Read more about training Parrots here.
A friend recently asked why Perdy a ten year old Lesser Sulphur Cockatoo enters a crate easily.
Here’s my report of how I learned to crate train in Florida and transferred the method to my own birds. I ask both African Greys and Perdy to enter a crate and they do. They’ll even share it; but it was not always so.
NEI Training Workshop
A few years back, I attended a training workshop at NEI (Natural Encounters Incorporated.) Steve Martin, one of USA’s foremost bird trainers, directs the ranch and runs workshops for professional and amateur trainers.
There, I learned a successful technique to train a Parrot to enter a crate willingly. When I got home I modified what I’d learned to train an uncooperative Perdy.
At NEI, one of the three tasks given us was choosing a challenge bird from a list of 50 available and teaching that bird a particular behaviour using positive reinforcement methods.
I chose a Blue fronted Amazon, hand- reared and previously untrained, to enter a crate.
We worked in in pairs with our own professional trainer. For my team mate Phyllis and I our team leader was the charismatic but rigorous young Australian trainer Nic Bishop.
The first step: work out a training plan on paper. My aim was entered on the Training Plan and Goal sheet with a list of specific training steps and timeline goals. That formed the blueprint.
Then each day on a separate sheet, we had to fill in columns showing Date, Weight and Diet and Comments - how the training was proceeding. Although each student trained her particular bird, during every session we were guided, advised and if necessary corrected by our team leader.
Since I’m a writer by trade, it hasn’t been difficult to develop and keep up the habit of taking notes.
Certain guiding principles and ideas underpin all training strategies at NEI. Steve Martin teaches that good trainers ‘understand the power of positive reinforcement and use it effectively.’ He accepts that ‘negative reinforcement and punishment will creep in inevitably’.
But he insists that ‘positive reinforcement is almost always the best training tool for the job, even when punishment or negative reinforcement may be easier and produce quicker results.’
Positive reinforcement – the process of following an action or response with something that the animal wants, thereby increasing the frequency of that behaviour occurring.
Negative Reinforcement – a process in which a response increases in frequency due to the removal of an aversive stimulus from the animal’s environment.
For positive reinforcement methods to work at their best, the training environment must be arranged in the best possible manner for the birds’ comfort. And the bird’s diet must be suitably managed so that without hunger being created, she wants to work to earn the food reward offered.
To ensure rapid success, both of these conditions were set up with my Blue fronted Amazon. This bird, one of 12, had arrived a year ago and wasn’t yet named. His ring number contained a nine so we called him Niney. For the duration of the workshop (six days), Niney was transferred from his large aviary into a smaller flight with two other Blue fronts.
I had two training sessions per day with him and before each session he was weighed, asked to step up and put into a smaller cage. This cage Phyllis and I rolled carefully into one of the training tents.
We had exclusive use of the tent about 10 metres square for our 30-minute-long sessions. Niney had a perch next to which was a table on which the crate stood with its door wide open. A couple of struts were removed from the side so that I could offer treats from my hand inside the crate.
Steve likes to train in spacious surroundings, as he believes birds are more comfortable when they have a 360 degree view. None of the birds are ever clipped and many are trained for free flight demonstrations in Bird Shows.
The first session was devoted in asking Niney to step up onto my hand for a peanut. Several times he flew off to the nearby perch. Gradually, we became used to one another.
For the training week, Niney’s food management was what the trainers call Level One. With Levels Two and Three the food management is more strictly controlled.
Steve Martin recommends only Level One for all companion Parrot owners. The bird is given two bowls of fruit and vegetables each day but all richer items like seeds, nuts and pellets are removed.
These are used as treats when the bird performs a requested behaviour. The richer items Niney didn’t earn in his training sessions were put into his food bowl at night. Nic would adjust the weight of these items that he’d put in the food bowl at night. Niney lost 8 grams during the week; weighing 449 grams at the start and 441 grams at the finish.
Some birds ended up weighing more at the end than at the start.
