Lessons from Ellie

Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo, came to live with me at the end of June 2019. She was adopted from Exotic Bird Rescue in Eugene, Oregon and has had a history of living in a home environment. She is eight years old and fully flighted. She is social with people and is, of course, adorable.

Ellie was completely new to me. I  began our getting-to-know-each other journey with excitement and positivity. Ellie? Not so much. She showed some suspicion and wariness in her new environment, which is understandable. If I had been moved to a new home with a family I did not know, I would be pretty stressed out.

Early Preparations

I had prepared well for her introduction into my home. The family room is where I spend most of my indoor time and where Ellie would be living. I furnished it with ropes draped from the ceiling and a large rope “orbit” for her to land on if she chose.

Her cage was placed against a wall next to a window. She could see outside, as well as hunker down in her cage to avoid exposure to stimulation from the window. From her cage, she could see the cockatoos far off in their aviaries or while they were out flying. I also built Ellie a small aviary attached to the front of the house with access to it from the window next to her cage.

Martha Stewart would be impressed with my interior and exterior decorations for Ellie and I looked forward to watching Ellie’s enjoyment of them. In my mind, I saw her flying happily from rope to rope, swinging on the orbit, and bouncing on the boing. Oh, what fun we’d have!

Early Lessons

Behavior I was used to….

My first lesson from my teacher, Miss Ellie, was to lower my expectations and alter the above mental images. I’m so used to my lifelong ‘toos being active, exploratory, playful (especially young Bare-eyeds), and confident that I assumed Ellie would be the same way.

Even though she seemed to be a confident cockatoo, she did everything in slow motion. When she first arrived, she explored and considered each new situation with great thought and care. She was more of an observer than an action figure. Consequently, I too, had to slow myself down and not expect her to jump (or fly) for joy at my jungle gym set-up or explore the house and aviary on her own.

Ellie eventually became comfortable with her new home, and that’s when the “real” Ellie emerged—sort of like the movie, Alien, where the monster claws its way out of the human’s chest. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but this new Ellie certainly caught my attention.

End of the “Honeymoon Period”

Some people call the first two weeks or so, when a mature parrot comes to live in their home, the honeymoon period. The new parrot may be quiet, calm, and friendly to everyone so all is right with the world. We can be duped into believing that these are the permanent, unchanging qualities of our new friend.

Many times they are not. As the parrot becomes more comfortable and confident in his new environment, he will start to exhibit  behaviors that may have been repressed in the beginning.  Those behaviors may not be conducive to a happy relationship between caregiver and parrot.

Behavior is a function of its consequences; and, like all of us, Ellie has her own repertoire of behaviors that were reinforced successfully time and again during her life before she came to me. The science of learning tells us that a reinforced behavior will occur again. Unfortunately, some of Ellie’s old behaviors poked a few holes in our honeymoon period.

Signs of Trouble

For example, in the beginning I would walk Ellie around the house on my hand, which she seemed to enjoy. One of her favorite rooms was the bathroom. One day, while in the bathroom, she flew from my hand to the sink. She immediately went into the sink showing excitement. I asked her to step up, which was met with fluffed up head feathers and a cold stare. I knew what Ellie was saying: “Stay away from my sink!”

Our second troublesome interaction occurred in the family room. Ellie had become comfortable flying to the rope and hanging out. I was delighted with her having control of her environment. Unfortunately, she seemed bent on controlling me as well; and, she wasn’t using positive reinforcement (R+) methods to do so, that’s for sure.

For example, from her rope perch she would occasionally fly at me showing obvious aggression with her beak wide open, breathing fire like a flying dragon. Another instance was with her feed bowl. Ellie liked to bury her head in the bowl. Hiding her head in the bowl  is often a nesting behavior for a cockatoo, as the bowl can represent a nest cavity. If I walked near the bowl at this time, she would often strike at me.

My Behavior-Change Plan

With the real Ellie showing me these not-so-compatible behavior traits, I made up a training plan using the science-based training techniques of environmental change and R+.

Using a target to remove Ellie from her cage.

First thing was to teach Ellie to target. This simple training behavior can help form a favorable relationship between learner and teacher by helping the learner understand that good things come from the teacher through operant learning; that is, Ellie could choose to touch the target to get a treat. This exercise teaches Ellie that she has control over the training and the treat reinforcement.

