Archive for April, 2009

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HR 669: Huge Implications for Parrot Owners

April 22, 2009

I’ve refrained from saying much about HR 669, The Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, currently being reviewed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Legislation rarely is what it seems on the surface and a lot of misinterpretation (willful and otherwise) often makes the rounds before the real facts shake out.

However, the more I read about HR 669 the more alarmed I am about the implications. On the surface, the bill aims to prevent environmental damage by invasive species — and who can be against that, right? — but apparently the bill has HUGE implications on those who share their lives with “exotic” animals like rodents, tropical fish, and… parrots! (I.e., Under this bill, I couldn’t move across state lines with my birds. And if I die before them, I couldn’t make provisions to send them to Phoenix Landing; they’d need to be euthanized!)

This post by GrrlScientist does a great job dissecting the contents of the bill: HR 669: The Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act.

The above link is worth checking out. While it doesn’t seem like the bill is going to make its way out of committee (general consensus is that it is SO poorly written that it’s laughable), I think we need to stay alert about this type of legislation. As recent economic news has shown us, most legislators don’t even read the bills they pass, much less think through all the unintended consequences — so when something like HR 669 gets introduced, we need to pay attention and let our representatives know so it doesn’t slip through the law-making process by mistake.

Take Action!

p.s. If you’re a PETA-type extremist who thinks all pets would be better of euthanized than bred in captivity, and therefore think I’m evil for having parrots, please don’t bother leaving a comment. I won’t put up with it here.

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Parrot Skateboard Training: Part II

April 20, 2009

In my previous post about skateboarding parrots, I mentioned the skateboard prop I bought and the first steps I took to train my sun conure to stand on it.

Basically I began to desensitize him to this new object by C/T’ing him for stepping close to it and beaking it.

But I needed to be careful that he didn’t think beaking it was the final objective (i.e., he started to think the desired behavior was to “target” the skateboard). The catch with “shaping” a behavior is not to linger on one step too long, or that becomes the behavior the bird gets stuck on.

So after it was clear that Stewie was comfortable getting close to the prop, it was time to move towards getting him to put his foot on it.

My first approach was to put the prop in his way (braced, so it wouldn’t accidentally move and startled him) and asked him to touch the target stick behind the prop. My hope was that he’d step on it in order to get to the target stick, but he usually just stretched his neck or found some way to walk around it.

Then I decided that my best bet was to get him used to stepping up on the skateboard while I held it.

Stewie and His SkateboardHere are the steps I used to shape him to stand on the skateboard like a perch:

1.) I held the prop between my thumb and forefinger, kept my arm horizontal to the floor and presented my hand directly in front of him.

2.) I asked him to step up, so it looked like I was asking him to “step up” on my finger. (He’s not a big fan of stepping up onto fingers, so this wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice.)

3.) I started by rewarded a foot lift.

4.) We moved to touching his foot to my finger and the skateboard at the same time.

5.) Then I required that he put weight onto the skateboard with one foot.

6.) Only after it was clear that he understood that touching the skateboard was part of the trick (as opposed to reaching around my finger and stepping up on my wrist), I changed the way I held the skateboard so he could stand on the skateboard like a perch. At this point, I kept my hand where it was so he could step off as soon as he got his treat. I feel it’s important in the early stages to give him the opportunity to back off quickly if he isn’t feeling secure, otherwise he might not be as willing to leave his comfort zone the next time I ask.

7.) Once I had him stepping onto the skateboard prop consistently, I fed him several seeds one after the other to let him know I wanted him to stay on it, rather than stepping back off.

8.) After that, I started moving him a few inches away from his cage to get him comfortable with the idea of standing on it while it moved.

9.) To document his progress, I got out the camera to take photos 🙂 At this point he was comfortable enough to stand on one foot to eat his reward.

