Friday, April 23, 2010

Stick Training Parrots

I recently had the pleasure of watching the results of some great positive reinforcement training with a cockatoo. The parrot in question unfortunately had some not so great experiences with stick training in his past. For many parrots sticks or dowel rods become a problem when they are used to force a parrot to step up for transport to another location. It is an easy situation to fall into. A caregiver needs the bird to step up, a stick is pressed against his chest and eventually the parrot gets on it. Overtime the bird learns to hop onto the stick right away to avoid the pressure against his chest or feet.

This is a very straight ahead example of negative reinforcement in action. The problem is that it is usually not too much fun for the parrot. The parrot complies. However it is because he has to, not because he wants to. What can often happen is the bird ends up showing a fear response or aggressive behavior towards sticks.

This was the case with the cockatoo in question. Getting on a stick often included biting and attacking the stick. His caregivers wanted to create positive associations with sticks. One of their strategies was to teach him to orient his head towards a target. In this case they used a closed fist as the target. The cockatoo learned following the target with his head earned him his favorite treats. This made it easy to teach him to walk towards the stick and step onto it willingly. (You can learn more about how to train this behavior from my parrot training DVDs.)

Another clever strategy this team used was to teach the cockatoo to keep his head upright when he stepped onto the stick. In the past he used to bite at the stick. The target was used to prompt him to keep his head up away from the stick. This was then reinforced with treats. Keeping his head upright and biting the stick are incompatible behaviors. The parrot cannot do both at the same time. This is a great way to address certain problem behaviors.

It was a pleasure to see the incredible progress this team made with this parrot, just by using some simple positive reinforcement training strategies. Best of all the cockatoo can now look forward to stepping up onto a stick because he knows it results in wonderful consequences. That's him in the video clip. Check him out!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Making New Things Fun for Your Parrot

My parrots just blow me away sometimes. Or perhaps it is better to say that training with positive reinforcement blows me away. I recently brought Delbert, my yellow naped Amazon parrot to a new location for a photo shoot. He is fully flighted and an extremely competent flyer. Before letting him out, I made sure the room was safe for a flighted parrot. Windows and mirrors were all covered, dogs were outside and no one was allowed to open a door unless he was safe in his travel cage.

New environments can sometimes be pretty frightening to parrots. Delbert has been around a number of new places, but not near as much as I would like him too. So I was going to have to really observe his body language and see how he responded. What I wanted to avoid was my bird flying around the space in a panic.

My first signal that things were probably going to be OK was when he started chatting away while we were doing the final set preparations. He watched from his travel cage and starting asking “Ya wanna come out?”, “Are ya ready?”, “Here we goooooo”

Letting him look at the space for about 20 minutes was a great opportunity for him to acclimate. There are some things that usually evoke a fear response in parrots such as things moving overhead, quick movement nearby…but sometimes it’s the things you don’t expect that you have to watch out for. This is when reading your bird’s body language becomes super important. Although he had been looking at it for some time, a long narrow cardboard box was simply unacceptable. Any steps too close to that would send Delbert circling around the room. Fortunately because of all his recall training he would land on my hand after a few laps. We opted to remove that box while Delbert was far away from it.

Another thing that proved a challenge was the backdrop. The colored drape would occasionally move. This especially happened the moment Delbert would launch off of my hand for a cued flight. Although it took him a bit of time, the way he gradually got past this challenge was by doing simple behaviors and getting reinforced. Delbert loves flying to new people. So for some of our photos he got to fly back and forth between me and new people. This meant treats and attention that he loves. Pairing doing simple A to B flights and getting reinforced made the background fade into …well, the background!

Delbert presented excellent flights on cue, posed like the super model he is for his close ups and enjoyed preening the hair on every head there. He also ended the day snoozing on the photographer’s shoulder, beak grinding away. I suppose technically a photo shoot is “work” but I have to admit it sure felt like fun to me….and I think for Delbert too. (I think we were done shooting way before he decided it was time to wrap it up.) What made it fun was reading his body language and remembering to use positive reinforcement to make sure the experience was a good one for him too. Hmmmm, maybe he has a future in modeling. Look out Zoolander… comes Delbert!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc