Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Baby Parrots Take a Trip

What an adventurous day. The baby parrots took a small excursion….. planned of course. So far both Wrigley and Beni have had the chance to spend time in each room of my house and also the back yard. They now appear relaxed and comfortable in these environments. This means it was time for us to push the envelope and try a completely new environment. I had done quite a bit of training to get both birds ready for spending more than just a few minutes in a crate for travel. And it paid off. Both birds entered their crates without hesitation. I had already worked on walking them around the house in the crates, and also placing the crates in the car and taking a short drive around the block. Today we took it a bit further and drove to my friend’s house.

I packed a familiar perch, lots of treats and a few toys. My friend had recently hurt her ankle and was stuck in her room with her foot propped up on a pillow. Time for some feathered entertainment! I placed the crated parrots on the bed. I set up the portable perch. Now it was time to open the crate doors.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how what you think will be so predictable often ends up being exactly the opposite. I was so sure Wrigley the double yellow headed Amazon would be calm as a cucumber and Beni the blue throated macaw would be wide eyed about the new environment. Instead Beni could have cared less. He was just thrilled to be hanging out with people and sucking up tons of attention. He flew with confidence to the perch, to my hand and to the top of the crate. To him it was just another room.

Wrigley on the other hand had to take a moment to observe his new environment. He then launched into a few loops around the room before finally landing on his familiar perch. But once that moment passed he was all about exploring, flying to my friend for treats and playing with toys. That was actually my favorite part. The fact that both parrots were comfortable enough in just a few minutes to play with toys was a great sign. It also meant all that time spent practicing behaviors in new environments was working. Beni and Wrigley are learning to generalize their behaviors. This is an important goal for these future ambassadors for their species.

Although they did really well in the new environment we did have one small set back. The crate training suffered a small breakdown. Beni was not so eager to enter the crate for the return trip home. This means the short drive was too big of an approximation for him.

Training Beni to crate has been a challenge from the start. I think this is because his first experience in the crate was a 4 hour drive from the breeder’s place to mine. This was more than he was ready for at the time. This has meant a lot of work on this behavior, and no doubt we will spend another session just practicing some repetitions of going in and out of the crate for our next sessions, and building our approximations from there. Even though there was a slight glitch, the good news is we can get back on track. Thankfully, even less than perfect situations can be turned around with a little positive reinforcement.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Parrot Training in New Environments

If you are a parrot training fan, you have probably already trained your bird to do a few cute things like maybe wave or turn around on cue. Have you ever tried to ask your parrot to present those behaviors in a new environment? Such as a bird club meeting or at a friend’s house or maybe the veterinary hospital. For some parrots this can be very challenging. Suddenly your outgoing social butterfly freezes up and seems to have forgotten all the things you have taught him to do.

In truth he probably hasn’t forgotten, he is just not yet learned to present behaviors in other environments. The process of teaching an animal to present a behavior under many different conditions is called generalization.

Beni, the blue throated macaw has done so well with harness training it was time to let him experience some new environments while wearing his spiffy blue harness. First we visited different rooms in my house. The bathroom was particularly fun. He got quite excited by his reflection in the mirror. I think he even tried to say “hello” in macaw language.

He did well in each of the rooms of the house. They weren’t much different from what he was used to. He would take treats, and fly to me and other perches on cue. However when we ventured into the back yard, it was a different story. This environment was quite unusual for him. So we took it slow. For the first few days I kept the sessions short and gradually walked him to more areas of the yard. He accepted a few head scratches and treats after some initial looking around, but did not look quite as relaxed as I wanted.

Finally today he started to seem a bit more comfy. I thought now would be a good time to try a favorite strategy of mine. One great way to help a bird move onto the next steps toward generalization is to cue a super simple behavior over and over a few times. This gives the bird something to focus on that he knows earns some positive reinforcers. What Beni does best is fly to me. I grabbed a familiar perch and placed it in the yard. With the leash safely wrapped around my wrist, Beni recalled like a champ. Next thing you know his body language looked much more relaxed and he began to show an interest in exploring this new world with confidence.

For Beni, recall is an easy behavior. For your parrot it might be something like saying “hello” or lifting his wings or foot when cued. Any behavior your parrot offers readily is ideal for this strategy. Your bird may need some time to desensitize to the environment first before he will present behavior, just like Beni did. But after just a few sessions of looking around, Beni was ready.

