Find out more about positive reinforcement.
I wrote an article about the so-called “cage-bound” Parrot decades ago. In retrospect it’s a good example of how my approach to training and behaviour has changed dramatically over the years.
Back then, my approach was simple. I advocated removing the recalcitrant Parrot from its cage by gently capturing it with a towel.
Once removed from sight of its cage, most Parrots were actually much tamer than owners thought. Especially if the bird would take food from the owners’ fingers through the cage bars. As a consequence, a number of my clients sincerely thought I walked on water when it came to handling Parrots.
I have since learned that while my methods certainly worked, there were much better and less stressful approaches to take. There is no rush, after all! I no longer advocate any technique I would not like to be used on me. I certainly would not relish being forcibly dragged from my home.
Instead, I prefer the approaches that utilize positive-reinforcement. So instead of forcing a Parrot out of its cage, we need to teach a Parrot to want to come out of its cage.
In my opinion, a Parrot becomes cage-bound due to fear. With cage bars around it, a Parrot can control what it likely perceives to be a frightening and dangerous environment. It is, after all, a very small prey animal surrounded by very large predators (humans, cats and dogs etc.).
Most of all, it can control a human’s access to it. This is especially important when dealing with humans who do not grasp the concept of personal space and the fact that Parrots have the right to decide who gets to touch them and who doesn’t.
For instance, many humans assume (and don’t they tell us not to do that?) that they can pet a strange Parrot like one would a dog – and they are quite startled and hurt (often physically as well as psychologically) when they get bitten for their trouble.
The same thing happens with someone’s own bird, when the person assumes they have the right to pet the Parrot whenever they wish, be the Parrot willing or not. The intervention of cage bars prevents this sort of misunderstanding as the bird can simply move out of the reach of overly friendly and pushy people.
The territory of a cage can also easily be guarded, as access by humans is mostly limited to the door. After all, that was the point of all those lovely castles with drawbridges that are sprinkled liberally throughout Europe. Limiting access means increased safety.
Teaching Parrots to WANT To Do What YOU Want Them to Do
Positive reinforcement training uses something the Parrot considers to be valuable as a reward for a behaviour you want to continue. This is definitely a slower method, but it is also one that allows Parrots choices that empower them.
Once unafraid and trusting, a Parrot will no longer wish to stay hidden behind bars in its cage. It will have learned it does not need the cage for protection from humans. The people would’ve taught it that they respect its right to have its own opinions about things.
Instead, the Parrot will prefer to come out and interact with the humans with which it lives. Parrots are, after all, social creatures. And wouldn’t you prefer to have your Parrot choose to come out and be with you, rather than forcing it to interact with you?
The Stuff about “Never Make a Parrot Do …”
I want to clear the air on one thing. For several years, there was a popular saying that stated emphatically, “Never make a Parrot do anything it doesn’t want to do.” From my experience, this ridiculously over-simplified statement has caused huge problems for Parrot people. Many of whom took it to mean they should simply let their Parrots run amok.
This caused serious repercussions, often ending with a Parrot losing its home because it was then totally out of control and impossible to live with. I adored colleague Sally Blanchard’s pointed response which was, “My Parrot wants to chew through an electric cord, so I shouldn’t make him stop?”
These issues would not have arisen if trainers had said instead, “Teach your Parrot to WANT to do what you want it to do!” Huge difference in clarity, in my opinion. And that indeed is exactly what positive reinforcement training does.
It utilizes an approach of rewarding the animal for repeating behaviours that the humans want. Instead of the old technique of punishing what we humans didn’t want. So instead of saying “No-no-no!” all the time, we now offer an alternative behaviour: “Do this behaviour instead and earn a valuable reward!”
Starting Training – Timing
When it comes to training, proper timing is crucial. You first want to choose a time of day in which you and your animal are both relaxed and well-rested. Food deprivation is an ABSOLUTE NO-NO, but training right before meal time means your student will be especially eager to earn that food treat.
Lessons should be short for most beginners – including both you and the animal – 10-15 minutes often works well. You can train more than once a day, but space the sessions out.
