A Bird, Her Game, and What They Taught Me About Training
I have an Aru Eclectus hen named Cah’ya (pronounced “cha-HI-uh”) who invented her own game. In this game, she stands on my arm and slowly leans far over to one side. I am then supposed to lean to the opposite side. She waits for me to do so. Then she slowly leans over to the other side, and waits for me to reciprocate. I do, of course. She repeats this, but every once in a while she swoops in and boops me with the curve of her beak. If she boops me on the lips, she makes a kissy noise (and I do, too). If she boops me on the nose she says “boop!” — and of course I “boop!” back.
She has since made up other games as well, but this is by far her favorite game, and the one she plays most frequently. I can usually tell when she wants to play the game, because she will stand on my wrist and stare at me for several seconds. Then I’ll ask her, “Do you want to play your game?” She usually then commences with the leaning and we have a few minutes of leaning, kissing, and booping.
A few months ago, while I was in the bird room doing my regular morning routine, Cah’ya hopped on my shoulder and mumbled something in my ear, then she leaned over and looked me in the eye, expectantly.
I said, “What was that, Cah’ya? I didn’t understand you.”
She walked down to my wrist, looked me in the eye, and said loudly and clearly, “Boop game?”
I about died. She named it the Boop Game. She asked for it, with words. With intention.
While this would be exciting if any parrot did it, this was a particularly poignant event because of our history together. Cah’ya was given to me by an ethical breeder who was well known and respected in the avian community for his knowledge, skill, and commitment to his birds. He was also a friend and mentor of mine, so he reached out to me to see if I would be interested in taking her, because she was an atypical baby. “I don’t know what to do with her,” he told me. “There’s something wrong with her. If I sell her to a normal pet home she’ll end up getting bounced around homes, but it would be unethical for me to sell her to a breeder.” Even though he socialized his babies extremely well, carefully bred for health and temperament, and fed his birds a varied, nutrient-rich diet, Cah’ya was born with multiple health and behavior issues. For starters, she seemed terrified of everything and everyone. From a very young age she exhibited several stereotypies, she was extremely sound and movement sensitive, and if you made eye contact she would throw herself on the ground and scream for hours on end. She also had a condition called constricted toe syndrome as a hatchling, and ended up losing all of her back toes as a result. Perplexingly, she also displayed the wing-flipping and toe-tapping behaviors that are usually a sign of an inappropriate diet in Eclectus parrots. After seeing both an avian veterinarian and a veterinary neurologist, neither of whom could find anything physically wrong with her (aside from the obvious missing toes, of course), I decided to accept that she was different and take care of her as best as I could.
Cah’ya is the reason I’m a behavior consultant. I had started volunteering in a shelter and at a vet clinic at a very young age, and had spent my entire life working and volunteering with animals — as a veterinary technician, in an aviary, at a barn that did horse rescue, in wildlife rehab, and of course, also in shelters and with rescue groups. Through all that experience I realized that a deeper understanding of behavior was the crucial common thread that we were missing. I had for a while wanted to start learning more about behavior, but I didn’t have the confidence to take the plunge and do it. But when I adopted Cah’ya and nothing I tried to do to help her worked, I realized that I had to learn more about behavior science if I wanted to help her. She is the reason I took my first course in applied behavior analysis from Dr. Susan Friedman 11 years ago.
It was not an easy process. At the time I was living in a house with four other people, so my birds’ cages were all in my bedroom, which also doubled as my office. We were cramped. The initial suggestions given to me in the behavior course were impossible to follow: basically, don’t get close enough to Cah’ya to push her over threshold. In a room that small and cramped, that just wasn’t a realistic solution. Fortunately, Dr. Friedman’s TAs are smart cookies, and they helped me adapt to a suboptimal training environment. The plan consisted of avoiding eye contact, finding the least threatening way to change out food, water, toys, and tray lining, and dropping a high-value treat in her bowl every time I passed. Eventually, after a couple of months, Cah’ya stopped screaming every time I entered the room.
Next I was able to make eye contact. When she saw me approaching she would move to the perch next to the food bowl, and stayed there while I did the morning routine. So I tried to look at her face and saw that she was looking directly at me. I dropped a high-value treat into the bowl and walked away. After a couple of weeks she started soliciting eye contact. She would move into my line of sight and make a specific noise that sounded like a dove cooing until I looked at her. I could drop a treat in her bowl or do the regular morning routine, but if I tried anything else — especially anything to do with my hands — she’d throw herself onto the bottom of her cage, flap her wings wildly, and scream. So I had to start by letting my hand linger by the bowl after dropping the treat there in microscopic approximations. First I would linger just a half second after dropping the treat. Then a whole second. Then gradually, over the period of several weeks, I could linger there longer, and slowly start to move my hands away from the bowl and onto the cage bars.
