Training as I Clean…

Cleaning the toucan cages is a task that I love to do. Yes, you heard me correctly and yes, I am saying I have fun cleaning up toucan poo. Believe it or not, cage cleaning time in Toucanland is a blast – but it took some effort to make it that way. Through positive reinforcement training, I have changed the dynamic of cleaning time from being an unpleasant, stressful activity for the birds into yet another bonding activity that we can enjoy together.

We clean the toucan cages every morning around 8:30 am, after our first training session of the day. Cleaning involves some extensive power hosing to remove all droppings off perches, gooey fruit chunks that have been flung onto the wire mesh, and the main debris off the concrete floor. Additionally, once per week on Wednesdays, we give the floor a thorough scrub with a deck brush and mild dish soap (the only cleanser we use for toucan safety) to control any bacteria from spreading. I have appropriately dubbed this day “Scrubbing Day” in honor of one of my favorite songs from the 80’s movie, The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking. Staying true to my belief that life is a musical, I am always delighted to accompany this special day with the song’s chorus: “Scrub-bing Day, it’s a hol-i-day, it’s my favorite day, when all the things get wet!” If you aren’t familiar with Pippi Longstocking (and honestly, shame on you), here’s the whole song for any Pippi Virgins out there:

(A slightly off-topic side note: can we just take a moment to celebrate the wonders of YouTube that gems like this are magically available with a simple search?!) Make your judgements if you will, but this classic has quickly risen the charts to make the Toucans’ Top 10 Favorite Songs as performed by The Toucan Lady. Ok, alright, now back to the cleaning and training…

In the beginning, I wanted to ensure that cleaning time was a positive experience for the Three-Cans. From their perspective, it could easily be interpreted as a frightening time: a long, snake-like hose in their house shooting strong bursts of water everywhere, often in their general direction. Because I knew there was no way around me cleaning the toucan cages every day for many years to come, I decided it was in all of our best interests to make it not only a non-scary time, but a fun time. I determined that the best way to achieve this was to incorporate some training as I cleaned to desensitize the birds to the hose, as well as build their trust in me.

Initially, the toucans were not as fearful of the actual hose as I expected, but were definitely not fans of the hosing process. They would hop frantically back and forth between their top perches, doing their utmost to stay as far away from me and the hose as possible. So I began by keeping things mellow, hosing in small sections, then pausing to reach up and give the toucans a treat, along with some reassuring words. Soon enough, hosing became something that they were no longer afraid of, just something they peacefully put up with. They would all go to their high perches and relax in a corner while I cleaned. I even caught Paz napping once, the princess that she is! At this point, while I was glad that they were accepting the situation without stress, I wanted more interaction from them. After all, if I was going to put in the effort to clean, the least they could do was entertain me in the process, right?

So I started training them to be more engaged in the cleaning process. Now that they were comfortable with the hose, I stopped reaching up to offer them treats and began only rewarding them when they would come down to my level. I also gave them the opportunity to fulfill their curiosity in the hose by holding out the nozzle for them to mouth and investigate. Along with that, I sing and chatter to them as I clean, which definitely hasn’t helped subdue my Crazy Bird Lady image if people happen to walk by, but the conversation does keep the Three-Cans engrossed in my actions.

I also created a couple of verbal cues that I reinforce throughout my cleaning. Before I enter each cage, I ask, “Who wants a clean house? Pepe (or Paz/Paco) does!” and the resident toucan is always waiting for me as I enter on their training perch for their arrival kiss and treat. Once I start spraying, usually Paz and Pepe retreat up high to avoid the mist but Paco, who loves cleaning time even more than I do, stays with me throughout, either on a perch right next to me or above me. Admittedly, the above me option is my least favorite, as it puts me in the Danger Zone and has led to me getting bombed on a couple of times, resulting in a second hair wash of the day, all before 10am. But, still – it’s a worthy sacrifice for the close cleaning companionship. 😉

Also hilarious is that Paco will occasionally attack the hose spray like a dog. It’s hard to catch on video, but here’s my best shot (again, sorry I say “Paz” in the video, it’s older):

After I have finished hosing down the cage, I scrub their drinking water pan and their bathing bowl with a sponge and soap to remove any slimy film. Once rinsed, I replace their drinking pan and say, “Fresh water for (insert name)“. They then come down to me again to watch as I refill their water (they like the gurgling sound) and get a treat. Then, after some finishing touches on my stellar cleaning job, I cue, “All done! Can I have a kiss?” This is my reward for my efforts and they are most always happy to oblige, coming down for one more treat and a thank you kiss. Pepe has gotten so good at this, he even sticks out his beak to me when he hears “kiss”. Heart melts.

As I continue to reinforce and add to these cues, cage cleaning time has become one of the toucans much looked forward to playtimes – mine as well.

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