After our Bird Show, it is not uncommon that people will come down and ask us just how we train our birds. How do we get them to display their amazing behaviours? And, how is it that they do not fly away? The answer is easy, positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement isn’t anything new. In fact most people use positive reinforcement when training their dogs at home. You ask your dog to ‘sit’, he or she sits and then you either praise them or give them a treat. If you keep up with this, and maintain consistency, chances are you’re going to have an extremely rewarding relationship with your dog, not to mention a dog that is well behaved. We do the exact same thing with our birds. Our focus is on rewarding those good behaviours and simply ignoring those we don’t want. We make it worth their while. I love positive reinforcement!
I’ve recently completed an exchange in Canada, at Toronto Zoo, meaning I’ve been away from our show birds for nearly 10 months! That’s a long time away from our charismatic Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, dazzling Barking Owls, majestic Whistling Kites; the list could go on for a while.
The best thing I’ve experienced though is coming back to them and how they responded to me. I was a little worried to be honest, but I did have a strong, nearly five year, reinforcement history with these birds prior to leaving. What happened when I saw them again? Initially I spent a little bit of time with each bird, giving each their own special treats. For the parrots I gave sunflower seed which are their favourites, and mighty high in fat. They only get these as rewards. But after a short time with each bird, because of positive reinforcement, and my history, each responded to me as if I had never left; each behaviour strong and each under taken in a positive way.
I am filled with so much joy when I get to experience this first-hand. It highlights to me the importance of maintaining healthy rapports with all the animals we work with, and more so the benefits of doing so. I can perform health checks without stress, for me or the bird, display their natural behaviours in shows, and lead an exhilarating life, thanks to those birds, every day. I love my job and the birds.
Bird Show keeper, Brendan.