Thursday, April 22, 2010

Using Sign Language

I have written a number of posts on body language and the importance of understanding, interpreting and responding to the body language of our unique birds. Each bird is unique, even within the same species. Naturally, no one can definitively state and guarantee that all body language means the same things in all birds and in all circumstances. Thus the benefit, and absolute necessity, of learning the body language of each of our individual birds becomes immediately clear.

Although Coco is quite free in expressing herself through a wide variety of body language expressions, in addition there are certain words and phrase patterns that I believe she has learned to use to prompt the humans around her to action in much the same way our dogs learn that certain vocal patterns when matched with certain visual cues or actions on our part have specific meanings. However, this is not 100% for her. For example, she routinely says bye-bye when my husband enters the room while we are spending private time. However, she also says it at times, and in manners, that seem out of context to me. For example, when I am cleaning the budgie fort and she is vocalizing to get my attention including saying 'bye-bye'. It is likely that this use of the phrase bye-bye is not an attempt to encourage me to leave the room, but simply a method to get a vocal response from me in turn.Since I have observed that the use of the phrase bye-bye does not appear to have a consistent meaning for her, I do not want to rely on it for a basis of communication or to dictate a response that I might provide. Ok, so that's out... I'm not going to teach her how to have lengthy conversations with me about her needs.

How then do we form a basis of communication when we do not share a common spoken language ?

ne option I use with Coco is the same skill I would employ if I were communicating with a deaf child - the Helen Keller method... sign language. The ability to create communication using sign/body as a base, is of immeasurable assistance.

How can this be accomplished?

Perhaps the single most important piece of body language that can be learned is the 'back off' language of a bird. However, a bird may use a variety of different body languages to express this, escalating all the way to biting, if needed, to get the point across.If we can create an environment where we teach the bird a 'sign' that means back off, we are well on our way to knowing when the bird wants us to do so. When the sign is displayed by the bird, we back off, the bird's need and desire was met, trust is gained, and the relationship is strengthened (or at least no blood is let!).

Before addressing an example of sign language used to indicate 'back off', I want to write about the sign language she has learned which means 'give me that' or - 'I want what you have'.

I began with teaching her a simple wave. Initially, she received a treat for picking up her foot slightly off the perch, and we worked toward her receiving the treat when she had her foot entirely in the air. She has since learned to even curl her toes as a human would curl their fingers. She also learned that when she performed this behavior, she received a treat. It did not take very much time before she began doing this behavior, uncued, because I had a treat she wanted. When I would reach for the treat jar, she would immediately perform the behavior whether or not cued. Now, if I walk into the room with a plate of food and she would like some, she will perform the behavior. However, she will also perform the behavior if I am wearing a shirt with big buttons that she would like to access, or if she would like me to come over to her. While she will perform the behavior by my asking "give me a wave", we have also come to mutually understand that her initiation of this behavior means that I have something she wants. Even if it is in a jar across the room. She wants me, what I am wearing, what I am eating, what I am holding, or what I have the potential to bring her.

While teaching a bird to wave is a cute trick, it begins to have meaning if we can use that behavior as a basis of a common language between human and companion.

The same applies if we were to give a bird a method of communicating 'back off' through the performance of a body language behavior. With Coco, I have used one of her innate behaviors to create the sign language for this desire. Whenever I am around her, if she begins to walk away from me, or turns her back on me, I immediately do the same. Mirroring body language has many benefits: see Birdie's Helen Keller Moment for a few more examples.

What Coco began to learn, and now knows well, is that if she wants me to move away she simply moves away from me or turns around. And I need to trust that if she performs these behaviors, she means them. And, I respond accordingly. Sometimes she changes her mind and high-tails it back towards me; I respond in kind by returning to her. In the beginning, each time she would turn her back on me or move away from me, I immediately responded, and it took little to no time at all before she realized we were forming a method of communication. I believe birds are far better students of body language than we could ever be!

When a bird has a sure-fire method of communicating its need for space, or desire to avoid interaction, it also has a means to meet its own needs without escalating to lunging or biting.

Back off, mom - this guy promised me a trip to see the queen!!!

We can think of many other scenarios where teaching sign language through the use of behaviors or even innate body language can work to create a common language. Instead of relying solely on learning their body language (while that is certainly essential and cannot be underestimated), taking steps to teach language and behaviors that communicate shared ideas creates the opportunity to expand the horizons of the relationship and add to the list of experiences that gain trust.



Raz said...

Excellent post! This is such an important idea for parrot owners to understand. I'm currently un- and re-training a regimes cockatiel who had learned very well the effectiveness (and necessity) of biting as a 'back off' signal. It's amazing to see such a strong learned behavior in an otherwise very sweet and friendly bird. I'm using any slight backing up behavior from him a my cue to back off. The challenge is that he had pretty much entirely given up on anything short of biting as a means to communicate that. It's fun to watch him relearn the signals. Love your blog!

Raz said...

uh, 'rehomed' not 'regimes'. Auto-spellcheckers...

Jim Stewart said...

I loved reading this, Robin. For me this post is what living with my 2 macaws is all about. I spent 2+ years training them tricks and I will say most of the tricks/behaviors were on pretty solid cue. Looking back I failed, to some degree, to be what I call today a companion to them. I wanted them to live in my house as dogs and cats can and for me that isn't all about behaviors *on cue*. Being flighted added to this challenge since they were free, like dogs and cats, to go and do as they darn will pleased. For me, it's about communication, honesty, respect and foremost getting out of myself and realizing this companionship was not all about what "I" wanted and when. By doing what you talk about in this post, today I live with 2 macaws that make choices, on their own, to behave (99% of the time) in a manner that is very acceptable for them and me. Life is good!

Thank you for a wonderful informative post.


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