Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I guess I misunderestimated* him

Thomas frequently tells me that he thinks I baby Calypso too much. And after an experience last night, I think he may be on to something.

Calypso is the parrot in our house who suffered the most psychological damage from his previous mistreatment. I don't even believe that he was the one who received the worst treatment -- he's just the one that has the most trouble overcoming his past.

As a consequence of that, I have low expectations for him. All of the other parrots must step up on my hand (or a stick, in Rocky's case) to come out of their cages, while I open Calypso's cage and allow him to decide when he wants to exit. I always offer my hand to him, but if he declines, I leave his cage door open. I go to extreme lengths to make sure that he gets the largest cashews (his favorite treat). The other parrots have to do a trick before receiving favorite treats (they've got to earn it!) I treated him differently when it came to clicker training (which is really what this post is about). I've come to realize that I've been enabling him!

Last night, I was doing extended clicker training sessions with the parrots, specifically Max and Beeps. Daphne is not interested in training, but she was off to the side, watching what we were doing. Rocky was in the living room, playing and waiting for Thomas to arrive home. The rest of the parrots (caiques and greys) were in the kitchen with me.

I always train Max first. She was in a wonderful training mood and we quickly went through her entire routine, including working on her latest trick (doing a quick head-first dive off of the seed cup holder). Calypso was very interested, so I did a few targets with him (more on this later, but it's the first step in clicker training).

In the past, I used a different, smaller, target stick for Calypso because he seemed afraid of the larger one I use for everyone else. Last night, he eagerly used the larger stick. In the past, I eschewed the clicker and used a marker word ("bon" -- the French word for "good") because he seemed afraid of the click. Last night, he reveled in the clicker. Why did I allow my preconceptions of him to derail our training?

He was absolutely fantastic! He was a master targeter, never once getting confused. He repeated his one known trick -- shaking my hand -- and started working an another -- shaking his head. He made amazing progress and I am reenergized to work with him.

Shannon had asked in the comments for me to talk a little bit about clicker training. I first found out about it about two years ago when I was doing research into ways that I could make Max happier. Here is a good article explaining what clicker training is. I learned how to do it by joining this yahoo group (it's free) and reading through the files. Clickers can be picked up for about $1 at most pet stores.

Basically, it's a fantastic way to communicate with your parrots. Most parrots love the one-on-one interaction and learning that takes place. When Max sees the clicker, she starts saying "want some!" and flies to her training perch.

The first step is to figure out what food (or other reward) will motivate your bird -- what will they think of as an adequate reward for what you're asking them to do? Ideally, it should be something small that is quickly eaten. If you use a full almond, for example, the bird will quickly fill up so training is truncated, and the long time it takes the bird to eat the treat will affect the flow of training. I use safflower seeds for the greys and caiques. Thomas uses sunflower seeds for Rocky. I use praise for Rocky because he'd rather bite me than nicely take food from my hand. (Yes, I've tried using favorite treats like peanut butter on a spoon to put a barrier between his beak and my hand. He ignores the treat and pulls the spoon closer to his beak to try to bite. He's determined).

The second step is to make the bird understand that click=treat. Going forward, every time you click a bird, give her a treat. Even if you didn't mean to click. It's a contract, and you don't want to break your parrot's trust! To do this, have a treat ready, and then make the click and give the bird the treat as quickly as you can. You only have to do this step when training a new bird. From my experience, I usually have to do this between 5-20 times (depends on the bird) for them to understand. Pretty soon, when you click, you'll see the bird make a move to get a treat. That's when you know they understand.

The click is a marker. It's a way for you to communicate to your bird. You're saying, "What you did when I clicked -- that's what I like and I'm giving you a treat. If you do it again, you'll get another treat!"

The first "trick" to teach is targeting. You want the bird to bite softly on the end of a stick (I use a straw). When the bird does this, click and treat. When this becomes easy, move it off to the left so the bird has to lean. Then the right, up, and down. Continue working, in small steps, until the bird has to take several steps to get the straw. Incidentally, this can be a great way for a perch potato to get exercise -- make them walk all over to target.

I'm skimming over some things (the yahoo group I linked is really a fantastic resource!). I think the two main things to remember are:

1. This is supposed to be fun for you and your bird! Watch her and stop on a positive note before she gets bored. My training sessions are generally less than 5 minutes per bird per day. Stop if you feel yourself getting frustrated!

2. Many people feel self-conscious when they start doing this. They feel silly and don't know what they're doing. Who cares? Your bird doesn't know any better and will love the training sessions anyway! I'm certainly not an expert trainer, but in the past year and a half or so, my parrots have learned quite a few tricks and, most importantly, our bond has strengthened and we've had fun along the way!

I'll try to update more regularly on our training progress and hopefully get some videos and pictures demonstrating what I'm talking about.

*I know this isn't really a word, but I'm taking it from my favorite TV show, Arrested Development (which took it from the previously linked source).


Anonymous said...

Hi Mary, am really grateful for the intro to clicker training. This will be fantastic, especially for Sam the Jardine's Parrot, as he already is highly motivated by treats, and it will widen his horizons and give him a "job" to do. I know what you mean by enabling a parrot. I did that with Sam in the beginning, but realized (thank goodness!)that he was becoming less confident and independent. He also never flew before I got him, and he's beginning to learn this basic skill and it's already making a difference. I look forward to more of your words about this, and videos. Thank you again!

Mary said...


The yahoo group I linked has very detailed step-by-step instructions. I think Sam will love learning tricks. I can almost see the pride in their eyes when they master something new.

I'm trying to get Calypso to fly more as well. I guess I've been enabling him not to fly by carting him around wherever he wants to go. Guess I have to work on that as well!

I'll see if I can get Thomas to videotape a session with Max soon.