Friday, January 15, 2010

More on severe macaws

My post on severe macaws has been attracting a lot of traffic lately. I received this comment from Darlene, which I thought I would address here instead of in the comments from last year:
I am grateful for finding this website, We purchased a severe Macaw approx. 4 years ago when she was just a baby.(Just coming off of being hand fed) Being new to birds(Never having one) we were told all the wonderful things about this bird. Great talkers with a large vocabulary. Sweet and easy to take care of. Loving, smart, etc etc. This was true to some extent, she was a sweet bird who was content to both myself and my husband. She is now approaching 5 years old. A few months ago my son who lives very far from me came to visit/ she flew at his shoulder and bit him, his reaction was to get her off and he knocked her off his shoulder. she hit wall and was a little frightened. She lost all her tail feathers, (Which grew Back). Never seeing this kind of behavior from her, I defended her actions as being, (She was going to land on his shoulder and was slipping, so she bit his neck to steady herself). Now she has decided that my husband is her enemy. She always had a good relationship with him. so again I defended her actions.

1. She has flown on his shoulder and bit his neck 2 or 3 times.

2. He was going down the steps and she was on my shoulder as I was following him. She (Rickie is her Name) few on his back and bit his neck again.

3. Yesterday he was getting ready for bed. She was sitting on the bed being very calm. All of a sudden she flew on his bare back and bit his back muscle.

4. She has flown at his face twice and bit his nose, breaking the skin and causing bleeding.

This is becoming very alarming. I'm glad I read your blog. It has really helped me to understand what she is doing. I wish I had not been lied to when we were purchasing a bird. We do love her, but I am at odds on what to do. We are taking her to get her wings clipped tomorrow and hope that settles her down. Any advice??

Oh by the way, Rickie has chewed the bathroom door and ate the wallpaper. AND she was not lacking for any attention. We took her everywhere with us. She has a clear cage that we use. She goes to work with me( I own my own real estate Business) I have a cage for her there. I had to stop taking her, because she would not let me talk to anyone. HELP
It is actually quite timely for me to start writing about severe macaws again. Yesterday, I was up at the rescue where I volunteer and interacting with the severe macaw we have that's currently up for adoption. This little guy reminds me so much of Rocky -- he even has an enlarged preen gland! In the hour he was out yesterday, he bit two people and threatened a few more. He also made us all laugh several times. I worry because I know how hard it will be to find a good home for him.

In any case, Darlene, I'm glad you found my blog, though I'm sorry that you had to. Everything you describe with Rickie is very typical severe macaw behavior. Since I'm writing this on the fly, it may be a bit disjointed. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I'm unclear at all.

It seems like your biggest problem right now is the attacks on your husband. The most important thing is to try to arrange the environment so that she can't bite him. Like most things, practice makes perfect, and every time she bites him, she refines her talent and becomes a better biter.

Getting a wing trim is a great first step. In general, I'm a big proponent of allowing birds to fly in the house, as long as it can be done safely. Since she is using her flight ability to launch aerial attacks on your family members, it is no longer safe. A wing trim may calm her down a bit, but the biggest advantage is that your husband no longer has to worry as much about being attacked from all angles. Notice that I qualified my last sentence. If she is currently a strong flier, she will still be able to fly somewhat even after her wing trim. In a few weeks, after her flight muscles atrophy a bit, the distance she can fly will diminish. However, she may still jump on him, or attempt to land on him, fall short, and then run over and attack his feet.

One nice thing about severe macaws is that they are very expressive. Figure out what Rickie's triggers are. It may help to keep a journal, or bite book, to record everything you can about what was happening when she bites. Are there certain areas of the house where she is more likely to bite? Certain actions that you or your husband do? Or clothes that you wear? Look for patterns. Watch her body language closely.

For example, in my case, Rocky becomes very aggressive in the hall outside our bathroom. Even Thomas (his favorite person) does not attempt to pick him up in this area unless he has a stick. Rocky also will launch attacks and try to bite if we are carrying towels. To solve this problem, we make sure he is in his cage, or at least another room, before we touch any towels. As for clothes, Rocky does not like it when Thomas wears red shirts. As frustrating as it was for Thomas to let a macaw dictate his wardrobe (especially since his favorite shirt was red), he no longer wears red shirts.

As in the examples above, one you've figured out things that provoke Rickie to bite, you can arrange the environment so that she doesn't get so worked up.

Another thing that worked for us is that we stick trained Rocky. This gives me a way to move him around or to stop him from attacking me. Thomas will also use the stick when Rocky is particularly agitated. I use a dowel. The ones we have were perches in cages (we replaced the dowels with natural manzanita wood) but you can also buy them at stores like The Home Depot.

If you choose to do this, you may have to make adjustments depending on Rickie's reaction to the stick. In our case, Rocky already knew "step up." I simply placed the stick where my hand would be, said "step up," and then praised him when he did. Rocky loves praise, even from me, so that's a great reinforcer. If Rickie is not as hungry for praise, you may have better luck giving her a nut or special treat after she steps up on the stick. Practice daily until it becomes routine. By now, if Rocky sees me with a stick, he'll run over and put his foot up. If he sees me with a stick in my hand, he will not even attack because he knows it's futile.

I have three sticks that I keep in various rooms in the house, and strive to always have one within arm's reach so that if he does come over to attack, I just have him step up instead. One quick note about stick training -- parrots tend to like to be as high as possible. If your husband has her on a stick, but the stick is horizontal, she may just walk over and bite him. I always keep the stick at an angle so that he'd really have to climb down to get me -- and it's not worth the trouble for him. I can't find any pictures of that, though I'll try to take some over the weekend; however, this post shows arm angles when sticks aren't involved -- it's the same when they are.

I really think those were the two most important aspects of how Rocky and I live as peacefully together as we do -- figuring out what sets him off and reducing/eliminating his triggers, and stick training.

Now, on to other ideas:

1. What is her diet like? I know several birds who became increasingly aggressive when fed artificial dyes and/or too much unhealthy human food. Kind of like when kids get hyped up on sugar. You may want to switch her to a non-colored pellet, like Harrison's or Totally Organic Pellets, and limit human food to healthy vegetables.

2. How much exercise does she get? Even when a bird flies, they're not always getting a ton of exercise if they only go for short distances. In the wild, parrots can fly miles every day. We try to get all of our birds panting at least once a day. If they're having behavior issues, we try to get them panting more often. Here is a post I wrote about exercise, including a video with Rocky.

3. I am a huge fan of clicker training. Here is a link to a free yahoo group where you can get started. This is a way to channel some of her energy/intelligence into more positive endeavors. Rocky would rather bite me than take food from my hand, so when I train him, I just praise him. Progress is slow, but he has learned a few tricks this way!

4. Does she have a lot of stuff to chew? Rocky is like a little buzz saw. Every single severe macaw I've encountered is the same way. He loves 2X4 slices. I don't know how handy you or your husband are, but what we do is buy untreated pine 2X4s from our local lumberyard. Then Thomas slices them with a miter saw. When he's making wood chips, he can't attack me, or scream, or eat our furniture. We keep baskets of these slices around our house. When he feels the need to destroy, he runs over and grabs a piece of wood. In this post, you can see what I mean.

5. Thomas has made the comment about Rocky being a cowardly biter. That means that he generally won't launch at me if I'm facing him -- he waits until my back is turned. Though I sometimes joke that it's like I'm a courtier to King Louis XIV, if he's agitated I will walk backwards out of the living room.

As other thoughts come to me, I will add them. By using the techniques described above, my husband and I have worked out an arrangement that works for us with Rocky. I can't remember the last time he bit me and drew blood. Off the top of my head, I'd estimate that he bites me less than 2 times a year. But I am very vigilant. He jumped me last week, and I was able to get him off of me (basically using a stick to scrape him onto the couch) before he could inflict any damage. In many cases, it's like living with my nemesis, or my stalker.

Thank you very much for trying to find solutions to working with Rickie instead of just rehoming her. They are very challenging creatures, and she is very lucky to have landed with someone who cares enough to make things better. As before, if you have questions/comments on anything I wrote, or on anything else, please leave a comment and I will respond. Best of luck to your family and Rickie!


