Heather | BirdTricks | Parrot Training Blog - Part 2

A Day with the Bird Trainers at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

 July 13th, 2012
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Scarlet Macaws flying long distance circuits in the Birds of the World show at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo (photo by Heather Scott)

This week, I spent a day with the bird training team at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo which was a wonderful opportunity to see another zoo’s bird displays and spend valuable time learning from experienced trainers. I was looking forward to seeing Bald Eagle, Apachi, in action in the shows but unfortunately she was out of action due to a foot problem. The keepers and vets at Whipsnade were kind enough to allow me to go in to see some of the procedure.

Apachi, who is nearly 20 years old, had developed arthritis in her feet and a swollen area had developed around one of her toes, so she was anaesthetised so that the vets could check if the swollen area contained fluid, as well as take x-rays of her feet. They were pleased that they had not worsened since the last time they were checked, and pain management would continue to keep her comfortable.

Apachi, Bald Eagle, during surgery (photo by Heather Scott)

Apachi had been a big attraction in the Birds of the World show, so the bird trainers I worked with were certainly sad to take the decision to allow her several months break from the shows, but had her best interests as their priority. After a couple of hours to come round from the anaesthetic, Apachi was moved into her new very large aviary where she will spend the next few months.

Apachi, Bald Eagle, settling into her new aviary and enjoying her dinner! (photo by Heather Ahearn, bird trainer at Whipsnade)

I was lucky enough to be allowed to help weigh the birds and put them into their outdoor aviaries for the day, as well as observe AND take part in some of the training. Two Military Macaws were learning free-flight circuits for the shows and it was great to be included in this and be one of the people signalling them to keep flying 🙂

Meeting Neiva, Hyacinth Macaw (photo taken by Heather Ahearn)

Something I was astounded by, was voluntary nail clipping – all of the parrots were trained to offer each foot on command and wait patiently while their nails were clipped and seeing this in action was really impressive! I’m not going to go into too much detail now about how this was achieved as I have already started training Bonnie and Alfie, my Green-winged Macaw free-flyers, to do this and will be writing a blog about my progress in the next couple of weeks 🙂

Despite a couple of the ‘main attraction’ birds being rested temporarily, The Birds of the World show was really impressive; seeing a pair of Blue and Gold Macaws, a pair of Scarlet Macaws, and a Military Macaw all flying around at the same time was just breath-taking! Neive, the Hyacinth Macaw, will be joined by another in the coming weeks so there will soon be a Hyacinth pair free-flying at the same time too!

Scarlet Macaws, Inca and George (photo by Heather Scott)

I also watched the Sea Lion Show whilst I was there; the training principles are much the same as with parrots and I was impressed to see really well trained behaviours performed to such subtle commands. The tiniest hand signals (many of which looked very similar from a distance) got instant results from the animals, and this has prompted me to minimise some of the physical cues we use for our birds  in the shows (for example gradually reducing a whole arm point to a finger point).

Chico, Toco Toucan, who I fell in love with! (photo by Heather Ahearn)

Becky, Hazel and Heather, whom I worked with for the day, were really helpful in offering training advice and tips which I have already started putting into action with my flock. It was a valuable day gathering inspiration for our shows at the Tropical Butterfly House too and I also got to hold Chico the Toco Toucan, who also performs in the shows, which was probably the highlight of my day (and yes, I will be pleading with my boss to get us one!).

I also managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the Lion enclosure before my drive back home and, after a brilliant but exhausting day, crashed out very much like these comfy cats 🙂

Lion pride at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo (photo by Heather Scott)

Cutest Parrot Routine Ever!

 July 7th, 2012
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Rosie, Galah/Rose-breasted Cockatoo, Molly, Citron-crested Cockatoo, and Charlie, Blue-fronted Amazon, all eager to begin the routine (photo by Ben Coulson)

Among the flock I work with, there are many little alliances and friendships (and rivalries!) but one of the cutest relationships to observe is the one between the 3 girls; Charlie, Blue-fronted Amazon, Molly, Citron-Crested Cockatoo and Rosie, Rose-breasted Cockatoo/Galah.

Since they first arrived at the Tropical Butterfly House around 10 years ago, they have been very close; Molly and Rosie even share a cage at night and all three are happy to travel in the same carry box to the outdoor aviary every morning. They can be a bad influence on each other, though! Molly is a bit of a drama queen and is the one less comfortable with new things… Rosie is brave on her own but she follows Molly’s lead so if Molly thinks something is scary, so does Rosie. If Molly refuses to go into the carry box to go in her cage for dinner at night, Rosie is likely to make a big fuss too! They’re a very comical pair 🙂

Rosie and Molly (photo by Ben Coulson)

Charlie is the only parent-reared parrot in the flock and likes to look after Molly and Rosie, she sometimes regurgitates food for them and often preens them. She has been performing a cute little trick where she stacks up little plastic pots with Molly for a number of years and we recently decided to bring Rosie in on the routine too! Molly already knew to take the pot in her beak from our fingers and pass it to Charlie, and Charlie would then do the stacking up, so we decided it was easiest to add Rosie in before Molly.

Charlie posing (photo by Ben Coulson)

To begin with, we offered the pot to Rosie which she grabbed with her beak, and then held it so she couldn’t drop it until Molly came to collect it, and rewarded Rosie. Technically, she wasn’t really completing the behaviour at this point but at this stage she was learning that she should take the pot, but she wouldn’t be keeping it to play with and that she would get treats when Molly took it from her.

We wanted Rosie not just to hold the pot until Molly took it from her, but to actually turn to face Molly and even take a few steps towards her. Initially we manipulated this, so we basically kept hold of the pot and moved it sideways round to Molly with Rosie still holding it – essentially this is rewarding Rosie even though she’s not really doing it herself.

Rosie, Molly and Charlie performing the routine (photo by Ben Coulson)

After 2 days and about 6 sessions in total, Rosie successfully took the pot and passed it to Molly, and eagerly awaited the next one!

Whilst Molly is on her way to Charlie to pass her a pot, Rosie will even take a few steps ready to pass the next to Molly, it’s absolutely adorable to watch (I think so, anyway!) so here’s a video of this little teamwork routine! You can see that all 3 birds do the whole sequence before they get a reward and that Rosie understands what to do – (I held the last stacking pot while Rosie had it to demonstrate what I explained earlier about manipulating a successful attempt), hope you all enjoy the video!



To learn how to train your bird tricks, or just more about trick training with props in general check out Parrot Trick Training.

The Great Grey Owl

 July 1st, 2012
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Isaac, Great Grey Owl, at 6 weeks old, photo by Ben Coulson

I’m very happy to introduce you to Isaac, our Great Grey Owl! Literally a couple of weeks after Odin the Raven became grown-up enough to move into big aviary… we got a new baby bird who is now almost 7 weeks old, I must admit I was thrilled because Odin’s baby stage just flew by.

Collected at 3 weeks old, he was already much less intensive work to take care of than Odin was – with pretty good feather development already, he didn’t need a heat lamp, just a blanket over one half of the box he was in at night to keep one side cosy for him. Half of the base of the box was lined with astroturf and the other side with a blanket.

Isaac in his rearing box at 3 weeks old, photo by me 🙂

He has now moved in to Odin’s old ‘mini aviary’ where he has been practicing jumping between the two different level perches. This species becomes tame quickly and is also capable of learning at an early age. He can eat up to about 8 chicks and 2 mice a day (we are also substituting the mice for rat meat a couple of times a week as it is quite nutritious and will help fuel all the feather growth… sorry for those of you who are squeamish about icky bird of prey food!). We are still hand feeding several times a day with training and, when we leave work for the day, the remainder of the day’s food is left in a dish for Isaac to eat.

So the first step of training is recall – for around a week now, we have been getting Isaac to walk a few paces every time for a piece of food. We initially held the food close to his beak so he was about to take it, and then moved it back slowly so that he would follow it 3-4 steps before letting him eat it. He is now walking up over a foot to come and collect his food, and even pouncing down from his highest perch to greet us ready for his dinner. (The method of luring is best used if it’s only to get an initial response that is then phased out – to learn how to phase out this technique so not to ‘dumb down’ your animal you are training, read more about training here.)

Isaac at 6 weeks old, photo by Ben Coulson

The Great Grey Owl is the largest owl in the world (although not the heaviest) and reaches up to about 26 inches tall (head to tail), as you can see from the picture above where Isaac is sat on a falconry glove, he is a BIG baby! Isaac already has some mighty feet too; his very sharp talons and strong grip would be used for grabbing small rodents in the wild and their distinctive facial disk of feathers helps collect and amplify sound for listening out for their prey. The Great Grey actually has the largest facial disc of any raptor. They range across north Asia, Alaska, Canada regions and are capable of detecting a prey animal under 2 feet of snow AND plunging feet first through it to get hold of it!

Adult Great Grey Owl in flight, photo courtesy of www.arkive.org

I’m sure you’ll all agree that Isaac’s permanent look of surprise and fluffy feathers make him one of the most adorable birds I’ve introduced you to on this blog and he is only going to become more magnificent. I can’t wait to fly him in the shows and update you on his progress!

Training Update on Zara the Seriema and Raising Odin the Raven

 June 22nd, 2012
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Odin at 2 weeks old (photo taken on 20th April by me)

The weeks seem to be flying by so quickly and I thought it might be nice to share with you some of the progress with Odin and Zara, who I introduced you to in previous articles. It’s been so manic recently for the bird team; we have a brand new show for our ‘Animal Olympics’ event this Summer for which we would like to have a few new things to show visitors. We have so many different little training projects underway; including flight training with an American Kestrel, a kind of ‘relay’ with two Cockatoos and an Amazon stacking up pots, target training a set route for Vernon, the Rüppell’s Griffon vulture, to fly, training the Kookaburra to catch food mid air, training our Barn Owl, Wispa, to ‘fly away’ back into her release box on cue in the show and several other things!

So firstly, I’m pleased to tell you that Odin is doing great! He is now 11 weeks old and seems so grown up already; he has matured with a fantastic personality! Trying to clean his aviary is hilarious, he hops around and picks up feathers or leaves and pokes them through the bars as if he is cleaning up, and then brings them back as a present… and if we’re watering the grass, he often dances about under the hose and has a bath – it certainly makes cleaning up the mess much more fun!

Odin the Raven (photo by Ben Coulson)

He has settled in well with his new companions, although he is cautious of Vernon (the largest) and seems to know it’s best not to challenge him for a certain perch or for food. He appears to be trying to make friends with Alfie, the Turkey Vulture, who Odin will tiptoe closer and closer to… if Alfie lets him – it’s quite comical to watch this strange friendship forming 🙂 Odin picked up recall training very very quickly, but training him to go into a carry box hasn’t proved to be as simple.

Vernon, Rüppell's Griffon Vulture, who has around an 8 ft wingspan (photo by Ben Coulson)

With a food reward inside, Odin happily hopped into the box the first time, but when we attempted to close the door behind him, he really didn’t like it. We’ve had to come up with ways to make it less scary for him, for example we have taken the back of the box away and replaced it with mesh, so that he can still see out of it and isn’t in the dark. Carry boxes for birds of prey tend to be mostly solid walls with air holes as being in the dark tends to keep the birds calm, however in Odin’s case it seemed to do the opposite and was hindering progress. It just shows how what works for one bird in one situation, may not work for another!

We also had to come up with a solution to the issue of having 3 birds in the same aviary, and getting just 1 of them in and out of it at a time. Well, we have a release hatch that Odin and Alfie could fit through but is too small for Vernon. So we have avoided doing anything with Odin near it, so Alfie knows to hop through the hatch into his carry box, where he is fed and the others can’t steal his food. Vernon comes out of the aviary twice a day, through the main door that we go in and out of, to perform in the shows, but after settling in to the aviary, Odin realised he is also able to get through this door at the same time! To prevent him from ‘escaping’ or coming out of the aviary without us asking him to do so, we started training a couple of days ago to teach him to ‘stay’.

Odin on his designated 'stay' perch, with his head out of the aviary, tucking in to some mealworms (photo by Ben Coulson)

We’ve set up wooden perch with astroturf on the top on the inside of the aviary, and on the outside of the bars in the same place is a little food dish full of gravel. We are periodically rewarding him to ‘perch’ when he is commanded, by putting mealworms into the bowl – the great thing about this is that he can easily poke his head through the bars to reach this food, and Alfie and Vernon aren’t interested in mealworms so they leave him to it. We can use this to station Odin in this particular spot, so that we may safely open and close the aviary door for Vernon without worry. When Odin is 100% reliable at going in the carry box, we will be taking him straight out into the shows as well!

