delivered too far in time after the behavior, this lack of immediacy decreases the effectiveness of the consequence as well.

Complex learning includes observational learning where one animal learns how to perform a behavior by watching another animal or latent learning. An example of latent learning has been described by Dr. Irene Pepperberg in which parrots sometimes learned faster by seeing behaviors demonstrated by “Alex” the Grey parrot or even by graduate students.

 

The basic paradigms of reinforcement and punishment

Any behavior that is being increased is, by definition, being reinforced. Conversely, a behavior that is being decreased is being punished. Both of these changes in the frequency of a specific behavior can be influenced by the introduction of a stimulus, or the removal of one (Table 1). Reinforcement is not necessarily a good thing, and punishment is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on context and details.

 

Table 1. Reinforcement and punishment

Operant Response IncreasesOperant Response Decreases
Stimulus PresentationPositive Reinforcement (R+)Positive Punishment (P+)
Stimulus RemovalNegative Reinforcement (R-)Negative Punishment (P-)

 

If a stimulus is presented to an animal, we are dealing with a POSITIVE. If the behavior increases, the introduced stimulus is a reinforcer, and if the behavior decreases the introduced stimulus is a punisher. If a stimulus is removed from the animal, we are dealing with a NEGATIVE. Based on the observed frequency or probable frequency of the behavioral consequence of this removed stimulus, we can also assess if the stimulus is functioning as a negative reinforcer (R-), or a negative punisher (P-).

Generally speaking, when we examine reinforcement and punishment modalities as behavior change strategies, positive reinforcement is least intrusive and most ethical, as opposed to positive punishment, which is most intrusive and least ethical. Frequent punishment increases the probability of four side effects detrimental to quality of life: aggression, apathy, generalized fear, and escape or avoidance behaviors. There are almost always positive reinforcement alternatives to punishment.

 

The ABC’s of describing behavior

Many abnormal lessons are intentionally or unintentionally taught to pet birds. With time, abnormal behaviors begin to develop from these foundational fertile grounds of inappropriate learning in the home or in our offices. These abnormal behaviors may include a lack of ability to explore, discover and enjoy toys or other new enriching items in their environment, an inability to enjoy or trust interaction with multiple people, or increasing intolerance of caged existence or restricted mobility within the home. As these problems continue to advance, feather damaging behaviors, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, reproductive disorders, screaming, aggression, biting, and inability to accept new human interactions increasingly appear.

The simplest manner of describing and evaluating a behavior is through the use of the simplified behavioral “equation”: the ABC’s of behavior. With this simple descriptive and analytic strategy, we seek to identify through careful observation the events and conditions that occur before a specific behavior: Antecedents, as well as identify the results that follow the Behavior: Consequences. When paired with keen observation skills and creative problem solving, the ABC’s help us clarify the way in which the basic components of behavior are interrelated. There are six steps to analyzing the ABCs:

  1. Describe the behavior in clear, observable terms
  2. Describe the antecedent events that occur and conditions that exist immediately before the behavior happens
  3. Describe the consequences that immediately follow the behavior
  4. Examine the antecedents, the behavior and the consequence in sequence
  5. Devise new antecedents and/or consequences to teach new behaviors or change existing ones
  6. Evaluate the outcome.

A careful distinction needs to be made between behaviors and constructs. A behavior describes what the bird is doing and is defined as something that can be observed and measured. A construct is an idea or theory about the mental processes inside an individual that explains why or how they behave as they do. A construct cannot be observed or measured directly. Constructs or labels can function as a trap, very easily leading the best avian veterinarian astray from a more complete and multidisciplinary approach to behavior.

 

Desensitization and counter-conditioning

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are behavior modification techniques commonly used in the treatment of behavioral problems. Desensitization or habituation gradually accustoms an animal to a stimulus to which it initially has an undesirable response. In most cases, the undesired response is anxiety or fear and the animal’s consequent behaviors. Desensitization is generally preferred to flooding, in which an animal is forced to experience a fear-inducing stimulus until its fear response extinguishes (if the fear was learned via classical conditioning), or until it habituates (if the fear was an innate and natural response).

Counter-conditioning is the process by which a response that is physiologically and/or behaviorally incompatible with the undesired response is conditioned. One of the most common counter conditioners is highly palatable or desirable food. The food item does not need to be given in large volume. In fact, to conduct a prolonged counter-conditioning session, small reinforcing treats are necessary.

While desensitization and counter-conditioning are different, these two techniques are often used together to optimize the speed and degree of resolution of a behavior problem. To be successful, both techniques must be tailored to the individual patient. These techniques must also take into account the nature and intensity of the stimulus, the preferences of the animal, and the duration of the behavior modification sessions. Attention to detail can be the difference between success and failure. Executed properly, desensitization and counter-conditioning are not stressful, and can be conducted in a series of short sessions whenever the owner has even a few minutes to work on the treatment. These techniques also serve to strengthen the human-animal bond.

