Piper Comes Out!

Posted by Raz on Sep 1st, 2011
2011
Sep 1
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My boy Piper is growing up and getting used to the world. He is the one I rarely took out because he behaved so skittishly around new people or environments, and has shown little interest in going with us. (No flying to the door to come along, like Carly does.) I decided early on to just let him take things at his own pace, and I didn’t know if he’d ever change his preferences. Now he and Carly love the new digs, and both want to be outside all the time. They play outside on the stairs, we do training down in the courtyard every evening, and they can hang out in the trees. I think the way it is semi-enclosed felt comfortable to Piper. However, he has also become a great fan of flying in the nearby park — big rambunctious flights, high and fast, with lots of screaming. For some reason he has never had a big problem with learning to fly down, even though he hasn’t been outside that much. He will often make a few passes if he gets going too fast, but doesn’t hesitate to take the plunge. Perhaps flying like a kamakaze inside my old apartment got him over the fear of crashing. (He certainly crashed often enough.)

In addition to the flying, he is becoming friendly with new people. The other day he was seriously flirting with a neighbor woman on the stairs. We’re talking kisses and the whole nine yards. Fergus the cat was getting quite pissed off at the shift in attention. He is also getting much more comfortable around men, as well as larger groups, and he often goes with Carly and I to the neighborhood pub now. Here they are making out on the stairs:

makeout

His behavior change seems to be closely related to the new environment, though I’m not sure exactly why. But I think we’re all happier and more relaxed here, so that may have something to do with it. I would not have thought that moving away from a large, suburban greenbelt area into the heart of the city would be an improvement from the birds’ perspective, but this little piece of garden heaven in the city is unique.

And did I mention there are palm nuts on the property?! (That’s the tree in the background, one of many in the neighborhood.)

palm nut

As with Carly, I’m glad that I let him take his time with this and “come out” when he felt comfortable. He is actually the same age now as she was when she first started flying at the beach. She showed no interest in getting off my shoulder there for 3 years, including 6 months when she was flying outside at home. It is possible both could have been pushed harder in their training to acclimate sooner, but I personally find it much more interesting, and respectful of the animal, to let them find their own pace. We’re not doing a show, and this is all about their enrichment, not mine. I must say though, it is great to get madman Piper doing some vigorous flying, for the sanity of the whole household!

Playing on the stairs… (Piper goofing, Carly sneaking, Fergus being sneaked upon.)

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1-Year Update: Partnership not Possession

Posted by Raz on Mar 26th, 2010
2010
Mar 26
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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

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Harness Training — Going with the Flow!

Posted by Raz on Jul 26th, 2009
2009
Jul 26
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I had an unexpected breakthrough tonight with Piper on the harness. If you’ve been following the blog you know that Piper developed a dislike of his previous harness which had an over-the-head loop. So we stopped using it and have been training a new design (shown here). It’s been slow going, but we were to the point where he would walk up to the end of his perch, have me put the strap around his neck and fasten it, and put the belly strap under one wing and through the back strap. We’ve been doing this for awhile, and whenever he showed any sign of wanting it off, off it came. So tonight, after a very lazy day, I went to do our usual short session before our dinner time recall training, and we got to the usual point. He seemed very keen on his sprouted sunflower seed treats, and not paying much attention to the harness, so I decided to take it a step further and go for the strap under his other wing. That went fine. So I gave him big bonuses — handful of sprouted seeds, and he still was fine. So then I fastened the belly strap also, and gave him another handful of sprouts. Still fine! I kept feeding him his sprouts for several minutes, while carrying him around on his harness.

This surprised me but it shows how you just have to go with the flow of what the bird is presenting you. If an opportunity shows itself, take it. And if you are making big breakthroughs, give big bonuses! (Heck, even on little breakthroughs I give big bonuses.) But tonight I gave him almost his whole dinner while on the harness. My plan is to keep doing this for the next week or so: harness training combined with his whole dinner.