Zara, Red-legged Seriema (photo by Ben Coulson)

Zara, our Red-legged Seriema, has been a tricky one! Those of you that read the blog may remember how I said they can jump quite high and run pretty fast… we have recently discovered that they can, in fact, jump VERY high and run RIDICULOUSLY fast! I am often asked, how can you tell when the bird is ready to be outside free… the truth is you will never know 100%. Target training was going fantastically well with Zara in her aviary, we were getting lightning quick responses reliably, every time. She was jumping around 8 feet in the air to touch the target and she seemed totally ready to go outside.

To cut a long story short, we witnessed her bolting the length of a field in a few seconds and jumping 20 feet in the air up to a tree branch! It didn’t exactly go to plan, but we didn’t give up. We spent another few days training only inside the aviary, and were again convinced she was ready and would respond well…. no. We had tried to prevent her escape by having someone either side of the entrance to her aviary, but this seemed to worry her more so she jumped straight over my head and sprinted into the distance again.

Zara stood in the doorway of her aviary, about to come out (photo by Ben Coulson)

As you can imagine, it was very stressful and disheartening for this to happen when we felt like we were doing everything right. When you are training a bird, you tend to have a plan, but your plan sometimes has to evolve and change when you make new discoveries about your bird’s behaviour through observing their reactions.

Zara did not like being surrounded, and didn’t like being in an enclosed space with no escape route. So, to prevent her disappearing over the horizon, we have actually given her a little more space (or at least the illusion that she has more freedom to wander). As you can see in the picture below, there is tall wire mesh to block the exit to one side of her aviary, and the trainer (myself, Ben or Amanda) stands the other side. This means we can use the target to build up her confidence and reliability hopping in and out of the aviary door when targeted to do so, without the concern that she will disappear and without spooking her by being too close for now.

Zara following the target a little further away from the aviary door (photo by Ben Coulson)

So I said we have lots of training projects underway… well I’m desperate to tell you all about yet ANOTHER NEW BIRD! An adorable baby birdy has been keeping me busy over the last couple of weeks and I hope to be able to reveal his identity in next week’s blog, I just have to wait until we have issued a press release from the zoo first so that it is public knowledge. I think you guys will instantly fall in love with ‘Isaac’ just like I did! 🙂

One Person Bird Syndrome – Why Socializing Your Bird With Other People is Important

 June 15th, 2012
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Keeping Mellow the Barn Owl all to myself for just a moment 🙂

At the Tropical Butterfly House, I work with the birds as part of a team of three: Ben has been working with me for a year and Amanda for around three months. Putting on shows for visitors that flow easily, look professional, and most importantly wow the crowds, needs a team of committed bird trainers who work together.

As many of you will know, I have a particular bond with Bonnie and Alfie, the Green-winged Macaw free-flyers, as we sort of learned together when I first began working with birds. I have to admit, ‘handing them over’ to someone new wasn’t my favourite of all things; firstly when Ben started, and more recently, when Amanda became the third member of the team. I know it’s silly, but I worried Bon and Alf might like these new people more and a tiny bit of me wanted to keep them to myself!

Bonnie and Alfie, Green-winged Macaws, coming in to land for Amanda

If you have a ‘one person bird’, you may find yourself guilty of this… if you’re really honest with yourself, it feels kind of nice when a bird will only do something for you and no-one else, doesn’t it? Well, although you may be able to justify why it’s ok for you, in my situation – a bird doing something for one person in the team and no-one else just won’t do! I know it’s beneficial for everyone that Bonnie and Alfie, and all the other birds, will behave equally well for the whole team so we all ensure we do the same to avoid the birds picking favourites among us – only by working together and helping each other, will we really achieve great training results.

Me flying Jet, our Black Kite (dressed as a 'bad fairy' for a themed show)

Communication is absolutely paramount. We keep a detailed diary every day of who has flown/trained each bird, what happened and how well the bird performed, as well as the exact training steps. In addition, we watch each other training the birds as much as possible to ensure consistency and to come up with ideas on how to best progress. A simple difference can have a big impact, for example, if one person rewards with a seed every time for stepping up, and the other person doesn’t, a bird may become less willing to step up (even if they had previously stepped up without a food reward for a long time).

