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I need advice


Rollerblading along the road
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Welcome, Kai! That's good of you to take on this Amazon. What sort of Amazon is he? What was wrong with him, if I may ask? Are you having to medicate him? What's his name? I also have an Amazon, Ollie, who I had to work hard with to win him over. Perhaps if I tell you how I went about it, it might help you.

Right now, as you have discovered, there are very few reinforcers you can use. But there is one that you can work with - food! Food is a primary reinforcer - it is unlearned - all birds have to eat! But how can you use treats if you can’t get comfortably close to your newcomer?

Negative Reinforcement
Another example of a primary (unlearned) reinforcer is escape from an aversive. Negative reinforcement is also known as escape/avoidance learning. The behaviour is strengthened (reinforced) by escaping an aversive (something the parrot doesn’t like). For example, pushing a hand into the bird’s chest to make it step up. The bird steps up to escape the sensation of being pushed in the chest. The bird has no choice but to step up… or may well learn to bite to make the hand go away. Not the best way of teaching a step up since you are also pairing yourself with an aversive, but we can use negative reinforcement in a more positive way when approaching an "untame" bird.

Note: if you have to use negative reinforcement at any time, it should be immediately followed up with positive reinforcement. However normally, negative reinforcement should be avoided.

Ollie (Orange-winged Amazon) came to me "untame", "cagebound" and afraid of humans, especially hands. He had very few reinforcers and certainly none where humans were concerned. I had to find a way to get close enough to then be able to offer positive reinforcement. My presence was an aversive. He was frightened of me. So I used negative reinforcement:

I would walk towards his cage very slowly beginning from the far side of the room. When he showed slightly uneasy body language that was my starting point. I took a couple of steps back and waited for him to show relaxed body language (RBL) again. When I saw RBL I took a slow step forward (introducing an aversive). His continued RBL then earned half a step back (removing the aversive). I’d wait a few seconds and then took another slow step forward. His RBL earned half a step back, and so on until I could get closer and closer to his cage without him freaking. I did this every time I had to approach his cage. If his body language changed at all, even slightly, then I would go back a couple of steps until I saw his RBL and then break the steps down even smaller.

Positive Reinforcement

When I could get close enough I would offer him a palm nut (his favourite treat back then). I knew the palm nut was reinforcing because he continued to take them from me. Then I noticed he was choosing cashews out of his dry bowl first, so sometimes I offered a whole cashew (whole so my fingers could be as far away from him as possible). When he was successfully taking a whole cashew I would then offer half, and then slowly broke them into smaller pieces. So now we had two reinforcers – the palm nut and pieces of cashew.

Handing him treats like this began to pair me and my fingers with the delivery of good things therefore my presence and fingers started to become reinforcing. My presence and fingers became a secondary reinforcer (learned by pairing in this case with a primary reinforcer – food).

When I wasn't using negative reinforcement to approach Ollie, I would kneel so that I was lower than him when servicing the cage. Birds feel safer higher up where it is easier to spot predators. Ollie couldn't get any higher in his cage, but I could get lower, so that's what I did. In fact in the beginning I would crawl to his cage. I also avoided direct eye contact since that would send him hiding. Predators (humans, wolves, birds of prey, etc) have eyes on the front of their heads whilst prey animals (parrots, horses, deer, rabbits etc) have eyes on the side of their heads. I didn't want to look like a predator to I would snatch sideways glances at him or look at him with one eye. I would move slowly and smoothly at all times around him. Weeks later I progressed to blinking at him from afar, and it felt like a breakthrough when he began to blink back.

As soon as Ollie was comfortable with my presence near the cage, I would sit and read to him. Like your Amazon, Ollie was totally silent. The woman who rescued him called him a mute statue as he was silent for the whole 9 months she had him. Ollie began making noises when he was feeling more comfortable. I made him tiny easily destroyed toys (balsa wood, woven palm, bitty bagels, wooden beads, thin pinewood slices strung on a strip of leather) and tied them to the side of the cage to encourage him to play.

My whole aim with Ollie was to keep his body language as relaxed as possible - whether it was by crawling, avoiding eye contact, using negative reinforcement to approach etc. If you push ahead too fast, too soon and the bird's body language changes/isn't relaxed, you become an aversive (which delays gaining their confidence). It took 1.5 years to get Ollie comfortably out of his cage.... but we did it in the end. You will also get there with your Amazon.