What a treat! Today I got to interview Barbara Heidenreich, one of the country’s top parrot training experts. She’s been in the field of animal training since 1990, has consulted with zoos around the country, and publishes resources for owners of companion birds, including Good Bird Magazine (a free download of which is available here), books, videos, and training/behavior workshops.
She is the author of Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companion Parrots and also The Parrot Problem Solver.
Barbara Heidenreich is the past president of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (www.IAATE.org).
Best in Flock: How did you get into training parrots and how long have you been doing it?
Barbara Heidenreich: I had budgies as a child and acquired my Amazon parrot Tarah 21 years ago. At that time I did not know too much about training parrots. I just knew I relay enjoyed having animals in my life and knew I would make a career with animals.
After working a number of animal related in jobs in high school and college, I decided to become a zookeeper. My first zoo keeping job was at Marine World Africa USA. My role was to work with the animals in the education department so that they would be comfortable going to school programs. It was here that I first got my feet wet training. I soon moved over to the bird show and stuck with free flighted bird shows for years. These shows featured many bird species…hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, vultures, hornbills and of course parrots.
After many years of presenting shows, I started consulting. My focus was on teaching zoo professionals how to train different types of animals for shows as well as husbandry and medical behaviors.
My work with companion parrots was starting during this time also. I often gave presentations to bird clubs and organizations. But this really expanded after I wrote a book for companion parrot owners called “Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companion Parrots.” It was inspired by all the questions I would receive from guests after I presented a bird show.
At the time I did not know how many people were seeking information. Things really evolved from there. I really felt it would make a big difference in the lives of many pet parrots to get the information we used to train birds for show available to everyone. And I am really happy to see positive reinforcement training catching on with parrot owners. It can make such a huge impact for them and their birds.
More after the jump…
Best in Flock: What’s changed about how people perceive bird ownership and parrot training since you started?
Heidenreich: A great question! I think interest has grown tremendously in finding kinder and gentler ways to interact with your bird. The message seems to be getting out there that there is no need to dominate a bird to get good behavior. There is no need to be a flock leader or force birds to comply. People have learned positive reinforcement strategies build trust and biting does not have to be part of life with a parrot. It is a huge change. Now it is just a matter of getting this message to more people. That way more people and parrots can have a better relationship. My goal all along has been for people to treat animals with as much kindness as possible. I think teaching positive reinforcement training is the path to reaching this goal.
Best in Flock: What sorts of mistakes do you feel people often make when they first bring a parrot home?
Heidenreich: I think we sometimes have certain expectations of what we should be able to do right away with a new parrot. A big thing for me is to teach people to read and respond to bird body language. Rather than focusing on the end result you would like (like having the bird step up) the real path to success is to focus on how the bird is responding to you. If the bird indicates it is uncomfortable, backing off is a wise choice. Take things a bit slower and use positive reinforcement so that the bird becomes an eager participant.
Best in Flock: Can you share any anecdotes about the worst cases of parrot behavior you’ve ever had to deal with? What provided the breakthrough in that case?
Heidenreich: I don’t know if it is the worst thing, but I love sharing the story of Toby and Joseph. Toby a Meyer’s parrot had developed some serious aggressive behavior towards his owner Joseph. It was to the point that Joseph no longer interacted with his bird. After a few in home consultations Joseph totally embraced a positive reinforcement approach to working with Toby and this bird is now just amazing!
Joseph and Toby are featured in my first DVD and a new one that is coming out soon. (I think people will be especially impressed with what Toby has learned in the new one) They can also be seen on my youtube site at www.youtube.com/goodbirdinc
Best in Flock: Do you have any tips for new parrot owners just getting started with training?
Heidenreich: I always suggest starting out with a hands off behavior first. Something simple like targeting or turning around on cue, or even a retrieve. Save step up for later, after your bird has learned how to learn.
These behaviors build trust and you don’t have to worry about whether your bird might bite since the behaviors are hands off.
Joseph did 6 months of hands off behaviors until he felt confident again to work on step up. Now step up is as easy as any behavior and Toby no longer presents aggressive behavior with Joseph.
I would like to add that training really can be so much fun once you get the hang of it. It can be a bit addicting! There is something about that moment when your bird understands what you are trying to teach. It is almost a rush for the trainer. Next thing you know you want to teach another behavior…and another! And the good news is your bird will be addicted too. That is the beauty of positive reinforcement training. It is fun for you and your bird.