Practical Psittacine Behavior, Handling and Restraint Laboratory
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2012
Brian L. Speer, DVM, DABVP(Avian), DECZM(Avian)
The Medical Center for Birds, Oakley, CA


This laboratory exercise is intended to introduce participants to a more comfortable level of understanding of some of the basics of behavioral science, and introduce some of the techniques with which to directly apply these principles to the clinical setting of handling and restraint.

Our goals for this laboratory are to:

1.  Review some of the fundamental laws of behavior and their applications

2.  Provide transition skills for behavior change strategies that fit for your office, and are based in sound behavioral science

3.  Demonstrate the art and science of building behavioral momentum and/or shaping a handling/restraint experience

4.  Help maintain focus on the welfare of client, patient and practice

5.  Ethically prioritize and focus our decisions and actions, always considering most positive, least intrusive methods

Behavioral Science Pertinent To The Examination Procedures

Fundamental Laws of Behavior and Their Applications

An excellent exposure to Applied Behavior Analysis can be seen and reviewed at: and The functional definitions of reinforcement and punishment are displayed below in Table 1. Any behavior that is being increased is, by definition, being reinforced. Conversely, a behavior that is being decreased is being punished. Both of these changes in the frequency of a specific behavior can be influenced by the introduction of a stimulus, or the removal of one. Contrary to the way our minds would want to think, reinforcement is not necessarily a good thing, and punishment is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on context and details.1,2

Table 1. The basic paradigms of reinforcement and punishment


Operant response increases

Operant response decreases

Stimulus presentation

Positive reinforcement (R+)

Positive punishment (P+)

Stimulus removal

Negative reinforcement (R-)

Negative punishment (P-)

Reading from the left, if a stimulus is being presented to the animal, we are dealing with a positive. Then, evaluating the frequency or probable frequency of the behavioral consequence of this presented stimulus, we can assess if the stimulus is functioning as a positive reinforcer (R+), or a positive punisher (P+). If the behavior increases, your introduced stimulus is a reinforcer, and if the behavior decreases, your introduced stimulus is a punisher. If a stimulus is being removed from the animal, we are dealing with a negative. Based on the observed frequency or probable frequency of the behavioral consequence of this removed stimulus, we can also assess if the stimulus is functioning as a negative reinforcer (R-), or a negative punisher (P-).

Two of the most important characteristics of effectively delivered consequences are 1) contingency, i.e., the dependency or relationship between the behavior and the consequence, and 2) contiguity, i.e., the closeness or timing with which the consequence follows the behavior.1 When a consequence is delivered inconsistently, it is hard for the learner to associate the two events. If the consequence is delivered too far in time after the behavior, this lack of immediacy decreases the effectiveness of the consequence as well. Ethically, when we examine these Reinforcement and Punishment modalities as sole behavior change strategies, positive reinforcement would generally be least intrusive and more ethical, as opposed to positive punishment, which would be most intrusive and less ethical.1,3 There are specific reasons why punishment alone is not a preferred behavior-change strategy. Frequent punishment increases the probability of four side effects detrimental to the quality of life of all animals. These side effects include aggression, apathy, generalized fear, and escape/avoidance behaviors.1 Unfortunately, these side effects are commonly seen among captive parrots. These observations could lead us to consider if they could represent a failure, collectively, on our parts to train or teach with more truly effective methods. There are almost always positive reinforcement alternatives to punishment.

"Capture and Restraint" - What are these Animals Learning from Us?

Most of the major veterinary textbook references have chapters or portions describing the methods of Capture and Restraint of birds for examination and/or treatment. Some describe more forceful techniques than others, but all tend to gloss over such an important and ethical/moral issue of "best practice" for handling and restraint of companion birds. The old-school approaches to the examination, diagnosis and medical treatment of birds typically included various forms of "Capture and Restraint," implied or described methods for physically overpowering the birds, with or without chemical immobilization, and often emphasized the need for speed to get the job done. When we did not look back and critically evaluate things, and when we discount the intelligence and learning capacity of the birds, we were historically quick but incorrect to pronounce those methods effective. In reality, however, our "successes" were in fact often quite far from their ideal or intended mark. Problems associated with time and repetition using these approaches to restraint can include: increases in learned fear-eliciting stimuli, increased probability of learned aggression, increased risks to the bird and handlers when the birds are being examined, increased risk of problems during medical procedures, and increased difficulty interpreting some laboratory diagnostics, due to iatrogenic and stress-influenced changes.

