What Is Training?

I fell in love with this photo when I saw it.  He seems to be thinking, “Would you please just tell me what you want from me?”

When a parrot begins to display problem behavior, it is usually due to a combination of things gone wrong and things undone.

In most cases, things have gone wrong in the process of creating the bird’s daily life. This is rarely due to a lack of caring on the owner’s part. It’s due to the difficulty of finding true, reliable information about parrot care.

Thus, the diet may be unbalanced. A social pair bond may have formed. The bird may not have enough to do or get out of his cage for enough hours each day.

And, in addition, behavioral training may have been neglected.

Inappropriate diet, pair-bonded social relationships, and inadequate environmental provisions + lack of effective guidance for the bird = behavior problem.images (11)  By “effective guidance,” I mean that the bird has not received guidance from the owner that would have steered his behavior into desirable channels.

So, most behavior consultations follow a similar pattern. We improve the diet, evolve social relationships, and increase enrichment and choice-making opportunities – if changes in these areas are necessary. This ensures that the bird’s needs are being met, which then sets him up for success when we formulate a plan to modify his behavior.

Inevitably, I wind up talking about training and that’s when things get really interesting.

A client asked me recently, “What actually is training?”  That was an excellent question and I’m happy to have a chance to discuss it here because I think many people have misconceptions about training. More than one person has mentioned to me that it almost seems demeaning for the parrot – that teaching tricks puts the parrot on the level of a circus animal. Others can’t imagine why you would want to train a parrot at all.

Many folks don’t really understand positive reinforcement training. They talk about clicker training, as if that is something different and apart and more special. It is not. Clicker training is positive reinforcement training. The clicker is used simply to make a sound that lets the bird know that he did the right thing. This buys you some time to deliver a treat. A spoken word works just as well in most cases.

Training is the process of teaching an animal a particular skill or type of behavior. target training

That is an oversimplified definition, of course. A more accurate, more scientific, definition would be that training involves teaching specific responses to specific stimuli. To expand on both, we can say that training involves the development of desirable responses and the suppression of undesirable responses. For example, we can teach a parrot to talk instead of scream when it wants attention. We can teach a parrot to stay on a perch rather than get down to cruise the floor.

The best trainers embrace positive reinforcement training as their primary behavior change strategy. Positive reinforcement is the process of offering the animal a valued item after it has performed a desirable behavior.  images (12)Most often, when training begins, food treats are used as reinforcers until others have been identified.

So, why do I always wind up talking about training when I do behavior consultations?  … Three reasons.

First, when you teach a bird new behaviors, you often see an almost “automatic” reduction in the problem behavior, so it affords a bit of quick success, which always helps.

Second, the bird has to unlearn the problem behavior and learn another, alternate, more desirable behavior that it can offer instead. That takes training, i.e. teaching.

Third, many parrots have developed pair bonds with their owners and these pair bonds often contribute to the very behavior problem that we are trying to resolve. By beginning to do some training, the owner can encourage the bird to look to her for guidance, rather than physical affection.pairbond

This photo may appear to represent a desirable social moment. It does not. By focusing your social interactions around the exchange of physical affection, everyone loses. You, as the owner, lose the ability to see the parrot as the resourceful, intelligent, incredibly capable creature he is. And your parrot loses out on a more enriched existence that involves learning new things.

Once I have convinced someone of the benefits of training, I often hear yet one more concern: “I can’t train because my bird is not food motivated.” I actually hear this quite often online, as well. It is a common perception.

Let’s examine this statement. It expresses the belief that the bird is not motivated to eat food. So, right out the gate, we know that’s wrong. Right? Parrots need food to live, so they must by definition, be food motivated.

