Archive for July, 2011

A position on the sale of un-weaned parrots to the public

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Over the past several years I have observed an approach being promoted to those in the companion parrot community interested in free flying parrots outdoors, they are encouraged to obtain un-weaned birds and to hand raise them themselves. This advice is not given on a one-on-one basis; it is broadcast to anyone who happens to be listening (reading). This recommendation has led me to the keyboard several times, however each time I started to write about it and to challenge its ethics I stopped short of publishing my thoughts. However after receiving several emails in the last week or so on this subject the time has come for me to take a personal position; a position that I have thought about long and hard and discussed at length with several of my professional colleagues.

 I simply cannot support the sale of un-weaned birds to the general public. There is no valid evidence I have seen presented that suggests there is anything to be gained by taking this approach other than enabling a trainer who lacks the knowledge and skill to train an already weaned/fledged/mature bird to have some early success. At the very best what is presented in support of this position is limited personal observation, rhetoric, and pseudo science. The only gain in the process is to the trainer who, for a little while at least, can apply slipshod training strategies and still fly their bird. Once a bird matures, all the skills that the trainer and bird should have had up front become required in order to maintain the desired behavior. Without the trainer having the knowledge and skill level to train a fully fledged adult bird their initial success may well result in the loss of the bird when it does mature or even during those early “random” flights.

My position is not one that I hold in isolation; I have spoken to many people in aviculture about this and asked for their positions. Not one single person supports the sale of un-weaned parrots to the general public. This is not because hand feeding a bird is a complex or hard to understand process, at least as long as all goes well. Where the skill and experience become necessary is when things go wrong. Incorrect monitoring of the birds’ development or aspiration due to poor feeding technique are just a couple of things than can and do go wrong. Encouraging people with little to no experience with birds let alone hand feeding to undertake this approach is bordering upon unethical and is irresponsible in the extreme. I encourage anyone who is looking to buy a bird that they wish to free fly to approach a reputable breeder, one that understands the importance of early development with other parrots as well as being around humans. When allowed to grow and fledge with other birds while developing trusting relationships with human caretakers the birds produced provide a solid foundation for good training to yield excellent results. This approach has been used for many years by the best breeders and their birds are those prized by the professionals. Talk to your breeder and ask them how they raise their birds before you place an un-weaned bird at risk for the sake of saving time.

There is a second aspect to this discussion and that is whether the average member of the public has the attention span, time, or even the environment to be considering free flying birds outdoors. Again, my personal position is that it takes a very dedicated individual to achieve this especially when they have a life, a job, and a family in the equation. Flying a bird once or twice a week or less will simply place those birds at risk. It takes time for the bird to develop skills, time spent in the air in many different environments and it is the skill of the trainer that sets the birds up for success in these varied environments.

I fully support those who strive to keep an unclipped parrot in their home; doing so can raise the owner’s training skills to new levels and enrich the life of the bird. Flying indoors in large buildings is excellent exercise and enrichment for all. However, I feel that free flying a parrot outdoors is something that needs very careful evaluation by the owner. While it may be true that the information on how to do it is available to all, the skill required to apply that information and safely fly the bird outdoors takes more than reading a few internet articles.


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Monday, July 18th, 2011

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Keep soaring,


The Right Bird for the Job – The Right Job for the Bird

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Just recently I closed a blog post with the following statement:

“Finally, choosing the right bird for the job or even the right job for the bird is probably the most important training decision we make.”

This statement triggered quite an active discussion on one Yahoo group and it was interesting to read the thread.

I also received one question directly about this:

“I would be interested to know more about how you know what bird is right for the job or what job is right for the bird and why?” – Curtis White.

I must admit that the statement was placed into the blog entry to see what reaction it would get, to stimulate discussion. This is why I have not posted any responses to the Yahoo group where it was being discussed, I wanted to observe the readers and gauge if they were able to apply the information that had preceded the statement. It was encouraging that the obvious answer was among the points of view expressed.

