While I sit at the airport waiting to go home, I recall the experiences I had on my 2016 Europe Seminar series. I would like to share some of my thoughts and experiences about the events and how Europeans keep parrots as pets.
The first of two Seminars was in Germany. It was similar to the first one held last year. People arrived from all parts of Germany and even other countries for the talk. I am in contact with the German Flieger Club throughout the year as I teach several webinar courses to them. So the members of the club are all familiar with each other and parrots. However, many of them had not seen each other in person since the presentation the year before. The new annually held national conference is becoming as much a social tradition as an educational one.
Since Germany is a smaller country, the possibility of having a single national meeting is more possible. Although distant, even the furthest members can reach the meeting in one day's drive. Most of them bring their birds. It's really a lot of fun. The club is growing fast. So fast, that the seminar was at capacity and required simultaneous presentations to fit everyone.
The German approach to parrot keeping is somewhat different than what is typical in the United States. First of all, the parrot industry is much younger than in the US. Therefore finding parrots and good supplies is more difficult. The typical age of a pet parrot seems to be much younger as well. I can't be sure if this is only relevant to members of the club or of the situation nationwide. But, I can tell you that meeting so many parrot owners in the US, it would be inevitable to come across more older birds.
Wing clipping is illegal in Germany like some other European countries. Every parrot you come across is fully feathered. However, just because parrots are fully feathered does not mean they are fully flighted. Because some parrot owners are incapable of keeping flighted birds in their home, the birds end up cage bound and flightless just the same. So although it may appear that banning clipping might solve things, in reality it just changes the mechanism by which parrots are kept flightless. Educating parrot owners and ensuring that people buying birds realize the consequences of a flighted animal are the better solution to simply passing laws.
It seems like everything about parrot keeping is regulated in Germany. There are rules and laws about all sorts of aspects. Some of the laws are logical but many are not. They are clearly created by bureaucrats and not by people who are accustomed to living with pet parrots. The German Flight Club on the other hand is using education as a tool for teaching owners to take better care of their pets. Senior members serve as a model for newer members and provide help.
Parrot keeping seems like a couples activity in Germany. This is both in terms of the birds and the couples owning them. While in the US, it seems that parrots are mainly kept by single people or by one person out of a couple, in Germany it is predominantly a joint activity. Birds are usually kept with an opposite sex mate of the same species or of a similar species. Husband and wife will handle a bird each or trade turns holding both. Parrots are treated more like children and part of the family.
I came across many homemade cages of all sorts. Homemade outdoor aviaries are more common as well. The average cage size appears to be larger than in the US. But just because cages are better, does not mean that parrot keeping entirely is superior. In my opinion, the birds' diets in Europe are inferior to those in the US. Far fewer birds are fed pellets. Although variety of foods are offered, it is inevitable that the birds are mainly chowing down on seeds and not getting ideal nutrition. While parrot keepers' opposition to pellets as being “unnatural” is understandable, the seeds and alternative diets they offer are no more natural to these tropical birds. The problem is that owner-regulated diets are not guaranteed to offer balanced nutrition. Sprouting is much more prevalent in Germany. I was shown how they use a 3 day sprouter that ensures that new sprouts are coming out every single day.
My Seminar talks went well. Because most of the people have already been at it for 1-2 years, we were able to talk about more advanced topics than last year. It is nice to watch the progress and see people coming along. Even people who couldn't lay a finger on their birds a few years ago, were now bringing them to the seminar and able to put an Aviator Harness on them.
Like on my first visit to Germany, the second day was a nature walk with a massive number of owners and their pet parrots on Aviator Harnesses. Much was the same as last year except there were more participants and things went smoother.
I was greeted by a whole welcoming committee when I arrived to the Czech Republic. Unlike with the Germans, I really had very little idea what was going to happen. Not only have I done a seminar in the past with the German group, but the organizers speak English so we maintain direct contact. English is far less common in the Czech Republic and the little bit of communication I had with the organizers was through google-translated emails. The good news was that I had several extra days to spend with the organizers and get to know them.
