Heather | BirdTricks | Parrot Training Blog

Saving the Thick-billed Parrot

 August 10th, 2012
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Thick-billed Parrots at Loro Parque, Tenerife, photo from www.versele-laga.com

According to the IUCN Red List website, the Thick-billed parrot is classed as endangered and has been for over 18 years. There are estimated to be less than 3000 of these beautiful birds remaining in the wild. The biggest problem this species faces is a lack of nesting sites; they nest in Aspen trees which over the years have been extensively reduced in numbers due to logging, and the ones that are left are old and beginning to rot.

Find out more about Thick-billed Parrots, the threats they face, and how the World Parrot Trust are helping HERE.

At the Tropical Butterfly House, we’re doing our bit to help this species, by raising money for the World Parrot Trust. In fact, in the last 4 weeks, we’ve raised over £800!! The bird shows attract big audiences during the Summer holidays especially, so we have been raising awareness about the threats facing parrots all over the world, including the illegal parrot trade and habitat loss.

Thick-billed Parrots, photo from www.parrots.org

It certainly helps to have 2 adorable Hahn’s Macaws to pull on the heart strings too! We have trained them both to play dead (and stay still looking dead for a while) which gets a big ‘awww’ and encourages people to dig deep in their pockets and make a donation. Members of the audience raise their hands if they wish to donate, and we call Ché or Esteban to them, they take the coin from their fingertips and then fly back to one of the donation bowls at the front of the audience and drop the coin in. 🙂

Esteban, Hahn's Macaw, almost playing dead (usually he has his head right back but he kept posing for the camera!!) photo by Ben Coulson

Sometimes, we can’t get round everybody as Ché and Este are small birds and can get worn out quickly, especially in the warm weather we’ve experienced in the last few weeks. We monitor them closely and stop as soon as they’re showing signs of getting fed up, too hot or too tired and the audience are usually very understanding of us putting our little birdies’ comfort and health first AND still make their donations at the end of the show!

Want to make a donation?

Visit the World Parrot Trust website and do your bit to help parrots in the wild 🙂 

Nurturing Odin the Raven’s Intelligence

 August 3rd, 2012
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Me with Odin the Raven, photo by Ben Coulson

Thought I’d update you on our very handsome corvid, Odin the Raven. He’s now coming up to 4 months old and has the most spectacular feathers, a photograph doesn’t do him justice, he is so glossy and has a stunning blue/black sheen… and look at the size of him now!

As I mentioned in an earlier article, Things You Didn’t Know About Raising A Raven, providing foraging toys and other objects to play with from an early age was vital to ensure that Odin developed a proper ability to learn. A bird that never has to work anything out, will find it difficult to suddenly start learning new things or problem-solving by itself.

Odin investigating a new puzzle, photo by Ben Coulson

Odin has been tackling a couple of new puzzles, the above is the latest of them – in the middle of the cage is a small tub with a wire handle at the top containing mealworms (one of his favourite treats) which he can’t reach just by poking his beak through. In front of the cage are 3 sticks of approximately the same length and 1 has a curved end. Odin has to use the sticks to either push the tub near to the edge of the cage, or use the hooked stick to pull it nearer to him. Of course, it’s up to Odin how he tackles the problem and he may well try out a few solutions that we haven’t though of, or even simply jump on the cage and knock it over, tipping the mealworms on to the floor. Regardless of how he eventually succeeds, this kind of exercise is great to get his brain ticking.

Odin picking up one of the sticks, photo by Ben Coulson

After eventually succeeding in training Odin to hop into a carry box on command, he has been in the line up for the shows for just over a week now and is doing really well. He flies above the audiences heads, and lands on our glove when called over – he doesn’t stay in one spot for long though, he has the personality of a mischievous little puppy! Odin wants to investigate everything and doesn’t stay still for more than a couple of seconds, he also does the cutest two-footed bounce, he’s become a real hit with visitors already 🙂 He also loves shiny things, especially keys…

Attempted key theft! Photo by Ben Coulson

After a couple of days of getting Odin used to flying around in front of an audience, we decided it was time to focus his attention and give him a task to complete during his big moment in the show. We got some think plastic pipe and attached a long chain with a bucket at the end to the inside of the pipe. Odin’s task would be to pull the chain in order to reach the bucket to retrieve the food inside. This video shows you step by step exactly how this worked, many thanks to Ben who constructed this task for Odin and produced the video!

I’m sure you’ll agree it’s wonderful to see such a clever bird in action, and challenging your bird’s problem-solving skills are just as important. By the way, if you would like to see this handsome Odin’s baby pictures, check out my first blog post about him; Hand-rearing a Raven Chick.

Odin calling loudly, photo by Ben Coulson

Training Voluntary Nail Clipping

 July 27th, 2012
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Me with Green-winged Macaws, Bonnie (left) and Alfie (right)

Clipping your parrot’s nails can be a hassle, but keeping nails trimmed to a comfortable length is an important part of caring for them. Sometimes a textured perch is enough to keep them worn to a sensible length, but occasionally a manicure is needed! On my recent trip to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, I was very impressed to see the bird trainers there demonstrate how they had trained the parrots to lift each foot when asked, and have each nail clipped. No fuss, no stress, no resistance whatsoever, and the parrots got a treat once every nail on the foot was trimmed.

Bonnie and Alfie, the free-flying Green-winged Macaw siblings, seem to have spectacularly fast-growing nails and, having Alfie sat on my forearm before he flies in the shows and when I’m carrying them both (Bon sits on my hand) means I certainly notice it, especially when he’s in a silly mood and leans back and his nails dig in, ouch!!

Needless to say, I was determined to achieve this wonderful hassle-free method of nail trimming with the Tropical Butterfly House flock. I’m not quite at the point of doing this and it may take several more weeks until they are both totally comfortable with having their nails trimmed but I’ve been surprised at how quickly they are progressing.

Bonnie, Green-winged Macaw

The tactic to trim Bonnie and Alfie’s nails before has been to quickly trim a nail at a time through the cage bars and give a big reward afterwards as ‘compensation’ – this would sometimes mean it took 3 days to trim both of their nails (getting 1 or 2 on each foot at a time!) – not ideal really is it?! With such a big flock, my fellow trainers, Ben and Amanda, and I, decided we would begin this training with one or two birds for each of us, instead of all 3 of us trying to train this with all the birds (it would be very difficult to keep track of the tiny advances and improvements at each training session, so we have our ‘own birds’ to focus on).

So initially, I just began touching their feet and rewarding. Alfie was pretty happy for me to do this anyway, but Bonnie used to start to lunge for me when I reached towards her feet – within one day after about 6 sessions of foot touching and rewarding (1 or 2 minute sessions at a time), Bonnie had stopped lunging already. I have also been working on Bon and Alf becoming comfortable with me lifting their wings which I will work up to getting on cue, but for now is great for checking them over.

Alfie having his wings lifted (and Bonnie being a nosey girl as always!)

The next step is to get them to lift their foot on to your hand: if you’re bird willingly steps up, you can use this as an easy start and put your hand in front of them, but prevent them stepping up and bridge and reward the moment their foot is placed on your hand. Moving forward from this, I have gradually built up to holding the foot, and then touching each nail individually, then gently holding each nail individually. I’m really proud of Bonnie and Alfie to have reached this stage within around 2 weeks (2-3 training sessions per day at 1-2 minutes per training session) – they key is to do the training as many times as possible, keeping them short and sweet and finishing on a success.

Alfie having his toe held 🙂

The final stage will be to hold the foot, and touch each nail individually with several different objects (toys, pens, anything), so that they are totally fine with things being held against the nails. ONLY at this point, we will introduce clippers into the situation. Most of our parrots already recognise the nail clippers and it’s not a positive reaction, so introducing them too early could have a detrimental effect on the training process.

Molly, Citron-crested Cockatoo, having her foot held and nail gently held.

This training can easily be adapted to become a cute ‘shake hands’ trick, and could prove really useful in checking the health of your bird’s feet without the risk of a bite. NOTE: Every bird will progress at a different pace so don’t be disheartened if you don’t seem to be moving fast, this could take months for some birds to even begin to understand and be comfortable with. Pushing a training session to the point where your bird is stressed (and you are too) will leave you both having had a negative experience, and neither of you will look forward to doing it again. Regular brief sessions and a ‘slowly but surely’ attitude to this kind of training is best, there’s no rush! 🙂

5 Food Foraging Ideas For Birds

 July 26th, 2012
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Wild Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on berries (photo by dreamstime.com)

Searching, hanging upside down, chewing, balancing and working hard to problem solve; it’s all a natural part of getting something to eat for a wild parrot and it’s important to simulate this for our pet birds to keep them happy, healthy and mentally stimulated.

The idea of creating a foraging toy for your bird may seem a bit overwhelming if you’ve never done it before and you and your bird have become accustomed to a routine of all food being offered in a bowl. However, it is absolutely vital to provide food foraging opportunities and I hope these ideas prove just how easy it is!


Any kind of cardboard box will do; a big one, small one, a cereal box, egg box, etc! Make sure the box you are using is just cardboard and doesn’t have any plastic coating which could be harmful to your bird. Fill the box with shredded paper, newspaper, or if it’s a big cardboard box, maybe more cardboard! You could even use string to seal it closed if your bird is an ‘advanced’ forager!

Hang it up, or just place it on the floor, with some treats somewhere inside – this can entertain for HOURS! If you’re feeling adventurous, add ‘accessories’ like in the picture below (wooden blocks, string boxes together etc) If you have a cage with bars on the ceiling, try putting the box on there so your bird has to chew and pull it through the bars.

Photo by Heather Ahearn of a collection of cardboard foraging items made for her flock


This is ridiculously simple and brilliant! (Thanks to my boss Andy who suggested this one!) Get a couple of sheets of newspaper, put a treat or a few bits of food in the middle, then roll it up into a long tube and twist both ends so that it looks like a Christmas cracker… give it to your bird as a present or hang it up in their cage or aviary to add to the challenge of getting to the goodies 🙂


Especially great for hot days; take some or your bird’s food and place in a freezer-safe container (the smaller the better) add some water and watch your parrot tackle a yummy ice-cube!

Ruby, Green-winged Macaw, wondering where to start with her frozen treat


Get a cardboard tube from the inside of your kitchen roll/paper towel or even a toilet roll tube (the longer tubes work better for this toy) and put some food in the middle. Either leave it like this, or poke a few holes in the tube where the food can drop out. Your bird can roll it around or chew to get to the food in the middle, and when they get pretty good at it, make it trickier by leaving the tube as it is and stuffing a ball of paper into each end to ‘seal’ it with treats inside.

Military Macaws 'Red' and 'Bolivia' working to retrieve food, photo by Heather Ahearn


Thank you to Heather Ahearn, bird trainer at Whipsnade Zoo, who recommended this one. If you have played KerPlunk, you can probably guess already how this works, I will definitely be making a few for my flock! It requires a bit more in terms of preparation so for those of you who struggle to find time to do this kind of thing, this could be a rainy day project, or a special treat every once in a while.

Start with a cardboard tube or, if you can get hold of it, a chunk of hollow bamboo (any hollow parrot-safe wood could be used), make holes in the tube and poke sticks through the holes from one side to the other, with some at different angles. The food placed inside is retrieved by pulling the sticks out of the tube so it falls down the tube 🙂

Collection of various foraging toys, photo and toys by Heather Ahearn

Don’t forget, if your bird hasn’t yet experienced the fun of food foraging, it may take some practise, but don’t give up! If one toy doesn’t strike their interest, try different ideas! You can also make food foraging simpler in the early stages by revealing a little bit of the food, or open up a little bit of the concealed part of the toy until your bird is confident in what to do. Good luck and have fun!

Teaching Old Birds New Tricks

 July 24th, 2012
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Jasper, Congo African Grey, photo by Ben Coulson

Firstly, I should point out that Congo African Grey, Jasper, isn’t actually ‘old’ at 16 years old, but he is the oldest in our flock and was the first parrot ever at the centre so we think of him as the old boy 🙂

After about 12 years of performing in the Parrot Displays, doing a very cute talking routine (which has developed and changed over the years) we decided to offer Jasper the chance of a new adventure and train him for free-flight! Training young birds for free-flight tends to be easier because the birds don’t see it as a strange thing, but a bird who has been in the safe enclosure of an aviary for so many years could well spook just at the weirdness of suddenly being in strange surroundings so there is a bit more risk associated with it.

Jasper in flight, photo by Ben Coulson

Although new to being outside, flying to us when called is not a new thing for Jasper. He did this willingly from a young age when he was called by name and over the last 2 years I have particularly put an emphasis on getting Jasper to fly to me as part of the show (often flying the full length of the aviary) and he has always responded quite quickly. He’s also very comfortable having his toe held, meaning we knew we could safely hold Jasper if we needed to without any risk of injury to him (holding a parrot’s toe and the bird trying to fly away could lead to the foot/leg being twisted). Given that we were confident in Jasper’s response; a week ago, we decided to try our first flight outdoors with Jasper and he was brilliant!

Jasper in flight, in the background is the parrot aviary 🙂 Photo by Ben Coulson

We kept the training sessions very brief at first, so that he didn’t really have time to worry about where he was or the different surroundings. When I did the first outdoor flight, I sat him on the wooden rail at the front of our display arena, ran back around 4 feet away and immediately called him and as soon as he landed on my hand, gave him lots of praise and a few treats as a reward. I repeated this again and gave him another big reward and then ended the training session.

As well as the free-flight training, Jasper has also had to become accustomed to being much closer to the audience than he was previously used to, and with no physical barrier between him and them. After 2 days of training, I decided to bring Jasper out in the show and tell people about the training we were doing, but before his turn to show off, I put him in a carry crate he could easily see out of, and let him ‘watch’ the first few birds of the show to give him time to adjust.

