Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sirocco the Kakapo: What to do about Parrot Aggression

Second in the series of blogs on training Sirocco the kakapo. Click here to read the first blog.

Sirocco finally did show some of his undesired behavior. But it wasn’t sexual behavior, it was aggressive behavior. Every night after a pleasant session in the public display area of his enclosure, Sirocco would be released to roam about the larger off-exhibit section. At the top of the hill in the off-exhibit area is where Sirocco had a supplemental feeding station. Each night we had to climb the hill to clean and restock the station.

Kakapo are inactive and slow moving during the day. At night they are an entirely different creature. They can run through brush with incredible speed. When Sirocco heard us at the top of the hill, he raced to meet us. Although Sirocco does many things that are very parrot like, kakapo are at the same time so different from any other parrot I have encountered. I studied his body language as he approached us, trying to determine if he was interested, sexual or was it something else. There were three of us there trying to understand what this bird was communicating. When he tried to bite my boots it finally became clear. We definitely witnessed our first full on display of aggressive behavior. In addition to getting a better handle on body language associated with aggressive behavior we also needed to determine the triggers. We came up with a long list of things we thought caused Sirocco to aggress. (Movement, darkness, squatting down, location, and later I learned that male kakapo will also defend their bowls/territory.) In the end we decided the best thing to do is to have one person prepare his feeding station while he is being trained in the display away from the area where he aggresssed. Then when it is time for him to go explore we wouldn't be near his bowl to trigger aggressive behavior.

However we knew there might be other situations in which avoiding him might not be possible. After Zealandia he was going to return to Maud Island. He would have free range of the island and would likely be coming to visit the rangers at their houses. This meant there could be a situation in which Sirocco might show aggressive behavior. Knowing this we decided it would be worthwhile to train him to do a behavior that is incompatible with attacking. We decided upon stationing. In the display on Zealandia we had already been  training this behavior. A series of logs and stumps made for great training stands and stations for our evening sessions. Our plan was to make several stations near the houses on Maud. If Sirocco had enough history for being reinforced on a station he may very likely choose to go there to get reinforced rather than aggress. Also rangers could redirect Sirocco to his station prior to any undesired behavior being exhibited.

To reduce the likelihood Sirocco would show aggressive behavior near his feeding station we started training him in the daytime. As I like to say he was a “rock star.” He immediately grasped the concept and proved once again how eager and ready he was to learn. As you can see in the clip we gradually added criteria to his stationing. For example we increased the amount of time between delivery of reinforcers. We added some of his known triggers such as movement, squatting down and turning our back to him. By training in the daytime we took away one of the factors that seemed to contribute to aggressive behavior. This allowed us to have successful interactions that we could reinforce. Overtime we could gradually add training this behavior closer to sunset and finally in darkness. As you can see from the video, Sirocco was all about it and ranger Linda did a great job training him. Next time: Sirocco Talks!

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Training Sirocco the Kakapo

Last May I had the incredible opportunity to meet seven highly endangered kakapo chicks. (Read more and see video here) During my visit one of our conversations centered on a very famous kakapo named Sirocco. Many of you may know Sirocco from the viral video from the BBC TV Series Last Chance to See. Sirocco mated with zoologist Mark Cawardine’s head. I came to learn his behavior was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it lead to a video that threw a great deal of attention to the Kakapo Recovery Program, a program that is having success in part due to public support. On the other hand Sirocco’s persistence was endangering his safety.

During breeding season male kakapo have a desire to mate that is quite likely stronger than any other parrot species I have encountered. Males have nothing to do with nest building or raising offspring. There job is to attract females and mate with as many as possible. They do this through a unique series of tracks (trails) and bowls (small depressions in the ground). Each night these flightless and nocturnal parrots march up the tracks to their bowls. Once the bowl is tidied up the male settles in and begins to suck air into air sacks on his chest. This allows him to produce a low frequency booming call designed to entice females to visit. If a female or just about anything passes near his bowl, the males charges and mounts.

Sirocco is different from other kakapo in that he was hand raised. A respitory illness when he was just a nestling meant he needed extra care. It was learned too late that having been raised without other birds meant Sirocco would never develop an interest in female kakapo. Instead the objects of his affections are people.