That obvious answer is that just like every other training issue we face our decision should be driven by two factors. Firstly the bird’s performance, evaluated using direct observation of the behavior being trained. How is the bird responding to the training sessions in changing environments? Is its focus on the training sessions improving as we work the bird? Combined with this we come back once again to the personal ethical position of the trainer. As I have stated previously motivation can certainly be raised by using deprivation (reducing diet, to reduce weight, to increase motivation). However, there comes a time for me when I am just not comfortable with reducing weight to increase the focus of a bird that is simply not comfortable doing what is being asked of it. In addition, as one increases food drive other less desirable behaviors begin to be presented. For example with a human raised bird these may include gross begging behaviors or with some species aggressive responses to the trainer and others in the presence of food. Before I reach this point it is time to re-evaluate if this is the right bird for the job or ask if the bird is better suited to a different behavior, in this way we find the right job for the bird.

Making the personal judgment call, and that is for sure what it is, requires the same skills that I keep repeating every good trainer needs. These skills include good observation and a high degree of empathy for the animal being trained.

The question was raised in one discussion thread as to how you know whether the poor response of a bird is due to an unsuitable bird or to the lack of skill on the part of the trainer. I would say that every trainer must accept full responsibility for the behavior of their birds and therefore on some level it always the trainer failing the bird. This is why I believe that anyone training animals needs to really study the science and also, perhaps most importantly, keep an open mind. Ultimately, regardless of whether the bird is not suited to the job or the trainer lacks the skill to train the desired behavior it is the responsibility of the trainer to recognize this.

It is worth reiterating that trainers should always keep challenging their own skill level. I mentioned the self-reinforcing dependence of novice trainers on weight management previously; if one is really interested in becoming a good trainer one simply has to let go of this apparent “silver bullet”, this will challenge your training skills and lead to being a better trainer with more engaged birds.

I remember very well a workshop given by Steve Martin for professional trainers where he encouraged everyone to work all non-raptor species without equipment attached. It had been almost standard practice in professional show situations to use falconry style equipment on corvids like crows and ravens. The “take-away” message from Steve for me was that by taking off the equipment the trainer was forced to increase the level of their skills, to make a greater effort to understand the nature of the bird and its behavior, and that by doing so they would become a better trainer. This was a life-changing moment for me and one training journey using this approach is documented in my 2006 IAATE presentation “Strong Foundations and Adjustments – Keys to Training Success.”

Releasing oneself from dependence upon weight management I see in a similar potentially life changing way for novice trainers. Let go of your preconceptions, accept full responsibility for your birds’ behavior, make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a trainer.


History Revisited … again!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

In an article “Primary Reinforcement and History Revisited” posted in April of this year I made the point that knowing the history of a bird was important.

“… the whole history of the bird is part of the antecedent package.”

“… the behavior we see today was shaped by the experiences of the bird in its past, its history.”

This point was taken up in a private email exchange with the writer taking issue with me about this. Their point was that my statements were discouraging to those who may be considering adopting one of the many older parrots looking for new homes. I thought long and hard about this because it certainly was not my intention. Why, you may ask, has this issue come back to the surface?

We recently adopted a dog (Emma) from the Albuquerque Shelter. She is a Border Collie mix who’s age is supposed to be around eight years although we believe she is probably closer to four or five years old. The staff at the shelter were excellent in their approach to our interest in Emma, she had been identified as a “fear-biter” and this together with her age and lack of interest from other adopters meant that she was less than an hour from being euthanized when we arrived to evaluate her. The shelter supervisor took a long time interviewing us and explaining the issues that Emma was believed to have. We had decided before arriving at the shelter that if a “meet and greet” with our other two dogs went well we would adopt Emma. That meeting went very well through the fence and Emma came home with us. I don’t propose to go through all the details of Emma’s first few weeks with us except to say that there were pretty uneventful in terms of seeing any aggression or biting. In fact we have seen no biting, having been so well briefed we have been able to help Emma adjust to her new life in hopefully the least invasive and stressful way. After less than two months it is like she has been here and a part of our pack all her life … we just don’t have baby pictures!

