Sunday, January 30, 2011

Think… Before asking

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.

Companion Parrot Workshops… Anything in 2011?

2010 was a huge year for me – both personally and professionally. The Companion Parrot Workshop went on the `road’ again and with the help of a very dedicated Lisa Kearney from Tasmania we had some fantastic days of learning in both Hobart and Melbourne. My sincerest thanks to Lisa and everyone who attended those workshops – you were brilliant! In May I presented a series of lectures as special break out workshops at the Pan-Pacific Veterinary Conference held at the Brisbane Convention Centre. The lectures were followed by a two-hour hands-on workshop with some birds of mine. Working with veterinarians was a lot of fun and hopefully there will be more opportunities to continue supporting them in learning about progressive methodologies for working with parrot behaviour. These workshops were followed up mid-year with the organisation of the Behaviour, Training and Enrichment stream of the Parrots 2010 Program. I presented two lectures at that event, which was really a culmination of over 10 years of involvement with the `Parrots’ convention concept. I’ll look forward to being a delegate at the next one – time to move on from being an organiser. I was due to then present at the AAVAC Veterinary Conference in Hobart in October. Unfortunately this was a date I couldn’t make thanks to the (very premature) arrival of my twin boys – Will and Archie in late August. An instant life changer right there. Since their arrival I have had very little time to do much beyond my monthly clinic consultation work at Brisbane Bird & Exotics Veterinary Service – another achievement that I’m particularly proud of. Most months are now booking out and it’s just a fantastic opportunity for parrot owners to access advice and support that can really make a difference.

I did however manage to get a leave pass in December to present my annual workshop at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. We were fully booked and unfortunately had to close off registrations even though we had additional people wanting to attend. Heading into it’s 7th year in 2011, the CWS Companion Parrot Workshop is definitely like nothing else in Australia and we’ve refined the program to such a degree that it perfectly caters for absolutely anyone with an interest, at any level, in parrot behaviour, enrichment and training. It’s really a true immersion in everything parrot related for full day. We have set a date for 2011 – Saturday December 10th. This will be the only workshop that I will be presenting this year. I have decided to take a rest and focus on my young family – Darcy, Will & Archie. Registration forms for the December workshop are available. We cap the registrations at 20 people and as 2010 was fully booked more than a month in advance I would strongly recommend that people register early to avoid missing out!!!

April/May ABK Magazine

Looking ahead to the next two editions of Australian Birdkeeper Magazine… I have written a two-part article titled `When the honeymoon is over… Preventing problem behaviour development in companion parrots’. The first part will appear in the April/May issue of ABK and will focus on getting over the inherent problems of assuming behaviour change in our parrots is due to hormonal/physiological changes as they mature. In the article I discuss how my own diet management practices and reinforcement schedule with my birds can provide me with a much clearer understanding of the association between their observable behaviour and the state of their environment. In Part Two we’ll discuss a whole range of other key issues and mistakes that companion parrot owners make in the first year of owning a parrot that inadvertently create the perfect set of conditions for problem behaviours to develop and why such changes really aren’t just about `hormones’. I’ve pulled out two really critical thought bubbles that you’ll encounter in Part One…

Interpreting Behaviour Change: `What serves us best is to look at behaviour change not as a result of an internal state that we don’t understand but as a combination of the natural biological tendencies of our birds, the environmental conditions the behaviour presents itself within, and as a consequence of the reinforcement history the parrot has experienced’

Importance of Diet Management: `We need to manage the choices and options available to them to ensure that their primary source of nutrition is one that sets them up with the healthiest food intake whilst maintaining motivation to interact with us for additional positive reinforcement treats’

To make sure you don’t miss out on ABK Magazine head on over to their website and consider subscribing –

Here’s an idea of the daily food intake of Maya – my Green-winged Macaw. The level of seeds and nuts are regulated daily depending on whether or not all of the fresh food and formulated food are consumed. The only food component missing here are Harrison’s pellets, which I also offer but was out of at the time I took the pic.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pet Parrot Pointers `Guest' Writers...

A new year - and hopefully a little time every now and then to get some blog posts out there! I hope everyone had a safe and festive Christmas/New Year period.

Just a quick mention of the latest Australian Birdkeeper Magazine issue. It's been out for a while now and features a fantastic shot of a Sun Conure on the cover. As some blog readers may know, I contribute a regular column to ABK Magazine titled `Pet Parrot Pointers'. The column has received some great feedback over the years and I think it's a wonderful education access point for Australian parrot owners. In the latest issue we have a guest writer stepping in - Ann-Louise Allen. Ann is a long-time friend who has some wonderful insights into life with a trio of African Grey companions. I would really encourage everyone to go and pick up this issue and read Ann's story. I would also like to encourage everyone to consider contributing their own insights and learnings to the Pet Parrot Pointers column. My goal is to write three columns each year and to have the other three filled by guest writers. Our aim is to provide information on the husbandry, general care, enrichment, training and behaviour management of companion parrots. If you would like to get in touch with me to find out what some of our article guidelines are for a PPP contribution then please do! My e-mail address is