Sunday, June 29, 2014

Birdy Boot Camp

Less than 24 hours after I clicked "Publish" on my last post, we had a complete breakdown of communication and trust with Loki.

Yesterday morning I got up and had a long chat with my roommate about the fact that Loki doesn't seem to be thriving. I mean, sure, he's picked up touch training quickly, and he's eating and he's physically healthy, but he has an attitude problem. Most, if not all, of that attitude problem is my fault. I knew using scare tactics to get him back into his cage was NOT a good thing, and I knew that it was probably leading to where we are now. I just didn't know what else to do because Loki is terrified of all of the other tactics that most people have used. He won't step up onto a perch because a perch is a Stick and all Sticks are bad. He's terrified of towels. He's terrified of gloves. He's terrified of people's arms. On top of all of this, he's not really all that food motivated, so just putting treats in his cage to tempt him back inside won't work either. We need to find another angle to try.

After my chat with my roommate I went into the bird room to let Loki out. He came rocketing out like usual, but I could immediately tell something was different. He didn't greet me. He was all poofed up. I tried to scratch his neck and he just glared at me. I went about giving him and Mango fresh food and water, and when I came back I tried to give him one more scratch before I left. And that's when he tried to bite me.

It wasn't a lunge. It was just an open mouth moving slowly towards my hand, but his body language was reading loud and clear: "Fuck. Right. Off."

I'm not gonna lie, I was pretty upset. I knew it was going to happen at some point down the road because his attitude had been deteriorating daily since the introduction of the towel. A little less enthusiastic to see people. A little less vocal. I little less willing to play with people in the room. But it sucks feeling like you've hit rock bottom and have taken an animal that had about 30% trust in you and turned him into a 0% trust animal.

I had a good cry in my car, and then decided to take action. Friends who are parrot people were called. The internet was consulted. And I came up with a game plan.

May I present to you, Birdy Boot Camp.

1. The first and most important change is that Loki is not going to have unrestricted amounts of time outside of his cage anymore. I thought that I was doing a good thing by letting him out and providing mental stimulation and physical play for him. What I didn't realize is that the longer I let him out without "rules," the more Loki thought he was the boss. Why should he go back into his cage? Pff. Because he refuses to step up, it turned into a "YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO, MOM" situation. I am going to approach this new training angle as though he was a completely out of control, aggressive, un-tame bird (even though he's not) because I want to build the basics first. I need to be the one in control of when and how he goes into and out of his cage, and the only way that's going to happen is by him learning to step up onto my hand.

2. We are continuing touch-training through the cage bars, and when I feel that he's not going to try to rocket out of the cage, with the cage door open. He is not allowed to exit the cage on his own again until I'm confident that I can get him back in by having him step up. Right now he KNOWS that I can't make him go back into his cage without scaring him, and I want him to know that I'm not a scary person. No more Hot Lava Stick, and no more towel (which is what my roommate was using to get him back in). No more fear-based training. Praise and treats when he does something good. 100% ignored when he does something bad.

3. I am switching his diet in a much shorter period of time than I originally planned. The reasoning behind this is that currently, the only treat that he will readily accept during training is seeds. If he's eating a seed diet as his regular food, that seriously diminishes the effectiveness of the treat. Why should he be motivated to work and learn if he can get the reward anytime he wants in his food bowl? If I ate Oreos with every meal and you tried to get me to run up a mountain by bribing me with Oreos, I'd just shrug at you while eating an Oreo sandwich. No more. He gets sunflower seeds from my hands only, and only as a reward for good behavior. For now I'm still providing unrestricted access to food (free-feeding), but that will change down the road.

4. Once he's totally switched onto a pellet diet, I'm going to have to work out a schedule where his food gets taken out for an hour or so before he's allowed out of his cage. When it's dinner time, food will go back into his cage, which is great motivation for returning to the cage. In theory, he should go willingly back into his cage because Hey! Dinner! Nom!

