I don’t take summer holidays but go on training workshops instead. I’ve just completed a three day, hands on Advanced Parrot Training Workshop led by Barbara Heidenreich.
I took the Stena ferry from Harwich and my internet friend Arian drove me to the workshop held at Stichting Papaaiendhulp, roughly translated as Parrot Foundation Aid.
Twelve participants out of a possible 20 gathered in the agreeable seminar room. Why are these workshops under not oversubscribed? They aren’t costly. In our group, we were mostly Dutch, two Danish and two from UK.
Over 1,200 birds live in the facility which is only the rescue centre officially recognized by the Dutch government. Half the birds come from rescue or relinquished backgrounds; the others are from illegal activities.
Many of the rare species are held in breeding programmes. The foundation is known as a centre of excellence for breeding rare species.
Michel Van de Plas and Bonny Talsma, the husband and wife team who run the centre were our hosts. Bonny, an experienced trainer, was on hand to help us. Barbara is a non pareil teacher and trainer.
Her examples throughout the PowerPoint lectures concentrated more on practice than theory. She works as a consultant for international zoos, so many clips showed various behaviours using species as varied as leopards, elephants, rabbits as well as Parrots.
These examples were a graphic reminder that behaviour science using conditioning techniques and positive reinforcement works across every species; an elephant is trained to put her foot up for a pedicure; a Macaw puts his head into the plastic cup to be anaesthetised; a Cockatoo allows herself to be wrapped in a towel.
Our time was divided between seminar presentations, discussions and hands on experience working with Parrots.
Eighteen aviaries were marked with a T. They held groups of same species, Cockatoos, Macaws, Greys, Eclectus and Caiques. These we were free to enter and train any of the behaviours suggested from the lectures.
Some of behaviours demonstrated with video clips:
· Step up and recall
· Quick response to cue for recall
· Recall to station or target still
· Training a head scratch on cue
· Training a bird to put its head in a clear plastic mask for anaesthetic
· Stepping up for a stranger
· Match to sample: the animal chooses a colour or object that matches with the one shown.
· Being wrapped in a towel for the veterinary exam
· Birds painting. This was shown with Barbara’s blue throat Blu Lu. Sadly, none of us tried.
We were a friendly group. Amongst us were: Leon, ex-dolphin trainer, now in charge of animal behaviour and training in a new zoo. Inexperienced with Parrots, his knowledge of positive reinforcement enabled him to handle them with ease straightaway.
Arian, a military policemen who keeps two Macaws that he wishes to train for free flight.
I have a mixed collection of pets, Parakeets and rescues and write on avian matters for various publications. Simona, an Italian model working in London has three pet Parrots and is fascinated to enrich her training skills.
A diverse group, we shared a common passion – Parrots, their lives free and captive and their behaviour. Whatever Barbara said was either a reminder of good practice or else something new to consider.
Some of the training tips:
Setting up the environment. Keep animals comfortable; have everything in place before the bird is brought in: towels, perches, or other objects. Moving things around can cause fear.
Anything a bird stands on must be stable (I watched Barbara in a training session with Eric’s Hahn’s Macaws. She spotted a tiny wobble on a table top perch and fixed it before asking the birds to perch.)
Barbara advises, ‘Make it easy. The more movement a bird is required to do, the more motivation is required.’ And when choosing the perch, keep the animal’s natural history in mind.
Some simple tips were so obvious that I wondered why we don’t always use them, e.g. covering the shiny slippery surface of a scale with a solid material.
Another mistake I often make is coming up too fast to a new bird. Barbara stresses approaching slowly from a distance. ‘Show what you have to offer,’ she says. ‘And offer from the fingertips. Then how you react depends on the bird’s responses.’
A tip that I often forget. ’Make the bird lean forward to accept the treat.’ (That way it’s harder to nip.) The best trainers are responsive to the merest hint of body language. She adds, ‘you can also treat for calm body language.’ How often at home do I rush in, ask something and then be surprised when the bird flies off?
