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!