Today was the first day of Birdy Boot Camp, and Loki tried every tactic to get out of his cage. He bit the bars. He cooed at me and acted all cute. He screamed at me. He begged for head scratches through the bars. He threw a fit and threw his (expensive) pellets all over the floor. He tried the "I'm ignoring, but the moment you open my cage door I'm exploding out of this joint" (which I successfully blocked, thank you very much. Cat-like reflexes). Today was cage-cleaning day, which was slightly more challenging with an moody cockatoo in the cage, but we made it happen. I even gave him a mist-bath. Below are two videos, the first of him doing his post-bath fluff dance with accompanying dinosaur noises, the second of him grabbing pellets out of his food bowl and throwing them on the floor while picking out the tiny pieces of raisin that are included in the food (Asshole.).

I'll be posting an update on our progress in a few days. The longer I have Loki the more I've realized that I have to be extremely adaptable. If one tactic doesn't work, we're going to switch to another. We'll keep going until we find something that works or both of us, and someday we'll be all kumbayah and shit.

Friday, June 27, 2014

One Month Update

It's been one day shy of four weeks!! It has FLOWN by (see what I did there?) and I can't believe it's July! Mango (WHO IS A GIRL OMGWTFROFLCOPTER) and Loki are definitely settling in and figuring out the routine.

1. Training: Mango is getting better at stepping up every day, and she's starting to figure out touch training with the clicker. She'd rather show me her newest interpretive dance moves, but she'll do what I ask when I show her the black sunflower seeds she craves so much. Loki figured out touch-training with the clicker about 3 minutes after I removed all the distracting toys and excess perches from the top of his cage. Seriously. I clicked, gave him a treat. Clicked, gave him a treat. Asked him to touch the tip of a wooden skewer, he obliged, I clicked, and gave him a treat. He figured it out so fast that now it's only been three days and he'll chase the stick all over the top and sides of his cage (except inside his cage, which we're going to work on... see #2). Good boy!

2. Socialization: Mango is, once again, improving by leaps and bounds. She politely steps up to my roommate, D, and me when asked about 70% of the time, which is a vast improvement over the original ~10%. She still gives D the stink-eye when we're having cuddles on the bed, and she gave D a good hard bite when he asked her to step up off of my stomach while we were watching tv (NO ONE INTERRUPTS AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR, NO ONE). But for the most part she's being good. She has been very brave and likes exploring new rooms, new stimuli, and hardly ever balks or acts afraid of new things anymore (as long as they're not moving towards her quickly).

Loki is almost exactly the same as the day he arrived. It doesn't help that I'm having to use some negative reinforcement techniques to get him to go back into his cage at the end of the night (or when I leave the house). In the beginning, he would go into and out of his cage freely to play, snack, etc... but then he learned that if I approach the cage and he's inside of it, I MIGHT close the door and he won't have the option of going out again. So now he just stays out. He might sneak back in to grab a quick snack, but he'll rocket back out the moment someone comes near his cage. Hey, I don't blame him. I'd sneak off for snacks too.

The problem is that he absolutely 100% will NOT step up for anybody. He's been on my hand a grand total of three times since he's been in San Diego: twice when he got scared, flew off his cage, and landed on the floor, and the one time we went to the vet. He is super attached to his cage. My hand is only a vehicle to get him back to the cage, or a vehicle for head scritches (which he still loves and demands). It's just a matter of trust. He doesn't trust me to not do something horrible to him if I pick him up. I don't trust him to not bite me if I try to force the issue (for the record,  he's NEVER bitten me, but he is a cockatoo and there's a first time for everything).

