Observational Learning – Birds Teaching Birds

Wild birds learn everything that isn’t hard-wired into them from their parents. Everything from what is safe to eat to how to bathe to what to be afraid of is learned by watching.

Many of our companion parrots have been captive bred and have not had the advantage of having a feathered mom or dad teaching them the ins and outs of being a bird.  It makes perfect sense that our parrots learn from one another.

When I first got Theo (goffins cockatoo), she was sedentary.  She didn’t have the same sense of adventure my others have, was just plain fearful of many things, and wouldn’t touch her toys.

She rarely ventured off her perch, very UNcockatoo-like behavior.  She would recognize toy parts, a piece of wood for instance, but clearly had no idea what to do with it.

I would hand it to her and she would take it in her beak and immediately drop it with complete indifference.  I hated the thought that she might spend the rest of her life staring at the wall, so I enlisted the help of my other parrots.

Theo is enamored with Linus (umbrella cockatoo) and doesn’t miss a move he makes.  When I handed that same piece of wood to Linus, and he immediately severed it, you could actually see her brain at work: “THAT’S what that stuff is for.”

In return for his teaching services, Theo, who has a hearty appetite, showed Linus what to do with berries, sweet potato and other foods he had no use for.

My cockatiels, Tinky and DeeDee, are always learning from each other.  When one picks up a new word, the other is using it within a day or two. I really only have to do the work with one of them to get through to them both, kind of a two-fer. Unfortunately, this means when one picks up a bad habit, the other follows closely behind.

Tinky discovered how exciting it was to toss my toothbrush from its holder onto the floor in the bathroom and it became DeeDee’s favorite new game as well.  My Quaker, Libby,  showed the cockatiels what to do with fresh vegetables:  you eat what you can and  toss what remains on the floor, bowl and all.  Observational learning has it’s drawbacks.

A behavior problem can sometimes be corrected when an uncooperative bird watches the appropriate behavior of another and sees the benefits of attention and goodies lavished on him as a reward. Chances are he’ll want in on that too.

Likewise, with training, and especially with younger parrots that are new to the regimen, watching a more experienced parrot comfortably performing a behavior, and being rewarded for it, might be just the thing to light up that dim bulb.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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