By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank
I get a rush watching my cockatoos fly. They burst from their aviaries and pop up in the air like deflating balloons zipping every which way as they shoot into the sky. It’s easy to spot Star, Flash and Bebe’s recently fledged Bare-eyed Cockatoo youngster, among the flyers. She flips, swerves, and surges with glee, adding pizzaz to the flock as she ascends upward. It’s contagious as the others soon follow suit with extra liveliness in their own flight maneuvers. It’s glorious to watch!
But enough gaiety. It’s time to get serious. Star needs to learn the code of manners and skills that will please her harrumphing human companions. Here’s a partial list a well-rounded companion cockatoo needs to accomplish:
- Understand people are good things
- Hands and fingers are not targets for a busy beak
- Step up on cue
- Recall on cue
- Station on perch
The first lesson in the curriculum is the most important and Star accomplished it early on. From fledge, she has watched her parents eagerly take pine nuts, sunflower seeds and other goodies from any person who offers them. As she became more comfortable with the world outside her nest box and as she started to eat on her own, she overcame her natural wariness and now eagerly joins her parents on the perch waiting for goodies.
An Enthusiastic Learner
Star is an enthusiastic, motivated learner. She’s excited when lessons begin. In fact, she is so eager she needs to learn some self-control. In the video below, she’s so excited she can’t stay on the perch.
Star Learns to Target
Learning to touch a target stick assists with that. It helps her focus on the task at hand. Touching a target and being reinforced for doing so gives her a reason to stay put instead of flitting off on a whim or being distracted with other activities.
Targeting teaches her that actions she chooses to do when asked have consequences—good consequences. If she touches a target presented to her, bingo, she gets a treat! This is an easy behavior for a young, curious, clever cockatoo to accomplish.
Learning Good Manners
Good manners warrant taking treats politely from our hands. Star’s curiosity about novel objects is natural and helps her learn about her world. At her young age, human hands are objects that are both a little scary and intriguing. In order to figure out what this fleshy thing is, she bites, nibbles, and pokes at my hand with wariness and inquisitiveness.
Star needs to understand that humans are fragile creatures and don’t appreciate their hands being explored by parrots’ beaks—ouch! She was conflicted when I first presented my open hand full of seeds to her. She wanted to explore it with beak nibbles, and at the same time bite it to make it go away.
After some negotiating, with treats as reinforcers, we came to a compromise. I hold the sunflower seed in the tips of my fingers far enough away that she has to reach for it. This gives her less ability to bite and more motivation to take the treat gently. It worked.
Learning to Recall
Recalling on cue was pretty easy for Star to achieve as she had watched her parents do it many times. The first time I asked her to fly to my hand she landed with uncertainty bouncing a few times as she did. Having treats available convinced her quickly that flying to my hand is a good thing.
Star Learns to Step Up
Stepping up for a parrot can sometimes be more frightening and challenging than asking him to fly to the hand. One reason is possibly having one’s hand right in front of the parrot can be intimidating for him. Of course, depending on the individual, there can be a multitude of reasons for a parrot’s hesitancy to step up.
In Star’s case, it was a new sensation having my open “step-up” hand so close to her body. Luring her with tasty delights induced her to put one foot on my hand which activated the treat dispenser. It wasn’t long before she readily stepped up when asked.
Learning to Station
Training a parrot to station, essentially staying on a perch, play stand, cage top, or any preferred area, is important for a number of reasons. In the home, stations can help a bird stay away from possibly unsafe areas. Another reason, of course, is keeping parts of the home safe from the parrot! A station, such as a perch, can be used for a specific activity such as training. And it is for that last reason I wanted Star to learn to station.
Star was introduced early to stationing on a perch by her parents. When in the aviary, the parents fly to the perch where training takes place. Star didn’t immediately fly to the perch with them if I was in the aviary. It did take time. At the start, I put treats in the feed bowl attached to the perch as Star watched and then I left the aviary. It wasn’t long before Star flew to the perch to eat the treats when I was in her presence.
Our training progressed to where Star would stay on the perch as I put food in the bowl. That’s when we were off and running with our training sessions. The perch is such a magnet for Star and her family that they readily assemble on it for class while flying outside their enclosure.
The training I have done with Star is helping her mature into a confident, self-assured, and friendly cockatoo. When out free flying with her family she will sometimes peel away from her parents, seek me out, and attempt to land on me. I don’t kid myself that she does this out of the love she has for me. Let’s be honest, she seeks me out because she recognizes me as a resource of good things to eat.
With positive reinforcement training comes trust. Star knows I will indulge her with any manner of tasty tidbits and that’s fine with me. Star may not grow to “love” me, but she is certainly learning to trust me. That trust will increase and flourish creating between us a supportive and favorable relationship that will endure into the future. That’s all in the world I could ask for.
I describe my training sessions with Star not to point out that I am a great trainer of parent-raised cockatoos. I am not and I have oodles of training blooper videos to prove it.
Instead, I recount them to emphasize that anyone with positive reinforcement training experience, even a little, can assist parent-reared parrots in becoming successful companion birds with strong, reliable, and enthusiastic connections to their people; and, most crucially, do so without sacrificing the welfare and identity of young parrots and their parents. With her parents upbringing and care, Star will forever identify as a cockatoo with all the native and unaffected qualities nature intended.
Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.
Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.