Monday, September 20, 2010

Maya’s Training Diary – Accepting `Touch’

I’ve had an incredibly `full’ time over the past few months and one aspect of my lifestyle that tends to take an unfortunate back seat during busy times is focused training with some of my own birds. Kinda happens when you have a pretty demanding 22-month-old daughter and 3-week-old twins to take priority over `other’ stuff. Over the past couple of weeks (in between hospital visits to see `me boys'), I had a few windows of opportunity to work with my Green-winged Macaw `Maya’. Check out some older posts for the background with this bird. Thanks mostly to the inconsistency of my training time with her we hit a speed bump in getting some behavioural momentum in regards to stepping on to hands consistently without aggression. There were obvious behavioural indicators from her that suggested that I was more than likely setting myself and her up to fail if I stuck with the criteria schedule I had set. Sometimes when you are working with a really challenging bird and have reached stagnation in behavioural momentum towards a specific training goal it can help to change focus and work on something completely different that has a lower set of expectations and greater opportunity for success in order to build back the trust and momentum you were previously working towards. This is beneficial not just for the bird, but also for the trainer or owner to avoid the frustration that can settle in when you feel like you’re not getting where you want to go. The interesting dynamic with training animals is that it’s not just about reinforcement for the animal – the trainer needs it continually too to keep their own confidence and behavioural momentum progressing positively and maintaining that sense that they're succeeding as well. One goal I was keen to achieve was for Maya to be less sensitive to hands and hopefully even accept some tactile touch in the form of a head scratch. She had never allowed this – at any time in her life thus far, and certainly any attempt to put a hand near her head would absolutely result in an aggressive `jab’ to deter it from intruding into her personal space. It still does actually, but with some careful and patient training I can actually get some really cool tactile head touch without aggression. A big milestone for us and something that will hopefully pay off as another reinforcement option and a growing level of trust between her and my hands. The following sequence of images gives some insight into where we're at with Maya. I won’t go into elaborations as I’d like to do some writing on working with her for my ABK column next year. Good magazine that – go buy a copy!

Birds, Beak Bubbles, Blah!...

You gotta hand it to us humans. When it comes to our quest for mastery over the animal kingdom we sure can be an inventive bunch. I’ve come across some fairly ridiculous inventions directed towards the gullible parrot owner in my time but the `Beak Bubble’ might just take the cracker. Check out the magnificence of this little S&M number turned Parrot Grooming Support Device at the Parrots and Props website - to see what I’m talkin’ about.  I particularly like the unintended self-confessed insanity plea tucked in there on that page with the whole `The Lord made me do it’ vibe. Nice. I think the English used to use a similar device back in the 15th century on Gallic intruders. Inspiration for parrot props can be found anywhere peoples – even in the artefacts of deepest darkest medieval history! 

But seriously - What you’ve got here with this sort of contraption folks is perhaps the pinnacle example of a whole bunch of warped reasoning when it comes to `solving’ perceived problems with keeping parrots.  Whilst the aesthetics of it all are wrong enough as it is, you know what? For me the line of thinking that bugs me most isn’t the desperate attempt to avoid being bitten by a parrot (I can appreciate that), but the whole concept of `grooming’ a pet bird in the first place. If parrots aren’t subjected to the problems of anthropomorphism enough, they then have to face a growing reference point of `Poochism’ – the only term I can come up with to describe the apparent socially embedded way of thinking of the husbandry and maintenance of a parrot in the same way society tends to think of a pet dog. These days you can even get fresh `cooked’ meals in the form of canned parrot diets to stick in the microwave and serve warm – hmmm, just like you get at the woodland diner I suppose. Nail trims? Sure – can’t have those pesky little prickly toes of theirs walking up and down your arm. Let’s just forget how important it is for a parrot to have nice sharp toenails for its perching confidence and how darn easy it is to make an absolute mess of a trust account with a parrot by trying to file them away. Ever clipped your own nail and just been a few millimeters out? Hurts like hell don’t it? Second hmmm. Remember the `Birdie Diaper'? It looks like a little cloth bucket you strapped under the tail and around your parrot's vent to `catch the poops' - I'm not shitting you, that was a marketed product! (pun definitely intended there folks). And let’s not get me started on harnesses. Just like a walkin’ the dog – except, hang on... it’s a parrot. I know the whole harness concept has plenty of buyers, including many of my peer trainers, but I’m just not going for it and I’ll leave the debateable justifications up to those that endorse their use. My perspective gets informed by what I’m now seeing in a growing number of clients at my behaviour clinics seeking advice on how to undo the damage to the trust they had with their bird after forcing things like harnesses on them. I had two such cases of failed harness use come into the clinic just this weekend gone. (God knows what I’d be seeing with widespread use of the `Beak Bubble’. Then again, apparently God does know what I’d be seeing – He was the one who put the idea in the head of the person who invented it).When you actually stop to think about the mechanics of it all, It’s just such an invasive expectation to have on a parrot and their threshold of tolerating the poor application of such devices diminishes so much faster than the impatient owner is ever prepared to recognise. Therein lies the problem.

They’re birds folks – not dogs. Give ‘em space, flight, opportunities to forage for fresh food, a chance to engage with you as their carer in a trusting and non-invasive manner, fun interactions, trick training, whatever – but just not a lifestyle that sets them up with expectations we have of highly domesticated animals that these guys simply are not.

