The weekend of September 9/10, 2017 was an exciting, action filled, time at Todd Marcus Birds Exotic in Delran, NJ. The exotic bird store held its biggest sale of the year during the 34th Anniversary event. Parrot enthusiasts came from near and far to partake in the festivities.
Face painting, free food, shopping, bird shows, and inflatable jumping pits for kids were just some of the featured activities. It seems that for most, the biggest highlight of the event was the social atmosphere. Folks sat around the store with baby birds in their arms while chatting with everybody.
I was invited to hold bird shows, provide education, and showcase Parrot Wizard brand products. Kili, Truman, and Rachel helped me debut my new Parrot Wizard NU Perch Tree line.
Since my performance area was outside, I kept all of my parrots harnessed for safety. Not surprisingly, they were not scared and handled very well. They have a lot of experience at even more bustling places. However, it is better safe than sorry, so they remained harnessed the entire time.
This presented a slight challenge for Kili. Since she was the main star of the tricks show, she had to get around the table while dragging the leash behind her. It would have been no trouble at all except that she always manages to twist herself up in it. She always turns in the same direction, so with time it gets twisted up and I have to help her fix it. Otherwise, she has no trouble doing all of her tricks including bowling, color matching ring toss, and her baby stroller routine.
I did not want to burden Kili with too many trick performances because we had to pace ourselves for 10 shows in 2 days. I tried to alternate other birds and talks in order not to overwhelm her. Well, she did all her shows and still had plenty of energy left to do more. I could hardly hold her back from jumping on the table and running to do tricks if she had the chance. She could have easily done even more than she was asked to.
I found a good role for Truman as well. While Truman is a bit boneheaded when it comes to doing tricks, he has grown to be a pretty reliable talker in public. He knows how to say "Hey Cutie," "Kili," "Truman," and gives kisses on command. For 6 years, "Hey Cutie" was Truman's signature phrase. He was the only parrot that could say something long and cute on command. Well, a few months ago Kili learned to say "Hey Cutie" as well. The whole time Truman was supposed to be talking, Kili would echo anything he would say but louder and with greater clarity. Kili tries to be best at everything!
Truman was good for a while but then he shut down. He almost fell asleep during one of the shows and then was seen with his eyes closed shortly after. Truman doesn't care. He can sleep through anything. Once he wants to do something, he just does. I guess it's just a Cape thing.
Rachel spent most of her time in the "showroom." She sat around on the newly released Large NU Perch Tree to show how luxurious and sturdy it is. She spent the better part of 2 days straight harnessed on that tree and did very well. She was a bit nervous about the kids bouncing in the inflatable gym nearby. But as the day went on, she got comfortable and enjoyed her new perch paradise. These trees are now available on ParrotWizard.com.
It was a pleasure getting to meet many fans at the event and sign so many books! And if you live in the NJ, PA, NY area and did not make it, there's always next year! Come see the Parrot Wizard at the Todd Marcus 35th Anniversary Event in 2018.
And finally, here's a video recap of the wonderful time we had at the event:
Rachel the Blue and Gold Macaw loves getting sprayed from a water bottle. Marianna sprays mist on and around Rachel and Rachel just soaks it all in. She dances around her Training Perches with her wings flapping to catch the mist. This is pretty typical for a rainforest parrot. Parrots from dry climates on the other hand (like Senegal Parrots, Budgerigars, etc) don't really like to shower much.
While Rachel can get really excited about a shower, Truman the Cape Parrot prefers baths. Meanwhile Kili the Senegal Parrot and Santina the Green-Winged Macaw are pretty indifferent to water. Either they don't want to get wet and resist or at best they do nothing. They just never get into it like Rachel does but I figure that when they aren't mad about getting wet, that these are the times they like it.
The best way to get your parrot used to showering is with a gentle spray mister. Use slightly warm water. Squirt the mist above the bird and let it fall onto the bird. Avoid squirting at the bird directly unless it likes it. The important thing is never to use a spray bottle for punishment or make showering an unpleasant experience. As long as you keep it enjoyable, it will be a great activity for you and your parrot to enjoy together.
Here's a video of Rachel getting sprayed from a water bottle.
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:
I recently took a short trip down to Tallahassee and surrounding parts of the Florida pan handle. I flew down there with my dad and sister for four days and I'd like to share some of the parrot related encounters I had there.
The flight to Tallahassee was rather exciting as we departed New York through fog and low clouds. But once we climbed over top of it, we were met by the rising sun and blue skies. Cruising along at 8,000ft and 160mph, we made it to Florida in about 7 hours with a gas stop along the way. It sure beats flying by airline where they make my take my shoes off, steal my water, and treat everyone like they are guilty till they prove they aren't a terrorist. I depart when I want, have more leg room than my legs can reach, a lot of fun, and just freedom unrestricted by the terrestrial world we are accustomed to.
Here's a video with some breathtaking views of flight in clouds going down there:
Emerald Coast Science Center
When we were visiting the Emerald Coast Science Center in Fort Walton Beach, I couldn't help noticing the parrot cage by the entrance. Inside was a sweet Galah that allowed me to pet it through the bars. After seeing the museum, I asked the employee if I could hold the parrot for a picture. Reluctantly she agreed to try. She said the parrot is finicky and doesn't always come out. She came over to Kiwi's cage and opened the door. She reached her hand in slowly and urged Kiwi to step up. Kiwi did not bite but nor did he comply. He would pick a foot up and then put it down, turn around, walk away, do a dance, etc. The lady kept following him with her hand but with no luck.
Meanwhile my little sister kept yapping and saying things about me. "My brother is good with parrots. Let him try to take Kiwi out!" she would say. After several unsuccessful minutes the employee was getting frustrated and ready to give up. She finally said, "alright, you can try and take him out if you want but he could bite." She stepped away from the cage as I approached. In a single motion not lasting two seconds, I reached my hand through the open cage door, Kiwi stepped right up on my hand, and had him out of the cage melting away in my arms. The lady started in awe and proclaimed, "he must really like you."
How was it that this parrot who barely knew me for a minute stepped right up for me and not for a caretaker that it encounters on a daily basis? Did this parrot hate women but like men? Or could it mysteriously sense that I'm a parrot person? Well it's none and all of the above. I was analyzing the circumstance before I even reached my hand into the cage. I immediately knew what was wrong when the lady was pleading with Kiwi to step up. I could see her insecurity and reluctance. On the flip side, I noticed that Kiwi was not aggressive and would not have bit her if she was more determined to taking him out. But since she held her hand at a distance and didn't make him step up, he just opted to play games with her instead. The more she chased him around with her hand asking him to step up, the more he would resist and keep playing around.
By the time I was reaching in the cage for Kiwi, I already knew that he was tame, capable of stepping up, and I was not scared of him. This combination of confidence and knowledge of the optimal parrot step up approach, got Kiwi onto my hand on the first try and without incident. If I had waffled, the outcome may have been different. But using the approach I describe in that other article, I give the parrot enough time to feel safe and realize what's happening but not enough time to decide to do something different. Also, although I gave him the freedom to choose not to come to me (asking for step up rather than just grabbing), I guided his choice by swinging my hand toward him at a non-stop constant motion that if he didn't step up it would slice through his legs forcing him to step. I'm just trying my best to summarize my approach into words and step by step behaviors to make it clear that "being a bird person" is really just a sum of the behaviors that I perform to achieve the desired result. Thus it appears to any outsider that random parrots just like me but it's because I've developed an approach that works pretty well on most tame parrots (note I say tame parrots that at least know how to step up for someone. I'm at as much of a loss as anyone with a vicious untame parrot that steps for nobody). I explained some of this to the lady hoping that it may give her a better chance of working with Kiwi in the future and not getting discouraged. I hoped to demonstrate to her (and to you) that it is the method and not necessarily the person that allows it to work.
Not being scared of the parrot and being confident that I could get it out were major factors. Parrots don't like people who are scared of them because they are more shaky and unpredictable. Nor do they like people who are too forceful either. There is an ideal middle ground approach that is the culmination of confidence and respect for the animal. I wasn't scared for several reasons. First of all he already let me pet him through the cage bars and I saw that he didn't try to bite the employee. But more importantly, realizing that this parrot which is the size of Truman (Cape Parrot) and beak the size of Kili's (Senegal Parrot), that he really couldn't do much to scare me and I could work through it safely. Thus I made a friend and made Kiwi's day. And hopefully not only the museum employee could learn something from it but you as well!
Gulf World Marine Park
An unexpected highlight of the trip turned out to be the Gulf World Marine Park. I've been to lots of Aquariums but this one was a bit different. First of all, this was the most commercialized one I've ever encountered. They skipped all the boring (yet rare and educational) fish exhibits. Instead they just featured the stuff visitors want to see like sting rays, penguins, sea lions, and dolphins. We came just in time for the parrot show and dolphin show! You read that right, parrot show. Now why half of a "marine" park is dedicated to parrots is beyond me but this is a fact. They had about 10 outdoor aviaries and another 10 indoor stands with various kinds of macaws and parrots occupying them. I learned that they have over 40 rescued parrots that are homed in cages outside public view but they get circulated around the public displays throughout the day.
I was pleased to see unclipped parrots performing tricks including flight during the indoor parrot show. No need to explain as I included bits of the show in the following video. After the show I got to chat with the parrot trainer and exchange some ideas about training while getting the inside scoop on food management. As you watch the parrot and dolphin shows, pay attention to the cues, bridges, and rewards in addition to the behavior. Can you tell what kind of reinforcement schedule is being used?
I included just some small bits of the shows and recommend seeing them for yourself if you are ever out to Panama City Beach, Florida.
Finally here's a shot of Joe Junior, a 14 foot Florida Alligator I photographed on a bank of the Wakulla Springs State Park.