These sad types of experiences occur with companion and aviary birds around the globe on a daily basis, unfortunately. In the examination rooms, most veterinarians are "trapped" in many ways. There is a finite time in which a physical examination must be performed. There will be events that must occur, which could be painful, will be frightening, and unpleasant. Many birds are physically ill, malnourished, confused, and have been sometimes preconditioned with inappropriate behaviors for this type of setting. With this in mind, our goals in this laboratory are to introduce the concept of transition skills. These are essential skills that allow us to be least invasive, less fear-evoking, and to add less to the functional working problem list for the patient and the client through learned fear or other undesired behavioral sequellae.

The ABCs of Describing Behavior

The simplest manner of describing an initial evaluation of a behavior is through the use of the ABCs of behavior.1,2 The letters stand for the three elements of a simplified behavioral "equation," which includes the Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequences. With this simple descriptive and analytic strategy, we seek to identify through careful observation the events and conditions that occur before a specific behavior - Antecedents, as well as identifying the results that follow the Behavior - Consequences. When paired with keen observation skills and creative problem-solving abilities, the ABCs will help us clarify the way in which the basic components of behavior are interrelated. It is this clarity that leads us to important insights and more effective teaching or training strategies. The ABCs can also help us identify problem situations and consequences that have a formative role in some behaviors too. There are six steps to analyzing the ABCs: (1) describe the target behavior in clear and observable terms; (2) describe the antecedent events that occur and conditions that exist immediately before the behavior happens; (3) describe the consequences that immediately follow the behavior; (4) examine the antecedents, the behavior and the consequence in sequence; (5) devise new antecedents and/or consequences to teach new behaviors or change existing ones; (6) evaluate the outcome.1,3 A careful distinction needs to be made between behaviors and constructs. In this context, a behavior describes what a bird is doing and is defined as something that can be observed and measured. Alternatively, a construct is an idea or theory about the mental processes inside an individual that explains why or how they behave as they do.1 The distinction between behaviors and constructs is part of a larger framework for understanding behavior that is relevant to a specific situation.

 When applying your ABCs, start with a description of the behavior
Example: This parrot bites.

 Then, sort out the antecedents
Example: This parrot bites when my husband approaches it while perched on my shoulder and presents his hand for it to step up onto

 Then, describe your best hypothesis as to the consequence of the bird's behavior
Example: This parrot bites when my husband approaches it while perched on my shoulder and presents his hand for it to step up onto, and he removes his hand.

This type of a description is something that you can document in your patient charts as a tangible observation, and begin to formulate some semblance of a more detailed investigation and ultimately a behavior change strategy for. Now, we have something to work with, rather than what we may have heard from this client at the onset: "My parrot hates men because it is hormonal."

Transitioning Skills For The Examination Room

Handling and Restraint

In current circles, and considering the depth of our scientific understanding of behavior, it is becoming increasingly known that many medical procedures can be performed with less restraint, can result in less of an undesired and negative learning experience by the birds, can result in less risk to bird and handler, and can result in less respondent conditioning of fear-eliciting stimuli. These points should be in mind and augmented with sound behavioral science when handling and restraining most companion parrots.

Getting the Bird Out of the Carrier or Cage

Set the stage for success. Environmental stimuli should be carefully controlled to minimize the generation of fear. This may include a reduction in the activity around the carrier and bird, and careful consideration about the placement of the carrier on the floor, table or elsewhere. Additional noise and sound should be minimized. An exam room with no windows is generally most desirable. Carefully reading and interpreting the bird's behaviors in the cage, fear-eliciting stimuli should be identified and minimized. The handler should be fully prepared: an appropriate perch should be available to determine what stimuli the bird "likes" and responds favorably to; this may include some form of savory food item, social communicative signals or displays, or allopreening activity. Systematically, take a brief period of time to sort through all of the potential sensory portals for stimuli to help recognize fear-evoking stimuli, as well as favorable stimuli to the bird. Work to see if the bird will be willing to come out of the carrier on its own, and to perch comfortably on the training perch.