What owners usually mean when they say this is that their parrot has not seemed interested in taking a treat in exchange for a cued behavior.  That is a whole different problem, and it’s always the same problem. If parrots are not motivated to earn training treats, it is almost always because they are getting too many fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods in their daily diet.013

This is why we so often have to improve the bird’s diet before we can modify his behavior. If you convert the parrot to eating formulated foods and fresh vegetables with limited fruit, you will have a parrot who is “food motivated.”  And, in fact the best practice is always to reserve seeds and nuts for use as reinforcers. It’s a win-win situation. The bird still gets to have some treats, but has to earn them rather than finding them in the food bowl.

There are many different things we can train parrots to do. We can teach simple, fun behaviors like targeting, turning around, or waving. We can teach a parrot to stay on a hand, rather than fly to a shoulder. We can teach a parrot to stay on a particular perch, rather than climbing down to the floor to terrorize people’s feet and the household pets. We can teach a parrot to fly to us on cue. We can teach a parrot to take medication willingly from a syringe or walk into a carrier when asked. There is no limit to what we can teach and our parrots can learn.

Anyone can teach these things!  We don’t need to be professional trainers. You would be amazed at how forgiving, flexible, and adaptable parrots can be in the face of our own lack of training skills. They still learn quite readily and have fun doing it.

Chris Shank Photos 023However, training is not necessarily easy for people in the beginning. It can be tiring because of the focus it takes. For many of us, so used to having our attention fragmented, this type of focus can seem like very hard work.

And often, beginning training sessions reveal our own lack of hand-eye coordination. This means practice for us, even when training simple behaviors like targeting. It can take a bit of repetition to get to the point where we don’t feel so awkward.

This was the case with a client of mine recently. In frustration, she told me emphatically, “I am NOT a trainer.” I wonder how many of you are nodding your heads in agreement right now, feeling the same way?  I, myself, might have made that comment at one point.

The truth is, however, we are all trainers. Animals are always learning with every single social interaction they have with us. Their learning ability doesn’t switch off and on. If they are always learning, then we are always teaching.

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Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash.com

And, as I pointed out to my unhappy client, she IS a trainer. She had very effectively trained her parrot to scream and lunge aggressively.  The fact that her training was unintentional doesn’t matter. It was her reactions to her parrot’s behaviors that reinforced them to the point where they became serious problems that required professional help to resolve.

So, we really don’t have a choice. We must accept that we are all trainers. We have the responsibility to think about what we are training our animals with our social attention…all of the time. As I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” I have never heard better advice.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, each of us, maintained a daily awareness of the power we hold to influence the behavior of others? What if we all went around asking ourselves, when interacting socially with any creature, “What am I teaching at this moment?” images (13)Our relationships with our parrots and all animals would improve, certainly. Our relationships with other people would be kinder and more thoughtful, perhaps.

So, imagine please, how we might change the world simply by learning training and behavior principles and using positive reinforcement with all living things in our daily lives. Our parrots at least would fly straighter and truer their whole lives long.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Егор Камелев on Unsplash. 

Chop Mix: Perfect Nutritional Supplement or Popular Nutritional Disaster?

I often choose blog topics because of something I’ve recently seen or heard that troubles me. This one is no exception. After talking to a few clients recently and reading comments online, I’ve grown concerned about how Chop Mix is being prepared and fed to companion parrots.

What is Chop Mix, you ask?chop  Chop is a mixture of finely chopped vegetables with cooked grains, cooked legumes and/or beans, and other ingredients. It has been described as an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to preparing supplemental food for birds.

I and others have used some form of the chop mix concept for a couple of decades.  However, in the past several years, this form of feeding parrots has gained huge popularity, mostly thanks to the efforts of Patricia Sund and others who have written so widely about it.

I love the concept and recommend it to others. Feeding Chop, in addition to high quality formulated foods, is a great way to get healthy variety into our birds’ diets. It makes conversion to new foods (pellets and vegetables) easier. It is relatively simple to prepare and serve, since it is typically frozen for storage, eliminating the need to prepare fresh food every morning.

