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What a Little Flight Can Do

March 16, 2013 12 comments

Rico on my head looking out into the aviary.

Rico on my head looking out into the aviary.

I’m sure many people are ready for this winter to be over. I’m a big lover of the snow and cold but this winter has been long enough and I’m ready for some warmer temperatures. The birds are also. I love the summer for them because they get the fresh air, the sun, and all of the benefits of their aviary. I’m a big advocate of aviaries for our birds because of all of the health benefits, mental stimulation, and physical stimulation it offers them. I like helping people visualize how they can incorporate aviaries for their birds whether they live on 20 acres, in a condominium, an apartment, or in a town house. Where there is an idea, there is an aviary!

Anyway, back to winter and being cooped up because of the temperatures. Each day I try to get each bird out for interaction with me, interaction with other things in their environment and just for a change in scenery.The other day I was working at my desk that overlooks the aviary and Rico was perched on his favorite perch, which happens to be my head. Whatever it was that I was working on, I noticed Rico began to bob up and down on my head. I opened my phone and flipped the view backwards so I could see where Rico was looking. He was bobbing up and down, holding his wings out, and looking out the window at the aviary. So much body language here and these signs all together gave me a hint that he may want to go out into the aviary. I put down what I was doing and out into the aviary we walked.

I sat Rico down on the banister in the aviary and ran to the other side. I called him to my hand and after a few struts on

Rico flying across the aviary. The windows are open letting in fresh air and natural sounds from the outdoors.

Rico flying across the aviary. The windows are open letting in fresh air and natural sounds from the outdoors.

the banister he was off in flight. Right to my hand he flew. All of that fresh air going into his air sacs, being distributed to his bones and organs. How healthy this is for him, how fun it is for him and for me to be a part of it.

Not all of my birds fly. One hasn’t flown in his life, which is my greenwing macaw, Murray who is about to turn 9 years old. Then I have one that is a beautiful flyer but doesn’t know how to land. This would be Rocky, my moluccan cockatoo who is a little over 13 years old. Let me correct myself…Rocky is still working on perfecting his landing. Myself and the volunteers here at the center are helping him work on his landings. When Rocky flies, he doesn’t know how to land and when he lands he has to crash into something to stop. I no longer encourage him to fly until we have his landing gear perfected. We have not clipped his wings, we just don’t encourage him to fly yet. He loves to run so we are encouraging him to run while we work on training him to land and use his wings, tail feathers and feet to stop. He’s getting pretty good at this. We hope to be posting photos and videos soon of Rocky’s flights through the aviary this summer.

So Rocky runs and in the meantime we are focusing on hanging vines in the aviary to give Murray more means of locomotion and choices in transportation through the aviary. When birds have more control in their environment, how to navigate it and choices in navigation, I see it having a huge impact on decreasing behavior issues such as screaming, feather destructive behaviors, and issues related to stress, aggression and anxiety.

Before I took Rico out of his cage and before he was on my head, I could tell he was up for a change in his environment, which was his cage. Keeping animals in the same space without changing that space or having different areas to move to, creates a stagnant environment. Objects and interactions in that environment become predictable and studies show that with predictability comes boredom. I could see Rico was getting bored and was in need for a change. If I didn’t provide change I could tell undesirable behaviors were about to happen such as screaming, hunkering down and flapping wings in anticipation which brings along signs of anxiety, and probably grabbing a toy and banging it on the side of the cage. I don’t like seeing any of these signs in my birds because of the stress I see that it brings out in them.

Rico flying over the 4 1/2' pit in the center of the aviary. His concentration increases while learning depth perception.

Rico flying over the 4 1/2′ pit in the center of the aviary. His concentration increases while learning depth perception.

After one flight across the aviary I could tell Rico was still interested in flying. Down into the pit I went and I called him to my hand from there. Rico has been showing signs of not understanding how to fly to my hand when I am down in the pit. I’m not sure what it is but he’s not used to flying to me when I call him from different elevations. We’ve slowly been working on this at his comfort level while slowly increasing the complexity in elevation when calling him. Sometimes I’ll go one or two steps down into the pit and call him. The pit is about 4 1/2′ below regular ground level. Then I bring out the ladder, walk up a few rungs and call him up to my hand. Each time I step down a step or up a rung allowing him the slow change and adaptability in depth or elevation. This is a process called shaping; reinforcing small approximations toward the target behavior, and in this instance the target behavior was him still flying to my hand and gradual changes in elevation. In working on this several times in the past, this time I ran into the pit and called him to my hand. He flew over the banister and down into the pit and on my hand like he’s done it a million times before. He yelled “Yahoo!” as soon as he landed on my hand and you bet I yelled it back to him. I love having this interaction with birds and especially with the ones under my care. His learning something new (depth perception) in his new flying environment is not only physically stimulating for him, it is also mentally stimulating. He is learning from changes in his environment. When I slowly integrate change at their pace, I see the birds in my care dealing with unforeseen changes very readily. I want this for them, for their health, and for their future.

