Norman Barrett’s training parrots

Terribly British

Terribly British

This is an article I did for a short-lived magazine called American Animal Trainer.  It may have been short-lived because the owner/publisher wanted it to be filled with color photos on glossy paper.

Or it may have been short-lived because they told me that they would pay for the Trans-Atlantic call for the interview.  The call, which lasted perhaps an hour, cost $240.  I guess I should have checked the rates before I made the call.

I did a vastly better article for their magazine on Josip Marcan, a white Tiger breeder and trainer.  I have yet to run down a copy of that article.

Anyway, the article on parrots, or “budgies”, or whatever, follows.



Before Captain Cook went to Australia in 1770, only the aboriginal people knew about parakeets, a species of parrots known now to much of the world as budgerigars (BUJ-er-rih-gar). Budgerigar came from the aboriginal word “bedgerigah”, which essentially meant “good to eat.” At two ounces, budgies would be a labor-intensive and expensive foodstuff.

World-renowned ringmaster Norman Barrett has had more success creating entertainers out of the species than anyone else; for him, budgie might mean “good to entertain.”

Circus colleagues give the credit to Barrett, not the species.

“Bird acts are usually boring,” according to Dominique Jando, Associate Artistic Director of the famed Big Apple Circus. Jando worked with Barrett in the Big Apple Circus for the two seasons before this one. He says Barrett “presents his budgies as if they were the greatest act of all time. But actually, it is a great act. He has a great sense of humor and transforms what could be just another bird act into a piece of comedy.”

Barrett’s skills have their roots on the farm his father had in Canada.

He cites his father as the greatest influence on his training technique, but says mostly, he’s “made his own way.”

“My father trained all the animals on the farm to do tricks, and everyone thought he was wonderful. Yet when he trained animals for the circus, he became a cruel man in their eyes. He was the same George Barrett as ever.

There are so many trained animals in the world- racehorses, trotting horses, police horses, guide dogs, all trained. To think only circus animals are trained is wrong.”

“A trained animal has had its brain developed. It’s had a more fulfilled life. If you and I couldn’t read and write, we’d have a very dumb life. Zoos are now teaching animals to do tricks because they’re better off.”

Key to the successful training Barrett’s “Amazing Learned Budgies” demonstrate is the care he provides his birds. With the Big Apple, a 40-foot Caravan was divided into two bedrooms, one for him and one as an aviary for the birds. He doesn’t use separate taming or training rooms.

Currently on tour with Zippo’s circus, he has a Mercedes van kept at 70 degrees, with classical music on the radio. “Drafts and winds are the worst thing for a parakeet, they are so susceptible to colds.”

“In April, a professor came from Birmingham to inspect the circus. He asked to see the birds first. When he walked into my van, he said, ‘this is absolutely perfect.’”

The only time birds are in cages is when they are entering the ring or when being transported. Then they are in special partitioned cages, exceeding the specifications of the Ministry of Agriculture. He avoids clipping wings, saying that 90% don’t need it once tamed. When there are escapes, the birds return to an open cage “when they get curious about their mates. If you chase them, they won’t come.”

Barrett feeds the birds only seed, mixing with plain canary food. According to a professor at Liverpool University, vegetables are not needed if the right seed is used. He cuts down on the canary food in warmer weather, as it raises the birds’ body temperature. He provides them with grit all the time.

Barrett checks claws and droppings every day and the rare sick bird is taken out of the aviary and housed separately.

Giving his stars anything but first class treatment is anathema to Barrett. “Animals should be looked after and respected, that’s the way I was brought up.”

Katja Schumann, Equestrian Director for the Big Apple Circus, first observed Barrett and his budgies three decades ago. She says “Norman’s birds are partners to him. They’re not pets; there has to be some sort of working understanding.”

Norman’s working understanding with animals follows family tradition. George Barrett trained horses, dogs, and sheep to do circus tricks. When a visiting circus was impressed with the tricks, he sold the animals and joined the circus. Norman would be born into his father’s “Barrett’s Great Canadian Circus” after his family moved to England.

He made his ring debut at 12. His parents’ circus ran from 1925 to 1952. Barrett went on to other circuses, including the Roberts Brothers Circus. He would later be ringmaster of the famed Bertram Mills Circus until it closed on 1967. English journalists have labeled him “the ringmaster’s ringmaster.”

