Archive for May, 2008

Wing clipping

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Every few months the Internet starts buzzing with a subject that is typically more emotive than most. That subject is wing clipping and it is one of those subjects that eludes logical thought and good judgment.

Now you may think that as someone who flies birds on a daily basis I would be solidly in the “never clip” camp. If that is what you think then I have to assume that your point of view is at one extreme of the argument or that perhaps you have never really thought about it in a non-emotional and logical way.

My position and that of almost every professional bird trainer I know and respect is that the real answer to clipping is not as clean cut, or black and white, as many might expect. There is no always right answer. The truth of the matter is that the choice to clip wing feathers to prevent or limit flight ability depends entirely upon the individual bird AND owner, a unique combination. It is unfortunate that this choice is more and more becoming a “politically correct” question, and sadly a marketing ploy to sell training materials! My friend and colleague Steve Martin wrote an article about this issue a couple of years back, it expresses what I believe is a well considered position, it does it so well that I don’t propose to reiterate the content here, only to encourage everyone to read the article. I support the positions Steve so eloquently expresses.

As I said in the beginning of this article this is a very emotive, maybe the most emotive, issue in the companion parrot community. It is this way I feel because caring owners do become attached to their birds and they are vulnerable to the hyperbole of those at the extremes of the discussion, especially when they are told that their bird will be “happier and healthier” if they don’t clip or “safer” if they do. The problem is that neither extreme view is correct, nor is it based upon facts or science, it is a belief. This reminds me of a quotation that I keep reiterating because it should remind us to be wary of our beliefs as they can, and often do, blind us to the real truth of a situation.

A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.

Robert Oxton Bolton

To make a bird owner feel guilty because they have a clipped bird when it is the safest, healthiest way they know how to keep that bird is irresponsible and to insist that they allow the bird full flight is to set them up for potential heartbreak.

To say that anyone who can not keep a bird flighted should not own a bird is the kind of fanatical point of view that may lead us in the direction of the road to legislation prohibiting keeping bird as pets. The animal rights groups will forever be your friends.


Crate training outline

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Our show season is now underway and this has had two effects on this blog. The first is that getting the birds and equipment ready for the new season consumes a large amount of time and finding the focus time to write blog entries is difficult. Secondly, getting the birds ready for the season reminds me of some of the things that kind of get taken for granted once the season is underway. It is this second item that is the inspiration for this blog entry.

Crate training is a subject that has come up a couple of times over the last few months from a couple of blog readers. I promised that I would write about it and working our pied crow (Corvus albus) Kumbi reminded me of that promise. Kumbi has been in our show from the beginning of Avian Ambassadors, and he was the subject of a paper I wrote and presented at the IAATE conference in 2006. A part of that paper addressed an issue we had getting Kumbi to willingly enter his travel crate after his show segment. This issue caused me not only to focus more of his training time on entering his travel crate but to incorporate entering the crate into his show behavior. Since that time Kumbi finishes his show segment by flying to his crate, opening the door, and entering it.

While everyone probably doesn’t need that level of performance from their bird it is highly desirable that birds are familiarized with their travel crates and are trained to enter and remain calmly in them. There are many different ways to train entry; my preferred method is to start with a much larger crate than the one I plan on using for the bird; I like the plastic dog crates that come in two parts and I begin by using only the lower half of the crate and no door attached. Place it on a large flat surface; if you use a table make sure to cover the surface with some carpet or a large towel so that the bird can stand without slipping and also make sure the floor of the crate is covered too. We want to do our best to avoid things that may make our bird nervous during this training.

If you are using food rewards for training your bird be sure to begin this new training step before mealtime and also set aside your bird’s favorite treat item for the training sessions.

If you have your bird target trained you can begin by targeting the bird closer and closer to the crate. As it becomes more comfortable gradually target the bird into the crate. The goal here is to have the bird willingly target into the crate.

For birds that are not target trained begin by luring the bird closer and closer to the crate until he is standing in the crate calmly.