The way kakapo live and are now managed is to allow them to behave as naturally as possible. This means they are free to roam their island habitat. Sirocco was no exception. However unlike other kakapo he chose to visit the human accommodations on the island. For a newcomer to the island a Sirocco encounter was at first thrilling. However as the videos I watched revealed things turned sour quickly when Sirocco would relentlessly try to climb up to people’s head to mate. Sirocco even built his bowl near the trail to the outhouse and would ambush rangers on their way for a pit stop. Imagine a 3000 gram parrot who is determined to climb to your head? Even for those with experience with parrots this could be a challenging situation. The concern was that someone might accidentally hurt Sirocco trying to deter his advances.

Having learned Siroccos story I realized positive reinforcement training could help! I was determined to come back and help get Sirocco’s behavior on a better track. I had been traveling to lecture like crazy this fall. I literally came back from one event on a Sunday and flew to New Zealand the next day. But this trip felt more like vacation than work. Even after 20 hours of flying and a 7 hour time difference, I was energized when I landed in Wellington.

My first night meeting Sirocco was one of observation and lots of discussion. He was living in an enclosure at Zealandia, a haven for New Zealand wildlife. Sirocco was there temporarily as an ambassador bird for the project. Over 4000 people came to see a kakapo, for many their first ever. The second night was when the fun really began. It was time to see if Sirocco would respond to training. I like to think I projected a calm exterior, but inside I was tingling with excitement. I approached Sirocco exactly the same way I do any parrot I am meeting for the first time. I showed him what I had (pieces of macadamia nuts), assessed his body language to see if he had any interest and then slowly and carefully offered a treat. His reaction? More macadamia nuts please. Sirocco was clearly going to be an excellent student. He quickly learned to target. He started stepping on arms when cued, and stepping off. It soon became clear we were going to need to come up with a long list of behaviors to have on stand-by because he was learning so fast.

Although it was a blast for me to train Sirocco, the goal was for his caregivers to learn how to influence his behavior. Subsequent sessions were spent making sure the rangers were feeling comfortable with getting Sirocco to do some simple behaviors and train new ones. Things were going so well Sirocco’s minder, Linda and I were wondering if we were ever going to see any of the problem behavior I was there to address. Our moment came several days into his training. I will save that story for the next blog. More to come!

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Five Most Memorable Moments as an Animal Trainer....So Far

As the year comes to a close, it is a time for reflection. Here are some memorable moments for me in the animal training world. Enjoy!

Bottoms Up!
For five years I was part of a team that presented a bird show at the State Fair of Texas. One of my roles in the show was to do a short segment with a yellow naped Amazon parrot that sings seven songs. While we were on stage a man in his twenties was pacing back and forth off to the side. It was evident things were a little off. As the parrot was singing his little heart out I turned to look at the audience. Rather than smiling faces I saw a giant bare bottom! This meant the audience was getting a great view of the other side. Neither the bird nor I reacted. Instead we continued with our routine. Several men from the front row tackled the guy and pulled him aside. I chatted with many audience members after the show during the meet and greet and hardly anyone noticed. I was amazed.
Thunk, Thunk, Thunk
For many years I presented bird shows at Disney World in Orlando, FL. One routine involved having a large Eurasian eagle owl fly over the audience and land on a stump at the back of the house. For a fun volunteer experience a guest was invited on stage and the owl would be cued to fly towards and just over the head of the volunteer to land on another perch. This was to give the guest an awesome Kodak moment. However on this particular day the owl flew from her release box with a heavy astro-turf mat clutched in her talons. (The mat is used to catch droppings as she waited for her release.) As she flew to the back of the house the mat hit each and every guest in her flight path in the head. When she landed she sat with the mat firmly in her grasp. Owls have a tendency to hold on to things in their talons at all costs. I couldn’t help but burst into a fit of giggles. In fact I was laughing so hard I was crying. This was because I knew she had to fly back. This meant more face-thunking. Like the great performer she was, she completed the routine flawlessly with her giant mat in her clutches. I know I enjoyed that show immensely. I think the audience members not in her flight path did as well.

I have met my fair share of celebrities; however no one has made a greater impression on me than Sirocco the kakapo. Sirocco is famous for getting frisky with zoologist Mark Cawardine in this viral video. Kakapo are one of the most interesting species of parrot. They are unique in so many ways. They are nocturnal, flightless, solitary, lek breeding, giant and incredibly endangered. After learning Sirocco’s sexual behavior was a problem, I volunteered my services to see if I could help. Getting to train such an unusual, rare species was thrilling and rewarding. Sirocco took to training like a fish to water. He proved to be an incredible student. My most rewarding moment was when in one session he redirected his sexual behavior to the object we had designated. It convinced me we could get a handle on this problem behavior. I will also never forget traveling with him from the big city of Wellington to his summer home on Maud Island. It took a few car rides, a plane and a boat to get there. To make his boat ride less bumpy he sat on a lap in the cabin and took in the view. Surreal!

Out Go the Lights
I lecture a lot. Sometimes for 6-8 hours in a day. And I love it. I never seem to tire of it. Perhaps it is the pleasure of interacting with an audience. One of my favorites audiences are the folks at Parrot Festival. This annual event is targeted towards anyone with an interest in parrots. One year I was about three quarters of the way through my lecture when the lights flickered and then went out completely. The room had no windows. The doors from the room led to a dark hall. It was truly pitch black. Rather than panicking, somehow we calmly segued into a lengthy Q and A session about parrot behavior problems in complete darkness. People had to shout out questions because a raised hand could not be seen. Amazingly it all went pretty smoothly. Finally the generators kicked in and we continued with the presentation. Turned out the entire grid had gone dark. To add to the excitement a plane flew so close to the hotel we thought it was going to crash! See a clip from my lecture on Parrot Behavior Problems here.

In Your Face
I was lucky enough to make an appearance on the Jay Leno show back in 2000. Once again I had that infamous singing parrot with me. Prior to seeing if the bird would sing, Jay asked me a few questions. While I was answering I was reinforcing the parrot for sitting on his perch and waiting patiently. I was offering sunflower seeds which meant a little extra chewing activity for the parrot. Somehow the bird’s vigorous opening of a sunflower seed resulted in a perfectly aimed shell hitting Jay right in the face! I don’t think either of us could have planned it better. Fortunately the parrot went on to sing his song….although he took his sweet time which made me sweat bullets for a few seconds there. However it was a memorable segment and for a short while was part of their opening sequence for the Tonight Show.

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright 2011 Good Bird Inc

Friday, December 9, 2011

Too Many Parrot Feathers? Send them to the Feather Distribution Project

Are you one of those parrot lovers who saves your bird’s feathers? Are they now just gathering dust and you are not quite sure what to do with them? Or perhaps you have been struck by the holiday spirit and like the idea of giving a gift that would be very meaningful to someone else. I have the perfect solution for you: The Feather Distribution Project.

Awhile back I was very fortunate to hear Anthropologist Dr Jonathan Reyman lecture on a topic I found fascinating. He explained that feathers were an important part of the culture of native peoples who live in Pueblos of the southwest. As I recall he explained years ago he was doing some work in this area and was asked by the Pueblo Indians if he could help them acquire feathers. Although not connected to the parrot community, Dr Reyman took it upon himself to make a repository for parrot feathers that could be distributed to the people of the Pueblos.

I did not quite understand the impact of this until I had the opportunity to visit two Pueblos myself. It was explained that our group of travelers worked with parrots and could help with feather acquisitions. Although fiercely protective of their culture and ceremonies, we were given a very special presentation that explained the important role feathers play in their religious ceremonies. While the presentation was enlightening what was even more impactful was the deep emotion and gratitude coming from our hosts. We experienced this at both Pueblos we visited. A parrot feather in a vase may be nice for us, but to them it is a connection to the spiritual world. Learning this really affected me. From that moment forward I have saved every feather my parrots drop and sent them to the Feather Distribution Project.

It has been super easy. I have a large baggie that is always ready and waiting for feathers. Once the baggie is full, I label it with the species of birds. I then put everything in a mailing tube to protect the feathers and send them to:

Dr. Jonathan E. Reyman
Illinois State Museum Research & Collections Center
1011 East Ash Street
Springfield, IL 62703-3500

The feathers are not bought or sold. They are given to the Pueblo Indians who submit request forms. This can potentially help protect parrots from being used for feather commerce. In the past Pueblo Indians often had to resort to eBay to acquire feathers…and where those feathers come from and how acquired is often unknown.

The feathers can be dirty, damaged and just about any size. The feathers are cleaned and sterilized at the museum. Damaged feathers are fine because feathers are sometimes cut into elaborate designs. Please only send parrot feathers. Feathers from native North American birds cannot be legally distributed via this avenue.

So if you are not sure what to do with your parrot feathers, consider sending them to the Feather Distribution Project. I can guarantee the recipient of your feather gift will be extremely grateful.

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright 2011 Good Bird Inc