Ben, Amanda and I are all very passionate about getting training right, and it’s totally normal to disagree sometimes about the best way to go about doing something, but we always come up with a mutually agreed plan of action to move forward. Having more than one trainer also means more minds to come up with ideas of interesting behaviours we could capture and present to audiences.

Disagreements between Ben and I about training the birds occasionally result in mild pirate-themed violence...

If you are the only person interacting with your bird, socialising them with other people is very beneficial for your bird and for you anyway, so I would definitely recommend this. If you’re not the only person interacting with your bird, you need to ensure really good communication with anyone else who may be; set some rules for what earns a reward and what doesn’t and what is allowed and make sure everyone sticks to them!

Stereotyping Parrot Species

 May 26th, 2012
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Coco, Blue and Gold Macaw

Blue and Gold Macaws tend to love to chew and destroy, Cockatoos tend to scream the house down… some stereotypes with parrot species tend to be very true, that’s why they become a stereotype in the first place! I’ve been thinking about another kind of stereotyping or prejudice, though, which some of you might find you’re guilty of too.

When I first started working with birds, I was introduced to Barney, a male Eclectus. Unfortunately, with no prior experience with parrots, the horror stories I was told about Barney flying at people’s faces, biting for ‘no reason’ with ‘no warning’ absolutely terrified me, as it would anyone. Of course there were warnings and reasons for this behaviour, but I was fearful of Barney from the start, and after a series of pretty bad bites when I did try to handle him (again bear in mind I was inexperienced and really just blindly hoped he wouldn’t bite me!), I pretty much avoided contact with him. After reading Mel’s post on Birds Using Light to Communicate, I better understand how to read Barney’s body language and hope we can be buddies in the near future.

Barney, Eclectus, with Ben Coulson (who also works with the birds and takes most of the photographs used for my blog posts)

The point is, after this experience with Barney, I’m pretty sure I would be hesitant with another Electus. It’s like if there was someone you went to school with that really annoyed you, you tend to associate that name forever with that person and I think many of us probably do this with birds too. It works the other way as well; I recently met a friend’s Moluccan Cockatoo, Rosie, and totally fell in love with her! They’re such spectacular birds in terms of appearance, and Rosie had a lovely temperament – really friendly and calm and would step up to anyone. I found myself thinking ‘Wow I want a Moluccan!’ but just because Rosie wasn’t a hot-headed screamer, doesn’t mean another one wouldn’t be…

Rosie, Moluccan Cockatoo

Another less than fun experience I had in my first couple of months of working with parrots was with a Black-headed Caique called Billy. Everyone said how cute and lovely this bird was so I didn’t fear him at all, so happily agreed when I was asked to put a branch in his aviary for him to play with and chew. Whilst in the aviary, he showed no signs that I noticed of aggression or fear, but I obviously annoyed him by intruding into his territory as a stranger because just as I was leaving, he flew onto my shoulder and bit straight through the top of my ear… flipping OW!! That has got to be the most painful bite I’ve had from a bird, he really meant it! At a parrot club I visited a few months ago, I met a lady with two Black-headed Caiques and felt this instant feeling of dread. Totally unreasonable, of course, and they were lovely. But it certainly shows how a negative experience can affect your perception of a particular species unfairly.

I think we all probably stereotype parrot species to a certain extent and have our favourites as a result; I have a big soft spot for Green-winged Macaws because I’ve had such a wonderful time training Bonnie and Alfie, the free-flying siblings.

Bonnie and Alfie, Green-winged Macaws, in flight

The most important thing, I think, is to remember that some species have traits or tendencies but all parrots are total individuals with no two alike. Our interactions with birds can have a big impact on their behaviour too, with potentially positive or negative results. For help with overcoming behavioural issues, check out the Birdtricks courses.

P.S. In case any regular readers are wondering, I am unfortunately no longer off to Idaho this Summer to work with Dave and Jamie at Silverwood Theme Park as was planned; due to a series of delays and hiccups during the planning, it hasn’t been possible to arrange everything in time. I hope to meet the Birdtricks team in future, though, and for now I’m reeeeally happy that I’m not saying goodbye to my feathered friends! 🙂