Behavior: Handling a parrot with a potty mouth

Check out two Q&As from a veterinary technician and parrot behavior pioneer who passed away in April.
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May 06, 2013

Liz Wilson, who passed away in April, was a pioneer in parrot behavior. Published everywhere from JAVMA to Bird Talk, Wilson was a certified veterinary technician who blossomed into a parrot behavior consultant. She was a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences, appeared at bird clubs, and answered questions for bird lovers in my newspaper columns and radio shows.

Here are two of my favorite reader Q&As Wilson answered. They’ll give you a taste of what we’ll all miss now that she’s longer here to answer our avian questions.

Q. What do we do with a potty-mouthed bird? Bingo is our 16-year old Amazon parrot. He’s a wonderful companion to our entire family. We also have a 14-year old son who obviously has begun to use some very bad language. We were tipped off when Bingo began to talk like a drunken sailor. I can deal with my son. But how do I deal with a bad-talking bird? — S. J., Stillwater, Okla.

A. “The effective way to eliminate those bad words is that from now on no humans are allowed to reinforce Bingo,” Wilson says. “That means absolutely no reactions, no gasping, no laughing and no scolding. One solution is to gradually teach Bingo new words and totally ignore the bad ones, while you reinforce the new vocabulary.”

Another method is to replace the bad word with a similar-sounding but more acceptable word that you clearly repeat and use frequently. So, teach your bird “truck” or “sit.” You can even show the object—the truck, for instance—so there’s a meaning attached. Or when your bird perches somewhere, you can say “sit.”

“It’s all about reinforcement with praise, treats and ignoring what you don’t want to hear. That’s the secret,” Wilson says. “I think when it comes to parrots—and I bet even teaching dogs and cats—unless the animal is endangered, ignore what you don’t like and reinforce what you do like.”

Q. Zippo, our 6-year-old Sulpher-crested cockatoo has been in our home now for a year and a half. We used to be able to let him out of the cage to hold and love. Now, he only takes to me when he feels like it. Otherwise, he chases us around the house and tries to bite us. If he catches us, we’re dead meat. That’s why Zippo’s been confined to his cage for a year. How can I get back our sweet bird? I can’t find anyone who will take him because they fear him. If we can’t resolve the issue soon, my husband is going to make me put him to sleep. I love him too much to do that. — D. B., Danville, Ind.

A. “This bird hasn’t done anything wrong, except become a normal adult parrot,” Wilson says. “If people don’t train their dog, no one is surprised when their dog grows up to be out of control. With large parrots, training is imperative. Parrots haven’t evolved with people for thousands of years as dogs have. They are essentially wild animals struggling to cope in our urban environments.”

While Wilson appreciates your frustration, confining Zippo to his cage for a year is downright cruel. She has no doubt this has only served to increase Zippo’s anxiety. Parrots are incredibly intelligent and require a variety of toys to maintain sanity in captivity. Making matters worse, it’s a good bet the cage is too small. No wonder when on the rare occasions Zippo is allowed freedom, he goes berserk.

“Chasing is classic cockatoo behavior,” says Wilson. “Obviously, it takes two to play this game. Your bird can’t chase if you don’t run. The more you run and scream, and wave your arms—the more fun your bird will have.”

Wilson adds that these behavior issues can be resolved as long as you understand you have a parrot who’ll always act like a parrot—“and not magically transform into a little poodle with feathers,” she adds.

Because improper diet may play a role in parrot behavior, it would be a good idea to see a veterinarian experienced with birds. If you need further help, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (iaabc.org) can help.

If you truly love this bird, as you say you do, either accept professional help or rehome the bird with a qualified agency. Examples are:

> A Refuge for Saving Wildlife in Northbrook, Ill., rescuethebirds.org

> Phoenix Landing in Arlington, Va, phoenixlanding.org

> Parrot Education and Adoption Center, Salon, Ohio, clevelandpeac.org.

These agencies have volunteers in foster homes who provide behavioral therapy and then the agency finds these birds a new home. This bird should not be killed. If you happen to have kids in your home, consider the lesson you’re teaching them about the value of life.