Here he is while eating dinner out of my hand (sorry for the blur — trying to work iPhone with one hand while feeding!)

piper-harness-july09

This comes at a very good time, because he has become very interested in exploring the outdoors now (trying to follow me out the front door) and getting quite relaxed walking at the beach. So I was planning to start working A-B recalls on the harness at the beach this week.

So of course this warranted a celebration. Witness the fate of probably the last surviving blood orange of the season in southern California:

harness-celebration

Training note: Piper is being trained at at-lib weight. His indoor recall is excellent, more reliable even than Carly’s. He is just over one year old, and it is not recommended to restrict weight on parrots less than a year old. His weight range now is only slightly higher than when he arrived at 4 months old, and he is in good condition from flying a lot indoors, so this is a good range to work with. His response to training does not warrant any change. Acclimation to the outdoor environment is something that can be done without weight reduction, as it is an entirely separate issue than food motivation. Comfort with the environment is one of the major elements in the list of factors that should be considered when training a new behavior, and it is far up the list from weight reduction.

My position with regards to outdoor training is that you go at the pace the bird himself sets, whether that is a matter of flight skills, recall response, comfort with the environment, or eagerness to fly in the first place. I am doing this for the enrichment and benefit of Piper. I’m sure Carly would love to have him as a flying companion, but first and foremost, they enjoy each other as indoor companions, which is where they spend the vast majority of their time. I feel no need at all to push the pace of training. African Greys can live to be 40-70 years old. Piper is 16 months!

Complete Harness Training Series.

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2009
Jul 9
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I’d like to address the topic of freeflight training for pet birds in a bit broader context than “how to.” After thinking about this for some time, I want to elaborate on a stance that seems contradictory to this blog, even hypocritical. And that is that I don’t advocate it except under very rare circumstances. I have been saying since the beginning of this blog that I feel it’s necessary to have a professional mentor one on one, in person, before attempting outdoor training, even though I didn’t have that kind of mentoring before I started flying Carly outside. But I think I need to clarify why that is my position.

In brief, what it boils down to is that it is much, much more complicated than it first appears, and it is almost impossible for someone to evaluate a trainer’s level of skill, or the bird’s level of skill, without being there in person and having a lot of interaction with both.

As well as the challenges of starting out (making the indoor-outdoor transition is a BIG one), there are continuing challenges when freeflying, especially when dealing with a very uncontrolled environment where the bird is not doing strictly cued A-B type flying. My goal has always been to let Carly fly as long as I can do it without excessive risk. That means having an excellent recall, so she can be called back if she gets too far away or if I see a predator or other danger before she does. (Yes, sometimes I do see it first, and she can be called back.)

These challenges have required using different training concepts, many of which I was completely unaware when I started out. Freeflight requires taking the training mindset into every single daily behavior, not just during recall practice. Flying to you – instead of sitting in a tree, flying somewhere else, exploring, etc. – is one of the most basic trust-requiring behaviors. Without that background of trust and self-empowerment in all daily interactions, it’s much more likely you will have a bird literally avoiding you when outdoors, either by taking “unapproved” excursions, sitting in trees and refusing to come down, or having actual flyoffs. You have to be THE most positive thing in their environment, every time you go outside, no matter what you encounter. Building this trust involves everything from seemingly tiny things (not compelling a bird to step up in your home) to much more obvious ones (not tossing the bird or refusing to let it land when outdoors.)

Here are some of the things I think were critical in allowing me to begin and continue to freefly, so far. And I say “so far” because there are always new challenges that can present themselves, or unexpected dangers that occur. And they will be different for every single bird.

This is long, and I’m not going to try to pare it down, because the point is, this is not simple!