So, why my recent concern?  I think there are a couple of problems with how Chop is being prepared. First of all, people seem to have gotten the idea that the sky’s the limit – that you can put anything into Chop and the resulting mix be a valuable thing to feed their birds. This is not the case.veggies  The nutritional value of Chop is only as good as the ingredients you put into it. Some individuals are adding ingredients that really should not be offered in any quantity to companion parrots on a daily basis.

When I searched for the term “chop mix” as I prepared to write this, I immediately found 21 different websites that all offered recipes for Chop. I stopped counting after two minutes. I found chop mix for cockatiels, chop mix for Eclectus, chop mix for African greys…and the list goes on. The “recipes” were all quite different from each other, as was the advice directed at owners.

On those 21 different websites, I found a lot of strongly-worded, very confusing advice. Some recommend including uncooked grains, which is definitely not a good idea. Grains should always be at least soaked and sprouted, if not cooked, in order to make them more digestible and eliminate the enzyme-inhibitors present. download (6)Some people advise adding raw yams or sweet potatoes; others say these must be cooked. Others include vegetable or whole wheat pasta, while their counterparts recommend no pasta at all. Some sites advise the addition of fruit; others warn against this, since it creates a wetter mix. How is anyone to understand that Chop must be prepared conscientiously with all of this different advice floating around?

I see two main problematic strategies being used when preparing Chop Mix. The first recommends the addition of high quantities of carbohydrates to prevent the mix from being too wet. The second involves adding too many “goodies” in the desire to create a mix the parrot will eat.

The creation of a truly great Chop poses one distinct challenge.  When you chop up a bunch of vegetables and then freeze them in a plastic bag, the cell membranes of those vegetables rupture, releasing all the moisture that was inside of them.  Thus, you can wind up with a very wet mess that your birds won’t eat.

Those dedicated to the Chop concept have gotten quite creative over the years as they have attempted to deal with this inconvenient problem. Some individuals recommend making large batches in the bathtub, advising that this way all the juice will go down the drain, thereby solving the problem.  Ahem.

I don’t care how much bleach you might have used, it’s not a good idea to prepare food in your bathroom, no matter who you intend to feed it to. Take it from one who has spent years staring at microbes through a microscope lens. If you need to make a large batch, you can always use large plastic storage tubs reserved just for that purpose.

Second, “all the juice” contains many valuable nutrients. You don’t want that going down the drain. You want to preserve as much of it as possible, hopefully getting it into your bird at some point.  So, the second option to which people resort is the addition of dry ingredients that will soak up the moisture.download (7)  Suggestions for this include pasta, rolled grains, certain seeds and others.

Consider this photo, which I lifted off of the internet. Please ignore the fact that there seems to be a parrot taking a bath in the middle of a bowl of Chop. I want you to look at the ingredients. Can you see how much pasta is in there?!?

That is a problem. You simply can’t add that amount of refined carbohydrates to a mixture and believe that it’s going to be a healthy thing to feed your birds. I have written previously about the dangers of unbalancing your parrot’s diet by feeding high levels of fatty foods and simple carbohydrates in the diet. If you rely on dry carbohydrates to soak up excess moisture, you will have a parrot eating too many carbs in his diet.

I also see folks getting a little crazy with “additions.” I once watched a speaker at a conference prepare a large beautiful batch of Chop.  I then watched as she ruined it by dumping in whole bags of nuts, pumpkin seeds, and dried sweetened coconut. “Egads,” I thought. Any parrot eating that mix will be able to load up on goodies and ignore the grains and vegetables.Iggy.Chop.FB

Chop can be a wonderful supplemental food for parrots…or a nutritional disaster. If we strive for the former, we must embrace the fact that a good Chop Mix must be prepared carefully according to certain guidelines.

First, it should conform roughly to the same percentages of protein and fats as balanced formulated diets contain. This can be estimated by simply looking at it, if you have a fundamental knowledge of the different categories of nutrients (protein, fat, etc) and which ingredients contain them.

