One of the most common issues that we work through with parrots and their owners is a fear of hands.
A hand fear is often solely based on presentation of hands, and can appear in tame and even hand-reared birds as well as untamed birds. The key indicator of a hand fear is relative calm around your body, but when your hands appear or get closer the parrot will move away either slowly or violently (flight) or suddenly lunge or bite at the hand (fight), as they feel a rising level of threat and want to protect themselves. Many owners may not recognise a hand fear due to the often aggressive response to hands when the parrot is backed into a corner, and mislabel their parrots as ‘bitey’ or ‘aggressive’. What the parrot is really trying to tell you is that it is uncomfortable around your hands, and if the warnings (moving or flying away) are not heeded, you have given your parrot no choice but to defend themselves. Many hand-biting behavioural issues are taught very quickly this way, as when a parrot bites it is instinctive for us to react and pull away – in this situation giving the parrot relief and quite effectively training in a strategy to remove your hands when they get close in future. Furthermore, if lunging and moving away are not taken as a warning signs by the owner, you may train you bird to skip all warning signs and go straight for the bite next time.
So how to hand fears arise? If you think about the common rearing methods and experiences that young parrots have with hands, it is not surprising that some begin to develop an aversive response. As a prey animal, they are more prone to constantly scan their environment for threats, real or perceived, as a way to survive. Humans hands are often only experienced when they are coming in quickly to grab, hold, feed or inspect a young bird and this can trigger startle responses. Too often a young parrot in a pet shop or breeding situation will be handled forcefully to get them to participate or be moved around. Even the most conscientious of breeders can often misread the very fine line between when your parrot is very young and needs to be handled to move and hand-feed, to when they fledge and gain more independence. They can become less compliant with handling and it can be seen as restrictive and aversive. Even birds that have a long, happy history with hands can develop almost instantaneous hand-fears if they associate the hand with a pain experience or repeated forceful handling. Some cases we have seen have been loving owners helping to pull a very painful twisted blood feather, or a clipped birds startling and falling painfully off a hand – the association with pain is remembered very strongly and can lead to 'one trial learning'. Effectively creating a strong negative conditioned emotional response to hands.
The good thing is that even though these fears are very common with pet parrots, they are relatively easy to overcome compared to other behavioural issues. Even older or wild birds with intense fears or a lifetime of fearful associations with hands can be trained to the point of stepping up and accepting touch. All it takes it time, patience, being able to identify and respond to very slight cues of discomfort, and finding the right motivator (or treat) that your bird enjoys. You will be changing the reinforcement history with hands from a negative one to a positive one – this is called ‘counter-conditioning’.
Firstly, you need to identify the point at which your bird is comfortable with your hands, which will take a working knowledge of parrot body language. A shortcut here is that if your bird is moving away (or freezing in an Eclectus!) from the stimulus then it isn’t keen. You want to get your hand to the point where the bird is looking at it calmly and is mildly wary, but not yet decided whether it
needs to react to move away or lunge. To counter-condition, you want to offer your bird a high valued treat (something that your bird will actively WORK to access) at this point, delivering a desired consequence where it would normally expect an aversive one. If they are fearful of your hand approaching to deliver a treat you can deliver the treat by dropping one in their bowl, holding one out on a spoon or other longer object that doesn’t initiate a fear response to begin with. The moment you deliver the treat, you will also remove the offending scary hand and take the pressure off the bird. If you are working at your bird’s pace and never going past the point where the bird is wary, they will slowly gain the trust in your hands and you will be able to bring them slightly closer on each repetition. Once your hand is closer to the bird you can offer treats straight from hand, and start to condition hand movement close by for a treat. Your ‘once scary’ hand will lose its threat status, your bird will begin to look forward to its appearance as it is associated with treats, and you won’t be far from training a step up behaviour. Even better, your bird will be much happier!
Always remember that every parrot is different and may work through this process quickly or take some time, but patience, kindness and overall identifying your bird’s levels of comfort will get you there in the end. If you get stuck, contact us via www.parrotlife.com.au.
The Parrot Life Team
Perth Consultant Georgia working with a previously fearful Cockatiel on step up.