Then I introduced a treat spoon: It hung out in her bowl with her favorite foods on it, then I held it on top of the bowl. Then I gradually lifted it higher and farther away from the bowl. When she could take food from the spoon while I held it, we started working on targeting and stationing. Teaching her to move around to different parts of the cage and stay there was a game-changer. I then had more freedom to work in her cage (which made cleaning and restocking it exponentially easier!), but more importantly, I could begin the process of helping her to feel comfortable coming out of the cage. We started by stationing at a perch attached to the cage door, and gradually opening the door wider until she could comfortably hang out on the perch while the door was wide open.
I hung toys all around the outside of her cage, and then just sat there at my desk with my back to her while she sat on her door perch. She had the power to choose to come and go as she pleased, and over time she availed herself of that freedom more liberally. She started by playing with toys closest to the door perch, then venturing farther out. Learning to climb onto the top of her cage and then balance on the cage bars was a special challenge, given her missing toes. But she eventually figured it out.
Over time, she began to explore the surrounding play gyms. She learned how to climb ladders, boings, ropes, and swings without back toes. She began to stand closer to me, then tentatively reach out to explore my hair and my clothes with her beak. Yet still, if I reached toward her in any way, she would fly off and stay away from me for the rest of the day.
I introduced a t-stand, and taught her to step up onto it. This enabled me to start crate training her, and when we moved into a new house where I had my own living room, to carry her back and forth between the bedroom and the living room play gyms. She started interacting with my other Eclectus, a male red-sided hybrid named Bayu, and talking to him in English. Then she started talking to me.
But still, I couldn’t touch her. Any attempt to do so failed miserably. I tried counterconditioning and could get within an inch of her before she’d move away. I tried to target her onto my flat palm and again she’d willingly target within an inch of my hand, then would come to a dead stop. Perhaps now, with 11 years of science-based training and behavior consulting under my belt, I would have been able to troubleshoot this and succeeded much more quickly. But I was brand new to these concepts, and Cah’ya wasn’t exactly a “starter bird.”
As it was, almost 18 months to the day from when I first brought Cah’ya home, I was at my desk while Bayu and Cah’ya played on the play gyms around the room. Bayu came over to me, stepped onto my arm, and reached up for a beaky kiss. Bayu loves beaky kisses, and he makes the kissing sound when he does it. It’s adorable. Cah’ya watched this exchange intently, and then, as if suddenly making up her mind, she hopped onto my arm, stretched upright, and planted her beak right on my lips.
From that moment on, I could touch her anywhere. She stepped up without hesitation, learned to open her wings, learned to relax on her back, learned to let me hold her head for a jugular blood draw, learned to participate in nail trims, learned a solid recall and will now fly to me from anywhere, and best of all, she began to solicit scritches and kisses. She started cuddling under my neck or on my shoulder against my ear. She became my demo bird I could take to workshops, kids’ camps, and other speaking engagements. People who meet her would never guess how our story began.
So when she invented her game, it was of course thrilling. The notion that she wants to play with me still, a decade later, gives me goosebumps. But when she named her game, and asked for it with clear intention, it reminded me of one of the most important lessons she taught me:
We don’t get to decide what is possible. We don’t get to determine how much a bird with special needs is limited, what they can or cannot do. We don’t have a crystal ball; we can’t see into the future to know what they are capable of. It is our responsibility to meet their needs, train diligently, and let them show us exactly how much they are capable of. I never would have imagined when I first got this bird that she would be a demo bird, or a bird who flies so beautifully that people gasp out loud when they watch her, or a bird who makes up games to play with her person and then names the game. I had doubts. I had limiting beliefs. But to my teachers’ credit, they taught me to just do the functional analyses, write training plans, and then work through them methodically. One step at a time. And Cah’ya showed me exactly how far she could go. My first, best, and most patient teacher.
Emily Strong, CPDT-KA is Founder and Lead Behavior Consultant at From Beaks To Barks, LLC, Co-Founder and President of First Train Home, and co-author of the book Enrichment For The Real World, set for publication via Dogwise in 2019. She has been involved in various animal welfare fields since 1990, volunteering and working in animal shelters, rescue groups, veterinary hospitals, stables, wildlife rehabs, an aviary, and finally as a behavior consultant. In addition to running her businesses and writing books, she is also a national speaker, has written articles for multiple publications, and has an international client base.