“I’ve always been in show business, whether the circus, theatre, television, or English pantomime, always with the budgies. I never know what I’m going to do or say, but when the lights come on everything comes to life.”

Barrett’s son Guy became the third generation of entertainer. Guy does a magic and illusion act for which he designs all the illusions.

Norman’s birds offer no illusions. “They’re not show birds in any way. I buy from show breeders, but they’re not good enough to show. But they’re good enough for me.”

Natural behavior like chattering is a regular part of the act. “I like chattering, because it is a comedy act. I can always make something out of it. I’ll say ‘you sound like the Spice Girls, or something like that.’”

The rarity of trained bird acts is because “they’re hard to train.”

“I’ve never seen a budgie act before. I wasn’t the first, by all means. I saw a 1925 photo of an Italian guy with small green parrots. That made an impression.”

Barrett has also trained chimps, pigeons, parrots, and cockatoos, along with his first love, horses. As a ringmaster, he has stepped in to work with horses and elephants and once saved a big cat trainer in Blackpool when the trainer had been attacked. He has worked with Katja Schumann since she was a child and cites her work with horses as influential on his training style.

But budgies are his favorite. He considers them very intelligent, and is not surprised at the success Irene Pepperberg is having at MIT training parrots to use the Internet. Pepperberg’s work with her parrot Alex is described in “The Alex Studies” (Harvard University Press, 2000).

Barrett uses males exclusively. While some trainers consider males more intelligent, he found the tendency of females to fight made them harder to train. Males do tend to “partner off”, so they are not without their own jealousies.

The talking ability of budgies was discovered by accident in the 1930’s. Barrett doesn’t utilize this in the act, nor the ability off the budgies to mimic telephones dogs or doors.

“It wouldn’t add to the act. At the end of the day, we’re there to entertain the public. They know when it’s a packed audience. They work like hell.”

In the act, budgies jump continuously between perches 2 ½ feet apart. Birds go up a ladder and slide down a slide. They use a tiny seesaw, fire a toy cannon and raise a little Union Jack as they parade in a pinwheel.

Birds run down a table, put their head in a harness, and pull a car.

This was the most difficult trick he has taught “because the bird’s got to be led away from you. You’ve got to tell him to go to the bottom of the table, turn left, put his head into the loop, and pull the car along the table.”

A trick he liked was having the birds fly around the arena loose, and then he would direct them to land on the table, like airplanes. However, lighting was difficult, and “someone in Germany tried to grab the birds.” He stopped doing that trick.

The size of the birds isn’t a problem in appearances. He has played all types of venues. A promoter in Germany even wanted to book the act into a stadium, using video screens.

All birds do all of the tricks, although “when they’re in moult, they’re under the weather”. “There are too many acts that rely on just one animal.” Of the approximately two hundred birds he has had, he has trained them all; there have been “no tourists.”

While budgies in the wild may have an average lifespan of 2 or 3 years, domestic budgies can live past age ten. The current troop ranges in age from 1 ½ to 8. Barrett once had a bird that performed until age 12, then at age insisted on performing the entire act one last time the night before it died at age 13.

The disciplined spirit of vaudeville permeates the birds.

“If place changes occur (on the perches) the one sitting there will get nasty. Sometimes birds will get annoyed with a weaker member of the act. I’ll try to protect him, but also let them sort their problems out.”

Disciplinarian for the troop is Freddie Half Penny. Freddie is faithful to Norman since the night when Barrett woke at 3 AM and told his wife “there’s something wrong in the bird room.” All of the birds have rings on their legs. Something that had gotten under the ring had caused his leg to swell. The vet said Freddie would have died in half an hour if Norman hadn’t awakened. “There was no noise, but something had come into my mind I should go into the bird room.”

“Now, if they’re not going up the ladder quick enough to get on the slide, Freddie does get in a mood.”

When Norman gets a new bird, its parents have raised it. He will quarantine the bird for two weeks, then begin training when the bird is 6 months old. He practices in the morning, although he doesn’t think time of day would matter.

The first training he and his wife do is to acclimate the bird to the human hand by holding a hand in the cage. When the bird is comfortable, it is carried to a perch with older birds, where Barrett jokes it must think “well, he can’t be all bad, if you’re sitting here.”

While Barrett uses English, French, German or Spanish as the circus plays through Europe, the birds work to body language.

