Living and Learning with Ozzie: From “Unpredictable” Biter to Accomplished Painter

Written by Patricia K. Anderson, PhD

Introduction: A rocky start in 2010

Shortly before I became a student of applied behavior analysis, a new parrot came to live with Steve and me. Ozzie, an adult female green Quaker parrot (hatch date April 11, 2004) was relinquished to the Quaker Parakeet Society Rescue and Rehome program by a family who was moving out of the country. It was stated on the relinquishment form that Ozzie had been in several foster homes before moving to a QPS foster, and eventually to me in August of 2010.

I faced a number of behavior challenges in working with Ozzie. She seemed to be reactive around me and other women with blonde hair. I might label this “fear aggression,” in retrospect, but at that time I did not have any training in applied behavior analysis. I could also now speculate that perhaps she was frightened when a blonde woman or women happened to be with her and she developed a generalized fear response as a consequence, one of the potential side effects of punishment. However, this is speculation, and is not really helpful (except perhaps to ease my bruised ego) because it doesn’t provide a solution for moving beyond the aggression.

Ozzie often bit me, seemingly unpredictably. Every time she bit me, often drawing blood, I was convinced that she “hated” me. One time, an attack was so severe that it left us both traumatized. I was walking near Ozzie and she flew off her cage, landed on my shoulder and began to bite my neck, breaking the skin and causing blood to drip down my shoulder. I pushed her off my shoulder with a pillow to try to stop the attack. To this day, Ozzie remains reluctant to fly as a consequence of this aversive event. I hope that as her confidence and trust continue to build she will resume flying. The standard advice given in many popular pet parrot publications is to trim the wings of a biting parrot to “adjust its attitude.” I, however, refused to punish Ozzie this way.

I didn’t confide in any of my bird-owning friends at the time, because I was upset by Ozzie’s behavior and ashamed by my apparent failure to bond with her. I was actually afraid of her, and thought that perhaps I should relinquish her to a “better” home because she was obviously so “unhappy” with me.

I began avoiding Ozzie and left her care to my husband, who had a good relationship with her. Nearly every time I tried to handle her, she bit me, but she seldom bit him.  Without a basis in behavior science it is very easy to anthropomorphize and end up letting your imagination run wild and the labels flow freely.

Fortunately, less than a month after Ozzie arrived I began Dr. Susan G. Friedman’s mind-blowing eight-week online course, Living and Learning with Animals, a pivotal experience that changed my life profoundly. Animals can voluntarily participate in their own husbandry and care if we ask them? Holy cow!

However, while I was taking the course, I told Steve that Ozzie was “his” bird and they seemed to get along very well. One day Steve told me that I needed to spend more time with “my” bird, and that he was no longer going to care for Ozzie beyond the basics when I was away. I was initially upset by his decision, but ultimately he did both Ozzie and me a great favor.

It was time for me to tackle my own fears and insecurities, drop the labels and other misconceptions, and learn how to live with Ozzie successfully.

Ozzie completing a puzzle

Ozzie completing a puzzle

Mentors from Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals course were a great source of advice and support in beginning the process of working with Ozzie. They encouraged me to begin to develop a relationship with Ozzie based in trust. Every time she acted calm around me, I offered her a reinforcer.

Then I began to shape basic behaviors such as target training, which led to many others, including scale training, crate training, spinning (turning in a circle), wing stretch, backing, stacking cups, and other puzzles. I was surprised when Ozzie quickly mastered two medium-sized puzzle toys that I’d purchased for my Pionus parrots. Later we began to work on more complex behaviors such as color discrimination. Ozzie was an apt pupil (and continues to be so today). However, she would still bite me at times.

A solution through functional analysis

A functional assessment is “a set of procedures used to identify the functionally related environmental conditions that maintain problem behaviors.”

The product of a good functional assessment is a summary statement that identifies the environmental conditions under which the behavior may take place. The problem behavior must be described in a clear way that is based on observation. One must also identify the environmental conditions, general and immediate, that predict the behavior, as well as the purpose the behavior serves the animal.

Dr. Friedman describes the six steps to analyzing the ABCs of behavior:

  1. Describe the target behavior in clear, observable terms.
  2. Describe the antecedent events that occur and conditions that occur 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.

Instead of throwing up my hands and accepting that this bird “hates” me, I began to think hard about each of the times that she had bitten me. I gradually realized that Ozzie’s biting was not random at all. She was biting me after each time that she was accidentally frightened when I was present and she could reach me. She was redirecting her fear and aggression response to these aversive events to me.

For example, one day when Ozzie was out of her cage, I moved a T-stand perch without considering how Ozzie might react and she startled to the floor. She ran to me and as soon as I put my hand down, she bit me.  During another episode, my two other Quakers pushed Ozzie off a play gym to the floor. I entered the room and she ran to me and began biting my feet. She also bit my hand when I tried to pick her up.

So, now we had an antecedent condition under which Ozzie might bite: When Ozzie is frightened she will likely bite if she has access to some part of me.

  1. I put my hand down to help Ozzie up after she has startled to the floor.
  2. Ozzie bites my hand.
  3. I withdraw my hand.

I could do two things. First, try to never let the antecedent events occur again that would frighten Ozzie, but life is unpredictable and there are things beyond our control, like tornado sirens, lightening and thunder, or the neighbors’ firecrackers.

