Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Jojo's a Dirty Bird!

Jojo learned this cute trick today! He's a little slow because of all the peanut butter he ate!


I taught Jojo this trick through capturing a behavior.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Kenny Coogan, Animal Trainer Interview.

Kenny Coogan is an animal trainer and educator for Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. He runs a weekly Sunday column "Critter Companions" for three NY based newspapers which cover all aspects of companion animals such as enrichment, training, showing, product reviews and non profit interviews. Subscribe to his articles on Facebook.

Tell us about yourself Kenny, how did you become interested in animals?

I became interested in animals when I was a really small child. My parents got me a black cat and after a year I got another cat, some hermit crabs, fish and cockatiels and it really expedited the experience when I was in 4th or fifth grade and got three english call ducks. Call ducks are a domestic breed which only weigh one pound when they are fully grown and they are used in England to call other birds. Hunters use them to shoot the other, wild ducks. So usually (hunters) will form like a line with their call ducks in a pond and the females are really loud and vocal and then all these wild ducks start coming, so they use them for "bait".

And those three ducks led to two more ducks, which led to chickens and geese. Every couple of years I would get more and show them at state fairs and county fairs, I became a member of the Western New York Poultry Association so every month we would meet and talk about chickens and ducks and how we would show them and what to look for when breeding.

I grew up in a town called Wheatfield, we had about an acre so we had land. Behind us was a very big field and behind that there was a creek and a park so it was very country-esque. It deffinetly aided my animal track in the zoological field.

When I was around 11 years old I started volunteering at the aquarium up in Niagara, I was one of the youngest volunteers they've ever had, I was a volunteer there until about 16 and was hired about 16. When I started volunteering I started doing the touch tanks and members classes and sleepovers (as the instructor not the participant). I knew I wanted to be an animal trainer and I wanted to do mostly birds. The aquarium only had penguins so I did a lot of stuff with the penguins.

Then I went to college and created my own major because they didn't have any animal related majors at the college. So with the help of two professors I created my own major. The major I created was called "Animal Behavior" so I'm a bachelor laureate of science in Animal Behavior.

A month before graduation I applied for a full-time position as an animal care specialist at Buffalo Zoo in New York and got hired. Three days after I graduated I started working full-time as the head person who took care of the education animals. I trained the animals for summer shows and handled the in-house outreach programs for the zoo. These were animals that people would often have as pets like rabbits, ferrets, chinchillas, english call ducks, lizards, snakes, a blue and gold macaw, senegal parrot, barn owl, great horned owl and a harris hawk.

I now have a job as an animal ambassador trainer for Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo where I host bird of prey shows, host the manatee talk, and present in-house mingles and outreaches.

Do kids come to you after shows seeking career advice? If so what do you tell them?

People often come up after the show (and I tell them) that you have to put your time in and volunteer and get as many vocational experiences as possible through interning with animals or without animals (as long as your in) any animal related field. We've had this conversation and we've given this speech many times to visitors where we all have a different points of view, where my experience differs from my co-worker's.

At-home pet experience is a good step at which to start volunteering at a zoo or aquarium. I haven't found that interning takes precedence over volunteering, as long as you've had the experience. I've had maybe a year of interning for college credit, and I think that's the difference from interning and volunteering is college credit. So interning they hold you accountable for writing a paper [as part of the school credit].

My job now encompasses animal husbandry five out of eight hours a day, two hours of public speaking and maybe an hour of training. Leading up to this point it has been an accumulation of experiences including time at the aquarium doing the touch tanks, sleepovers, and doing the member's program.

What is you philosophy about training animals?

My philosophy for training animals is I want to have the best relationship, the most trusting relationship with my animals, so I'll use the least coercion.

So [when training an animal] just ask yourself this one question "Are you adding something to increase the behavior, or maintain the behavior?" because all the other options are that you're taking away something that it likes, which is not going to be constructive to your relationship. Or, the other alternative, is that you're adding or taking away something it doesn't like. So If you're adding something to increase the behavior that's good, and then if you think "Oh I'm just taking away something that it likes then it's not going to look fondly upon me". And you can add scratches, rub-downs, petting, access to toys. Signs of comfort is when birds rouse, bent down their neck and move closer to you their eyes are not pinning, and what you shouldn't look for is pinning, excessive vocalizing, slicked feathers, real tall body posture, flapping, trying to locamote away from you.

