Over Socialization

Photo by Jamieleigh Location: Seattle, WA Socializing with Brian Cook: Galahs "Bondi" and "Bandit", African Grey "Cressi"  

I was always under the impression it was good to socialize your bird to as many different people as possible so you wouldn’t rear an unfriendly or “one person” bird. I never knew you could over socialize your pet parrot – even to the point of the bird preferring to be with a stranger over you! This has happened with my rose breasted cockatoo that is a bit over three years old, her name is Bondi. Naturally, cockatoos are very social birds so that didn’t help in the process but only made it easier to socialize her with other people.   Since I work largely in “show settings” where there are many people involved, I have the opportunity to expose her to a variety of different people in different environments all the time. Not to mention, when I first got Bondi I had her for maybe a month or two before handing her over to my parents to raise for about 3-4 months because I couldn’t obtain the proper permits for her to join me on my travels. In their home she met the neighbors frequently and learned her first few phrases and words, as well as many tricks (my mom taught her how to talk and how to retrieve, play basketball and so on) she was greatly exposed to the cleaning lady, the weekly house party guests and their children. It was a ton of socialization I assumed would be good for her – and it was – to a certain extent.  

In the show, Bondi flew not only to me on cue but to the sound booth to tech guys running the show, to fellow dancers on and off stage and to other handlers and animal trainers. Cast and crew could easily handle her back stage and it was great because I wasn’t forced to be the one who always had to be on stage with her, there could be substitutes for me. However, Bondi quickly learned that new people were associated with rewards and eventually just being on them was her reward. Most new people would “oo” and “awe” at her and she loves it. Once I taught her how to “rock out” is when I realized I over-socialized her. After teaching that trick, everyone who was anyone was handling her and cueing her to rock out. People love when she does it and it gets the most reaction of anything. When she rocks out, she is happy and excited as I paired it with those feelings. Well, now those feelings and that trick is paired with strangers and showing off for their reactions. So now, Bondi would rather land or follow a complete stranger for the excitement factor than do so with me. I can flash a food reward all day at her but she’d rather hear the “oo’s” and “awes”. So, what did I do about my over socialized bird besides worry someone would get the chance to take her home if I didn’t pay super close attention to her every step?!  I found that by calling her, she wouldn’t come, but if I took out my touch training stick – she was on me like flies on… well, you know!   It really caught me by surprise that she wouldn’t come for a sunflower seed, yet she would come to touch the end of a stick FOR a sun flower seed… it made me realize just how powerful training is (especially trick training) and how exciting and fun it is for birds. They feel a great sense of empowerment and self worth when they figure something out and even better showing off to you that they know their stuff! So now I use only the target stick and I make sure to keep her very focused on me and the trick at hand when someone else enters the room – which is why it is so important to not over train! I keep the sessions short and fun and once Bondi is in “training mode” there’s nothing else in her focus.  

Photo by Dave Location: Lacey, WA At the park: Congo African Grey "Cressi"  

I think all birds have a “training mode” they go into once they understand training. For some of my birds it’s when they see the clicker, for others it’s when they see me strap on my treat bag while others need to see the touch training stick. Whatever it is to get your bird into “training mode” where he is 100% focused on the task at hand – is the answer to offering something better than whatever else it is that he wants instead at the time.   A bird in training mode changes everything.

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.

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