Targeting with Ellie

Allowing a student control is a very powerful reinforcer. If she didn’t want to participate, then I would leave. However, she soon learned that the food goodies left with me. On future training encounters, Ellie started participating and it wasn’t long before she was an expert at targeting.

Environmental Modifications

The next thing on the list was to alter Ellie’s dragon flying routine. I could do this in many ways. I could just put up with it and dodge her attacks. I could swat at her as she flew at me. I could let her land on me and bite me and not react showing her that this behavior is pointless (yes, this is advice given by some parrot behavior consultants!). Or, I could change the environment that would make her dragon flying less likely to occur. Using the least intrusive, most effective method, I chose the latter.

I took down the rope so that she didn’t have her launch pad available. I also replaced her feed bowl with a foraging wheel full of pellets so Ellie didn’t have any “nesty” type bowl to display in and protect.

Changes to the Daily Schedule

At the same time, I changed her daily schedule. Ellie now goes out in the aviary each morning with a treat. I make sure the aviary is full of enrichment, in the forms of grape vines and other plant material to forage on, along with a foraging net full of shredded paper, wood, and food treats. She engages with them all.

I also go into the aviary multiple times a day to practice step ups and step downs with her, as well as targeting using positive reinforcement with food treats. This is helping to change her perception of me from a possible threat or an enroachment on her territory into a person who delivers good things. I will soon start to generalize the step up behavior by practicing it in various parts of the house. This will expand her step-up repertoire, as well as establish it as a highly reinforcing behavior.

At dinnertime, Ellie is asked to step up from her aviary and then I put her in her cage with her dinner of sprout mix. It is fed in a bowl, but when she is done, I take the bowl out which helps curb the “nesty” bowl behavior. I give her a foraging toy as a replacement and she still has her foraging wheel full of pellets, if she so chooses.

Finally, I don’t allow Ellie to fly about the house, even with the rope being absent. I will eventually, but want to wait until we have developed a more solid, supportive partnership. Instead of clipping her, which many people resort to when they have a “misbehaving” flying parrot, I’ve changed the environment as previously mentioned by eliminating the ropes and other opportunities to fly. She can certainly fly in her aviary, of course.

I am enjoying the challenges Ellie is offering me. Using my knowledge of the science of learning and behavior and utilizing positive reinforcement training methods, I have no doubt Ellie and I will form a lasting and trusting relationship. It may take a few weeks or a few months and require many adjustments along the way, but we have all the time in the world. I take pleasure in the journey and look forward to the successes and challenges that are sure to occur.

The Latest News

Baby Bare-eyed made her grand entrance into her new world on July 20, at nine weeks of age. She came out of her nest box in the early morning.

Baby Star has fledged! She is on the right.

I didn’t see her exit so when I saw three cockatoos in the aviary instead of just two cockatoos, it took me by surprise. It also took me a second to understand it was the baby—call me slow. When it sunk in, great excitement ensued!

If you read my very first guest blog post, you understand that the impetus behind allowing these two Bare-eyed cockatoos to go to nest was Asta’s loss. In Greek, Asta means “star.” Therefore, it seemed a natural progression to name this new little one Star.

I’ll devote the next blog to baby Star’s exploits as she navigates her new world with the help of her parents. Stay tuned!

Just for Fun!

It has been fascinating to me to watch the interactions between Flash and Bebe as they have raised their new chick. Things have not always been friendly between the two. At times Flash has been aggressive toward Bebe. Currently, Bebe won’t let Flash near Star, now that she has left the nestbox. If only we could read their minds! In place of that, I have allowed them to work off a little energy by letting them out of the aviary to fly each day. Once outside the enclosure, they seem to remember that they are a bonded pair.

Release from the Aviary

Stay tuned! In my next blog episode, I will provide an in-depth look into the interactions between the parents and their fledgling. I am observing behavior that I’m not sure how to interpret and have written to other experts to see if they can shed some light on these. I will also continue to offer an inside look my world with Miss Ellie Bare-eyed. Until next time….

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.

Commentary on Free Flight: Part One

RV in Flight

In the minds of most people, watching a free flying bird of any species command the sky summons up feelings of freedom, independence, awe, and flights of fantasy (pun intended). When people are asked what special skill they would like to have, many answer… the ability to fly. Who wouldn’t? Swooping and soaring a sky that holds no boundaries or limits does offer ultimate freedom and control.