At ten am in the morning his bowl was empty and he appeared eager to train. After the morning session, he went back into the small cage with a bowl of fruit and after the afternoon session, he spent the night in the flight with his companions and another food bowl.
Once Niney would step up from the perch to me and also fly to my left hand palm out with my right hand held above my palm hiding the treat, it was comparatively easy to ask him to step up onto the table where the crate stood. The fast pace at which the training advanced surprised me.
Nic taught me that my previous habit of pushing the flat of my hand against the bird’s chest to make him step up was considered an aversive. Instead the bird is invited to step up onto the hand held palm flat with the right hand holding a treat.
At first, for a few repetitions, I was allowed to show Niney what was in my fingers, ‘bating’ or ‘luring’. Then I was encouraged to hide the treat in my closed fingers of the right hand.
The bird knows it’s there but hidden; it provides the animal with more motivation both to concentrate on the task behaviour being asked for and curiosity as to what he’ll receive.
Both of these tips when practised back home on my own birds produced better and faster results than I’d previously obtained.
By session 5 on the second day, Niney was entering the crate to find the treat concealed in my hand through the gaps. It wasn’t plain sailing from one session to another.
At the end of session 4, Niney kept flying off. Nic put only 5 grams of pellets and nuts into his fruit/veggie bowl that night. Next morning session, Niney handled easily. We established a cue which was my forefinger rapping on the lip of the crate and the word ‘crate’. To ask Niney to walk out, the cue was a beckoning forefinger and the word ‘out’.
By the third day Nic was able to shut the door while I fed Niney seeds as fast as I could through the gap. The bird remained calm. One delicate observation that Nic taught me, if Niney even glanced towards the shut door, it was swung open immediately. By doing that, the bird is offered choice.
This was another of core concept behind positive reinforcement methods - Empower the Bird to Have Influence on Their Environment.
What the trainers repeated constantly that each positive interaction built up trust between you and the bird; the reverse was true. Each negative interaction lessened that trust.
In my week with Niney, I made every effort not to make a single movement or gesture that would make him uncomfortable. When he started to play with our watch straps instead of hopping onto the table, we didn’t say ‘No’ - we simply removed our watches.
By the fourth day, Niney would remain in the crate while Phyllis and Nic lifted it a few centimetres. If at any stage his body language showed any discomfort, the crate was immediately put down on the table the door opened and the cue given ‘out’.
I was extremely pleased that Niney whenever he grew a little uncomfortable, would fly to me for reassurance.
On the final day of the workshop, each team member must show the rest of the group (ten of us) what behaviours she’d had taught the birds she worked with. We were all nervous and excited.
Everyone’s bird behaved brilliantly performing behaviours such as the Toucan catching a grape in mid air, a Macaw entering a cage and closing the door behind him, an Amazon letting himself be towelled, another allowing his claws be filed without restraint, Ike, the kea, bringing a tissue to student trainer Kathryn and depositing it in the trash can after use.
Niney flew to me from his perch, hopped from my hand on cue and entered the crate, Nic and Phyllis lifted it. It was put down, the grille opened; Niney walked out and flew back to me. Our team was elated!
Now I had to translate that at home with my semi-trusting Cockatoo and without Nic’s expert guidance and Phyllis’ emotional support.
Once back home, I worked out a ten-day plan for Perdy. At first she wouldn’t fly to me in the aviary. I set up the crate on a table in one corner with a perch placed behind and waited five days for her to become a bit friendlier.
I removed the bowls of seeds and nuts but left plenty of fruit and vegetables and fresh branches in her section of the aviary. The first session on Saturday morning was disappointing. Perdy would fly to me and land on a stick but not if I held it anywhere near the crate.
She was doing a new behaviour though and hopping from my shoulder onto my hand for a sunflower seed. By the afternoon she was desensitized to the sight of the crate and popped her head inside to take half an almond. I called it a day.
The next day was Easter Sunday and Perdy was quite ready for pieces of almond to walk in and out of the crate five times to fetch a sliver of almond I held at the back gap.
When I asked her to fly to me she complied faster.