Not everyone has room like this to fly their birds. I understand that. A few months ago I didn’t either. I lived in a small house with five parrots and a crow with a Barred Owl in a mew in my backyard. I know what small living quarters are like with birds. This didn’t stop me from getting birds out and flying them all over the house, increasing complexity by having learn to fly through doorways and up the stairs. Rocky played fetch by running all over the first floor. Murray would swing from a vine in the aviary. Molly would soak up the sun for hours in the aviary, obviously with the option to move into the shade. I noticed that if I were to get them out of their cages and get them running, flying, and/or flapping their wings, energy was being burnt off, behavior issues would decrease, and the more they seemed content with perching, sleeping, preening, and foraging for the next several hours.

My point in this post is to share how a few minutes of burning off energy in large amounts can greatly impact behavior

Five minutes of flight provides several hours of rest, relaxation, preening, foraging, and a decrease in behavior issues.

Five minutes of flight provides several hours of rest, relaxation, preening, foraging, and a decrease in behavior issues.

or the potential for undesired behavior issues not to happen. Less than five minutes of flying in the aviary for Rico in the photos above, and we went back into the Birdroom and Rico flew straight for one of the perches and rest and relaxation were in his near future and mine. Parrots are intelligent creatures that have a lot of energy to burn and they want to put that mind and body to use. This is why I train them. I like putting their minds to use. I like providing environments where they can continue to learn and manipulate that environment. When I provide environments like this and interactions like this, I see our relationships skyrocketing.

For more information or ideas on how to build aviaries or extended exercise areas in your house for your birds, take a look at the Enrichment and Aviary section on my website at LaraJoseph.com. I will be building more aviaries this summer and plan on sharing my plans on my website. For everyday quick tips and ideas on behavior change, training tips, and enrichment ideas, sign up to my Behavior, Training, & Enrichment page on Facebook. I hope to see you there. I’d love to see photos and videos of your enclosures and how you exercise your birds.

Question on training a behavior; training a bird to trust me getting closer in proximity to him.

August 14, 2011 6 comments

Question:

Dear Lara,

        About a month ago I adopted what I was told to be a 6-year-old blue-fronted hybrid amazon parrot. When I got him I was told he was given up because the lady that had him got him to breed him and when he didn’t she got rid of him. Since I first got him he’s never really wanted anything to do with people. He would snatch food from our hand and then throw it, and wouldn’t come out of his cage. After about 2 weeks he got up the confidence to come out on his play-top and he isn’t rough at taking food from us anymore he has even started to mimic me as long as he sees the pieces of almonds I use to reward him. However, he is still very skittish when it comes to us getting too close. he wont step up, let us touch him, or even let us get within a foot of him unless he sees a treat. He is also afraid of a hand-held perch. I’ve been told different ways to deal with this such as forcing him to step up which only resulted in him being scared and my hand bleeding, and to just go slowly and wait until he’s ready…I’m in this for the long haul and love a challenge but was wondering if there was any tricks to help it progress a little faster or to help me gain his trust a little faster. He’s not really a biter or have an aggression problem it’s only when he gets cornered which I understand, but any type of advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

        Sincerely, 

            Terri, Florida

Hi Terri.

First I want to thank you providing a home to a bird that is in need of one. I know I’ve spoke with you before and this bird is lucky to have found you. Time and patience can be exactly what this bird needs but one thing I’ve noticed in training, especially with birds who show signs of extreme fear, if we focus on minute accomplishments in the desired direction with these birds, we will see many of them. Keeping training sessions short and very frequent can produce desired results more quickly. Pending on the individual bird, when working with birds that are very hand-shy or fearful of the sight of us, I keep my training sessions anywhere around 10 seconds to about a minute and a half. I make these sessions very frequent though. If my training session lasts about 10 seconds, I may have twenty of these 10 second training sessions in the period of an hour or two. I’ll come back a few hours later and repeat the training sessions. Terri, I find this very effective and this repetition helps build the trust in expectations of us from the bird pretty quickly.

Secondly, I’d like to say, the progress you’ve said you’ve made so far with your amazon is pretty impressive. I just want to send a kudos where and when nice work has been done.

