I started training almost twenty years ago as a complete novice with one African Grey, and soon after, Casper, a second one. I had plenty of experience teaching (or training) dogs, cats, horses and kids but Artha was my first parrot.
I was lucky with the breeder I chose, Barrett Watson; I already knew he was kind, expert and helpful. Artha came to me at 14 weeks old. Weaned, knowing how to step up, harness trained and at home she quickly learned flighted recall.
However even then, some of the traditional training methods I was advised to use such as pushing against the bird’s chest to force it to step up, not letting her perch higher than my head, I now consider too invasive.
I have trained dogs and horses using coercive methods. Dogs as well as kids respond to ‘no’s’ and even smacking but such treatment is now considered unnecessary and even cruel.
Parrots don’t respond to harsh treatment. They will become fearful and either take the route of apathy or aggression. In captivity parrots learn to bite, an uncommon behavior in the wild. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ doesn’t apply to parrots.
So are there better methods available? Yes there are. They need some knowledge of the science of behavior and some patience and skill in applying the principles. Skills improve rapidly if you persevere and watch your bird’s body language.
The best way to train a parrot to live a mutually beneficial life in your sitting room or aviary is to practice positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement (PR) is sometimes called reward training. The obverse is negative reinforcement (NR) or punishment. I hope to convince doubters that PR with carefully considered doses of NR provide the most successful techniques in training parrots.
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1. What is positive reinforcement training in birds?
Positive reinforcement means offering a reward, something the animal wants, likes or enjoys. Because the animal wants that reward again, she will repeat the behavior that seems to cause that consequence. It is possibly the easiest, most effective method for a trainer to control.
a. What is a primary reinforcer in bird training?
A primary reinforcer is usually a food reward. You don’t need to teach a bird what the reward is. (Needing food is an instinct that does not have to be learned)
b. What is a secondary reinforcer in bird training?
A secondary reinforcer is something the bird learns to value. It might be access to a toy or head rub.
For Benni my Macaw it is a Babble ball. If he flies back to the siting room perch immediately, his Babble ball is immediately hung on the perch. He waggles its chain and bird noises emerge.
c. What is a 'cue' in bird training?
A signal to the parrot what to do. Many trainers use verbal and/or hand cues.
Steve Martin can use a wink. To make Archie my Orange Winged Amazon dance, I have to sway from side to side, a movement too small to be noticed by people, but not Archie.
d. What is the 'bridge' used in bird training?
This is a signal to tell the bird ‘that was correct.’ The signal bridges the gap in time between the moment the bird performed the behaviour and the actual moment she gets her reward. Many use clickers as a bridge. You may also use a target stick (this is a slim baton) or a chopstick. (Barbara Heidenreich markets a target stick attached to a clicker).
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2. What is negative reinforcement used in bird training?
Technically this means the removal of a stimulus following a behaviour that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behavior.
In other words, something unpleasant is applied to the bird when he doesn't perform the desired action. When he does perform the desired action, the unpleasant stimuli is removed.
Another name for negative reinforcement is escape or avoidance training. Negative reinforcers tend to be aversive or unpleasant stimuli.
To avoid negative reinforcers, learners only work to the level necessary to avoid them.
The enormous drawback of negative reinforcement training is this: you are teaching a bird what NOT to do instead of what to do.
3. Punishment in training a bird
The presentation of an aversive stimulus, or removal of a positive reinforcer, that serves to decrease or suppress the frequency of the behavior.
a. Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is something that is used to reduce a behavior. The term ‘positive’ often confuses people, because in common terms ‘positive’ means something good, happy, pleasant, and rewarding. However, we are using technical terminology.
In this context ‘positive’ means something has been added. For example the bird does something it shouldn't have done and you tell it off. You're 'adding' the telling off.
In these terms, it is not the animal that is ‘punished’ (treated harshly for some bad action), but the behavior that is ‘punished’ (in other words, lessened).
Positive punishment, when used correctly, can effectively stop unwanted behaviors. The drawback - it is an important one - are the possible side effects.
The drawbacks of positive punishment include:
- escape behavior
- generalized fear
- learned helplessness
- loss of trust
Case study - a parrot losing her trust, and its results
Sixteen years ago, Perdy Lesser Sulphur Cockatoo knew step up and step into the crate. I knew the theory of behavior science but had not had much practice.
Perdy spent warm days in the aviary. One evening she wouldn’t fly down so I chased her, thinking crossly how naughty she was being.
From her point of view - why leave the sunny aviary for an indoors cage? I compounded the error a few days later by chasing her indoors to catch her. I caught her.
The result. The young bird lost trust in and would fly away from my hand. The problem was resolved with help of experienced friends but it took five months of daily work to regain her trust.
Physical punishment causes physical damage; mental punishment causes mental damage. If you apply a punishment (an aversive) more than three times for one behavior, without any decrease in the behavior, you aren’t ‘reducing’ the behavior, you’re harassing (or ‘ill-treating) the student.
