Archive for December, 2008


Happy New Year from Stewie and Mika

December 31, 2008

2008 has been a good year for the flock … and for the blog, with lots of fun posts and even a shout out or two from folks in the avian training industry. And December 2008 was our best month yet in terms of blog visits. Hooray!

We’re also thrilled to have made it as a finalist in the 2008 Weblog Awards. Voting in the Weblog Awards starts on Monday, and we hope you’ll vote for Best in Flock in the Pet Blog category to help us get the word out about the joys (and all the hard work) of parrot ownership.

The 2008 Weblog Awards

This gives us two great reasons to recap our best/most popular posts of the year, and to encourage new visitors to browse the archives:

  1. 5 Best Parrots for Children
  2. Guest Post by Sid Price: Don’t Fall for Deceptive Bird Training Tricks
  3. Clicker Training Myths and Misconceptions
  4. Where to Find Parrot Trick Training Props
  5. Interview with Parrot Trainer Barbara Heidenreich
  6. The Myth of Establishing Dominance Over Parrots
  7. Step-Up Doesn’t Need to Be the First Trick You Teach
  8. Ouch! WTH (a.k.a. Parrots Never Bite for “No Reason”)
  9. Teaching Flighted Recall: First Steps
  10. Life with a Flighted Parrot

Why You Should Vote for Us!
As you can see, Best in Flock pet blog is actually a blog about pets… not just a site featuring photos with silly captions. Whether our posts are general information about parrot care or they highlight anecdotes and pictures about two (adorable!) birds in particular — we strive to offer information about pets… not “lulz”. And that’s why we hope you’ll vote for us in the Best Pet Blog category.

Thanks for visiting and Happy New Year from Stewie and Mika


Alex & Me by Dr. Irene Pepperberg (Book Review)

December 24, 2008

Alex & Me book coverI recently read Irene Pepperberg’s book about her life with Alex the world famous African Grey, who could identify colors, quantities, materials, shapes and use language in astonishing context. Alex, and the work he did with Dr. Pepperberg, completely changed the way scientists perceived parrot intelligence. The full title of the book is Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, which gives you a clue that this book is more than just a story of a scientist and her study subject.

Anyone with an interest in parrots knows Alex and the incredible contributions he made to the understanding of parrots… and that he touched all of us when he died in the fall of 2007. So it should come as no surprise that a story written in the wake of his loss is going to be touching and sad — and indeed, the opening chapter had me bawling — but it’s also uplifting and at times funny.

Chapter 1: My Wonderful Life Moment

The book begins: “How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world? It took death for me to find out.” The opening sets the stage describing Dr. Pepperberg’s relationship with Alex, who was never quite a pet, never only a scientific subject to her… as well as the world’s fascination with the most famous African Grey who ever lived. His obituary was run in mainstream media that would never dream of eulogizing an “ordinary” animal, but Alex was anything but ordinary. The coverage of his passing showed that he truly touched everyone who knew of him.

I found it fascinating and touching, how Dr. Pepperberg admits that in her 31 years she struggled with maintaining some level of emotional distance in order to stay objective. This isn’t a criticism… when I say that Alex was never really a “pet” that doesn’t mean that I think he wasn’t loved (he clearly was) or that he didn’t have a full and fun life. He had a better life than most “pets”, especially in a time when the average bird owner didn’t know very much about parrots and their needs

Chapter 2: Beginnings

As much as I had read about Alex, I honestly didn’t know anything about Irene Pepperberg. Chapter 2 of Alex and Me tells the story of Dr. Pepperberg’s first experiences with birds as a child, as well as her childhood growing up and her relationship with her parents. She lays herself pretty bare on a subject that she didn’t need to be as forthcoming about (i.e. her relationship with her parents) considering that the book is about Alex, but it explains a lot about her personality and approach to relationships. I am grateful for her honesty about such a personal subject because it does shed a lot of interesting light into her relationships with her parrots later on. The second chapter is not only about the beginnings of her interest in parrots but also the beginning of her career in avian learning. (What was most interesting was that the “Dr” in her title referred to a PhD in Chemistry, not any sort of behavioral or biological sciences.)

Chapter 3: Alex’s First Labels

The third chapter of Alex and Me is where we start learning about Dr. Pepperberg’s training method and get a glimpse into the very beginning of Alex’s path to stardom. The first label that she began to teach Alex was “paper” and she began to teach him to link the label (word) with the object. She did this using social context and a “rival” — a method she had researched earlier in her academic career. It wasn’t long before Alex asked for the object using the label (although his pronunciation needed some work). Early on there were steps forward and some roadblocks, but the more confident he became the more he trusted Dr. Pepperberg and the more progress they made together. Soon, in addition to “paper” Alex learned “key”, “wood” and a variety of new labels by watching Irene and the “rival” interact and use words in context. There was little doubt in Dr. Pepperberg’s mind that Alex understood that words meant specific things and that he wasn’t just mimicking:

Give him a banana when he’d asked for a grape, and you were likely to end up wearing the banana. Alex was not subtle…. I had wanted him to learn labels, and to express his wants. I guess I had succeeded.

