Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is What You Heard True?

It was recently brought to my attention, that a few people had some misconceptions about my work and my objectives in the animal world.  I realized that those who made the statements are likely not very familiar with what I do or teach.  I thought I would take this opportunity to help clarify my position for those people, and any others on the items that were mentioned, as I am happy to address such concerns.

Misconception #1: What Barbara Teaches Doesn’t Work in “Real Life”

This statement caused me to think that perhaps I should explain how I came to work with the companion parrot community. I learned about force free training techniques doing free flight bird shows in zoological parks over 24 years ago now. I also have lived with large and small parrots for almost 30 years now. My inspiration to work with companion parrots came from seeing how what I learned in zoos helped teach any bird I was working with to be well behaved, compliant and a joy to be around, including my own pets. People would chat with me after shows and share the problems they were having with their parrots. I realized the information we were using in zoos was not out there for pet owners. I wrote my first book solely as a way to give people a comprehensive resource to help them with their parrot behavior problems. I had no intentions of turning it into a business. I had a job as a zoo animal trainer already and considered myself primarily a zoo professional.

But things snowballed. People kept asking for more and more help and more resources. I started teaching workshops and making DVDs so that I could help as many people and parrots as I could. I practiced force free training with parrots at rescues, sanctuaries, zoos, veterinary teaching hospitals, etc. Almost every parrot that came to a workshop had behavior problems. And I would demonstrate how to use force free training to address those problems in front of the audience. (I can’t even count the number of birds that feared hands or showed aggressive behavior towards hands that learned to eagerly step up during workshops!) I have now personally worked hands-on with 1000’s of parrots using force free training technology to solve behavior problems and gain compliance. Not only do I have my own experiences that show the information works, but I get countless emails from parrot owners thanking me for providing resources that helped them finally connect with their parrot. (I actually have several of those emails in my inbox now.) Real life successes have been a strong part of my motivation to keep sharing. Knowing birds are being helped by the information has been a very strong reinforcer for me. There is no point to this work for me if it isn’t helping animals. Thankfully the evidence shows that it does.

Misconception #2: Barbara Won’t Help Me!
I certainly understand and appreciate that sometimes applying the information may require more guidance. Getting direct feedback on application can make a big difference in a person’s success with a bird. This is exactly the kind of work I do in my zoo consultations. However at the moment I don’t offer private consultations to the companion parrot community. Let me explain why. As one can imagine I do get thousands of emails asking for advice. They often start with “I have a quick question…” but the answer is not a quick answer if real help is going to be provided. It is a tall order to meet those demands. Many don’t know this, but my company is just me. I am the only employee. So I don’t have staff to answer all those emails.  Most of the time, I am on the road teaching workshops or working with zoos. When on the road, time for emails is very limited due to my obligations to those who have hired me to be there, but I do want those who email to get the help they need.

To address this conundrum, several years ago I prepared a page of frequently asked questions about parrot behavior problems.  Each question has a brief answer but also a reference to a more comprehensive resource. This may be a free video or article but yes it may also be a product I have created specifically to help with that issue. I dedicated a lot of time, thought, and money to create comprehensive resources to help people. I am proud of these tools and by all means know they have the power to help people.  It makes sense that I would want to refer people to them. They are the tool they need! I also know these resources are backed by my many years of experience and study. I really have dedicated my life to this…..just ask my friends back home who would like to see me once in a while or talk about something other than animal training.

Some have expressed concern over the fact that not all of my services, information or products are provided for free, but I believe it is appropriate to expect professionals to earn a living by sharing their expertise. Whether one is a plumber, tax consultant, teacher, lawyer, musician, artist or doctor; we expect to pay for their services/products/skills. And I think people in animal related professions also deserve the same respect for their professional contribution. So while I do offer tons of free videos, free articles, an extensive free blog with lots of information, I do also believe I should be permitted to make a living from my expertise and life’s work just as any other person in this world.