The other crucial component of timing is the timing of the trainer. When an animal offers a behaviour you want, you need to deliver the reinforcement or bridge (explained in the next section) within a few seconds.
So if you have to go into the kitchen to get a piece of cheese for a reward, you may as well give it to the bird next month. The connection must be made almost simultaneously: behaviour/reward – with the separation between the two virtually non-existent. Otherwise, you will likely reward the behaviour that happened right AFTER the behaviour you want to reinforce.
This means you need your treats instantly available prior to starting a training session. So fill your pockets or hang a small pouch on your belt – anything that allows you quick access. And if your Parrot’s favourite treats are too moist to work in a pocket (cheese gets pretty icky), hang a plastic food cup at your waist.
An excellent example of faulty timing rewarding the wrong behaviour came from a client who sent me a video of her training sessions. She was trying rather unsuccessfully to teach her Parrot to quietly accept being towelled – an excellent thing to teach.
With the Parrot sitting on a t-stand, she covered its head with a wash cloth. Then she removed the cloth and rewarded the bird. So instead of rewarding the bird for sitting quietly while it is covered, she was actually reinforcing the removal of the cloth – which was a totally different behaviour. Training progressed much quicker once that timing error was corrected.
Getting the timing spot on – at least for us beginners – requires serious, total concentration. So focus on what you are doing and allow no distractions! Videos are also useful for identifying mistakes you might otherwise miss.
Starting Training – The Reinforcement
First step is to choose rewards the Parrot values.
Reinforcers vary from bird to bird and situation to situation, often working for a particular animal only intermittently, depending on circumstances. So don’t expect that almond to work forever!
Many Cockatoos don’t respond particularly well to food rewards, but adore praise or a quick pet. Amazons and Macaws tend to be highly food motivated (like me!) but often won’t respond to even their favourite treat if they are already satiated. So prepare to be flexible and the longer the list of potential reinforcers, the better. Only having one reward will limit your progress so get creative. (One Cockatoo owner I know trains her slightly overweight Parrot with single curds of low-fat cottage cheese.)
Many trainers recommend identifying favourite food treats in the following manner. Offer a smorgasbord of food treats and write down what the bird chooses to eat first.
Next day, offer the same variety minus the favourite food from yesterday and again write down the bird’s first choice. After repeating this several time, you should have a number of favourite foods from which to choose.
Most importantly, from now on those special treats are NEVER fed except as a reward during training; otherwise, they will lose their value.
Starting Training – The “Bridge”
The “bridge” is the training term for that which connects the correct behaviour with the reinforcement. With so-called “clicker training,” the bridge is the sound of the clicker.
For those like me who fail miserably at eye-hand timing, a word like “good!” can be the bridge. Trainers of marine mammals usually use a high-pitched whistle.
The purpose of the bridge is simple. It tells the animal the INSTANT it gets something right, and that a reward is forthcoming.
Clicker training guru Karen Pryor talked about gymnastics teachers using clickers. The students loved it because the click would tell them – even in the middle of a flip or somersault – that just there, right THERE, they did it RIGHT.
So the first step in positive reinforcement training is to teach the animal that the bridge means it just earned a reward. So when I use a word like ‘good’ as a bridge, I say “Good!” and hand my Blue and Gold Macaw Sam a tiny piece of sunflower seed (or walnut, cheese, cookie, etc. Sam’s list is endless).
I wait a second until she finishes the morsel, then repeat: “Good!” and hand her another bit of seed. She likes this game! After only a few repetitions, she looks for a treat whenever I say, “Good!”
The same pattern is followed to teach the meaning of a clicker or whistle or whatever the trainer chooses as the bridge.
It’s important to cut the food treats into tiny pieces for two reasons: First, you need to wait (staring at the ceiling and tapping your foot) until the animal finishes eating before cueing another behaviour; the longer it takes, the more time is wasted. Second, you certainly don’t want to fill your student up on treats!
So prior to starting a session, cut treats into tiny pieces with a sharp knife or a pill cutter (if you cut yourself easily like I do) and fill your pocket or pouch or cup.
Starting Training – Targeting
People need to start slowly, and target training is the ideal first step. Target training entails teaching a Parrot to touch something with its beak on a cue like, “Touch.” It is generally an easy behaviour to teach and priceless to have in place.