Training the Trainers at Alma Park Zoo

I have been doing some consultative work with the team at Alma Park Zoo in Brisbane. They have recently acquired some birds that they are keen to display and develop some interactivity with. It’s been really refreshing working with a Zoo team that is super responsive and open to learning from an outside consultant – something that’s not always a hallmark of Zoo operations. For me it reinforces a really important element to `learning’ – it doesn’t occur within a vacuum. Sometimes you just have to open up and allow new ideas and outside expertise and experience to filter in and challenge your existing approaches, establish new levels of understanding or guide you in developing new ways of thinking. One key aspect of working with this particular goal set was developing `structure’ in the approach to implementing the management and training of the birds. If I could summarise using an acronym around that word `S-T-R-U-C-T-U-R-E’ what I was really keen to see the keepers working with those birds achieve it would be as follows…

Set the keepers and the birds up for success through understanding the nature of the animal and the laws of behaviour before establishing your expectations.

Teamwork generates collegiality amongst staff and creates supportive dialogue between keepers that improves training and husbandry results.

Respect for the body language and observable state of the animal you are working is vital in informing decision-making and setting training expectations.

Using positive reinforcement as your foundation for building a trust account with your animals and creating desirable lifelong learning experiences establishes the foundation for lifelong relationships

Criteria for success for both the animals and keepers need to be achievable, and are best located along a continuum that generates behavioural momentum through timely delivery of positive reinforcement.

Training is simply learning – it happens every time we engage with the animals in our care and with the peer staff we are working with.

Understanding the natural anatomy and biology of the animal you are working and setting the environment up to make shifting an animal from A to B as natural a physical movement for that animal as possible. 

Reflecting on training and being prepared to recognise areas for improvement not as criticisms but as opportunities to reach your goals.

Ending on a good note – always seeking to keep those training criteria achievable and knowing when to stop a session to set your next encounter up on a winner.

If you haven’t stopped in to Alma Park Zoo lately then it’s worth a visit. Best option is to take a picnic lunch and take advantage of the free barbecues onsite and great outdoor garden eating areas. Snags and Spider Monkeys – Who could ask for more? More info at

I snapped a shot of this peacock displaying next to my car on my way out after my last consult at Alma Park Zoo - magnificent birds!!!

Cool Nest Boxes for Breeding Season

A big shout out to Phil Brauer who builds what I consider to be the best nest boxes going around for Australian Aviculturists. I dropped in to Phil’s place on the weekend to pick up a pair of boxes for some of my birds and he just pays such great attention to detail in his work. I love people who are passionate about their skill set and aim to achieve really high quality in what they do. Phil’s boxes are superb so if you live in Australia (particularly in SE Qld or on the eastern coast) and need some well-made boxes this coming breeding season then send me an e-mail and I’ll pass Phil’s contact details on to you. I believe he’ll have his wares at the Bundaberg Sale in a few weeks time if you’re in the Wide Bay area.

Darcy inspecting for eggs - blissfully unaware they haven't even had birds in them yet.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

New DVD From Good Bird Inc

Barbara Heidenreich has just released a new addition to her standard setting DVD series - `The Basics of Parrot Training: A Live Workshop’. I haven’t received a copy yet but plan on putting an order in asap and checking this out. Having coordinated workshops presented by Barbara, including teaming up with her in 2009 for the `Step Up’ practical workshop in Brisbane, I know this is going to be an outstanding resource for every parrot owner to add to their library. There is over 4 hours of footage in this DVD set – unbelievable!!! To purchase the DVD go to

World Record - 20 Parrot Tricks in 2 Minutes...

With over a million views I’m sure you’ve no doubt seen this. What I love about it is the clear use of positive reinforcement and a great example of use of a clicker as a bridging stimulus. Training for novel tricks like this is something I don’t have enough time to do these days with my birds but it’s such an excellent enrichment option for companion parrot owners. Enjoy!

Latest ABK Magazine - Designing An Enrichment Aviary

As mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I have written a two-part article on outdoor enrichment aviary design for companion parrots as part of my regular `Pet Parrot Pointers’ column for ABK. The article series primarily shares insights into the design and construction of a new bank of aviaries I completed earlier this year. It answers a lot of `frequently asked questions' I often receive about how to go about putting together an outdoor enclosure for a companion parrot. The first part of the article is in the latest (Aug/Sep) issue that is available in newsagents now. Be sure to grab a copy!!!


My Blog has been inactive for a few weeks – largely due to some recent additions to our `flock’. My wife recently gave birth to our twin boys – Archie and Will. They were 7 weeks premature and after a rollercoaster ride of a first week they are both doing really well. They need to stay in special care in hospital for another month and we are looking forward to bringing them home sometime around late September or early October. In the meantime it’s daily visits to the hospital for us and probably not a lot of time left over for parrot blogging so I might take advantage of a small window of opportunity now and see if I can get a few posts up!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Latest Issue of ABK – Barbara Heidenrich steps up for Pet Parrot Pointers

If you haven’t picked up the latest issue of Australian Birdkeeper Magazine from your newsagent then you should grab it while it’s there! Barbara Heidenreich has filled in for the Pet Parrot Pointers section of the magazine with an absolute cracker of an article on `Ten Common Training Mistakes’. It’s just such a beautifully put together summary of the things well all tend to do at times and what we need to be mindful of to ensure our training failures don’t become mistakes that break down the relationships we have built with our birds.

I’m hoping that every second or third issue of ABK will feature a guest Pet Parrot Pointers writer so that we can learn from a variety of passionate parrot keepers and trainers. I’m looking forward to this opportunity for sharing and learning with Australia parrot enthusiasts.

