Nature or Nurture: How Parrots & Birds Learn

Understanding The Personality Schema of our Birds

In our lifetime, we will establish many relationships, some last but many will have a different fate. As human beings, we are perhaps inherently programmed to think we can change others according to the ideal we’ve imagined for them; how they should or shouldn’t be and how we can help them change. I often reflect on a famous scene from the movie “The Way We Were,” which illustrates this perfectly. Robert Redford is annoyed at Barbra Streisand for always trying to change him: “You push too hard. There’s no time to ever relax and enjoy living.” She responds; “If I push too hard, it’s because I want things to be better, I want you to be better. Sure I make waves, and I’ll keep making them till you’re everything you should be and will be.” Of course we all know and understand why that particular relationship was doomed…

When Bird-Human Relationships Fail

One can very well search until the end of time why it has not worked. Perhaps the bird screamed too much, bit, was messy or time consuming, etc. But perhaps all of these reasons are only the symptoms of the underlying reality. A much deeper and honest assessment could reveal that the right species selection for the compatible companion had not been made.

I could go on and on about different problems, solutions and techniques to solve or alleviate these problems. But instead, I have chosen to tackle the underlying problem that is generally at the root of all other problems. We are perhaps disillusioned to believe the chosen one will become what we wished it could be.

Regrettably, the scenario is often like this:

  1. Buying the bird on impulse.
  2. Honeymoon period: everything is peachy; the bird is usually very young, gentle and tame. The family and caretakers are ecstatic about the bird.
  3. Somewhere between 6 months and a year (the onset of the juvenile age), the bird begins to bite, scream and generally does not seem well adjusted to its surroundings. The foundation of mutual trust, respect and training has not been established.
  4. In desperation, the caretaker either starts to search for help, sells the bird or gives it away.

Aviculturists, pet stores and refuges are challenged with the increasing reality of companion bird abandonment. Numerous conscientious bird breeders question themselves as to whether they are breeding the right species for the companion market. What species should we breed for long lasting relationships? I personally don’t think that this question relies solely on the breeders choosing the right species to breed, but mostly in the way future caretakers choose their companions.

A Bird is a Bird is a Bird… Or Is It?

Too often I have consulted with bird owners or future bird owners who believe that their own particular way of raising the bird will make it into something it is not. They think that if they raise their Cockatoo the same way they raised their African Grey, the Cockatoo will grow up to be more like a Grey. They believe that their Cockatoo will not have the same affection and attention needs as a “regular” Cockatoo since they will have taught it to behave like a Grey. I firmly believe this is a mistake. It is crucial when selecting a bird that one understands precisely the profound nature of that particular species – the central core of its personality. This simply means what the bird is fundamentally, forever representative of its species.

To illustrate this unarguable fact, we are going to learn about the personality schema with its three components:

  • The Central Core
  • The Intermediate Layer
  • The Peripheral Layer

To analyze this perspective more concretely, I will use my own Umbrella Cockatoo, Toby, as an example.

umbrella cockatoo
Toby representing the Umbrella Cockatoo Species

The Central Core

Evidently, for birds, some characteristics are common to individuals of a same species, including: courtship, their capacity to create and use tools, their capacity to learn to talk or vocalize, their screaming pitch, their gregarious nature, etc. This means, Umbrellas share many personality traits with other individuals of the same species. We are talking here about their genetic and hereditary baggage. But even if some traits are common to a particular group, each individual has its own unique way of developing them. Therefore, no two Umbrellas share exactly the same traits to the same degree.

In spite of physical and social environmental influences to which your bird has been exposed, every bird develops a central core of personal traits that are resistant to change.

It’s the strength of that core, joined to the vital strength of the individual bird that gives it the capacity to become itself (an Umbrella Cockatoo) and remain faithful to its species. The core is the internal centre, instinctive and intrinsic of the personality. It’s in this internal center that are located the fundamental needs, the capacities and all anatomical and physiological data for this particular species.

In short, you can read all the behavior modification books, try every positive reinforcement trick until you feel nauseous, and your bird will stay faithful to what it truly is, in spite of all the multiple influential tricks you will challenge it with. Meaning that a cockatoo will always be a cockatoo, a Lovebird a Lovebird and a Grey a Grey, despite what you wish for it to become. This does not mean that you are wasting your time and energy when trying to modify or eliminate undesirable behaviours in your companions. Far from it! One has to make the difference between an undesirable behaviour that can be modified and an innate and unavoidable behaviour!

To illustrate this notion, let’s look at one of the Umbrella Cockatoo’s personality traits: their unquenchable need for affection, petting and preening. It’s a common belief that they seem to need more affection than most other parrot species. This particular trait can be attractive for a new caregiver or completely incompatible with one’s personality or lifestyle, family dynamics, etc. It is a trait that will require you to raise this bird to be as independent as possible, to reduce the unfavourable behaviours that can result from a bird that cannot thrive without having his feathers ruffled and caressed at every moment. It is not a bad behaviour that one needs to change. But! If this is not the kind of relationship you are comfortable with, then an Umbrella Cockatoo is really a bad choice for you.

The Intermediate Layer

Toby as an individual

The intermediate layer is less resistant to changes than the central core. Each bird tends towards the full growth of its capacities and dormant potentials because of its profound nature.

Each personality is unique because it is different from all others in the manner that it organizes the traits that define it as well as strength given to each one of those traits. This means that the personality is a very complex ensemble of characteristics that gives each being its own particular colour. One’s personality is a phenomenon never repeated and the individuality of it is your bird’s major characteristic. Therefore, Toby is different from any other Umbrella Cockatoo while also exhibiting many traits that are typical to the Umbrellas.

