Thoughts on training companion parrots:

From The Birdman ® :

I feel that when we choose to have a wild animal in or care, they are then completely dependent upon us for all their needs. It is therefore our duty to provide them with the best life possible. A large part of that great life is their mental health. Positive reinforcement-based training is the best form of communication and enrichment we can provide for any captive friend, especially true for smart birds. I think everyone with a bird or animal should aspire to be the very best trainer they can be, and having better training skills will lead to more enjoyment for both you and your non-human friend. You’ll create a more successful home environment with any parrot species, and such good training will lead to fewer parrots being donated to shelters for re-homing.

There are some challenges to helping all parrot owners become good trainers. These are some reasons why people resist science-based training:

1 – Their self-image is that of a good person who loves their parrot. Therefore they would never do anything wrong, even though parrots can be purchased without skills or knowledge. They may have trouble accepting they are making mistakes which need to be corrected in order to improve their relationship with their bird.

2 – The lack of science-based information in pet bird ownership circles can create myths to explain observations and thus help to mis-diagnose the causes and fixes for behavioral issues.

3 – Anti-training campaigns can lead people to be prejudice against proven training approaches, even though training is still happening in their lives every day, it does so without the guidance of the owner.

Can you imagine purchasing a beautiful red car, and because you feel you are a good person you would never TRY to crash it. However, the car has a stick shift and suddenly seems the controls and adjustments are more complicated than other past smaller cars were. So, you go online to learn how to drive it and others tell you to just be patient, the car will eventually become drive-able. Others join in and tell you that red cars are just harder to drive than blue ones, that it’s harder to drive in the spring when the car is “acting up” or when there are other cars present. Maybe these other owners advise you to trade the car in for an easier one,. Maybe you are even they are told that it is abusive for your car if you listen to driving instructors who tell you to open the door, shift gears, turn the steering wheel, or press on the brake. Maybe others just don’t want you to have a cool drive-able car like they have.

My approach is that anyone who wants to have a car, and operate it successfully, for the safety of the driver and the vehicle, should simply take driving lessons, preferably BEFORE choosing a car to bring home. That person will then be able to drive ANY vehicle they bring home. Similarly, a good trainer can help any parrot become a friendly companion.

Patience with an ineffective approach does not necessarily achieve the same behavioral goals. “Just give it time” can desensitize anew bird, but this approach does not send a clear message for the new parrot on how to succeed and can cause more stress over a prolonged period of time. When a new parrot is trying to learn which behaviors are beneficial in the new environment, a food treat can immediately create a positive association to the behavior, and to the human. Within hours or a few days the bird’s stress can be replaced with anticipation. A positive reinforcement approach is in my opinion the most compassionate way to communicate to any bird or animal. There exists a huge field of behavioral science which can explain and prescribe these successful approaches to solve behavioral challenges. A satiated (overfed) parrot can often perceive no difference in the results from one behavior versus others. Those birds might make decisions based on reactions, boredom, or instinct. Most parrots, even hand raised ones, sense an instinct to stay safe and avoid people. This can also explain why hand raised parrots, if not regularly positively reinforced for desired “tame” behaviors, can soon become hard to interact with. Some owners wrongly refer to this as “hormonal” behaviors. Most likely such instinctive seasonal behaviors which are affecting the parrot’s behaviors are the product of a lackof daily reinforcement system. This lack of bird motivation affords the parrot the freedom to do whatever they feel and still receive full meal in their cage for their undesirable behaviors. In layman terms, if your macaw bites you and you respond by putting him in his cage for awhile, yet his cage has food in the bowl, you could be reinforcing the biting behavior with food (+R), with security of his safe space (+R) and with leaving him alone (-R). Whomever feeds the birds has much control over what behaviors are perceived by the parrot as “profitable” and which ones are not.

The basic behavioral approach can be remembered by thinking A-B-C.

A = Antecedents: The existing environmental conditions which support the behavior. These can be as simple as the owner entering the room, holding a food treat, and asking (cueing) a behavior.

B = The Behavior. What the bird actually physically does in response to the antecedents.

C = Consequences. What happens immediately after the behavior that is encouraging or discouraging the behavior. Is something added to the bird or environment (positive) or removed (negative) and does that change increase the targeted behavior (reinforcement) or decrease it (punishment).

We encourage the use of positive reinforcement using food and attention in a non-invasive manner to encourage the desired behaviors in birds and animals.

To utilize food as positive reinforcement (+R) you might first try portioning the daily food allowance. Such creates a period of time before the next dinner when your parrot will be interested in food treats. This caloric portioning can also help keep your parrot healthier. Their own evolutionary design is to be as light as possible since a fat parrot is slower to escape being caught by predators. The amount of food at the end of the day (whenever the interactions with humans end and the parrot is caged for the night) should be finished by morning. That way the bird will start looking for food items by the afternoon. When a human appears during this time with food treats in their hand, the value of their presence is largely increased. In asking for simple behaviors, such as a step up onto a hand, and such behavior immediately results in the desired food treat, the parrot now can feel he has the ability to positively affect his environment (empowerment). The result is a complete change in his perception of the human from annoyance to one of desirable. However, be careful, if the human gets over excited about this new success (their own empowerment) and gives too many food treats, then an additional full meal at night, the next day the bird might be satiated again and the training progress can be lost. It takes a while for the new reinforced behaviors to become habit, and such allows for the behavior requests to be granted by the parrot even with very little, if any, food motivation. Such a level of comfort will allow the human to relax with the food management, but that human needs to remember to maintain the antecedent (cue) – behavior – consequence (food treat) format so that the desired tame behaviors are easily maintained for the very best possible long-term human-bird relationship.

© Copyright The Birdman LLC. Inc. 2015
Revised 2021