On Tuesday, we had a rather traumatic visit to our avian vet.
Since our 34-year-old African Grey, Coco, passed away, the girls have been acting strangely. At first, I chalked it up to them being upset about his passing, but after it stretched on for a couple of weeks, I decided maybe we ought to go see the vet, just to make sure.
Vet visits are never fun around these parts. Although both girls will somewhat cooperate if they aren’t feeling well, there is zero cooperation to be found when they are feeling fine. This last visit was no exception. Both birds behaved like little banshees. If they were children, I would have been dreadfully embarrassed. Since they were birds, all the humans in the room simply shrugged at each other and tried to attend to the business at hand.
If you have decided to train your bird with positive reinforcement techniques, you obviously have to find something that is reinforcing for your bird. As I wrote about in my earlier post, positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder, so what might work for some birds won’t work for others.
Here are just a few things that can serve as positive reinforcers:
- head scratches
A lot depends on your individual bird.
Aside from the obvious work of feeding and keeping cages clean, one of the most challenging aspects of living with companion parrots is finding ways to keep them busy. A bored bird is an unhappy bird, and an unhappy bird often will resort to undesirable behaviors such as screaming, biting or feather destruction.
This is difficult enough with a parrot who can see, but it’s even more challenging for a blind bird. How do you entertain her?
You do the obvious. You take her to Home Depot.
The first project that we’ve been working on is teaching the birds to target.
Targeting, for those unfamiliar, is simply teaching the bird to touch an object in order to get a reward. This can be used as the basis for other behaviors down the road, so it’s a useful thing to teach. For example, once your bird understands this, you can use a target to train her to come when called, and to go away when you ask.
After Static and Coco, we found Luna.
We hadn’t planned on getting a third bird. Two was plenty, or at least it seemed so at the time, but when we heard her story in July of 2003, we couldn’t sit by and do nothing.
We heard about Luna on an Internet e-mail group. She needed a new home because her caregiver had developed some mysterious mobility problems, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Luna was a special-needs bird, because she was completely blind, feather picked, and missing a couple of toes.
Her story is heartbreaking, and not for the faint of heart. If you are easily upset, or very sensitive, you might want to skip the rest of this post.
If not, read on…
I am going to have to start out by saying that this is a hard post to write. As I was thinking about introducing my flock, I wasn’t sure how to approach this post. You see, Coco was my 34-year-old Congo African Grey who passed away last month. It felt odd to introduce him, since he is no longer with us, but it felt wrong to leave him out. He was a hugely important member of our family for nine years, and his contributions to our lives were of great value.
I still miss him terribly. Our house seems very empty without his presence.
Like Static, Coco was a newspaper bird. We found him advertised in our local classifieds and immediately responded. I had wanted an African Grey very badly when we started our adventures with parrots, but I just didn’t have the cash available to buy a baby bird, a brand new cage, and all of the trimmings.
We met the owner and the bird, and immediately agreed to the purchase. She had kept him for 20 years, but was his second or third home. He had a history of abuse, and she explained that a previous owner had hit him with a stick.
We came back a day or two later to pick up the bird with his cage.
“Did you explain to him that he’s going to be moving?” I had asked.
“No,” his owner answered, somewhat baffled. “Why would I?”
So we brought him home and kept him quarantined in our RV for a month. We had been warned that he was a stinker, a biter, and he didn’t like to cuddle, never played with toys, wouldn’t ride on your shoulder, and didn’t know how to step up.
He was 25 years old at the time we brought him home. How could he not know how to step up?
He didn’t. He was used to being scooped out of the cage like you would scoop up a guinea pig. I thought it odd. Even stranger, he didn’t seem as coordinated as little Static. A couple of times, I saw him twist around to scratch himself, and he tumbled off his perch to the bottom of his cage with a loud thunk.
He’d get up, shake his feathers, and look around as if to say, “Oh, I meant to do that.”
He did bite me a few times. The last time he got me, I had been trying to do something in his cage. He reached out and grabbed me and pinched down hard. It broke the skin.
I am not usually one to weep at silly things, but somehow this bite really got to me. I sat down next to his cage and burst into tears.
“I know you are grieving your home,” I sobbed, “and I know you miss everyone. But I promise you that I will do everything I can to make your life better, and whether you bite me or not, I will still love you and I will never give up on you!”