But despite exciting advances, Dr. Pepperberg constantly struggled with getting respect… and funding… for her work.

Chapter 4: Alex and Me, Vagabonds

As fascinating as the field of animal language are to me, and no doubt to parrot lovers everywhere, at this time (the late 1970s/early 1980s) there was little scientific interest in Alex’s work as far the major scientific publications were concerned. Dr. Pepperberg wasn’t targeting publications like BirdTalk after all; she was looking to get published in serious scientific academic journals and there was little precedent for the work she was doing. Chapter 4 of Alex and Me starts by describing the controversy of ascribing “language” to animals since language was often held to be “a defining character of what separates ‘us’ (humans) from ‘them’ (all other creatures).” In this chapter we also get some context of the time, with insights into simian (ape) language studies happening at the time.

It’s also the chapter where he says “I love you” for the first time. Which leads Dr. Pepperberg to say (in a way that neatly sums up the overarching theme of Alex & Me):

… from the very start of The Alex Project I had determined that my professional approach would be rigorous in training and in testing my Grey. I had come from the so-called hard sciences, after all. I needed my data to be unimpeachable, to meet high standards of credibility. I wouldn’t let emotion cloud my judgment. I wouldn’t get too attached. My experience at the Clever Hans Battle made me even more determined to maintain as much of an emotional barrier as was feasible between Alex and me in order to keep that credibility intact, no matter how hard it would be. And it was hard.

Chapter 5: What’s a Banerry?

What’s a banerry? It’s a lexical elision of the words “banana” and “cherry”. It’s also a hilarious anecdote of Alex creating a new word to describe “apple” and trying to teach it to Dr. Pepperberg and her students. The more they tried to teach him “apple” the more insistent he became about “banerry” being the correct label for this big red, round thing that looked a bit like a cherry but was yellow on the inside.

By this time, Alex was getting a lot of press for being able to identify objects, colors, shapes, sameness/differences, etc, but Dr. Pepperberg’s struggles to be recognized as a scientist and to get funding continued. And then Alex got sick with aspergillosis, a sometimes deadly fungal disease. One of the most touching Alex anecdotes, for me at least, is when he has to stay overnight at the vet’s office and as Irene turns to leave he says plaintively “I’m sorry. Come here. Wanna go back”. Those parrots sure know how to tug at your heartstrings.

Chapter 6: Alex and Friends

In this chapter Dr. Pepperberg starts exploring different training variations, including use of audio and video tapes, but it was clear that the model/rival technique was more effective than anything. In other words, social interaction and context are key to learning to communicate. Dr. Pepperberg’s earliest theory was confirmed! We also learn about some of the other African Greys that became part of the project — and how Alex would like to correct them if they got their lessons wrong and admonish them to pronounce their words more clearly. Alex also begins to demonstrate a sense of humor and slight rascally temperament, when he purposefully gives wrong answers to frustrate the researchers, but then calls them back with an apology and the right answer when they turn to leave.

Chapter 7: Alex Goes High Tech

At this point in the book we’ve made it all the way to 2000, and Alex is surfing the Web (!) and learning phenomes, which leads to one of the most astounding anecdotes of Alex demonstrating learning that wasn’t explicitly taught. In this story, Dr. Pepperberg is working with Alex in front of some important visitors demonstrating that he can sound out letters. After each correct answer he insists “Want a nut.” Because they are under time constraints, Pepperberg keeps telling him to wait, that he would get a nut later. Finally Alex gets frustrated and demands “Want a nut. Nnn…uh… tuh.” The thing is, he had never been taught to sound out words, only individual letters.


Read reviews or buy your copy of Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process at


Chapter 8: The Next Horizon

In Chapter 8, Alex the Grey again breaks new ground by getting Pepperberg to ask him a “trick question” and demonstrating that he understands the concept of “none”. Alex was being asked to identify the color of various groupings of blocks. When asked “what color three?” he kept answering “five” when there wasn’t even a grouping of five blocks (and he obviously knew that five wasn’t a color). After repeating the question and getting the same answer several times, Dr. Pepperberg said “ok, smartypants. What color five?” and Alex answered “none.” He was using “none” to indicate the absence of a series of five blocks… in other words, none meant “such a thing does not exist”. Zero is a highly abstract and complex concept, something that small children don’t grasp… so for a bird to teach it to himself (sort of) was truly groundbreaking.

