It's been nearly six months since I adopted Santina from Lazicki's. The progress since then has been monumental and this is an update to mention most of it. I have gone from a bird that wouldn't even step up for me to being able to take my entire flock out to Coney Island wearing harnesses.
Here's a list of the things Santina learned during this period: -Step up (inherited) -Touch her (inherited) -Head scratches (inherited) -Go in carrier -Target -Grab -Flip over -Take medication -Open wings -Getting along with other birds -Put on Harness -Socialization (don't bite others)
Santina was already known to be able to step up and cuddle with certain people, but this certainly wasn't the case with me on first encounter. So not only did I work on inheriting those qualities she already had, but I improved them to the maximum extent. I improved her step up reliability to 100%, got her comfortable being touched anywhere as necessary, and went on to do a lot more with her. I set lenient goals and always exceeded expectations. For example I was ready to have to take weeks to get her to step up but she was already doing so within a few days, I was ready to take a month to harness train her but did so in under a week, I hoped to be able to take her to Coney Island before the end of the summer and was already doing so a few weeks since harness training her. All in all, progress has been very efficient and she is doing stupendously.
Santina has been learning to get along with the other birds
I would estimate that I spent an average of 10 minutes twice a day training Santina. Some days sessions were as much as 30 minutes but other days I skipped training entirely. It's not a lot of time but it was always a focused and goal oriented time. For each specific thing I taught her, we would have a burst of focused training and in between training new things we would just take time off or review known behaviors. The time off between training to let things sink in is nearly as important as the time training itself.
This DVD features Santina and covers the entire harness training process from start to finish. You can see the exact steps I took to teach her to want to wear the harness and assist me in putting it on. The DVD covers 6 days of training and the 50 minute section of harness training equates to about 1/4 scale. In other words, some repetitions were cut out and the real training was only about 4 times as much as what you see in the DVD. Put a different way, that's just 3 hours of training or 6x 30 minute sessions. That's nothing! In a single outing, I can spend more time out with Santina wearing a harness than all the training that it took!
The secret is, well watch the DVD for secrets. But what I want to say is that you really have to see the DVD in conjunction with my book. The DVD is strictly about harness training and does not teach how to do training, how to manage motivation, etc. The approach demonstrated in the DVD presumes a moderately tame parrot that is capable of at least step up, being touched, being grabbed, targeting, and having its wings pulled open. All of these things are covered in my book and are absolutely mandatory requisites to even think of beginning harness training. I don't know how some people think they will stick a harness on a bird that bites them and won't even step up. Not gonna happen.
But all things said, I taught Santina all those requisites in about 4 months really taking my time. Then I taught her to wear a harness in under a week and spent another week or two getting her used to going outside. Some days I would take her out twice just so she would be more used to being outside and wearing the harness. In 2 months since harness training Santina, I had already gone so far as to take her to Coney Island (a really busy amusement area), on the Subway into NYC, and out with my other two parrots at the same time. This article and video aren't meant to teach you what to do but rather to inspire what you can do with your birds. All you need is some love, time, patience, and some Wizard's tools to help you in the process.
Getting your parrot accustomed to being held with a towel is a fairly important exercise. There will be times in its life that toweling will be necessary such as vet visits, grooming, drying, or frantic capture. Unfortunately most people go about toweling completely the wrong way and make their parrot more and more fearful of the towel. In this article I will tell you about why Truman became phobic of towels and how I trained him to be toweled in just three days.
After I had discovered that Truman was phobic of towels, I contacted his breeder and learned she had never toweled him. I suspected this by the fact that he was cautious around towels in the first place. I had never bothered toweling him myself since I got him as he is completely tame. He always stepped up and I was able to grab him, so I never even considered toweling him. However, during Truman's last vet visit, I noticed he was very uncomfortable being grabbed by a towel. The harsh treatment during the procedure probably contributed to his phobic response to towels. I realized that this towelphobia was serious when I walked past Truman with a towel and he took flight. I knew we would need to work on this.
First of all, I would like to say that toweling should never be the primary means of taking a parrot out of a cage or handling. This will only make the parrot more fearful of the towel and make the aggression you are trying to block with the towel even worse. While I do say in my taming guide that a towel could be used to extract the parrot out of the cage for the first time, positive reinforcement training must immediately be employed to overcome the distress caused by the circumstances. Such toweling should not be used beyond the first few times being taken out (or better yet avoided all together by targeting). The parrot should not be chased with, cornered, or trapped under a towel. All towel interactions should be positive.
I am horrified by the advice I hear given to newbies at pet stores and online about forcibly toweling the parrot regularly to make it used to handling. This is terrible advice not only because it is ineffective but also because it does not build a relationship based on trust. The parrot has no reason to like its human just because it has been broken to stop fighting a towel. And yet, this is possibly one of the most advised methods out there. Please do not use or advise toweling as a method for taming a parrot to handling. Instead, use my Taming/Training guide for a better approach. This Toweling article builds on that taming approach to extend it to toweling but is not a primary means of taming.