We have just seen that the central core is resistant to changes in order to stay faithful to its genetic and hereditary baggage. One could say that it’s the central core putting up resistance toward external attack: when one attempts to “redress” the bird’s behaviour. Because of this internal resistance, that individual strength, the bird reacts to its environment and all the external stimulus on its own. By doing so, its unique individuality grows. As soon as the bird hatches, one can see its uniqueness in the way it adapts to the environment. This uniqueness shows in the way it feeds, moves, vocalizes. The more the bird reacts and learns from the human provider, the more the human feels the desire to be available for the bird and care for it. Inversely, the less the bird reacts or shows interest in the human caregiver, the less the human wants to care for the bird or be available for it.

The Peripheral Layer

Toby, MY Umbrella Cockatoo

This is the only layer of the three in which you will have an influential role. It’s the social and environmental fabric that surrounds the bird and that can modify some actions and reactions. The immediate environment and actions of people with whom it interacts, especially people who provide love, care, respect and education, influence each individual bird.

The peripheral layer is the most superficial and ephemeral one. Each action, each change in the bird’s environment will touch this layer and possibly modify it.

If you do your job well and provide your companion with a stable, stimulating and safe environment, combined with training and supervised with a clear framework of boundaries and limitations, its peripheral layer will reflect the education that you provided. Therefore, your bird will be an entirely unique being, showing typical and intrinsic traits of its species, while respecting the limits you’ve established and reinforced. The reward will be a stable foundation for a mutual bond to grow.

The Problem

Inevitably and regretfully when the human does not respect the central core of the bird by trying to impose behaviours that do not belong to its respective species, big problems arise.

You are expecting certain behaviours and traits from your “Toby,” and perhaps he wants to please you by trying to change his natural behaviours towards the ideal model you have in mind. At the same time, “Toby’s” central core is trying to fulfill his needs and to make him act along with his inherent “programming” that belongs to his species. We are then talking about conflicts between the real self of the bird and the human’s ideal self of the bird.

As a result, Toby lives in a constant state of stress and discontentment since he cannot reach the ideal self that you are asking of him. The more he is confronted with different models of what he should be, the more “Toby “becomes anxious, nervous and problems start to accumulate one after the other. Biting and screaming is often most frequent, which is intolerable and disturbing for you and your family.

The Solution

The problems must be dealt with at the roots – this means before they appear.

Educate yourself about the profound nature, the central core of each species of bird you are considering adopting as a companion.

Read, get informed and do research. More importantly, accept that each species has its own particular traits that differentiate it from any others and that you can’t do anything about it! Personally, I always thought it was strange that people could understand that a herding dog would never become a hunting dog. This kind of rationale should not be different for companion birds, nor should it be difficult to accept. Perhaps we should start categorizing birds into groups accordingly to their abilities and personalities like we do with dogs: working group, herding group, etc. We could give certain guidance to people in helping to select the right species. We could have these categories made for the human caregivers as well as for affectionate people, trick-training people and the group for rowdy and destructive people, etc.

Before attempting any kind of “work” with your bird, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • The particular trait I want to change in my bird’s behaviour, is it a natural behaviour for its species or is it a problem that has developed as a reaction to its environment, relationship or education?
  • Could it be a health related discomfort resulting in an undesirable behaviour?
  • Are my objectives and hopes realistic with regard to its species, gender and age?

Evidently, all birds can benefit from time invested to make them educated, socially adjusted and well-balanced beings. If you take pleasure training your bird to perform tricks, you and your bird will only benefit from the quality time spent together. But, and this is an important but, remember that no bird loses its home just because he doesn’t know enough tricks! And knowing tricks can’t save a bird that is unbalanced and a misfit with a human’s household flock. A bird that bites and screams will most surely lose its home, even if it knows how to roller-skate and play basketball… have the determination, patience and imagination to integrate mutual respect and establish guidelines for living within your human and feathered flock.

When Positive Reinforcement is Not Enough

Without degrading the virtues of positive reinforcement, it cannot be solely relied upon to provide a structured and nurturing framework for education. It is an excellent tool to teach birds to perform tricks, especially show birds. But teaching tricks to your bird and raising your bird to live harmoniously in your home are two different things. It is crucial for any animal companion to be properly raised, otherwise they risk losing their home. Reputed dog trainers and child psychologists agree about the limited use of positive reinforcement and warn dog owners and parents; it is usually not fast enough or efficient enough when used alone to raise a dog or child properly. Despite the fact that children, dogs and birds are very different, the same logic applies. I’ve read numerous articles and heard conferences from very well-known bird behaviourists stating that one should never use the word “no” with one’s parrot. I, for one, disagree completely with that! I’m sorry but “no” is the very first word any living being in my house that can walk, fly, jump or climb will learn. Their life and well-being can very well depend on it! It can prevent my dog from being run over by a car, my parrot from being stepped on while chasing someone’s feet or my child from jumping out of the window.

In fact it can be very positive to say ”no!”

It’s a dangerous myth to believe that if we succeed to break down in self-explaining bits and pieces the mechanics of the personality, we would then be able to solve or modify the bird’s behaviours and actions. This magical thinking leads us into believing that birds’ behaviours can be modified on the whim of any good avian behaviourist. It’s false to believe that with positive reinforcement you will make something else out of your bird than what its profound nature tells it to be. You can click your clicker as much as you want to, use all the “bridges” and “jackpot” rewards you want, a Cockatoo will never be anything other than a Cockatoo. It should be respected for what it is.

We could gain from learning to let go of the uncontrollable things, to accommodate one’s existentialist conditions, while being awed by difference, its multiple contrasts and its richness.

By: Sylvie Aubin

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