I was originally contacted by Lukas Ruky nearly a year ago. He contacted me requesting me to do a freeflight course in the Czech Republic. It wasn't practical for me to travel to the one country alone. But when my second seminar in Germany was confirmed, it was a superb opportunity to combine two seminars. Because the initial contact was about flight training and I had little contact with the organizers since, I really was not sure of what I would be presenting at the Seminar. It sounded like an expert group looking for advanced advice.
But as I got to know the people and their parrots, I discovered that in fact parrot training is at it's absolute infancy in the Czech Republic. The organizers took me to 3 different parrot owner's homes so I could get to know them and their birds. Instead of coming across parrot experts, I encountered ordinary parrot keepers that wanted to learn the simple things every owner wants to learn. How to teach the parrot to step up? Not to Bite? Wear a harness to go outside? These are all the topics I am best in and it was no trouble at all coming up with topics for the seminar.
At first I was confused. The translator would tell me the organizers will have me visiting this breeder and that breeder. Then we arrive to their homes and it was just a cage and some usual pet birds. It wasn't until later that it was explained to me that in Czech, they don't have a separate word for breeder and pet owner. Instead it's a universal term similar to “bird raiser.” They use the term breeder both for breeders and the people who eventually keep them as pets.
I was taken to visit the Prague Zoo. The organizers were well connected both with the zoo trainer and the parrot zoologist. We had the opportunity to see parrots and training behind the scenes. I met Franta Susta, the head and only professional zoo trainer in all of the Czech Republic. He shared with me insights about how new the concept of training, and particularly positive reinforcement based training, is in the Czech Republic. Franta, in his 6ft some stature comes off as hulking. But it plays no role in his animal training as he prioritizes the animals' comfort and participation over using his strength to force them. Although an expert trainer, Franta was interested in learning and comparing ideas.
In addition to visiting the zoo, the organizers took me for a tour of Prague. It is a beautiful European city and quickly becoming one of the tourism jewels of Europe.
I would like to mention that I have found the Czech people to be the most hospitable and kind hosts I have ever met. They paraded me in food and gifts throughout my entire stay. The food was outstanding and excessively abundant. It was not possible to give a Czech a single gift without receiving ten in return! They are extremely generous people and a similarity can be seen in the way they keep their pets.
One of the homes I visited was a single room studio. The couple keeps a pair of African Grey parrots in the biggest stainless steel cage available. The cage takes up one tenth of the confined single room space. The cage was spotless, rich in food, and full of toys. Since there are few opportunities to buy good food/supplies in Europe, the owners pay double the normal retail price to get supplies shipped from the United States. So although there was barely any room for two people in the small studio, the birds had everything you could imagine. I found this to be the theme repeatedly. Perhaps these are only the people the organizers chose to show me and not the norm. But even the very existence of people who take such great care already helps raise the standards. I saw as many stainless steel cages in Czech as I had seen in all of the US.
I could feel that the hospitality offered to me extends to their parrots the same! During the Seminar, my challenge would not be to convince people to take better care. It would not be not to clip birds and let them fly. Instead it would be to not spoil them so much and give the parrots opportunities to earn their rewards. I thought that people who are used to raining their parrots and visitors and gifts would be resistant to the idea, however, the methods I shared were very well accepted. It was exciting not just to share my methodology but to see people who are eager to accept and apply it as well!
Smoking is much more prevalent in Europe and especially the Czech Republic. Smoking is terrible for the people's health but even more detrimental to the birds. I worry about the birds' health when people smoke around them whether at home or outside. Birds have very powerful respiratory systems to be able to breath effectively for flight. This makes them more prone to poisoning through the air than other animals. The thing I would hope to so improve the most is for people to abandon smoking for their birds' health and their own.
All kinds of members of the parrot community came to the seminar. From absolute beginner pet bird owners to breeders, trainers, and local experts. It was a diverse and eager crowd. And although translation hindered the pace, it was exciting to present information that people were being introduced to for the very first time. On the other hand, there were several participants who had independently purchased and applied my book prior. It was wonderful to hear that the techniques were already working for them.
