With every encounter we have with our birds, knowingly or unknowingly, we are training them. We train them desirable things and many undesirable things. We can choose to train them to step up willingly and reward them when they do, or we can train them to bite harder when we try to quickly pry their toes off of our arms and roll our arms toward their perch. I know. I’ve been there, done that. That was the advice I was given. I did the best with what I had.
I remember about 7 years ago sitting on the couch watching tv with my Umbrella Cockatoo, Rico. I was laying on my back with my knees bent. Rico was perched a top my knees like “Mighty Moe”. He’d give me the excited head twitches and then peer at me to see my reaction. Of course I was laughing. Then came the almighty Geronimo jump! Rico sprang in the air like Captain Caveman with no cape and onto my chest he’d land bracing himself with his feet and beak. I’d laugh so hard, pick him up and raise him above my head, kiss him, and put him back on my knees for the whole act to play out once again. After a few reps of this he stood on my head. “Cool” I thought. “He’s pooped and I can watch a little tv.” Yea right. I saw this big black beak and two eye balls peering at me from on top of my forehead. I laughed so hard and so loud I was crying. I literally remember crying from laughing so hard as my husband sat staring at us chuckling from the other side of the room. It was from that moment on that I knew Rico deserved more than prying of his feet and rolling of my arm. I then began searching for education in making our life styles of living together the most beneficial for him as well as me. Here I am 7 years later incorporating the same methods of choice, enrichment, positive reinforcement, and healthy and enriching interactions with every bird I come in contact with from cockatoo, pigeon, Red Tailed Hawk, to the blue jay that is currently residing in my living room.
I choose this style of living with birds for many reasons. First and foremost you see the birds just flourish with the choice this incorporates into their environment. Offering choice helps in providing them healthier lives not to mention the strength in the relationship it creates with you. I like seeing a bird living a lifestyle of making their own choices as much as possible. It’s really cool when you see them make the decision to want to interact with you when they see you also. So let me begin by showing some of the first and tiny steps in making this relationship form.
Let me introduce to you a blue jay. He’s young, not sure how old. Maybe 3 or more months. He is Nature’s Nursery’s program blue jay that cannot be released back into the wild due to a deformed foot and a question in the ability of his flight skills. Today is August 24th and he has been at my home since the 20th. I brought him home 4 days ago beginning with giving him a few days to just settle in. Most of what I know about this blue jay is what I have learned from our past 4 days together. I’m observing his movements, how he moves with his disabled foot, his calls and if they coincide with any environmental events, his movements in relation to environmental events, the foods he’s eating and those he’s not, and his reactions to seeing me. My biggest teacher right now is him. He’s teaching me. I’m learning to understand much of his body language. In the past four days I’ve made many mistakes, but with each mistake I’m learning what not to do again, what to do again, and he’s learning the same from me. Training is a two-way street. It’s the biggest form of communication we have with most animals. Training is the common ground of communication from me to this bird and from this bird to me and it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced because it is so powerful. I use positive reinforcement training to the best of my ability with every bird in which I come in contact. With each request I ask of a bird, I reward them with something they enjoy. The things they enjoy vary from bird to bird. Some like the head scratch, some like a piece of food, and some like a verbal interaction. Some like all of these but at different times. One thing that I pay very close attention to is to not scare the bird or force it to do anything it doesn’t want to and this doesn’t mean that the bird gets away with ‘murder’. Enough of that for now, let’s move on to the photos and videos.
Below are photos and videos I will continue to post as we progress in our training. I want to share with those who want to learn, understand, review, and use it on their own animals in their care. If you are looking for something in particular, feel free to ask. Important headway in training I will post on Nature’s Nursery’s FaceBook page. If you want to see more of these actions one on one and ask questions for me to show how in person, I highly suggest coming to Nature’s Nursery’s open house events. I will be there waiting to show you with the birds of prey, possibly the blue jay, or Francis the pigeon.
The blue jay has a splint on right leg. I’m learning right along with him on how to work with it. It comes off in less than 3 days.
