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A Cry for Attention

By Lara Joseph

Parrots in the wild spend up to 60 percent of their day foraging for food © Lara Joseph

Foraging is defined as searching for food. From my observations, however, much more is involved than the mere hunt for food when a parrot carries out this behavior.  I am fascinated with watching birds forage because it has such a profound impact on their behavior in so many ways. It seems to come naturally to some companion parrots while others need to be taught. Incorporating foraging opportunities in our birds’ cages, rooms, aviaries and other environments can really help engage and stimulate their minds and fill their need to investigate. Birds develop mentally and physically through learning from their environment. Our birds’ minds expand and are put to use through the objects we incorporate into their daily environments.

In the wild, it has been noted that parrots can spend up to 60 percent of their day foraging for food. They travel up to 40 mile circumferences in their search for food (Meehan & Mench 2007). So how does this relate to the behavior of the birds we care for? Their minds and bodies have evolved and developed to incorporate this activity in their daily lives. We, as parrot caregivers, often work with parrots in cages. How we feed them impacts behavior. If we feed in a dish, they often consume their daily requirement of food in just 15 minutes. What are they going to do with all the extra time? This gives a lot of opportunity for the bird to learn desirable or undesirable behavior. I always say, “If you take away one natural behavior from an animal, you had better replace it with another. If you do not, the animal is likely to find a replacement behavior and many times this will not be a behavior we care for or find easy to live with.” I also believe, through experience, that the more intelligent the mind, the harder it is to live within our care.

I use the behavior of foraging to help modify behavior issues or concerns with all of my animals, especially the parrots. The behavior of foraging is shaped, like many other behaviors and can be taught to the birds in we care for. I have a Moluccan Cockatoo named Rocky whom I brought in from a shelter almost seven years ago. Rocky came to me with many behavioral issues and one of them was screaming an ear-piercing scream every four seconds. This would go on for hours. There were a few different approaches I took to eradicate the scream, including teaching him how to forage. With the shaping of foraging, Rocky is now one of the most well-behaved parrots I have and he has about eight foraging stations within his cage.

Firstly, I looked to see if I could determine the underlying reinforcer for Rocky’s screaming behavior. After observing, listening and interacting, I found that he wanted attention more than anything and this was the main reason for his screaming. I am almost positive this was one of the top reasons he lost his former home. I was told it was because of his aggressive behaviors but his screaming was obviously a behavior also well-practiced. For the first few weeks Rocky was in my care, I never observed him playing with toys. This makes a situation more difficult to change if the bird doesn’t interact with objects inside his cage. Two things inside his cage with which he did interact however were his food and water. Bingo! This gave me the perfect place to start.

I began watching what food parts, pieces and shapes Rocky would pick out of his dish first. I also tried to incorporate new food items. I started with a food item that was not a main source of his nutrition and one that appeared to be his favorite. I placed a small foraging toy next to his food dish. The toy was transparent so the food item was extremely visible to Rocky. The toy being transparent is not a necessity but the food item being clearly visible is. This foraging toy was also extremely simple so it would not take much effort for Rocky to retrieve his favored food item. When Rocky leaned in for food from the food dish, the favored food item was at eye level and within clear and obvious reach with a turn of his head and an opening of the beak. It did not take long before Rocky was turning his head slightly for the favored food item. When his beak touched the acrylic toy, guess what I heard? I heard his beak touching it. This was when I delivered the bridge by saying “Good!” and delivered the reinforcer, my attention. Obviously, if the screaming started, I ignored it. The next time I heard his beak touch the acrylic toy, I would immediately go to the cage and deliver his much valued attention from me in a process known as differential reinforcement. I observed Rocky learning through contingency that the behavior of foraging brought the reinforcer and not the previously trained behavior of screaming.

As his behavior of foraging and learning to work for his food increased, so did the complexity of the toy, the location of the toy and the type of food hidden in each. At night I would stock all of his foraging toys and in the morning he would wake up spending much of his time navigating his cage to find all of the goodies stashed in different toys. Soon I was sleeping in until nine in the morning before I heard any vocalizations from Rocky.

