I am anxiously waiting the arrival of hard copies of my new parrot training book, The Perfectly Trained Parrot. I hear that they are in the warehouse and almost ready to ship. I hope this book is helpful to some people. I hope it is enjoyable to read. I hope I didn’t screw anything up in the text!!
Here is a sneak peak at the Table of Contents…
I know some folks pre-ordered from Amazon. Let me know when you get them!!
As I work on my new parrot training book for TFH, I find myself noticing training for better or for worse all over the Internet. The book includes trick training and training for husbandry and behavior, but I personally think the most important bits of the book are training the day-to-day. Right as I was about to write the section on training a parrot to take a bath, I noticed a video on Facebook of a scarlet macaw taking her first bath.
I hope the video owner will forgive me for not entirely approving of this method of “baby’s first bath” which is essentially here is how you take a bath, get over it. He is very gentle and careful and talks calmly to his parrot. Obviously he loves her a great deal and wants to help her with new feather itchies. However, she is not happy about her bath and may or may not be willing to get in the sink next time.
What do I mean by “not happy”? Explicitly at :19 she starts trying to get out of the sink. At :34 she tries again and when she is unsuccessful holds up a foot, wanting to try again, but not making a big attempt because she wasn’t successful on her last try. When she succeeds in busting free at :54 she definitely has escaping on her mind and beelines out of the sink. If you have ever heard me talk about watching for subtle body language that exhibits discomfort or fear, that is what I am talking about. Her body language is saying, “I don’t like this.” If the parrot finds the situation undesirable, then it is not training with positive reinforcement, because being in the sink and being sprayed is obviously not reinforcing. It is also not operant conditioning because the operator is clearly not in control.
Is she terrified? No. Traumatized? No, I think she is just fine. However, it’s now a crap shoot whether or not she is going to want to take to her next bath, because it obviously wasn’t rewarding. Behaviors only repeat themselves if they have been rewarded. Compare her experience to Blu Lu, Barbara Heideinrich’s parrot and her first bath which is entirely directed by the parrot.
When Blu Lu is uncomfortable, she is allowed to leave. I know not all of us believe in having our birds flighted. If she were unable to fly, Barbara would have just offered her a hand, when Blu Lu lifted a foot wanting to get away from the water and let her step back down when she leaned toward it again. The parrot can make the decision and discover for herself how she feels about bathing. What she discovers is that it is positive; look at her body language in compared to the other parrot. She is flicking and bobbing her head and dunking herself in the water voluntarily. Her body language shows engagement rather than a desire to escape. And when she does leave, she comes right back. The experience was positive and chances are it will repeat. There is no question about how she will feel about being near the sink or being offered a bath in the future. Perhaps she won’t jump right in, but it will only be because does not feel like having a bath, not because she is nervous or fearful.
So you can train a parrot with operant conditioning to take a bath by allowing her to reinforce herself, or if you have a reluctant parrot, you can be the giver of reinforcement and shape the behavior. Those step would look something like this:
Leave the water running in the sink and step your parrot on the counter. (You may have to do some repetitions on and off the counter if your parrot is uncomfortable with standing on it.) Once your parrot is comfortable sitting on the counter train her to bath by shaping the behavior for rewarding each step progressively:
Reward for looking at the water. (She looks at the water, you say “good” hand her a treat.)
Reward for getting closer to the water.
Reward for getting right next to the water.
Reward for touching the water.
Reward for getting beak all the way the water.
Reward for leaning all the way into the water.
At any time, if she is uncomfortable, she can back out or quit all together and you can pick up your training session again later. And once you get her going to the water on her own you can ask her to step up and position her with your hand so that she can move all the way into the water for rewards. Pretty soon you have a parrot that has learned that bathing is fun and enjoyable and getting into the water will likely be its own reward.
Sure, a lot of us have learned how to swim by being thrown into the water, but who wants to learn that way when you can just as easily put on your floaties and slowly the test the water on your own? Life should be a self-explored adventure, not a task that is forced on us. Those of us who have found our way by exploring and being in control are well- adjusted and on the look out for fun. This is similar for all animals. So give your parrot a chance to delight in the simple things in life, like taking a bath!
A snippet of the parrot training book I am working on…
Imagine that your parrot is an alien dropped into your home from another world. Actually, this is pretty close to the truth.
Parrots don’t have lips and cannot smile. Their strange little pupils expand and contract with their thoughts. Overall, they have strange expressions that do not make sense at first, expressions mostly based in the rise and fall of feathers. They communicate in clicks and beeps. Their locomotion is even different from ours. It is hard to even imagine what it would feel like to travel through the world on wings, but they do it and in the wild make it look easy. You may as well have E.T. in your living room. (If you haven’t seen the movie E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, you should definitely rent it.)