[Kenny gives an example on his training philosophy with chickens trained for the zoo show.]

Most people don't realize that by picking up a chicken you are using coercion because the chicken cannot decide whether or not to be picked up. Our training team realized that and stationed trained all of our chickens so that it would be easier to teach them to step up on our hands so that the chickens would not have to be picked up against their will. We train out chickens the same way we train our very expensive Macaws because it matters what kind of relationship you have with an animal.

What has/have been your most challenging training situation(s)?

The good news about working at a zoological institution is that your co-workers and you all have the same goal, we have the same concept in mind so we can all reinforce what we really want [out of a bird]. We all agree on the training goal and the training plan. My biggest problems don't usually occur with the animal it usually occurs with the caregiver. In New York I did teach 13 adult education classes as an individual consultant: Enrichment on a Shoestring, Intro to Animal Learning and Training, and Parrots as Pets.

 I had the biggest problems in Intro to Animal Learning and Training. The owners had preconceived notions about training in general. An older couple, maybe in their 60's, had several Maine Coons. They wanted to show these maine coons and they needed to train them to be exhibit animals. So they would have them in kennels, the judges would take them out of their kennels and prop them up on the table and feel them and measure them and be handled by strangers. Most of their cats were good except for this one cat who was very large, like 40 lbs, and it would hiss and growl every time someone would try to remove the animal from its carrier. This was on a Wednesday night and they said they needed it to be fixed by this coming Saturday for the show. So in situations where the humans are inflexible that's one of the most difficult training situations.

Another one was when doing one of the parrot seminars a woman, when I went to her house, had a blue and gold macaw and she was having behavioral problems such as biting and extensive screaming. It only happened when she was home and not her husband. So her and her husband were not on the same page, they were reinforcing different behaviors which is another example.

So if you want to be a consultant or you just want to fix your pet's undesirable behavior you have to make sure everyone in the household is on the same page.

If you saw someone using aversives on their dog as a training tool what would your reaction be and would you say anything? What would you want that person to know?

My reaction to aversive dog training? I see it a lot and we're talking about choke collars, e collars, any restraint, any harness, electric fences, so I see it a lot. I don't think I would be able to say to every person walking their dog, who is being dragged by their dog or who are dragging their own dog to address all these problems. But I understand why they do it because the tugging the pulling, the shocking, may seem like you are fixing the behavior quicker than using the positive reinforcement method. You don't need to have treats on you, you [already] have your hand or the collar readily available so I understand why people do it but I would also advise that it is very negative to your relationship and that you are taking a lot of trust away from that animal and there are a lot of different ways for them to positively reinforce that animal. And you don't have to have treats you can have pets, scratches, rubs on the ears to reinforce a behavior. And you don't need a clicker, you can just as easily click your tongue [to bridge a behavior].

What do you want pet owners to know about animal behavior and/or training?

I think a problem that pet caregivers have it that they say "I don't want my pet to do this behavior"
and then they don't think further into the problem. But what they need to say "I want my pet to do this behavior instead". So if you don't want your cat to jump on a table, if you don't want your bird to chew on something thats not good enough. You can't just stop that behavior because you haven't taught your pet what [i]to do[/i]. So you need to be able to communicate to that pet what it is that you want it to do. Instead of squirting a cat with water to get off the table you give him treats to sit on the chair next to the table. Find something that they want and add that to the situation to help your pet understand what to do.

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Jojo has taken keen interest in a particular brown paper bag that's laying in the house.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

People Are Not Reinforced, Behaviors Are!

Behaviorist know something a lot of people don't. It's a simple idea really, but one that holds true in every instance. They know that people, children, mental health patients, dogs, cats, iguanas, mice, goldfish, horses, marine toads, turtles, rabbits, sharks, sting rays, dolphins, quail, goats, elephants, giraffes, crows, geese, foxes, gemsbok, kudu (need I name more?) act according to a set of rules. These rules have already been laid out for us in pretty plain language by the pioneering fathers of the scientific field, Behaviorism. Behavior analysis deals with understanding and working with the consequences given as a result of an individual's behavior. And this is where reinforcement comes in.

They also know that you can reinforce a person's behavior because reinforcing a person is impossible!

How so you ask? Reinforcement means to provide a consequence that increases the likeliness a behavior will happen in the future from a person or animal. With understanding that we can now understand why a person cannot be reinforced, a person cannot "happen more in the future" what a nonsensical phrase!