Parrots 2010 Convention – The Culmination of a 10-Year Vision

Sometime in 1999 I sat in an office with a group of Parrot Society of Australia committee members and together we put together a plan for the very first `Parrots’ convention. That event was held in 2000 and featured 1 international speaker (Rick Jordan) and a single day program of breeder focused lectures. It was a terrific success and reinforced for those of us who were involved that this was an educational opportunity that we simply had to deliver to parrot enthusiasts in Australia. In 2002 we increased our scope with 2 international speakers (William Horsfield and Lyrae Perry) but stayed conservative with our single day program scheduling. 2004 saw a big leap of faith with a 1.5 day program and it was the first time that we integrated some `breakout’ workshops with a focus on parrot behaviour and raising pet birds. The key speaker for that event was EB Cravens and since then he has maintained a profile here in Australia via his Hookbill Hobbyist column in Australian Birdkeeper Magazine. In 2006 the window of opportunity was finally opened for me to get some serious parrot behaviour and training content added to the program and I was able to bring Barbara Heidenreich to Australia for the first time. The two-day program was a success and the program scope and sequence was a first for an avicultural convention in Australia. Barabara’s lectures were so enthusiastically received that we invited her back for the Parrots 2008 Convention and expanded on the behaviour, training and enrichment scope of the event whilst maintaining international standard breeding lectures. The 2008 Convention also saw the integration of dedicated lectures on the conservation biology of parrots in the wild with Dr. Don Brightsmith presenting both during the day program and also as keynote speaker at the Conservation Dinner.

That brings us to 2010 and an event that truly was the culmination of a vision I had back in 1999 for what I wanted to see delivered to Australian parrot enthusiasts. A full two day program with the best and most progressive information on breeding, conservation biology, behaviour, training and enrichment all delivered by some of the most experienced presenters in their respective fields. From Steve Martin to Dr. Susan Friedman, Dr. Rob Heinsohn to Dr. Jamie Gilardi, Roger Sweeney to Dr. Susan Clubb, Nic Bishop to Dr. David Waugh - absolutely the finest lineup you'll find anywhere. If you missed it then tough – sorry, only way I can put it. These opportunities for learning are rare folks – really rare. When they come up – grab them, embrace them, engage in them. You owe it to the parrots you keep. For those of you who were there – thankyou, thankyou sincerely for making such an investment in your own knowledge and in ensuring that you are providing the best standards of care and behaviour management for your birds.

The Parrots 2010 Guest Speaker Lineup - A diversity of lecture presentations and scope for a two day program that was the best of its kind for an avicultural convention - anywhere in the world

Enrichment Aviary Project – Final Update

Well – I made it. Just. For those of you (there might be one out there – hmmm?) who have followed the enrichment aviary project updates, the goal was to have this completed before the Parrots 2010 Convention. As it turned out, I managed to pull it off with the last of the fittings completed and the birds relocated just 5 days before I left for the Convention.

The lecture on enrichment aviary design and construction at Parrots 2010 was really well received and I was stoked with the positive feedback from the delegates. I have just submitted the first part of a two-part article on the process that will feature in the next two issues of Australian Birdkeeper Magazine. Look for the first instalment in the Aug/Sep issue – out mid August. Now onto new projects!

The Enrichment Aviary Complex - Home to my Amazon Parrots.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Enrichment Aviary Project – Update 3

Things are getting very tight time wise with just over three weeks to go to the Parrots 2010 and the focus of one of my presentations – designing and constructing an outdoor enrichment aviary, yet to be completed! This is seriously going to come down to the wire and I’m getting nervous. Here are some pics and a few updates to let you know where we are up to. A long way still to go before these are inhabitable…

Aviary Footings
Traditional footings for aviaries are usually designed to provide a concrete platform around the full perimeter of the enclosure. This provides both a uniformly flat base and a solid anchor point. Normally, a trench will be dug around the perimeter to facilitate the construction of a concrete footing 200mm in depth and 150mm wide for a small complex. I have done this in the past with some of my aviaries and it’s both labour intensive and costly. For the enrichment aviary complex I decided to do things a little differently and just anchor the primary corners of the complex to a concrete base, rather than run the concrete around the full perimeter. We welded base plates to each corner of the frame and drilled a hole to facilitate dropping a 10 gauge bolt into the base plate. The bolt was positioned upside down with an oversized washer at the bolt head and a washer and nut at the screw head. The concrete was then poured into a pre-dug hole at each corner, encasing the length of the bolt below the base plate. Once the concrete was dried, the bolt was tightened to further secure the frame to the ground. I’ll discuss why we can get away with this level of footing security in my presentation at Parrots 2010.

Landscaping and Planting
The past two days have been huge with plenty of digging and planting going on in and around the aviaries. I’m not finished yet but here’s a snapshot of some of the landscaping work in progress.

I gotta say, when this is all done – the one thing I am looking forward to more than anything else is being able to spend more time with two of my favourite animals – my daughter Darcy and my Rotty Rosie!

Small Parrots – Love ‘em!

I recently had the opportunity to work with a Meyer’s Parrot (Poicephalus meyeri) that belongs to a friend of mine. I needed an extra bird for a hands-on parrot-training workshop I was teaching at the Pan-Pacific Veterinary Conference and the little Meyer’s ended up being perfect (that's her in the pic above). We had her at our place for the week leading up to the Conference and it was the first time in over a year that we’ve had a parrot indoors `living’ with us. It got me thinking about just how much more appropriate the small parrot species are as indoor companion animals as opposed to the medium and large parrots that increasingly seem to be grabbing the attention of companion parrot buyers in Australia.