Second, the overall percentages of “ingredient types” matters. A good Chop Mix should contain roughly 40% grains, 50% vegetables, and 10% other ingredients. By using that formula you stand a better chance of approximating the protein and fat percentages in formulated foods. You also will avoid creating a mix that allows your parrot the opportunity to fill up on things like coconut, nuts and pasta due to their too-high percentage in the mix.

whole grainsThird, the quality of your ingredients matters. The grains used should be in their most natural form, as close to their harvested state as possible. White rice and other refined grains should not be used.

Nor should you include white or vegetable pasta. Cooked and/or sprouted whole grains are best. Vegetables must be in their freshest state and washed carefully.no pasta Additions to control moisture or create greater interest must be chosen very carefully and used sparingly.

I am not going to provide a complete description here of how to make Chop.  You too can Google “chop mix” and find 21 recipes in two minutes.  But I do have some tips for dealing with the excess moisture. I will share with you what works for me. I am able to create a mix my parrots love without sacrificing their nutritional status to the carbohydrate gods.

First, do not include:

  • Vegetables high in water content, such as cucumber, chayote squash, jicama, celery. These can always be added right before serving, once the base mix has been defrosted.
  • Fruit, unless this is freeze dried. Fruit has too much moisture to be included and should be limited in the diet anyway. A few pieces of fruit can be added to a Chop serving right before feeding.

Second, when creating your base mix that you will freeze:

  • Slightly undercook your grains, which will allow them to absorb a bit more moisture once mixed with the vegetables. Sample them yourself to determine doneness. The grains should be tender, but still a bit firm. Do not include mushy grains – these will support more bacterial growth and only contribute to your moisture problem.
  • Allow the grains to thoroughly cool before adding the finely chopped vegetables.
  • Add dry, uncooked pasta that is made from legumes, quinoa, or brown rice. If you’re going to do so, add in a small quantity only. Do not use pasta made from white flour, which includes most “veggie” pastas.TJs mix
  • Add a bag of Trader Joe’s Super Seed & Ancient Grains Blend – this works as well as pasta or better to absorb moisture and adds better nutrition.
  • Add raw, uncooked oat groats or a small amount of rolled grains.

After defrosting and before serving:

  • Cut a tiny corner off of the bottom of the defrosted bag of Chop. Allow the liquid to drain from the bag into a large measuring cup. Store this in the freezer for adding to birdie bread.
  • Add raw hulled hemp seed.
  • Add sprouts – these will continue growing slowly in the food dish or refrigerator, absorbing some moisture.

This is the last Chop Mix that I prepared. It is dry, with individual pieces easily separated from each other.Chop Mix The ingredients I used this time included: kamut (cooked with cinnamon), broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, lightly cooked winter squash, sugar snap peas, green beans, red bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, parsnips, yellow squash, zucchini squash, sprouted white winter wheat, sprouted rye berries, sprouted sunflower seed, sprouted mung beans, sprouted lentils, sprouted millet, sprouted poppy seed, sprouted fenugreek, sprouted buckwheat, sprouted sesame seed, sprouted purple barley, corn kernels, 100% lentil pasta, garbanzo beans (canned and rinsed), raw oat groats and raw hulled hemp seed. IMG_20180829_070837831_LL

Greens and fruit are added right before serving, directly into the dish. This works best since they are such fragile foods.

A final tip: it’s important to limit the size of your servings. You will see that the portion of Chop I provide to my greys, Amazon and Moluccan is relatively small. They each get ¼ level cup of the mix each morning. By limiting the amount served, I further avoid the problem of any bird picking out only what he wants. They are encouraged to eat it all and they still have room for pellets, which they also enjoy. For more information on Chop, please go to Life from Scratch. This article is the best I have ever read about making Chop Mix.

I would love to hear from readers. I’m sure that many of you have better ideas than I do. If we collaborate, I’m sure that the quality of Parrot Chop will only improve for all parrots! Please add a comment to share your thoughts.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!