Archive for February, 2012

Positive Reinforcement is in the Eye of the Beholder

When I attended Barbara Heidenreich’s Parrot Behavior and Training seminar last Saturday, something she said really jumped out at me*.  She had said that positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.  At that moment in her presentation, she showed a photograph of small kid (I’m guessing he was maybe two years old) trying to kiss a pig on the snout through a wire fence.

My reaction, especially after getting a good look at the pig’s dirty nose was, “Ugh, who would want to kiss a pig?”

Obviously that kid sure wanted to, and  that’s precisely the point.  What is great for one person (or parrot) might not be so great for another.

Let’s take my two birds:  Static loves it when you blow air in her face. Luna, on the other hand, detests it.

Now, how do I know that Static loves a reinforcer that Luna hates?  I do this by carefully observing my birds’ behaviors.

Static Puffing Air

Static enjoys air being blown into her beak.

I discovered Static liked to have air blown on her quite by accident.  Shortly after she came to live with us, I was sitting at my desk, using my computer.  She had been sitting on my shoulder, being very good, when suddenly she jammed her beak up my nose.  She didn’t hurt me, but I found it annoying, and I instinctively blew air in her face, thinking she wouldn’t like it and it would make her stop.

Well, I was wrong.  She thought it was the best thing ever, and started sticking her face in my face, and getting her beak right up by my mouth.  I blew again.  She bounced around in delight and stuck her beak right back in my field of view.  I couldn’t very well work at my computer with a cockatoo in the way, so I blew again, this time realizing that she liked what I had done.

My attempt at a mild punishment had completely failed.  Instead of disliking air being blown in her face, she wanted more of it.  I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t want a small cockatoo beak up my snoot, I’d better not blow air in her face for that behavior. Instead, I blew in her face when she did stuff I liked. Pretty soon, she even learned to beg for puffs of air.  If she really wants to be blown on, she’ll make little huffing sounds as she puffs air in and out of her beak.

Luna, on the other hand, demonstrates her dislike of the air puff in several ways.  First, she’ll emit a small growl, which she frequently does when you do something she doesn’t like.  She’ll also shake her head in the air stream, and if I keep doing it, she’ll move her body away from me.

It’s pretty clear; Luna detests what Static loves.

Barbara was absolutely right when she said that positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.

Yesterday morning, I combined air puffs with another thing Static really likes: sheets of paper towel.

Static Shredding Paper Towel

Static loves to shred paper towel

In Static’s world, paper towel rules.  If you give her a sheet, she will imediately start ripping it up into a million small pieces, throwing confetti everywhere.  The only thing she likes better than paper towel or air puffs is paper towel and air puffs together.  If I happen to offer both, she’ll rip off a piece, hold it in her open beak, and approach my face.  I’ll respond by blowing a puff of air, which usually propels the paper out of her beak.  Oftentimes, she’ll retrieve the bit of paper and do it again, or she’ll rip off another piece off of the sheet of paper towel, and start over.

So knowing that Static likes air blown in her face and bits of paper towel, how can I use them to obtain desirable behavior?

As I mentioned yesterday, I want Static to stay on the dining room table for training sessions.  She, unfortunately, prefers to sit on my shoulder.  If I want her to stay on the table, simply picking her up and putting her there isn’t going to work.  As soon as I put her down, she’ll run back up my arm again.  If I try to put her back, she might let me do it once or twice, but then she’ll indicate that she does not want to go to the table by grabbing my shirt in her talons and beak and refusing to come off.

I could force her, but that isn’t going to teach her to willingly go to the table.  If she’s clenched on to my shirt and I try to forcibly remove her, she might give me a pinch for my trouble.

Here’s an important lesson I’ve learned in the ten years I’ve lived with companion parrots: if you don’t want to get bit, don’t force your bird to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Okay, so how did I get her onto the table yesterday morning?  I made her want to be on the table, because that’s where all the paper towel shredding and air puffing happened.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I sat down at the table with a sheet of paper towel in my hands.  As soon as I picked up the paper, I had Static’s undivided attention.
  2. At first, I held the paper where she could reach it from my shoulder.  She’d rip a piece off, wait for the puff, and rip off another piece.
  3. Slowly, I started to move the sheet of paper towel further and further away.  At first, she just had to lean her body to rip off the sheet.  Later on, she had to take a step down my arm.  I kept slowly moving it away, encouraging her to move a little closer to the table each time.
  4. A couple of times, I noticed that Static wasn’t quite ready to go as far as I wanted her to go, so I moved the paper towel a little closer, so she could still get the reward of the paper towel and air puff.  Eventually, she was running down onto my arm to grab the towel.
  5. Pretty soon, she jumped onto the table and stayed there, as I moved the paper further and further away.
  6. By the end, she was running across the length of the entire table to grab bits of paper towel.