Yet, despite the fact we must seem just as alien to them, we assume parrots understand our words, motions and sometimes even our thoughts. So where would you start if you found yourself having to share your home with an alien you wanted to communicate with, have fun with and teach how best to live with you? If it were E.T. you would coax it into interacting with you with Reece’s pieces, train it how to integrate into your home without making too much trouble, teach it to talk, learn everything you could about the species and then work on some awesome tricks together. (Who wouldn’t want to ride a flying bicycle?) You should skip the candy, but working with a parrot is not all that different than working out how to live with E.T.
About once a week I receive a long heartbreaking email from a parrot owner asking for help with a complicated problem. I’ll be honest, I often don’t answer. The truth is the answers would often involve several phone conversations and major problem solving. Even an encouraging email with a few helpful thoughts would take me an hour to draft. So they sit in my inbox while I hold on to my good intentions and hopes that I’ll carve out some time to answer. And I don’t. It makes me feel horrible.
There was a time when I had that hour to spare, it kills me, but that time is gone. I work full-time plus, write two blogs (admittedly intermittently) and am usually working on several writing projects at a time– and they are usually on deadline. The time I do have to dedicate to sharing training thoughts and helping problem-solve has to go into the blog and lectures, where I can help big groups of people all at once. If you are one of those people whose email went unanswered. I am SO very sorry.
You are welcome to pose questions to the blog. You will be more likely to get help that way. Ask something that can be answered in a 500 word blog post. It won’t be an intensive solution, but it may help and you may find out there are others battling the same issues. Send them through my contact page and I’ll answer them if I can. Otherwise here are some of the questions I get asked the most:
I do hope everyone is enjoying my more fanciful “Tuesdays with Ty” posts, but I realize I have been neglecting what was initially the core of this blog– training and behavior advice. I need to get back at that as well.
I love writing the little essays for Tuesday, pondering what it is that the parrots remind me every week about what it means to be human. I’m lucky to be so easily inspired by my avian friends. Just don’t think for a minute that I think my parrots are little people or a magical mystery. What the birds do in my home, they do because I asked for it. Every behavior my parrots repeat is a product of the consequences of that action.
Speculate, imagine, engage and have fun with your parrots! Just don’t ever forget the every behavior that repeats itself has been rewarded (likely by you). If you enjoy something your parrot does– stop a minute and pay attention, give him a treat or a scratch on the head. If your parrot does something you don’t like, ignore it and do your best not to reward it. (ie– asking for a peanut while you’re working like Ty has been doing for the last ten minutes. Don’t turn and look at him, don’t talk to him and for goodness sake, don’t give in and get him a peanut. He’ll never never never stop asking for one. And you’ll never get to finish the article your writing.)
Behavior is simple and you are always shaping it. This is the key to animal training. If you ask me, it’s the crux of every rewarding relationship. What are you rewarding?
From time to time someone who is thinking about getting a parrot asks me what my opinion is. Should I get a cockatoo? Or do you think an African grey? Wow. Those are two very different species. And if I don’t know you, I probably don’t have a very valid opinion. It’s all about your personality.
Honestly, there is no best parrot suited for the life of a pet. They all have major challenges if having a pet that isn’t perfect bothers you from time to time. Is noise an issue in your house? Get tired of cleaning? Hate dust? Then you better make sure that the species you choose is the one that appeals to you the most, because all parrots are going to have their drawbacks.
So choosing the best species of bird for your home (and hopefully for the next several decades) is a very personal decision. Cockatoos are wonderful birds for the right person. Not for me. That ‘too voice makes me jump out of my skin, especially when I’m trying to write. And I’m not a constant cuddler. I work best with birds that are happy with interaction and don’t mind that I’m not hands-on all the time. I love to visit with my friend’s Mollucan, but I’m very glad I don’t have her in my home. Although, she sure is pretty!
Don’t be seduced by the package either. The parrot you choose should be one that you think is gorgeous, of course, but find out which species best fits your personality. Talk to people who love that species, breeders, experts, long-time owners. Then also talk to folks who have had bad experiences with the species or would never have one in their home. There is no one best species, but there may be a particular type of parrot that’s the right one for you.
Sunday morning is my favorite time to make toys. A cup of coffee, a power drill, what morning could a girl ask for?
I could give you some instructions, but with drilled tongue depressors, wooden pieces, leather lace and some imagination, you can make a wide variety of toys. Don’t forget that you can also save pieces from other toys that have been mostly destroyed and re-use them.
