Sunday, March 20, 2011

Training: I Took the Long Road

 I get it now, I finally get it. I have discovered the mechanics behind my own self-evolution from a liberal force-based trainer to a calm, level-headed, and conservative trainer. And this will be the only time you catch me saying that I’m very conservative, so this anomalous “Ah-ha!” is a rare moment. To fully appreciate my self-discovery I will have to dishevel some old and detailed memories from my dusty closet of bad bird training at you. For those who are well practiced in bird body language and use it like an unbreakable code of honor, you may be shocked at my actions. But this is an important part of my development, it shows that people do transform and change their minds and that means a world of hope to me.
First imagine an awkwardly tall, quiet, homeschooler, a nice polite person but nothing more than just that. Her attitude (if you could say she had one) is shallow and empty, she easily stumbles over words and simple ideas. This was me of course, but what you would not expect from this girl was her forceful and fear-inducing parrot training strategy. You could say this girl was confused when reading all the conflicting and obscure anecdotal advice read from the pages of a popular talk bird magazine. What she read was all very confusing, very influential and very dangerous for both her and the parrots involved.

Training ideas that she lived by were “You cannot be afraid of bites, just take it!” and “Never let a bird on your shoulder!” or my personal favorite “Never let a bird get away with anything! Show them who is flock leader!” For this quiet girl, bites were a daily occurrence and were proudly worn and shown off as battle scars. For some weird, psychological reason this made her feel strong, superior and successful because she was in control of the chaotic ill-behaved birds, she was in charge of the poor confused birds and she could make them do anything, it was fulfilling for her.


Now imagine putting this quiet and confused young child into a place full of parrots that didn’t really belong to anyone. She was free to “train” (the word used should be “molest”) any one of the cockatiels, conures, amazons, macaws or moluccan cockatoos she pleased. There was very little supervision and she could be there 6 hours a day or more if she so pleased, she is homeschooled after all.

Was there a quaker parrot that didn’t like head scratches? Grab it in a towel and pet it anyway, he’ll learn to like it.

How about a cockatoo that wouldn’t step up? Easy, make it step up right now, just push harder on that bird’s belly.

And if that cockatoo bit? No worries, she has all the solutions! If it bit the hand it stepped onto, just drop the hand to make him lose balance and he’ll let go! And if it was your other hand that got bit you could easily wriggle your finger out, firmly grab his beak and shake it. Or you could simply push that bleeding finger into the birds face to get it to let go, just throw the bird off balance! Ingenious!

Along with her misguided faith in force based training she did not hold herself accountable for her actions. If there was an incidence where a bird bit it was because the animal was “wild” or “untame” the fault was the bird’s and it was dubbed with a label instead. Because it certainly wasn’t her fault that she got bit, or that the bird ran away from stepping up, or that the bird flew off its perch, or its feathers had to be clipped, or that it liked faces but not hands, or that it yelled “bad bird” and “No!” back into her face, or that it scampered to hide under the nearest cage to get away, or that it never fluffed up its feathers in contentment when being pet, or that trick behaviors where never on time when cued. It was obvious that all the hundreds of birds that came through were ill mannered, dominant, mean, territorial, hormonal, or where just there to fuck with your head. It was just obvious.

And while you are cringing at every detail I dole out I have not yet touched on how changing my training changed my worldveiw too. In the beginning I was over eager to grab, experience and fondle the animals like any young excited person would be. But I was also frustrated when a bird showed no progress, or made a little progress and then promptly started having even more bad habits. I was mad, I was in charge and, in my mind, I was doing everything right to tame the bird. Instead I was swelling up with even more anger, impatience and force-based methods over time. There was no way out.


That is until a little green budgie named E.T. came along. He was bright, spunky and full of energy and I wanted to train him to make him perfect. One of my criteria for perfection was flying, he had to recall to my hand perfectly and that “perfectness” criteria permanently changed my ways. If I wanted perfection I needed to research, so I read Carly Lu’s Flight blog, Joined Yahoo’s Free Flight Parrots list, and read Chris Biro’s writings. Everybody was talking about a woman named Dr. Susan G. Friedman and everyone was giving out her works in PDF form, so I read that too and over a couple of weeks I saw parrot training in a much more simplified light. It became easy to understand and so I practiced, and I quickly got results from training that little green bird.

The first thing I practiced was interpreting body language, when you get good at it it's like reading your bird's mind. Dr. of psycology, Susan Friedman, lives by and uses this as a well honed skill.

Take another look at this Caique, can you tell what his body language is telling you? To me it is obvious that the bird is uncomfortable in this situation. there is something just outside of the camera's lens that is directly causing this discomfort. I know this because the bird's head is oriented somewhere else, the pupils are dilating, the beak is slightly opened getting ready for defense,  feathers are slicked down and unfluffed, wings are slightly opened and ready for takeoff and all of his body is leaned in the direction of escape. I was taught this is very bad body language to get used to seeing, when you see these signs you know that the bird is ready to bite you and/or will flee away from training. Both are completely unacceptable if you are trying to make the experience easy, fun, and productive.

Think of it this way, if you have ever taken a test you know how important it is to keep a level head during the test, if you are too nervous for the test it is likely that you won't do as well as the calm and collected classmate next to you. You may answer the questions more slowly, forget to finish a few quetions, or your concentration will wander. You would not exactly choose to be in this state when taking a test if you could avoid it, so why make our birds feel this way when training? We want them to be happy, even excited to be here and work with us. In order to do this we read and interpret their body language to avoid these stressful situations. This is what I did for E.T.
E.T. progressed beautifully, three weeks into training and he was bolting to my hand at the exact second I called. Millet works wonders! We slowly, calmly and steadily took the training at his pace and as far as I can remember I could not tell you about a happier or faster learning bird. And I was happy too! Every day was an adventure and every day little E.T. would learn something new to surprise me with (well he had his down days sometimes, so I told myself he’d want to train later and he always did!).

Fly to me from the couch? Sure.

From the floor? Of course!

Fly to my brother in the covered patio? Duh!

My own frustration and anger disappeared; I became content not having to feel the need to make a bird do what I wanted it to do because it had to do it. Instead I found that E.T. did what I asked him because he wanted to do what I proposed. For the first time in a long time I felt encouraged, calm, cleverly observant and successful. The frustration and confusion was wiped away from my eyes like a wiper does for a windshield on a rainy day, I was ecstatic and wanted to show and tell everyone. And that is what I’m doing, you can’t stop me.

Copyright 2011 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog
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