During the Seminar talk, I predominantly relied on demonstrating with a toy parrot. I could not bring my own parrots overseas; most of the participants birds were too shy and insufficiently trained to be able to make clear demonstrations. There was no point for me, as a stranger, to scare their novice birds. However, on the second day for the workshop, we had some bolder birds. It was an opportunity to show the previously talked about concepts in action. We demonstrated the effective use of target training to teach a parrot to step up, learn the turn around trick, allow touch, grab, and petting, and learn to wear a harness.
So as my 2016 Europe Seminar series comes to a close, I head home knowing that the presentations made a difference. It certainly wasn't enough time to share everything I know. But it was enough time to educate and inspire many people to understand the kind of relationship they could have with their parrot and the initial steps to head in that direction. I am glad to be able to help exchange ideas and methods between continents so that the best methods can proliferate borders. We are beginning to form an international cooperation and community of caring pet parrot keepers.
I am available for seminars in 2017. Contact your local bird club, store, or breeder that is capable of hosting an event to consider inviting me for some talks.
I received a question from a follower about whether or not it is possible for someone with a handicap/disability to put an Aviator Harness on a parrot with just one hand. I was about to just say the first thing that came to mind, "no!" But I had no experience with this either way so instead I said that I would look into it. After all, who better to try it out and find out?
I realize that there are many people with disabilities that keep parrots. Some are in a wheelchair or have shaky hands from PTSD. Others have trouble just from age while some are young and dealing with a temporary injury. So although the video included here is based on one single type of disability, I would like to use this as an encouragement for any physically challenged owner that there are ways to succeed in training your parrot despite your impairment.
Note that although this article is about one specific type of impairment and about one kind of training example, the mindset conveyed here may be helpful for all sorts of parrot issues and for any person having trouble with their parrot.
Granted Santina is fully harness trained already, this experiment was solely about whether or not it is even possible to consider harnessing a parrot with the use of just one hand. Well, I am happy to say that I learned that it is. Santina had not even worn a harness since last year and yet she was cooperative at putting it on. This is largely due to the fact that she was taught to wear the harness using positive reinforcement from the start and looks forward to it whenever she sees it. Since the harness was never forced on her, she has no reason to freak out when she sees it for the first time in a while. I did just one normal run with the harness to make sure she was still ok with it.
So I dangled the harness in front of Santina and she just stuck her head straight into the collar the way she was taught. Getting the collar onto the bird myself with one hand would have been much harder and simply impossible if the bird resisted. But since she actually wants to get it on, her assistance made it substantially easier! Pulling the straps through and around the wings was only more time consuming but no harder than usual. The hardest part I found was to pull all the extra material through the bird-proof clasp with one hand! Without the ability to hold the clasp in one hand and feed the material through with the other, it was a challenge of dexterity to do it with my fingers. But with practice it got better and by the second take, I kind of had it down. I would recommend anyone with a disability working with the harness, or any kind of training, practice all the mechanics of it ahead of time to reduce strain on the bird.
Besides a few nuts, Santina got to go outside for the first time this season, a reminder of how wonderful it is to wear a harness and go out. I didn't pester her further with my own clumsiness to take it off with one hand because she was eager to get back to her normal bird business when we returned. However, I am sure that the exact same process could be repeated in reverse. My conclusion is that if you can tie your shoe laces with one hand and go about daily tasks, putting an Aviator Harness on a parrot with one hand is at least possible!
The key part is the training. More precisely than ever, the bird with the impaired owner requires the most accurate of training. Yes, the parrot can be taught to fill some of the role of the owner and help in the harnessing process! But the training must be correct and thorough. More patience, self discipline, and attention will be required. But if your goal is to beat your impairment and achieve the same things with your parrot, then I think it can be done!
Sometimes I find myself impaired during parrot training even with two hands. Some things I do with the birds makes me wish I had three or four hands to accomplish all the training at the same time. But since that won't be happening, I have to make do with what I have. I find ways to either break behaviors down into smaller portions, devise tools to help me do more within my capabilities, or worst case scenario, I seek help from someone else to get more hands into the training scenario. No reason the same can't be done going from two hands to one, or working from a wheelchair, or dealing with a different impediment.