  • Time I was fortunate to have a bird that was not already fledged. This may seem counterintuitive, but in my case it gave me time to get my training and behavior skills up to speed. I spent 9 months training Carly before her flight feathers had grown in enough for outdoor flight to be safe. (Note: her lack of fledging was more than compensated for by an eagerness to learn new skills, something that may not be true for all birds.)
  • Repetition During those 9 months we practiced recall twice daily, every day, for about 10-20 minutes per session. Talk about repetition! By the time we went outside she was a recall machine.
  • Confidence The repetitions from 9 months of training gave us a lot of mutual confidence, so much that Carly has really never done a panic flight from being startled. At most, it is just up a short distance and back to me. The same applies to when she has been involved in bad chases, such as the one with a huge flock of ravens. She did not fly away, she flew fast and evasively, and got back to me as soon as she possibly could.
  • Food management, not food deprivation All Carly’s indoor training was done with scheduled meals, with no weight reduction. When we transitioned outdoors I brought her weight down very slightly (2-3%) for a short time. I usually now fly within a small range of her at-lib weight (455-462 g). There are those who advocate no food or weight management, and those who advocate overly extreme food/weight management. I was fortunate to find information about how to use it intelligently and appropriately.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Parrots class and other writings have been incredibly valuable, even more so than I could have imagined when I started. I didn’t take LLP until the summer when I was first training Carly outdoors, and frankly much of it didn’t seem “new” or all that important to that training at first. But with each passing month, and the more I learned about ABA, the more I have used it. I credit that knowledge with single-handedly enabling me to continue to free fly Carly despite some very tough training challenges.
  • Behavior is Science! See above. There is a right and wrong way to train and interact with our birds, if our goal is well-adjusted, confident animals.
  • Input from mentors & experts I did not have the luxury of a local professional for advice and evaluation, but I made use of every contact I could, every group, blog, seminar, workshop, or even just the chance to observe expert trainers in action (as I’ve been taking ample advantage of with NEI at the San Diego Zoo recently). It’s not just at the beginning, but continuously, and not just reading or watching, but thinking and asking “how does this apply to situations I’ve encountered?” These are worth mentioning by name:
    • Dr Susan Friedman, Utah State University. Always asks the hard questions and teaches that what we do with our birds every minute of every day is training. It is important to understand behavior and work with it on that level for our relationship with our birds, and with outdoor flight it’s critical. Web site: BehaviorWorks.org
    • Barbara Heidenreich, of Good Bird Inc. Seeing her work with birds at a seminar concurrent with taking Susan’s LLP class was like seeing a live demonstration of ABA in action. A pivotal moment for me. Her Good Bird Magazine is a storehouse of good training info.
    • Sid Price, of Avian Ambassadors. Sid has become a good friend and his input and observations on training questions has been insightful. He has also taken an interest in the companion parrot world, which he advises through his Bird Behavior Blog with thoughtful posts on a variety of topics.
    • Steve Martin & Natural Encounters Inc. I have not had much direct interaction with Steve, but his talks and articles, and those of the other NEI trainers, have been an invaluable resource. Articles are posted on the NEI web site that are must-reads for understanding parrot-human interaction, as well as training techniques. What’s in It For Me is something we should all be asking ourselves (on behalf of our parrots) all the time. Watching training for their current show is also like a live ABA demo.
    • Various friends who freefly well: Hillary Hankey, Wendy Craig, and Ellen Aparacio were all influences for the better, just by watching how sensitively they interact with their birds and how they think through behavioral issues.
  • The right bird for the job Although Carly was clipped as a baby, she has always been assertive and calm, which are two wonderful qualities in an outdoor freeflyer. I always think of the word “unflappable” which seems odd to use with a bird. I don’t know if it is an innate personality trait, or if her early upbringing played a role too. I made sure to keep her well socialized and always used to encountering new things, well before we flew outdoors.
  • Keeping records It’s important not to rely just on memory for details like daily weights, training outcomes and other things that might be influencing behavior each day. Sometimes it’s only by writing things down that you can see patterns evolve. –> sample logs
  • Harness training I believe part of her calm outdoors is from being taken outside daily from the age of 4 months onward. By the time we started freeflying, she had been exposed to just about everything she ever would be: traffic, people, noise, crowds, construction, blimps, planes, helicopters, paragliders, kids, dogs. The one exception was other birds (seagulls, ravens, falcons) and she reacted calmly thanks to lots of practice with new things, and lots of repetition of our training. –> harness training
  • Tree practice I trained her to target by crawling through and down trees. This was a very useful skill when she first started learning to fly down from large trees because she could use a combination of crawling, swinging, dropping and flying if she got up too high, and it allowed her to learn flying down at her own pace. Many birds who are lost during the indoor/outdoor transition are lost because they can’t fly down and panic.
  • Emergency recall Training a super reliable and fast recall for situations where there is danger or the bird is flying fast and getting too far away. It employs “super bonus” treats, which makes it more strongly motivated than a normal recall in the face of distractions, and to be effective it can’t be overused.–>emergency recall
  • Luck When we first encountered our biggest training challenge, her tendency to go visit other people while flying, we were extremely lucky that the people she chose were honest and made an effort to find her owner. When she flew behind some trees and was attacked by a hawk we were very lucky that it was only a shallow talon wound.
  • Not relying on luck Any time we had a challenge with freeflying I tried to think through it using the tools I’d learned in ABA. Just a sampling of what some of the solutions involved:
    • recognizing very subtle “forcing” of behavior and applying positive reinforcement in more of our daily interactions
    • stopping freeflying to develop and implement a new training routine when her behavior regressed (more difficult than you might think to stop these outings)
    • watching her body language more carefully for signs of potential problem behavior outdoors
    • using bonuses strategically
    • using a “heirarchy” of treats
    • recognizing when food or weight is not the problem
    • “changing the antecedent” by not flying if I saw any warning sign that it was not a good day (also harder than you can imagine)
    • generalizing behavior so it is maintained in the face of distractions
    • “super-generalizing” behavior so it is maintained in the face of competing external reinforcers. –>generalizing
    • using small approximations to train flying in the dark
    • recognizing the “study of one” principle and taking much smaller approximations in outdoor acclimation with new flyer Piper –>acclimation
    • recognizing that every time I make a mistake outdoors (usually by setting up antecedents wrong) I am training Carly to do the wrong thing, and there are no “do-overs”.

