A Week in Paradise -- NEI Workshop 2008

Over a year ago, I started a process that has slowly but surely entirely changed my opinion of the right way to live with parrots. It started by taking Dr. Susan Friedman's LLP class and grew as I went to a two day seminar with her and Barbara Heidenreich, as well as taught on the Parrot BAS list.

But the pinnacle of that journey, thus far, happened in January of 2008. I spent six days in sunny Florida at Natural Encounters, Inc., hereafter referred to as NEI. I attended their Art and Science of Training Companion Parrots workshop.

The workshop had a relatively simple setup. 18 people were in attendance, and we spent four hours a day in lecture, two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, discussing the science of behaviour modification: operant and classical conditioning, learning theory, and various methods to modify unwanted behaviour.

Yes, that's the back of my head. :)

The other four hours were spent hands on training birds, also in a morning and evening session. Each group of 3 - 5 people were assigned a team leader and a set of birds to train. Each of us had one individual bird and a handful of 'team birds'. Most of these birds were parrots, but there were also some softbills and one corvid being trained. On our team, we had a scarlet macaw, hyacinth macaw, white naped raven, keel-billed toucan, and trumpeter hornbill that we did a great deal of work with, and a few short training sessions with a greenwing macaw and a red fronted macaw.

All of the birds were flighted, and most of them lived in exceptionally large enclosures -- most of the large macaws shared 20' wide by 50' long by 14' tall flight cages, with only a dozen or so macaws in them. Those that were less socialized or being more closely worked with were moved into 10' wide by 10' deep by 6' tall flight cages simply for ease of working with them. Almost all the parrots were kept in pairs, with a same-species buddy, and the aviaries tended to be grouped together in same-type birds (for example, all macaws or all amazons).

Almost all of these parrots were bred in zoos or by them, and have lived in similar environments their entire lives. NEI has a few ex-pet parrots, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

One of the first things we were taught was the appropriate position to ask parrots to fly to us -- something that seemed exceptionally weird at first and became second nature almost immediately.

One of the main benefits of this position is that it allows you to keep a very stable landing platform for even a very large bird (and that matters when it's a greenwing or a hyacinth!) and also allows you the ability to rotate your wrist and send the bird back from where he came.

After that, we began training. My personal bird was a scarlet macaw named Bunsen. This parrot was an adult that had never been handled, save for one careful walk down the hall to be put in a smaller cage. I clearly remember entering the 10' by 10' cage on the first day and being more than a little apprehensive... my hand flinched the first time he reached for it.

But I discovered something amazing, something that was repeated during the entire week. One of the key tenets of the NEI training style is that animals should have freedom over their environment, specifically the freedom to shape your body language and the freedom to escape.

They also refuse to use aversives in training. Aversives are anything that an animal will work to avoid and can be as minor as pushing a finger into their chest to get them to step up and as major as physical punishment.

Because of that, even the completely unsocialized birds have no poor past history with humans. At most, those that were never pets would ignore humans around. At best, even those who had never gotten on a hand were exceptionally curious and would come over to investigate who you are and what you were doing.

Rather than repeat myself, I will share the writeups I did on my training with her:

1/15: Scarlet Macaw Bunsen: Desired behaviour -- stepping up. Two sessions with her. First session involved rewarding her for getting close to my hand resting on the perch. She stopped retreating as fast, and stood next to my hand, but didn't touch. Second session, she was thrilled to see me and immediately flew over to the area we were working in and was ready to go. Got her to touch my hand once and she obviously understood that what I wanted had something to do with the hand -- she tried licking me and touching her beak to my hand.

1/16: Woo hoo! Got her to put one foot on the hand in the first session of the day, and got her to stand on my hand (while it was resting on the perch) in the second session of the day. So, from literally zero contact with people other than being moved once from one cage to another, to standing on a person's hand immediately when presented without luring her (meaning there was no visible food) in four 5 - 10 minute training sessions.

1/17: Guess who knows how to step up? She'll step onto my hand from the perch without problem, and stay on the hand while I move it a little bit. Next step -- flight recall to the hand. :) I am sure I'll get that by the end of tomorrow.

1/18 and 1/19: I got her to fly to my hand the first time yesterday morning, and nailed it yesterday afternoon. This morning, we did a demo to show off for everyone else, and she happily flew to my hand. I threatened to get teary when I said good bye. I'm more than a little in love with Scarlet macaws now.

The first time she flew to my hand captured by Xanthi Merlo (picture used with permission).

As you can see from those little snippets, it took me four days, with two 15 minute sessions a day, to teach a completely unsocialized macaw to fly to my hand on cue. Not only did she fly to my hand, she sought me out every time I walked down the aisle, she flew over the instant I walked in the cage, and she was eager and happy to interact with me. Not once did she show any signs of aggression, and why should she? We were playing the most elaborate, interesting game ever! It was really obvious, as people would walk down the aisles, which parrots they were training because all of them would fly up when their trainers walked past.