I suggest that anyone planning on having their parrot wear a harness to safely go outside, follow the steps covered in my Harness Training DVD. Further, it is important that the bird be prepared to begin this advanced training by performing the requisite basic training explained in my book. There is an automatic special discount built in on my online store. If you order a Book + DVD or Harness + DVD, DVD is 50% off. Book + Harness and the DVD is free.
What I found interesting was how not-unusual the challenge was! Although it was challenging, it was challenging the same way that any parrot training task is. There is a goal to accomplish x and y with the parrot with limited means and communication. So I work on solving the puzzle through trial and error, positive reinforcement, reading body language, and all the usual tools used to train behavior to the birds. What I discovered was that harnessing a parrot with one hand is really the exact same thing just with the added step of using less appendages and more patience. This turned out to only be one step more complicated than harness training a parrot in the first place. There are loads of other challenges in getting a parrot to wear a harness so this is just an extension of that and just adds one more challenge and nothing more. The same problem solving mindset that needs to applied to teaching the bird to wear a harness in the first place can just as well help overcome the added physical demands.
This system for overcoming disability and accomplishing things with our parrots stems far beyond just harness training. Target training, trick training, taming, flight training, and all that good stuff can be achieved through patient persistent application of the training methods that I teach. I'm not saying it will be easy. You will have to tailor these methods to your specific conditions. But following this system, you will find success with your bird.
July 18/19 2015, a game-changing parrot training seminar was held in Russelsheim Germany outside Frankfurt. The seminar was the culmination of nearly a year's worth of online webinar sessions during the scope of which I was teaching training methodology and harness training for parrots of all levels.
The Germans accepted us with great hospitality. Bratwursts and pork chops were plentiful. We got to meet many members of the German flight club and their birds during the barbecue the night before the seminar.
During the Seminar we alternated between lectures, outdoor flight demonstrations, and feedback sessions for members. Flight club members would show me what they have accomplished with their own parrots and I gave them pointers and feedback on their training. Overall I was very happy to see so much progress and success since we began the webinar series.
During intermissions, there were outdoor flight training demonstrations. Most of the parrots flown were on harnesses with long leashes. But a few birds were even free flown. The Germans are convinced that flight and particularly outdoor flight is necessary to maintain a parrot's health.
In Germany, they have a particularly bad epidemic of aspergillus in parrots. The flight club, with the help of several avian veterinarians, maintains that outdoor flight is the only prevention/cure to the infectious lung disease. More and more people are learning to fly their parrots outside for fun and for health.
In the following video you can see some of the flights that were made. They use particularly long flight lines to fly the birds across a soccer field. Some of the flights by more experienced fliers were successful while some of the beginners ran into some trouble. In one case, a pair of blue and gold macaws flew to the end of the line several times in a row. One cockatoo somehow decided to turn around 180 and fly the wrong way. But in all cases of screw ups, the aviator harness prevented the parrots from getting into serious trouble and safely brought them down to the ground in a recoverable place. Further webinars and training will be necessary to improve recall flight reliability.
On the Sunday following the seminar, many of the attendees came on a historic parrot outing. Over 20 people and 15 parrots set out by ferry, foot, and by wing to explore the German countryside. A long walk was rewarded with a pleasant lunch at a tavern.
Flight club members received matching shirts at their seminar "graduation." They all proudly wore them to the parrot walk. If it wasn't obvious by the parrots on their shoulders, the matching shirts confirmed the group unity. Marianna and I received an honorary induction into their group after lunch.
Here is a video of the walking adventure:
After lunch, a few of us headed to a nearby field to fly some parrots. Florian brought his Harlequin and Blue and Gold Macaw with him. Before we reached the flying location, Saphira the Harlequin Macaw flew off of his shoulder and into a tall tree. Moments later, the Blue and Gold took flight to follow. While the Harlequin is accustomed to freeflight, the Blue and Gold would only sit with a harness. The force of the macaw flying off at full speed coupled with a badly chewed harness, broke the connection and the macaw took off into the tall tree. Florian watched the macaw flying away while I grabbed my camera and caught the moment.
