Giving control back to parrots – for better relationships and wellfare

Giving control back to parrots – for better relationships and wellfare

Do you like being hugged by your significant other, or maybe another family member or close friend? It can be a sign of affection and release lot’s of cozy oxytocin; a hormone that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, help us bond, trust each other, and even reduces stress. I love hugs, especially a really tight one!
So imagine if a stranger walked up to you on your way home late at night and grabbed you. You beg him/her to let you go but they refuse, and maybe even squeeze you harder.
Can you just feel your stress levels rise in this scenario? I know i can. And yet no physical harm has come to you. Just a very tight “hug” from stranger who is much stronger than you, refusing to let go. Why do we instinctively react negatively to this but not expected hugs by close friends? What’s the difference? It all comes down to control.

No, not that kind of control!

No, not that kind of control!

Control is a primary reinforcer: something that animals are naturally willing to work for and find reinforcing, like food or safety. Lack of access to these are also associated with bad feelings and stress. That makes a lot of sense, as lack of control can be the difference between life and death if you’re living in the wild, just like food or shelter.
The fact that control is reinforcing has probably been noted by anyone with a toddler, seeing how they light up (pun intended) when they discover the delights of the awesomeness that is a light switch. They do something and something happens. Wow. They have the power over light and darkness. And some kids can flip that switch endlessly, for the feeling of control alone.
Tonnes of experiments have been made that show animals are no different. They desperately need control to thrive; to feel like they can influence their own situation and/or their environment by behaving. Both humans and animals are even willing to put themselves through physically painful experiences for it. It’s what we all; human and parrot alike, are born to do. In fact, lack of control is part of the very definition of stress.

Here’s a clip of my tag, Echo, being swung around by me, having a blast. If you watch carefully, you will see that i only do this after he has “flipped over” by his own free will. He is in control of when i swing him around, i never do it if he hasn’t asked for it. Do you think he would enjoy this experience as much if i just grabbed him and started swinging him around without him asking first?

So what happens when we are denied control? If we’re way too hot but unable to cool down, super hungry but can’t get any food, or held down against our will like in the example above. Or even if we’re just in an environment that is too “empty”: we have absolutely nothing to do and no way to change that.
We panic. Few of us humans have actually been in this kind of situation, so it’s very hard for us to truly imagine what it is like. And that’s a good thing, trust me, since i wouldn’t wish that feeling even on my worst enemy, talking from experience. Yet many of us do exactly this to parrots on routine, without even being aware of it most of the times.

Showering is super awesome when you want to. Getting whet when you don’t is a whole other issue, and the same goes for parrots!

Showering is super awesome when you want to. Getting whet when you don’t is a whole other issue, and the same goes for parrots!


Parrot doesn’t want to step up? Push his belly until he does, ignore possible bites and body language. Doesn’t want to go in the cage? Hold his foot so he can’t fly away. Parrot doesn’t want to be pet right now? But he usually loves it, pet him anyway! Parrot has long claws? Get that towel and hold him down, time for a trim! This might not seem as bad as starving to death, but it is actually the exact same principle. Just like loosing our job and/or being broke is very far from being eaten by a tiger, but still triggers a similar (though not as intense) stress response in our bodies.
Truth is it doesn’t matter if “it has happened a hundred times, he knows nothing bad is going to happen.” It still results in the same physiological and psychological responses. Just by being held against his will, something extremely bad and terrifying and horrible has already happened! We also do more passive things, like expect birds to just sit there all day, often in too barren environments. How much control does that give them?
We do this in so many ways it’s impossible to describe them all. And this has disastrous effects both on our relationship with our birds, as well as their own well being. Lack of control increases stress and plays a big role i many common behavior problems, like biting, screaming and over preening. As a parrot owner, i would say the number one thing you can do to increase the well being of your birds is to constantly ask yourself how you can give them more control over what is happening to them, both in formal training sessions and every-day life.

In this clip Echo is getting his nails trimmed without restraint. We can teach all kinds of amazing things to parrots so that they can be voluntary participants in their own care, all using force free, positive reinforcement training methods.


And before you stop reading because you think i’ve lost it, i do not mean we should let our birds bite us, never step up, and neglect them by letting claws grow too long. Luckily for us, these are not the only options we’ve got. Just because we give ours birds control (choices), does not mean we have to give it up ourselves. My parrots get their nails trimmed, step up, go back into their cages, all without me ever having to force them. All i have to do is teach them what my requests mean, and that if they do what i ask, they get desired consequences. Instead of going into cage -> left alone in a boring little wire cube (i would fly away, too), i make sure that go back to cage -> explosion of fun, tasty treats, toys and company. Both of us end up happy and in control. Win-win!
The better you are as a trainer, the less force you need to use, and as a result of that: the better the relationship with your pet will be.