So by the end of our session, the table was no longer a wooden, bird-killing surface.  It had become a fun play pen, and I’m sure she’ll be a lot more willing to hang out there the next time we do birdie school.


* Well, the truth is, there were many somethings that jumped out at me, but this is the one I’m choosing to talk about right now.

So What is This Positive Reinforcement Stuff, Anyway?

Since the goal of this blog is to talk about our parrot training efforts though the use of positive reinforcement, I should probably start out by explaining what “positive reinforcement” is.

Basically, it means that you do something that your parrot likes in response to him giving you a desired behavior.

If you think about it, positive reinforcement works in our every day lives.  Think about your social network.  Who do you hang out with?  Do you deliberately hang out with people that make you feel bad, who belittle you, or who just make you feel like an inferior slob? No, of course not.  When you were a kid, did you really want to spend time with your great-aunt Gertrude who smelled of cigarettes, pinched your face, and rubbed your hair the wrong way every time she visited?  No, you hated every second of it.

So who did you hang out with?  Maybe it was your favorite uncle who told you great stories and slipped candy into your pocket when your mother wasn’t looking.  Maybe it was your grandmother, who would always bake cookies for you when you came to visit, or crochet you funny-looking blankets that everybody else thought were ugly, but you loved dearly because she made them just for you.

Birds, being intelligent, social creatures will understand this currency.  If you behave like the birdie version of your great-aunt Gertrude, your bird won’t like you.  If you behave like your uncle or favorite grandmother, he will.

But of course getting desirable behavior from your bird isn’t all about whether or not he likes you.  It’s about communicating what it is that you want, and giving him things that he wants in exchange.  If your macaw goes crazy for a bite of apple, or your cockatoo will do anything for a head rub, then use those as treats.  When you give goodies to your bird as soon you see behaviors you like, it will encourage more of those behaviors.

Here’s an example:

Our Goffin’s Cockatoo, Static, doesn’t really like to hang out on the dining room table, which is precisely the spot we want to use for training.  If we put her there, she’ll immediately run to me or my wife, dash up an arm, and proceed to dance on the unsuspecting victim’s shoulder.  To get her to stay on the table, we need to make the table more fun than our shoulders.  If she stays on the table, she gets a treat.  If she is on someone’s shoulder, no treat.  After just a couple of sessions, she’s started to figure out that the table top isn’t such a bad place to hang out.  In other words, the more treats and good things that happen on the table, the more she wants to be there.

So the fundamental key to parrot training (and by the way, these techniques work equally well for cats, dogs, horses, monkeys and even fish) is to find something your companion really enjoys, and use it as a reward for desired behavior.  This is hugely powerful stuff, because not only can it be used to encourage desired behaviors, it can also be used to squelch undesirable ones.  If your bird is talking nicely (which you reward) then he won’t be screaming (which you don’t reward) because the two behaviors are mutually exclusive.  Likewise, if your dog is sitting nicely at the front door when the doorbell rings (which you reward) then he won’t be jumping all over your visitors.

Now there is one more thing to this positive reinforcement stuff that I’ll talk about in my next post: Positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.  Just because you think that something is the cat’s meow, doesn’t mean your parrot will agree. That’s something to keep in mind when you want to positively reinforce behavior.

No, I Don’t Advocate Giving Parrots Beer

This year, I will be celebrating my tenth year living with companion parrots.

It’s hard to believe that, almost a decade ago, I got my first bird.  I had seen this video of Alan Alda, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, and her amazing African Grey Alex and I was impressed.  More than anything, I wanted a parrot.  I started to do my research, and I understood that parrots were noisy, messy, and demanding.  I read web site after web site, bought a few books, and I thought I was ready.

But then I ran into an obstacle.  At the time, I was relatively broke.  A year before, my wife and I had bought a house, and we were suffering from that strange form of poverty that comes from buying a home.  We investigated bringing home a baby grey, and took a deep breath and sighed when we added up the costs of a baby bird, a cage, toys, a well-bird check, and everything else.

We had to put our plans on hold.

But they didn’t stay on hold for long.  Sometimes, the universe has a way of giving you what you want.

In our case, it came in the form of an advertisement in the newspaper.  A Goffin’s Cockatoo was for sale, so we met her owner (who was interviewing potential homes) and the bird.  We liked the bird, and she kinda (she was extremely shy) liked us, so we went home hoping that we’d be selected as her future home.  We admitted that we hadn’t researched cockatoos all that much, since we’d been focusing on a grey, but we promised to go home and bone up.

Then we found the site MyToos.com and we got scared.

Still, my wife foolishly wisely suggested that not everything on the Internet is as it seems.  She suggested that site was a good example of Internet Amplification Syndrome, which is basically the tendency that people who are really unhappy about certain things tend to be the most vocal.  She suggested that cockatoos might not be as bad as the web site’s author stated, and that we should try anyway.

We tried not to think about it too much, because we didn’t know if the cockatoo would end up in our home or not.

Then the phone rang.

It was the cockatoo’s owner.  We’d been selected as the little hen’s new family.

Welcome home Static.

She has been a great bird.  She’s been wonderful, partially because we were lucky as heck getting a sweet cockatoo, some of it was because we were smart and consulted Phoebe Linden over at Santa Barbara Bird Farm for behavioral advice right away, and some of it was because we weren’t totally clueless to some of the concepts one needs to use in training a parrot.  Sure, we made a lot of mistakes with Static, and I have to give her a lot of credit.  She was enormously patient with our lumbering and stupid initial attempts at building a quality relationship with her.

She taught us enough that we later added two more birds to our flock.  Our second bird was a 25-year-old African Grey, who was also bought from a newspaper advertisement.  Our third bird was a blind and badly-abused Severe Macaw who had been rescued by a lovely woman who was forced to give her up because of health problems.  We found her on the Internet, driving all the way to Nevada to get her.

Our grey, Coco, was with us up until just a few weeks ago.  He passed away at the age of 34 from heart failure.  The motivation behind this blog is partly in his memory.  He was a good boy, and in the nine years he was with us, he went from being a bird with a reputation for being “a stinker” to a really sweet guy.  He loved to go camping, he would accept (some) petting from strangers, and he was nice to all the adults in the house.  He had something of a fri-enemy (friend/enemy) relationship with our teenaged daughter and he would make sure to pinch her at the first opportunity if he perceived she had angered me.  My first thought, after I had gotten over the initial, terrible shock of his passing was, “Who will bite my kid now that Coco is gone?”

So our current flock consists of Static, our  14-year-old Goffin’s Cockatoo, and Luna, our approximately 30-year-old Severe Macaw.

After Coco died, both birds were pretty upset.  Static, who is the more emotionally sensitive of the two girls, snipped off a great many of her feathers, so she looks a lot like a shredded ball of paper at the moment.  Just after Coco passed, to help everyone (human and bird alike) to cope with the grief of losing a friend, we decided to start a birdie school.  Even though Static and Luna had mastered things like stepping up, returning to their perches and cages without a fuss, using their beaks gently, and not being too noisy, we hadn’t gone beyond that.

Enter Birdie School, which is my blog documenting our attempts to teach our birds something more than just basic companion behavior.

Coincidentally, just last weekend Barbara Heidenreich gave a seminar at the Santa Barbara Zoo on parrot behavior and training.  Although we were familiar with her training techniques and used similar methods for training our birds to (mostly) behave, we’d never worked with these techniques in a formal or structured way.  I went to her seminar and saw just how much is really possible, and that gave me some new ideas and motivation to help my birds be not only the best companion parrots they can be, but also to enrich all of our lives.

This blog will document our progress.

Now here’s the part for the necessary disclaimers.  I’m going to write on my blog about what has worked for me.  This doesn’t mean that everything I say here is the gospel truth.  It doesn’t even mean that everything I do is a good idea.  It just means that this is what we’ve done, and how it worked out for us.  If you have a companion parrot, then you have to make choices that work for you and your bird.  I’m not a bird trainer.  I’m not an expert.  I’m just a smart geek with a computer. my own business, and a couple of parrots.

Do what works for you, and don’t get mad at me if what works for me doesn’t work for you.  You are your bird’s own best advocate.

Oh, and speaking of advocacy, despite the extremely cute graphic that I downloaded as part of a free blog template, I do not advocate giving my parrots beer.

(Not that Static wouldn’t try to steal some if I gave her half a chance.)