Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Three Animal Training Moments 2012

Animal training is always a thrill. There is a special moment that happens when an animal understands what you are trying to communicate. I swear there is an adrenaline rush associated with it for the trainer. And I often wonder if it's the same for the animal? A part of me thinks it is because you often see a little change in the reaction from the animal. It's like they realize they have solved the puzzle! As you can imagine it can be quite difficult to pick out just three special training moments in a year full of animal training. But here goes! Here are my top three…… and a runner-up.

1.    Sirocco the Kakapo: It would be hard for any animal training I've done to compete with the experience of working was Sirocco the kakapo. There are many factors that contribute to this. First the training addressed a very serious behavior problem. One that had in fact put Sirocco in danger. There is a great satisfaction knowing the training has helped ensure his well-being. Also rewarding was seeing how the rangers were successfully applying positive reinforcement training with Sirocco while he was on display. One ranger described it as “being introduced to Sirocco's brain.” I liked that. They definitely have a greater understanding of how to work with this very special parrot. And of course playing a small role in the conservation of these amazing parrots was the icing on the cake for me.

2.    Elephant Training at The Santa Barbara Zoo: One of my regular gigs is consulting with the Santa Barbara zoo on animal training. We do often work with the elephants, but during my last visit we encountered a very difficult training challenge. Susie an Asian elephant had already been trained to wave a eucalyptus leaf with her trunk. The problem was whenever the trainers tried to switch the leaf for a different object Susie would eat the new object! We tried a few good different strategies, all of which failed. We really had to put on our thinking caps to solve this problem. We decided to start with reinforcing for giving up the eucalyptus leaf when cued. We did fast repetitions of this. Next we paired the leaf with another similar object, such as a piece of bark or twig. And repeated the process. After more fast repetitions we slipped the leaf out of the equation. Success! Susie gave up the bark instead of eating it. We repeated the pairing of the leaf with several different objects and practiced phasing out the leaf. We then just started offering her novel objects, and as we had hoped she did the behavior instead of eating the new objects. Although the behavior doesn't seem very difficult, it really was for this particular elephant. It was a huge accomplishment and a big thrill for all the trainers involved when Susie chose to give up an object rather than eat it. I was even jumping up and down I was so excited over our success! Those are moments when trainers get that rush I described!

3.    Training my Macaw to Paint: My macaw Blu Lu certainly isn't the first animal to paint. But she may be the first parrot to paint pictures of other parrots. And she is the first parrot I've trained to paint. This was another behavior that was not as easy to train as one might think. Getting a parrot to pick up a brush is no problem. Training the bird to strategically place that brush on a piece of canvas is a lot more difficult. Once again I had to think strategically to determine the approximations I was going to use. I don't want to give away too much because detailed instructions will be in the next issue of Good Bird Magazine, but in a nutshell I used a variation of a retrieve to get this behavior. The best part is that all of Blu Lu’s paintings were raffled off to raise money to save parrots in the wild. When all was said and done about $4000 was raised and donated to blue-throated macaw conservation project the Bird Endowment.

Runner Up: Training Veterinarians to Train Rabbits: I teach parrot training workshops all the time. I usually know what to expect when we bring a group of 20 parrots into the room and have people try to train them. Some will work, some will be too nervous, some won't be motivated to eat until later in the day, and some will be simply fantastic.  Each parrot offers us a learning opportunity and in most cases we get some behavior out of just about everyone.  This year I repeated the process with 20 rabbits. Just like the parrots, the rabbits came from a rescue. These rabbits had never participated in a rabbit training workshop before, so there was no way to predict how they would react to a new environment, new people and the training. We were all pleasantly surprised when almost every single rabbit eagerly participated. Not only did they participate, they all learned several behaviors throughout the day. Best of all the veterinarians got to practice using positive reinforcement to teach rabbits to cooperate in their own medical care. I am thrilled that so many veterinarians are on board with incorporating training into their day-to-day practice. It is the wave of the future!

Here are my top 3 non animal training related moments of 2012:

1. Meeting Bruce Springsteen……. He really is nice!
2. Singing “Ramble On” with Robert Plant and 200 other lucky fans at my favorite music venue.
3. Spending an evening of laughter with the wonderful John Ellis before he unexpectedly left this world too soon.

A new year starts in just a few hours. I hope you will add some animal training experiences to your year in 2013. Teaching your parrot to target, turnaround or maybe even step up can really bring joy into your life and your parrot’s life when you train with positive reinforcement. Indeed it will be a very Happy New Year!