That was the last time he ever bit me. I don’t know if he understood what I was saying to him, if I got better at reading his signals (which were enough different from Static that I found him somewhat baffling at first) or if it was a combination of both. Sure, I got pinched a couple of times when he was expressing his irritation with me, but a pinch isn’t a bite.
It was during and immediately after his quarantine that I realized what a little lump of feathered brilliance he was. Since I couldn’t very well keep him alone in the RV all day for a month-long quarantine, I would go in and visit him. I would take him outside (at first in a travel cage, and later on my hand) and we’d sit on the front step in the sunshine.
One day the neighbor’s cat came wandering into view.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!” he cried.
If I had been drinking a soda, I am sure I would have spit it all over myself. I was stunned.
But then he surprised me even more. “Meow!” he called to the kitty.
I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.
Another time, when I took him to his first well bird exam, I lifted his travel cage out of the car.
“Hold on!” he called, as he grabbed tightly onto the bars.
Again, it was a stunning moment.
He never ceased to amaze us. He would often say things once, just to get them out of his system, and he would never say them again. Shortly after his quarantine was over, he was in the living room while my wife and I got into some sort of petty squabble.
Coco started making sounds that sounded like two people arguing. Then, he dropped a verbal bomb.
“G-d damn f–king bird!” he shouted.
My wife and I were stunned. We immediately ceased our argument and went over to his cage.
“We aren’t arguing about you, Coco,” I explained. “We love you and want you here. This isn’t about you at all.”
He looked at me, his golden eyes staring.
I went on to explain that he didn’t need to use bad words like those, here. He tilted his head to look at me, as if he was absorbing every word.
We never heard him say those words again. Not once. For a week or so after the incident, when I explained the story to friends in his presence, I would omit the cuss words. I’d say, when I’d repeat his line, “Gee dee f-word bird.” My friends would nod in surprise.
Coco thought this was funny. For a couple of weeks after, he would sit on his swing and pump furiously. “F-word! F-word! F-word! Hee, hee, hee!” he would giggle.
Eventually, even that went away.
At first, when he would accidentally drop his food to the bottom of his cage, he would cry, “Oh sh-t!” Later, when he realized that a human would retrieve it for him, he changed his complaint to, “Oh shoot.”
In later years, he didn’t bother to complain, as he knew there was plenty to eat.
During the nine years he lived with us, he became a really wonderful companion. He quit biting people, he was very social, and he even liked (within reason) most visitors. He especially enjoyed it when we went camping, because he’d sit on his perch and call to any kid that happened to be walking by. “Hullo!” he’d call in a deep, husky voice.
The kid would stop dead in his tracks to look around, not understanding that it was a bird that had been talking to him. Coco delighted in calling to the kids, but as soon as they looked at him, he would become mute as a stone.
Many of the things his former owner had warned us about turned out not to be true. He was a real love, and he did like to cuddle, but it was on his terms. He liked to have his ears rubbed just so, and it seemed that I was the only one who could do it right. If anyone else tried, he would tolerate it for a minute, and then squeak and clack his beak in protest. When I rubbed his years, he would tip his head to the side and close his eyes.
He also did learn how to step up, and we learned why he never did when he was with his former owner. Coco always was a little awkward moving around. His original cage had perches of similar size and height all around the perimeter. He didn’t have a lot of room to move around, and he had become a bit of a perch potato. His tail grew a little crooked, and we always wondered if he had a spinal deformity or had been injured years ago. To get him to step up, one had to offer two hands. One hand for him to grab with his beak, and the other for him to put his feet upon.
He played with toys, though not most of the ones we brought from the birdie store. His favorite toy was the box the toys came in. If we gave him a cardboard box, he would delight in chewing the thing into little cardboard confetti. No matter how much we vacuumed around his cage, we always would find tiny bits of cardboard scattered all over the floor.
Coco was smart and funny. He loved me dearly and politely tolerated attention from everybody else. He would do anything for me, including letting me pick him up, rub him across my face like a big powder puff, while I said silly things like “moodgie, moodgie, moodgie.” It was certainly beneath his dignity, and if anybody else had tried to play that game with him, no doubt he would have taken their nose off.
Last year, when we took him for his annual well bird check, the vet found something troubling. She discovered he had a heart murmur, which wasn’t a good sign. We discussed putting him on blood thinners, but since he would occasionally break blood feathers and they would be very difficult to stop, we opted against it. The vet told us that there wasn’t much that could be done for the little guy, and that he would keep going until he stopped.
