Photo by Dave Location: Holland America Cruise Line Theater Pictured: Galahs "Bandit" and "Bondi"
I touch trained my 4-5 month old rose breasted cockatoo, Bandit, in two days with three training sessions. It’s the very first thing I taught him (aside from flight training outdoors) and it was actually harder to touch train (or target train) him than any other bird I’ve ever touch trained in the past. And I did it with the help of an already touch trained cockatoo. My African Grey caught on in just one training session and almost immediately. With Bandit, he was afraid of the chop stick I was using as my touch training object or my “targeting stick”. The first time I pulled it out, he nipped the end of it gently just like he was supposed to and I clicked and he received a sunflower seed. This was in front of a room of people, too. So I was very impressed! Well, he wanted nothing to do with the end of the stick after that first curious nip. He actually started going out of his way to avoid it and flew anywhere but where I had the stick. The next day I had on a t-stand perch and began rewarding him for passing the stick. He would literally walk by it and move his head around so it wouldn’t have to come into contact with the chopstick. If he accidentally touched it, I got really excited but it didn’t normally happen. Once he realized he just had to walk back and forth on the perch to get a reward that is what he did. I couldn’t seem to get him past that point.
Photo by Dave Location: Holland America Line Theater Training: Galahs "Bondi" and "Bandit"
So, I thought, what happens when you hold a single sunflower seed out for two birds? They both go for it but only one ends up getting it. I wondered if the same thing would apply to a target stick instinctually if one untrained bird (in my case being Bandit) saw a trained bird (my older cockatoo, Bondi) going for the stick and getting a reward. I knew it would do one of two things; either really frustrate him and set me back in his training, or entirely motivate him to get it. I put both Bondi and Bandit on a long railing and put the chopstick in the middle of them. Bondi immediately came running over and touched it and received a click and a seed – meanwhile, Bandit was on his way far, far away from the chopstick and stopped once he saw Bondi doing the opposite and getting a treat. I saw his mind ask Why did she get that sunflower seed? And he realized she got it over there, by that chopstick, so he moved closer and watched as she determinedly went for the stick time after time; receiving clicks and seeds. Bandit was smart enough to realize a seed was somehow coming from that stick.
So when I placed it between them once again, Bandit went for the stick and after he barely touched it, pulled away fast with a nervous and unsure twitch. I clicked and rewarded him. His crest flew up in excitement and he continued to nervously go for the stick, still pulling away fast but then he realized it was okay and he and Bondi began to race to get to it first. It was as though they were racing for a single sunflower seed at the end of it and just through watching Bondi do it right, something seemed to click inside his head to help him get it. I was lucky in the fact that the idea didn’t backfire and set back my training – but it worked and Bandit is already ready to learn something new. He is an avid learner and will try various behaviors to receive a seed through flight so I think he will be a great candidate for learning many behaviors. I ended up learning after the fact that this training technique is actually used in dog training for dogs that don't obey as well as others. I found it pretty interesting and was proud to have discovered it on my own.
Article by Jamieleigh Womach. She has been working with parrots and toucans since the age of 17. She isn’t homeless but is home less than she prefers to be. She travels the world with her husband, daughter, and a flockful of parrots whom she shares the stage with.