Barbara Heidenreich

Friday, December 7, 2012

Respecting the Bite

I am a wuss. I admit it. Oddly enough I think it has worked in my favor when it comes to working with animals. I don’t “take the bite” whether it is from a mosquito, a parrot or a lion. In fact I do everything in power to avoid a situation in which I might get bit. With mosquitoes sadly it usually means very little camping for me and when outdoors I am bathed in massive doses of repellent. With zoo animals such as lions, it usually means training through barriers and offering reinforcers via utensils, and avoiding creating aggressive behavior. With parrots……believe it or not I actually take an approach similar to what I do with lions! Not because I think parrots pose a particular lethal threat to my person, but because I respect a parrot as much as I respect a lion. Let me repeat that “I respect a parrot as much as I respect a lion.”

To understand this better perhaps I should elaborate on what I mean by “respect”. I interpret this as showing consideration for what an animal is telling me with its body language. For example if my close proximity to an animal is creating the slightest fear response or hint of aggressive behavior I recognize it and acknowledge it. I then do whatever I can, which may include backing away, to put that animal at ease.

Sometimes humans have an inclination to suggest that whatever activity they are doing is “no big deal” or should not be bothersome to their parrot and forge ahead, regardless of what their bird’s body language is saying. There are countless times I have heard someone say “Oh, he doesn’t really mind. Go ahead.” or “He is just being stubborn. Make him step up.” or “It’s just a bluff. He isn’t really aggressive.”  Ouch. Those are painful words to a positive reinforcement trainers ears. There is an implication in those statements that I should ignore what the bird’s body language is telling me. Even if that body language is saying “No! Stop it. I don’t like what you are doing.”

Why should a parrot owner care about respecting their bird’s body language? Because it is a critical element in successfully addressing biting behavior.  I would surmise that most people do not want to get bit by a parrot. I am certainly one who falls into that category. This is when being a wimp works to my advantage. I am not willing to get too close to a bird until it gives me body language that indicates comfort. Certainly this is step one in avoiding a bite. My next goal is usually to associate something of value with my presence. This may mean offering food treats from my hand, a spoon or a bowl. It may also include offering toys or enrichment, head scratches or praise. It all depends on what the parrot shows a preference for. By pairing a preferred item or experience with my presence, hopefully I will gain some value to the parrot. If I am successful I usually start to see a parrot whose body language indicates he is anticipating more “good stuff” coming from me. Woohoo! At this point not only does the parrot seem to be engaged, but I am usually also beginning to feel more confident and trusting of the bird.

The process described above usually happens before a request for the behavior of “step up” is even considered. This is mainly because I am not comfortable placing my hand in front of a bird with whom I have not had the chance to build up some trust. (See the article “Training your New Parrot. Where to Begin?” in Good Bird Magazine Vol 2 Issue 4 for more suggestions on interacting with a parrot for the first time)

Sadly in the companion parrot community I see so many parrots that show fear responses or aggressive behavior towards hands. Because of this when I do bring my hand to a bird for the step up behavior it is done slowly and carefully. All the while I am paying close attention to the bird’s body language and looking for a bird who is at ease before proceeding. All these intricacies help me avoid creating a situation in which a parrot may want to bite.

When Birds Bite

Shoot. I messed up. Either I misread the bird’s body language or I asked for too much, or maybe I simply don’t know what happened just yet. But I got bit. Now what? This is a question that is often posed to me. “What do you do when the bird bites?” If unfortunately a caregiver does get bit, the first immediate response in my opinion is to detach the bird from the person. If the bird is holding on, usually a thumb and forefinger can be placed on the top part of the beak to pry the parrot off of whatever is in their mouth. Other strategies can include redirecting the parrots attention, and simply putting the bird down in the nearest available safe location (perch, cage, couch, table, playstand, etc.)

A bite can be very painful and by all means I do not recommend holding steady while a bird chomps away. This is the erroneous idea that by taking the bite the caregiver will teach the bird that biting has no effect. In truth there can be other reinforcers that maintain that behavior over which we have no control. For example grinding away on flesh may provide a stimulating tactile sensation to the bird. The only way to remove that reinforcer is for the bird to not have human flesh in its beak. 

Another question often presented to me is “How do you let the parrot know what he did was wrong?” I must admit this question makes me cringe a bit. This is because I see it as a request for approval to use aversives to punish a bird for biting. In reality in most cases aversive punishment would not be the strategy of choice to address biting. The primary goal would have been to avoid creating the situation in which the parrot would be inclined to bite in the first place. This may mean teaching the bird what to do instead of what not to do. It may also mean making antecedent changes to facilitate success for the parrot. There are many pathways that can lead to a non biting outcome had they been considered. All of which do not involve an unpleasant experience to teach the bird to do something other than bite.