One of Barbara’s special interests is teaching calm behaviour for the veterinary exam. We watched clips of Macaws lying on their backs motionless for blood draws, putting their beaks into the plastic anaesthetic cup, etc.
Each time you encourage a bird to overcome a fear response you are encouraging that bird’s security.
Keys for this sort of behaviour are desensitisation and classical conditioning.
Another excellent training tip: be aware that most species do not like to be approached from behind or above. Many Parrots show neophobic behaviour in any novel situation. Parrots prefer to be approached from below and in front.
Accustoming the bird to new objects is done through systemic desensitisation and classical conditioning. Barbara showed us a clip in which Blu Lu her Bluethroat accepted the sight of a new object - a toothbrush in front of her beak but flinched when the same object was held behind and above her head.
The lesson one learned from this is showing a new object very slowly. Also the usefulness of pairing the new object (scary) with sunflower seeds (desirable)
We saw how quickly a Goffins Cockatoo accepted the sight of a syringe held in one hand when the other hand held yummy sunflower seeds. The bird learns to accept and eventually touch the scary syringe when it is paired with the acceptable seeds. This is an example of counter conditioning.
Some more training tips.
· Identify potential reinforcers. What does the animal want?
· Decide if you will use shaping with approximations or capturing. (I’d like to know which techniques other enthusiastic amateurs find easiest. For me capturing is far easier than approximations.)
· Decide if you need a bridging stimulus to train this behaviour
· Will you need to use any systemic desensitisation and/or classical conditioning to introduce a new object or circumstances?
· Develop a shaping plan and/or identify your antecedent arrangement for capturing the behaviour
· Identify how you will get the behaviour started
· Work through the approximations
· Put the behaviour on cue
I noticed not everyone took notes. I find either at home or in a training situation elsewhere that keeping notes reminds me of how training is going.
What we trained
Several of our group practised training with syringe, towels and plastic cup. In the feedback sessions we reported our successes, trying to look modest.
Arian worked with an Umbrella Cockatoo who at first displayed highly aggressive body language, so Arian and his partner worked outside the flight.
However in subsequent sessions, Arian worked inside the flight and the Cockatoo was enabled to stick his beak into the plastic cup, touch the target stick and receive a sliver of walnut.
Leon, a professional trainer on his first exposure to Parrots, got an Eclectus to allow himself to be wrapped in a towel.
Saskia trained a Jardine to do a chained behaviour: step forward, return to perch and turn around.
In one poignant aviary beautifully planted with bushes, three totally blind birds were on separate perches, an Amazon, a Grey and a male Eclectus. Simona in her training sessions working delicately with the blind bird, enabled the Eclectus to say “yeah” on cue. I thought that quite an achievement!
None of the birds we worked with were on food management. They were fed twice a day; their bowls held pellets. However the sunflower seeds and the walnuts only came from us.
My own training experiences
Eight training sessions lasting an hour or more each one and we were free to choose which aviaries to enter and which birds to train. We were encouraged to enter as many as possible.
I had a non-positive experience in the Greys’ flight. Presumably these are all ex-pets. None of them flew down to me. And with experience of rescued Greys at home who are more than capable of a sharp nip, I did not persevere.
One of the aviaries with the enticing T on attracted my attention. The 5-metre flight held ten elegant yellow crested Amazons - the sub species (Amazona ochrocephala nattereri) - not endangered but rare in aviculture.
Most of the flock were born in the facility and some had been hand reared. They were predominately green with bright yellow heads - quieter than most Amazons I’ve met. To my eyes indescribably pretty.
When I entered and waited quietly, three came down from the highest perch to perch at my level – one smaller, two larger birds. The two larger birds were adept at pushing the smaller one away.
Not being a professional breeder or trainer, I fell in love with the smaller one. I believed her female and called her Streaky.
When she raised her wings, her red feathers were streaked with green. These ratereri birds are very difficult to distinguish one from the other.