So, anytime you ask your parrot to do something, or you do something to your parrot, ask yourself this:

  • Does my bird want to do what i ask?
  • If not, why might that be?
  • What can i add or remove so that he will be more motivated to do it?

Since, like i said earlier, control is a primary reinforcer, it is important for us to consider in training specific behaviors as well. Especially when working with scared or aggressive birds, this yields such amazing results. The first thing i always tell people to do when taming a bird is to teach the bird that it can control your movements. This is done by carefully observing body language and moving yourself away at the slightest sign of discomfort in the bird. This way they quickly learn that, if they would want to, they can easily remove you. This results in an empowered bird which will be much more confident, and, somewhat contra intuitively, less likely to ask you to move away (you’re not as scary if you can be removed on request, so it kinda does makes sense after all); thus making it easier for you to get to a stage where you can start delivering positive reinforcers like treats to show that you are not only not dangerous, but really awesome to be around. You are establishing a two way communication system, basically. And that is really what training animals is all about.

About the author

Stephanie Edlund administrator

Stephanie is the owner of Understanding Parrots. She works professionally as a zookeeper and bird trainer and is a certified parrot behavior consultant with the IAABC, where she is also the chairperson of the parrot division.

8 Comments so far

Dianne AllenPosted on11:08 pm - Jan 25, 2017

Loved this article. It all makes sense. Now if I can just do this with my Lovebird. Echo is a lovely TAG. I posted a link to this on a bird forum for every to read.

    Stephanie EdlundPosted on8:30 am - Jan 26, 2017

    Thank you Dianne, I really appreciate the feedback! And thank you so much for sharing my article with others.
    Let me know if I can help you with your lovebird.
    All the best!

      MarilynPosted on4:47 pm - Jan 26, 2017

      Stephanie – Thank you for this very insightful article. I adopted my CAG two months ago. She is still a bit nervous so I have been very gentle with her thus far. She has her very first vet visit scheduled for next week and I’m beyond worried about her emotional well being while traveling and being examined. Please provide any suggestions you may have for keeping her fairly comfortable. Thanks!

JessicaPosted on3:21 pm - Aug 2, 2017

Article sums it up well.. reminds me of trying to give scritches on the cheek/head to my birds (budgies, so tiny and a bit more difficult than our macaw or ‘too. One day I realized, as gentle as I was, having a big hand coming directly at you face cant be fun, even if said hand yields to cues that you dont want your cheek itched right now.. so I tried teaching a word to prepare my bird for a finger in the face, and to help him decide if he wants the head scritches before having to take evasive action. I have to say, night and day. I will say the word “pet?” while slowly holding my hand up at a distance. It has gotten to where he will puff up and even turn to the side he wants or if not will turn away if not interested, and he is much more relaxed and comfortable around me he actually will seek out cuddle time where before I think I seemed just a bit unpredictable to him..pair that with forcing things and you likely will get stressed … doesn’t matter what species you are, as someone who has anxiety, panic attacks, and depression I can tell you that most of my issues stem from a version of this very thing: not being in control, and frightening unpredictability. I will say those experiences did teach me to have a little more respect for those basic needs. I want to be a vet, so this is definitely something that interests me as it is so important but also challenging in clinic, the best defense IMO seems to be education that starts at home like this article , thanks!

LisaPosted on11:57 pm - Aug 2, 2017

Hi Stephanie – I enjoyed reading this article. There are some very good points. Thank you for sharing! Can you kindly tell me a little more about the courses you offer? How long is the Parrot 101(VIP) Training Course? Is it offered via video or is it sent via email and reading material? Can you explain in more detail what is included with the personal mentorship? I am not clear what via online means, how we connect and how many hours per week are included with this course. A little more information would be great! Thank you.

CindyPosted on6:19 am - Aug 3, 2017

I really appreciated what you have written. I have a 7 month old Goffin and your article is helping me see what we have done right and how to take our efforts even further in assuring we are doibg right by our bird. We have had him all of 10 days. Trying to start off right.

Linda PinkertonPosted on4:32 pm - Aug 3, 2017

I enjoyed the article it was very informative and help me to see and understand the birds a lot more you work at there pace and it.e not your time you think they should be doing things. So its almost like work on there time like there are a retired bird in a young body, willing to work and be worked with, IT JUST TAKES TTTIIIMMMEEE. TTHHEERREE TIME. IS THAT HOW IT WORKS. And l think l have if that is right please let me know. Thank you l would like some articles on birds with help and more information please.

JennaPosted on5:46 pm - Aug 5, 2017

Hi I have two CAG and am having a tough time finding a good food reinforcer. They love nuts but are full after one or two and do not accept the bits if i have cut them. Any suggestions on reinforcer.

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