The Blue and Gold tried to land on the branch with the Harlequin but somehow scared her out of the tree. Florian did not seem worried. He said this had happened before and he expected the two macaws to come back. After ten minutes of watching and calling passed, I realized the birds were not going to just come back. I said, "we need more birds" and ran back to where the rest of the club was relaxing. I grabbed a few people with macaws and told them to bring their flight lines.
The idea was to start flying other parrots (safely) to try to entice the lost parrots to come and join them. Unfortunately the parrots being harness flown weren't particularly enthusiastic about flying and the lost parrots were not eager to come back. Florian kept watching and calling but it was of no use. We watched leaves and branches falling out of the tall tree as the parrots were having the time of their life. An all you can chew parrot play ground is not an easy place to get a lost parrot to come back from.
Florian normally used the harnessed Blue and Gold Macaw as a motivator for the freeflight Harlequin to come back. But now that they were both gone, he could not even manage to get the Harlequin to come back. He tried to use treats and Saphira the freeflight capable macaw even came back once for a treat. But no sooner did Florian give the treat that the bird took back off into the tree.
The harness did not break for no reason. A new or well maintained harness would not have broken under similar circumstances. Other members of the group had noticed Zazou chewing on his harness and notified Florian. Unfortunately Florian did not accept that the harness was damaged until he stood there holding nothing more than the black end of the leash. An important lesson learned is not to leave parrots with harnesses unattended and to check them for damage prior to every outing.
More than an hour later, the Harlequin vacated the tree. First she flew to a shorter tree some distance away. But as Florian kept calling, she finally came to him. Florian hoped that Saphira would help call Zazou back. But it wasn't working. The group had to head back. So we left Florian and a few others to work on getting Zazou back. Some friends brought Florian's RV camper to the site so he could spend the night and continue his efforts in the morning.
We did not get to witness the recovery. But from what we learned, Florian was unable to recover Zazou all day. Zazou got rid of what was left of the harness and got driven away by predators. When all hope was lost and night set in, Florian went into his motorhome for the night. No sooner did he close the door that he heard Zazou outside. He came out to find that Zazou flew down and landed on the roof of the camper on her own. Here is a video of the parrots flying away and a discussion of the recovery effort:
After a long cold winter, spring has finally come. The weather is nice and getting the parrots outside is on people's minds. But for the parrots, wearing a harness is something long past. So what to do? This is where "reharness" training the parrots comes in!
My parrots all know how to put on a harness. They have all received the training to not be scared and know how to put the harness on. However, after such a winter that we didn't get to go out even once, their harness wearing skills are a bit rusty. They are less eager to put the harness on or don't quite remember how to get their heads into the collar. But all it takes is a little bit of reharness training to get them back to normal.
Out of my flock, Santina needed the most reminding and that is not surprising because she has least harness experience. After a treat or two, Kili already recalled exactly what to do. Truman, well he's a bit of a thick headed bird. In more ways than one! So he needed a little more work to help him remember how to get his big Poicephalus head through the collar. He was trying to assure me that he can get it in easily but that was for the wrong part! But with a bit of practice, he got it all sorted out as well.
The process of reharness training a parrot is quite simple. It's an expedited retrace of the steps it took for the bird to learn to wear a harness in the first place. If your parrot did not learn how to wear a harness in the first place, then there are no steps to retrace. First of all, if your parrot never wore a harness in the first place, you need to follow a procedure for teaching it in the first place. However, I am also addressing the people who managed to just get the harness on their parrot (like when it was a baby or maybe just by luck). If the steps taken to teach the parrot to wear a harness were not specific and memorable, then you have nothing to trace back on. In either case, my harness training solution is thoroughly explained between my book and harness training dvd. The book teaches you all the basic taming requisites before you can being harness training and the DVD has Santina demonstrate step by step as she learns to wear the harness for the first time. So if you have not followed this method initially, do that this time. Next time, the following reharness training steps will work for you.
