Having visited a number of parrot performances at zoos and wildlife parks, I'm noticing a lot of similarity in their methods. After watching the shows, I usually manage to get a few questions in to the trainers that I am very interested about. The questions are tough and they are reluctant to answer but I have ways of getting information out of them.
Some of the parks I've visited that have parrot shows include: Gulf World Florida, Zoobic Safari Phillipines, San Diego Zoo CA, Sea World CA, and Wildlife World Zoo AZ. I've also seen other raptor shows and marine mammal shows and had opportunities to speak to the trainers. What is most amazing is that there is far more agreement in methodology across professionals than there is in the amateur training community. There are still many ineffective approaches being used and advocated that could never hold in a professional environment.
Outdoor Freeflight Green Wing Macaw at San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Yet, the biggest question is does the methodology used by professionals belong in the home and how can parrot owners apply it? That is what I am here to share with you.
I already know how staff for shows train the parrots. It's the same way I do and the same way I share with you. What I am more interested about is how they attain reliability, balance ethics, and how they deal with a brilliant animal trying to outsmart them at every opportunity. I suspected and they have confirmed that it has mostly to do with: weight management, habit, routine, habit, and some luck.
More of the show is people performing in animal costumes than actual animal tricks. It's easier to dangle some money in front of a person to hang from a wire and make a fool of themselves than it is to get the birds to actually complete their flights! Green Wing and Military Macaw Fly at Sea World in this video.
Interestingly, most of the recent shows I've seen all keep flighted parrots. Now some are exclusively indoors but many are actually outdoors. The old school dog and pony show of parrot entertainment with a dozen clipped birds that perform one trick each is on its way out. There are still some oldsters that present this way, but it seems that a greater appreciation of the parrot as a complete and flighted performer is taking over. I love the indoor flighted parrot shows and agree that this is the very best compromise of freedom and safety. However, I think the main reason that outdoor flight shows exist is less for the purpose of being outside as it is about the large audiences they bring (leading to the impracticability of having the show indoors).
If plainly asked, "what do you do to get your parrot motivated to perform" or "how hungry do you have to make your bird to perform," trainers will get very elusive in their response. They'll start talking about how food is closely monitored, how the animals are healthy, how the animals like to perform, that they used positive reinforcement and treats, etc. Yet they will walk around telling you the fact that the birds' food is heavily managed. I am trying to avoid words like deprived, starved, underfed, etc because I am not out to judge or imply anything (positive or negative).
They tried hard to teach the dolphin to fly. Better leave that to the birds...
I use appropriate jargon and ask questions in ways that get them to actually tell me what kind of food management they actually use. Every place is somewhat different but overall it goes something like this: birds are fed only one scheduled measured meal per day (obviously after shows), weight is monitored and managed by meal portions, weight is usually reduced 10-20% from free feed, and all other food is earned as treats during shows or training. Some venues host only one show per day while others use the birds multiple times.
In order to keep "talking" parrot performs from flying off during shows or to keep performing birds still while the trainer is talking, treats are given to the birds regularly just for staying put. This is something that the old school wing clipping trainers never bothered with because they were able to keep a dozen parrots on stage because they could not go anywhere. This brings an interesting lesson back to pet owners. Yes parrots are hyper and want something to do all the time. They may not be content to sit on your hand for minutes non-stop just because you want them to or to show them to guests. You have to give them a good reason to grace you with their presence.
Military Macaw zooms overhead during Blue Horizons Dolphin/Bird Show at Sea World
Now when it comes to unrestrained outdoor flight, the secret behind the approach shows use (and also a damn good reason you shouldn't) is:
1) The parrots are kept very hungry. They have pretty much no choice but to make the couple flight passes that they are expected to and then be put away to eat. It's like the low fuel light comes on in your car, you don't have the luxury of choosing the cheapest gas station.
2) The parrots physical capabilities are highly limited. Their wings are atrophied and they aren't the strongest fliers. They are kept in cages or aviaries that are not conducive to flight. They rarely/never have opportunities to fly other than training or shows. This may not be done intentionally for this purpose but the byproduct is that their strength is only enough to fly their show routine. The bird would not be capable of bailing and flying too far away. This is like giving a teenager a run down car that will break down before they could jump town. Many parrot owners who keep their parrots flighted with a lot of out of cage time, may have stronger fliers that could get further away outdoors.
3) The parks own the grounds for a big radius around the performance area. Most likely if the bird were to get out, because of it's limited flying abilities, it would still end up landing somewhere within the park
4) The outdoor flighted parrots were bred and raised specifically to fill the role of flying outdoors for shows. They experience nothing else and are not kept as pets. This is the only lifestyle they know so they feel little choice but to comply. On the flipside, parrots at home are usually accustomed to much more freedom so outdoors they could take advantage of it.
5) Lastly, it's just that they don't care enough. The birds are expendable and having the show is important to bring in visitors. I'm not saying that the shows lose birds often (mainly for the reasons above), however, it's a chance they are willing to take. A pet owner with a personal relationship to a single bird is far less likely to consider this a worthwhile risk.
At most of the shows I attended, I only got to ask a few questions of the trainer after the show. However, during my June visit to Phoenix for the Parrot Wizard Bird Show & Seminar, I got to meet Josh the Education Curator and trainer. He took me for a private backstage tour of the show animals facility and chatted with me for nearly two hours about training. Josh admitted that parrots are the most difficult of birds to freefly and that they are less food motivated (thus probably requiring extensive weight management in order to be able to get the motivation). Their social motivation may be great for pet owners but is unreliable or even detrimental to shows (like when the birds prefer to fly to play with the audience than obey cues).
Josh demonstrates outdoor freeflight at World Wildlife Zoo
I would think performers would come to rely more heavily on variable ratio reinforcement schedules but it turns out that most of them stick to continuous. I'm not sure that this is so much a conscious decision as a matter of habit or unawareness though. In the home of course, variable ratio reinforcement is very handy and encourages good parrot behavior all around. However, some performers like Josh try to change out birds and schedules to keep things interesting both for trainers and the birds. He also told me about stories of how they lost certain freeflight birds and how they would get them back. There is a lot to it and it's a tough job. I'm glad Josh was very candid with me and gave me the real perspective instead of the perfection they strive to show their audience during performances.
Josh did a private demonstration of some parrot tricks and freeflight because they don't normally fly the birds in the hot Arizona summer. Video also shows a kookaburra making its vocalization.
If zoo and parrot performers can achieve such major success and reliability with their performing birds, then so can you. Believe it or not, you have the deck stacked in your favor because you can spend more one on one time personally working with your parrot. The professionals at these places are typically working with a multitude of various animals, juggling educational programs, and begging for funds. You can cut straight to the chase and work on things with your pet that bring you the relationship you seek.
When it comes to weight management, if professional trainers can safely manage their parrots' weight to 20% lower than freefeed weight with only one feeding a day, then you can rest assured that aiming for 10% and 2 daily feedings with your parrot is perfectly safe. Not only is it safe, but it is actually healthier than being overweight on freefeed. Hopefully this will convince you that using a more modest food management strategy with your parrot can achieve better behavior while also being more generous. There is no need for the same levels of food management in the home as in shows, however, I hope this convinces you not only that it works but that it is safe and healthy.
Here are some clips from my 2 hour long interview with Josh from Wildlife World Zoo in Phoenix Arizona:
Listen micheal i have been trainning to reach you for several months and i desperatly need your help you see i have dease two indian ringneck but no matter what i do i cant train them plus your traing series of kili have also been deleted from youtube poaese help me or bring back does trainning sries of kili pleaseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeečeeeeeeeeeeee. ibeg of you
This is a great article. The videos bring back such wonderful memories of the time I was able to spend with you while in preparation for your seminar here in Phoenix, AZ. I can tell you that using your methods regarding food management have changed the lives of my parrots and me. I see the difference in their training motivation. Not to mention that they are healthier too. Thanks for all you do to help those of us that have pet parrots so that we can achieve a great, rewarding relationship with our companion birds.