We can however, say that a person's behavior is reinforced. Stating a person is involved helps behaviorists to organize who the behavior belongs to. Which leads me to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a bad bird, only bad behavior which can be changed.

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog


Miltenberger, Raymond. Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. 5th. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2011. 1-16. Print. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

What Jojo Has Learned

Training a large 30+ year old Moluccan Cockatoo with an unknown history a trainer has to be very careful when working with a bird where over 22 out of his 30 years are missing. It could spell disaster for the unprepared and uncautious person.

Cockatoos, Moluccans in particular, can cause serious injuries to the people around them. I do not wish go into much detail as to what kind of damage they can cause, you are better off googling that yourself. Jojo has had at least two serious incidences where he has bitten someone, the rest is unfortuetly unknown.

Fostering Jojo for almost a month now I have gone without incident of a bite and I hope to keep it that way. 

Being cautious as a trainer means respecting the animal's desires. If I find that Jojo doesn't want to step up onto a perch I respect that and back off at the first sign of discomfort I see. I work on building a relationship with the animal's under my care and you can't have a relationship without communication and respect. Caution breeds respect which forms from communication leading to a strong relationship.

So Jojo is scared of stepping up onto a perch (and hands for that matter) and given his unknown history I'm not going to handle him if there is a possibility of getting severely bitten. It's just not smart! Is Jojo just going to sit in his cage for the rest of his life? How can I possibly respect his wish to not step up and not get bitten in the process? Through baby steps and lots of reinforcers.

Over the course of a week I learned what Jojo likes the most; attention, tug of war, spoons, phone books, eggs, warm oatmeal (or anything warm and mushy) and pretty much whatever I'm eating. I used these to my advantage in training Jojo with baby steps to stepping up. First step was clicker association, then target training in the cage, leading to target training out of the cage where I can then start introducing a perch.

My training plan looked something like this:


Target in and out of the cage

Target onto free standing perch

Target to perch with my hand near the perch

Target to perch with hand on perch

Move perch a little with hand 

Move perch in larger succsessions over time

Target to hand holding dowel perch 

Highlighted in green is what Jojo currently knows. He learned to step up onto the free standing perch today (yay!) and tomorrow I'll introduce my hand. It looks like a lot of steps to learn one behavior, but that's only because I had to write it all out into a list. In reality birds can pick up behaviors quckly and often skip steps in a training plan like this. They are intellegent animals after all, if you didn't know. :-)

By taking baby steps and respecting the animals we care for by reading their body language and responding approprately, we can have successful relationships with the animals we have been endowed with.

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ready for Cuteness?

Oh how I miss having a little bird zipping through the house. This guy is having his own pool party!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Jojo is on Flickr!

In my effort to keep this blog up to date I now have a place to put all the photo's of Jojo that I am beginning to amass on my cameras.

Jojo made a milestone with training today, he stepped up onto a perch outside his cage! Given Jojo's fear of people holding perches (even perches just laying around!) this is a big step for him! Tomorrow I'll need to hold this perch with my hand while it's still attached to the stair railing.

Yeah, that's my stair railing! I goofed in the process of making a t-stand for Jojo, so I ad-libbed this perch because he was ready for training before the stand was!

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Target Training: A Lesson in Flexibility

Exactly two weeks ago I was getting revved up and excited about bringing home my first foster bird for Florida Parrot Rescue. I only heard a little about how Jojo, a 30+ year old Moluccan Cockatoo, might adjust once he came to my home, even though the questions I asked were many. What I did get to hear was that Jojo was said to be quiet for a cockatoo, didn't know how to step up onto anything other than a stick, wasn't a total cuddle bug, and was very shy.

Before bringing in Jojo to my home I made a list of things to buy as well as things to teach Jojo so that he can become more adoptable. While my coordinator said Jojo was trained to step up onto a stick it was clear from my visit that Jojo was terrified of the idea! By brandishing a stick at Jojo to step up you could see from his body language that the stick only functioned as an aversive for him. I refuse to use aversives with my birds because of my strong ethical stance and the nasty amount of side-effects that go with training birds with aversives, Learned Helplessness being one possibility.