Case study - Trying to stop a parrot from screaming
|Millie the cockatoo's owners covered her cage to stop her screaming. The bird continued screaming in the dark - Sometimes covered all day and night. She soon began feather plucking. Months later, now she has a kinder home with a more sympathetic environment, her screaming has stopped but not the plucking.|
Case study - Trainer using negative stimulation in training
A professional trainer was forcing aggressive or fearful parrots to step up onto a perch using batons on either side of their bodies. The unfortunate parrots were harassed into submission. But loud complaints came from the owners that once back home, they would not repeat the behavior.
Animals trained in aversives will work the level necessary to avoid negative stimulus whereas animals trained in positive reinforcement will look forward to training and be more creative and attentive.
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4. Benefits of positive reinforcement in bird training
Training is simply another word for teaching. Any animal trained with positive reinforcement is taught what behavior it can offer the handler to earn the reward it wants.
What can you teach your bird? Although I’m not a professional trainer, my birds have been taught these behaviours through positive reinforcement:
- Step up onto the hand
- Recall to me from anywhere in house or aviary (usually not 100%)
- Go back into the cage
- Step up onto the hand of other people
- Enter a travel cage
- Allow themselves to be wrapped in a towel
- Step onto a scale
- Interact without aggressive behavior with other birds
- Stay on a designated perch (this behavior is one I have never managed to achieve as a confirmed one but I am still trying.)
- Retrieve an object (the dollar bill trick in bird shows)
- Talk on cue (none of my birds will do this except on occasion; I remain hopeful)
Behaviors like those above, once learned by a companion parrot can be adapted (shaped) without too much difficulty for husbandry and veterinary uses.
The benefits of training your bird will enable:
- Nail trims
- Beak trims
- Putting head in mask for anesthesia
- Blood draws
- Taking cloacal samples
- Using a nebulizer
- Taking drugs from a syringe
I have watched these procedures done in zoos on You Tube and it is impressive to watch a macaw lie on his back and have blood drawn.
5. How to train using positive reinforcement
- Provide a suitable environment and eliminate distractions
- With a fearful or biting bird you may start training from inside the cage. Other birds train better in a different room from where their cage is.
- Eliminate distractions. It took me ages to realise that some birds need to be alone with the trainer; others don’t care a toss. Yet others will come and interfere.
- Keep a log book or a record book. I believe a log book or training record book, whatever you call it, is essential. Or like me you might forget what happened two days earlier.
You note first what behavior you are trying to train. Date, time, length of session. Any special things you observed. Sessions need not be long - 5-20 minutes is fine once or twice a day.
- Food management and weight management. Falconers and some professionals lower a bird’s weight to ensure it cooperates. This is not a technique for hobbyists. It needs a lot of experience to be used correctly.
Food management is not dangerous for a bird’s health or mental state. To manage food in a training situation, you will know how much food the bird eats in day.
You take out the favourite items and use them for rewards. You can also have special items the parrot only gets through training.
Amongst friends of mine, Bart used a pot of fruit yoghurt to recall his free flying Grey. I am training Mina the Military Macaw with half a pine nut for each flighted recall.
And if you want to train seriously take out the food bowls from the cage and train before breakfast and supper. The bird won’t starve if she hasn’t constant access to food. I weigh my birds weekly.
Training with positive reinforcement is relatively simple. The more you practice; the better it becomes.
Many behaviours can be trained in one or two twenty minute training sessions.
Case study - Using treats in positive reinforcement training
|Benni Blue and Gold Macaw prefers nut slivers. His treat for entering his cage is a walnut in shell. Mina, the Military Macaw likes pine nuts. My Greys like foods on the forbidden list like pizza, crackers and cookies. Most birds that I know will pay a lot of attention to a trainer when they twig that she is offering pomegranate seeds. Plan the session before a normal meal time and use as reward the bird’s favourite food item.|
- Your state of mind is important. Birds are super sensitive to their humans’ emotions. If you are feeling cross or unhappy or out of sorts, don’t train at that time.
An ideal state of mind to be in is to be focused completely on your bird and what he is trying to tell you with his body language.
Example of a Grey’s sensitivity to negative feelings
I won’t name and shame them but when X and Y hit a bad patch and there was a lot of negative feeling around, the Grey parrot started to bite which he had never done before
Steve Martin says:
"When I think of my relationship with animals I am training. I often consider the partnership that I have formed with that animal. To me this relationship is as important as anything I can do in the training area. … I have to be a good listener and develop observational skills that allow me to understand what is going on in the animal’s mind. I can never read an animal’s mind but I can read the body language to help me gain some insights into the animal’s mind."
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6. Shaping a behaviour with approximations
Once you have decided what you want the bird to do (the desired behavior) you must break it down into baby steps – the smaller the better. These small training steps are known as ‘approximations’. Positive reinforcement then rewards the parrot at each step. The first stage (or step) must be mastered completely before progressing to the next one.
Approximations are used to train all sorts of behaviors. This strategy can be used to train a bird to step up onto the hand, go onto a scale, step onto strangers, and enter a kennel, wave and much more.
