Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.


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,


Food and Weight Management – follow up

Friday, July 15th, 2011

My post about Food and Weight Management has drawn a few comments that I would like to address. Don’t forget that if you have any questions related to the articles posted here you are invited to use the email address  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   set up specifically to receive those questions. I can’t promise to address everything but I will read them all and do my very best to at least address the points you raise in a future article if at all possible.

One of the problems of blogging is that it is generally an unedited medium, by which I mean that most, if not all, of the posts people make to blogs are a stream of consciousness rather than a formal structured work that is ultimately edited by a third party. This means that sometimes a statement is made without the meaning or intent being completely clear to a reader. Great editors pick those mistakes up before they reach the reader. The Food/Weight Management article had a couple of those that a diligent reader picked up and rightly questioned. Also, I was asked “how do you decide if you need weight management rather than food management?” So, let’s get to it …

Let me address the last point first; how does a trainer make the decision to begin using Weight Management? The decision is really quite simple if one is always focused on behavior and that was one of the key points of the previous article. Let your observation of the behaviors you are training guide your training decisions. Also, don’t forget that adjusting diet is going to be the last tool you pull out of your toolbox. Be sure that you are setting up your bird for success by arranging the environment so that the bird is relaxed and comfortable. A critical aspect of starting out training is that the trainer and the bird have a history of positive interactions; don’t expect to bring home a new bird and start training a step up right away. It may take several days of walking by the cage and dropping treats into a bowl before one can even think about starting to train any specific behaviors. Always ask yourself “why should the bird interact with you?”, “what’s in it for the bird?” And remember that we want the bird to choose to be a partner in the training process.

So, back to the original question about when to use Weight Management; use it if the behavior you are training is just not shaping up the way you want, the response just isn’t there. However, only begin Weight Management after you have made sure that all of those things on the “will not perform” side of the motivational balance have been explored and if necessary corrected. Plus, be patient; do not withhold large amounts of food just to get the bird’s attention for training. I have heard of novices getting frustrated because their bird didn’t respond just the way they wanted so in their frustration they withhold a complete meal. This is just not necessary especially if the trainer is managing the food of the bird correctly. The need for gross changes in diet in my opinion are a reflection of the trainer’s lack of good diet management and rarely, if ever, justified or needed.

A phrase I used “relax the criteria” caused a little confusion. The context in which I used the phrase in the article was when a bird was in a new environment with lots of new potential distractions. Here I meant that I would relax my expectations of performance for the bird, e.g. if the behavior was a 20 foot flight to me I would start in this new environment just asking for a hop, then a flight of a few feet, gradually building the bird’s confidence in these new surroundings and for sure only raising my criteria as I observed good behaviorial responses. What I did not mean was that the trainer should continue to cue the behavior that was not working and accept the latency (delay to perform). Part of the process of generalization (performing behaviors regardless of environment) is to build the bird’s confidence not only in itself but also in the trainer. By setting the bird up to succeed (short hop and then short flights) the bird’s trust in the trainer is raised so that in the future in new environments this trust should increase the likelihood that the bird will perform the behaviors cued. Also, by relaxing the criteria and enabling the bird to perform a behavior we increase the number of times we are able to reward the bird, always a good thing! Repetition builds confidence – bird and trainer.

Another question related to how to remove some of the “will not perform” items from the motivational balance. As an example how do you train the bird to fly down from heights at a steep angle? Remember that we can always lower the weight of the bird and increase motivation to overcome the bird’s apprehension in making a steep downward flight. However, just because that works doesn’t make it the right choice for me. Reducing the weight again should be the last thing we think about doing. I will repeat a phrase here that should be one of the trainers’ mantras, set the bird up to succeed. First, before we placed our bird into an environment where it might have spooked up into that tall tree we should have trained it to fly down from high places. New trainers often forget that birds learn their flight skills through … flying. Therefore, in a safe environment we place our bird on higher and higher perches and allow them to learn to fly down. We train our bird to fly to places on cue and then send them into higher and higher tree branches (or meeting hall rafters!) and allow them to learn how to fly down. We set them up to succeed so that when they find themselves sitting high in a tree they already know how to fly down. The second part of the answer is for every trainer to observe and understand the limitations of their bird when it comes to its flight skills. No matter how much we fly our birds they never get as much “air time” as a wild bird, because of this their flight skills, while impressive, may never reach those of their wild cousins. Therefore we need to once again set them up to succeed by only asking them to perform behaviors we know they can perform. So, when your bird is high in a tree don’t stand right under the tree calling it down, move away from the tree and give your bird the “glide angle” it needs to make the flight.