After about 30 seeds and three almonds she was no longer interested in the crate. I had to adjust my training plan in line with her response which was faster than I had planned.
Over the next few days she’d enter the crate willingly at first but after a few repetitions would fly off. I wasn’t too discouraged because she was showing other desirable behaviours like flying to me when I hid behind branches.
From my notes
Day 3 Monday April 9th
Perdy had apple overnight left uneaten.
Did 10 reps of ‘enter crate’. Then flew off.
A couple of reps of ‘fly to stick’. Then flew off with one of her toys and started to play. I asked for one more crate entrance.
She won’t enter crate unless she sees the closed hand at the back.
At lunch time she sat on my shoulder for no treats – a new balance of trust.
7 pm. Best session so far. Perdy entered crate ten times. Door closed four times for a couple of seconds. I immediately opened the door when she came forward.
Perdy flew to open hand 4 times.
First time she has done this since the aversive training in December
Perdy left in aviary overnight with apple and a few seeds.
Tuesday April 10th
Perdy entered crate easily for 10 repetitions (reps). Perdy only comfortable with door closed for a couple of seconds. After ten reps she flies off. Willing to fly to hand or stick a few times. Then willing to enter crate a few more times. No food in aviary in day time but fruit and fresh branches to chew.
A minor problem arose. I wondered whether pet birds are more resourceful than the show birds at NEI. Niney had never worked out that the treats were kept in a pouch round my waist. Perdy soon realized that they were.
When I cued ‘enter crate’ she’d respond by hopping onto my lap and dipping her beak into the pouch, helping herself without doing the requested behaviour. How to stop her without using an aversive? Solution - close the zips, sling the pouch further round my waist out of sight.
Saturday April 14th
Amazing spring sunshine. Perdy unwilling to work. Flew to me. Walked once into crate and flew off. I think she’s been feeding from spilt seeds on the ground? Came to my lap while I sat next to the crate for cuddles and preening in my lap. Big breakthrough after the several months’ standoff.
Sunday April 15th
Progress to date - 7 days after start of training.
Perdy enters crate. Remains comfortable with door shut for a few seconds.
Perdy will not enter crate unless she sees the treat hand at the far gap.
Decides herself when she wants to enter crate.
When she does not respond to cue, I ask for ‘fly to stick’ or ‘fly to me’.
I have one week to get crate door shut.
Flies off a lot but flies back straightaway.
Overnight she has apples, a very few seeds and fruit tree blossom.
Monday April 16th
Perdy flew straight to shoulder. Walked down arm. Straight into crate – half an almond. She did five crate repetitions, 2 with door closed - once for 5 seconds.
Ten days into the training programme I wasn’t enjoying the rapid progress I saw with Niney. A breakthrough occurred when Wal my husband, whom Perdy adores, came into the aviary and she flew from his shoulder to mine and entered the crate on cue.
There was a problem with the door shutting. When it shut she came forward and I had to open it immediately. Her whole demeanour towards me was gradually changing. She was flying to me for fun, games and curiosity or nuisance depending on what label you use.
The motivation with food can be complicated. A week ago the seeds and fruit left overnight were largely untouched but Perdy still eager to work.
For the first time I carried the crate a little way and then released her. She flew off. But was prepared a minute later to enter the crate again. I kept the door open. She got a whole almond. She flew to the training perch and started offering behaviours.
You’re not supposed to reward behaviours that are unasked for but it was impossible not to when Perdy raises her crest and whispers ‘Hi, Perdy’ in her soft, sweet Cockatoo voice.
When I wanted to take photos, Perdy showed little interest in coming to the crate. There were plenty of seeds in the aviary overnight and anyway she preferred to perch on Wal’s shoulder, try to eat the camera and groom his ear.
Lateral thinking solution; a collection of cheap biros bought specially for her. She regarded the biro tied to the bars inside the crate, hopped on top of the crate and pulled it through the gap. She was so clever! But then she relented and let herself be photographed in her crate with the door closed.
Once you have crate trained your Parrot, find the perfect travel cage for them here.
Read more about training Parrots here.
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