The Realities of Free Flight

I wish the reality of flying companion parrots outdoors replicated these romantic notions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The open environment of the sky has many speed bumps and obstacles that flying birds must navigate. The list is as long and complicated as a peacock’s tail and includes things such as weather conditions, wind, predators, buildings, cars, hunters, and neighbors. Nevertheless, many parrot owners dream about offering their beloved companion the experience of flying the open sky.

S.Macaw.M.Major.CDRetreat
Photo by Marinka Major

There’s much to consider before offering a companion parrot outdoor flight or, as it is commonly called, free flight. Free flight, along with indoor flight, is a complicated and training-dense activity. Compared to indoor flight, free flying a parrot comes with an extra layer of consequences that can endanger the parrot’s life. With that in mind, let’s examine what I expect a competent free flight candidate to look like.

The Caretaker Trainer

The first element in determining whether a parrot is to be a successful flight candidate is not the parrot. Wait, what? In fact, it’s the parrot’s human partner that determines whether the bird fails or succeeds. A close look reveals the following facts:

  • All flying bird species are excellent candidates for flight. Bird species meant to fly come equipped with the proper flight paraphernalia and mental acuity to do so.
  • Captive parrots are also born with everything they need to successfully fly.
  • Companion parrots are more often than not thwarted from learning to fly properly when humans clip the wings of fledglings or do not provide an environment conducive to learning all their flight skills.
  • The training skills possessed by the average parrot caretaker typically do not reach the minimum requirements needed to produce a truly successful and safe free flyer.
Hillary Hankey
Free flight expert Hillary Hankey

It is the human component of the free flight equation that holds the key to a successful experience. It is essential that the parrot caretaker must be skilled in using positive reinforcement training. “But wait!” you say. “I’ve heard that if I hand raise a parrot, he will naturally bond to me and won’t want to fly away.” Sadly, this popular belief is fundamentally flawed.

 

Isn’t Our Bond Enough?

It’s true that by hand raising a parrot, a bond is normally created between caretaker and parrot. Unfortunately, some people believe this is all that is necessary for free flight and consequently, do little if any training. It’s like thinking your puppy will automatically come when called as an adult because she’s “bonded” to you. We all know that usually doesn’t happen.

Without a strong foundation of training, the bond that is created from hand rearing can and does break down as the parrot matures. Even if the bond does grows stronger, it won’t ensure the free flight parrot will be safe or competent in his flying.Scale Training

The parrot must be taught the basic behaviors all parrots should learn. These include stepping up and down on cue, recalling, entering a carrier, and acceptance of husbandry procedures such as stepping voluntarily onto a scale to be weighed. Not only does this training help develop a confident bird, it goes hand in wing with creating a trusting working relationship between caretaker and parrot.

Necessary Factors

My intent is not to inform readers about how to train a parrot for free flight. I will, however, provide a short list of some of the factors that are involved.

Along with the behaviors mentioned above, the parrot must be taught to fly up from low places and down from high places while developing the physical strength to do so. He must be desensitized to the outdoors by becoming familiar and comfortable with his outside surroundings. He must be given the opportunity to fly in the wind, rain, heat and cold. He must respond to an outdoor recall cue from his caretaker. The list goes on and on.

The human partner to the free flying parrot must have a working knowledge of how to train with positive reinforcement, force-free techniques. Since the use of positive reinforcement and training in general are still not in daily practice by the majority of caregivers, it is likely that the “typical” parrot owner is not well-skilled in training, let alone training for free flight. 

"Topper", Goffin's cockatoo, Cacatua goffiniana

Because of this, I highly recommend that the caretaker seek the in-person coaching of an experienced parrot free flight trainer; someone who will guide and support the parrot owner through the process of training.

Online Courses vs. Direct Mentoring

There are trainers online who offer courses in free flight. They offer little more than an outline to follow. Even if they provide help by critiquing videos of their customers training their parrots, it’s just not the same as  having an experienced mentor there by your side. Parrots and their people are individuals who have nuances, personality traits, and physical aspects that don’t translate fully via a video or even through discussion. The training mentor simply must be involved in person for the parrot owner to gain the knowledge that is needed to fly a parrot outdoors.