That’s exactly what happened. He ate, he played, he snuggled and did all the things he did, right up until the night he died. That evening, he sat on the sofa and played with my kid, while she fed him walnuts. We put him to bed, and there seemed to be nothing wrong. The next morning, when we went to get him out of his sleeping cage, he was gone. We found him cold and still on the floor of his cage.
My only regret in his passing was that I didn’t rub his ears that night. My kid had played with him, instead. I wished I could have had one more chance to rub his beautiful, tiny ears.
But Coco died as he lived, quietly, without a lot of drama. He was a good boy, and I miss him terribly, but I know that his last years with us were good. He was happy, and he let us know that he was by chattering every morning and torturing us with the kitty game. He would sit on his swing and call to us, and we’d eventually holler, “Here, kitty, kitty!” He knew he was supposed to answer, “meow!” but he would torture us by offering up every other sound he knew. Eventually, we’d give up, and he’d demonstrate that he knew the correct response by calling, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…meow!”
Well his former owner was right. He was a stinker, just not maybe in the way everyone thought.
You’ve already had a chance to meet Static in my earlier post about how positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder, but I thought it only fair that she get a proper introduction.
Meet Static. She is a 14-year-old Goffin’s Cockatoo, more formally known as a Tanimbar Corella. Her species is native to the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia, but Static was hatched somewhere in California. She came to us, in November of 2002, by way of an advertisement in the newspaper.
Although Static was most certainly a secondhand bird, she came from circumstances that were much better than those some of our other birds came from. Her first owner was caring and motivated, and did her best to make sure that Static had a good cage, plenty of interaction, and a decent diet. She had hand fed the bird herself, which is how Static ended up with her name. Apparently, she would make a hissing noise that sounded very much like an off-station radio when she was hungry. One day, when the woman was on the phone with her mother, the elder heard the bird’s racket and asked, “What’s that noise? It sounds like static.” The name apparently stuck.
I think Static is a good name for the bird, because not only is it descriptive of her raucous calls, it also describes her tendency to adhere herself to people that she knows like socks in the old Bounce dryer sheet commercials. Ah, that embarrassing Static cling!
Unfortunately, as seems to be very common in the parrot world, her owner developed health problems, and wasn’t able to give the bird the attention she needed. Static started to snip off her feathers, so her owner felt it was time to give her a new home.
Unlike many people trying to re-home a bird, this woman was motivated to obtain the best placement she could find. Instead of advertising in the paper and taking money from the first (or highest) bidder, she invited people to her home, queried them about avian care, and tried to gauge the bird’s reaction to them. Static was (and still is) incredibly shy around strangers. Oddly enough, I was the only person interviewed that the bird didn’t run away from, flapping and honking. When the woman put Static on my hand, she grabbed on with her talons so tightly that the end of my finger turned purple. She was scared of me, her feathers slicked down, and her body leaning away, but she didn’t try to escape as she had everyone else.
Not a perfect beginning, but it was a start. Static’s reaction to me was the one of the main reasons we were selected as her new family. She wouldn’t get near anyone else.
As you can see from the photo, she was barbering (snipping off) her feathers. She has a tendency to do this, though there are times when she’s better and times when she’s worse. It seems that some of the barbering is prompted by her feeling nesty, though sometimes stress or boredom will prompt it as well. We’ve found it especially challenging to get her to completely stop, because she likes to play with her own feathers, even though she has plenty of other toys available.
Her feather-destructive behavior ebbs and flows, and there are times when she’ll be in near-perfect feather. She had been doing pretty well prior to our African Grey passing away, but within a few days of his death, she’d managed to snip off most of the feathers on her chest, wings and tail.
Fortunately, they will grow back, and when she molts we will have the opportunity to start again.
As you should do with any feather-picking bird, Static has been to the vet to make sure her picking isn’t caused by some underlying medical problem. The vet has deemed her healthy, and regardless of the state of her feathers, we absolutely adore her.
We were very lucky with Static. Most bird experts suggest, and the MyToos.com site will confirm, that a cockatoo is not a good choice for a first bird. Although Static does pick her feathers, she doesn’t have some of the really terrible habits that cockatoos are known for. She isn’t a constant screamer, nor is she a biter. Although she does tend to be timid around new people and new situations, she responds to those feelings by running away, rather than trying to bite.