So my solution has been some extremely mild negative reinforcement. Even the term "negative reinforcement" makes me cringe, but let me explain: There is a perch that Loki chewed in half that is now Hot Lava. It resembles a Stick and all Sticks are the devil unless they are completely stationary, have not moved within the last 3 days, and have been properly screamed at and then chewed on. So now what I do is just take the Hot Lava Stick and hold it in the air above the cage. I am always very careful to move slowly, and Loki keeps an eye on it the entire time. Then I very slowly lower the stick towards him, and his solution to get away from it is to retreat to the inside of his cage. The *momemt* he is in the cage, the reward is that Hot Lava Stick immediately disappears and he is praised to high heaven, given copious treats, and all the head scritches he can handle

One of two things is going to happen. A.) He'll figure out what "night-night" means and eventually I can just say it without needing Hot Lava Stick, or B.) He'll be willing to follow the touch-training stick to the inside of his cage and I can work on attaching the verbal cue later. I HATE using Hot Lava Stick. I HATE that I'm scaring him. I want him to trust me and how is he ever going to trust me if I have to scare him back into his cage every evening? I just wish I could force logic into his brain that I'm not going to murder him if he steps up onto my hand. It'll be so fun! He can see other rooms in the house! He can play on the bed and snuggle and take showers! But for now I just have to be super vigilant with touch training and get him closer and closer to having to physically step on me somehow to reach the stick. Patience. So much patience.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Vet Time!

Originally I was going to wait to take the boys* to the vet, but when I called to check for available appointments and they said they had an opening that same afternoon, I couldn't pass it up.

The vet was super awesome. Very nice, and she explained what she was doing with each bird. Both birds got general health check-ups, microchips, and nail trims. Loki's nails were horrendous; they had been trimmed back in Maryland in March, but the vet we saw there told me that since Loki's nails were so overgrown they could only be taken down so far... not so, the new vet told me today. They used a dremel and *insert dremel shearing noise* off went the terrible tips. Seriously. It took less than 5 minutes to undo years of damage, and the vet in Maryland told me it couldn't be done. I am not pleased with that vet, but thankfully he's in Maryland and I never have to take the birds there again. Microchipping was also fast and easy, albeit a little icky because of the needle. I mean... imagine a needle that is big enough to hold a grain of rice (the microchip's size) being stuck into a tiny little bird's belly. I squirmed, they squirmed, we all squirmed (except the vet... she's over it) but it was accomplished super fast.

Mango also got a little extra treatment: a beak trim and a cloacal swab for DNA sexing. Fancy! Mango's beak is now  rounded and a little shorter and doesn't really hurt when he* decides to tell me to stop doing whatever I'm doing in the language of "bite."

*Also, Mango is a girl. I got the call while I was in the field yesterday. Mango, Y U NO TELL ME U ARE A GIRL?!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Conversation with the Birds

I walk into the bird room with my laptop.

Me: Hey guys!

Mango: HI! HI! HI MOM! HI!

Loki: *side eye* oh, hey.

Me: Whatchya guys doing?!


Loki: *glare*

Me: Ok, I'll let you guys out. I'm just gonna sit here and watch Netflix while you guys play.


Loki: *cautiously exits cage, begins furiously chewing perches*

Mango: MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!

Me: Ok Mango, I'll take you out of your cage and place you on top, since you're too excited to realize that you can, in fact, exit the cage on your own. Hey Loki, how are you doing, bud? Can I give you some head scratches?

Loki: *silence, furious chewing... more side eye... cautiously bows head for scritches*

Me: Awesome, Netflix time. Ooh, look, a new documentary on cults. Should be fascinating.

Mango: *quietly chewing perch*

Loki: Wait... what's that screen thing you're looking at? 

Me: Oh, now you wanna talk, Loki?

Loki: Yeah. Why are you looking at that screen and not me?

Me: I'm just hanging out in here so you don't get into trouble. *goes back to watching Netflix*

Loki: Hey!

Me: *watches Netflix*

Loki: Hey! Look at me when I'm talking to you! MOM!! HEY!!! WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME!?

Me: *ear drums bleeding slightly* I guess it's time for headphones...


