1-Year Update: Partnership not Possession

Posted by Raz on Mar 26th, 2010
Mar 26

It has been a bit over a year since I started my plan to improve Carly’s outdoor flying behavior when we are confronted with many competing reinforcers. As you may recall, the main problem was her extreme sociability and tendency to fly to other people to visit, sometimes far down the beach out of sight. She had a special attraction to men with reddish hair, to the point that for a while I resorted to scanning the beach to make sure there weren’t any up ahead. She would become so distracted that all she would do is sit on them and literally stare at their faces, and fly back immediately if I took her away.

the gaze
Carly giving Roelant Jonker (reddish hair under cap) “the Gaze.”

I first set up the plan described in Carly’s Training Plan: Super-Generalizing Recall Training in January 2009. Here’s a recap of the elements I started with, some of which were part of our original training routine, and some of which were new:

  1. Daily A-B recall practice indoors or outdoors.
  2. Keep weight at lower end of normal range (450-455 g) and fly before meals.
  3. Train an “emergency recall” using a referee-type whistle that can be heard far away, signaling a jackpot treat.
  4. Use extremely favored treats (like peanut butter, gingerbread) interspersed with normal treats (nuts, seeds)
  5. Give a large end-of-session bonus treat.
  6. Fly only at the beach when there are few people, initially.
  7. Incorporate A-B recall games into our beach flying routine
  8. Add socialization outings to our weekly routine to decrease the value of flying to visit people.
  9. Be more sensitive to body language indicating a preference to stay at home rather than accompany me to work. Be more sensitive to providing choice in general.
  10. Increase foraging enrichment at home to decrease value of exploring trees, etc. (just in case that was part of the problem, as well as to help with more time on her own)

. . . . .
Now, a year later, let’s see which of these I have found the most important. First I’ll look at the ones that were part of our original training routine, or new element added, numbers 1-3. The emergency recall whistle was a helpful addition. (See blog post here.) The noise at the beach is considerable with waves and people, and my voice doesn’t carry that well. When she starts to fly fast in one direction she is down the beach before I know it. The whistle is tricky however, because you can’t use it very often without it losing it’s “specialness.” I find prevention of exploration flights is a better strategy, so the whistle isn’t overused.

Daily indoor recall practice is not as important as I thought it would be. I don’t want to discourage this because at the beginning lots and lots and lots of practice is essential to build confidence and habit. Later on it’s essential to keep indoor recall practice fun with various flying games, but I find it’s difficult to compete with freeflight where they can work up speed and really stretch their wings. Indoors I often do other types of recall, like challenging climbing/targeting games.

Food and weight management has been an interesting experience. Flying before instead of after meals is essential in order for food to have much value at all. I remember Barbara Heidenreich saying she doesn’t use weight as a training criteria, but only relies on the birds behavior and responsiveness at the beginning of a session. I honestly thought that was impossible, until I realized I was doing just that. I can tell much more about how Carly is going to behave flying outside by watching her behavior inside — responsiveness to food, interest in chewing and nesting, desire to be right with me or on me — than I can by checking her weight. She has bad days outside with low weights and good days with high weights. It’s just not that helpful. Again, I don’t recommend this at first, and if I were introducing a new behavior or very new environment I would probably make sure her weight was on the lower end of her normal range just as extra insurance. But for our normal routine I can tell much more by just observing her carefully inside and on her first flight outdoors.

The next items I tried all had to do with the recall reward, or in terms of behavior analysis, working with the consequence: what does she get for returning to me (numbers 4-5)? I always use super-treats now, mixed in with normal ones. Her interest in food rewards is noticeably higher then, so why not? However, that alone isn’t enough, as she will still get distracted socially unless we deal with….

Antecedents. I think as a culture we are so used to thinking in terms of consequences — rewards and punishments, paychecks, fines, praise, criticism — that it’s hard to even see antecedents. But for me that’s been the key to working with Carly outdoors. Antecedents are the things in the environment that precede an animal’s behavior, both distant and near in time. Let’s look at ours, numbers 6-9.