Once taught to target, moving the target will enable the person to teach a Parrot to do a variety of important behaviours. These include entering and exiting the cage, stepping up and down. It also provides the foundation for teaching tricks like putting a coin in a bank and playing basketball. The target is often something simple like a chopstick.
If the Parrot is anxious about new things leave the target lying around for a few days prior to the start of training. In this way, the bird will become accustomed to it. If it seems too large, hide most of the stick in the palm of your hand, only offering an inch or two. Extend the length as the Parrot relaxes.
Offer the target to the Parrot and reinforce any movement the Parrot makes in the direction of the target. Maybe it leans forward or takes a half-step towards it – so you bridge and reward.
If it leans forward then walks away and your timing is off, you’ll likely reward his walking away. Not exactly what you want – so pay attention!
Once the Parrot is comfortably touching the target, stop rewarding the little leanings and half-steps from before. This is called shaping and it entails polishing the behaviour until it is exactly what you want.
Target training can take place anywhere, so with a cage bound bird, start training from outside the cage. When the Parrot is confidently approaching to touch the target and get its reward through the cage bars, it is time to up the ante.
Start very slowly moving the target. Maybe now you stick the target between the bars a little further from the perch so the bird has to reach for it.
Once it does this several times comfortably (with you bridging and rewarding each time), then move the target even further. Perhaps make the bird climb to the side of the cage to reach it – and bridge and reward each time.
DON’T RUSH THINGS. Make certain your Parrot is secure with each step before progressing to the next. If the behaviour is even a tad shaky, you don’t have a strong foundation on which to build – which is what you need. TAKE YOUR TIME.
If your Parrot suddenly doesn’t do the behaviour correctly, it is likely you moved too far, too fast. No problem, this is easy to fix. Drop back a couple of steps – maybe even all the way back to the initial approach. Then find a place where the bird offers the behaviour happily.
Then slowly work your way back up to where you were before, but this time with stronger learning in place. Like in school, sometimes you might accidentally get the right answer without knowing exactly how you got there. While that’s a lovely feeling, you can’t build on it because you got there by accident.
You – and your student, the Parrot – need to understand each step of the process before going to the next step.
Target Training – The Next Step
Once your Parrot is happily following the target all over the inside of its cage, the next step is to use the target to bring the bird to the cage door. Now things will vary depending on the type of door.
If the cage door opens vertically (up like a guillotine or a ramp that drops down), work with the door open. Then continue to bridge and reward the bird for approaching the door. If you firmly clip up the guillotine door, your hands will be free for training – but make certain the door won’t fall on either of you. That would not be good.
With cage doors that open horizontally like a door in your house, a lovely trick is to place a small half-perch on the inside of the door and train the bird to target to that perch. (The perch had, of course, been added to the cage several days ago so the bird is accustomed to its presence.)
Once it is comfortable sitting there, you can very slowly open the door, continuously targeting and rewarding the bird for staying there – and poof! The Parrot is now out of its cage without being forced.
Phasing Out the Treat
Once a behaviour is letter-perfect, you can gradually phase out the treat so it is only offered intermittently. So you won’t need to have mouldy cheese in your pocket for the rest of your life.
The Behaviour Progression
The positive reinforcement continues with lavish rewards for the Parrot when it does what you wish, and never-never-never any frowns or harsh words when it doesn’t.
If it fails to do what you want, then it is your fault because your training expectations are not clear enough. So why would you frown at the bird if YOU are the one who isn’t doing it right?
Always keep training sessions positive. If you had a teacher who yelled at you in class, did you want to return? Of course not, and neither will your Parrot.
Once the Parrot is out of its cage, reward it lavishly with whatever it likes. Without scaring it to death, make a huge fuss over how wonderful it is. Make certain the bird understands it has done something monumental and it should be proud of itself.
And so should you, the trainer!
Thanks to your hard work together, you should now have a Parrot that is eager to exit the cage to be with you, with or without the target stick. Hanging around with you is tremendously rewarding, after all!
Get more advice on training your Parrot here.