Star Continues Her Education

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!

Important Lessons

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
  • Target
  • 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 takes me by surprise.

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.

Star’s first target.

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.

Pat Anderson presents a treat.

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’s first recall.

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.

Star steps up.

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. 

Station training

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.

Station training with cued recall.

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.

Star recalls by herself.

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.


Part Five: Cooperative Living with Flighted Parrots

Often, when I talk about living with flighted parrots to someone who has always clipped wings, they get a look on their face that could be interpreted as a combination of horror, perplexity, and complete consternation.  You can tell that they can’t even begin to wrap their minds around what that might look like, or why one would want to.

Photo by Dana McDonald

I stopped clipping wings back in the late 1990’s. As I had gained more hands-on experience with birds, it just seemed to be a no-brainer that they should enjoy flight.  So, I made the decision with an abundance of enthusiasm and the confidence that, “I’ll just figure this out!”

I don’t actually recommend this approach to those of you considering transitioning from living with a wing-clipped parrot to living with a bird who flies. It’s much easier to have a bit of guidance from someone who has experience in this area. Thus, I offer this blog post to you, so that you can avoid some of the hassles that I had due to my own inexperience. 

Keys to Success

The ability to live cooperatively with flighted birds depends upon three main areas of management: (1) setting up the environment effectively, (2) training yourself to be continually mindful, and (3) learning how to efficiently provide behavioral guidance. You’re going to have to accept the fact that you’ll be doing some training to maintain compliance.

If you don’t, you will have an out-of-control experience with your bird and will wind up relegating him to his cage whenever you can’t directly supervise. One hallmark of quality of life is the ability to make choices. That is why a flighted bird is so lucky. His ability to move around is not compromised, so he can make a lot more choices.

If allowing flight means that your bird stays in his cage for longer periods, you have accomplished nothing for his quality of life. You might as well keep clipping wings so that he can at least be out of his cage more often.

Managing the Environment

I once adopted a baby grey to a family who were so committed to allowing flight that they had remodeled their entire home to realize this first goal of having the ideal environment. All doorways were turned into arches to eliminate molding. Kitchen cabinets extended all the way down to the floor. The refrigerator fit into a recess in the wall so that no bird could perch on top of it to chew the gasket. It was quite remarkable.

You don’t have to go to that extreme, of course, but a bit of work is needed to achieve the objective of flighted feathers and earth-bound humans living side by side in cooperative fashion.

Photo by Gloria Fantin

Birds want to perch up high and flighted parrots go where they want. They will perch on bookcases and chew the spines of the books. Many seem to have a particular fondness for lampshades.  They enjoy sitting on top of doors to chew the molding.

Therefore, you will need to provide your flighted bird with his own “furnishings,” in order to keep him off of your own. The ideal environment will have a perch in every room to which your parrot has access.  It is a bird’s nature to follow the flock and a flighted parrot will follow you from room to room.  Skillful placement of hanging perches, free-standing perches and table-top perches will help to guarantee that the experience is fun for all. At the end of this post, I have included a list of perches that I know from personal experience to be attractive to parrots.

Hanging perches are especially valuable.  While these may seem, at first glance, inconvenient to install and maintain, they will make life so much easier. Birds naturally seek the highest place to perch. By providing perches that hang from the ceiling, your bird will be more likely to choose those instead of your own furnishings. 

It is a parrot’s nature to chew where he is perched. Window ledges and the corners of walls will be at risk. Home improvement stores sell acrylic corners that can be easily screwed in place to protect these. Bannisters can be wrapped with sisal rope.

If there is enough space above your kitchen cabinets for a bird to perch, it will be best to place a piece of acrylic or wood on top that extends an inch or two past the cabinets to prevent chewing on the tops of the doors. The same suggestion would hold true for the top of your refrigerator. It’s huge fun to perch on the blades of ceiling fans and chew these. It’s best to purchase a fan inside a cage – they do exist.

Electrical cords can be a hazard and replacing appliances gets to be a real drag. These can be protected either by using cord channels or black pliable irrigation tubing slit down the center and placed around the wire.

If you allow your birds to perch on your shower rod and happen to have a shower curtain, placing a second rod above the one that holds the curtain will prevent the need to replace that regularly.

If your bird never fledged or has been clipped for a few years, he might not fly much or venture into other rooms at first, causing you to think that my suggestions are somewhat over-the-top.  However, as he builds his flight skills and gains confidence, he will eventually begin to explore your entire house and it will become his territory as well. 

Managing the Mess

It’s hard to say whether flighted birds create more mess than their clipped counterparts. Parrots are just messy – period! The answer probably depends upon where diets and enrichment items are offered and whether your bird likes to fly with his food and eat it in different locations. There are some actions you can take to minimize the mess.

Photo by Kris Porter

Locate hanging perches directly over cages or play stands. If that’s not possible, use area rugs. Purchase two sets. I like the ones that have non-slip backing and can be washed and dried. I haven’t yet tried the Ruggable brand, but they look ideal for this purpose and look a little classier. When you need to wash the rugs currently under your perches, simply lay down your second set. 

If there is a tight spot that tends to collect droppings because you can’t get a rug to fit, Glad Press and Seal is invaluable. Having a light adhesive backing, it can be applied directly to a clean (uncarpeted) floor and then replaced when needed. For smaller messes, keeping a good quantity of small cleaning cloths and a spray bottle filled with cleaning agent is a good strategy for quick clean-ups.