Once Beni has a few more days of relaxed body language in the back yard, it will be onto another new location and a repeat of the process. Eventually Beni will learn that presenting behaviors in any environment is easy and earns you favorite things like head scratches and treats.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Harness Training Your Parrot

Ah, the harness. So many people want to train this behavior. And for many parrots this is a very difficult behavior, and for trainers a behavior that can try your patience. However this doesn't mean a caregiver should give up on positive reinforcement to get there. It just means preparing to take some time, maybe a lot of time.But for me that is absolutely A-OK.

For those of you who have been to my seminars and seen video clips of parrots sitting for blood draws and perched patiently while they receive an injection, you no doubt realized those are behaviors that were trained with tiny, tiny approximations and took some time to train. I recently read the manuscript to a friends book in which she said "you can be sure that shaping with the smallest approximations is what is behind the most impressive behaviors"

We have a tendency to take for granted that our parrots should do things we want, when we want. Especially when it comes to behavior we accomplish easily with other species such as our dogs.

I implore people wanting to train this behavior to take a moment to pause and relax and say "it's OK if it takes me two years to train this behavior" It probably wont take you that long, but it will let you calm down and not feel pressured to get the behavior done right this second. Go at the pace your bird dictates works for him.

I often tell people what if this was a lion or a porcupine....what would you do if that animal did not want to go in the harness? : ) (I mention the porcupine because at one zoo where I consulted we did work on training a porcupine to wear a harness) Force will likely cause aggressive behavior or an animal that wont come near you. And as has been mentioned before, our goal with positive reinforcement is to create an eager participant and in turn continue to foster that wonderful relationship we can have with an animal.

I too have been working on this behavior. I started maybe 1 year ago with one of my amazon parrot's and have worked on the behavior off and on. I went through a lot of experimentation. Different harnesses, different shaping plans, etc to try to find the easiest methods. I have also worked on this behavior with the two young parrots currently at my house. One has mastered the behavior and one is still learning. Once everyone (and another one I want to start on this behavior) is trained I will have a comprehensive teaching tool for this behavior. However here is a sneak peak to get people started. It doesn't have all the steps outlined, but it may help you get some ideas.

The bottom line is that difficult behaviors require small approximations, using high value reinforcers, training when the animal is most receptive to those reinforcers, going at the animals pace.....and time. Be patient. You have many years ahead of you with your parrot.

PS The harness I am using is the Aviator Harness.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Preventing the One Person Parrot

There was a recent discussion on my yahoo group about innate vs. learned behaviors. It seems the two are not so mutually exclusive. There are many behaviors we tend to chalk up to genetics and assume we can never change. But the good news is even these so called hard wired behaviors are often heavily influenced by experience. This is especially important as we work to shape the behavior of our parrots.

Beni the blue throated macaw is a great example. As his photos show, he can be a love……once he gets to know you. Guess who he knows best now? Me. I spend more time with him than anyone. And all those wonderful head scratching sessions, treat fueled training times and fun play encounters make me a special person to Beni. Although I certainly enjoy this, Beni has more important things to do in his future than just be my buddy. Soon he will be teaching others about responsible pet ownership and parrot conservation. This means Beni needs to play nice with others too.

Even though parrots may have a tendency to choose one person as their preferred companion, I know that I can use positive reinforcement training to teach Beni that it is fun to interact with other people as well.

Recently one of the staff members of the Kaytee Learning Center came to visit the baby parrots. This was the perfect opportunity to help both Beni and Wrigley learn that other people are also great fun. John will be the baby parrots primary trainer at Kaytee. I was very pleased to see Wrigley warm up to John right away. Within the first hour he was rolling over onto his back for play sessions and flying to John on cue.

Beni on the other hand was not so sure. He did fly to John that first session, but showed body language that indicated he was not so sure about the situation. One thing that was not helping is if I was in close proximity to Beni. Because Beni can fly, if he saw me, he would often choose to come to me instead of John. While I am flattered all that great training has worked to build a strong relationship with Beni, I really want Beni to respond positively to other people. To help Beni and John succeed, I decided it would be better if I did not interact with Beni for the rest of the visit. Instead John would let Beni out of his cage, and also deliver all treats and toys. And it worked!

Eventually we were able to work up to a session in which Beni enjoyed lots of head scratches from John. The goal was to reduce my value to Beni and increase John’s. It did mean I had to temporarily reduce my interactions with Beni a bit, and let John do more fun things with him.

The good news is even though Beni may want to choose one person as his favorite, we can teach him he doesn’t have too. Everyone is a blast.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009