For me if a parrot bites I do nothing than more than make sure the bird is no longer on me. This gives me time to pause and think about what I could have done differently to avoid the situation. It also forces me to make a mental note of what circumstances created the aggressive response. It also gives me time to deal with any emotional fall out I may experience from being bit. Sometimes our feelings are hurt when an animal we love responds with aggressive behavior.  If I am to focus on building trust with a parrot, the last thing I want to do is to react in a manner that the bird would find unpleasant. This means I do not try to punish the parrot by shaking or dropping my hand, yelling “no”, waving a finger in his face, or flicking his beak. All of these would very likely damage my efforts to build a successful relationship with the parrot.

At a recent conference I overheard a conversation in which it was whispered “I bet she never gets bit.” In truth I can’t say it never happens, but it is extremely rare. It is certainly not from a lack of interacting with parrots. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to meet 100’s of new animals each year. However with each animal I am careful to read body language and to do my best to build a relationship based on trust. I take advantage of any positive reinforcers the animal likes and use these to help increase my worth to my training subject. I am happy to report it is not magic, nor does it take any super powers, or “whispering” techniques. Anyone can have a successful bite free relationship with a parrot when they give their parrot the same respect they would give a lion.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc. First appeared in Good Bird Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

To learn more about products and services to help you train your parrot visit

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sirocco the Kakapo Finds Love in an Unusual Place

Crocs shoe company I hope you are listening because I have a story for you. Those of you who have been following my blogs on training Sirocco the very rare and endangered kakapo may recall he has a little behavior problem.

Male kakapo are very unique parrots. They double in size in preparation for breeding season. They climb mountains and build bowls in the ground. They sit in these bowls and “boom” for females eight hours every night for three months. They hope their exquisite vocalizations will draw in females for a midnight rendezvous. They will mate with as many females as they can in a season. Once mating is over the males go back to being solitary, nocturnal parrots, discretely roaming the forest floor of their predator free islands. They have nothing to do with the chicks or their mothers. In other words a male kakapo has only one thing on his mind when breeding season rolls around….mating!

On the one hand this is a very good thing. There are only125 kakapo left in the entire world. We need the boys to be very interested in making babies. Sirocco, on the other hand presents a unique case. Sirocco is imprinted on humans. His preferred partner is a human head. Because male kakapo are so driven to mate, Sirocco can be relentless in his efforts. This has lead to aggressive behavior directed at people not receptive to his advances and injury to Sirocco when one person attempted to thwart his overtures. My job was to help address his obsession with mating with human heads.

Last year we successfully transferred his affections to a stuffed owl. However upon learning kakapo can mate for 40 minutes we abandoned that idea. Hello Crocs! The team informed me Sirocco had a history of taking Crocs shoes from the ranger houses. By the time we decided to try a shoe, I was already on my way back to the US. Plus Sirocco was not sexually motivated last year. This year was different. Sirocco was most definitely interested in mating with heads.

It was time to test all of our hard work. Our goal was to teach Sirocco that presenting an acceptable behavior would earn him the opportunity to mate with a Crocs shoe. Sirocco had already learned how to target, station, step up, move from point A to B when cued and more. His reinforcers in the past had all been favorite nuts. It was time to see if access to a shoe could also be used to reinforce good behavior.

Sirocco certainly demonstrated he was interested in mating. He made many attempts to climb to heads when the opportunity was there. The team started looking for the tiniest body language that meant he wanted to mate. In those moments we asked him to target or station. If he responded we offered him the shoe. As you can see from the video the reaction is pretty strong! It seems to be a combo of amorous and aggressive behavior.

Whatever it was, it worked! Sirocco responded quite strongly to the Crocs. He did so well, we kept raising the criteria. We started making heads more tempting. We targeted him to climb onto a head and what did he do? Nothing! As one ranger put it “In the past he would not have been able to help himself.” We also tried a few other things that often get him going, like walking quickly down the trail. Fast moving boots used to be quite a trigger for Sirocco to attempt to climb up a leg and work his way towards someone’s head. Instead he targeted away from feet when prompted.

The plan was working. Sirocco was doing acceptable behavior and it was getting reinforced with the opportunity to mate with a Crocs shoe (or a favorite treat). This was HUGE! Sirocco is a well-loved ambassador for the Kakapo Recovery Programme. Although his behavioral issues made him famous, at times they made it difficult for him to do his job. And more importantly his safety came into question. Now we had a way to manage his behavior and make sure his interactions with people were safe.
Crocs shoes before (Right) and after

People often ask why we did not train Sirocco to mate with a female kakapo. Fortunately Sirocco is well represented in the gene pool. His services as an ambassador bird are currently more important. So for now the only object of his affection will be his beloved Crocs shoe whom we have officially dubbed the “Krokapo.” Like many conservation programs, kakapo recovery is dependent on funding….what do you say Crocs? I see a beautiful relationship developing between your shoes and a very special species on the brink of extinction.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Visiting Sirocco the Kakapo One Year Later

We found Sirocco on this hillside
Waiting for Sirocco to appear
Wow. I am tired. But it is a good tired. I was up at 3:30 AM to catch a flight and then a boat to Maud Island, current home of Sirocco the kakapo.  We headed out to find the nocturnal parrot around 7:30 PM, hoping he might be out and about a little early. He wears a telemetry transmitter so we zoned in on an approximate location. The problem was he was waaaaay down at the bottom of a steep incline. It was up to Sirocco to come visit us, not the other way around.

Sirocco is one of only 125 kakapo left in the world. He plays the role of ambassador for the Kakapo Recovery Programme raising awareness and funds to save his kind. When off duty he roams gorgeous Maud Island. Hand raised due to an illness he does enjoy human companionship (unlike his wilder counterparts.)

Tonight we were counting on his desire for our attention to lure him out of the forest. Our group of five chatted, laughed loudly and called his name. Two hours later a rather large green parrot crawled out of the brush onto the pathway near us. Our group took a seat on the ground and no sooner had we done so, Sirocco climbed in our laps.

Last year I worked with Sirocco to address a few behavior problems and improve his interactions with his handlers in general. This was my chance to see his progress. I was floored! Sirocco had blossomed. He clearly knew his behaviors well. He also had learned new ones. Normally a very solitary and non-tactile species of parrot, Sirocco was allowing and appeared to be enjoying being touched.  We started brainstorming ways to use this to help with his care, such as training him to allow his telemetry transmitter to be replaced with minimal or no restraint. He also readily offered a number of vocalizations including the infamous “Skraaaak!” He had only offered the call a few times last year.  We started working towards capturing the behavior right then and there he offered it so much. He also readily hopped onto the arms and legs of different members of our group when cued.

Sirocco also displayed some of the problem behavior we had experienced last year. At times he showed some aggressive behavior and thought about climbing up towards people’s shoulders. However he was very easily redirected to acceptable behavior and would relax quite quickly. This was HUGE! It was clear his handlers had learned what things might trigger bad behavior and were quite good at responding appropriately to prevent doing things that might escalate his problem behaviors.  This was very encouraging. As breeding season gets closer Sirocco is anticipated to be a bit more motivated to present some of these undesired behaviors. The more opportunities we get to reinforce acceptable behaviors now the more likely we will be able to get him on track when things get more challenging. 

We ended up sitting with Sirocco and enjoying his company for several hours. Our very pleasant interlude was interrupted occasionally by little blue penguins walking the trails to feed their chicks. Around midnight we finally decided to head back. Sirocco needed to continue his night of foraging and dining on plants in the forest.  It’s time to put on weight for booming season!

Read more about Sirocco’s training in this blog

Learn more about how you can help save kakapo parrots from extinction at the Kakapo Recovery Programme website.

More updates on Sirocco to come. Stay tuned!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2012
Good Bird Inc

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Addressing Parrot Behavior Problems

I often hear people say living with parrots is difficult. While it might be different from the companion animals typically seen in our homes, it doesn't have to be a challenge. In fact it can be quite pleasant if you know about potential behavior problems and how to prevent them. Even if a parrot behavior problem has already arisen, the good news is behavior is modifiable. Parrot owners can fix behaviors problems when you have the right tools. I am happy to report I live with really well behaved parrots thanks to training with positive reinforcement.

Recently a recording crew was here to record my yellow-naped amazon parrot Delbert saying "thank you" for a commercial. They also wanted general parrot squawks from my blue-throated macaw (and my two amazon parrots) However I have trained my parrots to present other sounds instead of squawks and screams. It may seem hard to believe but we actually got tons of talking and virtually no parrot screaming. That can be the situation in your home too. Just be sure to focus on reinforcing sounds you like and withholding reinforcement for sounds you don't like.

Here are more some more quick tips to help you address parrot behavior problems.

Barbara Heidenreich Copyright 2012 Good Bird Inc

Friday, August 3, 2012

Paintings by Blu Lu Macaw Raffle Winners!

Blu Lu the blue throated macaw is an avian artist and ambassador for the parrot conservation organization The Bird Endowment. She has created 15 original pieces featuring her version of our favorite companion parrot species. The paintings are being raffled off via the Chirping Central Conservation fund. All money raised is going to help blue-throated macaws in the wild via the Bird Endowment. The video clip below shows Blu Lu picking the winners of all but the top three sellers. Watch the clip to see if you won! Spoiler alert: If you would rather just skip to the winners names, they are posted at the end of the blog.

Don't forget the three favorites paintings have not been raffled off just yet. The winners for those three paintings will be drawn at the American Federation of Aviculture Convention August 15-18, 2012. The top three still available are as follows:

1. Blue-throated macaw
2. African grey
3. Moluccan cockatoo

You can buy your tickets on line at Chirping Central or in person at the AFA conference in San Antonio. Good luck and thank you for supporting a great conservation project! Here is a final peek at the last three paintings.
Blue Throated Macaw
African Grey Parrot

Moluccan Cockatoo
Winners so far.....

Peach-faced lovebird: Kim Witalis
Rose breasted cockatoo: Paula Rossow
Caique: Tina Arnsten
Scarlet macaw: Pamela Price
Senegal parrot: Juli Sands
Sulphur-crested cockatoo: Jamie Whittaker
Female Eclectus: Rebecca Ross
Sun conure: Christine Haskell
Quaker: Amanda Wilcox
Male Eclectus: Lisa Johnson
Blue-fronted Amazon: Kathleen Koestler
Green-winged macaw: Bill Christian

Barbara Heidenreich

Friday, July 13, 2012

What All Pet Owners Should Know

I was recently asked a question for an article. What would you like all pet owners to know? Here are a few of my thoughts.

1. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. It can be easy to man handle our pets. However using force to get your pet to cooperate can damage your relationship. Instead focus on teaching your pet to be a voluntary participant by rewarding him for cooperating.

2. Young animals are learning machines! When your pet is still young there is window of development in which he will be very receptive to new experiences. Take advantage of this critical period by exposing your pet to things that will be important to his care in the future. These might include things like nail clippers, or travel in the car, or odd surfaces. Be sure to pair these items or experiences with positive reinforcers such as food treats, attention and toys.

3. Pet parents play an important role in a well behaved pet. Your pet is not inherently bad or good. By focusing on rewarding your pet for good behavior you can create a little angel instead of a little monster. Your pet will learn desired behavior earn more reinforcers and are therefore worthwhile doing. Although it is easy to forget, be sure to make the effort to frequently reinforce your pet for being good.

4. Here is a technique to apply when your pet misbehaves. Our tendency is to want to punish our pets with aversives when they misbehave. Unfortunately this can be damaging to our relationship with our pets. A more trust building approach is to ignore the undesired behavior and reinforce your pet for doing a different acceptable behavior instead. For example instead of punishing your puppy for jumping up on you, take a step back. The moment his four paws hit the floor lavish him with praise and attention at his level. This will teach him to keep four paws on the floor instead of jumping in order to earn attention. Best of all you get to be the good guy, instead of the bad guy in your pet’s life.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Barbara Heidenreich Radio Interview - Listen to the Archived Show

I recently was a guest on the Tom Anderson Radio show on KOAN Fox news radio in Anchorage, Alaska. Tom was kind enough to send the audio from this show sans commercials! For some reason the callers audio is a bit funky, but still understandable. For more on the capybara I mentioned visit For more resources on parrot behavior problems visit my FAQ page. Enjoy!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

How to Address Fear in Parrots

Have you ever been really scared? Perhaps it was a moment when you did not have control. For example as a passenger on a turbulent plane ride, or you realized someone was targeting you to pick your pocket, or you were stuck in a big crowd of people pushing you opposite to where you wanted to go. The adrenalin rushes associated with those scary moments can be exhausting. Your body may shake, you may squirm, run or panic or even freeze.

Try hard to remember that feeling. It will make you a better parrot trainer.

So many people think what they are doing to an animal is no big deal because they know it is not going to hurt the animal. Think of the parrot that is being restrained against its will for a nail trim. Many parrots show significant signs of stress and fear when restrained by a towel. So much so they are terrified at the sight of a towel. I have also seen this happen with parrots who have been strapped into a harness involuntarily. While the humans may know no physical harm will come to the parrot, the birds dont know that. Their panic is real. Having empathy for that fear is important.

Getting past a fear response is not about forcing an animal through the experience until the event is over. An ideal strategy is to avoid creating the fear response in the first place. This may mean taking things a bit slower. And more importantly it usually meaning pairing things you know your parrot likes with the experience.

I was recently at a friend’s house talking about desensitization and counter conditioning procedures and the different processes that can be used. We decided to explore some of the differences with a cute little terrier named Blue. First we used systematic desensitization. Blue was resting peacefully on a chair. While she lay there we gradually moved a big scary vacuum closer and closer as long as Blue remained relaxed. We made sure she could see us moving the vacuum and watched her responses. Eventually the vacuum was right next to her and she showed no need to be anywhere else and continued resting peacefully.

In the next steps we moved the vacuum cleaner to the center of the room and put treats all around it. Suddenly her body language changed. She sniffed, licked and explored every inch of the vacuum. Later when we moved it to the side she wouldn’t leave it alone, even though all the treats were long gone. Her tail was wagging and her focus was on the vacuum. By pairing something Blue liked with the vacuum we went beyond tolerance to loving the machine.

I use these same procedures with parrots all the time. I certainly don’t want my parrots fearing things like scales, towels, nail trimmers, etc. I start with systematic desensitization and then switch to classical conditioning, and then many times start incorporating operant conditioning. I use shaping with approximations to teach my parrots to actively present specific actions related to the no longer scary object, such as stepping onto the scale or taking fluids from the syringe. But first and foremost I avoid creating a fear response at all costs. Because I know fear is not always easy to overcome.

It’s true I am comforted when a pilot tells me turbulence is expected and for how long. However the truth is I am still much happier when there are no bumps at all.  My flight is even better if there are movies to watch and snacks to enjoy.

Be empathic when your parrot shows a fear response. Take a little time to help him overcome what he fears. The end result is worth it.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sirocco the Kakapo in Your Home!

Check out this awesome project! Artist extraordinaire Arlene Powers has made a painting based on one of my photos of Sirocco the kakapo. How cool it that?

Here is the best part. This original painting could be yours! This painting is being raffled off via the Chirping Central Conservation Fund. For just a single dollar you could potentially be showing off your own piece of fine art featuring the one and only Sirocco. (If you have not read about my adventures with him, be sure to visit my blog about training Sirocco. It was the thrill of a lifetime)

All funds raised are going directly to the Kakapo Recovery Program. This means your contribution will help save kakapo in the wild. This unusual, nocturnal, flightless parrot is down to only 127 individuals. The team is working nonstop to ensure a sustainable population is here for generations to come. Having been privileged to meet Sirocco in person I can say kakapo are simply fascinating and unlike any parrot I have ever seen. The team has had great success increasing their numbers, but there is more work to do and your entry will help. The drawing for the winner will take place at the American Federation of Aviculture conference in August. No limit on the number of tickets you can buy. Go for it! Get your tickets here!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2012 Good Bird Inc

Monday, May 7, 2012

How to Become an Animal Trainer

Many people have an interest in working with animals as a profession. In truth there are many different types of jobs one can consider. Animal related professions include veterinarians, veterinary technicians, zoo keepers, pet store employees, wildlife educators, breeders, wildlife rehabilitation, animal rescue and welfare organizations, groomers, boarding facilities, field biologist, and of course animal trainer!

In the world of animal training there are additional categories. You may have an interest in presenting educational or entertaining shows or training zoo animals for health care. Some people train animals for TV and film. Other animals are trained for search and rescue and for assisting people. Animal training expertise is also required to work as a consultant to help solve animal behavior problems.

Every type of animal related profession requires certain skill sets and some require college degrees. The world of animal training is no exception. The science that is the foundation behind all animal training is called Behavior Analysis. Individuals interested in becoming trainers should invest time in studying this science. There is no secret to animal training, nor is there any whispering involved. Influencing animal behavior is all based on the principles of behavior analysis.

Knowing the science and applying it are two different things. Animal training is all about practical application. This means practice, practice, practice. Ideally you want this to happen with the guidance of an experienced trainer. This will help you improve your technique tremendously. You can learn about the science and how to train by attending animal training lectures and workshops. You can also get your feet wet by watching instructional DVDs.

Getting educated is an important part of being a great trainer. However hands-on experience is also critical. Find ways to spend time with animals. In the beginning it may mean volunteering or accepting the less glamorous jobs working with animals. However any professional animal trainer will tell you, those experiences are worth their weight in gold. There is always something to learn from the time spent caring for animals. Zoos, animal shelters, wildlife rehab facilities and some veterinary facilities will accept volunteers. Take advantage of these opportunities to enhance your hands-on experience. Exceptional volunteers are often the ones who land full time jobs. Treat your volunteer work as an important step towards becoming a professional in the animal world.

If you are looking to hang out with millionaires, keep in mind most animal professions don’t lead to six figure incomes. However working with animals can certainly be rewarding on a personal level. And if you are a positive reinforcement trainer you can bet your work is making a difference in the lives of the animals you train. You also get to be on the receiving end of a lot of love coming right back at you.  If animal training is your dream job, go for it! The world needs more people sharing kind and gentle ways to work with animals.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2012 Good Bird Inc

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Parrot Paints to Save Lives!

I am so thrilled to be able to share a new project with you. Blu Lu my blue-throated macaw has learned a new behavior. Painting! In the zoo community we frequently train animals to paint to raise money for conservation. I have seen everything from primates to penguins painting. However there have not been that many parrot artists. Knowing how adept they are at using that beak, it certainly seems like a relatively easy task to master. Blu Lu did learn the behavior rather quickly...once I figured out a strategy to train it. (That part is not always as easy as it sounds.) You can watch a little video of her painting below to see how she does it.

