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Empowering Our Birds with Training & Enrichment

Rocky, our 17 year old shelter bird
Rocky, our 17 year old shelter bird

Rocky is my seventeen year old Moluccan Cockatoo that came to live with us about eight years ago from a shelter. When I first brought Rocky home, and several weeks after that, he showed so many signs of not being comfortable with the change in environment, our home, and his proximity to people in general. By this I mean each time I walked near his cage he would hiss and hit the side of the cage with his beak very hard. If I continued to move closer he would quickly run to the part of the cage I was closest and lunge. I couldn’t get him out of his cage for over three weeks. So the training began inside of his cage. Rocky would interact with nothing inside his cage except his food and water bowl and the side of his cage where he repetitively did flips. Through observation, I believe I clearly identified his abnormal repetitive behaviors (such as cage bar flipping, screaming, and methodical movements) were due to lack of enrichment and from being housed in a cage too long. Through consistent training and introduction to individualized enrichment, I was able to start changing these behaviors.

Enrichment is individualized. What one bird prefers, the other may have no interest or simply not understand. So many times I see intended enrichment in cages that the birds pay no attention to. If your bird is not interacting with a specific toys, it doesn’t like it, it’s afraid of it, or it doesn’t understand it.

It took me a few months to get Rocky actively interacting with toys. By ‘actively’ I mean spending at least 25% of his day interacting with toys or a specific toy. I would watch and observe what parts of the toy he preferred. Those were the parts I needed to focus on while introducing small consistencies of other toys parts.

Sometimes I forget how far we have come with him. My videos and notes remind me. He now actively forages for his food and prefers to forage for his food than eat it from his bowl. This is a term called ‘contra-freeloading’. Contra-freeloading is when an animal prefers to work for its food vs. taking identical free food requiring less effort. Contra-freeloading helps keep parrots mentally enriched and involved in their environment. I see this behavior making a difference in the confidence levels of parrots and so many other animals I train. If I observe a parrot that is unsure of its environment, the first thing I do is add choice and reinforce behaviors I want to see increase. This is also why I train using the methods I do. I want to see birds and other animals empowered through choice, control and learning.

Here is a photo I snapped this morning of Rocky foraging through a toy that he would have not interacted with eight years ago when I first brought him home. How long it takes a bird to learn depends on your fluency in training, the history of the bird, the frequency of training throughout the day and more. I see Rocky’s confidence levels rise through interacting with puzzle feeders that he can accomplish. Mastermind Heart Forager.

Continuing to reinforce Rocky with praise for raising the moving part of the foraging toy where it needs to be to dispense treats.
Continuing to reinforce Rocky with praise for raising the moving part of the foraging toy where it needs to be to dispense treats.
Reinforcing Rocky with praise for touching the part of the foraging toy that needs to move.
Reinforcing Rocky with praise for touching the part of the foraging toy that needs to move.

 

The Concerns with Height Dominance

Our cages are tall and our play stations tower over our heads. We train our birds to fly down or want to come down to us by making sure there is always something of value to them to come down, even if it is just our attention.
Our cages are tall and our play stations tower over our heads. We train our birds to fly down or want to come down to us by making sure there is always something of value to them to come down, even if it is just our attention.

Many times people rely on using the label ‘height dominant’ for reasons why they cannot get their bird to come down from the tops of cages or other areas higher than their own head. From the years I have been working with behavior issues and training birds, I have seen birds not come down from over people’s head for sole reason of having no reason to want to do it. If you ask a bird to step up to put it in an area where the bird does not want to be, why would it continue to come to you?