Should the bird be unwilling to come voluntarily out of the carrier, you may need to progressively introduce your hand (with or without towel covering it), and to force the step up to your hand to enable you to move the bird out of the carrier and onto a training perch. In some circumstances, it may be more appropriate for an individual bird to be held with your thumb pressing its digit or foot, and to not release it to the training perch. It should be generally very infrequent that the initial and first contact with a companion parrot would be a rapid covering with a towel and physical restraint of the body and/or head. Overall, try to seek cooperation and acceptance from the bird, not domination. These goals should lead to the least intrusive, but most ethical methods of handling and restraint. Concurrently, it is important to be timely and efficient - there is a job to do in a finite timeline

Shaping a Restraint Experience

Using a series of approximations, a restraint experience can be shaped relatively quickly. This requires quick "reads" on the bird's responses, and adjustments to technique. Should the ultimate goal be to have the bird comfortably restrained without struggling in a towel, and the closest starting point you have available is the bird mildly apprehensively perched on a training perch, a series of approximations may shape up something like this:

1.  Bird is slowly approached with your hand covered by the towel.

2.  Bird steps up to the towel.

3.  Bird is allowed to step back to training perch.

4.  Bird is stepped up to the towel again and the P2 and P3 of one foot gently held with your thumb through the towel.

5.  Bird's digits are released from your thumb's grasp.

6.  Bird's digits are lightly held again and bird is moved into your chest slowly and gently. If fear or apprehension is noted, bird is returned to the point where comfort is again recognized.

7.  Bird is moved slowly into your chest with toes held and towel is brought up over. If fear or apprehension is noted, bird is returned to the point where comfort is again recognized.

8.  Towel is again brought up and allowed to drape over bird's back and/or head. If fear or apprehension is noted, bird is returned to the point where comfort is again recognized.

9.  Towel is again brought up and draped over bird, and hand touches and applies light pressure over back and cervical area. If fear or apprehension is noted, bird is returned to the point where comfort is again recognized.

10.  Hand is lightly applied over back of bird, bunching towel up towards the head, and pressure applied to the lateral aspects of the trunk.

11.  Bird is gently rolled over to its back and allowed to rest with head unrestrained in towel on your lap. If fear or apprehension is noted, bird is returned to the point where comfort is again recognized.

12.  Bird's head is held indirectly with the rolled edges of the towel bunched about the head, while a progressive physical examination is performed.

13.  Bird's head is gently restrained with one hand through the towel to allow an examination of the head and neck if needed, and then bird is returned to a resting position on back in towel on your lap.

14.  Bird's head is gently restrained with the rolled edges of the towel, rolled to expose its right jugular vein and one hand is moved underneath the towel to restrain the head and neck more firmly for venipuncture. Immediately afterwards, bird is returned to a resting position on its back in the towel on your lap.

15.  Bird is stepped up to your hand out of the towel and returned to its perch while blood samples are being processed.

16.  Bird is again stepped to your hand and allowed to rest on your lap or hand while more communication with client occurs and some form of desirable stimulus is delivered.

This technique that is loosely outlined above should take only minutes with most companion parrots to complete. With others, however, some of these individual steps may need to be modified, broken down and adjusted to best meet the needs of the bird and the situation. This specific technique of shaping a restraint experience using the toweled hand to step to is commonly referred to by our nursing staff as the "potholder technique." Other techniques that you will see demonstrated and have a chance to apply that we commonly use are the "Butler technique," the "Yoda technique," and the "Lap dance." Although handling is indeed different from restraint, a mixture of both philosophies, properly balanced, should best serve the patient in most circumstances.


1.  Friedman SG, Edling TM, Cheney CD. Concepts in behavior: section I, The natural science of behavior. In: Harrison G, Lightfoot T. Clinical Avian Medicine. Palm Beach, FL: Spix Publishing Inc;2006;Volume1:46–59.

2.  Martin S. The anatomy of parrot behavior. Proc Assoc Avian Vet, Behavior by Popular Demand. 2002:3–16.

3.  O'Neill RE, Horner RH, Albin RW, et al. Functional Assessment and Program Development for Problem Behavior: A Practical Handbook. 2nd ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole; 1997.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Brian L. Speer, DVM, DABVP(Avian), DECZM(Avian)
The Medical Center for Birds
Oakley, CA

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