Now I’ll admit we were pretty dumb in the beginning. There were times when we wanted her to come out of her cage, but she wasn’t ready, so we’d slowly p-e-e-l her little feet off of the bars. If this had been any other bird, we would have gotten a good chomp for our trouble. Static, though, put up with our nonsense with incredible patience, and we learned to do better.
Now this isn’t to say that Static has never bitten anyone. A number of years ago, she jumped off my shoulder and gave my then-12-year-old a good hard bite on the top of her ear. The bite drew blood and made a small puncture wound that went just about all the way through. If we’d been thinking about it, we would have taken advantage of the free piercing and put in an earring, since the kid had been asking for one. Now in fairness to Static, the bite was richly deserved. My kid had been teasing her, and wouldn’t quit, even after being repeatedly asked to stop. Finally, the bird couldn’t stand it any longer, so she jumped on my kid, chomped her once, and immediately jumped back to me.
Given the circumstances, I thought Static’s response was pretty measured. In retrospect, I probably should have just removed the kid from our home office where all of this occurred, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly at the time. I was distracted, sitting at my desk trying to get some work done, and the kid was being a pill. The natural consequence of getting bitten did have one benefit: it gave my kid a higher level of respect for Static.
We have a saying in our house: Beware the power of the beakie, for it is mighty.
But the truth is, don’t mess with the cockatoo.
Static was, and still is, a real sweetie. She’s generous with her affection to people that she knows well. She’s gentle (even carefully preening my eyelashes), smart, cuddly, mischievous and funny. She likes to play, and if you put her on the floor with her favorite toy, she’ll attack it and throw it, and roll around on the carpet like a puppy. I’ve even seen her do somersaults while chasing after it. Of all the birds I’ve owned, she is the most active, rambunctious and noisy. In many ways, she’s like a perpetual puppy on steroids with a bad case of ADHD, but she’s amazing and wonderful. Even though she’s 14 years old now, I don’t notice that she’s any less active than she was nearly a decade ago.
Static is incredibly special. She was our first parrot, and she patiently instructed us in many immensely valuable lessons. Even though we were unintentionally stupid when she first arrived. she taught us, with help from an avian behaviorist, how to do better. She’s an exceptional friend and companion, and our lives would be poorer without her.
Some people think you should wear gloves when you are working with parrots, so that you do not get bitten. I completely disagree.
However, as we discovered recently, you should wear a bra.
Our dear sweet Static likes to climb on people. She’s quite athletic about it, and she can hoist herself, beak over talon, from the floor, up your pant leg, onto your shirt, and eventually up onto your shoulder. She’s very careful about this process, having learned long ago not to bite too hard. She’s well aware that humans don’t much like it when her little beakie pokes holes in their clothing as she climbs her way to wherever she’s going.
In her world, she thinks her humans are her personal jungle gym. We don’t mind, really, because she’s mostly good about not pooping on us, and other than just being silly and annoying as only cockatoos can be, she’s very well behaved. She knows better than to deliberately bite when she’s playing on us, because she knows that will end the fun right then and there.
But, accidents do happen once in a while.
The other morning, Static and my wife were both in our home office. Static was busy climbing and dancing in my wife’s lap. My wife, having not gotten dressed for the day, was wearing a thin cotton house dress. I was in the office, too, with my back to both of them, as my attentions were focused on my computer.
Suddenly, my wife yelped. Okay, it wasn’t really a yelp. It was more of a blood-curdling shriek.
Apparently, dear sweet Static was climbing up my wife’s shirt when she accidentally grabbed hold of more than my wife’s clothing.
Yeah, things got a little nipply there for a second.
So my wife screamed, and Static immediately let go and plopped back into her lap. The alarmed bird flattened herself down, her feathers slicked tight. After a second, she stood up and looked around with an expression that could only be described as a “what the hell just happened?” look on her face. At that point I retrieved her from my wife’s lap.
After my wife had a moment to compose herself, and a close visual inspection proved that her nipple was still intact, I placed Static back in her lap. This time she s-l-o-w-l-y climbed to my wife’s shoulder, being much more careful to avoid accidentally beaking the tender spot.
So when you are working with your parrot, gloves are not necessary. A bra, however, probably is.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pretty soon, she jumped onto the table and stayed there, as I moved the paper further and further away.
- 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.
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.