We often cue (deliver signals) to our birds through the routines we do on a daily basis. For example, the bird has been in its cage all day. The person comes home from work and gets the bird out of its cage for its nightly ritual. Once the owner is done with dinner and done watching tv, they shut off the tv and ask their bird to step onto them from the top of their cage or play stand. This is a clear cue to the bird that it is likely going to be returned to its cage. If the bird does not want to be returned to its cage and it has learned in the past if it runs to the top of its cage and out of your reach, it doesn’t get put in the cage immediately, it has learned through previous instances to run out of your reach. We are still training whether we realize it or not. Just what are we training the bird to do? There is no height dominance here. What is here is a lack of reasons for the bird to want to come to you and/or go back to its cage.

My concern with using the label ‘height dominant’ is that it causes the owner to stop or refrain from training the bird to come down to you when asked because they think this is an ingrained behavior. This is a behavior that we can train the bird. Give certain reinforcers such as treats or attention to your bird when it steps up onto you from another area. If you do have to return it to its cage, make sure there is something of value given to the bird after it goes into its cage for your bird to want to continue to do this in the future.

Here at the center, our bird cages are nine feet tall. Most of the perches within the cage are over our heads and many of these perches we have to use a ladder to be able to reach up to the bird and ask it to step up. Our aviary is thirty feet tall with rafters for the birds to fly up to. We don’t have ladders this tall. When we need a bird to return to its cage, we make sure we have a reliable recall so the bird flies down to us when we call them.

Birds are prey animals and most find comfort and safety in height. We want them to feel comfortable and we provide that height to them. Through training and the trust we build with training, we also want them to continue to find comfort and safety in being with us.

Following is a video of an example of this training and trust built through training with Rocky, our moluccan cockatoo that came to us from a shelter. We love having this trusting relationship with him and through observation, he shows us that he seems to be enjoying it just as much as we do.

Shaping a Foot Target

Teaching Suki to touch the end of a stick with her foot. This is part of a behavior modification plan in helping a client teach her parrot not to bite.
Teaching Suki to touch the end of a stick with her foot. This is part of a behavior modification plan in helping a client teach her parrot not to bite.

I’m giving an On-Line Behavior Consultation this afternoon and just took this video to share in my consultation. Since I just sat here and downloaded it, I thought I would use this as the topic for this post.

First of all, shaping is the procedure of reinforcing small approximations toward a desired behavior. Shaping can, and usually does happen in very small increments. In this video I am reinforcing very small increments of training Suki, our blue-fronted amazon, to touch a stick with her foot. She thinks she has to touch it with her beak.

Second, a target is an object. Any object. In training, you want the target to be predetermined and you want an animal to touch a body part to it. In this video, my predetermined object is the ball at the end of the stick. I want to train Suki to touch the ball at the end of the stick with her foot.

Target training is one of the first things I train any and every animal that comes through the center, or that I am working with. This afternoon, I am helping a client teach her moluccan cockatoo that she just took in from a shelter, to touch his foot to a target stick. Why? Because one of the issues we are working on is his biting. The target stick can get her to move her moluccan from point A to point B with no initial use for physical contact in the beginning of our training, as you see Suki does at the very end of this video. Suki has to take one step to be able to reach the target stick. That is the beauty of this behavior.

Teaching the moluccan to touch the target stick will help my client develop the trusting relationship with her bird and the bird with her. If effectively using positive reinforcement training, the bird will want to begin completing her requests because it will be of high value to him. Reinforcers are always delivered for touching the stick. Soon she will be able to set the target stick down and ask her bird to touch his foot to her finger. Once he begins doing this consistently, she can then target his feet to her arm and she can then move him from point A to point B by herself.

The target is a prop used to a predetermined end, which is her being able to pick up the bird without fear of being bitten. There are several key factors here. One is to never push the bird past his comfort level. If the bird hesitates, there is a reason for it. If you think you are going to get bit, you have probably pushed the bird too far by asking a behavior beyond his comfort level. Second, is to never push yourself past your comfort level. If you are not comfortable with a request you are giving your bird, you need to back up and keep working at the previous step in which you are or were comfortable. If you are not comfortable, it is because you are not sure if you are going to get bit. If you aren’t sure, that means your bird isn’t sure either.