Just because you can capture/grab a parrot with a towel does not mean that you should. It is easy to break feathers or possibly a wing in such rough handling. These types of incidents elicit a fight or flight reflex and teach the parrot to be fearful both of you and the towel. Ideally, positive toweling should be introduced prior to any unavoidable negative toweling (vet, grooming, etc). If the parrot becomes accustomed that the majority of toweling is positive and the rare vet visit is unpleasant, the parrot will still remain towel tame. A big mistake that many people make is to only use the towel when necessary and therefore all towel interactions are averse.
The first step in towel taming a parrot is to let it observe the towel in a harmless way. How long this needs to be done will depend on how scared the parrot is of towels or new objects. I prefer to use a specific towel for parrots only but this is optional, just don't use a used towel because there could be mold on it. Begin by hanging the towel on a chair or placing it inconspicuously at a great distance from the cage for the first day. In the span of several days to a week, leave the same towel out close and closer to the parrot's cage. Once the parrot is used to the site of it, just walk around the cage area holding it but without much attention on the parrot. Definitely do not come straight at the parrot with the towel. Just walk around casually to and from the cage holding the towel and even play around with it. This will show the parrot that the towel is harmless.
The prior steps can be done with a completely untame parrot, however, to continue with towel taming, it is important that the parrot is already accustomed to coming out of the cage and stepping up. If it is not, follow the steps in my taming guide prior to continuing with towel taming.
Now begins the formal towel training. I recommend putting the parrot on a Training Perch because it will keep it focused on you with limited space to go. The training perch will keep your hands free for manipulating the towel and parrot. Put the parrot on the perch. Once again show the towel from some distance and approach slowly. Hold the towel casually and not pointed straight at the parrot. Drape the towel over your shoulder or arm and handle your parrot normally. Cuing some tricks (such as targeting) and providing treats is a good way to get your parrot to relax in preparation for towel taming. Only at this point will you try to gauge your parrot's fear threshold to towels. Hold a small tip of the towel out and let the rest hang away. Slowly approach the small tip of the towel toward the parrot. The moment it begins to back away or attempt to bite, stop and hold the towel there for a few seconds. Withdraw the towel and reward the parrot with your other hand. It is important not to push too far to the point of eliciting biting or flight. If the parrot is given the chance to bite or fly away, it will become negatively reinforced for that response.
Continue the approach and hold method with the towel for several training sessions. Eventually you should be able to hold the tip of the towel closer and show a greater portion of it. The reason for showing just a small tip at first is to make it less big and frightening looking. But as the parrot becomes more familiar, you can show more. You will keep practicing this until you can gently touch the parrot's back with the tip of the towel. Lay a corner of the towel on the parrot's back and give it a toy or treat to play with while the towel is there. If the parrot still pays attention to the towel, you need to practice the previous steps further. But if the parrot entirely ignores the towel and enjoys the reward, negative reinforcement is no longer necessary because the parrot is not scared of the towel. What this means is that taking the towel away from the parrot is no longer the main reward but the treat/toy is.
All that is left now is to go from touching the parrot with towel to grabbing it. This is kind of the tough part if the parrot is afraid of being grabbed with a towel. The mistake I made the first day was approaching Truman with the towel to grab and giving him the chance to fly away. Every time he got to fly away from being grabbed by the towel, negatively reinforced flying away from towels. He was learning that flying away is the best way to deal with his fear of towels. This might work great for him but it is counter productive to my goal of towel training him. Here we reach a fork in the road where it is necessary to choose between flooding and strict positive reinforcement.
The positive reinforcement approach is probably "nicer" in practice but will take drastically longer to achieve. To use the strictly positive reinforcement approach, continue practicing the method mentioned previously squeezing with ever slightly more pressure with every approach of the towel and then rewarding. This will need to be practiced and practiced until the parrot can be grabbed and held with the towel.
The positively reinforced flooding method is much more effective though. It accelerates the training and helps you be over with this procedure sooner. It should not be used as a short cut to avoid careful and deliberate training. It is just a way of showing the parrot straight out what is required and reconciling rather than taking a long time to let it figure it out on its own. Do not skip the previously mentioned steps and jump straight to flooding because then you won't achieve the tameness required for a parrot to voluntarily accept toweling. Once you are confident that the parrot is not fearful of being touched by the towel, place the towel on the parrot and squeeze to hold the parrot. Use your other hand to block the parrot from flying out of the towel while the towel is approaching. Essentially you force the parrot to be in the towel and grabbed. Once the parrot is grabbed, it can no longer kick or flap. Wait a few seconds for the parrot to calm down and release it back to its perch with a preferable reward. Continue practicing this by either holding the parrot prior to applying the towel or at least keeping another hand up to block it from avoiding the towel. If the parrot is having a major panic attack here, this training will not be effective and you need to go back to the basic taming listed above. However, if the parrot is tolerating the towel with only slight discomfort, you are making progress. Continue practicing this until you no longer need to block the parrot from flying away from the towel. Do this by keeping the blocking hand looser and then further away with each try. Successful completion of towel taming is when you can hold a towel in your palm, approach it to the parrot, and grab it without any resistance.
