Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Impressive Bird Brain

Animal Planet has a great video clip of an African grey parrot named Einstein. African greys are one of the most intelligent species in the world. They rank right up there with dolphins and chimpanzees. The San Diego Wild Animal Park has a daily bird show featuring an African Grey named Bruce Nadell. Bruce will spout off words and sounds in response to natural language commands just like Einstein. The trainer likes to rapid fire commands at Bruce to show off his wide vocabulary and speed. I highly recommend going to see that show.

Most birds aren't as fluent as the Bud Light cockatoo you saw on the Superbowl ad, but that was obviously faked. That bird had a Spanish accent and everybody knows that cockatoos come from Australia (like iocane powder).

Our bird, Soleil is a sulfur crested cockatoo just like the Bud bird. Cockatoos don't have nearly the vocabulary of a grey, but Soleil is still smart as a whip. I'll have to make a recording of some phrases from her and post them. She's very good with puzzles. It takes a lot to keep her entertained. That's one of the reasons I would never recommend parrots as a pet to anybody else. Be sure you do lots of research before buying a bird. After millions of kids saw Hedwig in the Harry Potter movies, lots of parents ran out and bought cockatoos on impulse. After all, you can't buy owls and all white birds look the same, right?

This is a huge mistake. Cockatoos require insane amounts of attention and they live for 50 years (or more). A poorly trained bird can be a nightmare. A survey by Bird Talk magazine revealed that most cockatoo owners would never get another one. Greater cockatoos (like Umbrellas) are about the worst. Grey's are more independent because they are more intelligent, but not as cuddly as most cockatoos. Sulfur crested cockatoos fit right in the middle. The "lessers" are a bit easier to manage than the greaters and more social than greys.

Knowing how to handle birds makes all the difference in the world. I've gotten pretty good at it. I can pick up even the most stubborn birds but I have the scars to prove it. Many people are intimidated around birds. That's just what birds like. Birds are flock animals and a leader will naturally emerge like an alpha dog. If a bird can make you flinch, they own you. Many people offer a cautious hand to Soleil and jerk away when she nips at it. Unlike a dog, birds don't need to smell you. You need to be very firm and never back away. You may get bit but don't let it phase you. When I first handled Soleil, she chewed up my skin mercilessly. I just balled my hand up into a fist and curled it back so she couldn't get a good bite on anything small. I let her scrape at the back of my hand but I didn't pull it away. I just kept pushing it into her. Now she knows who's boss but she never stops testing me. I pin her on her back when she's bad and hold her until she calms down.

Pinning Soleil was a conscious trade off on my part. Lots of birds will roll on their back to play or be pet. It's very cute and I'd like to be able to do that with my bird, but Soleil hates being turned on her back. She knows that means I'm mad at her. I knew this when I started working with her, but I decided it was more important for me to have a clear signal to her that she's been bad. I haven't heard of any other trainers doing this, but I've found it works well.

Usually Soleil is very sweet. She makes little kissy noises and will give you a peck on the lips. She loves to be pet, actually she demands to be pet. I can pet her for three hours straight until my fingers start to bleed and she just wants more. She might hop away for a quick bathroom break but she'll come right back.

We've been trying to teach Soleil to respond to sign language rather than verbal commands. I like to be able to cue her without talking. She knows the sign for "I love you" and she says it quiet clearly. We have also taught her to nod and shake in response to "yes" and "no" signs. I've been trying to teach her to say "Soleil" when I give her the "name" sign, but she hasn't got it yet. She'll say "Hello" when you hold your hand to your head like a telephone. I know it's not a real ASL sign, but we didn't think the "Hi" sign was distinctive enough.

Someday I'd like to teach her the cat-call whistle for the "pretty" sign. I'm not sure what else she should know. Maybe "thank you"? She says "good morning" and "nite nite" but we can't think of good signs to go with those. "Hey baby" or "hi baby" is another favorite phrase of her's. Again, no sign to go with it yet. Let me know if you have any ideas.

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