After some sessions and how many will depend on your skills and the bird’s willingness, the final behavior will be reached. Mike Simmons, a notable UK trainer demonstrates this in a training video where he teaches a novice Amazon to fly to him indoors in a matter of a few sessions.
Barbara Heidenreich says:
"Training with approximations is like a dance between the trainer and the bird. The bird may take a few steps or approximations forward, but if the bird is hesitant to move forward more, the trainers may choose to accept a step that had been mastered previously.
The training may remain at this step for a few repetitions as the bird gains confidence before a more challenging step is attempted again. There is a constant shifting and adjusting to meet the capabilities of the bird, but eventually more steps are taken forward then backward and the bird learns what the trainer is trying to teach.
It is an intricate dance and one that makes training such an interesting activity. It challenges a trainer’s skills. Very rarely does training become boring. Each species is individual, each behavior brings a new set of criteria to the table."
Case study of shaping using positive reinforcement - Artha takes a bath
Using the terms described above and positive reinforcement as a training strategy, let’s follow the process of training a behavior. The first step is to identify a behaviour to train. Artha Grey did not like to bath herself. I would show her the bath and twirl a finger to get her to approach. NO way.
First step was to sit on the floor and close my left hand on sunflower seeds. Artha saw them alright. As soon as she walked towards my hand I said ‘Good’ and gave her a seed. She took it gently as she always does and scuttled away. By the end of the 15-minute session she was eating seeds on my hand held over the water.
A few sessions later I kept seeds in right hand and Artha on the left hand and lowered it into the water. Truthfully, I cannot claim to have fully taught the behavior because she realized that she actually quite liked splashing and will now do it of her own accord. Although, I no longer cue Artha to take a bath, nevertheless if she is in the water I will say ‘Good’ and give her a seed from my pocket.
7. What is the capturing training method?
Capturing is a behavior that the bird does or offers spontaneously, such as a wing raise, a whistle or head bob that you immediately reward.
To capture a certain behaviour you set up a suitable environment for the bird. This has to be somewhere where he feels comfortable and relaxed, like the cage, sitting room or aviary.
Then you wait until he offers the behavior spontaneously. As soon as that happens, you must reward immediately. If your bird has a bridge word or you use a clicker, that’s the moment to say ‘good’ or click.
The reward is whatever your bird values, such as a food treat, a scratch or time out of the cage. Sometimes your parrot won’t perform the same behaviors for some hours or even days, but if you persist he will catch on. Then you can add a cue and expect to see that behavior repeated whenever you ask for it. (Well, perhaps not every time if the parrot is Casper.)
Noted American trainer Barbara Heidenreich remarks about capturing:
"Spend some time watching your bird and make notes of all the different things your parrot does that you could capture and put on cue. Pick one behavior to capture first. Once that behavior is on cue, move on to the next. Once your parrot learns one behavior via capturing, he will quickly figure out how this game works. Pretty soon your bird will know an impressive."
Capturing is the opposite of training using positive reinforcement methods.
As a reminder, this is when you train a new behavior breaking the new behavior down into tiny steps and teach them one at a time. Your bird is rewarded at each stage.
Behaviours that have been encouraged through capturing
Here are some examples from my own flock. Bobo the umbrella cockatoo was a heavily plucked rescue and had the distressing habit of constantly raising her crest and bobbing up and down. It was a nervous habit, not a joyful one. However, within a few weeks as she settled down and many feathers grew, the nervous bobbing lessened. Each time she began it we praised her and sang “Happy Birthday”. Within a few weeks she had ceased the nervous unfurling of her crest, but was delighted to perform a little dance to “Happy Birthday”.
Benni macaw likes to hang on one leg from a rope. As he realized how appreciative we all were he began to perform the action for the verbal cue ‘one leg, Benni.’ I added ‘Wings, wings’ and he will spread both - now impressive to show off to visitors.
The good news about training is that it is not that hard to do. Understanding a few simple concepts can get you training.
Not only can training with positive reinforcement teach the parrots amusing tricks but it also produces birds that are well behaved, not stressed out.
Positive reinforcement training is proven to reduce aggression and help enormously with problems like plucking and screaming. The bond between myself and my four pet birds has become stronger. It makes me happier; I hope that it does them as well.
Use the internet with caution; there are some false prophets out there.
Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Freidman and Barbara Heidenreich, all extraordinary trainers provide many free articles on their websites.
Barbara Heidenreich has made excellent DVD's showing different aspects of training. She is also offering webinars on different aspects of training.
The essential book to understand PR is Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog. (2006 edition) This will give you a basic knowledge of the principles behind the science
Rebecca K. O’Connor’s Perfectly Trained Parrot 2013
If you can attend any workshops either with your own birds or watch others being trained that is of estimable value. Sadly in UK there are far less workshops for companion parrot people that in USA. But there are some occasionally. If you are lucky enough to live in or near Cornwall the World Parrot Trust gives workshops in Hayle.
Good luck and Happy Training!