While in the training progress you may have forced the parrot to be in the towel against its will (otherwise, how would it find out that it won't hurt and a treat will be given if it never tried?), it is important to get to a point where the parrot accepts toweling voluntarily. Treats and painless interaction will erase the fear originally created by the towel or mild flooding process. Continue practicing toweling in a positive manner from time to time to maintain the comfort. Eventually you can reward toweling less and less frequently but the parrot will have no reason to resist because it knows the towel is harmless. You can transition to social rewards in place of food/toys for toweling. You can make toweling fun by toweling the parrot and then cuddling/petting it. On a cold day or after a shower, toweling will in itself be rewarding to keep warm. If you practice toweling in these positive ways, the occasional bad experience of necessary toweling will not outweigh all the good ones. It is just important that the vast majority of toweling times be good, that's all.
Between all the physical therapy and trick training that's been going on with Truman, behind the scenes I have also been doing a lot of taming exercises with him as well. Just like Kili, I can now hold Truman on his back, open his wings, hold him by the neck, hold him by the tail, and hold him by the beak.
Actually the holding by the beak trick is unique to Truman. Although I can sort of get away with holding Kili in this way, her beak is just too small to get any sort of grip by. But by sliding my finger into Truman's beak, I can lift and hold by his maxilla. This does not only show tameness but also very strong trust between trainer and animal. He can easily crack almond and walnut shells with that powerful beak, yet he is very gentle with my fingers and lets me hold him that way. For me it provides an alternate way to hold him but also helps to maintain the beak/hands comfort between us. If my hands and his beak interact on a daily basis then there will be no fear for either of us.
The primary training method I have been using for developing all of this tameness with Truman has been flooding with negative reinforcement. Now I am definitely not suggesting this for everyone, but just sharing what worked for me. Keep in mind I have previous training experience and am working with a baby parrot. I absolutely do not recommend this method for aggressive, problematic, or older birds. I believe that the main reasons this seemingly unrewarding technique is working so well for me is because Truman is so young and eager to learn. He doesn't develop a negative association for me as I am increasing the discomfort gradually. I'm definitely not pushing him straight to the limit. There is no need for positive reinforcement (although he gets some scratches and praise anyway) because he is not actually doing anything. He is learning through negative reinforcement that if he puts up with what I want to do without resisting, he can get it over with and we'll proceed to better things.
To hold Truman by the tail I took slow steps to get him ready for this. I definitely didn't just do it out of the blue. I had been accustoming him to being held on his back so now the main difference would be by where he would be held rather than the angle. I began by holding him on his back in my hand and touching his tail. I would increase this with each step by holding the tail and releasing part of the weight from the hand that was holding his back. I kept practicing this just a few times a day over a few weeks and now he trusts me to hold him by the tail. He is flighted so he's not scared of falling and I'm not too worried about dropping him then. Please don't ever subject a clipped parrot to this though.
By handling my bird in all different ways every day, the overall tameness improves. Unlike trick training which is accelerated to facilitate quick learning, taming is about going slow and only over time developing a comfort zone. This comfort zone is very important though. Sure holding by the tail might just be silly but being able to hold the parrot by the neck or beak can be quite important. Holding by the neck allows for carrying a flighted parrot through an unsafe zone (that is how I carry him the few yards from home to aviary) and is also useful for restraining the parrot during grooming/vet exams. The ability to hold the beak reduces fear of the beak, biting, and can be useful if any beak care is required. This article isn't meant to serve as a lesson on parrot taming, however, a previous one I wrote should be more helpful. It shows how to tame parrot to open its wings and hold it on its back. The same concepts can be applied for the other tameness demonstrations I show as well.
Here is a video to show Truman's little trick routine which consists of shake, wave, target, and fetch as well as his latest tameness demonstration. Although he was tame from the day I got him, there is no way he would have allowed me to do the things I show in this video without all the work we did. Also this is the first video where he can do shake and wave interchangeably. It took much longer to get him used to doing the trick I ask for rather than just one or the other.
I just wanted to share in a single post/video a demonstration of Kili's tameness. I realize that people have seen bits and pieces of it here and there but I wanted to consolidate it all to one place. I continue practicing all of these taming techniques from time to time to maintain tameness. I just casually touch or grab her in different ways so that she remains very used to hands. To learn a bit about beginning this taming process, check out this article.
I can touch Kili anywhere including the places parrots tend not to like being touched like under the wings and tail. Also I can grab/hold Kili by anything. Obviously I can grab by her feet but also can grab by her back or neck. She doesn't mind being grabbed by the head and I'm sure it doesn't hurt her because I see her hanging by her beak alone from time to time. Kili lets me pull her wing and tail feathers open. Most impressively Kili let me grab and hold her by the tail. This requires absolute trust. Here are some pictures and video: