Monday, June 22, 2009

Training a Scarlet Macaw to Trust after a Stressful Situation

Attitudes about animals can vary greatly. However even when things are not ideal, we can make an impact on attitudes by modeling a positive reinforcement approach to parrot handling.

At a workshop I was teaching, we had no birds for on hand for training demonstrations. During the lunch break one of the attendees volunteered to run home and bring a scarlet macaw. While I was lecturing the bird arrived. I heard a commotion behind a wall and ran to see what was happening. I was a bit surprised to see the macaw hunkered down in a cardboard box. Several people were trying to get the bird out of the box and moved into a wire holding cage. The parrot eventually moved into the larger cage, but was clearly stressed by the whole situation.

We left the macaw in peace to calm down. After awhile we could see the bird still needed some more assistance to recover from its ordeal. We offered some apple for a boost of sugar and soon the parrot looked more relaxed.

What started out as very traumatic soon turned to incredibly impressive. By offering more apple I soon found I had made a new friend. I opened the door and let the macaw climb out. I started working on training targeting and some approximations towards step up. At one point the bird calmly crawled back into the holding cage garnering a few laughs from us all, but soon came out for more interaction. We stressed to the owner the importance of an appropriate transport cage and to never put a scarlet macaw in a cardboard box again. This meant I would need to train this bird to go back inside the wire cage before the day was over.

To make it possible we needed to add a stable perch to the cage and also slowly turn it on its side so it would eventually fit in the car. We did all this with the macaw sitting on top of the cage. It is amazing what you can do when you get creative, but stick to your kind and gentle approach. Adding the perch and turning the cage was done so gradually the parrot was completely unphased by it. He simply crawled along the outside to remain on top as we turned it.

By the end of the seminar the macaw had made great progress towards stepping up, but was not quite there yet and was not crawling into the cage by following a target. I gave the class permission to leave if they wanted, but said I will be continuing to work with this bird if you want to stick around. Nobody budged. In a matter of 15 minutes the macaw stepped up onto my hand and allowed me to gently place him in the travel cage. I even got a round of applause. Woohoo!

The now calm bird even allowed a few head scratches during the process. While this parrot’s start on that day was not what we had in mind, it was an important lesson in what a dramatic change is possible in such a short time when you train with positive reinforcement.

We explained to the owner a better approach to transporting and interacting with her scarlet macaw and I think she was thankful to learn she had other options.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009


sabauda said...

the wonderful photo kind of says it all...thanks for this inspiring post!!

Patricia Sund said...

Absolutely gorgeous work Barbara. I'm always so stunned with your work with parrots and I do so love your way of explaining the process. It's clear, concise and so easily pictured. Thank you for posting this. It was beautiful.