“It all depends on where I stand, where I move, what sign I make with my arms.” With so many birds, they don’t respond to individual names. Barrett learned patience from his father.

“Take your time. The worst thing is a burst of temper.” Because his birds can eat all day, they don’t respond to food as reinforcement as parrots do. Instead, he strokes and fondles them.

“Never put a bird under stress. I train slowly- I’m not a fast trainer. It’s important to train slowly. You don’t put yourself under stress; you don’t put the animals under stress. I believe they learn and retain better when taught slowly. Don’t go on too long. A few minutes at a time. Never more than an hour a day. If you train too long, the bird becomes bored.”

The trainer’s frame of mind is crucial also. “If you practice when you’re in a bad mood, you put you and the animal under pressure- and that’s a bad thing. Your tension or your bad mood goes onto the animal, whether it’s a dog, horse, or whatever, and you might put the animal under more pressure than you intend to. A clever trainer is one who knows when to say ‘I’m not up for this today.’ I’m a happy person. I’m very rarely not in the right mood.”

As an experiment, he kept a trained bird out of training for 13 months. It retained all of the tricks it had been taught.

Training takes six to eight months. Blue and green budgies are easier to train than fancier colored birds. The two albinos he has trained so far were not good learners. “They’re on another planet. They are here to torment budgie trainers.” He suggests that they are not deaf; “they might be daft.”

Barrett has been using clicker training for thirty years. I train them with music and lights, to get them used to the environment they’re going to perform in. I get very cross with trainers who say, for example, ‘the horses aren’t used to the lights.’”

Katja Schumann cites Barrett’s “everlasting sense of humor” as fundamental to his training techniques. “Also, he’s very good at knowing his subject. He’s chosen to do a few things right rather than a multitude of animals.”

Barrett has no favorites in his troupe. “Just like I’m a ringmaster in a circus. I treat everyone the same, regardless of their job. Because I do this, I think I get the respect of everybody.” Jando describes how Barrett is always on alert as a ringmaster, “always helping, really managing the ring. When something goes wrong, he’s there; he pops out if something goes wrong. He will never let you down.”

Barrett’s philosophy of respect would make him an ideal candidate to teach courses in management. “Factory managers around the world, in every country, don’t know enough about the work force on the floor. If they got to know a little bit about each person, personal contact, it would mean a heck of a lot to the person. I’m very interested in how people are. It’s not an act. I love people. All the workpeople on this circus and the Big Apple Circus come up in the morning and shake hands. You don’t have to love each other; you don’t have to be in each other’s pocket, but start the day correctly.

For a man whose ethics are such an integral part of everyday life, the effect of animal rights activists on his beloved world is disturbing.

“There are bad apples in every batch. There are bad farmers, bad riding schools…. but the vast majority of people in circuses don’t like to see animals treated badly.

If circus animals lived in a field as big as America, they (activists) still would not be happy. They are extremists, you will never win, they will shout you down. Unfortunately, some activists in England are terrorists. We’re honorable people, but they won’t listen to the truth. They don’t want to know what really happens (in a circus).”

“People that have animals in the circus have a 24 hour a day job. They have them because they love them. If they wanted easier jobs, they’d be acrobats or jugglers.”

“I’ve been in the States, I’ve seen the Rosaire family, and Gunther Gebel-Williams. People do look after animals.”

“I feel sad that the Big Apple has dropped elephants. Circus is an art form- just like ballet. People train for years- but we don’t get subsidies.”

“I’m passionately fond of what I do, maybe even more than when I was a young man. I appreciate it more now. Nobody has to hype me up; I just go out and do it. I suppose it’s like a fix; it’s the highlight of my day.”

The man who the Washington Post described as “a sprightly old codger says, “the dirtiest word I’ve ever heard is ‘retirement.’ The only thing I like is entertaining.”

Norman Barrett’s skills as a trainer and entertainer come from the caring he shows for his job, his colleagues, and from his desire to fill every day to the fullest. His lessons for his own species may tower over those for his tiny friends.

Dana Dunnan is a visiting scholar at MIT. He and his wife Judy live in Walden, Vermont and Greenland, New Hampshire. You can reach him at They are currently training two boxers who came to them after being abused.

Norman Barrett can be reached through Zippo’s Circus, at

Dana Dunnan 2001 Copyright


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