I do have control, however, over my response to Ozzie when she is frightened, and could arrange the antecedent environment to facilitate desired behaviors. Obviously Ozzie would need access to bite me. Since I had already trained Ozzie to voluntarily enter her travel carrier, the next time she ended up on the floor I set the carrier down and calmly directed her inside. Then I placed the carrier near her training table and directed her out without being bitten. Success!

That worked well for the floor, but what if she was not on the floor and got frightened? I remained calm and redirected her to a behavior that she knew well and enjoyed doing, such as backing or spinning, and amply reinforced her. Yay! Ozzie had another opportunity for reinforcement and I avoided the bite!

A history of positive reinforcement has tremendously changed our relationship and Ozzie very rarely bites me now. One day Ozzie was so enthusiastic that she accidentally slipped and fell off her training table into my bare hands while executing one of her behaviors. We looked at each other in apparent surprise and I gently put her back on the table. I was astonished that she didn’t bite me under a condition that was obviously scary to her. This was a very emotional moment for me; Ozzie and I have come so far!

Teaching Ozzie to paint

Ozzie and I now have a fairly solid relationship based on years of trust and positive reinforcement. She is a great teacher. She has learned many new behaviors and is a quick pupil, challenging me to keep looking for other ways to teach her and keep her stimulated and excited about learning.

One day I saw IAABC Parrot Division Chairperson Stephanie Edlund’s wonderful training video of her grey parrot, Echo, painting and was inspired to try to teach this behavior to Ozzie.

  1. Set your learner up for success!
Ozzie's painting props

Ozzie’s painting props

The first step was to consider what materials would be needed. I purchased some small watercolor brushes and then cut them to a shorter length to make them lighter and easier for Ozzie to manipulate. I also purchased some nontoxic children’s finger paints and some small canvases and a small easel (Figure 2.).

  1. Consider how novel objects may affect your learner and how you might desensitize them.

I had to consider whether Ozzie would be frightened by the novel objects (paint brush and canvas), so I began by introducing first the brush by putting it on her training table and luring Ozzie to approach the brush by placing small pieces of almond (a favored food reinforcer) near the brush. I desensitized Ozzie to the canvas through a similar process. Ozzie was soon confidently approaching either item. This took an additional two brief sessions of three to five minutes each.

  1. Consider what the final behavior will look like and what behaviors your learner already knows that you can build on to shape the new behavior.

Ozzie already knew how to pick up many objects, so it only took one or two brief sessions before she began to confidently pick up the brush. At first she wanted to give it to me, so I had to shape the behavior of her retaining the brush for a greater duration and then using it to target (touch) the surface of the canvas. I reinforced her for keeping the brush and began pointing a finger to a canvas, which I held toward her. She quickly began targeting the brush toward the canvas, not hitting it straight on yet, but sometimes grazing it and sometimes hitting my hand. I marked and reinforced each time, and gradually shaped the behavior of her touching the canvas more accurately.

Once Ozzie was regularly touching the canvas with the brush, I introduced paint. I put some finger paints on a palette, put a loaded brush on the table, and reinforced her picking it up and targeting it to the canvas. I marked and reinforced her for touching the canvas once with the loaded brush, but she soon built up her own momentum of targeting it two, three, or even five times before pausing for reinforcement! I had to be careful to position the handle of the brush so that she didn’t accidentally pick up the end loaded with paint. Now I point toward the handle if she begins to pick up the brush end and she usually corrects herself. If she doesn’t I quickly drop a piece of nut away from the brush to distract her so that I can reposition it. Although, the paints are labeled non-toxic for humans, I don’t want her accidentally ingesting any. I am also careful to wipe up any paint on the training table so that she doesn’t get it on her feet.

Sessions are kept short (two to three minutes), and stop when Ozzie indicates she is done. I usually train with Ozzie on a mobile training table that I move next to her cage door, so she can choose whether or not to interact, and to leave when she wishes. To signal the end of the session Ozzie will leave by climbing up her cage door to her favorite perch. I ask her if that is a final decision by cueing her to perform one of her favorite behaviors, and if she refuses to return, I reinforce her for the information. Or if is she decides to perform that behavior, of course I reinforce that too, and we continue until she decides it is time to quit by returning to the cage door perch. Participation in training is always Ozzie’s choice.

We don’t paint every training session because I like to give Ozzie a variety of different behaviors to engage in so that she doesn’t get bored. So far Ozzie has completed five paintings.

Last thoughts

Many people ask if Ozzie is allowed to choose her colors and if I think that she understands the concept of art.

Ozzie’s paintings

Ozzie’s paintings

I choose the colors, because so far I have not shaped the behavior of her picking up the brush and putting it on the palette to pick up paint. I thought it would be confusing while she is learning to paint. However, that is something I may work on in the future.

No, I don’t think Ozzie has a concept of art, but I do think she enjoys the activity of painting, based on her eagerness to continue and to develop momentum with her brush strokes. I would be anthropomorphizing to assume that Ozzie has a concept of art, because I cannot interview her to ask her about a highly abstract concept that even humans find subjective and complex. I can only watch her behavior and see what is reinforcing to her. As long as Ozzie chooses to paint, I will encourage her to paint. But it will always be her choice.

Ozzie and I have come a long way from those early days in our relationship, and she is now a cherished member of our flock. I am excited to continue to learn how to teach her new behaviors to enrich her life and those of my other parrots, and to make life in captivity more enjoyable and less stressful.


Patricia K. Anderson, PhD, is an associate professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University where she teaches anthropology, archaeology, and anthrozoology. Her research interests include ancient Maya civilization, the prehistory of North America, the human-avian bond, and bird behavior and modification using applied behavior analysis.