What is a real shame is that species such as the Meyer’s, and indeed the whole Poicephalus group, are so rare in Australia that their value places them well and truly out or the reach of the pet bird owner. We have a unique situation here in Australia in regards to the availability of parrots. Our native species are plentiful, affordable, and as such, are commonly kept as pets. Many of the small non-native or `exotic’ parrots are rare, exceedingly expensive, and therefore not an option for the pet bird owner.

Unfortunately, many of the Australian native species, in my opinion, are much less suited to captive conditions, particularly the situations generally encountered in indoor pet environments. There are some good exceptions – the humble Budgerigar is as good as any, but it would be interesting to do a study on the behaviour spectrum and capacity of different species to maintain functional behaviours when kept as pets. I bet we would see some enlightening results that would shift people’s attentions more towards the little guys. Easier to cater for in terms of enclosure size, less mess, less destructive, quieter, flights aren’t much of an issue, and they’re just a heck of a lot easier to keep amused!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Good Bird Magazine - New Format!

You have to hand it to Barbara Heidenreich. She just continues to come up with great initiatives and products for the companion parrot owner that just nail it in terms of quality of content and accessibility. Barbara has now taken her `Good Bird' magazine to the next level and future editions of the magazine will offer a fully electronic, multimedia experience for subscribers. You can check out a preview version of the new magazine at the link via her website. I've e-mailed Barbara to see if the new format will work on iPads - hopefully it will as I've been looking for an excuse to get one ;-) Check out the new stuff from Barbara and Good Bird Magazine at

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Enrichment Aviary Project - Update 2

Big day at work here at El Rancho Jimbo with some good progress made on the Enrichment Aviary Project. This project is in preparation for a presentation that I will be delivering at the Parrots 2010 Convention in Brisbane on July 3-4. That means there's only 5 weeks left for me to get these darn enclosures finished - Agghh!!!

The positive news is that the painting is complete and today we were able to bolt together the three enclosure frames to the central walkway frame. The next set of `build' stages will involve securing the corner footings, putting on the roof sheeting, and hanging the doors. I'm confident that I can pull that off in a weekend and then it's on to the `good' stuff - landscaping, perching and fit out. With just 5 weeks to go I'm going to post about the progress weekly so you guys will see if I get it done in time! Otherwise... It'll be a short lecture at Parrots 2010 :-) Check out some updated images below.

Front two enclosures - each will be home to our Amazon Parrots. We have used solid colorbond 1.6mm sheets as wall partitions for the back wall and a 1/3 screen along the walkway.

A view looking into the walkway. The walkway is actually a separate frame that the three enclosures are bolted onto. It's part of a design method I came up with when we built the original three enclosures and gives a bit more flexibility down the track if we decide to change the layout of the complexes.

A view from the pathway leading to the complex. Landscaping will be completed around the outside of aviaries to provide natural screening for the birds.

Pan-Pac Veterinary Conference

Last week I gave a series of lecture presentations, followed by a practical parrot training workshop, at the Pan Pacific Veterinary Conference that was held in Brisbane. Lecturing to veterinarians from a variety of interest groups within that profession can be a challenging task - particularly when it comes to discussing approaches and methodologies of behaviour consulting with parrots. I suspect that many of the traditional paradigms of thinking for the behaviour management of pet birds persist within the veterinary field. However, the group I lectured to really did seem to be wonderfully receptive to a more progressive approach that embraced Applied Behaviour Analysis and Functional Assessment of behaviour. I noticed quite a few `light bulb' moments occur throughout the day that served as great positive reinforcement for me.

Whilst I am certain that the vet group came away from the day with a lot of great, practical, information and advice - I certainly came away with a deeper appreciation for some of the time constraints that our veterinarians face in their clinic consultation work. What blew me away was that for many of the vets I spoke to informally during the day, a standard consult time allocation was just 15 minutes. Not a lot of ground you can cover in that amount of time if we're talking about the complexities of parrot behaviour! There was a strong sense that dealing with discussions on parrot behaviour with clients was too overwhelming and time consuming. It challenged me to come up with ways to support the vets in being able to deliver small, but potent, pieces of information on behaviour to their clients. For most of them, I think the criteria for what they might consider success in working with a client on parrot behaviour issues was too high. Just as we see when we raise the criteria for our birds too high, too soon, with our own expectations of ourselves we often see a loss of behavioural momentum and a diminishing of opportunities for learning if we fail to recognise the small approximations of achievement that we make before the end `goal' is reached. It truly was a great opportunity for me, particularly coming from outside of the veterinary community, to work with such a great group of professionals. My sincere thanks to Dr. Deborah Monks for organising the opportunity and to Dr. Melinda Cowan and Dr. Kim (Sorry Kim - I didn't get your surname!), for helping with all my `gear' and birds. A very special thanks, to Phil Ghamraoui who helped as a second trainer for the practical session. Finally - thanks to my `teachers' for the day - PJ my Black-headed Caique, Lola my Yellow-crowned Amazon, and a gorgeous little Meyer's Parrot that I will talk about in a future post.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

`What is `Browse'???