Darlene said...

latest is we took Rickey to have her wings and nails clipped. Since it is hard to find anyone that wants to do that anymore in our area, I took her to a vet, I didn't mind paying the extra cost to make sure it was done right. Well it wasn't. Her nail was bleeding and the wings are not cut evenly and they are jagged and uneven. it took 2 people to hold her while the doctor attempted to know what he was doing. I could have done it better myself. Poor bird was so tramatized. When the nail would not stop bleeding, the doctor was concerned and wanted to take her back out of her cage to try to stop it. When they went to her cage she started to flap and screem. I offered to take her out, when I opened the door and put my hand in, she just hopped on it and cuddled into my chest and wimpered. Poor Rickey. It would help if she would just behave.

Mary said...

I'm sorry that Rickie had such a traumatic experience getting groomed.

It can be really scary for them -- they're prey animals after all -- and when the person doing the grooming isn't experienced...well, you've seen the result.

You may be able to make it into a game with her and just do a little filing of her nails every night to be able to avoid a repeat of this.

Best of luck to you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Even tho this is a macaw page i would to have some advise on my 15 month oh thinmen african grey. i am trying to train her to let me strok her wings let me stroke her head out of the cage as she onli alows this if she is in the cage with the door closed she also bites when you get her to step up of her cage or on somwhere where she has gone her self, i have tried rewarding her but when i give her the food she just throws it i've also tried a high pitched exited voice to praise which she just looks at me funny. basically i would like to get tips on how to make her tame where i can stroke her anywhere as you can tell she is dying for the attension, sadly she cannot be out of her cage throughout the day as we have three dogs that would like her for dinner but she comes up to my room when i get home from schools for about too hours a night and when i clean her cage but she has got toys to play with thank you too any one who relpies really need advice thanks

Mary said...

Hello Anonymous,

My answer was getting a little long for a comment, so I made it into a post:

As I said in the post, please let me know if you have any questions/comments. I know you can get a better relationship with your timneh!

Anonymous said...

Hi, just found you through Google.

I have owned Macaws for many years as pets from hatch & & Gold, Hyacinth, Milligold, etc. I "rescued" a 20year old severe macaw, Rosie about 1 1/2 years ago. They really loved her but she was a screamer and so they covered her all of the time. Well loved though...that said. Two things for I have found alway work. One, when they scream I (we) virtually do not react, look or even flinch, say nothing and are always 100% consistant in our "non-reaction. IT WORKS with EVERY macaw we have owned. Two. NEVER reward bad behavior. Rosie flies and bites backs of necks too. I immediately take her to her "time out" cage in a back guest room, tell her sternly, NO NO Rosie", and leave immediately. I leave her there for about 20 minutes or so. These two things have worked with all my parrots, no more squaking at all, and don't I cover Rosie as she HATES it, but the secluded time out cage works beautifully. ALL my birds are and have been well behaved with only a few very consistent rules. Hope this might help someone else.

Pat Lyle

Mary said...

Hi Pat,

Thanks for your comment. I must add, however, that in addition to completely ignoring you bird when he screams, you need to figure out a way to let him communicate with you. That is, ignore the screaming and react to a more positive noise that the bird makes. The bird will learn to make the positive noise to get what he wants and stop screaming since it no longer works.

It is almost impossible for most people to effectively extinguish behavior in the way you explain, and then they just make the problem worse by teaching the bird that if they scream for 20 minutes, or 1 hour, or 6 hours straight, then they eventually will get what they want. (And yes, I have known of birds that have screamed for more than 6 hours straight. I do a lot of behavior consulting for the rescue where I volunteer.)

Plus, you do not want your bird to be subject to learned helplessness. In order to give your bird the best captive life, you want to teach him to communicate with you, not completely ignore his desires.

It's quite cruel, IMO, to just ignore when someone is trying to tell you something. That's what screaming is -- and it's our job to teach them a more appropriate way to get our attention!

Also, for anyone reading, though time outs can certainly work, 20 minutes is excessive. While it may give you some needed rest from the bird, don't kid yourself that the bird is sitting in his cage for 20 minutes ruminating on his bad behavior :)

In any case, thanks for taking in an older severe. These guys need all the good caretakers they can find since they are very challenging!