One of the other exceptionally cool things that we did was with Tyler, a hyacinth macaw, and Kevin's personal bird. The goal behaviour was to get Tyler flying through a hula hoop, and we went through probably a dozen attempts without success. The brain storming and ideas given by Dillon, our team leader, Steve, and the rest of my team were thrilling. It was such a great way to get good ideas and to rapidly try and dismiss ideas that simply weren't working.

We ended up by using shaping to approximate it. We cut a hula hoop in half and had him fly through it opened.

We then slowly closed it.

At the end, we taped two together to make a giant hoop, and he flew through it.

Another very interesting thing to watch was my teammate, Xanthi, training her white naped raven, Edgar. She has a pied crow at home and wanted to teach him to go into a crate on command, so that's the behaviour she chose with Edgar.

Edgar was a fantastic example of the importance of the freedom for a bird to change your body language. What that meant, simply, is that sensitivity to anxiety, fear, and desire to go elsewhere often paid off in the end, by teaching the animal that they had the ability to control what we did. Edgar did not like being in the crate with the door shut, so every time he hopped forward to go out, we immediately opened the door fully. He learned, quickly, that hopping down would open the door... and he stopped hopping down. He trusted that if he did, we'd open the door, and he no longer needed to. What a complete opposite from what most companion parrot owners are taught!

Yet another of the amazing things we did was play the 'trainer game'. It is one person training another. My 'trainer' was Xanthi, who discussed with the rest of the group an elaborate routine that involved walking down the aisle, twirling around once, and then sitting on a chair and raising my foot onto my knee.

As you can see, it was pretty funny.

One of the most interesting parts of that for me was to understand exactly how thrilling it is to figure out what the other person wants from you. It makes it obvious how much enjoyment is possible from training for us and for the birds.

The other extremely interesting training game was done with only aversives. We had discussed throughout the week how using aversives and punishment in training can cause side effects: increased aggression, apathy, escape/avoidance behaviours, and phobias. My team-mate, Kevin, taught Mary an elaborate behaviour using only aversives... and Mary displayed almost every single one of the side effects. It was a major eye opener to see how, even if she knew it was a game, it was a really unpleasant situation for her.

At one point, she even grabbed the fly swatter and threatened him back. Increased aggression, anyone?

On the last day, we went around and showed off what we had done during the week. It was fantastic to see how far everyone had come and what insanely complex behaviours could be taught in such a short time. Two birds even learned to fly across the room, go into a cage, and shut the door behind them... in six days.

One of the attendees was teaching a greenwing macaw to go under a towel, and what I consider the best picture of the entire event was taken then, shared simply for the unspeakable cute.

We also all had the ability to have Palmer, the Palm Cockatoo, fly to us and get a picture.

Picture by Xanthi Merlo.

After all that, what other things did I learn? A thousand and one.

There's a massive stigma about professional animal trainers that was brought up often... namely, that they starve the animals to get them to interact. Steve and all the team leaders brought this up multiple times and discussed at great length with us the actual strategies we were using with the birds in question. In almost every case (at least with the parrots), the birds had free access to lower calorie foods (vegetables, fruits, etc), and worked for higher calorie foods (pellets, nuts, and seeds). They were also weighed daily and any increase or decrease was reported to us. Every bird we worked with maintained or gained weight during the six days we were there.

Steve suggests that for almost all companion parrots, simply keeping aside a favorite treat is more than enough to keep them motivated. We also discussed several methods to increase motivation in parrots, such as varying the reinforcers given. We paid extremely careful attention to their attention span (defined as 'how long they want what we have to give'), and for some of the birds, it was measured in minutes. The raven, hornbill, and toucan could really only manage about five minutes of training before they were full and no longer wanted to play the training game. Even with that short a period of training, we made rapid progress.

One of the other concepts that was mentioned often is the idea of a trust account. Steve goes into it in more detail here in pdf form. (The rest of his writings here are excellent too.) At its simplest, it means that our general relationship with an animal can be thought of like a bank account. Every positive interaction is a deposit, every negative, a withdrawal. If we bankrupt our account, our relationship with the animal is severely at jeopardy. It's our job, as owners, to try to make that account as full as possible.

It really drove home to me, seeing how willing these parrots were to interact with relative strangers, and how quickly we built up a relationship, how much time we spend working on bankrupting our relationships with our pet birds. How often we use aversives to get them to stop doing things rather than using positive reinforcement to teach them to do what we want. How we take away their freedom to escape, how we force them to do things. How little we give them respect, and how often we get bitten. An aside that was asked often -- none of the eighteen participants got bitten during these six days. The only one who did was Steve, who was working with an ex-pet Amazon named Happy Jack who really did not like Steve. Steve pushed him a little far, and got bitten. It was nice to see that everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

I left there, in truth, with one key understanding. With parrots, the two questions to ask are simple: What's in it for them? Am I asking them to do something or forcing them?

By making what we want worth their while, allowing them freedom over their environment, and avoiding forcing them to do things, we can create amazing relationships with our parrots.

If anyone has ever wondered if it's worthwhile to go, I think this writeup should make it clear. Particularly for people who are heavily involved in rescue or parrot training, it's worth every penny and then some. I'll be back next year for the Advanced Workshop. :)

All pictures except the two of Xanthi's are copyright Natural Encounters and used with permission.

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