I remember a few years back at the Parrots 2006 Convention when an audience member asked one of the presenters `What is browse?' when the presenter was talking about the term in the context of enrichment for parrots. Basically, the term comes from the Zoo industry and was probably first used to describe the bunches of eucalypt leaf that are provided daily for Koalas. If you watch the behaviour of Koalas when they receive their gum branches they get straight into `browsing' through the fresh `tip' to find the juiciest, newest shoots to eat. Parrots do much the same with fresh, leafy, native branches - browse through it in search of something to chew on. Hence the term `browse' in reference to the provision of leafy branches for our birds. Leafy browse on its own though can sometimes have limited value for our parrots as the leaf isn't normally edible and what we usually observe is some interest in snipping off the leaves and chewing up the bark. That in itself is great behavioural redirection away from undesirable behaviours, such as overpreening. However, to increase the motivation value of browse in the aviary or enclosure then consider integrating some highly valued food items. Check the example below with the Black Lories accessing their watermelon chunk that has been skewered onto a branch of their browse. Here are a few other tips for increasing the value and interaction time associated with browse:
  • If you have a parrot that is a reluctant bather and you are concerned about a low humidity environment then soak the leafy browse in water before placing it in the enclosure or aviary. Many parrots will rub through the wet leaf to access the moisture and in an indoor environment the additional damp on the leaves can help to increase the surrounding humidity.
  • If your parrots naturally have a terrestrial feeding tendency then consider creating a `foraging pit' and use the laves, bits of branch, seeding cones etc at ground level. Sprinkle some budgie seed amongst it all with just a few sunflower seeds for an occasional jackpot reward for the foraging behaviour and you will keep them entertained for hours.

Fresh, leafy eucalypt branches can provide a valuable distraction for parrots during the day.

Increasing the motivation to forage and explore through browse can be achieved by integrating their feeding experience into the browse itself

Terrestrial feeders, such as these Galahs, benefit more from having their browse provided in the form of a ground foraging pit

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Parrots with Gambling Problems...

Undoubtedly the greatest frustration I encounter in working as a behaviour consultant with parrot owners is that when it comes to accessing support and advice, I’m most often seen as the `last resort’ rather than the `first resort’. It’s difficult to explain to people what the potential consequences are when the response pathway for working on problem behaviours follows a whole bunch of old school thinking, homespun remedies, or intervention programs that completely fail to appreciate exactly what behaviour and learning are all about. Let’s be honest though – we live in a society that demands `quick fix’ solutions. I often use the `drive-through, take-away’ approach as the analogy of choice as it encapsulates well how we tend to go through life looking for the most convenient, least hassle, quickest, and cheapest solution to our problems. Hence why the popularity of a range of well-marketed online behaviour and training products and `solutions’ can be so appealing. It’s also why there is a proliferation of chat boards, discussion groups, and online forums for parrot owners – all providing a quick, convenient, and most importantly `free’ access point for the struggling parrot owner to find answers to questions that can be super complex at times. The dilemma for someone like me is that by the time I see the client in the consult room or in their home, I’m trying to clean up a dropped meat pie – it’s just a darn mess! I have a tendency to use a little saying that I learnt from Avian Trainer, Steve Martin - `Set Up for Success’ - in my approach to working with birds and their owners. Problem is, I’m usually the one who is the least set up to succeed. What got me really thinking about this was an article in the latest issue of the IAATE magazine `The Flyer’. The article is titled `Behaviour Fundamentals: Filling the Behaviour Change Toolkit’. It’s an absolute gem, written by one of my great mentors – Susan Friedman PhD. Here’s the final paragraph to ruminate on…

`One mystery that often surrounds problem behaviour is its very persistence. People may have a litany of failed behaviour-change programs by the time they turn to behaviour analysis for help. As they wade through the personal recipes of one Internet charlatan after another, people don’t realise that, with each failed attempt at behaviour change, the window of opportunity closes a little bit more because the problem behaviour is intermittently reinforced. Intermittent schedules of reinforcement build persistent gamblers, willing to behave again and again, without reinforcement, for that one jackpot that inevitably occurs. There should be nothing casual about intervening on an animal’s functional `misbehaviour’. Each intervention should start with a careful functional assessment, and the intervention should be designed to meet the needs of the animal, using the most positive, least intrusive methods. The greater our knowledge of the scientific principles and procedures of learning and behaviour, the more effectively we will meet the needs of the animals in our care.’

Don’t feed your parrot’s gambling habit. When problems start to surface, get support, advice, and a behaviour change plan worked out that uses an approach based on the science of learning, and the art of building a lasting relationship with your bird. Quick fix solutions are for gamblers – effective behaviour change takes work, commitment, and consistency of reinforcement schedules. Most importantly of all - it requires partnerships, between you and your bird, and sometimes, a consultant willing to walk the journey with you - not just serve you at the drive through.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Maya's Training Diary - Step Up Critique

I was fortunate enough to have my good friend and brilliant photographer Peter Odekerken stop by yesterday to take a few images. If you're unfamiliar with Peter's work then check out his website at He will be lecturing on parrot photography at the Parrots 2010 Convention in Brisbane on the first weekend in July - be there good feathered people!

What was great about having Peter take some snapshots is that his camera is able to take up to 9 frames per second, allowing me to analyse the minutiae of what's going on when I'm working with a bird. As I discussed in my previous training diary entry about `Maya' our Green-winged Macaw, this is a bird that is highly averse to hands and is significantly lacking in trust towards humans. She was almost completely parent raised and had to endure an 8 week period of being force fed via gavage tube whilst being weaned due to her parent's deserting her nest. As you can imagine, daily restraints and force feeding episodes completely eroded this birds acceptance of hands. We've been rebuilding the trust account with her, slowly, and at her pace. It's been a remarkable learning experience and a very good opportunity for me to get back to being challenged in regards to the clarity of my antecedent arrangement, communication, reinforcement delivery, and most importantly - `patience' when training.

