Parrots need your voice
The other day, I brought out a carpet/floor sweeper that had been side-lined for a while until I got a new battery. I love it because it’s quick and easy, and it fits under the cages. However, for some reason it now scares one of the greys, Ren. He went into the African grey fearful growl when I started vacuuming under his cage. I turned the sweeper off, and said, “It’s okay, it’s just me. See? You’re alright.” He stopped growling, so I thought I’d try it again, and this time, he was fine with it. I also kept telling him it was okay, and that it was just me vacuuming (it did take several different times before he didn’t growl at all).
So, I had to ask myself, “Why was this successful?” Here’s what I came up with: I’ve always tried to establish a trust relationship/bond with my parrots. It really started early on when I decided I didn’t want anyone to groom my birds other than me. I hated the idea of grooming my own birds, but at the time, I felt most groomers were a little too rough. Also, having a grey with a crooked neck meant having to keep nails and wings a little longer for the extra balance. But how would I keep their trust? I decided that I would never trick them into the towel. I wouldn’t take them out of the cage, and then towel them. The only way I would towel them is when they’re in their cages, and I come to the cage with a towel. This tells them that whenever I give them my hand, it’s always in friendship. Also, if I grab a towel while they’re sitting with me, it’s because they pooped on me, and no tricking business. They know that the towel is not meant for them, and don’t have to be scared. Of course, if I come to the cage with a towel, they will know I intend on toweling them, but after all that, I can still go to the cage, offer my hand, and they will step up.
Another trust situation I taught them is whatever I put in their bowls, is edible and yummy. I started with foods I knew they already liked, like almonds and grapes, and ate them in front of them. They immediately wanted some of what I was eating. So, when I wanted them to eat something a little less yummy, like bitter greens, I started by making myself a salad, and eating it in front of them. As they became interested in what I was eating, I then distributed some of it to them in their bowls. They went right to it (not that they are thrilled by it, but they do eat it).
Back to Ren and the sweeper. I thought about some of the training sessions and classes I have sat through. The solution for many bird/animal trainers is to desensitize the bird by getting it ever closer to the frightening object by tempting it with a treat. Each time the bird gets closer to the object, a treat is given until it shows no more fearful behavior.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the time to do that. I don’t have the luxury of carrying around treats with me in case someone does something I like or I need to get them to accept something new. Yes, it took a lot of time to form the initial relationships with each individual grey that lives with me, but I think our relationships are built on a better foundation, as it’s based on trust rather than reward. It also mimics behavior in the wild, because parrots look to other flock members to see how they react to things.
The positive reinforcement I’m using are, 1) my body language that says I don’t think this object is a threat; and 2) a reassuring tone of voice that everything is okay. I didn’t expect him to tough it out, and force him to get used to the sweeper. That would never work, as it would just make him feel unsafe and more fearful. If he hadn’t accepted the sweeper, I wouldn’t have pushed it on him.
And now, I get to use a vacuum that fits under the cages! Win-win!