Where could you possible go from there? From here, Alex’s work with numbers starts getting pretty sophisticated. In addition to mathematical addition, Pepperberg teaches him numeric equivalence (showing him Arabic numerals and a number of blocks and asking him which was the bigger “number” — not in terms of physical size but in terms of value) which he gets correct; showing that his concept of numbers is more sophisticated than that of chimpanzees similarly trained. Dr. Pepperberg is ecstatic about the boundaries Alex is pushing and the work they have ahead of them.

Then, prematurely, in 2007, Alex dies. His last words to her were “You be good. I love you.”


Dr. Pepperberg’s work was scientific, but her story is absolutely accessible and relevant to any of us, whether we’re interested in linguistics or not, whether we love parrots or not, whether we believe birds are “smarter than children” or whether we think that’s taking the conclusions too far. There’s no denying that Alex had a profound impact on our understanding of animal intelligence and our appreciation of the parrots in our lives. Is the book Alex and Me a literary masterpiece? Of course not. It’s a memoir, a little thin in some places, but there is no other story out there like it. Alex was one of a kind, and Dr. Pepperberg’s story is one I would recommend to anyone. It is thought provoking, touching, funny, sweet and tragic.

Go Buy This Book! Seriously, I mean it. If you read this blog, it means you’re interested in understanding your parrot better, and you’ll love Dr. Pepperberg’s memoir.

Get Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process (at


Mika Tries Her Veggies

December 22, 2008

Mika made me proud this weekend. Not only did she take a couple of flights that didn’t involve crash landing behind the couch or into the recycling bin, she also ate her first pieces of fresh food since she’s been with me.

Ordinarily, when I offer her something that isn’t dry and hard (pellets, nuts, pieces of pine) she’ll touch it lightly and then quickly recoil in disgust… like she thinks I’m trying to poison her or something. Over the weekend, I handed her a fresh sugar snap pea (one of Stewie’s favorites), hoping she’d play with it a little. Lo and behold, she held onto it and started tearing at it. And then she decided the icky wet food wasn’t so terrible and started eating.


After finishing her first piece, I gave her a second piece and she ate that too!

Later that evening, I heated up some mixed veggies for Stewie and decided to give Mika a bowl too (I usually don’t fix them for her because she won’t touch anything that’s not dry, but since she was being adventurous this weekend that I’ll give it another try). The bowl had some pieces of fresh apple, plus a heated up mix of frozen veggies (including corn, peas, carrots and green beans). Stewie likes the mix and dove right in as expected.

Mika was more cautious, but after leaving the bowl on top of her cage for a while, she started eating too. As far as I could tell, she at least tried all of it, but seemed to like the apples best. (Keep in mind I’ve offered her apple bits dozens of times before…. The lesson? You just have to keep trying.  Persistence pays off eventually.)

Between the eating of the fresh food and her attempts at flying, this has been a groundbreaking weekend for my Mika girl.


Drs. Foster & Smith Sweepstakes Extended

December 16, 2008

Not only has the Drs. Foster and Smiths sweepstakes been extended, but for four days you can win $500! No purchase necessary (but don’t your critters deserve a nice present? 🙂 ) Just enter each day for another chance to win: click to enter!


Drs. Foster and Smith Inc.

Only four days left, and I’d love for a Best in Flock reader to be on the winners board!


Don’t Fall for Deceptive Bird Training Tricks – Guest Post by Sid Price of Avian Ambassadors

December 8, 2008

For my 100th post anniversary, I am delighted to publish a guest post by none other than Sid Price, founder of Avian Ambassadors, and a very well respected member of the professional bird training community. Sid is also president-elect of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators.

Sid and I had talked about the growing prominence of certain training programs in search results when people Google questions related to problem parrot behavior. Unfortunately, long-standing and well-respected avian trainers tend to focus on training, not on learning the newest web marketing techniques — as a consequence, the things you do find on the web tend to be promotional materials by people who are good marketers but not necessarily the best bird trainers.

I asked him to expand on an article he wrote on his own blog, called The Real Secrets of Training Success and Where to Find Them.

The following is his response:

Don’t Fall for Deceptive Training Tricks
by Sid Price

When one is trying to figure out how to deal with behavioral issues and training challenges with birds it is important to know not only that a particular strategy works, but also what long term effects the use of the selected strategy may have on the relationship between you and your bird.