Here's a couple of cool things I picked up when looking back at the images Peter took...

Firstly - what's wrong with the picture below? Note the posture of Maya upon the presentation of the hand cue as I am getting ready to request a step up. A keen trainer will notice that she's leaning slightly away from the hand, is extremely upright, and her foot is held up more defensively rather than a desirably relaxed position. Her body weight is shifted away from the hand rather than towards it, thus taking any possible momentum towards a step up out of the equation. Acknowledging these subtleties in body language is what sensitive training is all about. What many owners are inclined to do is to continue with the cue, possibly coerce the bird into stepping up, and as a result, achieve the goal without their being a true `choice' and decision making process afforded to the bird. I backed out, allowed her to re-perch, relax, re-evaluate, and hopefully present some more confident body positioning upon the presentation of a new cue.

Now have a look at the next image below. What's wrong here? The body positioning is better and the weight shift is more indicative of confident movement towards the hand but... that hand position is all wrong. The last thing I want Maya to do is to place her right foot at the end of my hand and leave no room for her left foot to follow. This is a bird that has zero tolerance for an unstable perching surface - particularly when that is a human hand. Time to remove the cue before the foot touches the hand, reinforce the confident movement towards the hand and rebuild the momentum by repositioning my hand to better set her up to succeed in achieving the goal of both feet on my arm.

The image following shows where I needed her right foot to be placed - on my wrist and thus allowing plenty of room for her left foot to follow and fall into position for a comfortable step up.

As you can see, she's building her confidence week by week. Parent raised Macaw folks. Very humbling.

Enrichment Aviary Project - Update

It's been a while since I posted about the new aviary complex that I'm working on to house some of our parrots. I've been hard at it again this past weekend and with the wiring of the frames now completed and painting started I thought I would share a few insights into these two aspects of the construction.

First up, let's talk about attaching weldmesh to the aviary frame. For a novice or someone inexperienced this can end in a really poor looking aviary and an awful lot of frustration. A couple of pointers that might help when you are applying the weldmesh sheets are:
  1. When placing the weldmesh sheet against the frame, make sure that the `bow' (created by the wire having come from a roll) is directed away from the aviary. Think of it as placing the weldmesh sheet so that it forms a convex arc away from the frame - rather than a concave curve towards the frame.
  2. When drilling in the tech screws, make sure that each screw is placed tightly into the corner of each weldmesh square so that as you work your way out from the corner of the frame, the mesh is being pulled in opposing directions along the lengths of the frame. Drilling the screws in equidistant along the frame lengths will also assist in achieving a more uniform and `tighter' fit.
The ultimate goal is to achieve as tight and flat a weldmesh panel as you can. There's nothing daggier than a `bubbled' or floppy sheet of weldmesh on your aviary so take your tiome to get it right - you'll be looking at the results for years to come ;-) Achieving a `tight' fit is much easier when using 900mm wide sections than 1200mm wide sections, but a good tight and flat fit can be gained across both dimensions if done patiently and with care (two things that are usually lacking in my aviary building by about the third sheet :-() The image below shows the directional fixing of the tech screws - although, note that I have actually fixed the top row coming from the other end, not from the corner shown. If I had started from the corner shown the top row of screws would be working away from the corner - not towards it. Basically you just need to be working against the tension and pull of the opposing frame length.

One of the most common questions I am asked about my aviaries is `What do you paint them with?' It's a good question as most parrot owners are naturally averse to anything that might traditionally be considered `toxic' to their birds. In short, I use water based outdoor paint in low sheen/flat black. I only ever use either Dulux Weathershield or Wattyl Solagard. We've used both of these for 10 years now and it's completely harmless. For tidying up the hard to reach places that aren't easily covered with the paint roller, I use a water based spraypaint - once again in flat black. Water based acrylic spray paint can sometimes be hard to locate and is more expensive but it's the only option. We never use enamel based paints.

The next question about painting that I receive is `Why do you use black?'. The answer is that bare weldmesh sheet is highly reflective of light and hence visibility through the wire is very minimal. Aesthetically, bare wire will also start to show signs of corrosion and discolouration quite quickly due to environmental exposure. To give you an example of the visibility difference between unpainted and painted weldmesh check out the picture below that I took today of two adjacent panels - one painted, the other bare.

Make sure you make an effort to come along to the Parrots 2010 Convention in Brisbane on the first weekend of July. I will be delivering a full presentation there on outdoor enrichment aviary design and construction.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sulphur-crested Sex Change...

Hmmm. Bet the title of this post got you interested eh? I was at the BBEVS Surgery last Saturday to do my monthly consult clinics and I overheard one of the most amusing discussions I have yet to encounter about parrots. The two people engaged in the following banter weren't clients of mine - they were in to see the vets and `met' at the reception upon bill payment time. One was a dog owner and the other was the owner of a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. The Sulphur was perched very proudly on the shoulders of the owner. It was attracting quite a deal of attention as it was sporting a rather regal looking elizabethan collar, no doubt to keep it from picking at whatever body part had just been treated as it otherwise looked pretty good! Here's a brief snapshot of the conversation...

