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:
- Flying with gulls (chasing them, being chased)
- Flying in a strong breeze
- Food rewards (variable, depending on weight, hunger, how favored the food is)
- Socializing with certain people, including strangers, and especially red-haired men.
- 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.
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.