This brings up yet another factor in the making of a capable human flight partner  – truly understanding the dangers involved in flying the parrot outdoors. This is another area in which having an experienced trainer by your side is essential.

And to this end, the trainer caretaker must examine whether she has the inner fortitude to accept that her parrot, no matter the proficiency of training, could be lost, injured, or killed at any time during flight. This understanding and acceptance are perhaps the most difficult things to acknowledge and internalize before undertaking the flight training of a parrot.

I am a realist when it comes to free flying parrots and after forty years of flying my cockatoos, I still, to this day, heave a sigh of relief when everyone is put away safely after flying. No matter how much we love our parrots and wish for them a life as close as possible to that of their wild relatives, launching them into the open sky unprepared or partially prepared is a recipe for disaster for both the parrot and her person. There is a steep learning curve for all involved.

So, please, if you are considering free flight for your bird, do a conscientious examination of your personal attributes, talents, deficiencies, personality, and your motives when it comes to wanting your bird to free fly. If you’re honest, the answers will influence whether you proceed with flying or not.

The Latest News!

We recently held a training workshop here at Cockatoo Downs. We invited Susan Friedman and Peggy Hogan to head the weekend and dispense their knowledge about training and behavior to an eager group of trainers. The enthusiasm from the people who attended was palpable and infectious.2019 Retreat

Susan Friedman, PhD gave a fascinating presentation about the fact that control is a primary reinforcer, as important to the animal as food. As she stated, “Control is a biological necessity.” Any behavior offered moves the environment – much like a stone tossed into a river. It creates ripples; behavior does as well.  All animals behave in order to control their outcomes – access reinforcers or avoid aversives. The reason that animals and birds love training so much is because they are offered the chance to control reinforcers through their behavior.

And, in fact, she stated her belief that a lack of control for a parrot is a risk factor for feather damaging behavior. “Control is the nucleus of behavioral health.” This is one reason that Pam and I lobby so strongly for allowing indoor flight whenever possible for companion parrots.

Susan contrasted training theory held as gospel 20 years ago to the new concepts some trainers are learning to embrace today. Two decades ago, trainers believed that all behavior needed to be under cue control. In other words, the animal should not offer a behavior unless a cue had been given.

A more modern training approach offers the animal more control, in the form of start buttons and request cues. Training is seen as a dialogue between the trainer and the parrot.

This information was kind of a mind blower for me and I’m still digesting the information she shared.

Peggy Hogan
Peggy Hogan

Peggy Hogan presented on start buttons, otherwise known as “yes” or “consent” signals. These allow the animal to communicate when it is ready to proceed with the training task or behavior. Peggy is a zealous campaigner for using start buttons in our training, as this gives the animal control and establishes a dialogue between learner and teacher. Powerful stuff!

Discussions carried on while attendees were coached in working with the cockatoos and equines. Ann Dahlen brought her adorable (is there any other kind?) mini horses and generously allowed people to work with them. Violet, my donkey who easily shows fear reactions, nonetheless sought out any human who was willing to partner up. She’s learned over the last two years of living here that people mean good things. She’s trying hard to be braver each day and it’s paying off.

Flash and Bebe, the Bare-eyed parents, participated in their own way. They have continued to “ask” to go out flying each morning. When I let them out to fly, I seized the opportunity to show off their chick to the training group. The parents accommodated by flying up and away and out of sight. As I brought the chick out of the box she dazzled everyone with her cuteness! In the photo she is 21 days old.me, BBE 6_15_19

Once the parents were safely back in their aviary, it was easy to see that they were nonplussed by the ten or so people moving about during training sessions. Pam even went into the parents’ aviary at one point and Flash flew to his perch for a quick targeting session while Bebe manned, um, womanned, the nest box watching the action from the entrance hole. 

It was a weekend not to be forgotten anytime soon and we were all grateful for the extraordinary learning opportunity we received from Peggy and Susan.

Just For Fun

The free flyers are enjoying time at the creek at Cockatoo Downs. It’s always fascinating to me to watch their interactions with the environment.

 

In this case, I was sitting on the footbridge while the cockatoos explored the creek. The creek offered an opportunity to practice what comes naturally to a wild cockatoo and that is finding and drinking water. In this video clip the cockatoos learn that drinking water is not always in a bowl. What a concept!

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.