In 2016, I began to teach my parrot, Ellie, phonics, mostly out of desperation. Like many parrot owners, I found that my hand-raised Goffin’s cockatoo presented with a myriad of behavioral challenges—from nipping to property destruction, and the occasional screaming fit.
I knew that these behaviors very often arise from lack of stimulation. The trouble was that I could think of no further possible sources of enrichment: I rotated her toys daily, provided multiple foraging opportunities, and ensured she had a minimum of four hours of out-of-cage playtime every day, and often more.
From the time Ellie was a baby, I trained her. I watched Barbara Heidenreich’s DVDs, attended her live courses, and vowed to be a force-free parrot owner. I taught Ellie tricks and color discrimination. Using foam numbers, I taught her to count the lemons on the coffee table through conditioning techniques. Ellie literally learned as quickly as I could think of new challenges. Oddly, the more challenging her lesson, the calmer her behavior was that day. It was as though she needed her mind to be filled—and not just with tricks, but with ideas.
In June of 2016, I purchased a set of foam alphabet letters from Walmart wondering whether perhaps…maybe…probably not…but who knows? Could she learn phonics?
Once upon a time, I taught inner-city children how to read. I am familiar with the phonetic sounds, and having run out of stimulation ideas, the set sat on my table for months as I, in quiet moments, looked at Ellie, and then at the letters, and wondered about the possibility that she could learn to read. Just how far could her mind go? What were its limits? I felt I hadn’t even scratched the surface—and she was suffering. I provided every kind of enrichment I could imagine, and she was still bored.
On August 29, 2016, Ellie screamed intermittently throughout the evening, tried to chase another cockatoo, and then threw a glass off of the counter, shattering it. We’d stopped counting lemons—I couldn’t hold more than five at a time. I looked at her, looked again at the foam letters, and decided to give it a shot.
I grabbed an apple from the refrigerator, the letter A, and set Ellie on the table. “This is an apple. It is a word, and it begins with the letter A,” I told her. Then, using target training, I conditioned her to the three phonetic A sounds (the ones heard in cake, cat, and call) as she touched the A, and conditioned her to the vocabulary word, apple.
Ellie grew calm and focused immediately—and learned both pairings that evening. The next day I taught her B and ball. And the following day, C and cup. Each day I reviewed all of her previously learned vocabulary and letter sounds and added one more letter and another vocabulary word. I used books to teach her vocabulary—for instance, I conditioned her to touch the fish in children’s books; she got a treat for touching fish on every page. I took her to the fish store to look at live fish, too. For E/elephant we watched YouTube videos of elephants. Again, she received treats for touching them, and I gave her a stuffed toy elephant.
Her accuracy rate was excellent. (I did not keep records at the time, however.) Her demeanor throughout the day grew calmer, and challenging behavior lessened significantly. She didn’t break any more glass, and her nippiness decreased!
Ellie’s studies varied from 20 to a shocking 45 minutes, three to five days per week. Her attention span was longer than mine! Her setup was a wooden play stand on wheels always located near enough to a cage that she could walk away if she chose to stop.
Within two weeks she’d learned nine letters, including A, B, E, and L. The truth is, I didn’t think it would work, and I still had my suspicions for many, many months. I was glad she enjoyed our learning sessions, so continued. If she learned nothing but increased positive behaviors, it was a win! I considered myself a “homeschool bird mother” and began incorporating math and then music into our lessons. I painted two chalkboards in the bird room.
I realized that with those four letters—A, B, E, and L—I could create two of her already-existing vocabulary words: BALL and BELL. I wrote the words on two flashcards with a marker and target trained her to touch each of them independently. I also conditioned her to touch her two objects and discriminate between them. Then I held up the two words and asked her to “Touch BELL.” Within ten minutes she could correctly identify the words and the objects, discriminating between word/word and word/object upon presentation.
I understood that she could be memorizing the letter arrangements and sought to expand upon it. Over the following weeks, as she continued learning the alphabet, we worked on blending the letter sounds into consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC/CVCC) words comprised of her learned letters such as FALL/FELL, TALL/TELL, FALL/TALL, etc. She had dozens of word combination flash cards, and continued to excel.
By the end of September, I wondered whether she could blend the phonetic sounds (technically, whether she could master grapheme-phoneme correspondence) well enough to read larger words. Once again I target trained vocabulary objects in her environment such as pancake, banana, potato, water, shower, book, vocab, and treat. I also wrote those object words onto flash cards—I had about a dozen. I presented two flash cards at a time, (e.g., PANCAKE and BANANA), stated the words, and she selected accurately 70% of the time on novel-impression vocabulary.
I also wrote out her already-learned colors and invited her to select between colored objects and written flashcards through verbal prompting.
I am a lawyer, but I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and, in particular, I was a research assistant in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory at the University of Florida. I remembered learning about Clever Hans, a horse who supposedly performed fantastical feats such as complex mathematical calculations and even had opinions about politics! It was discovered that Hans was brilliant—a brilliant reader of body language! He was simply reflecting the “correct” responses based on the body language of those present.
I knew I needed to be careful to avoid cuing, and began closing my eyes, breathing deeply, and trying not to flinch or move in any way when Ellie selected a card. When choosing which word to say, I’d look at the wrong card randomly while speaking it too—so she learned that my eyes could not cue her.
Later we would work under “homemade blind conditions,” with an assistant (my mother!) for purposes of my first attempt at research. Ellie’s engagement and accuracy rate with less-challenging tasks tends to be lower, but her performance was 66% over 59 simple reading tasks. It was enough to be “above chance.” (Under informal and blind conditions, my cockatoos’ accuracy rates were 75% across 385 cumulative tasks including CVC words, vocabulary, sentences, and emerging-literacy book reading.)
Once Ellie had mastered the alphabet—more particularly the letter Y, I created “YES” and “NO” flashcards and began asking her questions. Did she want a treat? (Yes!) A kiss? (No!) A pet? (No!!)
I call these Communication Cards and have begun teaching reading and parrot-consent via communication cards in classes and with an online manual. As profoundly as reading calmed Ellie’s mind, choice gave her freedom. She could choose her breakfast (healthy pancakes, eggs, a warm sweet potato, or some warm tofu). She could tell me she wanted tea—or water or fresh veggie juice. She could pick her learning and play activities.
Communication through literacy completely changed our relationship. It gave her independence, and a voice in her existence. I was no longer a benevolent dictator trying to guess through charades what she wanted (or didn’t want). I was no longer getting bitten for guessing wrongly, either! I could simply ask her questions based on conditioned vocabulary, and she could simply answer.
Sentence and book training
I am always running out of things to teach Ellie, so I decided to bite the bullet and try to teach her to read sentences. I wrote out: MOM DRINKS TEA and ELLIE DRINKS TEA to begin with an easy structure. I performed an action (either Ellie or I would drink the tea) and she had to select the accurate card representation.
I began writing stories in single-sentences on flashcards about Ellie’s toys—her fish, Zed, and her elephant, Barney. Upon verbal prompt, she engaged in discrimination tasks between two cards at a time, and then I’d ask her questions about the story afterward. She continued to perform at approximately 70-75% accuracy—and typically scored 100% on her reading comprehension questions.
I also used emerging literacy books to engage with her—I taught her to discriminate between the pictures and the text, and then to discriminate between words and sentences on the two pages. One particular night she read five books (80 word tasks, 70% accuracy)! She was a girl on fire!
Across the board, in my own parrots and the participants in my online Teach Your Bird to Read Classes, we’ve observed that accuracy declines with repetition and mastery. The parrots appear to perform best when they have just learned a new concept and are moving toward mastering it.
For instance, it is difficult to attain high performance from Ellie on simple CVC blind test research. Using communication cards, she indicates that she “doesn’t like small words” and tosses the cards over her shoulder! They love a new challenge and keep us on our toes as we find new ways to introduce them to this beautiful world!
Last year I realized that research would (of course!) be required for credibility. On my own, I worked for many months attempting to design blind tests that would work for my parrots. Once I had a blind-test data set, I wrote a journal article and began working with Susan Clubb, DVM, who specializes in avian medicine. Our work provided the perfect base to approach universities for collaboration. Every researcher I emailed was interested in working with the cockatoos! We’re now working with Lynn Perry, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Miami who researches how children learn words. She has been an incredible resource for helping strengthen the study design. At this point Isabelle, my Umbrella cockatoo, has provided for us a data set comprising her reading 60 three-syllable words under blind conditions, including both uppercase and lowercase letters!
Dr. Perry is setting up controls to analyze the data, and if all goes well, it should be off for publication in a scholarly journal. I have a Facebook page where I share updates regarding the birds’ learning, the research, and stories about avian interactions with Communication Cards. I will certainly update it as we make progress on the work, and ultimately on blind studies on parrot literacy!
An expanding community
I taught the first Teach Your Bird to Read class in September, and between my three cockatoos and the small number of class attendees, there are now seven reading parrots! Our online homeschool group, Reading Parrots, also has many parrot owners who have taught their parrots consent with Communication Cards. The feedback I hear consistently is that (like Ellie) their parrots are calmer. Some have stopped plucking. They enjoy having the freedom to say “no!” and to consent to their experiences.
Teaching my parrots to read has changed our relationship in astonishing ways. I can ask them whether they want the nightlight on or off at night. (Ellie prefers extra lights for a few days after the 4th of July fireworks.) Do they want a kiss before bed? Do they prefer to sleep in the living room or the bird room?
I conditioned them to indicate feeling states, and they can tell me when they feel happy, sad, afraid, mad, or excited. I am able to “talk through” their feelings and address their fears. They also articulate their needs and state their preferences about their experiences—and I seek to always honor their expressions. It is incredible to live with creatures that can communicate, and every single day, and I feel honored to be their human.
Jen Cunha is an attorney in private practice, a public speaker, and a dedicated “bird mama” to Lily, Ellie, Isabelle, and Moonlight. She has been in the parrot world since childhood, having grown up with parrots. She has owned birds of her own since 2005. As a teenager, Jen volunteered extensively, educating and teaching inner-city children how to read. Jen has been inspired for years by the Gentle Parenting movement, and bases her husbandry practices on a combination of gentle parenting and force-free animal handling. Together with her partner Joe, they own My Reading Pets, providing parrot education and communication resources to the avian community.