The products and services I offer are limited to DVDS, live workshops, ebooks, webinars and books. As mentioned I don’t offer private consultations (email, phone or in person) to the companion parrot community at this point in time. I have made the decision that for me, spending the time to make a comprehensive resource that can help thousands is a better contribution than meeting with one person at a time. Knowing this, I have provided a list of consultants whose work I know very well on my FAQ page. I always include this in the response people get when they ask for behavior problem help.  So when asking for help people get a combo of free resources, references to comprehensive products that address their questions, and recommended behavioral consultants. They are not left without help, but they are not given a free private email consultation either, as that is not a service I offer.

Misconception #3: Barbara Says you Need to Starve Birds!
This was quite interesting to hear as in the professional community I am currently regarded as one of the biggest advocates for moving away from practices that cause animals to be overly concerned about food and have taken quite a bit of flak from some other professionals for taking that position. The ethics of creating motivation for getting behavior is of special interest to me and one that I have researched greatly. I am actually co-hosting a symposium in Sweden to help people understand how to create motivation in a responsible, welfare conscientious way for many species of animals. It is a very deep, complex topic and there is much to discuss. I realize the companion parrot community may not have knowledge of this personal mission of mine as it has been targeted to professional trainers. But even so, my materials I have put out on parrot training certainly reflect this position. In a nutshell what I teach for the parrot community is primarily to save treats for training and leave the less interesting parts of the diet in the bowl. I am also a big advocate of using many types of nonfood reinforcers and have an entire section of my workshop devoted to this. Compromising a bird to get a response to food is definitely not something I teach. And my DVDs and written materials do reflect this.  Here are a few of my free resources that have been on the internet for years that explain a bit more.
The Parrot Training Diet?
Tips to Motivate Your Parrot
Expanding Your List of Reinforcers
Training Your Parrot with Toys

Misconception #4: Barbara Thinks “Her” Way is the Only Way
The information I teach is based in the science of behavior analysis. A science with a lot of excellent data that demonstrates force free approaches are the way to go.  So while some people refer to “Barbara’s techniques” you will find that I actually tend to refer to the science. I see this information as something that is available to everyone, not “my” special method. What I do well is act as a good facilitator for helping people understand how to use that science to influence animal behavior focusing on the principles that are kind, gentle and have been proven to be successful, while maintaining a great relationship with the animal. When people refer to “other methods” it puzzles me, as there is no method that falls outside of the science of behavior analysis. The science helps us identify what principles are being used to influence behavior in whatever “technique” someone is using. Some principles have been shown by research to have detrimental effects on animals, and others produce cooperative animals that enjoy our company and participating.  When I do speak out about a technique it is usually because it falls into the detrimental category. This is because I believe my role is to help animals by sharing my knowledge about the drawbacks of these methods and help people learn they have kinder alternatives. I also openly support other professionals with whom I have had first-hand experience and who demonstrate integrity, are ethical in their business practices and teach a force free approach based in the science of behavior analysis. There is a growing community of force free trainers and I am proud to be one of many out there using science based training technology to do good things for animals.

I hope this answers a few questions that were brought to my attention. I understand that in this age of social media communication it is easy for misunderstandings to occur. Have you heard something that needs clarification? Don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks in advance for your critical thinking, open and honest communication, and inquisitive mind.

Copyright 2014 Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides pet training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Connecting with a New Parrot

I spend a great deal of time on the road teaching parrot training workshops, meeting new parrots, making a connection with them, and then training behaviors such as step up, take medication from a syringe, interact with towels and so on. Sometimes because I spend so much time talking about and studying these topics I assume many others are familiar with this information as well.

However it became clear this is not the case when reading a thread on a chat group.  A woman had inherited a macaw and was very unsure about how to interact with her new charge and was most troubled by how to train the parrot to step up.

Here are some of the misguided tips she received from well-meaning members of the group:

  • Make him step up by using a stick
  • Expect to get bit
  • If he bites, ignore it and just take the bite, so he learns not to bite
  • Just sit by the cage and talk to him softly
  • He will grow out of the biting
  • Don’t show fear
  • Just put your finger near him and talk to him like he is human
  • Keep him below eye level
  • Just be patient and love him
  • Sing songs to him
  • Parrots are just bad pets and shouldn’t be in our homes
I think it is wonderful that people want to help and are willing to share information. However the tips listed here are not what this bird or woman needs. And it saddens me that the information that will truly help this person is not reaching enough people.