. . .

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot here, but you get the idea. It isn’t just a matter of teaching recall in isolation of other behavior and the daily life of the bird.

I never like to discourage someone from a challenge, but I feel that some people who freefly minimize the work involved, and/or have lower standards for recall or safe flying. And on the other extreme some rely on weight control almost to the exclusion of other strategies. It’s always up to the individual how they want to proceed: how much latency is acceptable (sitting in trees), how much of a flyoff is acceptable, whether or not staying out overnight is acceptable, or if witholding food for one or more meals is acceptable. For me, any of those is a sign that we need to revisit and reevaluate our training routine.

I have had problems with sitting in trees during Carly’s first year flying. I have had times when Carly flew out of sight and landed on a stranger who took her home. Twice she has been out overnight (once when a huge truck pulled up its rear elevator as we were passing by right after dark and she spent the night in a tree outside my office – with me underneath it – and once when she was attacked by a hawk at sunset and hunkered down in a tree until morning. Both times she flew right down to me at the crack of dawn.) All of these were problems that could be dealt with through additional training for her (generalizing recall in the presence of competing reinforcers) or by training me (knowing when it’s not a good time to fly, and being aware of the environment). None of these has occurred this year, and I like to think I’m growing as a trainer. But I’m always ready for that next unexpected challenge because I haven’t been doing this for years and years. And from what I’ve seen, even the best, most experienced trainers are continually learning and open to input from others.

To close, here are some of my favorite pieces of writing about freeflight or training in general that I think are applicable to this discussion.
. . .