Of course, the real fun is when the toys get doled out…
You think I’m nuts, right? In fact your parrot is screaming right now. A normal serenade, the sort of noises parrots make in the jungle is perfectly acceptable and should be accepted. Not everything is screaming, some noises are natural behavior.
Screaming is a learned, not a natural behavior. At least, the sort of screaming that makes us the most crazy and that can be managed. Screaming is something that a bird learns to do in order to control its environment. Want attention? All you have to do is scream. So screaming is a frequent, prolonged, repetitive behavior.
Don’t want your parrot to learn to scream? Start by only responding to sounds your parrots make that you do not mind so much. All your parrot really wants to do is interact with his environment, so give him a whistle or sound you will answer or appear when he makes. Try to make sure that raucous noises are never followed by attention or treats. Be clear with how to get rewarded. You parrot and your ears will appreciate it!
It’s been a regular avian grumpfest around here lately. The falcons are on an all-you-can-eat diet and the molting has commenced, meaning falcons who have no use for me and are nearly impossible to handle. The pigeons or making ostentatious and impossibly loud overtures to one another. Meanwhile, the parrots are touchy and feathers abound in the house. Tis the season. What I wasn’t expecting though, was Loki’s first egg. Fifteen years old and my little hen Senegal parrot decided this was the year to settle down and get to business.
I watched her closely as soon as I realized she had made herself a newspaper nest and that she was bulging about the cloaca. I expected aggression, but what I got was adoration and regurgitation. She turned to goo, literally. I tried not to encourage her while watching for signs of egg binding. I was relieved when the first egg arrived and then the second. I might have one more to look forward to and then hopefully we’re done.
Egg laying can actually be dangerous business. An egg the parrot is unable to pass is a death sentence and not uncommon. First time egg layers and older birds may be more likely to become egg bound so keep an eye out. Egg binding can also occur because of compromised health, poor nutrition or simply because of genetics. If your bird is puffed, bright-eyed, interactive, but obviously just nesty, she’s probably fine, but watch closely for signs of distress. Watch for a distended abdomen and straining to pass something through the vent, drooping wings, fluffed feathers, loss of appetite and difficulty breathing. And if there is any question at all in your mind, best just to get to the vet!
Here are a few tips to avoid egg binding:
Get your bird DNA sexed so you know whether or not to suspect egg-laying
Try not to encourage nesting and bonding behavior during the breeding season.
Make sure your parrot has a nutritious well balanced diet with sufficient calcium (smooth muscle requires calcium to function and of course, calcium is required to create fully formed shells)
Get that bird some exercise! Obese birds are more likely to become egg bound.
Talk to your vet if your bird lays eggs excessively. Your vet may suggest hormones to get the egg laying to cycle more normally.
If your bird does become egg bound get to the vet right away! Your avian veterinarian can help the egg pass or remove it surgically if necessary before the situation becomes deadly.
Hope you all have a great Spring. It’s gonna be a long one around here…
Someone asked me the other day, “Do parrots have feelings?” She apologized in case it was a dumb question, but she was curious to know. This makes a difference doesn’t it? Or does it?
Of course parrots have feelings. I imagine that all animals have feelings. I simply don’t know what those feelings are at any given time. Think you can tell what a parrot is feeling? You are going to have a hard time convincing me of that. We like to think we know, but really, we’re guessing. Hell, we don’t even know what our spouses are feeling most of the time. How many times have you told your husband that you’re not upset even though if it were legal you would likely be strangling him. And he believed you when you said you were fine, didn’t he? How many times has a colleague not even noticed that what she said just infuriated you? Lot of good feelings do us in managing behavior.
Happy, sad, glad, mad, jealous, angry and grumpy. You parrot may be any or several of these things at any given time, but you’ll never know for sure. He won’t tell you. Even if he did tell you, how would you know he was telling the truth? If you want to have a bird who is well-behaved, lives nicely within the expectations of your household and never takes a chunk out of you, then you cannot depend or even lean on the “feelings” guessing game.
When you interact with a parrot you should base what you do on what is quantifiable — behavior. What a parrot does tells a story that can be changed and shaped. What he’s thinking is not for you to know or manage. Not unlike the people around you. Don’t guess if your parrot is “grumpy”. Instead break down the behavior that you can see. If when you approach the cage he steps to the back, he probably does not want to be picked up. That is quantifiable. If you go to pick him up, he may bite you. You can’t do a whole lot about what he’s feeling, but you can certainly avoid the behavior of biting.
So it was a great question! Sure, parrots have feelings, but if you don’t want your own feelings and fingers to get hurt, keep them out of your training!