20 February 2011

Cher at the Park, and Conure Aggression

Cher went to the park today for Parrots in the Park, our local gathering of parrots and people. This was not her first trip to the park, but it was her first photo opportunity with another Sun Conure. His name is Screech. He was there with his own flockmate, Maya, a Nanday. With vultures cruising by in the distance, a curious puppy roaming about, and any other reason they could think of, conure screeches filled the air on an otherwise peaceful day at the park. Although it was fun to see Cher interact with another conure, the day at the park with other parrot owners was also a great step in her socialization progress.

After living with only myself, Coconut, and Kenobi for the last part of 2010 Cher has regressed into her old temperamental ways. Since we reunited the flock this year she has shown aggressive behavior toward Ms. Flock Advisor. Cher has always explored the territory of aggressive behavior and it has been a challenge for all of us in the Feather Dorm to work through.

Cher developed a bond with me about two years ago and ever since has shown aggressiveness toward other people. This is the type of behavior that many conure owners observe: the bird will develop an extremely close bond with one person, but displace or act aggressively toward any other people. Cher has shown this tendency at home, but also in other environments as well. She has been aggressive when we've visited my parent's house toward people she has never seen before. Her aggressive behavior toward Ms. Flock Advisor, however, is especially unacceptable. We have developed a new plan to curb her behavior at home, once again.

The first step in our new plan was to clip her wings. Cher has been flighted for about a year now and that has allowed her recently to aggressively fly at Ms. Flock Advisor. Clipping her wings not only prevents her from acting out aggressively from across the room, but it also has an effect on her overall demeanor. She is less able to exert herself as dominant throughout the house. We theorize, based on research and other conure owner experiences, that a driving force behind her aggression is to protect me or ward off threats to her own social status. By attacking, she is employing the "best defense is a good offense" technique. Cher has to understand that it is not her role. Ms. Flock Advisor theorized, based on her own research, that Cher will actually lead a less stressful life when she learns that protecting the flock is not her role. I hope that means she will not feel she needs to alert us all whenever a buzzard glides over.

We also decided to curb Cher's time on my shoulder or in the neck of my shirt. These, as far as we can tell, are her favorite places and from now on they will be a reward for good behavior. To create a baseline for our training, she was restricted from my shoulder for two weeks following her last aggressive instance. The purpose was not to punish her, but to create a good solid baseline desire for those two perches. After the period of restriction, sitting on my shoulder or climbing in my shirt became more reinforcing than ever for her.

Cher shows precursors to her aggression: she displaces on toys and other objects with her beak, puffs up her feathers and struts around, and has a set of guteral vocals that she makes when she's about to be aggressive. When Ms. Flock Advisor is around, she is not to show any of these precursors. If she does, and she is with me, then she goes back to her cage or stand. If she does not she can stay with me. If she continues to be good, she is rewarded by being allowed on my shoulder or in my shirt. This is essentially the plan we have used in the past with her, and we are banking on it working again. We are using the basic principles of positive reinforcement, without food (Cher seems more attention motivated than food motivated). Training doesn't require food.

Today's trip to the park was another attempt of mine to socialize her and temper her aggression. She typically gets very subdued around other birds. Today was no exception. Cher stayed with me and did not show any aggression to people coming over to me, sitting down next to us, or even asking to hold Cher. She stepped up on two other people and showed no aggression at all. It was a good day in the park, and Cher got a great photo for the album.

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