It is unfortunate that much of what is available on the Internet is more focused on selling a product than providing the best possible training advice. Over the last year or so this situation has degraded to the point where searching for training help turns up more and more links to sites that offer instant success for every kind of training challenge. I say unfortunate because most of the links lead directly or indirectly to some really expensive, poor training advice.

Beware the Silver Bullet
So, how can one filter the good advice from the marketing hard sell? Your first clue, as is almost always the case with over-hyped products, is that while there are often simple solutions to bird behavior challenges there are rarely instant, fifteen-minute solutions. Remember that most behavioral challenges come down to relationships. This is true not only with birds and other animals but also with humans.

Think how long it took to build the trust and confidence of a really good friend or coworker, then think how a little time it takes to completely shake that trust and confidence with a single bad interaction. Well the same is true for your bird; using some of the techniques advised by these instant cure folks will shake any relationship you may already have established. If you are at the beginning of that relationship then the shaky ground for the future will be well established.

How do you decide if a strategy is one you should be using? There is one simple question that you can ask yourself about the advice being offered and that is “Does the bird have a choice to perform the behavior you are looking for?” It is well established by behavioral science that animals given choice and control over their environment show much lower levels of stress and aggressive behaviors than animals that are managed using force or coercion.

The Choice to “Step Up”
As an example of removal of choice and control let us consider the behavior that almost everyone wants to train, the step onto the hand. If the technique that you use does not allow the bird to make the choice to step onto your hand and it has no escape from the “pushing” hand it may well, having already sent a bunch of visual cues to the owner to back off, reach down and bite that hand. The hand is then withdrawn and the bird begins the process of learning that biting gets hands away when they are not wanted.

So, how do we give choice to the bird in this situation? Firstly we need to be observant, when the bird first signals it does not want to step up by what may be quite subtle changes in posture we need to back off. What the bird is now learning is that it has control over the situation using its natural body language; the same way it would communicate with its flock members in the wild. What the owner can then do is to carefully watch the body language and note how far the hand was from the bird when it “said” back off. In the future, just before the hand gets to this position bridge (click or say “good”) and treat and take the hand away.

Gradually the hand may be brought closer, the bridge and treat can come later, and the bird will learn that the approaching hand is a good thing; plus it still retains the right to “say” back off with its body language, the owner should always comply with that request. With time, patience, and good observation the bird will learn to step onto the hand. Note that if your bird is clipped it is a good idea to begin this training on a perch that allows the bird to walk safely away from you. One piece of bad advice I have seen is to work the bird on a small perch so that it can not get away … now ask yourself, where is the control of the situation for that bird?

There are many places on the Internet offering advice on how to train the step up. Many of them use techniques that remove choice from the bird, they use what behaviorists call aversives (something an animal will work to avoid) to achieve their goals.

One really poor technique promoted on several web sites is to move either the hand the bird is stepping onto higher once it gets a foot on it, thereby forcing (coercing) it to bring the second foot onto the hand, or the owner is instructed to remove the perch the bird is stepping from once it has the first foot on the hand. Both of these techniques not only remove choice from the bird they also undermine the trust the bird has in the owner. In fact lifting a bird before it has both feet firmly on the hand is a very common thing that many experienced owners do all the time, it is a habit they should do their best to break.

Marketing Hype versus Proven Training Solutions

There are several other ways of knowing whether you are getting good training advice or a large dose of marketing hype. Good professional trainers who post training advice will almost always explain the science behind their advice and also they will provide links to the sources of their information.

For instance when I write about the effects of punishment in my articles I always include references to the scientists who provide support data with their work. Behavioral science has been around for over 100 years; during that time some techniques have been refined as they have been better understood, however much of the science that professional trainers use every day with their animals is strongly based upon that well researched body of work.

If a web site claims a “revolutionary” technique or they promise to reveal the “secrets” of the professional trainers … don’t believe them. Professional trainers who have secrets are probably also trying to make a living by selling those secrets too.

The science of behavior is in the public domain, it can be read about and studied for free. Having said that you will find that professionals who teach training present not only the science but also the application of the science, the art of it if you prefer.

All my training class materials refer back to the sources of my knowledge; I do not invent new terms to gain some market edge. This last point is also a clue that you should be wary of any web site using terminology that is not used by the training community at large. If someone is claiming a new technique then they need to also publish the science that backs it up. They need to have it peer reviewed by the rest of the behavioral community, just like the current science the best trainers use was peer reviewed.

Just because they publish it on their web site does not make it fact, true, effective, or in some cases ethical.

Contact Sid

If you have any questions about this article or about anything on my training blog ( please write to me at and I will do my best to respond. Your email may be the inspiration for a blog article.

Enjoy your birds and your learning,

Stumble It!