My preferred approach is not to use target training but to have already trained the bird with a “go there” cue. The cue for this behavior can be a simple finger point to the place you want the bird to go. Begin on a table top or if your bird is flighted use a “T” perch and train him to hop and then fly from your hand to the perch.

Regardless of whether you target or cue your bird into the crate it is important that your bird becomes comfortable entering this “open-topped”, door-less crate. Do not add the top of the crate until your bird is comfortable with this first step.

The biggest mistake that most people make in any training is taking too big of a step before the bird is ready. Equally important is that the training should move ahead at the pace of the bird. Keen observation of your bird, its body language, and response to your cues should be your indicators of when to raise your expectations.

Once your bird is comfortable with this first stage add the top half of the crate; you will almost certainly need to begin almost at the beginning, slowly getting your bird closer and closer to the crate and then finally entering it although the process should go quicker than the initial training with the half crate.

Do not add the door until the bird is entering the crate and remaining calm in there. In fact before adding the door begin to extend the period that the bird has to stand in the crate before they get their reward. When they are remaining in the crate calmly for say a minute or so add the door; initially do not close the door when the bird enters. Continue to reward calm behavior and gradually close the door. If the bird shows any sign of rushing to get out of the door do NOT close the door; open it and allow the bird to exit and then repeat the entry behavior. It is important at this stage to build the bird’s confidence and to communicate that the bird is in control by allowing it to exit when it chooses. Once you are able to close the door reward your bird for remaining calm in the crate; do this through the window slots on the side of the crate.

Now that you are able to close the door and have your bird remain calm in the crate you may think that you are done. However, this is just the beginning; the training must proceed by generalizing the calm behavior when the crate is moved. Begin with simply lifting the crate gently off the table, reward your bird for calm behavior. It is vital at this stage to take small steps to continue to build the birds confidence with being in the crate. The biggest mistake people make is to start carrying the bird around too soon, before they are ready. A mistake at this stage can set your training back a very long way.

As I stated earlier the temptation to rush ahead and perhaps close the door on a bird that is trying to leave can have consequences that set your training back a long way. The tricks are patience and as always good observation of your bird’s behavior.

Happy training,


Comments on YouTube video

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

The demands of the new show season have consumed the time it takes to prepare blog entries and it has been a couple of weeks since my last article. However this morning I became aware of a very sad and significant video posted to YouTube. It touched a tender spot for me because I have said many times in discussion groups that in my opinion they were not the location or the medium for the average companion parrot owner to be learning how to free-fly their bird. My contention has been that it is not those who are active in the groups that concerned me but the silent majority of group members who never become active participants. I believe the person who posted this video was probably one of that silent majority who took what they read and saw at face value, with tragic consequences.

I would warn anyone thinking of watching the video of two things; first it is a heart-wrenching thing to watch a caring, sensitive parrot owner take full responsibility for the loss of their bird. Secondly the owner does use language in his self-admonition that may offend some folks, so viewers beware.

It took great courage on the part of the owner to make and post this video and out of respect for that owner I do not propose to comment directly on the observations I made of the early part of the video where the bird is being flown outdoors.

I truly hope that many people will view this video, not because of any voyeuristic intent on my part or theirs, but in the hope that they will realize that free flying a bird is a huge responsibility. It requires a dedication of time, certainly in the early training, that I believe few companion parrot owners have if they are being honest with themselves. It is certainly not something that anyone should undertake lightly and without a solid understanding of the behavioral principles involved in the required training. To believe that one can fly a bird free safely with only the bond to its owner as the control is self-delusional, disrespectful to the bird, and irresponsible in the extreme. These comments are not directed at the owner who suffered this loss, but at those who would encourage such actions by their own careless, ill-conceived internet writings and videos.

What makes this event even more poignant for me is that this week I had the great pleasure of meeting a small group of people with whom I had previously only exchanged email. These folks regularly free fly their parrots on the beach in Southern California. They do so in my opinion in a way that demonstrates how it should be done and that is with care and attention to the training process. Well done “Raz” Rasmussen, Hugh Choi, and Hillary “Tex” Hankey I applaud your dedication to your birds.