Archive for May, 2010

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Mika is Flying! (Teaching a Parrot to Fly)

May 31, 2010

Mika showed me this weekend that she REALLY likes Sun Chips: she saw me eating some and flew to my arm to get closer. This is a big deal because Mika doesn’t really fly. Or to be more accurate, Mika doesn’t know how to land. She flies very rarely and when she does it’s usually as a result of a startle reflex. The only place she’s been somewhat comfortable landing is on top of her cage, where her landing doesn’t need to be particularly precise.

So this weekend she landed on my ARM! And then the next day she flew to the back of the couch, where I was hanging out, three times. This is tremendous progress.

Since I’ve been wanting my pionus to learn to fly better — to feel comfortable making the choice to fly, learning how to steer and make decisions confidently mid-air, and (importantly) to learn to land with precision — I used her motivation to get a bit of Sun Chip to entice her into some flying exercises.

There really hadn’t been anything she’s shown nearly as much interest in as a bite of Sun Chip, so even though it’s junk food and not something I’d let her have regularly, I knew this could be the key to unlocking her confidence about flying.

I moved the playstand a couple of feet away from her cage and put a small bit of Sun Chip on one of the branches. It didn’t take long at all. She fidgeted around on her perch doing her “pick me up” dance and then … she flew over to the stand. It was a perfect landing!

She enjoyed her prize and then I broke off another small corner and put it on her cage. Mika thought about it for a few seconds and then flew back to her cage.

We repeated this (flying back and forth between the stand and her a cage) a few times. Although they weren’t all perfect landings, you wouldn’t really notice unless you were looking closely. Mika is starting to look like she kind of knows what she’s doing!

Here’s an eight-second clip of one of her flights. (Sorry for the camera-phone quality)

I’m so proud of her!

Now that I know how to REALLY motivate her, I think indoor flight/recall training might actually work pretty well with her. I’m also excited about the opportunity to get her to exercise a bit more.

Please share your own stories about how you taught a bird to fly.

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Working on Harness Training

May 23, 2010

A long time ago I decided to buy the Aviator Harness for Mika. Last weekend I finally got it out and introduced it to both the birds.

Mika checks out the Aviator Harness

The Aviator Harness comes with a DVD, which I have to admit I haven’t watched yet 😦 Apparently you’re not supposed to watch it where your birds can see it, and well, the TV is in the same room as the birds’ cages. I tend to be the kind of person who tries to figure things out without the instruction. (Caveat: I also break things because I don’t read the instructions, so I really don’t advise following my lead in that regard.)

I know from doing lots of reading and understanding the principles of positive reinforcement training that the key is to take is slow and make sure the birds only associate good things with the harness. Any early setback with it can cause the birds to panic and become afraid of it, pretty much ruining your chances of ever getting it on them again.

With that in mind, I started off just showing it to them and playing with it myself. I draped it on my desk and then held it up to them while feeding them treats for being calm. Just seeing the harness didn’t really phase either of my parrots, so I moved on to step 2: asking them to put their heads near and through the harness loop.

Harness Training Mika

Here is a video of my pionus being introduced to the Aviator Harness and being asked to target near or through the large loop.

Mika, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is not that highly motivated when it comes to training. I kind of think that she doesn’t “look” like she’s having a lot of fun (because she doesn’t act “eager”) even though I do think she enjoys it. I say that because she could quit anytime she wanted to, but she always ends up coming around and doing the behavior (even if she gets distracted and/or takes a few detours).

This video shows training that isn’t really that great. For one thing, I think it would be helpful to have a “marker” but I just didn’t think I could juggle the props, treats and a clicker very well. Luckily Mika is quite familiar with targeting, so she already understands that biting the target is what got her the treat. If the asked-for behavior was simply to put her head a certain distance through the loop, you could see how the timing of the treat delivery would be very confusing for her. (I.e., without a clicker marking the precise point of the completed behavior, she could easily think in some of those reps that beaking the harness is what led to the treat, since she does the behavior, then beaks the harness, then gets a treat.)

I also like using the target in conjunction with the harness because it requires her to actively participate in the training. Rather than luring her or asking her to sit still while I move the harness, she knows that she’s making a choice to earn her reward. Once we move forward, however, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to juggle the leash, the treat and the target stick while also manipulating her wings through the harness, so I may end up dropping that part of it moving forward.

Harness Training Stewie

When I first bought the harness for Mika, I didn’t even bother getting one for Stewie, the sun conure — I didn’t think he’d want any part of it. At that point, he did not like being touched in any way, shape or form (although he’s come around a lot in that respect since then – now he allows me to scratch his head and neck) and I just couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be able to get this on him.

However, the first part of it (getting him comfortable around the harness and putting his head through the loop) turned out to be really easy. He’s very food motivated and has “targeting” down cold. He seemed very comfortable putting his head through the loop to nip the target stick and get his reward.