The list of what to teach Jojo is long and I doubt all of it can be taught over the rest of the summer, but baby steps are the best anyway! The first thing that seems obvious to train Jojo right away is to step up. Some people train birds to step up by grabbing them out of the cage, placing the bird on their hand and forcing them to step up by knocking the bird off-balance with the other hand until they comply with the step-up "command". This often leads to birds fearing hands and running away from them and/or learning to bite a person's hand. Again, this is because the person is really using their hands as an aversive and now those nasty side effects I mentioned come into play in the form of biting and running away. Again, I respect my birds and avoid using aversives.

So how can a bird learn to step up without using said aversives? By learning target training! Target training, when done right, avoids using aversives and helps build a stronger relationship based on trust. The use of aversives builds a relationship based on fear, which isn't a pleasant thought for our birds.

Because Jojo is such a large intimidating bird with a really big beak I though that a good target stick to use would be a spare parakeet dowel perch I had lying around. Well, not exactly. Remember the history Jojo has with sticks? He's scared of them, and apparently downsizing to a parakeet sized stick still gave him the heebie-jeebies! After three days of simply showing him the stick for a split second, bridging and rewarding, Jojo never really settled down when he saw the stick. So I ditched it and thought of another strategy.

I thought that having Jojo follow my closed fist would offer him a chance to start learning a target behavior. I didn't however want him to touch my hand with his beak. Again he is a really big bird with a really powerful beak with an unknown history, I wouldn't want anything to happen to my hand. Even if it was a tiny bird there is always the chance that I might accidentally teach a bird to bite my hand if I asked them to touch it as a target. So to prevent this possibility all I required of Jojo was to get close to my hand.  It worked for a little while but caused problems when I asked him to target in unusual places in the cage. I'm guessing it's because he did not have to touch my hand, just get relatively close to it. So I changed my strategy once again.

This time I was equipped with popsicle sticks! Left over bits from toys which he took to swimmingly. It wasn't hard from him to get the idea that by touching the tip of the small stick he would get a small bit of egg, walnut, or other food item. Jojo is a natural chewing monster and when I first offered him the popsicle stick he reached for it thinking it was another toy for him to shred. Easy!

Today is only the second day using the popsicle sticks and Jojo is consistently, quickly, and confidently following the target anywhere in his cage. Maybe tomorrow we can practice going in and out of the cage. That would be pretty cool.

Training requires a flexible knowledge of behavior theory and changing goals and expectations based on what our student is telling us. Yes, I could have insisted that Jojo learn to target from the parakeet dowel, but that would have set us back for a while.

Stay flexible!

Copyright 2011 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Winds of Change

I'm typing on my computer in my dining room, under the dim yellow glow of an incandescent light bulb contemplating the future content of this blog.

My desire for this tiny quadrant of the internet is for it to become a well respected and trusted resource that interprets hard to understand concepts of science (of parrots and birds) and to better involve and educate the public in specific scientific fields, discussions and research. But few people really seem to care about truly understanding and applying scientific concepts when they find out it's from "researchers in the scientific community". They go on and whine that their eyes glaze over when terms and definitions are discussed. They make excuses that "I'm not a scientist and cannot understand all the terms" or even better, they put the blame on the teachers and say that they need to use simpler language to understand anything.

Why all the fuss? What is it that makes these people so scared of attempting to learn something new?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Just Jojo Photos

Take some time to look at a pink bird today. Can you see him smiling?

Jojo's First 24 Hours

He's here! Jojo the Moluccan Cockatoo is sleeping in my living room on the highest, full length hardwood perch in his powder coated, midnight black cage, occasionally nibbling on his psychedelically colored bird toy. 

Jojo is like any cockatoo; he chews, he screams, he makes a little mess. But Jojo is also shy. When we first visited Jojo it was easy to tell he was scared. Walking past his cage will earn you a quick cockatoo hisss paired with a flare of flamingo pink crest feathers. Knowing this I wanted to do my best to prevent this reaction when he came home so that our relationship can build faster. My solution? A cockatoo hut!

Getting ready for Jojo's homecoming. Clear plastic shower  curtain protecting the wall , cardboard hut, and storage containers filled with toys and food.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cockatoo On The Way!

So in the next 15 minutes I will be on my way to visit my first foster bird from Florida Parrot Rescue. I have fostered a couple birds from a smaller rescue before, so I am somewhat familiar with what I'm getting into. But those two birds were an Alexandrine Parakeet and a Cockatiel, smaller birds. This time around it's going to be a bit larger.