Here is what will make a difference…straight forward force free training with positive reinforcement. This means identifying something this bird finds of value. Singing and talking to the bird may be of value to some birds, but not all and in reality is usually not the most powerful reinforcer for a bird that has no relationship with the human in question. Fortunately it was mentioned the bird like walnuts. Awesome! Now there is a treat she can use to get started pairing something good with her presence. The nuts can be broken up into small pieces to offer lots of teaching moments throughout the day.

The next step is to identify steps or approximations she can use to train the bird to step up. These are outlined in great detail in my DVD Parrot Behavior and Training, my eBook Train Your Parrot to Step Up and you can see examples on my YouTube page. Each step or approximation is reinforced with the pieces of walnut.

While going at the birds pace is important, it does not necessarily mean you have to wait weeks or years to train this behavior. It literally usually only takes one to two training sessions for me to train this behavior. It is one I repeat over and over again with new birds I have just met at parrot training workshops. There are always birds present at these workshops that show fear responses or aggressive behavior towards hands. This is the result of hands being used in coercive ways. It is not inherent to parrots. It is the result of learning and can be changed with force free approaches. Biting never had to be in these birds’ repertoire and nor does it need to be in the future. “Taking the bite” is not the way to go. Teaching the bird you will respect his or her body language and not push her to the point of biting will make biting irrelevant and not necessary. The result will be a much more trusting relationship between human and bird.

Biting is not a phase to grow out of, nor is it solved by keeping birds low. It is also not the result of parrots being bad pets; it is the result of how people interact with parrots in coercive ways.  A pleasant bite free relationship with parrots it completely possible when you use a force free training strategy.  I hope by sharing this information here, we can get more people talking about kind, gentle and most importantly, effective ways of building trust with companion parrots.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

5 Myths about Parrot Behavior

When you are learning about parrots, it is often quite natural to turn to the internet for information. Chat groups in particular often have people who are very happy to talk about parrots and offer advice.  Sometimes the advice can be based on old information or even old wives tales. Try to be a critical thinker when obtaining advice from the internet. Check with experts you trust to make sure what you are reading is accurate. Here are a few myths that I often see pop up on the internet frequently.

Myth #1: Your parrot needs to obey you.
This concept has been around for a long time. While it is understandable we would all like a well behaved parrot that does what we ask, the word “obey” seems to imply something a bit more forceful. Most people tend to interpret this to mean that they must make the bird comply, especially when he or she is refusing to cooperate. This often leads to people doing things like forcing birds to step up onto hands or go back into cages. Over time what can happen is the bird learns to be afraid of people or may start to show aggressive behavior. The good news is you can train your parrot using positive reinforcement to do whatever you ask when you want. This approach leads to a bird that eagerly cooperates and is very well-behaved. You don’t have to be his boss, you can be his buddy.

Myth #2: Your parrot thinks he is dominant if he is higher than your shoulder.
This idea probably started because someone could not get a bird to step up or cooperate when the parrot was sitting up on a high perch. Believe or not Myth #1 probably helped cause Myth #2. Parrots like sitting on high perches. If you try to force them down, they often move away or try to bite. This may seem like the bird thinks he is dominant, but in reality he just likes his high perch much better than he likes the hand that is coming at him in a forceful way. If your bird is trained to voluntarily come to your hand for a treat or reward he will step up or fly right down to your hand even when he is on a high perch. That is because he learned many wonderful things happen, like treats, toys and attention when he gets on a hand.