By the end of the first session, Streaky was delicately placing one claw on my hand. By the end of the afternoon session she was standing on my hand. Barbara pointed out the necessity of slow movements.
I claimed proudly during group feedback that she had eventually stood on my hand for ten seconds before flying off. (A bit of cheating perhaps as I counted up to ten fast.)
Although we were encouraged to enter various flights and train different birds, I kept returning to Streaky. Her two larger flight mates kept pushing her off the perch and I had to develop strategies to keep them away and work with her.
In that flight, a crate provided a table top and once the birds were confident to fly down onto it, we practised stationing onto a coloured plastic disc and other behaviours. One of the two larger Amazons offered me a recall from the table top to my hand.
We began at one metre and quickly progressed to about three metres. He did this consistently in the morning sessions. Although at home I have a 98% step up from my Greys, they don’t fly to me from a perch, this presumably the behaviour this novice bird was offering.
However, in the afternoon sessions, after a lot of sunflower seeds, he did not respond to my cues. Streaky however obliged me in stepping up throughout the day. Streaky would not fly to me but she would fly near to me and her step up (to my great joy) became confirmed during the course of the weekend.
Another interesting behaviour
Towel training for a veterinary exam. Several of the group tried this and a couple had success with a Caique and an Eclectus. I wondered whether species difference might have accounted for some subject’s willingness to be covered.
Colour discrimination of Hahn’s Macaws
Eric, one of the participants, brought along his pair of Hahn’s Macaws – two males. From their large holding cage in the seminar room, they gave jolly whistled commentaries throughout the day.
Eric had taught them colour discrimination putting plastic discs, red, yellow or blue on same coloured mat. They did this a great deal of brio but Eric prompting them constantly and they made plenty of mistakes.
In the seminar room, Barbara went through a session with Eric and the Macaws. She asked first that both birds stationed on a separate perch each before attempting any colour discrimination.
They stationed on two perches in a remarkably short space of time. Presumably Eric will continue this line of training once he is home. Barbara stressed we should allow the bird to offer a behaviour rather than prompt it at this stage in their training process.
Bridging and flighted indoor Parrots
Information on flighted Parrots is probably more applicable to USA where clipping is still prevalent. Barbara pointed out regretfully that if a Parrot hasn’t been allowed to fledge normally even when the feathers have regrown, flight is difficult to achieve and frightening for the bird.
I suppose the best solution in that situation would be to let the clip grow out but not insist that the bird attempt flight.
Barbara showed us several strategies for keeping flighted Parrots out of harm’s way and destroying our property. She reminded us of the Matching Law.
An animal that has a choice between two behaviours will choose the best alternative. So putting this in a practical situation - you want your birds to land on the designated perch not the kitchen cabinet. You might put a scary objet on the kitchen cabinet and an alluring food treat or toy attached to the perch.
Our lecture on the bridge stimulus gave plenty of food for thought. Timing of the delivery of your consequences matters. This is whether the consequence (the reward) is a treat, a head scratch, or a toy. Can you deliver it fast enough? If NOT the bridge is used to tell the bird that the reward is coming.
Barbara gave a neat list of bridges, and says anything can be used provided it is succinct district and brief:
· An eyebrow raise (I’ve seen Steve Martin twiddle his thumb as a bridge)
· A touch
· A light (I’ve seen goldfish swim to a laser beam.)
· A clicker
‘If you bridge,’ says Barbara, ‘you must reward. Otherwise the bridge will become inoperative.’
The opportunity at this workshop was a unique chance for professionals and amateurs to work with so many and such a variety of birds and still benefit from the experience of Barbara and Bonny’s support. If the workshop is repeated in October 2016, I’ll attend in the hope that Streaky remembers me.
Parrot Foundation Air at www.papegaaienhulp.nl
Barbara Heidenreich at http://www.goodbirdinc.com/goodbirdinc.com/parrot-store.html