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Stern Hobbies: Training flying toddlers

As part of our new “Stern Hobbies” series, The Oppy is taking a look at off-the-beaten-path interests among some of our classmates at Stern. If you have a hobby you would like to write or be interviewed about, please e-mail the Oppy at oppy@stern.nyu.edu. Today’s feature is a Q&A with MBA student, Aumna Iqbal.

In addition to being an opera singer, Aumna Iqbal has been spending time on her other hobby, training her two parrots, Sunshine and Magnus. 

Having grown up in a bird loving family that had 20 birds at one point, Iqbal knew when she moved to New York City in 2017 that she would not be living a bird-less life. 

When she found an apartment, Iqbal said, “The first thing I did was I bought a bird cage and I was like, ‘I need to get a bird.’”

Now as a full blown adult living in Manhattan, Iqbal said she has the time and freedom to consistently train her parrots, as opposed to sharing duties with her family members. 

“Everyone else in the family is doing their own thing with the birds and the thing with training animals is you have to be very consistent. If not everyone’s on the same page it’s very confusing.”

The Oppy recently spoke with Iqbal, who lives in Manhattan as a full time MBA1 student, about her love for Sunshine and Magnus and how she goes about training her favorite non-human companions. 

Some answers have been edited for content and clarity.

So first, tell me about your pet parrots. 

So I have two parrots currently, one is named Sunshine and he is a sun conure and the other one is named Magnus, and he is a green cheeked conure.They’re both a similar type of bird. But one is slightly bigger than the other and they have very different personalities. Growing up, I always took care of birds. I had budgies for a really long time, and my family currently has seven parrots because one just passed away like two weeks ago.

Wow, your family has 7 birds, how did this all start?

In the second grade, my teacher had budgies in her classroom. They had babies and I watched them hatch, got to hold the little baby birds, and I thought, “Oh my god, I want a bird.” After badgering [my parents] for like a million years, they were like “Okay, if you save enough money to buy the bird and all of the bird stuff yourself, you could have a bird.” So I saved money for two years, and I bought my own bird when I was 10, and the cage and the seed and all this stuff. And then I had my parakeet and within the next few hours, my siblings were like, “I want a bird too.” So then my parents went out the next day and just bought both my sister and my brother a parrot and they didn’t have to do any work.

And now you’ve got your two babies, when did you start training them? 

There are quite a few training blogs and YouTube videos. One of them is called Bird Tricks, and they have an amazing series on how to train your parrot and [teach you] about their nutrition and health. They’re an amazing resource, and then another one is Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s research. She did a bunch of research with an African grey named Alex and determined that this bird has the intelligence of essentially a 2-3 year old human child. Actually, if you look at the most updated research on her blog, they’re finding that her latest set of African greys are testing more on the level of 5-6 year old human children in terms of their cognitive abilities. 

Parrots are just so intelligent, and if you train them right and interact with them they can actually make use of language and communicate with you. 

That’s fascinating, so how do you communicate with your parrots?

Magus is the one that speaks. Sunshine is the one that’s really good at physical tricks. He has said words on occasion, but he communicates more through physicality. 

Another researcher’s blog I follow is called “My Reading Pets” – she’s taught her parrots how to read and about consent. They have red and green cards, and you can teach them the difference between yes and no, which I did with my birds.

Wow and what other training are you working on?

Right now, the thing that we’re working on the most is recall which is being able to see me and see a hand gesture from any point in my house and fly to my finger and land there. Which is really important for not being able to lose your birds, if they ever end up outside.

Sunshine likes to turn around in a circle, that’s his favorite thing to do when he’s begging for treats. Right now, we’re working on rollover with him, but he’s not very good at it yet. And then Magnus’ favorite thing to say is, “baby” or “beep.” With Magnus, it’s stringing together words and working with a yes/no question.

For example, Magnus hates music. 

Oh no you’re an opera singer and music lover yourself!

Yeah (laughs), if you ask him if he wants to listen to music and I’ve taught him “yes, music” and I’ll turn on music, and then say “no, music” and show him the no card and turn off the music. So every time now when I ask him if he wants to listen to music, he says “no.” He gets really mad and he prances around, banging his head on stuff, and he’ll even fly up to my phone and try to turn off the music himself.

Do you have a specific goal you’re trying to achieve with them?

The most interesting thing is that they do understand what “yes” and “no” means and they’re able to answer simple questions. I’m building up their vocabulary so that they can answer more questions. The goal is to eventually have them be able to tell me how they feel. Then in the long, long run my goal is to be able to take them outside to somewhere fairly remote without a whole lot of distractions and just free fly them around. 

Last question, what would you like people to know about keeping parrots and other birds?

I think parrots and birds are really cool and, unfortunately, parrots are one of the most relinquished animals. A lot of parrots end up in rescues or in bad living situations because people don’t know what they’re getting into. So I always encourage people to go volunteer at a rescue center before getting a bird. I got my birds at Petco, but the other birds we’ve gotten from rescues. Know what you’re doing,  do your research before getting into it, because people think that [having] a bird is easy, and it’s actually kind of like having a flying toddler.

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