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For everyone who loves companion birds
My cockatoo, Ellie, protests her life 
20th-Jun-2016 03:08 pm
Lily on Vase
Just thought I'd share how I taught Ellie my cockatoo to shake her head 'no' when she doesn't want something.

Cockatoos are considered by many to be the hardest parrots to keep in captivity, placing owners in their own special class of crazy. They are brilliant, with the intelligence of toddlers, and their affection needs differentiate them from other parrots. Without proper mental AND emotional support, they begin to pull out their feathers, some mutilate themselves, and some die from their self-injurious behaviors. Keeping a cockatoo happy is very serious business, and failing that, can literally lead to the poor creature's death. And some cockatoos pluck for seemingly no reason at all.

Ellie is quite the spirited little elfling. I relish my own independence, it is one of the most valued traits of my life. I likewise thought independence, agency--the ability to control her surroundings, to affect her environment, to make decisions about her day and her life--might provide a layer of protection against this proclivity to pluck.

Birds are so tiny, it's easy to 'force' them to step-up, to 'force' them to go to people they don't want to visit, to grab them, to 'force' them to go into their cages, in essence, to inflict ourselves and our opinions on their tiny little bodies.

I never wanted that for Ellie. Her life (as much as possible) would be on her terms.

Because she might live up to 60 years, and because she isn't very verbal, I decided early on that I would teach her non-verbal communication, so that she could say "no" when she didn't want something. It would be a form of agency - she could shake her head and the humans in her life would understand in a very human-form, "I don't want that."

So, I set out to teach her to indicate "no."

"No" is such an interesting word. It is abstract - it is an indication of displeasure. It is not a color to select, it is not one number to choose, it is an idea. "I don't want that." And it's an idea connected to a head movement.

I wasn't sure if it would work :)

Alex, the brilliant and famous African Grey, developed a concept of zero, nothing, which, I believe, even dolphins and gorillas haven't demonstrated. Abstract concepts are tougher for animals, but large parrots are also unique.

It was also tough because I try to avoid using the word 'no' to my parrots. I redirect their behavior, put up all kinds of places where they want to play, and reward them for playing in those spots. That said, my mischievous cockatoo Ellie definitely hears the word 'no' more than my other two!

So every time I said "No" to Ellie, I also emphatically shook my head. And every time she indicated she didn't want something by her body language, I also asked verbally, "No???" and shook my head wildly, trying to pair the concepts. Honestly, she looked at me blankly like I was mentally deranged for over a year.

Then one afternoon when I was racing around the house getting ready to go somewhere and about to engage in bird-mommy failure by (the horror) placing her on a play stand without a treat, the lights blinked on in her head, like some total Helen Keller moment, and she shook her head violently, "Nooooooo!!!!!!"

We both kind of stopped and stared at each other. I blinked at her, she blinked at me, and then she shook her head again. "No. Not that perch without a treat!!!!"

I kissed her and laughed and we both shook our heads together and I got her a treat.

Ellie latched onto "No" like it was some life saver and she might drown in this ocean of humans. She shook (and shakes) her head often. "Not that toy, thanks." "I don't want broccoli right now." "Ewww bananas?! Really?!?!??" "No, I don't want to visit that person."

It's not fail-proof. Sometimes she still hunkers down on her haunches and other times she screams if she's especially mad, but it has made navigating life so much easier for both of us when I know (and to the very best of my ability, always honor) her expressions of "No."

21st-Jun-2016 03:50 pm (UTC)
That is so, so cool!!! Smart parrot!! What other kinds of birds do you have?
21st-Jun-2016 04:14 pm (UTC)
I also have a female Mealy Amazon, Mikey, and a Congo Grey, Max. Max is a handful every spring/summer. Each year, he claims an area as his "nest". This year, it's the space underneath his cage, which we refer to as his "basement". Last year, he kept gravitating toward the space behind the toilet, which we of course discouraged. I surrounded the toilet with the spiky outer hulls of chestnuts (They look sort of like a ferocious looking pac-man). This unnerved him enough to keep him away from there. The year before it was my closet. I had to get a hook and eye lock for my closet door, as he could open it otherwise. (He chewed up one of my winter boots and I had to get a new pair that year.) That's the main trouble with his nesting behavior -- the chewing, mainly the baseboards and walls. At least in his basement, I can provide him with cardboard flooring, which he chews up. Better that than the floor itself.
21st-Jun-2016 04:25 pm (UTC)
Ha! That's so funny - and annoying, but you handle it so well :D

Maybe he'll find his basement was such a convenient location that he'll just prefer it from here on out. :)

I have a Goffin's cockatoo (Ellie), an Umbrella Cockatoo (Isabelle) and a parrotlet (Lily) :)
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