Morning Coffee with Ellie

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Learning is a change in behavior due to experience. Teaching is to cause someone to learn something by example or experience. Offer these two activities together daily for your companion parrot and you can create a powerhouse of an education both for you and your bird.

But, you may say, you don’t have time to train (teach) daily. I will counter with— but you do! If I can do it, you can do it. Listen, I’m lazy. Well, maybe not lazy so much as I procrastinate. Sure, I have good intentions. I make daily to-do lists, but most of the do’s don’t happen until the next day or the day after that or maybe the do’s fade off into oblivion.

No Schedule Needed!

Then how does making time for training my cockatoos work with my proclivity to dawdle? I do enjoy training, and I’m not good at making time to fit it into my day. My solution is to forget about trying to create a scheduled time for training.

Instead, I now go with the flow and simply use my daily encounters with the cockatoos as opportunities to train. And you can, too. This no-schedule schedule really lightens my mental have-to load and eases the pressure to train which oddly enough allows me to train even more.

Every interaction we have with our companion parrots is a teaching moment whether we think so or not. Don’t be fooled into thinking our companion birds are not paying attention to every move we make, especially when it comes to our behavior towards them. So let’s make those actions good things that our parrots look forward to.

Simple Solutions

Here’s an example of what I mean. We may think that taking the food bowl out of our parrot’s cage is merely a daily chore and not an opportunity to train. Your parrot, however, may find it’s a perfect opportunity to train you not to take the food bowl away. He does so by lunging at you just as you open the food bowl door.

Our typical reaction is to snap our hand back from the door and that’s exactly what he wanted. Your parrot has just trained you to go away when he lunges. You may not have thought this daily task is a teaching opportunity, but your parrot has certainly discovered that it is.

The food bowl removal takes very little time to do and occurs daily. So why not use that time to do some teaching? You can start by teaching your parrot to target away from the bowl while he is in his cage.

Or you can simply hand him his favorite treat on the opposite side of the cage from the food bowl. While he is munching away, out comes the bowl. After doing this over several days, voila, you’ve just schooled your bird to stay away from the bowl door when you service it. And if your parrot is polite about bowl removal, you can still do some targeting which, no doubt, he will look forward to.

I won’t go into more examples because I know you are savvy enough to understand what I mean. We can take simple interactions with our parrots and make them teaching moments. No training schedule needed. When I say moment, that’s pretty much what I mean. A couple of minutes of training here and a couple of minutes of training there add up to a surprisingly effective strategy.

Enter, Ellie Bare-eyed Cockatoo

Ellie came to live with me about three months ago. Although she is a charming cockatoo, we had some things to work out to let our relationship grow in a positive manner. (See my blog posts Commentary on Free Flight: Part Two and Lessons from Ellie for more information on how Ellie came to live with me, the behavior challenges she presented, and our on-going training.)

We have accomplished many things towards that goal. Her flying at me in an aggressive manner has decreased dramatically; her step-up behavior is now good and absent aggressive behavior; her foraging skills are improving daily and foraging options are met with enthusiasm.

I’m proud of us both and want to continue expanding her behavior repertoire. I want to train her to go into a travel crate. Ugh, now I have to block out a time each day for that. No, wait, go with the flow, right? Here’s what I do instead. I have coffee with Ellie in the morning.

Each morning I have my cup of coffee while sitting at the kitchen island where Ellie joins me. It’s a relaxing time for both of us. Ellie and I are waking up and gathering a bit of energy before we face the day. What better time to tackle a training project.

I’ve put the carrier on the kitchen island right in front of me and my cup of coffee. As I sip it, I observe Ellie as she walks around  the island  exploring. She sees a strange new object, the carrier, sitting in front of me where I have her treats (and my coffee) at the ready. The training starts the instant she looks at the carrier. When she does, she gets a treat.

In the beginning of our training time she was suspicious of the carrier, but after countless treats over several days, she came to understand that interacting with it means that good stuff happens.

Over a few morning coffee times together she has learned to walk in the carrier almost immediately on her own volition. My next step is to start closing the door while she’s in it, then moving the carrier slightly, picking it up, etc. What a lovely time for us both this has turned out to be. I still get my coffee and she gets her morning treats and learns a new skill to boot.

Another morning coffee project is having Ellie step on a scale. As with the carrier, the minute she looks at the scale she gets a treat. I feed her several times when she’s near the scale so that she knows the scale is where the treats show up. Then she learns that when she approaches the scale, she gets a treat. Finally, she figures out that stepping on the scale opens up my treat hand to a bounty of yummies.

A go-with-the-flow teaching moment outside of our morning coffee is when I ask Ellie to step up. I’ll proceed that request with a cue to touch a target. This is a very easy behavior for Ellie to do. She never hesitates to do it. When she touches the target she gets a treat. I’ll do this at least two times in a row. Then I’ll ask her to step up. Stepping up is a behavior Ellie is not 100% on board with. Sometimes she’ll refuse and sometimes she’ll even become aggressive.

By asking Ellie to touch the target two or three times before cuing the step-up, I’m creating behavioral momentum. Behavioral momentum is the use of a series of high-probability requests (in Ellie’s case, targeting) to increase compliance with lower-probability requests (Ellie stepping up). It’s amazing the change this training technique has made in Ellie’s willingness to step on my hand. Even her emotional response has changed to a calm, non-aggressive attitude.

Of course, more complicated or out of the ordinary behaviors may require some scheduled time during the day. For instance, teaching my cockatoo to fly through hoops requires using an area that has enough space to fly and accommodate perches and hoop stands. So for that I do set a block of time aside.

I want to reemphasize that simple short teaching sessions can take place whenever we come together with our parrots. One piece of advice is to have cups of treats in different places that are readily accessible to you when you interact with your parrot. Still another idea is to wear a treat bag or simply keep treats in your pocket. Using the no-schedule training method is a breeze to incorporate into your and your parrot’s daily routine. Give it a whirl. You’ll be glad you did!

Star Update

Fledgling Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo (16 weeks old) continues to make progress in her people-are-good-things education. She comes readily to a training perch to sit next to her mom or dad as I feed them treats out of my hand. In fact, a parent can act as an assistant trainer, meaning I give the parent a treat and the parent then gives that treat to Star when she comes close. What a team!

I also put food in the bowl fastened to the perch. While a parent eats from my hand, Star will eat from the bowl. I am slowly moving my treat hand closer and closer to Star as the parent eats from it. Star is staying put while I do this. She watches my hand, but is also focused on her food bowl and will not fly off as I make my micro movements towards her. Such a brave Star-bird!

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.