A simple antecedent is this: lots of people at the beach. When there are lots of people at the beach (Antecedent), Carly flies to people to visit (Behavior) and people hold her and talk to her (Consequence). She finds that consequence reinforcing, as shown by the fact that she repeats the behavior over and over again. It’s not possible to change the consequence, since it depends on the actions of strangers, but it another way to change behavior is to change the antecedent. Fly on the beach when there aren’t any people! Hmmm. Good in theory. But never happens. Certainly fewer people mean fewer temptations, but when she is determined to socialize it only takes a few.

Figuring out other antecedents was tricky. I wracked my brain trying to figure out WHY she insisted on visiting people. But it’s really so obvious: it’s reinforcing! In other words, she likes it. So what to do? One way you can change antecedents is to set up the environment to decrease the value of a reinforcer. Feed me lots of cake for dinner, and I probably won’t choose it for dessert. I realized I had been giving her fewer socializing opportunities since we began freeflying, thinking that our outings were enough activity to keep her enriched. But with her it’s not just activity and exercise that are required, it’s socialization. Regularly including social activities in our routine is probably the most important factor in her behavior outdoors. We go to coffee shops, pet stores, outdoor markets, patio restaurants, anywhere she can meet and greet. If she hasn’t been doing that there is a very good chance she will go visiting when we’re out flying. By not keeping that part of the routine, I was making people on the beach a highly valuable reinforcer. Incorporating “people games” into our beach routine also created a way for her to socialize in an acceptable and safe way — flying to others on cue and returning for a treat. (She can do this for half an hour at a time.)

go there
People games: A-B recall with beach visitors.

At the same time, Carly was coming with me to work almost every day, with Piper. I just assumed this was a good thing. But when I started paying attention, it was clear that she did not always want to be picked up to go, or be put in and out of the car. She would not offer her foot to step up, or be very slow about the process. I was learning more about environmental enrichment and foraging then also, and she would often be very eager to get into her cage when all the foraging items were there. To the point that she would try to sneak in early, and wouldn’t even notice as I left. (See foraging posts here.) When I let her stay home 2-3 days per week she steps up more readily, wants to be on my shoulder or sitting next to me more, and …. stays closer when we’re out flying. (Providing she’s also getting enough socializing!) You could think of this as changing the antecedent to increase the value of me as a reinforcer. Face it, you can get too much of just about anyone. I also had to realize that when it’s hectic and stressful at work, our interactions are not the most positive — we bother each other! — and it actually helps the relationship to have our separate places for those hours.

nom nom
Sometimes her little house is more interesting than the office.

Carly will still fly to visit people if we have not been socializing very much, and I have to watch her body language carefully when she is doing a lot of nesting behaviors indoors, as that seems to be a predictor of long exploration flights outside. (Warning signs: shredding and digging inside, sight focused at long distance outside and scanning horizon.) It’s a constant process of learning and observing. But when our routine is in place, she rarely notices guys with red hair anymore, and it quite happy to play the A-B recall games on the beach.

In the end, I think much of this can be summed up by Susan Friedman’s message, empowerment through choice. Giving her a choice of opportunities to socialize reduces her need to use beach outings for that purpose. Giving her choice in our daily routine reduces the likelihood of her seeing me as someone who is forcing her to do things — i.e., someone to get away from. Barbara Heidenreich’s “no force” approach to training husbandry and other behaviors is based on the same principles: create opportunities for the bird to choose the right behavior and be rewarded for it. The more that can be done in daily life, the more our relationship with our bird is partnership, not ownership. I’m more confident of a partner returning to me on the beach than a possession.

UPDATE: Simultaneous blogging! See Sid Price’s entry today for more about using antecedents instead of punishment to reduce behavior: Reducing behavior means punishment occurred… not!