 

Capture and restraint

What are these animals learning from us?

Most veterinary textbooks have chapters describing methods of capture and restraint of birds for examination and/or treatment. The old-school approach to examination, diagnosis, and medical treatment of birds typically includes various forms of capture and restraint that physically overpower the birds, with or without chemical immobilization, and often emphasized the need for speed to get the job done. Some describe more forceful techniques than others, but all tend to gloss over important ethical or moral issues relating to the handling and restraint of companion birds. When we discounted the intelligence and learning capacity of birds, we were historically quick but incorrect to pronounce those methods effective. In reality, however, our “successes” were in fact often quite far from their intended mark.

Problems associated with these approaches to restraint over time can include an increase in learned fear-eliciting stimuli and learned aggression. In turn, this increases the risk of problems during medical procedures, and creates iatrogenic and stress-influenced changes that make interpretation of some laboratory test results difficult. Unfortunately these sad experiences occur with companion and aviary birds around the globe on a daily basis.

 

Transitioning skills for the examination room

The health and welfare of companion birds is directly tied to our ability to help owners meet their physical and psychological needs. Components of complete wellness healthcare for companion birds include the provision of a clean and sanitary environment, appropriate dietary support, security, and freedom from pain and persistent fear-inducing circumstances. In addition, training, enrichment and accurate address of behavioral problems is required. All of these are interwoven, interdependent and mandatory for complete healthcare to be delivered. In order for this to optimally occur, the establishment and maintenance of a healthy doctor-client relationship should be viewed as an important prerequisite.

In many ways, most veterinarians are “trapped” in the examination room. There is a finite time in which a physical examination must be performed, and events must occur which could be frightening, unpleasant, or even painful. Many birds are physically ill, malnourished, confused, and they are sometimes pre-conditioned with inappropriate behaviors for the hospital setting. With this in mind, transition skills are essential tools that allow veterinarians to be less invasive and less fear evoking.

 

Handling and restraint

Although handling is indeed different from restraint, a mixture of both philosophies, properly balanced, should best serve the patient in most circumstances. Keeping sound behavioral science in mind when handling and restraining companion parrots, will result in increased sensitivity to their behavior and an earlier appreciation of fear-associated responses allowing us to adjust our technique for optimal comfort of the patient. Many medical procedures can be performed with less restraint which can result in less negative learning experience by the bird, less conditioning of fear-eliciting stimuli, and less risk to bird and handler.

 

Getting the bird out of the carrier or cage

Set the stage for success, and carefully control environmental stimuli to minimize the generation of fear. Reduce activity around the carrier and bird, and carefully consider placement of the carrier on the floor, table or elsewhere. Minimize additional noise and sound. An exam room with no windows is generally most desirable. Carefully read and interpret the bird’s behaviors in the cage. An appropriate perch should be provided for the bird that offers comfort, stability and that does not generate apprehension or fear. Determine what stimuli the bird “likes” or responds favorably to such as a savory food item, social communicative signals or displays, or allopreening activity. Systematically, take a brief period of time to sort through all potential fear-evoking stimuli as well as favorable stimuli to the bird. Work to see if the bird will be willing to come out of the carrier on its own, and to perch comfortably on the training perch.

Should the bird be unwilling to come voluntarily out of the carrier, you may need to progressively introduce your hand (with or without towel covering it), and to force the step up to your hand to enable you to move the bird out of the carrier and onto a training perch. In some circumstances, it may be more appropriate for an individual bird to be held with your thumb pressing its digit or foot, and to not release it to the training perch. Generally, it is very infrequent that the initial and first contact with a companion parrot would be a rapid covering with a towel and physical restraint of the body and/or head. Overall, try to seek cooperation and acceptance from the bird, not domination. These goals should lead to the least intrusive, but most ethical methods of handling and restraint. Concurrently, it is important to be timely and efficient – there IS a job to do in a finite timeline

 

Shaping a restraint experience

Using a series of approximations, a restraint experience can be shaped relatively quickly. This requires quick “reads” on the bird’s responses, and adjustments to technique. Should the ultimate goal be to have the bird comfortably restrained without struggling in a towel, and the closest starting point you have available is the bird mildly apprehensive, perched on a training perch, the process may shape up something like this:

Speer w Hyacinth

Slowly approach the bird with your hand covered by the towel and allow the bird to step up. Photo credit: Dr. Brian Speer

