Friday, July 23, 2010

Integrating a new severe macaw into the house

No, not me, don't worry! Though there is a severe macaw at the rescue who is trying his best to enter our household...

I received the following question in the comments, so I will answer it here. As always, I am no expert, but have interacted with hundreds of parrots over the years at the rescue and have successfully integrated several parrots into our flock. Also, as always, every parrot is an individual and there is no "one-size-fits-all" parrot advice, so I am talking in generalities and probabilities, even if I don't always qualify my comments as such!

On to the question, which I will intersperse with comments and then write more at the end...

Lisa wrote:
Thank you! Well I’ll start with my 2 biggest questions/concerns. Samba will come out of his cage and stand on the edge of the cage door. If we don’t immediately come to visit he will make a bit of noise and start bobbing his head up and down.
Me: This is great news!
He really acts like he wants to interact with us. Once we come to see him he will dance when we sing, and jabber with us for a few minutes. Then is seems out of nowhere he gets very anxious.
Me: Can you notice anything that he does right before getting anxious? Or that you do? I know it seems like it is out of nowhere, but carefully observe him and your interactions with him. Parrots can be extremely subtle. Does it happen if you lift an arm up (maybe in a dance move, but he's afraid you're going to ask him to step up), or does it happen after he pins his eyes, or lifts up the feathers on his head, or lifts his wings up, or does any other movement?

If you can't notice anything, look at timing. Is he OK for five minutes? Three minutes? Or is it sometimes three minutes and sometimes 20 seconds?

Ideally, you can figure out the trigger (or timing) and remove yourself from him before he gets agitated. In general, parrots benefit more from short, intense, frequent bursts of direct attention than long ones. Law of diminishing returns and all that. If you have an hour of direct attention, most parrots do better with 12 five minute interactions than one 60 minute interaction.

As an example, if he doesn't show agitation until over a minute in, dance with him for 30 seconds, then go away for a few minutes, then come back for another 30 seconds. Keep the interactions short and fun and leave him wanting more!
Although we are not attempting to reach for him, he starts yelling “come here Samba step up” right after he says this he will pin his eyes and begin biting his legs, then go back in his cage and appears freighted. It seems obvious that he is anxious that we are going to make him step up. We are not as I tried it once and was bitten and the same with my husband. I am trying to watch his cues to see what makes him uncomfortable so I can back off before he gets upset however it really seems to come out of now where. Well my question is since he appears so upset and is saying STEP UP!! at the same time that he runs and bites himself, should we not attempt to get him to step up?
Me: You have correctly picked up on his body language. Rocky will frequently bite his leg and then glare at me, or, if he's in his cage, reach for my finger and then pull his foot in and bite his leg, so this is very normal severe macaw behavior. (As an aside, one of the things I love about severe macaws is how flamboyant and expressive they are! I mean, biting a leg to show disapproval? Genius!)

As I said a few paragraphs up, if you can't figure out a trigger or any body language by him, concentrate on timing and focusing on short bursts of attention -- before he gets worked up.

As beloved parrot suggested in the comments, it is probably too soon for him to happily step up for you. Sure, you could force him to do so now, but you'd likely get bit and surely destroy trust, making it harder to have a good relationship with him down the road.

In your first comment, you mentioned "recently" bringing him home. Some birds take longer than others to feel comfortable in new situations. I know it's tough to not be able to handle him -- after all, you only want the best for him so why doesn't he understand and act accordingly? -- but giving him space, following his lead, and moving at his pace are so important to having a happy parrot in your house. Samba is only 10 years old, so he could be with you another 4 decades or so. In the grand scheme of things, an extra few months of slow progress is nothing!

As another aside, do you have any idea how his former owners had him step up? (From Samba's comments, it sounds like they may have had trouble getting him to step up). Some parrots feel more comfortable stepping up on hands vs. arms, towels or sticks vs. bare body parts, etc. This information might be helpful for you later on, but even if you don't have any contact with his former owners, you can still get him to a point where he steps up.
He does take fruit and vegetables from my hand very gently (but very leery).
Me: That's great that he will take food from you! One thing I do with a new bird is always say "want some?" or "want an almond?" and show them the food from a few feet away instead of just thrusting it in their face, then slowly go in and have them reach for it. This frames our interaction -- the bird chooses whether they want some, and comes a bit closer to me -- of his own volition -- to get some. I have a video of this with my foster bird near the end of this post.

Another way to build trust is to remove the bird's favorite foods from his normal diet. Does Samba have things that he really, really loves? Don't put them in his food dishes in his cage. He only gets them directly from you, so he makes the connection. This may mean going through his seed mix and removing cashews or pistachios or whatever!
I had read a bit about clicker training with a target. When I came within 5 feet of his cage with a chop stick he went ballistic and was visibly terrified. Now I’m not so sure that target training is the thing to do.
Me: Clicker training is fantastic and I do it with my parrots. Severes are very intelligent, and clicker training is fantastic for their mental fitness. Do you have a clicker? Have you conditioned the clicker with him and he's OK with that, it was just the chopstick that scared him? Or had you not gotten that far yet?