One of many fascinating things to watch as a bird begins to learn or explore their cage with foraging is how they begin to prefer foraging for the food in their foraging toys and start abandoning the bowl. As the bird begins increasing in levels of complexity in toys, you can replace the treats in the foraging toys with his main diet while increasing your use of treats as reinforcers for other training. Provide the main staple in both locations — the toy and the dish — while ensuring the bird gets all his daily needed and proper nutrition. Once you clearly observe this, get rid of the bowl.

When a bird chooses to work for his food, such as searching for food in the foraging toy versus taking identical free food from places requiring less effort, there is a name for this in the field of behavior: contra freeloading. It is fun to watch. It is only called contra freeloading though if the food is identical and if the animal is choosing to work for the food versus taking the food that requires less effort (Inglis, Forkman & Lazarus 1997). There are many studies on this covering a wide variety of animals and numerous different theories have been developed as to why the animals choose to work for their food versus taking the identical free food. Could it be “the thrill of the chase?” I have personally observed this with several animals I have worked with, ranging from parrots, vultures, dogs, rodents, fish and, currently, pigs.

Parrots are claimed to be one of the most intelligent birds by many who research them. Keeping an intelligent mind occupied can have a profound effect on desirable and undesirable behaviors. Providing natural ways for our birds to forage for their food is a great way to provide mental and physical stimulation in ways their bodies are designed to attain or solve. Hopefully, their lives under our care also lack predators such as hawks, cars etc. Much of a parrot’s life in the wild is spent watching out for predators and surviving from day to day. If this natural behavior is taken away, what behavior should we try and replace it with as pets in our households or educational programs? This major replacement of activity is one area where we could begin incorporating small and solvable increases in complexities to occupy their time. I incorporate many individually appropriate increases in challenges and complexities into their environments by way of toys, foraging and cage set-up. I mention “individually appropriate” because what one bird may be able to solve, the one in the cage next to him may not yet be at a level required to understand.

Another very important factor is to keep the challenges solvable for the individual bird (Meehan & Mench 2007). If a bird is consistently faced with an unsolvable toy, frustration levels can escalate and undesirable behavioral issues could unknowingly be created. It can be a delicate balance in providing the appropriate challenge level while keeping the task solvable for the bird. It does not take long to find that balance in observing a bird with their toys and food incorporated. Once you find it, you can then take the small steps necessary in continuing to build their individual levels of challenges. You will soon see their opportunity to mentally engage becomes the reinforcer.

Inglis, I.R., Forkman, B. & Lazarus, J. Free Food or Earned Food? A Fuzzy Model of Contra Freeloading (1997) Association for the Study of Animal Behavior 53, 1171-1191
Meehan, C.L. & Mench, J.A. The Challenge of Challenge: Can Problem Solving Opportunities Enhance Animal Welfare? (2007) Applied Animal Behavior Science 102, 246-261

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, October 2014, pp.53-54.

About the Author
Lara Joseph is the owner of The Animal Behavior Center, an international, educational center in Sylvania, Ohio focusing on teaching people how to live, love, and work with animals using positive reinforcement and approaches in Applied Behavior Analysis. She is a professional animal behavior consultant and trainer with a focus on exotics and travels internationally giving workshops, lectures, and provides online, live-streaming learning programs on behavior, training, and enrichment. Her focus is on behavior and training with all species of animals whether in the home, shelter, zoo, or educational ambassador. She sits on the advisory board for All Species Consulting, The Indonesian Parrot Project, Collaboration for Avian Welfare, and is the director of animal training for Nature’s Nursery, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Whitehouse, Ohio. She is also the founder of several animal organizations for animal welfare and has much experience working with special needs animals. She is a published author and writes regularly for several periodicals and also blogs for Deaf Dogs Rock. She has also been asked to co-author and is currently working on an international manual of animal behavior and training. She is a guest lecturer in Zoo Biology; Animal Nutrition, Behavior and Diagnostics taught by Dr. Jason Crean at St. Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois.

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