All body language is a sign of communication - an african grey raising its feathers in an approach - photo courtesy of Viki Bullock

Here is exactly where I would start in working with his confidence in proximity to you and the members of your household. Start with rewarding the proximity he will let you to him now while slowly shaping closer steps towards him. Shaping, as you may know is taking small approximations toward the desired behavior. How small of approximations? Your amazon will tell you. Look for the subtle signs he may show you that you may be getting too close. You will want to watch for all of the subtle signs he gives right before he thinks about moving away from you. Your goal is to have him not move away from you, right? Don’t forget to reinforce this. You will be reinforcing him for staying still and showing all signs of calm body language as you approach.

These subtle signs in which you will learn to read may be the raising of the feathers on the nape of the neck, the small lean away from you, or just glancing in the direction of his escape. Learn to read these and pay attention to these, as you may already be taking these steps.

In addition to the above, I would arrange the immediate environment for you to be able to reward the behavior you want to see increase. Since it is proximity in which you are wanting, it may be hard for you to reinforce because you can’t get close enough to reinforce him.

Forcing a bird to do a requested behavior can have many side effects as you have already seen one, increased aggression. Forcing a bird to do something takes his choice out of the environment and there are many side effects to this also and none of these are relationship building. One major problem with forcing a bird to do something is that it is often times associated with us. Isn’t it us in which we are trying to shape the behavior of trust with the bird? As you have seen, forcing a bird to do something often sets you way back in your training strategy.

It sounds as though you have successfully trained him to be trusting in getting close enough to him to calmly take food from your hands. For others reading this who may have a bird that they can’t get this close to yet, I would suggest setting up an attachable and mobile food cup on the outside of his cage furthest  from him. If that is still too close, pull up a rolling play stand with food dishes and place it next to the cage. Drop the treat in the dish furthest away from the cage so the bird has to climb off the top of the cage top and across the rolling play stand.

Using a highly valued reinforcer for the behavior of calm perching on my computer vs anything else. This is now a very desired spot for my bird to sit because he knows praise (a highly valued reinforcer of his) is always given to him for perching calmly here.

You may want to begin shaping the behavior of having him stay calm without seeing the treat. If he knows with each approach you are delivering a highly valued reinforcer of his, the quicker he will begin to learn you are always paired with this reinforcer. That happens through consistency and you have to make sure you are doing this every single time while shaping the behavior. Otherwise, if you are not delivering the reinforcer on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, you maybe putting his reluctance in your approach on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. By this I mean if once in a awhile you do not deliver the treat, he may be anticipating that once in a while and this can keep his behavior reluctance in letting you close to him very strong. When shaping a behavior, the trainer wants to make sure they are always reinforcing that desired behavior….always until the behavior is consistent and understood by the animal.

As I was saying, you might want to start shaping your proximity without showing the treat. Showing a treat to encourage a desired behavior is called luring and I will lure when trying to shape a behavior. The problem with luring is exactly the problem you are seeing. The bird will not give you the desired behavior unless he sees what is in it for him.

With fading out the lure, we need to re-think our strategy and approach and maybe take a few steps back and re-work in getting that desired behavior back without luring. Fading out the lure is shaping a new behavior, Terri. Based on what you’ve described in the behavior you have already trained, I have no doubt you can do this and if you love a challenge, I guarantee you that you’ll love this one. It is very rewarding when birds start giving us behaviors when requested without knowing what the reinforcer is or when it will be delivered.

I’ve recently trained a bird with luring him to go into his cage by showing him a handful of pine nuts. I have recently started fading out

Luring in shaping the behavior of recall to an african grey. - photo courtesy of Viki Bullock

the lure by showing him my closed fist while requesting him to step onto his perch. When he steps onto and only when he has both feet firmly placed on his perch do I open my hand to show the contents. I just have to make sure the contents are of value to him and the bird is the one that always decides. My next steps are to slowly fade out my closed hand having to be in such close proximity to the perch to attain the behavior of him stepping onto it. With time, patience, consistency, and fluency we will quickly see progress. The signs of progress can be very minute signs in body language and comfort. (3 videos of fading out a lure below)

Terri, I was going to suggest target training for your amazon in this reply but have decided to make that a separate entry because fading out the lure would be my next suggestion in your training plan. I’ll work on target training being one of my next entries because I think it would also be of high value in progress in your training strategy.

I hope this has helped. It was a pleasure responding to your questions.

Sincerely,

Lara Joseph

luring a screech owl to step onto the glove (1 of 3 of a series of videos on luring and fading out the lure)

gradually fading out luring a screech-owl to the glove. In this video you will see me cue him and he doesn’t respond so I quickly show the lure but the lure wasn’t present in the beginning.

This is a video showing me calling the screech-owl to the glove while totally fading out the lure. The lure no longer exists. You may have noticed in this video and the last, I was also teaching the owl to a designated perch on cue after calling it to the glove. These are very casual videos of training but training strong behaviors.

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