Beach photos by Grace Innemee, CityParrots.org


Enrichment Corner: Ideas and Examples

Posted by Raz on Sep 2nd, 2009
Sep 2

For most birds — clipped, flighted, or even ones who freefly outdoors — a good deal of their day is spent on their own, whether in their cage, in an aviary, or alongside us as we’re busy doing other things. Enrichment is necessary for all companion birds. In the wild a great deal of their time is spent foraging through trees, bushes and for some species on the ground. As part of making connections to excellent parrot resources, this new feature will showcase some favorite sources for enrichment ideas, examples of interesting foraging setups, and visits to cool aviaries.

The first is Kris Porter’s site, ParrotEnrichment.com. Kris is the author of the enrichment bible, The Parrot Enrichment Activity Book (1st and 2nd editions) which is available there as a free download. Her web site gives many other ideas, both simple and involved, as well as short videos and tips on starting foraging activities with birds.

Enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated or costly, but providing places to climb around and search for food or other things to chew on or explore can occupy parrots happily for hours. I could not believe the difference that including food foraging in my birds’ cages and gyms made in their behavior. Not only are they busier with activities that are not destructive to my own things, but they are also much calmer overall. And it has made keeping them with me in the office at work a more relaxing experience for all involved (including my neighbors along the hall!)

Some previous foraging posts show examples of some of my birds’ favorite items. The more you think like a forager, the more you will find yourself stopping mid-toss to the trash can. Throw-away no-no’s at my house: bottle caps, small plastic bottles, small cardboard boxes, small paper bags, little hardware bags, broken toy bits, paper from the shredder. Some essential items from our local 99-Cent Store or Michael’s: tiny plastic zip-ties, sisal twine, and wooden clothespins for attaching things to toys; coffee filters for hiding things; miniature wooden boxes ($1.00!), mini ziplock bags (used for beads), unpainted wooden ornaments, and many more.

In addition, when you find yourself saying “don’t chew that!” to your little devil, is that another enrichment possibility? Your bird likes your toothbrush but you prefer to keep it to yourself? How about getting a pack of bright colored kids’ toothbrushes (make sure no metal under bristles). Always rushing to save that pen or pencil from certain death? How about saving old pens and removing the innards. Do your birds have a taste for fine literature? Phone books are quite tasteful too.

One of the main principles of applied behavior analysis is to show birds what TO do, instead of telling them what not to do. Providing an enriching environment is one of the most basic pro-active ways to prevent undesirable behaviors and keep both you and your birds more sane.


Freeflight as Enrichment

Posted by Raz on May 23rd, 2008
May 23

In response to a comment by Gay Noeth, I agree and do not think people should undertake outdoor flight training just because they want a better life for their bird. Even a bird who is free-flighted spends most of its time indoors, and that life also needs to be enriching, filled with exercise opportunities, and choice. The friends I know who do freefly do it with an interest that borders on obsession. It takes over our weekends, our vacations, and our social life. It’s not something that’s just a casual pastime, like walking a dog. It’s also no guarantee of a better life, if it’s not done safely or if their life indoors is too restrictive. I have seen some home setups and aviaries that I would move into myself if I could!

Anyone who tries to guilt trip pet owners into feeling they must freefly their bird, such as the widely circulated “press release” by Birdtricks.com which is headlined, “Thousands Inflict Animal Cruelty On Their Parrot“, is at best morally indifferent. Considering the advertisement goes on to say that their intent is to teach pet owners how to freefly their parrot with a series of videos which demonstrate poor, rushed, and inconsistent training technique from a total novice in bird training, it is outright reckless. I can think of no reason to publicize this kind of thing with an “animal cruelty” press release, other than to drum up business at the expense of pet parrots.

My primary interest is seeing companion birds’ lives as enriched and “natural” as possible, so they can be birds, not toys. I think keeping birds flighted is a very large part of that, and freeflight is wonderful. But to this day one of the most exciting training events Carly and I have had together was when she did that first voluntary jump-flap off the counter, when she had barely any flight feathers. If I could see more people experience this kind of interaction with their birds, I would be a very happy camper indeed!