One of the cornerstones of animal training is to set your environment so that it is easy for your Parrot to do what you want. This often means arranging your props just right, having a stash of the perfect training treats and making the set up comfortable for both you and your bird.
As I am writing this I am on a remote island in New Zealand working with rare kakapo Parrots. We are training three of this year’s chicks to cooperate in medical care and transmitter changes, among other things. Just as I would with a companion Parrot, we are trying to create a great training environment. But working here has presented a few out of the ordinary challenges
The chicks live in an outdoor enclosure because they are being prepared to transition into the wild. Outdoors in New Zealand this time of year means temperatures mostly in the 30’s and 40’s F (-1 to 4 C). It is also quite rainy and muddy. This is all normal habitat and conditions for kakapo, so they are completely at home with such conditions. Humans on the other hand need to bundle up and plan to get wet and dirty.
Kakapo are also nocturnal and the chicks need to sleep in the daytime, so the bulk of the training sessions happen in the dark. We can use head lamps when training, but it is better to keep them on dim or green so as not to make the birds uncomfortable with bright lights. This is another adjustment for the humans to make sure the birds are receptive to training
The current enclosure has a low ceiling, sloping ground and is currently mostly covered in lush vegetation. This is great for Kakapo! A little tough for training though.
There isn’t really an easily accessed space for trainers and birds to comfortably hang out. Plus for added bio security for the chicks, we must dress in big white coveralls and specially designated boots before entering the pen. On the positive side, the suits help keep us warm and free of mud on our clothes.
Being on an island that is only accessed by plane or helicopter every two weeks there is no running to the store if you run out of training treats or supplies. We make do with what we have. This may mean raiding the scrap wood pile to make perches and gathering training treats from the forest (which in reality is a good thing since they are learning to eat naturally growing food)
Many of these training challenges aren’t a big problem to overcome. They are just a bit of a nuisance to humans. And fortunately some will go away because the chicks are moving into a larger enclosure to prepare for release.
We have already set up a training area in the larger pen. This will allow us to work on a number of behaviours on a flat surface, away from mud and while standing up. We will also have the room to practice some behaviours that take more space, like recall and climbing down to us when cued. We are excited about this upgrade!
One challenge that we are thankful for is that we have three very motivated students.
Typically all three chicks are ready to engage in a training session when we enter the enclosure.
On the other hand, it also means managing the behaviour of three birds at once. Unlike muddy, dark, cold conditions, this is a problem other Parrot enthusiasts may be encountering with their own birds.
Sometimes training involves working with several birds at the same time. What has been working for us is to get started training one bird and reinforce the other two birds for staying out of the way.
Once the first bird begins to satiate on favourite treats, we can redirect him or her to other activities and focus on another bird. Sometimes all three stay engaged and other items besides food, such as interesting browse or items to chew on, can be used to keep birds occupied and reinforced for staying out of the way.
Today is the day the chicks get their telemetry transmitters fitted. The device rests on the back and is held in place by a specially designed harness. We have put in some extra time on training for this behaviour and anticipate it will go smoothly.
Once this task is accomplished the birds will be moved to the big pen and our training will get a bit more intensive. Stay tuned for more reports on the chick’s progress here.