Conditioning the clicker is when you click and then give him his favorite food right away, as soon as you possibly can, so Samba learns that click = treat.

If he was afraid of the chopstick, you can use something else, like a straw (that's what I use), pen emptied of the ink cartridge, end of a fork, etc. You don't want to use anything perch-like, as that can cause confusion later on if you want to stick-train him. I do know that some people started by hiding most of the target stick in their sleeve and gradually took the target stick out after the bird was no longer afraid.

Or, even though it's advisable to start with target training, you don't have to. Once you've conditioned the clicker and Samba knows that click = treat, you can click/treat him for doing pretty much anything, like coming out of his cage and dancing. Here is a link to a free yahoo group that can provide advice, also. The moderators are much more experienced than I am and might have other ideas!
Lastly- he often will hang from the top of the cage with his beak while fanning his tail feathers and stretching his wings a bit. Would this be a happy display or does he want me to back off when he does this?
Me: Every parrot can use body language in a different way, so I can't give you a definitive answer. You'll have to observe the situations when he does this and his reactions to your reactions to this (hopefully that made sense -- it did in my head!) However, generally in the macaws that I've known, this is a type of begging behavior. He probably wants something -- attention, to come out, attention, treats, attention, etc.

That being said, since he is new to your house and doesn't feel totally comfortable yet, he might be a bit confused. Being a severe macaw, he wants attention (doesn't the world revolve around him? Because Rocky thinks it does!), but he is also a prey animal, so when he gets the attention from someone who might be a predator, it's a bit scary. Especially since it sounds like he was not receiving a lot of positive attention in his previous home.

If I were in your shoes, what I would do is start with verbal acknowledgment. When you see him doing this, say something like "Oh, Samba! What a pretty bird! Such a good boy!" preferably in a high, happy voice, and see what he does. If he gets excited, keep it up, and maybe slowly start approaching him over the next weeks.
I think this turned in to more than two questions :) I really appreciate you taking the time to respond!
Me: No problem! I hope that at least some of what I wrote was helpful and also that you keep us updated with Samba's progress. Just remember to be patient, follow his lead, and watch his body language. For being new to birds (if I read you correctly), you are already showing a great innate understanding of things! Rocky didn't have the best start, either, but we were able to get through that, and you can, too! Severe macaws tend to be very resilient and able to overcome their past. A year from now, you can reread this and probably won't even recognize him. Thank you for being willing to put forth the effort for Samba's sake!


Anonymous said...

Hello. I found your blog recently and its great :) I like to read about your birds while mine are sleeping and I can't play with them.

This was a great post. Thanks!


Mary said...


Thanks for the nice comment! Much appreciated!

Lisa said...

Thank you for your post Mary! It was very helpful. I will certainly keep you posted on our progress with Samba. I am going to buy a clicker today! He does seem a little more comfortable with us every day. We've had him a total of 21 days. He seems to favor my husband, although I'm the one who is constantly doting affection on him, and trying to research the best methods for a good bond. How is that fair?! : ) Again, I really appreciate your advice!!

Mary said...


I totally agree -- it's not fair! I have conversations all the time with Rocky about how much more pleasant it would be for everyone if he would be as nice to me as he is to Thomas. I have been nothing but wonderful to him, and he repays me by attacking!

is a link to something I wrote last year. It may be helpful.

Almost all severe macaws are mainly one-person birds. I have had to resign myself to the fact that the relationship Rocky and I have is far different than the one he has with my husband. Like you, I was the one doing all of the research to make his life better, but he didn't care!

That being said, our relationship has greatly improved over the past 4 years he's been with us and I do have hopes that some day he'll be as tame to me as he is to my husband! Until then, I have my stick!

Lisa said...

In one of the comments to your post on
Someone mentioned using a spray bottle to discourage screaming. Is this common? The reason I ask is that Samba's previous owner mentioned using a spray bottle. This struck me as a bit cruel. After reading that someone else uses this same method, I am wondering if it is more common than not? What is your take? Luckily Samba only gets noisy when we leave the room and will quite right down after 30 seconds or less.

Mary said...

Hi Lisa,

Sadly, I think using a spray bottle is quite common, but it does not do any good.

As your parrot instincts have told you, it only harms the relationship with your bird.

You really want the spray bottle to be something positive (bathing). I need to write an entry on this soon!

If this method was used on him in the past, it helped to destroy the trust he might have had in humans, which makes it a little more difficult for you, since you need to show him that humans will not do such horrible things to him!