  1. Slowly approach the bird with your hand covered by the towel
  2. Bird steps up to the towel
  3. Allow the bird to step back to the training perch
  4. Step bird up to the towel again and gently hold P2 and P3 of one foot with your thumb through the towel
  5. Release the bird’s digits from your thumb’s grasp
  6. Lightly hold the bird’s digits again. Slowly and gently move the bird into your chest. If fear or apprehension is noted, return the bird to the point where comfort is again recognized.
  7. Slowly move the bird into your chest with toes held. Bring a towel up towards the bird. If fear or apprehension is noted, return the bird to the point where comfort is again recognized.
  8. Again bring the towel up and allow it to drape over bird’s back and/or head. If fear or apprehension is noted, return the bird to the point where comfort is again recognized.
  9. Again bring the towel up and drape it over the hand. Apply light pressure with your hand over the back and cervical area. If fear or apprehension is noted, return the bird to the point where comfort is again recognized.
  10. Lightly apply your hand over the bird’s back, bunch the towel up towards the head, and apply pressure to the lateral aspects of the trunk.
  11. Gently roll the bird over to its back and allowed it to rest with head unrestrained in the towel on your lap. If fear or apprehension is noted, return the bird to the point where comfort is again recognized.
  12. Hold the bird’s head indirectly with the rolled edges of the towel bunched about the head, while performing a progressive physical examination.
  13. Gently restrained the bird’s head with one hand through the towel to allow an examination of the head and neck if needed, and then returned the bird to a resting position on its back in the towel on your lap.
  14. Gently restrain the bird’s head with the rolled edges of the towel. Roll the head to expose its’ right jugular vein and move one hand underneath the towel to restrain the head and neck more firmly for venipuncture. Immediately afterwards, return the bird to a resting position on its back in the towel on your lap.
  15. Step the bird up to your hand out of the towel and returned it to the perch while blood samples are being processed.
  16. Again step the bird onto your hand and allow it to rest on your lap or hand while more communication with the client occurs and some form of desirable stimulus is delivered.

This specific technique of shaping a restraint experience using the toweled hand to step onto is commonly referred to by our nursing staff as the “potholder technique”. This “potholder” technique should take only minutes with most companion parrots to complete. With other individuals, however, some of these steps may need to be modified, broken down and adjusted to best meet the needs of the bird and the situation.

 

Training

Training skills are necessary in the administration to the health and welfare of parrots, and enable us to teach better dietary habits and to train enrichment activities such as play, exploration, foraging, and feather care. Training skills directly influence our ability to moderate the physical examination and restraint experience, often allowing the application of habituation and counter conditioning to make the experiences less fear evoking and harmful to the birds. And, perhaps most importantly, training skills allow us to enrich the human-animal bond, better positioning us to enable our clients to appreciate and enjoy their companion birds more.

Heidenreich and Friedman have published a list of some basic parrot handling and training guidelines. The complete list may be found at goodbirdinc.com, however many any of these items can and do directly apply to “wellness” veterinary examinations and physical restraint procedures.

  • Create an environment in which the parrot appears comfortable and relaxed. This can only be inferred from the bird’s body language, specifically behaviors involving feather position, eyes, wings, head, legs and feet.
  • Approach unfamiliar parrots calmly and quietly to avoid creating any signs of anxiety, fear responses or aggressive behavior.
  • If a parrot shows any signs of fear, anxiety or aggressive behavior, discontinue the actions that helped generate those behaviors. This may include lowering your hands and/or stepping away from the parrot.
  • If a parrot exhibits aggressive behavior, immediately discontinue actions creating this response.
  • Keep your attention and your eyes focused on the parrot.
  • If you need to direct your attention away from the parrot for more than a few seconds, put it back in the enclosure or carrier if that is a location where the bird feels more relaxed.
  • Be aware of how every action that you do influences a parrot’s behavior, and adjust your behavior moment by moment to maintain a calm bird.
  • Move crate, carriers, and cages with extreme caution to avoid bumping or jostling the bird. This could result in increased anxiety and a decrease in the effectiveness of your training efforts.
  • Prior to removing a flighted parrot from its enclosure or carrier, evaluate the surroundings for safety and address any potential safety issues (cover large mirrors, pull down shades, shut doors, etc)
  • If a parrot launches into flight, offer your steady, raised hand as a safe place to perch.
  • Be aware of the parrot’s proximity to adjacent objects. Avoid hitting tail, wings, or head on anything if possible.
  • Avoid creating a high level of excitement (i.e. bobbing or crest raising) by talking loudly or using animated actions. This can sometimes result in the presentation of aggressive behavior.

 

Conclusion

Behavioral science has a direct role in virtually all aspects of complete veterinary healthcare of companion birds. Differentiating between the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of physical restraint and handling requires a solid foundation in behavioral science. Dietary modification and conversion methods, environmental management and enrichment, as well as optimal delivery of hands-on healthcare for physically ill patients all require and utilize behavioral science and principles. The future ability of veterinary medicine to optimally meet the needs of companion bird health and welfare will depend in part on development of a full integration of behavioral science into daily practice.

Consideration needs to be forefront in our minds that some of our commonly accepted and “routine” capture and restraint techniques are directly or indirectly causing behavioral problems in birds. Change is not easy, and it is hard work for us to learn to replace habit and complacency with scientific knowledge, and new methods. The recognition by the people associated with these birds of our behavioral and wellness-counseling skills will result in a greater probability of return visits, and more opportunity for veterinarians to deliver a more complete preventative healthcare package in the future.

 

References