Dog owner: `Oh - what a lovely Cockatoo!'
Cocky Owner: `Thankyou. Yes. He's a beautiful bird'
Dog Owner: `My old Aunt used to have a Cocky as a pet. Had it for years. I used to look after it every now and then'
Cocky Owner: `Really?'
Dog Owner: `Yeah. Didn't like men but - hated 'em. They can be like that you know'
Cocky Owner: `I've heard'
Dog Owner: `Yeah - and you know what else?'
Cocky Owner: `What?'
Dog Owner: `They can change their sex - like go from being a boy to a girl or whatever'
Cocky Owner: `Really?'
Dog Owner: `Yep. They need to do it in the wild. When we had to look after my Aunt's cocky I read up on 'em. Found out that if there's a shortage of one sex or the other in the wild they can just change so they can breed'
Cocky Owner: `Oh?'
Dog Owner: `Uh huh. You'd be amazed 'eh. Amazing birds. Always wanted one myself - too noisy but 'eh?'
Cocky Owner: `Mmmm - can be'

You probably think the above is a joke but I'm serious - that's almost verbatim what was said. As funny as it obviously is to think that anyone could believe or even think that a Cockatoo can just `change its sex' in the wild, it got me thinking about the level of misinformation that is out there about parrots and how so many of these old ways of thinking persist within the birdkeeping community. Most of it, to be honest, is pretty harmless. Sometimes however, clearly outdated yet very much perpetuated thinking about parrots can potentially be very damaging. I'll save a good example of that for a future blog post but for now, if you think you're probably holding on to a few old school lines of thinking about your birds well, as my teenage students like to tell me, `time to get updated' :-)

Wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoo foraging. Male or Female? Depends... apparently.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Melbourne Companion Parrot Workshop

It's been a couple of weeks since we conducted our first Companion Parrot Workshop in Melbourne, Victoria and I still have a `buzz' from the very cool experience working with some fantastic parrot owners on that day. The participants gained a massive amount of information over the 8 hours (we just kept going after the `official' full-time!) and it was so pleasing to see the networking and story sharing going on throughout the day. One of the most rewarding aspects of conducting these days is seeing parrot owners make new and like-minded friends and build their support network - which can be so essential when we encounter challenges and difficulties with our birds.

A remarkable aspect of the demographic in attendance at the workshop was that around 75% of them were Eclectus Parrot owners! What is it about the Eclectus Parrot that often generates a set of real, and sometimes unique, challenges for their owners? In my experience, as both someone who has worked with them in my own collection over the years and also as a consultant called on to support owners managing their behaviour, enrichment, and training over the past 10 years, the Eclectus is very much a bird that we seriously need to spend more time learning about their long-term care needs in captive environments. For me, they are the classic example of how we often get it wrong when we apply the one approach fits all methodology to parrot keeping.

One element that really seems to be feeding (pardon the pun) into the behavioural equation with our Eclectus parrots is the manner in which their owners are managing their diet and daily food intake. Perhaps more so that any other groups of parrot owners I encounter, keepers of pet Eclectus parrots seem to really go overboard with just about every aspect of the feeding program for their bird. A lot of the Eclectus I am seeing (particularly those developing problematic behaviours) are fed excessive amounts of nutrient dense, often high carb, foods at excessive quantities 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The `All You Can Eat Smorgasbord' seems to be the common Eclectus owner's approach to diet management. If you ever get the chance, dial your ear in to a conversation between Eclectus owners. The rap almost always immediately directs itself towards `What do you feed your guy?' Eclectus owners are obsessed with the diet of their birds! Pasta diets, rice diets, large quantities of sprouted seed, as much corn and high sugar fruits as you can eat, human table foods (`awww - but he loves it when we have Pizza') and let's wash it down a few nuts - but hey, just as treats right? ;-) I gotta say - if there's such a thing as reincarnation - I wanna come back as a pampered Eclectus! Now, getting enthused about the diet of our parrots is a good thing - I'm just as passionate about the whole issue of feeding my birds as the next owner. Where we seem to be going wrong is losing sight of the reality of what these birds in their wild state have biologically evolved to feed on, the manner in which they access that food, the volume they would normally be able to obtain vs the energy expenditure required to source and access their daily food intake, and the seasonally fluctuating nature of the nutrient composition of their diets.

Compounding the complexity of getting an Eclectus diet `right' is the increasing anecdotal evidence of problems such as toe tapping and wing flipping being associated with processed foods and some pelleted diets. Those issues aren't the only problems - an increasing number of companion Eclectus parrots are presenting with severe feather picking, chronic masturbating, and concerning escalations in the frequency and intensity of territorially aggressive behaviour. Of course, as a behaviour analyst, evaluating the immediacy of what is occurring in the environment of these birds is the first stage in a pathway towards understanding the problem behaviour and developing behaviour change solutions. However, my approach towards developing some `bigger picture' solutions when working with clients of Eclectus parrots always includes a careful evaluation of the diet management of their bird. For my thinking, when we pump these birds full of nutrient dense foods in excessive quantities 365 days a year it must surely be providing an influence on the physiological state of the bird that has flow on effects in terms of the observable behaviours and responses to environmental stimuli that we then start to see.

It's not just diet issues either - we can now start to see (after nearly 10 years of Eclectus being available to the pet market in Australia and a good sample size to draw anecdotes from) that the social nature of the species, in particular the males, may also be influencing some of the failures to maintain these birds as behaviourally active, engaged, compatible with humans, and healthy, in captive conditions. And the females???... I'll leave that for a future Blog ☺

To all the participants at the Melbourne Workshop (too many to name - you know who you are you bird nerds!), thankyou so much for helping to make that day such a positively reinforcing experience for me - I hope you enjoyed the learning and sharing as much as I did!!!