Jasper flying over to me (as you can see, training Jasper for free-flight is making me as happy as it's making him!) Photo by Ben Coulson

Over the last week, Jasper has been practising flying outdoors and doing this with 2 trainers means we have been able to begin training for flying circuits. With trainer 1 holding Jasper, the trainer 2 calls him over and at the exact moment Jasper takes off, trainer 1 points in the direction he is flying, so that he begins making the association with the pointing signal and flying. Our intention is to train Jasper to fly ‘mini’ circuits around our display arena just above everyone’s heads as opposed to flying really high up like Bonnie and Alfie (Green-winged Macaws) do and, given how confident he seems already flying up to around 15 feet (and in front of an audience), we reckon Jasper will be a star free-flyer soon.

Jasper in flight, photo by Ben Coulson

The most noticeable thing over the last week has been the change in Jasper; he’s absolutely loving all the extra individual attention he is getting and he has been more talkative than ever! Training your bird and challenging them with new exciting things provides the mental stimulation so vital for keeping them happy so, no matter the age of your bird or whether you have ever done training with them before, it’s never too late to begin and you will have a happier parrot as a result!

PS. If you have not yet done so, please sign this petition set up by the World Parrot Trust to help protect wild Congo African Greys 🙂


Note: This blog article is not intended to teach you how to teach your own bird outdoor freeflight or recall training. Please email info@birdtricks.com for more information on learning freeflight training from a professional trainer and to enroll your bird in the Freestyle Flyer’s Club.

Food Foraging at the Tropical Butterfly House

 July 22nd, 2012
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Blue-fronted Amazon 'Charlie' tackling a frozen block of fruits, vegetables and cooked pulses, photo by Ben Coulson

Providing the opportunity to work for food is extremely important for all captive animals in order to keep them happy and healthy, whether it’s searching for the food to begin with, working to get at it, or working for it during training and performing. In their natural environment, an animal’s food doesn’t just turn up in a bowl ready for them; a vast amount of their time and effort is put into getting something to eat, so simulating this foraging activity provides a valuable form of enrichment (mental stimulation).

The picture below shows two of our Green-winged Macaws (Ruby at the top and Alfie at the bottom… and also the top of Bonnie’s head in the corner of the photo!) tackling their favourite foraging toy. This is a recycled piece of wood that used to be part of a long hanging perch in the aviary that had come loose, we drilled holes into it which are the perfect size to shove a walnut almost to the middle, making it a real challenge for the Macaws to get to.

Green-winged Macaws, Ruby and Alfie, getting stuck into a foraging toy, photo by Ben Coulson

After watching Jamie’s video on Beginner Foraging Tips, we also began placing items in our parrots’ food bowls; for example small pieces of paper, rope, wooden blocks etc. so that they had to pick them out of the way in order to reach their dinner. The video is definitely worth a watch if you’re yet to start providing foraging opportunities for your bird!

Meerkats foraging in a pumpkin at Halloween, photo by Ben Coulson

It’s not just our birds who are provided with the opportunity to work a bit for their food; this sort of enrichment is offered to almost every animal at the centre. Meerkats are well known for being curious and playful (and adorable!) and they love foraging activities; the pumpkin foraging toy was a real favourite! Visitors are able to purchase small pots of mealworms when they arrive at the park which can be fed to the residents of ‘Meerkat Mansion’ – the great thing about mealworms is that they tend to fall between the rocks, so the Meerkats have to dig to get at them (which is exactly what their long front claws are made for doing, of course).

Egyptian Fruit Bat, photo by Ben Coulson

Our Meerkats, Prairie Dogs, Striped Skunk, Red Squirrels, rabbits, tortoises and many other animals are scatter-fed, meaning they are not given a bowl full of food, but their food is scattered around their enclosure and often stashed somewhere for them to try to locate. As you can see in the picture above, our Egyptian Fruit Bats are treated to ‘fruit kebabs’, perfect for eating upside down and way more fun than a bowl!

It’s not just the larger animals we provide foraging activities for though, even our Turkish Spiny Mice have food placed in tricky-to-reach places in their enclosure to offer a bit of a challenge. And let’s not forget the really small… below is a picture of our Leaf Cutter Ants who have a huge network of elevated twigs to climb along, connecting them to two sources of food, these ants travel back and forth up to about 10 feet at a time collecting food. Encouraging and allowing natural behaviour in a captive environment means they are doing what they were designed to do, what they know how to do, and that can only be a good thing.

Leaf Cutter Ants, photo by Ben Coulson

Some of you may have heard of stereotypic behaviour; this is essentially where a captive animal keeps repeating a movement or action with no obvious purpose, for example pacing back and forth – it basically tells you that the animal is bored out of it’s mind to put it simply. Providing natural forms of mental stimulation, which food foraging is a big part of, helps to keep the animal’s brain ticking and keep them occupied; it also means that visitors get to see the animal’s natural behaviour.

I hope that seeing the effort made to provide food foraging for our animals at the centre, even those as tiny as ants, will encourage those of you who don’t already provide foraging for your birds to start now; you will have a much happier bird as a result 🙂