While it is certainly a blast for her, I wanted to make sure her artistry would benefit her wild cousins. I decided to have her paint her version of other parrot species commonly seen in homes as companions. The paintings will be raffled off to raise money for blue-throated macaw conservation. Over the last few months she has made tons of  paintings! Including the following species:

Blue-throated Macaw
Scarlet Macaw
Green Wing Macaw
Moluccan Cockatoo
Sulphur Crested Cockatoo
Rose Breasted Cockatoo
Peach Faced Lovebird
Senegal Parrot
Sun Conure
Quaker Parrot
African Grey Parrot (photo right)
Male Eclectus Parrot
Female Eclectus Parrot
Blue Fronted Amazon Parrot

You can be the proud owner of one of her framed pieces of original artwork. Visit to buy your raffle tickets. We have set it up so you can choose which paintings you would like an opportunity to win. The person who buys the most tickets also gets a special bonus prize. See more information below.

Blu Lu specializes in imagery that features parrot species commonly kept as companion animals. Each piece is unique.  Here are the instructions to enter to win a framed original painting by Blu Lu:

1.    Review the collection of paintings and pick your favorites.
2.    Click on the link(s) to your corresponding favorite pieces to buy your raffle tickets.
3.    Buy as many as you wish for each of your preferred paintings. There is no limit on how many times you can enter.
4.    Winners  will be drawn by Blu Lu on August 1st, 2012. This will be filmed and posted to the site. Winners will also be notified directly. The three paintings that receive the most entries will be drawn live at the American Federation of Aviculture (AFA) conference in San Antonio, TX August 16-18.
5.    Deadline for online entries is 12 midnight CST, July 31st, 2012. In person entries will be accepted for the top three pieces up until the live drawing at the AFA conference.

All funds will be donated to the Bird Endowment, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving blue-throated macaws. Their Nido Adoptivo ™ program funds the building and monitoring of artificial nest boxes for wild blue-throated macaws. Competition with other species for nest sites has contributed to the macaws’ demise. Supplemental nesting has made a difference for these rare parrots. (

Blu Lu is a highly endangered blue-throated macaw. There are less than 300 birds left in the wild. Hatched in captivity, Blu Lu is an avian ambassador for the conservation project The Bird Endowment. ( Her artwork raises money for parrot conservation and other charities. She is named after blues singer Blu Lu Barker. She is trained by Barbara Heidenreich (

Cross posting and sharing is appreciated.
Barbara Heidenreich

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Regulatory Information Animal People Should Know

Whether you are an animal industry professional or share your life with companion animals it is important to be aware of the laws and policies that apply to the animals we steward. The following links will help you learn more about US federal government policies in regard to animal welfare.  These documents below are provided by The US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service  (USDA APHIS).

US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) regulates native species. People are not allowed to "own" native species. You are given permission by the government to acquire or steward them for various reasons such as education, display, falconry or research. Many birds in the US are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. Any birds on this list require a permit from the federal government to be in your care.

Keep in mind there may be other state and city regulations, policies, ordinances and laws that apply to animals in your area. It is a good idea to check on the local level and state level as well as the federal level to make sure you are in compliance.

Here is a list of some of the most often requested regulatory and guidance documents from USDA APHIS:

Law: The Animal Welfare Act

Regulations: 9 Code of Federal Regulations Animal Welfare

Policy Manual: Animal Care Policy Manual

Dealer Inspection Guide

Exhibitor Inspection Guide

Research Facility Inspection Guide

Inspection Requirements Handbook and Attachments

Information and Fact Sheets:

Fact sheet on the Animal Welfare Act

Licensing and Registration Under the Animal Welfare Act

Types of Animal Welfare Act Licensees and Registrants

Glossary of Animal Welfare Act terms

Regulation of Commercial Animal Dealers

Regulation of Exhibitors

Regulation of Research Facilities

Information on the AWA inspection process

Fact sheet on Compliance Inspections

Information on the AWA enforcement process

Animal Care Inspection Information Search Tool: searchable database of inspection reports

It is a lot too read, but I hope you find these links useful.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sex and Sirocco the Single Kakapo

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on Training Sirocco the Kakapo. Click here to read the series from the beginning.

The main reason I had come to New Zealand was to address Sirocco’s undesired sexual behavior. What I had learned about kakapo natural history is that the males are extremely motivated to copulate during breeding season. With companion parrots we often advise people to remove all the environmental triggers that increase hormone production and associated reproductive behaviors. This might mean keeping light cycles the same, offering a less rich diet, removing access to nest sites, avoiding mate like bonds with your parrot, etc. These tend to work really well at keeping parrots from going into what people like to call a “hormonal” state.

However Sirocco would be living outside, roaming an island like a wild kakapo during breeding season. (Which by the way I thought was awesome! How many animal ambassadors get to do that?) There would be no way to control the environmental triggers that lead to hormone production for him. And as mentioned in a previous blog the mating strategy of this species is very different from the parrots typically kept as pets. The males will call for a female for up to eight hours a night for three months. They will mount nearly anything that passes by their bowl. And once they engage they have been seen mating up to an hour and a half. This is a very sexually driven parrot!