I'll be leaving to see a large pink bird by the name of Jo-jo. And Jo-jo happens to be a Moluccan Cockatoo.

A Moluccan Cockatoo at Parrot Jungle Island Miami (now Jungle Island) (c)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Personal Bird, Achilles!

Achilles is my female Lutino Cockateil Nymphicus Hollandicus and is currently about 3.5 years old. I adopted her with no name and knew she was a female before I gave her such a masculine name. I did this because it just fit her story so perfectly, because of her "Achilles's Heel" that put her up for adoption...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What's an Aversive?

For those of you who have read blogs addressing animal training you may have run across the word "aversive." When I first came across this word my eyes became glazed over with extra water produced by my tear glands in an attempt to continue reading the article without actually knowing what I was reading about.

But I was wasting my tears! An aversive isn't a very complicated thing and by the end of this post you will have no trouble explaining what an aversive is and how to spot one.

An Aversive is a term extracted from a field of science called Behavior Modification (also known as Applied Behavior Analysis). Like a specialized hummingbird flitting from flower to flower in Martha Stuart's Vineyard, you are getting just a taste of nectar from a single petunia within the field of behavior modification.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The End of a Great Adventure at IAATE

What an event! It stayed filled to the brim like a fresh stout of beer with unending new ideas and innovative people acting as the rich bubbly foam popping very silently, confident and consistently.

Yes. I just compared IAATE to beer. And I was encouraged to do it! It is just one of the many new things I learned here at this amazing conference as part of the Presentation Skills workshop. But learning doesn't stop at workshops and lectures, it continues when you meet the people of IAATE.  Let the photos help explain.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Animal Collections!

I've been getting curious with some pretty gross stuff lately and The Brain Scoop hasn't been helping!
I'm a fairly active member in my college's Biology club and jumped at the opportunity to help maintain their herpatology collection!
Here we are sorting, filling, and oogling at the massive quantities of dead snakes, tortises, lizards and eggs! Each with their own unique dazzling scales or foreign patterns.
And there is still more to finish. I hope I can tag along next time!

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reinforcement: Class Update

It is the fourth week of behavior modification class and I'm learning a few new things! I'll point them out to you as we review what Reinforcement and Extinction (and no I don't mean dinosaurs!) have to do with behavior.

Lets say my roommate rarely does the dishes (well its true) and I wanted for him to increase how often he does the dishes. As we learned last week when we want a behavior to occur more often but it is not occurring as much as we would like, it to it is called behavioral deficit. Whereas if the cleaning behavior occurred too much we would call it occurring in behavioral excess (wouldn't that be nice!?).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


I've been busy with exams these past two weeks and have chosen to forgo dedicating time to you guys over here. But fear not as next week the tough exams are over! Only then will I dedicate a little time to the shenanagians in this small corner of the world.
Until then fly a little higher every day!

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Third Week of Behavior Modification Class

So at the beginning of the semester I stated I would update everyone on whats happening in my Behavior Modification class. My goal is to keep a record of what I learn about what real behavior modification is and the proper way to apply it (think teaching a roommate to clean the dishes regularly and stupid pet tricks). Hoping that the readers of this blog will be able to apply a little of what they have learned from here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Introduction to the Field of Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification is a relatively new field of expertise (started around the 1950's). Despite this it has shown to be a high roller in the game of teaching, learning and training. It flaunts it's far reaching effects in diverse fields such as Business, Education and Rehabilitation taking the people who choose to play the game to new heights of success.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Old Semester and New Semester Goals!

By now you should be fully aware that I am a college student as well as an animal trainer. My study habits had been a bit lacking the past few semesters and I wanted to increase the time I spent studying while simultaneously decreasing the time spent on Facebook and YouTube.

Using the concept of a token economy I gleamed from a wonderful book by Steven Ray Flora, I increased my study time from approximately three hours a day to nearly nine! Who knew that learning how to train Polly to raise her wings can also help in practical life situations?

This semester I'm ahead of the game with the knowledge and skills of a study plan.
I'm also signed up for an amazing class that I've been dying to take even before picking up my Psych minor, Behavior Modification. My first class starts today and the teacher seems very prepared for the coming onslaught of students. This is a class I am very excited for and hope to keep this blog filled with whatever shenanigans go down in it. I hope to summarize class discussions weekly and how those concepts apply to bird and animal training.

Get excited!

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

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