I recently did a photo session with ABK photographer Peter Odekerken for an upcoming addition to the ABK `A Guide to…’ series that will focus on the Amazon Parrot group. The Amazona are my favourite genus of psittacines so I’m really looking forward to the arrival of the book – hopefully mid year some time. Looking back at some of the photos that Peter took I pulled out two that show reasonably well the importance of body positioning when making the `step up’ request with our parrots. Watching yourself handle your parrots is an excellent eye opener. I remember when I was first at university studying teaching and we had to video tape ourselves and critique our teaching style. I was horrified at all the things I was completely unaware of that I was doing that were really poor examples of how to communicate effectively with a group of students. If you can get someone to video you working with your birds you really should do it - and sit back and watch objectively to see where you can improve your communication skills.
For me, `step up’ is always a request – one that my parrots have the choice to respond to. Antecedent arrangement (setting the environment up so that the behaviour you are keen to capture is best able to be achieved) is critical in facilitating the desired response to the request. Before asking a parrot to `step up’ (by presenting established visual and verbal cues) consider the following mental `checklist’ to make sure you’re setting yourself and the parrot up to succeed…
- What do your observations of his body language tell you? Consider his level of observable acceptance of your presence, receptiveness towards your hands, and interest in any reinforcer that you may be presenting. If the body language indicators aren't suggesting that he's keen to interact with you then it's right here that you take a step back and re-evaluate how you have arranged your antecedents.
- Are you asking him to step up or down from a position that is uncomfortable for him and therefore resulting in him needing to use his beak to assist with balance or increasing his level of hesitancy in movement? Consider your hand positioning and the simple mechanics of how a parrot most comfortably moves. You might be more successful if you shift the parrot to a different perch or position before asking him to step onto your hand.
- Are your hands positioned too close to his body inadvertently resulting in negative reinforcement to achieve the step up? Hesitancy (or latent response to the cue) can often prompt an impatient trainer to move in closer to the bird and place their hand onto the abdomen to coerce a step up. This can result in a loss of trust between parrot and handler and should be avoided.
Have a look at the following two photos that illustrate some of the points above…
Lola is being asked to step down from a perch with poor hand positioning that is resulting in her being hesitant to move from a safe, secure and predictable platform to an uneven and moving one. It's all wrong - she's unbalanced, uncomfortable, the hand is too close to her body and the mechanics of an easy forward motion are actually being impeded - not assisted. She resorts to leading with her beak – which can often result in a bite occurring due to fear and uncertainty. At this point a poor handler resorts to thinking about `height dominance' and `Oh.. she's being stubborn'. Uh-uh - this is an uncomfortable and uncertain bird - nothing to do with `dominance' peoples ;-)
I've moved to a different position in the aviary and given her time to come over to me at a different perch. Here you can see hand positioning that perfectly facilitates the best and most comfortable bio-mechanical movement of the parrot, and therefore the position that is most likely to result in a positive response to the cue.