What’s in It For Me by Steve Martin of Natural Encounters Inc. Looking at things from your bird’s point of view.

Straight Talk About Behavior by Susan Friedman.

Food and Weight Management and follow-up article in Sid Price’s Bird Training Blog

The Mouse Went Down the Hole: Psychological Appetite, Nature’s Training Tool by Cassie Malina of NEI.

Strong Foundations & Adjustments: Keys to Training Success by Sid Price.

Don’t Shoot the Dog , by Karen Pryor. A bible of training and behavior for all species that can be read over and over.

Good Bird Magazine, edited by Barbara Heidenreich. A must-have subscription.

BehaviorWorks.org, Dr Susan Friedman’s website, has links to all of her articles. Her Parrot Behavior Analysis Solutions group (http://yahoo.groups.com/parrotBAS) offers free one-on-one behavior problem solving and lessons on Applied Behavior Analysis with trained tutors, and her internet or workshop course Living and Learning with Parrots (LLP) is the gold standard for parrot behavioral science.

Behavior.org, the web site of Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. The Behavior Analysis Glossary alone is worth browsing and rebrowsing.

Where to learn one-on-one about free flight training for parrots?
The Art and Science of Training Companion Parrots, level 2, at Natural Encounters. This is only an introduction to their methods so people get some experience with what is involved. (Part of the purpose of this workshop is to show people how easy it isn’t.)

Chris Shank’s Cockatoo Downs. Chris is a very experienced trainer with many different animals, and has a flock of free-flighted cockatoos in Oregon. There are annual workshops on a variety of topics, and Chris is also available for individual consulation.

There are many very qualified professional trainers, but none of them offer anything similar, generally because it is such a high-risk endeavor, and not one that can be taught in a short workshop. Some others offer freeflight instruction that I do not recommend for a variety of reasons. I do not support anything that’s offered by internet or video.

. . .

My non-professional* training models. These guys have that magic touch, and also the thirst for continued learning. (*At the time. Hillary is now an NEI trainer. Wendy has completed both levels of the NEI workshops.)

Hillary Hankey & Juice
tex

Ellen Aparacio & Inca
ellen&inca

Wendy Craig with Samantha, Fifer and Rubidew
wendy

UPDATE: I have been asked about people who may have been influences on my training that I do not mention here. All I will say is those I have mentioned are those whose training methods and philosophy are in keeping with the “most positive, least intrusive” principle that I believe in. I’ve been exposed to other trainers, but they use methods or strategies that I prefer not to follow, and they are aware of those differences.

Links to some other articles on freeflight training:
Recommended Articles on Freeflight Training

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2009
Jan 11
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Continuing education of the parrot kind.

Background. About a year into Carly’s outdoor freeflying she developed a problem: wanting to fly to other people and socialize. Certain people were especially favored (the infamous Red-Haired Guys). The occurred at the same time she was displaying many nesting behaviors at home. Other changes that I identified in retrospect were that we spent much less time at social events once she became well-flighted; most opportunities for socializing were during our freeflying outings. I had also stopped doing routine A-B recall training; almost all her flying was outdoors in a very free form manner.

As long the person was nearby and I could immediately retrieve her the problem with going to strangers was not critical, though it was far from ideal. But on a couple occasions she flew behind a building and landed on someone out of my sight. Both times we were very fortunate that her choice was someone who was honest and attempted to locate Carly’s owner. But I did not find who had her for several hours (6 hrs the first time, 3 hrs the second) and after much searching. Both times it was an ad placed immediately online in a local lost-and-found listing that reunited us relatively quickly. But not quickly enough to save me many hours of worry that she might have been taken by someone with no intention of returning her. I do not want to risk that any more, so we are attempting to “Super-duperize” the generalization for freeflight recall so that she is not distracted by opportunities to make new friends.

