Friday, October 17, 2014

Connecting with a New Parrot

I spend a great deal of time on the road teaching parrot training workshops, meeting new parrots, making a connection with them, and then training behaviors such as step up, take medication from a syringe, interact with towels and so on. Sometimes because I spend so much time talking about and studying these topics I assume many others are familiar with this information as well.

However it became clear this is not the case when reading a thread on a chat group.  A woman had inherited a macaw and was very unsure about how to interact with her new charge and was most troubled by how to train the parrot to step up.

Here are some of the misguided tips she received from well-meaning members of the group:

  • Make him step up by using a stick
  • Expect to get bit
  • If he bites, ignore it and just take the bite, so he learns not to bite
  • Just sit by the cage and talk to him softly
  • He will grow out of the biting
  • Don’t show fear
  • Just put your finger near him and talk to him like he is human
  • Keep him below eye level
  • Just be patient and love him
  • Sing songs to him
  • Parrots are just bad pets and shouldn’t be in our homes
I think it is wonderful that people want to help and are willing to share information. However the tips listed here are not what this bird or woman needs. And it saddens me that the information that will truly help this person is not reaching enough people.

Here is what will make a difference…straight forward force free training with positive reinforcement. This means identifying something this bird finds of value. Singing and talking to the bird may be of value to some birds, but not all and in reality is usually not the most powerful reinforcer for a bird that has no relationship with the human in question. Fortunately it was mentioned the bird like walnuts. Awesome! Now there is a treat she can use to get started pairing something good with her presence. The nuts can be broken up into small pieces to offer lots of teaching moments throughout the day.

The next step is to identify steps or approximations she can use to train the bird to step up. These are outlined in great detail in my DVD Parrot Behavior and Training, my eBook Train Your Parrot to Step Up and you can see examples on my YouTube page. Each step or approximation is reinforced with the pieces of walnut.

While going at the birds pace is important, it does not necessarily mean you have to wait weeks or years to train this behavior. It literally usually only takes one to two training sessions for me to train this behavior. It is one I repeat over and over again with new birds I have just met at parrot training workshops. There are always birds present at these workshops that show fear responses or aggressive behavior towards hands. This is the result of hands being used in coercive ways. It is not inherent to parrots. It is the result of learning and can be changed with force free approaches. Biting never had to be in these birds’ repertoire and nor does it need to be in the future. “Taking the bite” is not the way to go. Teaching the bird you will respect his or her body language and not push her to the point of biting will make biting irrelevant and not necessary. The result will be a much more trusting relationship between human and bird.

Biting is not a phase to grow out of, nor is it solved by keeping birds low. It is also not the result of parrots being bad pets; it is the result of how people interact with parrots in coercive ways.  A pleasant bite free relationship with parrots it completely possible when you use a force free training strategy.  I hope by sharing this information here, we can get more people talking about kind, gentle and most importantly, effective ways of building trust with companion parrots.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014