A few thoughts on hard-sell parrot “training” marketing.
Don't Be Bird-Tricked
Hard-sell "amazing training secrets" videos and tips offer quick, one-size-fits-all fixes for parrot behavior problems that are as individual as parrots themselves. Some make the claim that parrot trainers are "shocked" by their material, and they're right -- just not in the positive sense of the word. The marketers of this material have no known credentials in the professional bird training community. The material they present frequently attempts to "parrot" (for lack of a better word) the training materials of well known educators in the companion parrot community. However, their understanding of the science behind what they mimic is shallow, as evidenced by their presentation of conflicting methods within the same material. Some of these include various forms of "flooding" where a bird is exposed to something it considers aversive so the bird "gets used to it" (a problem for which there are other more positive and trust-building methods readily available) as well as introducing a bird into situations for which it is ill-prepared with the idea that anything it gets through makes it stronger.
The flight training that is espoused in their videos takes this approach, which instead of empowering birds through positive choices, forces them to deal with things that are frightening or unpleasant. Very early in the training the bird in the video is literally thrown up in the air against its will early in order to achieve a "fly back" to the trainer. The bird is just over 3 months old, too young to even be weaned. When taken outside, instead of a methodical program of building up the bird's confidence gradually, 50 foot flights are attempted on the second day, before the bird has the ability to control its flight or landing. These are methods that no reputable bird trainer in the country endorses. In addition, the method they present depends on purchasing an unweaned baby bird, which is cared for by an inexperienced hand feeder, a practice illegal in the state of California. Working with this "baby bond" is supposed to reduce the need for conscientious recall training; however, baby bonds do not last forever, and good training will be needed regardless as the bird grows up. A recent column on the World Parrot Trust web site, Experts and Answers, addresses the adoption of unweaned baby birds (in this case the bird was an unweaned Grey about 4 months old):
"I noticed that Dr. Brian Speer has responded to another question you submitted concerning an appropriate diet for an unweaned African Grey. It is important that we continue to reinforce to the parrot owning community just how completely inappropriate it is to purchase a parrot as young as this. This is perhaps the most critical stage of development in a parrot's life. A time where it needs to be socialised with other parrots, provided opportunities to forage, explore its environment, develop its flight skills, muscle tone and coordination, and given time to properly develop its independence. Breeders need to be challenged to ensure that each of these absolutely essential experiences have been catered for prior to being sold." -- Jim McKendry, free-flight bird trainer and parrot behavior specialist at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Australia.
A good breeder can provide the social environment needed with other birds, the space to develop and practice basic flight skills, as well as the feeding care required for a healthy transition to independence. If a breeder you select will not allow a bird to fledge naturally, keep looking!
For anyone interested in bird behavior, training or free flight, there are many excellent resources. At the top of the list are:
Some of their blog posts also provide information on how to select good training material:
For a list of many other bona-fide parrot training aids, please see Training Resources links. If in doubt, please contact any of these sources and ask questions. Reputable trainers rarely engage in hard-sell tactics. If it sounds too good or too easy to be true, it probably is!
UPDATE: 27 May 2008
I intentionally did not mention anyone by name in the above post so readers could draw their own conclusions, but Dave Womach of Birdtricks.com contacted me to say that he does have education and training in animal behavior, from unnamed “zoos around the world.” He just didn’t want to brag about his credentials.
Every experienced trainer that I know and respect has been aghast at the training technique in these videos. And last week a gentleman lost his African Grey after seeing the videos, which emphasize the “bond” with your bird, and deciding to try it himself.
This is the latest version of the Birdtricks.com “animal rights” press release, from PRWeb.com. This was released today,after the loss of the African Grey has been widely publicized.
Thousands Inflict Animal Cruelty On Their Parrot
Birdtricks.com shows how the common practice of clipping a pet parrot’s wings causes severe emotional damage to pet birds, and how a new method of raising pet birds allows pet bird owners a way to let their birds fly freely outside, but still come back when you call them. This gives them all the exercise nature intended them to have, and provides dramatic amounts of emotional stimulus.
Birdtricks.com has shown clipping causes severe emotional damage?? (Their new research division?) Guilt-tripping people into trying to freefly their bird, especially using the unweaned baby bird method, in my opinion borders on a disgusting disregard of ethics.
Also, this part of their press release explicitly states that the Cressi videos Tui’s owner watched are intended to teach people how to freefly their bird, contrary to claims that they are just posted to demonstrate what they have done:
In an effort to teach parrot owners how to use positive reinforcement to train their birds for lasting results and an end to bad behaviors like screeching, biting, and feather plucking, Birdtricks.com has documented a case study of how they used positive reinforcement to train their Congo African Grey to safely fly outside, including videos and pictures of the entire process.
This all just makes me sick. I am all for keeping birds flighted, but it is unethical in the extreme to advocate it for everyone on the grounds that not doing so is animal cruelty. Pushing people to do this whose birds are not ready for it, or who may not be up for it themselves, will result in losses — THAT is animal cruelty.
This kind of advertising is just morally depraved.
UPDATE: 12 June 2008
See also: Training Review Scam