Probably the best way to deal with mess is to contain it to certain areas. This will involve encouraging your bird to stay on the perches you have provided, which is covered in the section on Managing their Behavior.

Managing Ourselves

A friend once made me laugh by commenting that the only people who could use the remote controls in her house were the ones with long fingernails. We’ve all lost a remote control or three, depending upon how quickly we learn and how distracted we tend to be. We count ourselves lucky if they only take the buttons.

Parrots love electronics. Even the best among us have experienced a sneak attack on these valuables. Dr. Susan Friedman in a presentation once used a photograph of what her computer keyboard looked like after her Umbrella Cockatoo had quietly let himself out of his cage in the early hours of the morning. Of course, a clipped parrot could manage the same, but those who fly have increased access.

We have to learn to remember to cover computers with towels, put remotes away in a cupboard, keep certain doors closed, and not leave anything out in plain sight that might be attractive for chewing. This is essentially an exercise in mindfulness and the ability to anticipate problems.

We must think ahead when making purchases. For example, you might decide not to replace your old, worn furniture with a set of rattan. You get the idea. This is probably going to have to be a learn by doing experience. Be assured, the fun of living with a flighted spirit makes it worthwhile.

Managing Their Behavior

Life with parrots is always easier when we accept the fact that we must actively steer their behavior into desirable channels. When you live with birds who fly, getting into the mindset of living as a trainer is essential.

If you don’t, your experience may very well get out of control. Parrots constantly offer behavior, as all animals do. This is especially true of birds who fly. The more active a bird can be, the more behavior he can offer, and the more opportunities he has to act on the environment. Some of this behavior, you won’t like.

If you don’t step up and teach him what you want him TO DO, you will wind up behaving toward him in a very aversive manner – chasing him off locations where you don’t want him to be, acting like a crazy person when you find that he’s destroyed your containers of expensive make-up, and using force to get him back into his cage. Besides being incredibly uncool, this type of behavior will break all trust and make having a parrot no fun at all.

Thus, you’ve got to teach the behaviors that will allow him to be successful and for you to have control over your experience. I will describe these briefly; information on how to teach most of these is available in abundance online.

Five Essential Behaviors to Teach and Maintain

Step-Up:   The majority of birds who have been deemed good candidates for flight already step up, at least some of the time.  Likely, you will just need to maintain compliance by making sure to always reinforce this with a preferred food or head scratch.  A valuable practice: Ask your bird a few times a day to step up, provide a reward, and then put him right back down again.  This is good advice for any parrot.

Step-Off:  Birds who are strongly bonded to you may have a more difficult time with this one. If so, choose a reinforcer of high value to the parrot and show it to him when giving the cue, at least in the beginning.  Reinforce every time you cue this behavior with a high value treat.

Stationing:   Teaching your parrot to primarily use his own “furniture” is an essential practice. Three important benefits derive from this:

  • It keeps him off of your shoulder, which avoids the formation of a pair bond and fosters his continuing independence.
  • It helps to prevent damage to household items.
  • It prevents cavity seeking behavior.  

Instructions for stationing can be found on my website.

The Drop: You will thank yourself a millions times over if you teach your parrot to drop an item on cue. It saves a lot of money in replacing pens and will keep him safe if he ever picks up anything dangerous.

Offer him an item to take with his beak, such as a poker chip or whiffle ball.  Once he takes it, show him a food treat or something else he might want more and ask him to “Drop.” Once he has, give him the other them. Practice this often with a variety of things, gradually working up to those that are more valuable to him.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

The Recall: Teaching your bird to come when called is a must.  Having a rock-solid recall is essential to a happy relationship and drastically increases your chances of getting him back if he is lost. This can be taught a couple of different ways.  My favorite: If he has a habit of flying to your shoulder, turn when you hear him coming and say “Fly here”  while holding up your hand so that he lands there. Reward him with a treat.  As he learns that “Fly here” means to come and land on your hand, you can begin to cue him from a variety of different locations. 

Following these simple suggestions will go a long way toward ensuring that you establish a happy and cooperative existence with your parrot.

One final suggestion:  If you have never lived with a flighted parrot or currently have challenges with your bird who flies, please either call me for a consultation or get help from another qualified mentor. As Dr. Patricia McConnell once wrote about dog training: “You wouldn’t try to learn basketball just by reading a book, so if you need to play the game, do what any parent would do for their child, and find a good, knowledgeable coach.”

Resources for Perches

*Sneak Preview*

My friend, Chris Shank, and I often discuss parrots and their welfare. We share some serious concerns about both how baby parrots are hand-raised in captivity and the recent insistence among free-flight enthusiasts that candidates must be hand-reared and encouraged to develop a bond of dependence in order to be successful.

Chris has free flown her cockatoos for over 30 years and is an expert on the subject. Several years ago, two Bare-eyed Cockatoos were raised here by their parents and became successful free fliers through positive reinforcement training.

This spring, two parent-raised Bare-eyed Cockatoos have gone to nest and are currently sitting on eggs. Therefore, their offspring will be second-generation parent-reared birds and will become free flyers themselves. Chris will be revealing her experiences here as a guest blogger so that you all can share in this fascinating and exciting experience. We hope to show that hand-rearing is not necessary to have a trusting relationship with a young parrot and that a young parrot raised to be independent can succeed at free flight.

Please note that neither Chris nor I advocate free flight for the average owner, especially the flight of a single parrot.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

SONY DSC

Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.