Who’s Training Whom?

Too bad there aren’t standard IQ tests for birds. Jazz is a cautious soul, never daring to throw himself into any activity until he’s completely comfortable. I’m learning that his lack of daring-do certainly doesn’t mean he’s dim-witted. Nor does it bother me in the least that my answer is “No” to the most asked question, “Does he talk yet?” He will when he wants to, if he wants to. My husband and I talk to him a lot, but not in repetitious mantras aimed at eliciting parroting.Since Jazz is only eight months old, my current training goals are aimed at instilling important behaviors geared to keep my friend alive and socialized. Those started with the command “Stay put.” It took less than a week for Jazz to learn that meant he was to stay on his basket, the play-gym, or his travel cage top. Any departures were met with another stern command as he was replaced in the designated location.

To that, we added, “Dog Alert” whenever the Samoyed came into a room where Jazz was. I also reminded him that if he got on the floor, he was “Dog Food, yum yum.” One evening, when Jazz decided it was time to go to bed, he made a flight attempt from play-gym to cage. Since that is roughly 25 feet, he landed on the floor mid-way. I told him, “Bad bird. Dog Food.” He turned around and hot-footed it toward the play-gym, then tried to flutter back up. It was hard not to laugh.

Did he understand the concept of “Dog food, yum yum”? That’s expecting a lot. Not just word association: Dog – that big hairy critter who frequents the floor, but the concepts that the dog eats food, yum, yum, and that Jazz himself might be that food. Well, maybe he just knew “Bad bird”, but we don’t say that very much. On the other hand, this bird is almost frightening in his responses to words.

Within a week after he arrived in our home at the age of 4 months, one of our numerous pine squirrels darted across the deck. Jazz, sitting on his basket by the glass doors, nearly had a heart attack – squawking, flapping, and trying desperately to escape. No doubt that on the south sea islands of his ancestors, there are rodents that climb trees and raid nests and Jazz was born with instincts intact. I picked up birdy, tapped the glass, told him he was safe inside, that it was all right for the squirrel to be outside. From then on the most attention Jazz paid to squirrels was to send them a jaundiced glare.

Potty training? Jazz is better than a cat and always has been. Aware that a bird, especially one who eats as much and as often as Jazz, has to potty often, we make a point of not keeping him from his perch more than twenty minutes at a time. When we put him back, he poops. We praise, then pick him up again. The principal is simply to reinforce natural behavior as good behavior under specific circumstances. So far, on those occasions when we might keep him too long–he flies off and poops, refusing to let go while being held. Pretty nice bird to have around.

I debated long and hard about how I felt about “beaking” and shoulder-riding. I finally decided it wasn’t fair to deny the bird the opportunity to explore fingers, ears, and other things with his beak. It’s his primary means of discovery. I might think differently if he were a macaw, but Eclectus are supposed to be gentle. The command became “Be nice.” This is used in a pleasant tone of voice as Jazz explores fingers, lips, noses, ears and other susceptible body parts. If the beaking starts to pinch “ow. Be Nice.” is used. When a beaking hurts, I tell him “OW. HURTS. BE NICE.” This has always produced the desired results–very very gentle exploring. On only one occasion did he ever chomp down on a ear hard enough that he heard “OW. BAD BIRD.” and was immediately returned to his cage. That he hated. No more chomps. Again, these are the same type of “bite inhibitions” that a bird learns from its flock mates or a puppy learns from its litter mates. This is natural reinforcement.

We are about to embark on a nearly two month RV jaunt. That means both bird and dog will spend most of that time in a 30 foot motor home. The bird’s travel cage will be firmly anchored to the dinette table, the dog rides behind bars under that same table. The four of us plan on seeing most of the California coast and southern Utah’s Zion, Bryce, and Arches National Parks. Jazz already knows that “Tripping” means we’re going for a ride. It’ll be fun to see how he enjoys a long one, especially one where he can look out the window.