Don’t forget:

  • Repetition builds confidence
  • Set your bird up to succeed
  • Ask yourself “What’s in it for the bird?”
  • Assume responsibility for all your bird’s behavior


8th Annual Raptor Handling Class

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011
Avian Ambassadors is pleased to announce the dates of the 8th Annual Raptor Handling Class.The class, presented by Avian Ambassadors founder Sid Price, will be held on July 30-31, 2011 at the Marriott Hotel in Albuquerque, NM. Logo composite 4 background fullRunning from 9 am until 5 pm  on Saturday and Sunday the class is an excellent opportunity for both beginning and experienced raptor presenters to learn the most contemporary, science based approaches to handling raptors for educational programs.In addition to basic raptor biology the workshop will cover equipment usage, handling techniques, and the science of behavior change.

RobinAndProphet 150 3x2 150Our special guest presenter for the third year will be Robin Shewokis of the Leather Elves. Robin is a renowned enrichment consultant to zoos and the companion bird community. She will present a special workshop segment about enriching the lives of captive raptors.

The cost of the two-day class is $95.00. This includes printed class materials and a light lunch on both days. Pre-registration is required and class size will be limited to ensure all students get maximum time “hands-on” with our birds – contact us  (classesatavianambassadorsdotcom?subject=8th%20Annual%20Raptor%20Handling%20Class)   today for your registration form or call (505) 349 5714. We look forward to hearing from you!

Registered attendees are offered a special rate of $89.00/night by the Marriott Hotel for the weekend of the workshop.

Food and weight management

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I returned from my trip to the IAATE conference in Holland to find a lively discussion going on in one of the yahoo groups for parrot training. The subject of the discussion is one that crops up from time-to-time and it always elicits lively, often polarized views. That subject is the use of food or weight management for training birds. It is also a subject that is often not fully understood by either the vehement supporters or detractors.

When training any animal one of the very first steps is for the trainer to figure out what the animal may find rewarding; this is what the trainer will use as a reinforcer for the behaviors being trained. If one is beginning with an animal that has no training history it is necessary to choose a primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is one that does not require any learning on the part of the animal. Primary reinforcers include sleep, food, air, water, and, in the opinions of some, sex. When working with birds the primary reinforcer typically chosen is food. Once the subject understands the training process it may be possible to introduce secondary or conditioned reinforcers such as attention, verbal praise, or access to toys.

While food is a primary reinforcer not all types of food are reinforcing for all birds; just like people birds also have food preferences and an observant trainer can quickly learn the preferred food type of the subject. Once identified this preferred food item can be removed from the daily diet and only offered to the bird as a training reinforcer. This method of training is the one that many companion parrot owners try to begin training their birds and it is also the one that many find to be ineffective, “my bird just isn’t interested in food”.

However, what these trainers forget is that the value of any food item is dynamic, after a large meal even our own preferred food items are less desirable to us. Therefore when using food as a potential reinforcer we need to be sure that the items being offered have real value to the subject at the time they are offered. This does not necessarily mean that we have to reduce the total amount of food offered to the bird; it simply means that by controlling access to food we create the perception, from the bird’s perspective, that food may not be as abundant as it was. Rather than repeat here what has already been very well written on this subject I would like to direct you to a Barbara Heidenreich article on her Goodbird Magazine Yahoo site that goes into detail about the use of food as a training aid and also an article by Natural Encounters trainer Cassie Malina about “Psychological Appetite.” (See further reading below.)

What I have written about so far is food management; selection of preferred food types and control of access to food. The other technique used to create motivation to perform behavior is weight management. With this technique the total amount of food offered daily is reduced from the amount the animal would eat given free access to food. This results in an increased desire for the food and therefore an increase in the motivation to perform the requested behavior. When using weight management it is essential that the trainer monitor the weight of the bird very closely.