Myth #3: Parrots are competing with you when you talk on the phone or have company over.
Many people know that parrots tend to scream for attention when left alone. But what about the bird that screams when you are on the phone or have friends over? I have heard many people say the bird is seeking attention or competing with the owner when this happens. What happens next? People talk louder….and the bird gets louder! What is actually going on is that the bird is being a good flock mate. The loud talking humans means it is time for the flock to make some noise and the parrot is just joining in on the fun. That is why when people get louder, the bird gets louder. Once everyone gets quiet the bird will too.  If you need your parrot to be quiet when people are talking you can offer him a super fun toy right before you intend to have a conversation or spend time training him that quiet activities will get reinforced when people are talking.

Myth #4: A parrot behavior problem is just a phase.
Many people have young parrots that are cuddly and easy to handle. Then around 1 to 2 years old the birds starts to show aggressive behavior. People often label this time as the terrible twos and hope the bird will just grow out of it. Unfortunately that is not the case. Young birds are easy to handle because they are in a phase of development that makes them open and receptive to new experiences. We can often get away with being forceful with young birds. But as they mature and that window of openness goes away and they start objecting to the same type of handling they would allow as youngsters. The best strategy is to never use force to begin with. Even if a parrot will allow it, it doesn’t mean you should. Always let your bird choose to participate and reward with desired goodies when he does. This should be carried on throughout the lifetime of the bird. Do this and you will have good behavior from your parrot for his entire life.

Myth #5: You just have to accept that parrots will be “hormonal” certain times of the year.
Hormonal typically means the parrot is in the mood to breed and have babies. This state means the bird has extra reproductive hormones in its body. Besides wanting to make babies this can cause other problems like aggressive behavior, or egg binding. Unless your want your bird to breed, your parrot does not need to be “hormonal.” Most parrots are not ready to breed all year long. Certain environmental triggers cause them to produce more reproductive hormones. These include extra daylight hours, an over abundant diet rich in fats, sugars and carbohydrates, having  a mate like bond with another bird or human, and having access to a nest like cavity. So to avoid an increase in reproductive hormones we can make sure the amount of daylight the bird experiences stays the same throughout the year. We can also monitor the diet and make sure the content and amount is appropriate. We can avoid reinforcing courtship behaviors like regurgitation. Instead we can interact with our parrots in healthier ways, like training fun tricks. And we can take out any toys that look like nest boxes and also block off access to any similar hiding places in the house. These tips will help prevent your bird from going “hormonal.”

These are just a few myths about parrots. If you ever read something about parrots that sounds a bit strange to you, do a little extra research and you’ll discover the truth about our feathered friends.

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Good Bird Inc ( provides parrot training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Monday, August 18, 2014

3 Common Training Mistakes People Make that Cause Behavior Problems

Many people have learned a lot about training. However sometimes it can be hard to apply the information in real life. In this article I will share three common mistakes people make when trying to teach their parrot or other pet to be well behaved.

Mistake #1: Forgetting to reinforce good behavior

It is very easy to fall into the habit of forgetting to tell your parrot, other pet, even your friends and family when they have done something right, especially after they have learned the desired behavior. We usually just expect good behavior to happen and stay that way forever. But the truth is we have to reinforce that good behavior if we want it to keep happening. So when you parrot steps up onto your hand, goes back in his cage, steps off your shoulder and so on, you should always offer him something he likes for being such a good parrot and cooperating.  Many people think saying “good boy” is enough. But for some animals the words aren’t really that meaningful to them. You want to make sure whatever you use to reward your pet is something you know he really loves. This will help guarantee your animal will continue to do things when you ask.

Mistake #2: Repeating the cue over and over
I always cringe a little when I hear someone repeating a cue over and over to an animal. The next thing that happens is the cue gets louder! Repeating the cue is a big red flag that the training process needs some attention. That is why my gut reaction is so strong. There is a big problem going on, but fortunately it is easily fixed. When the cue is presented over and over the animal can learn to respond whenever he feels like it. He can also learn the cue is actually “step up, step up, step up” or “sit, sit, sit, sit” instead of just “step up” or “sit.” The key to fixing this is to go back in your training process a little bit. For example if I am training a parrot to fly to me, I may keep the distance short instead of asking for a big flight. I then wait for the bird to look like he is 99.9% ready to fly to me.  Then I offer my cue. By doing this I will get a quick response to my cue that I will present one time. When the parrot responds, I will offer lots of goodies. Overtime I will gradually add more distance and difficulty. But my first goal is to teach the animal to respond right away to the cue presented one time.  If you ever find yourself repeating the cue a lot, stop and do a little retraining to get things back on track.

Mistake #3: Accidentally reinforcing bad behavior
The most common example of this with parrots is screaming for attention. Most people don’t like it when a parrot vocalizes for our attention. We usually respond with “Be quiet!” or running into the room to shut the door or cover the cage. We think these actions will cause the parrot to see that we are upset and stop the screaming. But instead the parrot learns screaming gets us to call back or come running into the room. In other words screaming results in exactly what the parrot wants. Therefore he will use screaming more often to get attention. Another example is when a dog jumps up on people. Usually people try to push the dog down, or give in and pet the dog while he is jumping up. Both of these actions teach the dog jumping up on people results in desired attention. In both examples it is better to teach the parrot and the dog that a different acceptable behavior will work to get attention. For the parrot it could be talking or singing. For the dog, it could be four paws on the floor or sitting. Once your pet starts getting reinforced for the correct behavior and no longer is rewarded for the bad behavior, you will go back to having a well behaved pet.

Now it is your turn. Try to get in the habit of reinforcing your pet for good behaviors, avoiding reinforcing behaviors you don’t want, and paying attention to how many times you cue for a behavior. Your good training will result in good behavior from your parrot and other pets.

Copyright 2014 Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides pet training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tips to Make Veterinary Visits Stress Free for your Parrot

Many of our pets don’t  like going to the veterinary hospital. And it is difficult for us to see our companion animals upset. The good news is that training can really make a difference.

When it comes to companion parrots there are very few behaviors they need to know that can really make a difference in veterinary care. Probably the most important behavior to train is being comfortable with restraint in a towel. Most parrots do not like being captured or restrained against their will. By training this behavior with positive reinforcement you can significantly reduce or eliminate stress when visiting the veterinarian. There are many different ways to train this behavior and you can see some examples in my DVD Training Your Parrot for the Veterinary Exam.

Another behavior that is very helpful is to train your parrot to stand comfortably on a scale. This is something that you can easily train at home. If you are very good about regularly weighing your parrots and keeping a record of this information there is a good chance your bird won't even need to be weighed at the veterinary clinic. You can weigh your bird before you go. This information is very helpful to your veterinarian. You can find a scale to weigh your parrots at stores that sell mailing supplies, scales for weighing food and avian specialty stores. Check out my parrots getting weighed in the video clip below.

It's also good idea to train your parrot to be comfortable loading into some sort of transport cage or container. If your bird is not comfortable with this, just getting to the veterinarian could be quite difficult and stress inducing. I prefer to use a wire collapsible dog crate that has two doors for my larger birds. It is pretty easy to train parrots to load into this type of transport cage. Be sure to include practicing driving your bird around in your car. This part needs to be trained too. Be aware that some parrots will get motion sickness. A sure sign of this is when your parrot starts to regurgitate when the car is moving.  For birds that tend to get motion sickness, avoid giving a big meal before going in the car. You can also put the crate in the front seat so your parrot can see where you are going to help prevent feeling sick. Take turns slowly and keep your trips short if you can.

When it's time to go to the vet, be sure to bring along favorite treats and toys. Familiar items from home that are associated with good things can help your parrot be more comfortable. I actually bring my scale from home because my birds know it is associated with good things. Standing on it and getting treats helps them relax quicker. My macaw Blu Lu enjoys playing with toys at the veterinary hospital in the clip below.

Another important behavior to train is teaching your bird to accept fluids from a syringe. This is in case your bird ever gets sick and needs medication. If your bird already knows how to take many different types of fluids from a syringe then it will be no big deal when he needs to take medication. The alternative is to have to restrain him every day to squirt the medication in his mouth. Most parrots don't like this, and if you have to do it, the procedure could damage the relationship you have with your parrot. You can learn more about training this behavior from my e-book Train Your Parrot to Accept Medication. You can get the e-book for free by going to this link Go through the steps like you're going to buy the book. Enter the code PARROTRX in the special code box and hit apply. This will bring the cost down to zero and you will get the e-book for free.