Still a little unsure:

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A little more comfortable:

Stewie on His Skateboard

Now we’re getting it:

Stewie on His Skateboard

Ready for a half-pipe:

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This is all progress he’s made over the course of a couple 5-minute training sessions staggered throughout the weekend. For the next couple of sessions we’ll just continue to reward what he’s comfortable with so far (which is to step up onto the skateboard whenever I hold it in front of him).

Part III in the skateboard training process (whenever I get around to it) is to get Stewie comfortable with standing on the skateboard while I push it along a flat surface.

I could probably have achieved these pictures much faster by using a bit of luring and simply not giving him the opportunity to retreat, but the point of the training is not simply to force him to stand on the skateboard (and get some cute pictures), but to ensure he’s comfortable with the prop and get him excited about making progress on this trick.

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Irene Pepperberg Lecture at Phoenix Landing

April 7, 2009

Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who introduced the world to Alex the African Grey (and wrote the book “Alex & Me”), spoke at Phoenix Landing on Saturday, and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend.

Getting out to the event in Leesburg was a bit of an adventure: DP and I got a bit of a late start, then got stuck in Cherry Blossom Festival traffic. We were booking it out to the conference center where the lecture was taking place, and then with only a few miles left to go, we were pulled over for speeding 😦 so we were still late.

We slid into a couple of seats at the back and listened to Irene Pepperberg tell stories about Alex and the work they did together. A running theme of the lecture, like the book, was her struggle getting recognition for doing “serious science” and the related matter of securing funding.

Dr. Pepperberg Lecture

Two Phoenix Landing bird ambassadors — Leigh Ann Hartsfield’s Greys Pepper and Franco — hung out on stage next to Dr. Pepperberg throughout her lecture. They were models of good behavior. Pepper, as you may recall, was the African Grey who opened for the Puppy Bowl this year.

Alex the Grey: Books and Commemorative Items

After about an hour, Dr. Pepperberg took a break to give everyone a chance to continue bidding on items for the silent auction, buy bird toys from the mobile Phoenix Landing store, and get their copies of “Alex and Me” signed. When I brought up my copy for her to sign, she immediately noticed the beak-sized hole in the cover (courtesy of Mika) and we a nice chuckle about it.

Dr. Pepperberg Signs Autographs

Dr. Pepperberg Signs Autographs

Along with copies of Alex and Me, she also had for sale some commemorative Alex items, T-shirts, copies of the Alex Studies, and computer mouse pads featuring the Alex Foundation logo.

I took the opportunity of the break to buy lots of toys, including some new shredding and foraging toys for Stewie and some plastic toys for Mika, because she likes different textures. The Phoenix Landing volunteers who manned the register were nice enough to apply my PL member discount, even though I had forgotten my membership card.

Dr. Pepperberg Demonstrates Her Training Technique

After the break, Irene Pepperberg got back up on stage and answered some audience questions, and then proceeded to demonstrate her training technique with Leigh Ann as model/rival, coaxing Pepper and Franco to tell her “what color?” The excitement proved to be too much for both birds, and neither of them cooperated during the demo session (although LeighAnn mentioned later that Franco wouldn’t stop saying “red, red, red” all the way back home after they left the event).

Dr. Pepperberg Trains Pepper

Dr. Pepperberg Talks to Pepper

Fundraising Dinner

Later that night, as part of a separate event, we joined Dr. Pepperberg and about 20 other people at a special fundraising/birthday dinner for the guest of honor. Dinner started with wine and cheese; the main choice options included salmon, steak and a plate of many different kinds of veggie options, followed by amazing desserts. The food was amazing, and if that wasn’t enough, it was great fun to mingle with such a diverse group of people who all shared in a love of parrots.

After dinner, Dr. Pepperberg signed a gorgeous painting of Alex (done by one of the PL volunteers) which had been auctioned off that afternoon and purchased by one of the guests at dinner.

Dr. Pepperberg Signs Painting
A big thanks to Phoenix Landing for putting together such an awesome set of events with Irene Pepperberg, and for everything they do to help improve the lives of captive parrots.

I’ll be uploading more photos from the Pepperberg event onto Flickr in the coming days.