by Tani Robar
Let’s start with the basic idea of the bird picking up a designated object and bringing it to you. I start off with a simple object like a plastic scoop, or plastic block. The object should be easy for the bird to pick up and appropriate to the size of the bird. Even though you know the bird should not be allowed to play with or chew on any of the props used in training, I still wouldn’t tempt the bird with wooden objects at this time. It is too easy for the bird to take a quick bite out of something wooden. Remember everything is “positive reinforcement” at this stage so you don’t want to have to take an object away from the bird or say “no”, or show distress if he chews on the prop. Use plastic objects to start with . For the same reason, do not use one of the bird’s toys as a retrieve object. This is serious training and you want the bird to take it seriously.
Place the chosen object on the training table. Place a seed, or whatever food reward you have decided upon, next to the object. Let the bird see you do it. The bird will usually go directly to get the seed. Praise him and repeat, this time placing the seed on a different side of the object so the bird will have to look for it. When the bird is comfortable getting the seed and is starting to expect it, hide the seed under the object. The bird will now have to move the object to find it. You will only need to do each step just a few times. The bird will catch on quickly. The verbal cue for this behavior is the long string of words, “bring it to me”. I like this long verbal command because it has a different sound and is probably not something you have said to your bird before. The bird will now associate these words with bringing you something and will forever after always look for something to bring you when he hears the command. The visual cue is the hand held flat on the table, palm up. This is one of the times you will be teaching a command and a signal together and most likely you will always use these together, whereas most of the time you will need to use only one or the other. Usually it is the visual cue that becomes the dominant one. Birds, as you know, are very visually oriented.
The next time you repeat this exercise, do not put the seed under the object. Instead, place your hand flat on the table and tell the bird to “bring it to me”. The bird will go the object as before and look for the seed. When he doesn’t find it he will probably try to move the object looking for it. Immediately praise the bird and give him a seed from the other hand. Do this again, waiting just a few seconds longer to reward the bird. Usually in frustration the bird will try to pick up the object. Immediately praise and reward. As soon as the bird picks up the object, try to slip your flat hand under the object so that it falls into your hand. This is the reason for this particular visual cue so that the bird will always associate your flat hand, palm up, with bringing you something. The bird will soon get the idea that somehow the reward is now linked to picking up the object, then letting it fall into your outstretched hand.
Now slowly start withdrawing your hand so that it isn’t directly under the object. The bird will find that it has to stretch its neck a bit to get the object into your hand. Remember to profusely praise the bird for each little improvement. Soon you will have your hand far enough away so that the bird will have to take a step, holding the object, to place it in your hand. Move your hand a little further away after each successful “retrieve”. Eventually the bird will have to walk to bring the object to you. Use lots of praise and rewards now when he does so.
Only use this first object long enough to see that the bird has the idea of bringing it to you, then change objects. Do not use a ball or anything that is round at this time. It is too easy for the ball to hit just part of your hand and be deflected so that you have to break your position and try to grab it. This spoils the point of the exercise. Save the balls for later when the bird is solid in the retrieve. Select another object. You will probably have to start from the beginning with this object too, but you will see the bird will catch on much faster and will soon be bringing that object to your hand. Then switch again. Keep the objects different and interesting. Soon the bird should bring without hesitation whatever object you have put on the table.
Now start to plan what you want the retrieve exercise to lead to. Do you want the bird to put a ball in a basket, maybe coins in a piggy bank, learn how to stack cups, or the shell game of finding a seed under a “cup”? How about teaching the bird a few basic colors while it is learning to put a ring on a peg? Think about it now and gather those objects for the bird to use while practicing the retrieve. Use different size and colored rings, various coins, “cups”, puzzle shapes, and if the bird has become a reliable retriever, you can add balls at this time. Play a game with him. Use many different types of objects and have the bird bring them to you. Remember to exclaim, and praise, and reward the bird over each successful retrieve. Don’t forget to introduce the small white plastic rings usually found in sewing or craft stores that can be attached to the ends of strings for pull toys, bells, signs, etc. They come in very handy for future tricks.
When the bird has become quite familiar with a variety of objects that you plan to use as props, you can start training the individual tricks. Let’s start with the ball in the basket, since that is a popular one. First have the bird bring you a ball and place it exactly in your hand. Move your hand to different parts of the table so the bird learns to bring the ball to wherever your hand is, not just to your body. Then substitute a small container, one appropriate for the size of the ball. Have the bird bring the ball to you, but this time have your hand over the container and tipped toward the container so the ball will fall into the container. After a few times just indicate by tapping the container where you want the bird to place the ball. Move the container to different places on the table and tap it so the bird learns
to place the ball where you indicate. If you have a basketball prop, use this next. Lower the basket to the table height and have the bird place the ball in the basket. Gradually raise the basket higher until the bird really has to reach to put the ball in the basket. I would use a close-ended basket so the bird can see that the ball is in the basket. If the basket is open-ended the ball will just fall out and it will take longer for the bird to get the connection to what he has achieved. To make the trick really cute, make sure the bird has to really reach high to put the ball in. A low basket makes it look like the bird is just dropping the ball in and not really doing anything special.
The basketball trick generally needs no visual or verbal cues once learned. Place the ball on the table near the basket and usually the bird will immediately pick up the ball and drop it in the basket Then place the ball further and further away until the bird will triumphantly carry it the length of the table to the basket to your delighted praise. Then someday, after the bird knows this and other retrieve tricks well, you might want to get fancy and add some variations. Use your imagination. Cassie, my black-headed caique, does her characteristic hops to the basket carrying the ball in her beak. Squawk, my blue-crowned conure, “dribbles” the ball down the court. Poopsie, the little green-cheeked conure, has to climb a ladder to reach the basket. Xena, my hawkhead, does 360’s (turnarounds, described in the previous lesson) on her way to the basket. Another bird flies to the top of the basket, carrying the ball, and then drops the ball in from above. So there are numerous ways to make this basic trick different and interesting. But these are all advanced ideas. Wait until your bird is really comfortable with performing before you start introducing them.
Next is the ring-on-the-peg, an easy and fun trick to learn. But think about it before you start. This is a good time to introduce color discrimination. The peg part of the prop is easy to make, just a square block, appropriate to the size of the bird, with a hold drilled in the center in which to fit a short dowel for the peg part. It’s the rings that are harder to find. Try to find different sizes in bright colors. I use the three primary colors of red, blue and yellow and sometimes green. But three colors are really plenty to begin with. Then I spray paint the bases and the pegs in the matching colors. The reason for all this is to make sure the bird only puts a red ring on a red peg, a blue ring on a blue peg, etc. If you insist on this from the beginning the bird will learn its colors right from the start with no extra effort.
To teach this, put i.e., the green ring on the table. Ask the bird to bring it to you just as it has done before. But this time have the green peg in your hand with your palm up as in the cue with the peg sticking up through your fingers. When the bird brings the ring, you can help him to put it on the peg by spearing the ring as necessary. As the bird gets the idea, remove your
hand so the bird sees the ring fall onto the peg base. This is always a fun trick to watch the bird learn. Sometime the bird will flip the ring over his head and be so surprised. Sometimes he will carry it low and even stumble over it. Then he will hold it out in front of himself and hope it will land on the peg. Finally he will learn to touch the end of the peg with his beak and deftly slide the ring onto the peg. Work with different size rings after the bird has the idea of how to do it. You will be surprised at how quickly the bird learns to handle all sizes of rings. Just remember to always insist the bird only put a yellow ring on a yellow peg, etc.
How about teaching how to stack cups? This trick is one the birds seem to learn easily and enjoy. You can find the stacking cups in drugstores, and places like Kids-R-Us. I would use only every other cup in a set so the cups will nest easily inside each other and not be tight. Assuming you have been having the bird retrieve the cups during the learning phase so he is familiar with them, you can now arrange the cups in order according to size. Use only four cups to start with. Place the second largest cup in the center of the table and ask the bird to “bring it to me”. Have the largest cup in front of you so when the bird brings the second largest to you, you can indicate by tapping the largest one, where you want the bird to put it. This is easy if you did the basket ball trick first. If not, place your hand palm up over the cup, tipping your hand towards the cup so the second largest cup will slide into the larger one. After about the second time of doing this, you can switch to just indicating the larger cup and usually the bird will catch on quite quickly. Then place the third largest cup in the center of the table and have the bird bri
ng it to you. Just indicate where he is to place it. Repeat with the smallest one. When he is doing this readily, place the cups in a row, according to size. Have him pick up the second largest and place it into the largest, which will be right next to it. Then have him pick up the next cup in line and place it in the stack, and finally the smallest. The bird will catch on very quickly. Again, this trick, once learned, will require no command or signal. Just place the cups on the table and watch the bird perform. To make this into an advanced trick, mix the cups up so the bird has to learn to judge sizes to know which cup will go into which other one. But don’t try this yet, this is for very advanced birds!
Teaching the retrieve concept should take two, and perhaps three sessions. Each individual trick after that will probably require only one lesson per trick. Remember to keep each session fun. There is no hurry. If the bird seems not to understand something, go back to an earlier stage and try again. The great thing is knowing that once a lesson is learned the bird will not forget. Birds have phenomenal memories. When I was working with dogs I was always having to retrain and reinforce what the dog supposedly had learned. But it’s different with birds. I have had birds that I had trained years before and that had not been worked since, go through their tricks for me as though I had seen them just the day before. To me this is always amazing. And remember, you can’t be too heavy on the rewards and praise.
These are just three fairly easy tricks to teach once the bird has learned the retrieve. Hopefully they will give you ideas on how to continue with others. My videos will show you visually how to do what I have discussed above and also how to continue with more of the retrieve based tricks.