Mango: Loki, SHUT UP!



And that, folks, is what it's like trying to watch Netflix in the bird room. I took that video secretly while facing away from Loki because every time I look directly at him, he quiets right down and starts cooing. And I mean... he could totally come over and hang out with me and I'd give him an entire cult documentary's worth of head scritches, but noooooo. He'd rather have a meltdown like he's a 2-year-old in a grocery store and I just told him to put the cookies back on the shelf.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Bonus Video: Cockatoos Require Vigilant Supervision

Here's an example of why cockatoos require constant, vigilant supervision. They get into trouble in the most glorious ways.

Week Two With Feather Children

It's been two weeks now! It honestly feels like one million years. It's an adjustment for everybody.

1. Loki still sings the song of his people around midnight every few nights or so. We've now had three blissful nights of uninterrupted sleep... until 5:30 a.m. when it's time for Loki to call to his people. But honestly? I don't mind 5:30. I'm usually waking up on my own by then anyway. Midnight I cannot handle.

2. Mango has improved by LEAPS AND BOUNDS this past week. He has now stepped up for my roommate without me in the room AND with me in the room, which is a huge deal for him. Even huger deal: He steps up for D now. He stepped up for D when I wasn't there, then when I was there, and then.... drumroll please.... I was able to pass Mango from my hand directly onto D's hand and MANGO DIDN'T BITE D. If I didn't think I'd have broken my neck, I would have done a cartwheel. We went from Mango aggressively posturing, hissing, and screaming at D to willingly leaving my hand for his in about a week. I am so thrilled, I can't even.

I'm so proud. I'll get photo evidence of Mango's newfound friendship with D next week.

One-legged pullup on the hot lava branch

3. Mango likes the shower.  I bought a shower perch that sticks to the shower wall with suction cups so I could just take the birds into the shower with me, which is great because they like water but hate the spray bottle. Yesterday was the most hilarious shower experience yet. Mango was on the perch, but he kept looking like he wanted to fly down onto the shower floor, so I just set him down there. He immediately walked into the stream of water and got this crazed, happy look in his eye. There was much fluffing, happy noises, and walking around in the stream of water, and he got completely soaked to the bone. After the shower he was shivering a little and wasn't really into the idea of being toweled off (towels are still hot lava), and I remembered something I read online... someone mentioned that after they bathe their birds, they blow dry them with a hair dryer on low. This person said that their birds loved it, but that they'd been exposed to hair dryers since they were babies. I thought, what the hell? The worst thing that can happen is he screams at it like it's going to kill him and I'll turn it off and we'll stick to Hot Lava Towel. Welp... turns out Mango loves the hair dryer. He sat very quietly and still on the bathroom counter with this total blissed out look in his eye... he even turned around a few times so the dryer could warm his other side.

Before and after.

4. Loki still hasn't made even a small attempt at stepping up onto my hand for me. Like I said before, I'm totally ok with that. He still loooooves to come out of his cage to play/chew on the perches I have up there, play with/chew the toys I have set out, and play with/chew the "let's be friends" sheet. He'll willingly lower his head for scratches and rubs, give me copious head boops, and make adorable chatty noises. He seems happy, and so I am happy. He's been through a lot and I don't want to push him out of his comfort zone quicker than necessary.

"... must... destroy..."

5. I am making a questionable purchase for Mango. I am going to try out a flight harness. He's just so curious and wants to explore all the places, and I'd love nothing more than to be able to walk around inside the entire house and out in the backyard with him safely tethered to me. I want him to get used to new places, see new things, hang out with new people in various settings. Eventually I'll want to get a harness for Loki, but we have a long way to go before he'll be ready for it. Mostly because I'm pretty sure he could chew through it and escape in about 45 seconds.

Stock photo, but look! Mango's cousin, a Jenday conure!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ignoring the Loudest Noises I've Ever Heard

It's hard to ignore shrieking at 50,000 decibels (give or take). One thing I've noticed that the boys simply cannot abide is being ignored while I'm in the room. They're used to having their own room on the side of the house, which means every time someone entered the room it was specifically to pay attention to them. Obviously this is a problem because someday I'm going to live in a house where they'll be hanging out with the whole family.... who knows, their cages may even be in the kitchen/dining room/living room/somewhere where the main thoroughfare occurs. They're going to have to get used to people walking by them and not showering them with attention.

So I have begun setting my plan to break them of this habit into motion. I'm going to sit in their room, and watch Netflix. I'm going to ignore them completely. And I'm going to wear ear plugs.

What's that you say? "BEEP CA CAAWW RAWRRR?" I didn't catch it because of my awesome ear plugs.

Reactions have been pretty hilarious.  It's been hard to sit here and listen to all their crazy squawks, beeps, screams, and dinosaur noises without just collapsing in a fit of laughter. I had to catch this video of Loki while looking the other way and biting my lip. He was not amused. Despite the fact that I think this plan is going to take months, maybe YEARS to implement, I think it will ultimately work.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

One Week In

I'm writing this from the bird room. I just sprayed Loki with a water bottle to calm down some of the dust he puts off, and now he's running around the top of his cage, wings outstretched, screaming his head off. It would be a lot cuter if my ear drums weren't bleeding (note to self: wear headphones in bird room).

Cray-ball cockatoo.

So we've made it one week. It's been quite an experience. I like lists, so here's what's been going on in list form.

1. We have started clicker training. So far it doesn't seem that either bird has really caught on, but it's only been a few days and I'm going to give it a lot of time to see where this goes. So far I'm doing touch training using a wooden skewer, where I ask the bird to "touch" the end of the skewer with their beak. I click, they get a treat. Touch training is apparently really good for building a foundation for other things, such as stepping up (which Mango already knows how to do, but Loki does not). I've only been doing this for a few minutes each day, so time will tell. I've also been working on "step up" with Mango. He already knows how to do it, but he's a little butt about it sometimes. He's very easily excited and easily distracted, so it doesn't always work. I'm attempting zero negative reinforcement, which is really hard when you have a crazy, bitey bird, but I've been pretty successful thus far .

2. Mango has pretty nutso separation anxiety. I don't blame the little guy, he's spent the last several years in a cage, and he LOVES coming out... I'd be a little crazy too. If I'm outside the room and he can hear me talking, he's screaming. If I'm in the room and Loki is out, Mango is trying to get my attention with a variety of screams, knocks, vibrations with his beak on the cage bars or a toy, or other repetitive motions that I do not like seeing. The only time that he's totally calm around me is when he's on my body somewhere. Hands and knees (I like to let him perch on my knees when I'm laying on bed watching Netflix) are ok. Shoulders/chest are a big problem. He goes into crazy territorial mode when he's on someone's shoulder or chest, particularly mine, and WILL NOT step up onto anybody's finger when there. Putting my hands anywhere near him while he's on my shoulder or chest results in an aggressive shriek and a hard bite. So until he gets "step up" down HARD, he is not allowed on anybody's shoulder.

Right before the last time I got bit super hard. No more, Sir Mango!

3. Although Loki was willing to come out into my hands and arms when he was back in Maryland, he does not trust me here. Again, I don't blame him. He's an old, smart bird who was just moved 3,000 miles across the country to a different time zone, climate, room, and cage. He's pretty traumatized. Touch training is going ok with him, and he loves to play on top of his cage, give me head boops, and get head scratches, so I'm happy with that for now. We're gonna take it REAL slow with him. He's very interested in toys (and by "interested in" I mean "interested in destroying") and treats, which I am thrilled about. Yesterday was cage cleaning day, and here's a before/after photo of his litter tray:

Above: The remains of many toys. Below: so fresh and so clean. But way more boring.
4. Two nights this past week, Loki has decided to sing the song of his people at midnight. MIDNIGHT. AS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAMN NIGHT. He goes for about 10 minutes and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. The window is shut, so he shouldn't be bothered by animals outside, but maybe he can still hear them? It's pitch black in the room. Someone suggested, "maybe he's still getting used to the time change?" I'd buy that, except that it would mean that he started screaming at 3:00 am back at home... which I know isn't true. I don't know what it's about, but I really really really really REALLY hope he gets a grip on himself and stops. Even Mango scolded him when he started in last night. All I can do is ignore it, and try to get back to sleep.

5. The "let's be friends" sheet is working beautifully. Loki has been focusing on destroying the perch/toy/fiber/whatever is on top of his cage, and he completely ignores Mango now that they can't see each other. I've even had them both out at the same time a couple of times now. It's great. HOORAY SOMETHING IS WORKING!


So my hope is that we'll have touch training down in three weeks. I'd really like for Loki to trust me enough to step up onto my hand within a month, but I've read varying accounts from different sources, so I won't be too devastated if it doesn't happen. I can be patient. I'm also expecting a huge trust set-back when I take them to the vet (hopefully next week). Micro-chips and nail trims for all!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Lessons Learned on Day 1

1. Mango loves me, and hates everyone else. Loki tolerates everyone, and hates Mango. This is nothing new. I let Mango out to play and Mango just desperately wants to be on my shoulder. Even being on my hand isn't good enough, he's anxious and nippy until he's on my shoulder. And then he's impossible to get off my shoulder without sustaining serious bites. It's a problem we're going to work on.

Loki, on the other hand, spent his entire time out of the cage trying to intimidate Mango with displays of strength (i.e. shredding his new hardwood perch and throwing the pieces on the floor in the general direction of Mango's cage). Sorry, bro, Mango isn't going anywhere. To his credit, Mango completely ignored Loki and happily munched away at some dried banana chips during this whole ordeal.

It was like watching twigs go through a wood chipper.

My solution? I installed a "let's be friends sheet." Now they can't see each other, but they can still hear each other. As far as I can tell, Loki is happy and Mango is completely oblivious.

Let's Be Friends Sheet Level: Working

2. As I suspected, Mango's love can be bought with millet. D attempted to touch Mango a couple times, ending up with some bites. Then out came the millet. Oooooh, we do loves the millet, don't we precious? After some serious bribes (and millet all over the floor) Mango was happily munching while perched on D's finger. And then he bit D again. And then he ate more millet and everything was ok. It's going to take time, but I think they can be friends.

You can't see the blood on D's fingers in this pic.

3. Loki has gone into Dinosaur Mode of Destruction. It's like he's trying to make up for the last several years of boredom in one day. He has completely destroyed one entire toy, half of a wood perch, one quarter of this awesome rope wall thing, and part of his rope perch. In less than 12 hours. To everyone who thought I was going WAY overboard on buying toys and perches, I say this: Everything I bought him will be completely destroyed in less than a month. I guarantee it.

Admiring his destruction.
4. The super awesome hanging perch I made out of weathered manzanita I found while hiking in Joshua Tree a couple years ago? It is hot lava. Mango happily perched on basically every surface I set him down on today: actual perches, his cage, the window sill, the bathroom counter, the floor, D, my bed. This perch was evil incarnate. He screamed at it, bit it, postured at it, bit some chunks out of it, and then screamed at it some more. Sigh.

Looking at it from this angle, I can see how mortally dangerous it is. Not.
Today was a good day. I wasn't really expecting Loki to jump into my arms, and he didn't. Tomorrow is another day. I know how sweet he can be, so it's just a matter of building trust. Mango has some anxiety issues, and we're going to work on those too. Goals! I think by the end of the week I'll have a good idea of what things to tackle first. And I'll have bought a clicker.

And here's another picture because he's the most adorable dinosaur: