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Labels And Why They Aren't Useful: Some Thoughts On Training

Labels And Why They Aren't Useful: Some Thoughts On Training

Posted by Parrot Training, Parrot Behaviour, Parrot Learning, Parrot Reactions on 26/1/2024

Dot Schwarz tells us why labels aren't useful in Parrot training.

Here are couple of maxims about labels from two famous trainers.

Steve Martin: ‘If you want to be a better trainer, leave out the word ‘don’t’.
Dr Susan Friedman: ‘Each bird is the study of one.’


Artha and Casper, both African Greys, come out in public with me on walks, to parks, town and bird shows. They will come out on social occasions when I am visiting Parrot-friendly homes. They wear Aviator harnesses and as far as I can tell from their body language, they’re alert, they chirp, their feathers are loose; they enjoy outings..

Parrot labels

My answer to critics who say African Greys are phobic and scared of new environments is to explain that in the wild, they would travel through the rain forest, foraging in company of their flock every day.

Is it just luck that Artha and Casper are such friendly companion birds? Not entirely. Both were bred in Suffolk by Barrett Watson. A caring, conscientious breeder gives chicks a good start in life. When Artha came to me 17 years ago, she was used to people and animals, knew step up, had heard household noises and was fully fledged and weaned.

She trusted human beings; she still does. Barrett had even put a harness on her before feeds so that she was partially harness-trained and this meant I could take her outside from the early days.


The next step in Artha’s education came from the ideas I learned about behaviour science. If you want to get a handle on the theory, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog is an excellent place to start and Dr Susan Freidman’s Behaviour Works website offers free perusal of articles.

Steve Martin’s website Natural Encounters gives you lots of pertinent articles. Barbara Heidenreich (lots of her articles on this website) disseminates the ideas of behaviour science through her DVDs, articles and books. The box below gives her definitions of technical terms.

Positive Reinforcement:

The presentation of a stimulus following a behaviour that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behaviour. Another name for positive reinforcement is reward training. Positive reinforcers tend to be valued or pleasant stimuli. To get positive reinforcers, learners often enthusiastically exceed the minimum effort necessary to gain them. Recommended!

Negative Reinforcement:

The removal of a stimulus following a behaviour that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behaviour. Another name for negative reinforcement is escape/avoidance training. Negative reinforcers tend to be aversive or unpleasant stimuli. To avoid negative reinforcers, learners often only work to the level necessary to avoid them. Not recommended!


The presentation of an aversive stimulus, or removal of a positive reinforcer, that serves to decrease or suppress the frequency of the behaviour. The use of punishment tends to produce detrimental side effects such as counter aggression, escape behaviour, apathy and fear. Also, punishment doesn’t teach the learner what to do to earn positive reinforcement. Not recommended!

In Barbara’s DVDs, you can watch how the art of a sensitive trainer underpins the theories of positive reinforcement. Greg Glendell has written pertinent books on Parrot training using these concepts. So the information is out there. You have to ferret it out and beware quick-fix solutions offered by some.

Parrot labels
                                                                                                                                                                                  Credit: Steve Martin

                                                                                                                                                                                    Artha followed by Casper were lucky that I came across positive reinforcement before I could fall into error in responding to Parrot behaviour by using negative, coercive methods.

I was used to dogs, cats, horses, children and a husband – all mammals which birds are not. Raised voices, shakes and slaps are rotten training methods for any creature but for birds they are particularly harmful.

This is where I want to go into labels (or constructs) and show how they can be so misleading. Our descriptions of behaviour are really just adjectives of what we think an animal is, rather than what it does.

Remarks from Parrot caregivers such as: ‘She is so naughty.’ Or ‘It’s the terrible twos.’ Or ‘That bird is so mean.’ Or, ‘He bites for no reason.’ Or, ‘The Cockatoo only loves my husband; she is so nasty to me.’ These statements are all honest observations but they are not helpful if discovering the cause or altering the situation.


Because birds are faster than us in their reactions, it may seem that a behaviour suddenly occurred out of nowhere. But behaviours do not occur in a vacuum. Labelling obscures the issue. It suggests that the behaviour is innate to the bird.

The adjective implies that is what the bird is, not what the bird does. Once you realize that the undesired behaviour was in response to something in the environment, then you can change the environment and create a situation where the bird will be able to learn to react in a more desirable manner. Using labels (constructs) for a particular behaviour lays the blame on the bird and suggests that the bird is flawed. The bird is not flawed.

Positive reinforcement ideas can be adopted by anyone without delving into theory took much. And I have found out in my own experience that they work.

African Greys and Cockatoos

                                                                                                                                                                                      We use labels in ordinary conversation - he is loving, she’s lazy but once we want to change the way a Parrot (or a person for that matter) behaves we need to stay observe carefully what they are doing instead of putting a label on the behaviour.


Kasimir Czaky, an American behaviour consultant remarks, ‘Even constructs like gentle giants, love sponge, unconditional love and so on are as unproductive as, hormonal, angry, jealous, aggressive, bad and more.’

The construct does not help you work out the cause of the actual behaviour. Even using agreeable labels like calling your baby Cockatoo ‘so loving,’ ‘so obedient,’ you can have high expectations and then when the baby bites or screams, you are surprised, alarmed and see the bird as naughty.

So many pet Parrots, especially Cockatoos, end up being rehomed for screaming or biting or other unwanted behaviours that could have been channelled into more constructive habits.

How can you stop a bird being ‘mean’? You cannot. What you can do is observe what caused the behaviour. Here is an example from my flock.


Bingo came to live here because his owner told me, ‘he’s mean; he bites.’ At her home, I watched her interact with him. She’d put her hand in the cage to stroke Bingo’s head and he’d lunge at her. If she’d watched carefully, she’d have seen Bingo shuffle along the perch, she’d have seen his feathers slick down. His body language showed mistrust.

Parrot walking
                                                                                                                                                                                  Credit: Richard Butcher

                                                                                                                                                                                      But she didn’t and kept trying to coerce him – so he bit her. What else could he do? She called him nasty; I thought him misunderstood.

Bingo came to live with us. I let him live uncaged in the bird room. The other Greys accepted him. Once he realized I wasn’t going to try and touch him, he slowly learned to trust me and within a few weeks had learned to step up onto a stick and no longer tried to bite.

If you use labels - it becomes the animal’s fault. But there is nothing wrong with the behaviour. The problem is that you don’t want it and the good news is that behaviour can be changed.

Sometimes an action is so obvious that you can kick yourself for not seeing it. I used to go straight up to a new bird and stand in front of it. The bird would shuffle away along the perch or fly off. Once I realised that a bird meeting a new person needs space, I learned to approach slowly and watch how the bird responded before offering a hand. If you keep pushing a bird, you are unintentionally teaching him to lunge or even bite.


Kashmir Csaky again. ‘When we first make contact with a bird we intentionally or unintentionally begin training the bird. Learning takes place constantly.’

When you want your bird to do something, let the bird set the pace. Some pick up a desired behaviour in a few minutes; others may take months.

In the UK, we don’t have training classes for Parrots as there are for dogs. This is where DVDs perform a vital role. On the internet, Barbara Heidenreich now offers webinars (seminars using Skype) where she goes into positive reinforcement methods of training and participants can ask questions.

Amazons eating


Mirt, a wild caught Timneh, came to our aviar in her 20s. It took two years of daily interaction before she’d step up and fly to me. But she did. Max boards with me when his family go on holiday. It took him two days to decide that I wasn’t a scary monster and he would step up.

As Susan Friedman says ‘each bird is the study of one.’

Get more advice on training your Parrot here.

What do you think of Parrot labels?