Weight management is a powerful tool for manipulating motivation and with its use comes a greater demand on the skill set of the trainer. Imagine a bird that is not responding to the cue to fly to the trainer. A novice or unskilled trainer may think they need to make the reinforcers being offered more valuable so they reduce the overall diet being offered to the bird, reducing its weight, and increasing its focus on the trainer. This will work, the hungrier the bird gets the more focused it becomes on the trainer and the trainer gets reinforced by the bird performing the requested behavior. This last point, the trainer getting reinforced for reducing the weight of the bird, is what makes weight management so attractive, maybe even addictive, a technique to novice trainers. Each time behavior falls short of expectations the weight is dropped a little more, the bird performs, the trainer is reinforced. As the weight is dropped the trainer should really be asking themselves how they feel ethically about using this degree of deprivation in order to achieve their goals. So, what can they do?

The first step is to not become over-focused on the scale and the weight of the bird, rather, focus sharply on the behavior and the antecedents of that behavior. Antecedents are those things that occur right before the behavior. The bird’s motivation by the perceived value of the potential reward for executing the behavior is only one antecedent in play.

Consider the situation as a balance with the motivation of the bird on one side and things that work against that motivation on the other. To get the bird to work well the trainer must have the motivating side of the balance out-weigh the non-motivating side.
Things that affect the motivation of the bird include not only its desire for food (its degree of hunger) but also:

  •  The reinforcement history of the bird.
    • Does the bird fully understand that the executing the cued behavior will result in a desired reward?
    • Has the trainer always been honest in their reinforcement of behavior in the past or for example was a large visible reward offered by the trainer to elicit a behavior switched out for a small treat when the behavior was completed?
  • What is the relationship like between the trainer and the bird?
    • Does the trainer have a history of positive rewarding experiences with the bird?  

These are just a couple of the things that contribute to the “will perform” side of the balance. Meanwhile on the other side of our imaginary balance are all the things that are telling the bird not to perform the behavior.

  • Is this a new or poorly trained behavior?
  • Is the bird physically capable of performing the behavior?
    • An example would be asking a bird to fly down from a high perch to the trainer at an acute angle.
  • Is the trainer being clear communicating what they are expecting of the bird?
    • Clear, concise, consistent cues are essential components of this clear communication.
  • Is the bird in good health and not exhausted by behaviors performed earlier in the training session?
  • Is the trainer asking for a downwind flight?
    • o Birds prefer to fly into the wind, using it to increase lift and assist in control. Think of aircraft taking off and landing into the wind!
  • Is the bird in a novel environment with new distracting noises and/or sights?
    • Generalization of behaviors in varied situations is an essential step in training any bird. When entering novel situations a trainer should relax their criteria for the behavior and build the bird’s confidence.

Once again this is not a complete list; however for each of these issues on the “may not perform” side of the balance the trainer who is not aware of them may have only weight reduction to resort to in order to get the required behavior.

By addressing the “may not perform” issues before reducing diet and therefore weight the trainer will find that the bird is willing and able to be flown at higher and higher weights. Indeed professional trainers making high demands on birds in complex show situations are finding that by paying primary attention to the “may not perform” side of the balance they are able to fly birds at weights that are near or even above those of the birds when being free fed, the so-called ad lib weight.

An essential part of training using weight management is the continual evaluation of the behavior of the bird. Novice and inexperienced trainers will often get fixated on a “flying weight”; the bird performs well at a particular weight and the trainer blindly maintains that weight. The training process should be to increase the weight of the bird and to carefully observe the behavior. A good trainer keeps increasing weight until they observe the early subtle signs of the behavior breaking down. By using this process the bird is flown at the highest weight possible.

In summary, food and/or weight management are used by professional trainers almost without exception. However, the decision to reduce diet in order to increase motivation is taken after all other factors have been considered and addressed. Indeed, sometimes the only ethical decision when trying to fly some birds in these situations is to choose not to fly them. It is true that almost any bird can be motivated to fly in pretty much any situation by using food/weight management; the question each trainer should ask is how far they are ethically prepared to go to achieve that goal.

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.

Keep soaring,
Further reading: