Birds need intellectual stimulation, owner says
Will Stedman's parrots drive a car. They ride a bicycle and a scooter. They ring the dinner bell and they say "Hi" and "Bye-bye."And all this week, they make their return. Stedman and his show, the Hollywood Educated Parrots, so named for their experiences on TV and in the movies, are back at the Adams County Fair for a second year."They must have liked what we did last year," Stedman said. "And we love it over here."
'When he was a child, Stedman would visit Othello because he had relatives who owned an apple orchard in the area. His brother-in-law's mother and brother still live in Othello, he said."There are family ties here, and I do remember coming over here as a very young child," he said. "We'll be here as long as they have it, this is one of our favorite fairs. It's the people. You walk in the gate and you feel like you're amongst friends."Based in Seattle, Stedman began performing as a magician when he was 14 years old."It was an interesting progression," he said of making the move from magic to parrots. About 20 years ago, he began working for one of the leading names in magic, who was in the process of becoming semi-retired. The veteran magician hired several younger performers who knew their way around magic. He had purchased the parrot act, performing at shopping malls, fairs and as the middle act in his magic show."Over the years in working with him, he noticed that I got along with the birds and the birds got along with me," Stedman said.Stedman was eager to work with the birds, and starting performing with them, ultimately purchasing the act seven years ago when the magician retired."Even when I was a magician, you depend on rabbits, doves, ducks," Stedman said. "Animals have always been part of what I do. I feel very strongly, not just as a performer. Me, I'm very much an animal person. And whether it be wildlife or livestock, animals are as equally important to the world we live in as we are."For fairs and festivals, Stedman and three birds -- blue and gold macaws Billy, Barney and cockatoo Fred -- perform as the Hollywood Educated Parrot Show, primarily throughout the northwest United States. For school assemblies, the birds do a lot of the same tricks, but with an emphasis on environmental education.Stedman also has several other rescued birds. He noted sometimes an owner decides they don't want a bird anymore, which can be very traumatic."When we hear those situations, my wife and I, we take in rescued birds," he said. "And you think I'm an animal person, you should meet my wife."Because of their intelligence, Stedman compared parrots to toddlers."You also have to stimulate them - you have to play with them, provide a variety of cars so they don't get bored. It's like having a child in the house," he said. "To really take care of a pet bird properly, you've got to be willing to put the time in to take care of them that way."Play time for parrotsWhile some trainers use starvation as a way to train parrots for a performance act, Stedman does not."Our animals are never trained by depravation," he said. His birds eat whatever they want, but sunflower seeds are removed from their diet, so the only way parrots can get a seed is from his hand. "They can eat their vegetables, they can eat their food, but the treat, the candy, comes from the training periods."Parrots learn their act backwards from the way they perform, Stedman said."A bird, you start at the end of the behavior you want," he said. In teaching a parrot to drive the small car across a table, for example, he waits until the bird is on the car at the end of the table and touches the control handle with its beak.The minute that happens, Stedman says "Good!" and gives the bird a sunflower seed. The cry of praise is a vocal cue that the bird did something right and the seed a reward, he explained. So pretty soon, the parrot knows it gets a reward and every time it is on the car, it will touch the handle."When they're doing it every single time, now you have to hold off and they have to actually grab it," Stedman said. The praise and the seed will continue. Next they have to grab and pull."What will happen, they'll grab and get frustrated, so to get your attention," the bird pulls back on the handle, Stedman said. This action is again rewarded and learned.Then he puts batteries in the car and moves it back a little bit."Now when they pull, the car's going to move," Stedman said. "It takes getting used to, so the minute they do it, 'Good!' 'Oh, that's what it's supposed to do.' And then you move the car back farther and farther ... You start at the end of the behavior, and you work up to the front of the behavior."Once a parrot knows the routine of learning, it can learn a trick in a few weeks, being taught two to three times a day in 20 minute increments."It's important that people understand that the birds are not being manipulated, it truly is play time for them to be out here," he said.