So in this short story, in my opinion, are all the elements that the best parrot rescues appear to apply and to which the majority should aspire. They first of all watch and observe the birds they take in, they may work these birds so that any fear responses and other behavioral issues are reduced and thereby biting is also placed onto a reducing trajectory. Perhaps most importantly they communicate with the potential adopters clearly and honestly what the issues are and how they need to be addressed. They also assess the level of understanding of the challenges being faced by the adopters. In so doing they fill in as honestly and fully as they can the history of the bird. Only by doing this can they not only raise the likelihood that the bird will adjust to its new life but they also set up the adopters for success.

I stand by my original statement that knowing the history of a bird is an important and valuable antecedent. Consider if Emma had come home and we knew nothing of her “fear-biting” history, I firmly believe that somebody could well have been bitten by taking the wrong approach.

In my opinion there is no truth to the age-old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Given enough time, skill, and motivation there are no lost causes when it comes to animal training. In the past I have trained wild injured birds for educational programs; is it quick and easy … not usually. Is it challenging … without a doubt. Is it highly rewarding .. again without a doubt.

The choice of whether one acquires a chick or adopts a mature bird is down to the individual person. It depends upon what their motivation is; are they looking to get quick (often not long term) results or are they looking to raise their own skills by taking on the challenge of an older bird. It is as always more about the trainer than the bird. Check out Carly Lu’s Flight Blog for a great success story and a demonstration of how an older bird got enriched and a growing trainer stretched their skills.


Why did he do that?

Monday, July 18th, 2011

I received the following question about the Steve Martin article “What’s in it for me?” I referenced in my welcome blog

… Steve mentions working with the Harris Hawk who was lazing [in] a tree too much. He said they decided to try increasing his weight instead of decreasing it, but gave no reason why. … Is there some reason why he would try increasing the weight first? Or is it implied that they had previously tried lowering the weight and it did not work? – Dr. Linda Rasmussen.

Before I address the question it is worth mentioning that when we are trying to evaluate behavior it is important to only consider what we can actually observe; the facts … just the facts. If we try to base our strategies on what we think the animal was thinking we are on the road to disappointment.

Also, the subject of weight or food management will be covered in more detail in a future Blog. Reducing weight should not be the first step any competent trainer takes.

When I received this question the first thing I did was to go back and read the article again, this time paying attention to the section about the Harris’ hawk and noting any behavioral observations that Steve reported. All that was mentioned was that the bird was “playing around in a tree” and “taking too much time.” In addition to noting the behavior one should also note what happened right before the behavior, unfortunately the article did not tell us that. Finally one should note the history of the bird’s behavior, once again not mentioned in the article. Given this lack of information (facts) the only recourse was to contact Steve and ask him if he could remember why he had chosen to raise the weight of the bird in this context.

While waiting to hear from Steve and being a curious person I pondered what might have been Steve’s reasoning. The example Steve used involved a raptor (Harris’ hawk) and raptors are highly food motivated. One scenario that came to mind was that if one increases food motivation too much the bird may start to look around for food itself. If the bird had exhibited hunting behaviors this may explain why it remained in the tree, waiting for prey to appear. Indeed this is what Steve reported to me; the bird was seen “bouncing around in the tree, biting at bark, and footing the branches”. Footing is the behavior of a raptor grasping very hard, the action it uses to kill or disable its prey. So it seems my hypothesis was close and raising the weight was an attempt to reduce the food motivation to see if this reduced the unwanted behaviors.

This is a good example of how trainers’ should approach a problem; one change at a time. Too often trainers apply the “shotgun” approach and change several things at the same time. The result being that they may never know the real reason they changed the behavior, and so next time they need to take the “shotgun” out again.

Thank you Dr. Linda Rasmussen,