Although the results from many parrot training sessions come from deliberate, conscious effort, some behaviors simply evolve in a much more organic way. Birds can learn to do things, simply by being in, and interacting with, their environment.
A great example of this is how the game of puff evolved with my cockatoo. I didn’t set out to specifically teach Static to enjoy having puffs of air blown in her face. Rather, the game was something of a lucky accident.
We are finding this to be true as we are teaching Static to play the game of fetch.
Static, it seems, has something of an obsession with empty plastic pill bottles. There is almost no other toy that she’d rather play with, and she can become quite aggressive in defending her precious bottles once she has them. If she sees an orange plastic pill bottle, she wants it.
So, when we have an empty available, we carefully wash it out and hand it over.
Well, that’s not exactly true. We don’t hand Static a pill bottle, because she gets so excited, she’s prone to nip and bite the hand that gets between her and the toy. Usually, we show her the bottle, put her on the floor, and then quickly toss the empty bottle next to her. She’ll delightedly respond by grabbing it and tossing it into the air. She’ll chase it, sometimes getting so excited that she’ll somersault across the carpet. Here’s a video of Static playing with one, though this effort is somewhat anemic compared to some of her play sessions. I think she was a little distracted by the camera.
When we first started this game, she would become so territorial over the bottle that we had to use a wooden spoon to retrieve it from underneath the coffee table or other inaccessible places. After a time, Static realized that we weren’t going to take her toy away, until she was done with it. We found that if we were quick, we could reach in and bat the toy within her reach.
Now that we’ve been playing this game consistently, Static has become much less aggressive in her play. If we reach for the toy slowly, she’ll let us pick it up and toss it for her. She loves chasing it, and after she’s wrestled with it for a while, she’ll pause and wait for a human to bat it around for her.
The other night, I was home alone, so the game became a little harder for Static to play. Until that point, we’d played it with two people stationed on either side of the living room. We’d bat it around some, and Static would often play the role of monkey in the middle, trying to intercept the bottle as it went zinging across our carpeted floor.
Without another player, I could only toss the bottle. Static, predictably, chased it across the floor. Once she caught it, she wrestled with it for a bit, and then stopped. She was waiting for the next human to bat it around, but of course there was nobody playing but me. A few times, I moved to the other side of the room to knock it back. Then I got lazy and stopped. I started throwing the toy not as far, so she was playing within my easy reach.
At one point, she held the jar in her beak, as she was taking a breather. I slowly put my hand down, and at that moment, she moved so that the jar touched my hand. I gently took it from her, immediately gave her some verbal praise, and promptly tossed the jar.
Before I knew it, she started to bring me the bottle when she wanted me to throw it for her.
This afternoon, we caught some video of her doing this with my wife and kid. As you can see, Static takes her time bringing the pill bottle back, but she’s getting the idea. We aren’t using treats or rewards for this game, as we want the game itself to be the reinforcer. Since Static enjoys chasing pill bottles just for the pure fun of it, that’s sufficient to keep her interested and involved. Be sure to watch this clip to the very end, as our video shoot didn’t work out quite the way we’d planned.