Conservation Corner



I ATTENDED TWO INTERESTING FUNCTIONS in January 2009. One was the first workshop in the Natural Encounters, Inc (NEI), series "The Art and Science of Training Companion Parrots." NEI is the animal training company set up by the well-known bird trainer Steve Martin, and the series on training companion parrots consists of three levels of workshops: Foundation Skills, Refining Skills, and Trainer Immersion. (see more at www.naturalencounters. com, under "Training and Education." I had heard good comments about the workshop from my friend Karen Justice of Parrot University, so I decided to give the beginning workshop a try.

Wow, what a great experience! First, Steve Martin practices positive reinforcement techniques and wants the animals being trained to be happy and enjoy participating. That means we twenty trainees were treated very nicely. The experience started off with a Sunday evening icebreaker where we found out about the other participants, met our group trainers, learned who would be in our training groups, and learned which of the available psittacines would be ours for the week. And enjoyed lots of snacks, good wine and soft drinks. (You'll read a lot about the food here because it was so good!) Three nights dinner was on our own, but NEI provided a van and an SUV, both equipped with GPS units, so we could get around. Two other nights were a social night with NEI picking up the tab at Chili's nearby and a Pizza Night and behavior discussion round table-again, courtesy ofNEI and with plenty of beer and wine and soft drinks to go around.

Monday through Friday we met for a morning session and an afternoon session, each consisting of several hours oflectures by Steve on principles of bird and other animal training and then two hours (morning and afternoon) of hands-on work with our assigned birds. I had attended short theory-only talks on behavior and training and wasn't terribly impressed with how efficacious it all appeared to be. But when given the opportunity to practice under the tutelage of one of the staff instructors at NEI, I was astonished at how readily the birds learned. Of course, these birds "knew the game," so to speak, so as soon as we showed up with pieces of nuts in hand they began waving and turning around on their perches in an attempt to figure out what behavior would get them treats. Yet, my four pet birds at home learned almost as fast, and they really enjoy working for the little pieces of peanut and pecan and walnut I give them. Lunch each day was catered by NEI and what a lunch it was! No cheese sandwiches and chips - a real substantial lunch with main course, vegetables, salad, desert, and drinks, At the end of each day we all gathered for half an hour to discuss the day's training experiences and munch away on crackers and cheese, washed down with beer or wine or soft drinks.

The last Saturday we had a review of the material presented and then all twenty of us got to demonstrate what we had taught our birds. I had worked with my blue throated macaw on nail trimming behavior. She was not quite sure about the whirring Dremel tool, but I had made plenty of progress in training her to hold her foot on the cage wire and let me touch her toenails with it. Others in the class had taught their assigned birds such behaviors as to go into a travel crate; to pull up a bucket containing a washer, take the washer out and walk along the perch to deposit the washer in another bucket; to fly around poles and then to come back to the trainer, and a cute kea learned to spin around upside down on the perch-all for a quarter of a grape (the two keas only would work for grapes-no nuts, thank you).

The class wrapped up with an exam ( ugh!) and a great banquet at Chalet Suzanne, a 75-year-old restaurant and inn. Ever had broiled chicken liver on top of broiled grapefruit? It's remarkably tasty! The NEI team had put together a slide show to music of scenes from our week that made everyone feel a little wistful that it was all over for now. But we had learned so much that many of us felt we would like to return the next year to take the next workshop.

The workshop was definitely worthwhile, and a lot of fun: see for more information. The sister nonprofit organization The Natural Encounters Conservation Fund makes significant contributions to animal and bird conservation in the wild.