In the encounters prior to this video I was building food association with the blue jay. Every time I walked in front of his cage, I lifted his door and fed him something. I did this after watching him eat and experimenting with handing him different types of nutritional foods from scrambled eggs, to nut pieces, to blue berries, to soaked bird pellets, and more. I took this video about a day and a half after he had been in my house and after building this food association. I chose food because it was the only thing I knew he liked for sure, so I started with that. Through training this bird, the rewards have now, and quickly surpassed just using food. As you watch this video, I’ll suggest pausing it as you continue reading what you are seeing in the video. I think it will make it much more effective. You’ll see in this video that I am feeding him only while he is on my hand. I am now working on food association with him being on my hand. I’m doing this because one of my future steps is to get him out of his cage with the intention of him staying on my hand if that is where I need him to be. Stay on hand – food reward. Stay on hand – food reward. Stay on hand for longer periods of time – appropriate sized and type of food reward. Also in this video I am learning to read and understand his body language and how he makes those little squawks when he’s eating or wants more. This is key to know when bringing him out of his cage. I am also observing how his splint makes it tricky to stay on certain areas of my hand. He slips, I learn and move my hand differently or feed him on another area of my hand to make this a comfortable place for him to be. If he’s not comfortable, he is not likely to jump to my hand when I request this from him.
In the second half of the video you see how I now need him to step onto his perch. I need him to do this because my knees are quickly giving out due to kneeling on the hardwood floor. A key to myself to maybe change the way in which I’m approaching the cage next time. I have now built this positive relationship with him being on my hand. The last thing I want to do is dump him off of it. That for sure would have an impact on the relationship I have created with him and him with my hand. This is pretty cool because you see me asking him by luring him to step off and he hesitates. That positive relationship is there and has been created. Yea, but how do I now get him to step off of my hand? I want to keep his choice incorporated in our relationship and in his environment because it is one of the strongest elements to interact with an animal that I am aware. I offer the food piece again and make sure that he still wants more of it. I stopped the training short of him staying on my hand because I knew he would quickly get full, and I still need something to reward him with for stepping off of my hand. I lure him off. His choice. He gets what he wants by stepping off.
The following video was taken the next day. In this video you’ll see the beginning steps of me getting him out of the cage. I made many mistakes and there were two important results that I learned from these mistakes. First, I learned to not repeat them and I learned what caused them and tried not to create a situation to cause them again. Second, all of the repeat training between each video before advancing to the next step, such as moving from cueing to my hand to then trying to take him out of his cage, I had built such a positive relationship and correlation with myself to this blue jay. This repeat training through positive reinforcement had begun building a positive relationship strong enough that when a situation occurs that the bird finds scary or a situation created where his options are quickly being taken away, the relationship is strong enough that the bird quickly recovers from the scary incident and returns to responding to what I am requesting. This you will see in this video. If you can read along while watching it, I will point out important signs in the body language and areas in which I ignored and pushed the blue jay anyway.
First you will see that I am luring the bird to my hand by showing him a food piece. He jumps to my hand rather quickly. You’ll see me begin pulling my hand out of his cage and then quickly put it back in because he started moving his head around in a way I wasn’t really familiar with yet. If he was nervous, I didn’t want to push him. I then began pulling my hand out again after he has his food in his mouth. At this point in our training, I’m still learning in how to hold my hand with him that is most comfortable to him with his splint. You’ll see me start to push my hand back in the cage. The bird is showing all signs in body language that he doesn’t want to go in but I kept putting my hand in any way. This becomes more and more obvious to the untrained eye the more you rewind it and watch it again. The more I move my hand into the cage, the further the bird is trying his hardest to walk up my arm away from the cage door. The fact that his splint does not allow him for a good grip on my arm does not help either and off he goes. Wow, talk about obvious body language. Pay attention to the look on my face after he flies off. It is not a look of being upset with the bird. It is a look of me being upset with myself. I saw him trying to walk away from the cage door opening and I did it anyway. I was not surprised that the bird flew off. I’m upset with myself because the blue jay and I have a great relationship going and I just tried making a decision for him and completely ignored his body language. At this point in our training, not that big of a deal as long as I learn from this. Watch what happens next.
I wait and observe his body language. You can’t see at this point because he flew off-screen. Not for long. Once I have his attention I give him a cue to step on my hand again. Listen. You’ll hear that he wants to step back on my hand. You can hear his little chirps. This has been correlated so many times with the food and the sight of me that I now know he wants me to advance. That’s a pretty cool part of positive reinforcement training. Back on my hand he goes. Soon after he’s back on my hand, watch his body language again. He’s looking back at the scene of the crime. He’s turning his head and looking back at the door where I tried forcing him through just moments before. Lesson learned. If I want our relationship and our training to continue being positive and moving in a relationship strengthening manner, then I will not make this mistake again. After this, the blue jay was back in his cage by his choice and soon after that was back on my shoulder walking around the house.
A Quick Recovery
One of many great things about positive reinforcement interactions with our birds, is not only the great relationship it creates, but the trust the animal (the blue jay in this case) begins to have with you. There is little to no association with anything negative that when you get yourselves into a potentially scary or unfamiliar situation, you’ll see the bird showing trust in what you are asking him to do. In situations that the bird flies away, you’ll see a quick recovery on your next interaction. What I mean by this, is the bird, or animal will quickly respond to your next request because you have built such a history on positive interactions. This video shows it. This picks up where the last one ended.
Just a quickie update. Much has happened over the past few days. First of all we’ve named the blue jay. His name is Pete. It was a suggestion of my sister Dena’s and it just clicked. I passed it by a few others at Nature’s Nursery (Angel & Laura) for the ok and got the two thumbs up. Boy does it ever fit.
Pete’s coming in and out of his cage like a champ and with no lure. I’ve dropped the lure a few days ago. Remember when I had to show him the food to get him to hop where I need him to? Not any more. His cue is me tapping where I’m requesting he goes or me just presenting my hand. He hops to my hand and then immediately to my shoulder. I think I’ve decided it’s ok to have him hop to my shoulder and stay there. I’ve decided this for two reasons. He can get a better grip in perching on my shirt because he pretty much only has use of one foot. Second, I’m not yet sure of his flight skills and if he’s handicapped in flight and with his feet, I want to make sure he has as much of a sense of security as possible. This may help in preventing many behavioral issues. I made that decision based on previous experience with birds who’s forms of locomotion are limited in one way or another.
Pete went to the vet today to have his splint taken off. He immediately used his foot and then he quickly reverted
to where he was before. Throughout the day I’ve seen him using it, but I bet this will quickly fade without any type of physical therapy from me if I can reward it and help. I’ll try, it’s worth it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll modify his world for a one-legged Pete. Everyone at Nature’s Nursery keeps telling me how much they miss him. The more I get to know him, the more I understand why.
He went to the vet’s today and what a complete difference in his behavior since the first time I took him 10 days
ago. I just started actively training Pete about 5 days ago. The first time at the vet he was fluttering all over the place and had to be restrained at all times. Today I said “He should hop to the hand and then straight to my shoulder.” and that is exactly what he did and he stood there until we decided what we had to do. He fluttered around the room at two different times but that was it. I completely forgot to bring any type of food rewards, but I highly doubt he would have even eaten them. Pete did awesome. He perched on the vet’s hands (above) and stood there as seen in this photo. I took this photo to show the difference in his foot after the splint was taken off. He told me this may not hold but is worth a try. As you see in the photo to the left of Pete waiting on the scale, his foot has gone back to how he held it before. The really, really neat thing about this photo is Pete standing until cued while perched on the scale. I can’t remember what we went to do to with him after that
but he fluttered off. He quickly jumped to the technicians hand and ran right up her shoulder. I told the tech, “All of this great behavior and I have nothing to reward him with but the sound of my voice and my conditioned reinforcers of me tell him “good”. She turned and whipped out a box of goodies from the counter. Pete was interested. A very good sign from a trainers point of view.
When using positive reinforcement interactions with our animals as much as possible, the more likely the bird is to give a behavior when next requested. This is called a recovery. This was the second time I had done this with a bird this week. The first time was Sunday night with another trainer and myself with a Turkey Vulture. Then today, with Pete. I took Pete back to the house, opened his carrier and offered my hand. He flew right to it and then hopped right to my shoulder. He gave me his little squawks and immediately accepted treats.
I should make this the end of today’s post, but I can’t. Today after the vet visit and after I gave Pete a chance to rest in his cage, we tried with trying to get him used to different areas of the house that lead to the back yard where the aviary stands. Today we didn’t just get him near the window to the aviary. We (Pete and I) accomplished getting to the window, sitting in the sun, sitting on the window sill, standing on my shoulder in the aviary, walking around the aviary, and singing and having fun in the aviary. Boy did he ever show interest
in the aviary and anything to do with it once the sunlight hit him. See the photo at the top of today’s post. That was Pete a few times after stepping onto the window sill by his choice. Every time the sunlight hit him, he fluffed and offered a wing in the sunlight’s direction and always with an open mouth. I stepped into the aviary, offered a hand and right onto my shoulder he went. His reward?…..a direct shot of sun.
The most awesome thing about offering an animal choice, is the profound effect it has on their confidence and their trust in you in new environments. That confidence beams in a very healthy animal and on the caretaker’s face. Healthy behavioral and enriched environments proves for less stress shown on the animal. A healthy bird is one that is confident in his environment and with his caretaker.
Good night Pete. I hope you day way well.