Depending on how rusty the bird is will affect how much I need to go back to basics. Since none of my parrots were scared or uncomfortable with the harness, I immediately skipped the desensitization. Nothing bad ever happened with the harness or at least not since they've last worn them successfully so the good we initially established persists. All of the birds have remained tame through the winter because of continued handling so that required no work either. All they needed help with is remembering how to stick their heads in the collar and rekindling a desire to wear the harness at all.
Seeing the harness alone did not evoke a desire to put it on. However, the sight of the welcoming harness collar and a treat in my hand reminded them of the "harness trick" they had once learned to put the collar on. They quickly recalled the learning that had taken place some time ago and were back on track.
To aid with the harness retraining, I make the collar stick out in a more convenient manner so that the birds can find where to put their head. As they get better, I have them work a bit harder. Just like with all training, it has to start easy at first and then get progressively more challenging. I increase how much contact the harness makes and duration on subsequent success. If the process moves along smoothly, I move quickly. If I find any trouble spots, I slow down and work on those.
Not only has Kili been harness trained, but she has also been reharness trained so many times that it only takes flashing a treat to make her go back to putting the harness on right. This is the benefit of following reproducible procedures year after year.
When I get the birds outside for the first time of the season, I assume things will be a bit frightening so I take my time. I don't keep them out for too long at first. But it only takes a few minutes or sessions outside until things return to normal. The more years that this is repeated, the more quickly and easily it all comes back.
Three things I offer when it comes to harness training your parrot to safely go outside:
My Book - This will teach you what you need to be able to do before you can even begin harness training Harness Training DVD - Step by step procedure for harness training an already tame parrot Aviator Harness - Get your leash on sale from Parrot Wizard
Kili flew to Oshkosh for the annual EAA Air Venture, the world's greatest aviation event. I have been flying for over 9 years but have not yet had the pleasure of going to Oshkosh. Before owning my own plane, I never felt right going in a rental. Since acquiring my plane, for a few years I felt too novice to be able to undertake the arrival procedure into the world's busiest airport (during the event). But, with greater experience and my trusty copilot, I decided that it was time to make the pilgrimage to Oshkosh.
I brought Kili, my 6 year old Senegal Parrot, along for the ride. It was out of the question to take all of my birds but I definitely wanted to bring one. Kili is both my smallest and most trusted so I knew she'd be the right one to take for the journey. On the other hand, Truman and Santina each got a room to themselves while we were gone. On our way there, we battled fierce headwinds and took close to 6 hours to get there.
I expected all hell to break loose on the busy FISK arrival. It was busy but surprisingly manageable. Not nearly as bad as New York Approach on a Friday night. In fact, the air traffic controllers at Oshkosh were extremely courteous and understanding. These controllers realize that they are dealing with amateur pilots of varying levels of experience. Someone previously mentioned to me that they thought the Oshkosh arrival isn't as hectic as flying the Hudson river and I think they were right.
Kili was a big help. She just hung on without causing any trouble or distraction. I think she too enjoys flying! We landed in Oshkosh and after what seemed like an eternity taxiing all over the airport, we arrived at our camp site. We set up camp next to the plane and headed over to the main fairgrounds for the best part. Air Venture is like Disney World for aviators! It was incredible! Airplanes come from all over the United States and the world for this event. Around 15,000 aircraft and a quarter million people participate.
Since I own and fly a Mooney airplane, it was exciting to see Mooney back from bankruptcy at the event. They demonstrated the first Mooney Acclaim off the production line in 5 years and held a press conference. Kili whispered in my ear to ask the CEO about what safety and style improvements they had made to the airplane since changing the company motto from Speed Speed Speed to Safety Speed and Style. I don't think Kili was impressed with Jerry Chen's roundabout answer that the plane has always had those elements and that they were simply beginning to emphasize them better. Nonetheless, the Mooney acclaim is still to this day the world's fastest four seat single engine production airplane.
For 3 days we watched air shows, visited vendor displays, and met loads of pilots. Funny how it's a small world, we bumped into many people we know. Also many people I don't but know me were able to recognize me with Kili. It was a splendid trip and Kili enjoyed all the attention and travel as well. Here are some photos and video from our 2014 Oshkosh Air Venture adventure.