Two young male Eclectus parrots - growing up and developing life skills in an aviary environment that facilitates the level of activity, exploration, and exposure to environmental stimuli that these birds thrive in.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Heavy Metal Toxicosis

In the June/July issue of ABK Magazine later this year I will be writing about our recent experience with heavy metal toxicosis in our Nanday Conure - `Nandy' (yep - dumb name but the best I could come up with at the time and it stuck). We've been lucky to have avoided this health issue and Nandy was our first case. We still haven't determined the source, which is a concern. The good news is that, thanks to some outstanding veterinary care from Dr. Stacey Gelis, she has recovered well (folks - you just can't beat a qualified avian vet, they're tops and worth every darn cent). The pic above is me working with her today on some basic recall to and from her cage. She flies like a butterfly - it sounds ridiculous but she's as light as a feather and just seems to `flit' rather than `flap'. Gorgeous! Still makes the most hideous call of any parrot I have ever owned though - hands down. Sorry Nandy, but it's true mate.

For some info on Heavy Metal Toxicosis check out the following link...

Maya's Training Diary

In the next issue of ABK Magazine I will be introducing readers to a few additions we have made over the past 18 months to our training team - a group of parrots that I use for my consultation work. One very unexpected addition was `Maya' (pronounced `my-a', not `may-a') the Green-winged Macaw. She's not going to be a permanent resident here as I don't actually `own' her but instead she is on loan for a while given her special circumstances. It was an opportunity for me to work with an almost completely parent-raised Macaw that, due to having to be support fed via crop syringe after being abandoned by her parents at fledging age, is very averse to hands and completely unlike a hand raised and imprinted Macaw. I was keen to see what sort of outcomes could be achieved with such a bird. So far it has been a challenge. Besides having almost no real trust in human hands, we are also working on minimising and hopefully eliminating some early onset feather picking behaviour on her legs that she started whilst being weaned offsite. The long-term goal is to get her partnered with at least one other Green-winged Macaw as these birds absolutely thrive in the company of their own kind and flying `solo' is not (in my opinion) the ideal lifetime scenario for a Macaw.

In the short-term however, we're going to work through the process of seeing what sort of relationship we can establish with her and take it from there. She has only been with us for three weeks and although each day is a new page in the relationship building story, I really only started some focus sessions with her 5 days ago. What I have been doing are just short, 15 minute, positive reinforcement sessions each afternoon, gradually building up her tolerance and acceptance of my proximity to her. I plan to detail these sessions in a future Pet Parrot Pointers column in ABK magazine but in the meantime, below are just a few images of the approximation pathway that we were able to achieve in Session 5 with Maya that ended with her actually placing both feet on my arm (not shown) - a huge trust moment for her! To work with birds like this is very special indeed, and humbling as a trainer as it really does challenge you to think fast, problem solve quickly, and above all, tune in to the slightest body language indicators on offer from the bird to know when to raise your criteria and shape the next stage of the behaviour. The images don't give the full reveal as they don't show just how apprehensive this bird is, but they do hopefully give some indication of just how slow good training with a parrot like this needs to be. The end result in the second last image was achieved after five 15 minute sessions over five consecutive days. No magic - no voodoo - no `bird tricks' - just patience, perseverance, keen observation, timely reinforcement delivery and above all - respect.

Image 1: Starting off where we finished the previous session with Maya taking food treats from the hand and maintaining close proximity to me without moving away to eat.

Image 2: An important approximation to consider is the nature in which the treat is taken from the hand - it provides a strong indication of the level of comfort the parrot has in the presence of the hands and trainer. A gentle taking of the treat as opposed to an aggressive `grab' informs you whether or not the parrot is starting to have confidence in its choice, trust in the trainer, and some control over its environment.

Image 3: Looks like something not worth noting but it's a critical indication of where the focus of the parrot is - firmly on the hand delivering the treat and with the confidence to look away from the trainer and towards where the reinforcement is being delivered. Time for a raising of criteria.

Image 4: Gradual desensitisation of a hand grasping her perch. Note that her proximity to me has shifted back spatially on the perch - a result of the introduction of the aversive of the arm to her environment. She is being positively reinforced for gradually moving closer to the arm.

Image 5: The level of desensitisation to the arm has enabled her to have the confidence to lean over the arm to receive a treat.

Image 6: The criteria was raised to her having to place a foot on the arm for reinforcement delivery. This was a slow process and one that had many small approximations before Maya would actually place and hold one foot on the arm. I also had some challenges getting my own body positioning right and dealing with the problem of the Macaw tail, which can be a pain in the butt when training these guys as they react aversively to their tails brushing up against things while they are apprehensive. If you're wondering why the arm is positioned on the perch and not in front of it in a more `classic' step up position, try dumping a carton of milk into your outstretched palm and see what happens. With a bird that weighs close to a kilogram and is very apprehensive towards unstable surfaces, I was relying on using her perch to support my own arm and hence her weight to give her the confidence in using my arm as an extension of her perch.

Image 7: At this stage I am shifting the target of my treat delivery hand to shape her body positioning to better facilitate her getting both feet onto my arm. This was achieved by the end of the session. So much goes into getting to a point like this in terms of considering your reinforcement delivery, setting the bird up to succeed with your own arrangement of the environment, and obviously the detail in shaping the behaviour. The next set of approximations will be working towards being able to lift Maya from the perch she is being trained on here to the one above it. That will actually be a huge leap for this ruby gem.

Image 8: Finishing on a good note with a nice cashew as a jackpot :-)