Observations. Some things I noted that might be relevant to this training:

  • There appear to be different kinds of environmental distractions for her. Things that would often spook a parrot affect her very little. However there are also distractions that are not negative, but provide some type of reinforcement of their own. For her one of these is socializing. A rough ranking of what appears to be the value of some of her reinforcers is:
    1. Flying with gulls (chasing them, being chased)
    2. Flying in a strong breeze
    3. Food rewards (variable, depending on weight, hunger, how favored the food is)
    4. Socializing with certain people, including strangers, and especially red-haired men.
    5. Sitting/playing in trees (hanging upside down, climbing, singing)
  • The beach seems to provide a better flying environment not because there are fewer people (unless it’s summer, there are about the same number there as at the park) but because the flying itself is more reinforcing and it takes some time before she has satiated this and becomes interested in socializing.

With these and Carly’s training history in mind, it’s time for…

The plan. After discussing the situation with some professional trainers to help define what was occurring and what could be done to help, I formulated a plan to “super-duper generalize” her recall outdoors and make it socialization-resistant. I’m employing several strategies: 1) increase the value of reinforcers for recall, 2) decrease the value of reinforcement from socializing, 3) use socializing itself as reinforcement for recall, and 4) increase the consistency of our routine.

  • Resume a very firm routine of A-B recall practice indoors and outdoors. (This part I had started before the second event above, but it was not enough for less interesting flying environments.)
  • Start with weight at the lower end of her normal range, and fly before her first meal of the day. Her at-lib weight is 455-465 grams. For the first phase I will fly outdoors when she is no more than 450-455. Any lower than that and she is too focused on the food if she has not had her first meal yet. From previous experience, timing of meals can be very effective with her and weight does not have to be dropped very long or very much. But we’re starting out safe.
  • Initially fly only at the beach, in the winter, on the end with fewest people. This gives much more lead time for watching body language before she becomes interested in flying to other people to socialize with.
  • Incorporate A-B recall games with other people on our outings. If someone approaches us and Carly takes interest, allow her to fly to the person on cue, and then call her back with a favored reward. (This is a game she will sometimes continue for quite some time.)
  • Use extremely favored treats initially when outdoors, then intersperse with others. (For example, toffee peanuts, popcorn, peanut butter. Normal treats are walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds.)
  • Increase the value of the end-of-session bonus treat. I typically provide a whole almond or two at the end of a flying session, as we are walking back. Initially this will be increased to a small cracker with peanut butter, then varied.
  • Add outings to our schedule that are exclusively for socializing, not flying. The goal is to increase opportunities to get this reinforcement in a safe environment, and decrease the value of it when we’re flying outdoors.
  • Practice the “emergency recall” indoors with a special cue (metal whistle) and extra special treats. This has been described by Barbara Heidenreich in her Good Bird Magazine, Summer 2008 issue.
  • UPDATE: Carly’s normal meal items are very reinforcing indoors (she will train with things such as sprouted sunflower or pumpkin seeds). To increase the value of reinforcers, I’m switching to a base pellet diet with vegetables, using sprouts, berries, and fruit for rewards as well as the usual nuts. There are a few diets like Lafebre’s that both she and Piper like, but I’m going to try putting all the really favored foods into the training routine. That also provides a lot more variety in rewards, which has worked well with her in the past. It also allows for longer training sessions.


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Progress. Blog entries from our training sessions will be linked here.

Log 1: Beach Outing, 12 Jan 2009

Log 2: Beach Outing, 11 Jan 2009

Log 3. Generalizing Recall Update, 1 Feb 2009

1-year update: Partnership not Possession

For more in-depth account of my training as a trainer, see:
Freeflight for Companion Parrots: Beyond the How-to, 9 July 2009


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Thanks to Barbara Heidenreich and Sid Price for their helpful advice and observations, and also to my friend and fellow trainer trainee Cynthia Schutte for asking many difficult questions! And to my most important mentor, Dr. Susan Friedman, for providing me with the tools — and practice — to help think through behavioral questions.

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