Training Tidbit – Staying Home with Birds (and not creating a monster)

The world is currently dealing with the COVID19 pandemic. Some of you may be at home, quarantined. Others might be self-isolating as much as possible. Some might have their work on ‘pause’ or have been laid off altogether. We are all in this together and experiencing the strangeness and uncertainty together. You are now home with your birds ALL DAY. Here are some tips to help you both enrich your lives as well as create proper bonds and attention, to avoid creating separation anxiety or ‘velcro birds’ who can’t be left alone.

Robin, Monster (L), Skeeter (top) and Nova (R)

First, set yourself up for success. What can you arrange so your day goes smoothly? Do you have your birds’ cage in the room where you’ll be spending most of your time? Do you have perches and playgyms for your bird to hang out on when they are out of the cage? What about toys, can you prepare a few so you are ready? Foraging trays and skewers can also be pre-assembled and taken out when needed. I try to have something on hand that I can grab quickly, if the phone rings! If you haven’t made your own toys before, now’s a great time to try some! If your bird has any experience foraging, make a toy with cups for foraging practice. If you’re bored, they are bored!

Foraging and Toy Ideas

The other trap we can fall into is the constant-attention trap. It feels GREAT to be able to spend all day with our birds. The long-weekend type of feeling is very reinforcing: For you as well as your bird! Since our birds are complex social creatures, I encourage spending time with them every day. There are, however, some categories of interaction to help you navigate the coming weeks/months.

I classify three types of interaction: direct, flock, and ambient.

Direct attention is one-on-one with your bird. This is where your bird is on your hand or on your shoulder, or directly in front of your face. Direct attention with your bird could be singing, preening (head rubs), playing, dancing, talking, kissing, or petting. Direct attention is great but should be limited to parts of your day. I typically spend less than an hour TOTAL each day with direct attention to each of my birds. The rest of the time is flock or ambient attention.

Quentin and Robin

Flock attention is like when you have a family gathering, and everyone interacts with everyone else. In a flock, each member receives attention from a variety of close sources. You bird may be on their playgym, and swinging from a toy, while you are sitting next to him laughing. You both will interact together but not necessarily in a one on one manner. Think about a large family dinner, everyone is at the table eating together, talking to everyone and still doing their own thing. You are talking and responding to your bird, back and forth. Just with added distance, distractions and duration.

Quentin on his tree

Ambient attention is solo play. Ambient attention is when your bird is engaged with their toys, and you can go about the kitchen cleaning up. You aren’t directly or indirectly interacting with your bird, but you are in the area. Ambient attention allows you to keep an eye on your bird, but not run over every two seconds to kiss them. Think of this as your bird on his gym or in his cage, so busy with his forager that he doesn’t even look up. He knows you are home, but he’s busy right now.

Webcam view of Monster and Skeeter

Most of my birds’ days consist of ‘flock’ or ‘ambient’ attention. They have lots of things to do, and they do them. They destroy toys on their own. They spend time preening on their own. And mid afternoon is nap time, where they choose to roost on their cages without me. Generally, my direct attention is given right after work, and we usually have an after dinner head rub session as well.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to cultivate each of those three activity types in your interactions with your bird. This message will not self destruct.

Think about ways you can cultivate flock attention with your bird. It can be as simple as having a perch right beside you and putting your bird there every minute on the minute, give them a scratch, then pick them back up again. They are being reinforced for going to the perch, and they get to come right back to you for direct attention. They win twice! Slowly increase the amount of time the bird spends on the perch before picking them up again. Moving from continuous direct attention to a perch right beside you is a BIG step. Go slowly, and reinforce often!

Romeo finding fun things to do on her play stand

Another way to cultivate flock and ambient attention is to make their perch and gyms fun and new. I encourage foraging on these areas and will fill them with yummy things to find. If your bird can shred cardboard, a box filled with boxes and a few nuts sprinkled in is a great way to encourage play on a stand. Other toys that can be filled with pellets, or foraging ghosts, are also useful. Think about it this way: Why should your bird hang out on the perch? What’s there for him?

Keep track of small successes. An especially ‘velcroid’ bird may only be able to tolerate one second of separation. Working up to 5 seconds is a big deal! Celebrate! Share your successes with us and we will cheer with you!

Practice putting on your jacket and shoes and leaving the house. It sounds weird, and it looks weird. But it helps your bird retain some normalcy. Practice leaving for 30 seconds then coming back. It will help your bird with other departures in the future, once we all get back to work. Reinforce your bird for staying calm while you leave and come back!

Keep routines if you can. If head rub o’clock is 8pm, then keep it there. If you start head rubs at noon, you might create the situation where it is hard to stop. Especially when the rest of the world seems upside down, try to maintain a schedule to help your bird. Nap time, feeding time, head rub time, all should be at roughly the normal times.

If you haven’t tried training games with your bird, now is a GREAT time to try some! Target is a great behaviour that is very useful, and most birds learn quickly. Check out our free online video of target training here: https://youtu.be/M5v9B4jmO58

If you are having difficulty implementing any of these strategies, reach out to us or a local trainer. Every bird is an individual, and some require personalized plans for success. We are more than happy to help you via Video Consultation, as are other trainers. Our site is here: http://calgarybirdschool.com/

Be sure to try out the Online Courses as well, available here: https://calgarybirdschool.teachable.com/   There are several courses available, including “Bird Training Basics”, “Sprouting Made Easy”, “Bird Body Language” and much more. Prices range from free to $25. These are a great option for you to take a class at your own pace, in your own home, with your own bird. We provide email support with the course!

I wish you all health and wellness. These times are unprecedented, and we are doing our part to help our community. Give your birds a little extra love from us at Calgary Bird School.

– Robin Horemans