Your parrot will live a long time. Training these four simple behaviors can be done quite quickly and will make a big difference in how your parrot experiences a visit to the veterinarian. I hope you will give them a try with your parrot.

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Good Bird Inc ( provides parrot training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Powerful Parrot Training - The Impact of Early Learning Experiences on Kakapo

Feeding berries to kakapo chicks
Our last night of kakapo training was quite exciting. A three year old bird who had been hand raised several years ago had discovered a way to enter the large enclosure where the chicks are housed as they prepare for release into the wild. We think she was attracted by the chicks and food. This wild older bird generally does what the other kakapo do and is rarely seen unless sought out by rangers for a health check.

As the three chicks were being fed, she actually tentatively approached and accepted a few food items tossed on the ground near her. She also stepped onto the perch used to weigh the chicks when prompted. This would have been the same perch used to weigh her when she was a chick. This three year old bird who gets very little interaction with people was actually an important indicator of what is possible with the hand raised chicks and their behavioral management once released into the wild.
Heather 1

This bird demonstrated that the pleasant experiences associated with hand rearing can have an impact that can help with future care of wild birds. By targeting the specific behaviors we want the birds to do and actively training them during hand rearing, there is a very good chance they will present those behaviors when needed in the field, yet still remain very much a wild kakapo. At this stage the chicks have learned a number of important behaviors for their health care and for making it easier to check on them when roaming in the wild. Now it is just a matter of maintaining them as they transition to the wild.

Needless to say all three kakapo chicks Lisa 1 (from the taped egg), Rakiura 2 and Heather 1 were wonderful students. They were always eager to participate. Each has their own personality. Little Heather1 is bold, always moving and almost always the first one to realize someone is in the pen. Check out this clip of Heather 1 and Rakiura 2 in a tree at sundown.

Lisa 1 is more laid back in general. He is the oldest of the three chicks. He and Heather1 have been very quick to learn behaviors that require them to think a bit about what actions they are doing that earn them desired consequences.

Lisa 1 during a training session
Rakiura 2 is an equally good student but excels mostly at things that require manipulating his body. He was a superstar when it came to allowing us to put on his transmitter without any restraint at all. He sat calmly through the entire 11 minute procedure. He also seems to benefit from watching Lisa 1 for behaviors in which he has to do something to earn the reinforcer.  

Time for me to leave the island now (via helicopter!) and training will be up to the rangers to maintain. Fortunately the chicks still have a few more weeks to go in their pre-release pen. There will be many more opportunities to fine tune behaviors, increase the difficulty of recalls, and practice what they now know. Building this reinforcement history will make it more likely the birds will present desired behaviors in the future. Once released, the chicks will be checked frequently which also gives staff
Rakiura 2 after eating red berries
members more opportunities for training sessions and reinforcement of desired behaviors. As the chicks mature, they will be checked less frequently. This will be the when we find out if the training has paid off as we hope. Maintenance of some of these behaviors may mean very infrequent reinforcement opportunities. However as our three year old visitor last night demonstrated, this may not be a problem at all. I will be looking forward to reports from the rangers on how the birds transition to the wild and how well they maintain the behaviors they have learned. There will be much more to learn and discover as we implement this plan in the next few years to come. Stay tuned for future updates! Learn more about the Kakapo Recovery Program here.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Train Kakapo?

Conservation projects are all about saving wild birds, the emphasis of course being on the word “wild.” Training tends to conjure up images of pet birds and cute tricks and seems on the surface quite contradictory to keeping birds wild. However conservation involves more than breeding and releasing birds. Behavior plays an integral part. In recent years zoos have zoomed in on training and addressing behavioral needs as an essential part of caring for animals. I see the same thing happening in conservation. More conservation projects are looking into how behavior and learning experiences influence achieving their goals.

There are many ways training can facilitate projects. When we put field biologists and trainers together we discover the needs. And in reality whether we acknowledge it or not, birds in conservation projects are learning all the time. Why not add some structure and specific behavior goals to that learning to help the project succeed?

Kakapo feeding station
The Kakapo Recovery Program prior to me volunteering my services had already been utilizing training to facilitate their work. Even though the birds live freely on a protected, uninhabited island and forage naturally, they do receive supplemental feeding at hoppers. Each hopper has a platform. Sometimes that platform is a scale. Hop on the scale and the bird can access the hopper for a snack. Guess what? That is training! Right next to the hopper is a device that reads the transmitter of the bird and records the weight. In other training Rakiura and Sirocco both learned to go through a cat door to enter enclosed feeding stations that were designed to keep other native birds out.  All this is done without a human anywhere in sight. And technology keeps getting better. This leads to ideas to reduce stress in catching up wild birds for health checks using both technology and training. In my opinion this is just the beginning of ways we can reinforce desired behaviors remotely. And we are brainstorming more ways to do just that with kakapo.

Enclosed kakapo feeding station with cat door
The Kakapo Recovery Program has several behavioral objectives. As many know Sirocco has an important role as ambassador bird. However he also lives part of the year as a wild kakapo. His training has helped make his behavior manageable in the field and also when on display. When on display, he does respond favorably to people, however when in the wild he will often not visit rangers on the island for months. Instead he must be tracked and visually checked like the other wild kakapo. Additionally his interest in mating with people is now better managed by redirecting him to acceptable behavior thanks to training. (For more on his story see this blog about Training Sirocco)

There are three chicks that needed to be hand raised this year due to various challenges (cracked egg, weight loss, health issues) Ideally it is preferred that a female kakapo raises the chicks, however in some cases it is just not possible in order for the chick to survive. And at this stage, all chicks are very precious. All three chicks will be released into the wild on protected, predator free islands.

The Kakapo Recovery Program has successfully released at least 30 hand raised birds. Interestingly kakapo seem much more “hard wired” than other species of parrots. When hand-raised with other kakapo they tend to revert to natural kakapo behavior rather easily once transitioned into the wild. (Sirocco was raised solo due to an illness, which is believed to be a big part of why he has a strong attraction for humans over other kakapo) Because the three chicks are being hand raised they are in general more receptive to humans at the moment, but as they mature and segue into the wild we expect that interest to decrease, as evidenced by birds in the past.

At this stage this comfort level with people provides an important training opportunity. These chicks are in a critical period of development in which they are open and receptive to new experiences. Anyone who has had a baby parrot in their life will be able to relate. Young birds will often let you do just about anything to them. Once they mature that open and receptive attitude tends to go away and the once sweet baby parrot starts objecting to being manipulated by biting or running away. To avoid this, good things like hand feeding formula, favorite food items and enrichment can be paired with anything you are trying to do with a young parrot, such as restraint training, wing manipulation, etc. This can have long lasting effect into the future and can teach a young parrot that handling is associated with good things.

Each bird in The Kakapo Recovery Program is carefully monitored on a regular basis. This involves, at a minimum, hour long hikes into the forest over difficult terrain. One of our main goals is to help make health checks and transmitter changes a stress free process. Kakapo just like companion parrots usually don’t appreciate being captured and restrained. One of our goals is to train these young chicks for these procedures so that when health check/transmitter change time in the field comes around it will be as pleasant as possible. The idea is that the birds will lead their wild lives as normal and occasionally a ranger will visit for a stress free health check or transmitter change.

This focus on training at just the right time in a young bird’s life can help make future care and specific procedures pleasant. However someday in the future the hope is for the population to become large enough that such intensive monitoring and care of each wild bird and chick won’t be necessary. The population would be stable and self-sufficient. Unfortunately we are not there yet. So for now training any birds we can to make their care as stress free as possible is a big plus.

Keep your on eye on my blog for more updates soon!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014