My plan for Sirocco would not be the same one often suggested for companion parrots. Instead my goal was to redirect Sirocco’s sexual behavior to something other than someone’s head. Once that relationship was established the goal would be to offer the new object as a reinforcer for desired behavior. For example, if Sirocco wandered up to a ranger house in search of some action, he could get exactly that for doing the right behavior. In this case when envisioned him stationing on one his stations. His reward could be access to the object for mounting.

The “object” has become quite the fascination. Years ago I had won a barn owl puppet in a raffle at an IAATE (International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators) conference. Because kakapo have a facial disc they are often called the owl parrot. Even their scientific name Strigops means “owl face.” I decided to bring the owl with the hopes it might be able to replace people’s heads as the object for sexual behavior. I knew it may not be the object we ended up using, but I figured it would be good to have something just in case.

By the time we introduced the owl Sirocco was already hip to how training worked. We used a target and treats to get him interacting with the owl. It was quite adorable when he gently squeezed the stuffed owl beak with his own beak. However at this point we had not seen any sexual behavior.

One night after a great training session, Sirocco started to work his way to the top of the hill. He stopped half way sat down and started booming (It is hard to hear the booming in the video You might need headphones). This is the low frequency calls the male kakapo make when seeking females. Sure enough he climbed up team member Daryl’s leg and started copulating with his head. I thought this is our moment! I presented the owl near Sirocco’s feet and eventually got him on the owl. I lifted my arm with him on it. Sirocco then climbed to my head. (Yes I had my head humping moment. I suppose I need a T-shirt that says “I was humped by Sirocco”) I presented the puppet at his feet. We traded Daryl’s arm for mine inside the puppet and now Sirocco was on the puppet on Daryl’s arm. This is when a wonderful thing happened. Sirocco made another attempt to get on Daryl’s head when he didn’t have success he redirected to the puppet and starting copulating with it! It was our sign that our training goal was achievable.

Although the owl was a big hit for the media, it soon became clear we needed an object that could be left with Sirocco. Holding a puppet for 40 minutes of humping was not realistic.

Sirocco has a history of stealing Crocs® shoes and taking them back to his bowl. We decided these might be a better object. While I was there we didn’t have the chance to try a shoe out. But since then I mailed a care package of eight Crocs® to Sirocco. I will share more on Sirocco's training and hopefully will be able to update everyone on how Sirocco’s training has progressed since I left in the next blog. Stay tuned!

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2011

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sirocco the Kakapo Talks!

This is the third blog in the series of Training Sirocco the Kakapo. Click here to read from the beginning.

Parrots have their unique calls and as any parrot owner can attest you quickly learn which calls are associated with fear responses, well being, contact calls and so on. I didn’t know kakapo language when I was working with Sirocco and at first it was perplexing.

I finally heard the call so many describe as a “skraaak” on my second or third night working with Sirocco at Zealandia. The trainer in me wanted to know why did he do that? What does it mean? It happened after we had finished training, attended to his feeding station and were half way down the trail back to the house. My first thought was all our interactions had been really pleasant maybe it is a contact call and the skraak was his way of saying “come back”. Then it happened one night while we were heading back down the hill after Sirocco had displayed some aggressive behavior. That made me think maybe it was his way of saying “go away”. Finally longtime member of the kakapo recovery team Daryl Eason arrived to work with us. He is a walking encyclopedia on all things kakapo. We asked him what the call means and it soon became clear a ‘skraak” can mean different things under different circumstances.

Up to this point we had not observed Sirocco when he called. We only heard it. One night he skraaked during a training session! It was pretty fascinating to watch him do it. An innocent touch to his tail caused him to belt out a skraak. In this case he seemed mildly perturbed and perhaps a bit surprised by the tail touch. However he carried on with training right after the incident. Other times he skraaked when he was ready to exit the display area and another time he skraaked when he was perfectly calm and relaxed.

There was another vocalization we were lucky to experience almost every night. We were getting much better at reading Siroccos body language at this point and felt we had a good handle on what a “happy” kakapo looked like. Sirocco’s facial feathers would be nice and round, his body weight low on the perch and he would often start to get a half lidded sleepy look. This usually happened after he had consumed a few nuts and was starting to slow down in the training session. It was at this point he would start to “talk.” Sirocco didn’t talk the way we think of parrots talking, as in mimicking human sounds. Instead he would make this gentle, breathy chortling sound. He seemed to be more inclined to make the sound if people spoke gently to him or mimicked his sounds. To me it sounded similar to the noises an African grey parrot might make when feeling a bit “in the mood.” But Sirocco's gentle sounds were never followed by anything sexual. I would get to see what sexual behavior looked like on another night. More on that in the next blog.

Barbara Heidenreich
Good Bird Inc
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2011