(I apologize for the poor quality of the video.)

With Stewie, I asked him to put his head through the small loop because he seemed ready for a bit more advanced work. However, this specific harness is also too large for him, so the opening isn’t as tight as it would be if I had gotten a conure-sized Aviator Harness. If the training continues to go well and he ends up letting me put his wings through this one, then I’ll go ahead and get one in his size.

Because Stewie is so food-focused and isn’t really into toys, I didn’t have any problems with him trying to chew on it. Mika, on the other hand, likes to explore with her beak and wanted to chew on the harness, something you’re supposed to discourage.

Next Steps for Harness Training

The next step is to get both the birds comfortable with the harness draped across their backs. If we continue to take it slow, I don’t think that part will be problematic either, but I do worry about what we’re going to do once I need to manipulate their wings to fit through the large loop. Neither of them is really keen on me touching their wings and safflower seeds might not be good enough to entice them to cooperate with that part of the work.

Wish us luck!

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Seminar on Parrot Enrichment with Kris Porter

May 2, 2010

I attended another great Phoenix Landing seminar this weekend. Saturday’s class featured Kris Porter, all the way in from Alaska, to talk about parrot enrichment, specifically focusing on captive foraging.

Kris Porter is the author of a great web site about parrot enrichment and two free e-books, the Parrot Enrichment Activity Books (which can be downloaded from her site).

From my lecture notes:

Kris Porter started off emphasizing that it’s critical to provide choices to our parrots. Enrichment allows our pet birds to make choices. (She even cited a study that showed providing enrichment opportunities and stimulating exercise can reduce stereotypic behavior like feather plucking! That not only makes sense and jives with the common wisdom, but it’s also good to see scientific evidence backing what we’ve been saying for a long time.)

Some birds don’t know how to forage, so you may need to work up to full-blown foraging. If you make it too hard to begin with, your bird won’t know how to start (and if you make them forage for all their food right away, they’ll go hungry!).

Easy ways to provide some variety and beginner-level foraging opportunity include simply presenting food in different locations. I.e., move the food bowls so they aren’t always in the same spot. Food doesn’t have to be hidden or locked up in order for foraging to occur.


(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Landing and Kris Porter)

If you have a parrot who doesn’t know how to forage, don’t give up. It’s about being creative. Porter says she’s not above including not-so-healthy, high-value snack foods to get started.

To encourage play activity, incorporate food items right into toys. Create DIY toys that include pretzel pieces, melba toast and other treats within easy reach just to get the bird to approach the toy. Once a bird realizes that toys include yummy food items, make them just a little bit harder to get to (by half-hiding them in a cupcake liner, for example). Also include vegetables and healthier foods once you’ve trained your parrot to become an enthusiastic forager.

Porter also advised observing how your birds interact with foraging toys and being aware of preferences. One of her birds will stay much more engaged with food strung up on a rope as opposed to the same food strung up on a metal skewer. Something about the way it moved was more appealing. Your bird may have similar preferences you can observe and cater to.

The presentation included photos of whole vegetables that were turned into foraging toys and how much fun that could be. For example, hollow out a cucumber and stuff it with the bird’s favorite mash. The cucumber is an edible container that is a lot of fun to play with. Half a small pumpkin can also provide loads of nutritious entertainment.

Another great tip shared during the presentation: prepare foraging toys with fresh foods in advance. Skewer or stuff kale, carrots and other veggies into toys and then put them in plastic baggies in the fridge. Take out the food toys when you’re ready to serve (and remove them before they have a chance to spoil). Bird bread can be left in the cages all day. (Porter recommends making a hole in the bird bread mix before baking, so you can easily string it up onto a toy when it’s ready to serve.)

Some of the take-aways from the seminar:

  • providing foraging opportunities doesn’t need to be hard
  • it’s about providing variety and mental stimulation
  • some birds need to learn how to forage so be patient and keep trying
  • opportunities for mental and physical activity can curb unwanted behavior issues
  • … and don’t forget to be creative and have fun!

Those are just a few of the great tips Kris Porter shared about creating easy and cheap foraging activities for pet parrots. Please visit ParrotEnrichment.com to download her activity books and check out her videos about teaching birds to forage. These are all absolutely free resources that can help improve your companion birds lives, so I highly encourage you to check them out.

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p.s. As always, a few adoptable birds were on-hand to add color (and noise) to the proceedings. This happy, gorgeous Mollucan Cockatoo talked and chortled throughout the presentation making everyone laugh. If you’re thinking of adopting a bird and live in the Phoenix Landing area, please come to any of the classes to meet a few adoptable parrots and talk to an adoption coordinator.

Cockatoo - Adoptable Birds