Cockatoos in the kitchen

Cockatoos in the Kitchen
from Good Bird Magazine Volume 5 Issue 2

Many aspects of daily life can emphasize the challenges involved in living with parrots, and those activities that involve food are high on the list of stress-inducing situations. Not only is food a primary reinforcer, but the act of foraging can also have tremendous enrichment value for our birds. If we add a full set of wings to that equation, it is no wonder than many of us find cooking and eating around our birds an activity
we would rather avoid.

Indeed, for many years it was easy for me to do just that, as I had a large living space and a room specifically constructed for my four fully flighted cockatoos. This room was particularly useful when I was involved in household activities that highlighted their natural curiosity and unique sense of flock dynamic, which involved behaviors that hindered my progress and usually had me working in circles. Moving across the country gave us a much smaller living area and a work schedule that encouraged me to take advantage of any free time I had to spend with them, so I combined chores with their play and training sessions. However, I had experienced enough instances of oversight on my part to believe that I could never have my parrots out playing while food was in the open. My bare-eyed cockatoo, Juice, once made off with an entire peanut butter and jelly sandwich and flew to a high perch with her stolen jackpot much like a heavily laden Boeing jetliner. Sailor, a slender-billed cockatoo,gave new meaning to the term “tossed salad” by flinging food as she perched on the bowl and sifted around for her favorite bits. And in one particularly embarrassing example of my indiscretion, sulfur-crested cockatoo Henry dumped an entire homemade pizza face down on the kitchen floor.

Similar to putting a begging dog out in the yard during dinnertime, keeping my birds in their cages was the easiest way to prevent undesired avian assistance. However, a closer look at this scenario revealed a unique training challenge to create a mutually pleasurable combination of playing and learning for the birds and relaxing for me. The most important part of any training program is to give information about what the trainer wants the student to do, rather than what not to do. I want my birds to find pre-selected stations around the kitchen or dining area that are more reinforcing than the counter tops and dining table. I also want them to choose behaviors that benefit both of us in order to receive the extra-special treats I am preparing for my own consumption. Finally, I want them to be well occupied in their cages when time, focus or energy is in short supply or when there are safety concerns.

The kitchen may be the one room of the house with the highest concentration of dangers. With open flames, hot baking and serving wares, sharp objects, whirring blades, and fragile plates and glasses, it is hardly a safe haven for avian activity. On the flip side, all those highly dump-able playthings, beak-pleasing electrical cords, loose food items and bulk storage devices make it an equally enticing Mecca for perceived enrichment. The next steps in the program involved careful arrangement of the environment and paying close attention to where the birds would be reinforced. With such a small living area, the kitchen quickly became part of my cockatoos’ playground regardless of the presence of activity there, so it took a careful analysis of the situation to encourage them to seek activity elsewhere. Arranging the environment meant creating safe stationing areas on the perimeter where the bird could still be somewhat part of the action but not be in danger of losing a toe or dropping a dishtowel on an open flame. It also meant channeling my inner clean freak and removing the reinforcing value from the counter tops, sink, refrigerator and other places that are unsafe or inconvenient for birds to hang out.

From the beginning, I needed to constantly clean the food preparation and cutting areas to keep my two corellas from swooping in and picking up crumbs or unused portion of food. I also needed to hide the glass storage receptacles for dry goods that normally encouraged my Moluccan to fly in to use them as giant foraging toys. Any time I took my eyes off the counters, I made sure to remove anything that would encourage my birds to land there. I became obsessive about immediately putting away dishes and utensils, and I scanned for food particles with an eagle eye. As I soon experienced, intermittently reinforced behaviors can be some of the most challenging to extinguish, and if I missed cleaning out the drain sieve once, it would encourage my cockatoos to check out the foraging possibilities in the sink for days afterwards. That was not a beneficial behavior for either of us! Part of arranging the environment also included setting up additional enrichment in other acceptable play areas that would keep the birds busy with a variety of activities that didn’t focus on food. This simply entailed managing the times I delivered their daily enrichment to maximize our schedule. I made sure they got their favorite toys and activities during the times it would be most difficult to keep them out of the kitchen and dining area.

The next step of my training program was to create acceptable areas for my birds when I was preparing food or eating. These stations would be the closest possible point the birds could come to the kitchen and still be reinforced. I outfitted the stations with a few toys and shreddables to encourage the birds to land and stay before venturing closer. The two usual suspects when it came to making life in the kitchen difficult were the corellas, the smaller of the four cockatoos
because they are extremely fast moving and have well-rehearsed stealing maneuvers. My program consisted of training a basic stationing behavior, where I combined capturing the behavior of staying on the approved areas as much as possible and
also targeting the birds back to those areas for reinforcers when they came into the “no-fly” zones. In the beginning, capturing and keeping the birds on the stations required an extremely high rate of reinforcement, but it did not take long before I was able to increase the amount of time the birds would stay on their stations before delivering a treat. The larger cockatoos, Sam the Moluccan and Henry the sulfur-crested, typically remained in the living room on their cages and gyms, but called very loudly to receive reinforcers. Clearly, the presence of their calls and squawks indicated that vocalizing had earned them their desired consequence in the past, so I needed to be more aware of reinforcing vocaliza-
tions that were more pleasant. Occasionally they would come to the table where I was eating if I ignored them, so I settled on a specific set of vocalizations already present in their vocabulary which would receive reinforcers.

The changes in the birds’ behaviors came almost as soon as the program was put into action. Sam and Henry talked and whistled more as they found that would earn them a bite of my lunch. Juice flew next to her station and carefully put her feet on the appropriate branch and waited for me to come to her. Sailor no longer dropped to the counter as soon as I walked away to patrol for crumbs. I was able to phase the storage containers back on to the counter once the birds developed a history to finding enrichment in other, more acceptable areas. The most unexpected and remarkable of results was that all four cockatoos decreased their focus on my food-preparing activities. They no longer hovered around the kitchen, waiting for me to look the other way in order to steal a bite or two. Once they learned how to behave to get these extra-special treats, they occupied themselves with other forms of enrichment, dropping by their stations or giving a little whistle on occasion to critique my culinary progress before flying back to their cages.

Given my positive results, I strongly believe this training program is easy for others to customize and apply to a wide range of household activities. The first step is to identify safe parameters; for instance, I recognized that cooking procedures involving stove tops and ovens were safer and less stressful when bird free. During the times or activities when it is best for the birds to remain in their cages, it is important to set them up for success by providing alternative enrichment sources. The second step is to identify where you would like the birds to receive reinforcers and then arrange the environment to keep the most highly reinforcing activities and items in acceptable locations. The third step is actively train stationing behaviors through which the birds can receive desired consequences under mutually controllable situations. The result produces two students actively creating a progressive, interspecies relationship mediated by a two-way avenue of communication.