Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Not-So-Smart Bird Chronicles

This is Angel. Angel is not a horse. Angel is a Goffin's Cockatoo with a brain the size of a walnut and a crush on me. I have owned Angel for almost his entire 24 years on this planet. He was six months old when, as the cheapest bird at the pet store, he was elected to replace the recently diseased and deceased Chicken Elizabeth, a blue-fronted Amazon parrot to which my daughter was attached.

Goffin's are not known for their speaking ability. In the wild (and trust me, they are wild), they are pest birds, ravaging crops and being shot at by farmers. Naturally, here in the US we are more than willing to fork over $300+ for the privilege of having one in residence in our homes. I often imagine farmers in Australia laughing when I'm shrieking back at this creature as he destroys my last nerve.

But, I digress.

In keeping with the current erratic series of posts, I intend to relate my efforts to train Angel to do something--anything--on command. Had I not become entranced by Alex and Me, Angel would be living La Vida Loco unimpaired. But entranced I am, and I will journal here my progress to date.

Day one: Discovered through trial that Angel's treat of choice is cooked asparagus tips. This does not bode well for the food reward part of the training process. Continued trials ferretted out a secondary favorite, chocolate ice cream from a specific Italian company. Considering a move to whips and chains and negative reinforcement.

Day two: Ran through the list of existing responses Angel has learned. He danced (both bee-bop and waltz), bowed, and gave me several hugs. We worked for a bit on "Shut UP!", but did not progress as quickly as I'd hoped. Enough for one session.

Day three: Angel has several wooden beads which he enjoys manipulating, so we started with a structured "Take" and "Give" pattern. I first attached the label, "toy", to all the wooden objects in his cage. Makes life easier. If everything is "toy", there is no strain on my limited creativity. Waited to catch Angel in the act of playing. When he picked up one of the wooden wheels, I congratulated him, then grasped it and asked him to "Give Toy". A brief tussle ensued. I got the toy. Again I congratulated him, and as I handed it back I said, "Take Toy". We did this several times until he actually released his grip on the toy when I asked for the "Give Toy". Quit while I'm ahead.

Day four: Basically a repeat of Day three. There will be no single-trial learning here.

Day five: It occurred to me that videotaping Angel's progress would be beneficial. I quickly determined that Angel, like many Trobriand Islanders, believes the camera will steal his creepy little soul. I managed four minutes of recording Angel staring blankly into the lens.

Day six: Approaching the video concept from a new angle, I attached the Flip Mino to the lamp shade opposite Angel's cage door and left it there. Angel spent approximately six hours objecting loudly to the presence of the Mino in his space. I have a headache now.

Day seven: Angel has begun to ignore the camera, so I turned it on and ran through his basic learned behaviors. As I was wearing a bathrobe and no makeup at the time, however, none of this video will see daylight.

This is where the training process stands. In Angel's defense, he does have several words and behaviors already. He is not mentally impaired, only emotionally disturbed. As we work, hopefully he will reach heights heretofore unknown in the world of Goffin's. Just wait, and watch the feathers fly!

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