Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Good Start to a Good Bird

There is plenty of data that supports that value of having animals in our lives. As the third most popular pet, birds obviously hold a special place in many people’s hearts. However a common statement about parrots is that they are bad or challenging pets. Really? I have co-habitated with parrots for over twenty six years and really can’t think of a moment when I thought to myself “Uh oh. This was a mistake” In fact I credit my parrots for helping become the kind of pet owner all animals deserve.

More importantly having a personal connection with individual parrots has helped me become aware and concerned for parrot species in the wild. As technology takes over and more people become disconnected from nature, pets may be the only animals future generations experience. By fostering a connection and giving caregivers the tools to live successfully with parrots we are doing so much more than making great pets. We are creating deep bonds that can benefit individual birds and their wild counterparts.

Are Parrots Difficult Pets?
In my experience parrots are neither inherently good companion animals nor inherently bad companion animals. The behaviors parrots choose to exhibit are the result of what earns them reinforcers or what will cause an aversive stimulus to go away. In other words parrot behavior is the result of our behavior. If we choose to reinforce behaviors we like, we will see those behaviors exhibited more often. If we try to control parrots through unpleasant experiences we are likely to create aggressive behavior or fear responses.

The bottom line is parrot caregivers who are armed with tools and information on training their parrots with positive reinforcement are likely to have great success with a parrot in their home. Those who rely on coercion are sure to encounter problems and sadly miss out on the incredible relationship based on trust one can have with a parrot. The methods we choose to influence parrot behavior determine the outcome, not the genetics of the parrot. I have been fortunate to see successful parrot and caregiver relationships over and over again in my travels. Those who succeed have embraced the positive reinforcement approach to parrot behavior.

A Successful Start
Parrots are learning machines from a very young age. If you are planning on acquiring a parrot from a breeder I recommend choosing one that trains with positive reinforcement. This is because the moment a baby parrot can move (make choices) to gain reinforcers learning is occurring. (It is certainly occurring before that, but for training purposes a mobile participant is helpful) This means a training savvy breeder will train young birds to walk or fly to the hand at feeding time. Pushing a baby bird onto a hand or grabbing it even at this young age has serious repercussions. I have met many recently weaned babies who are already afraid of hands due to forceful interactions with hands. It is critical to give birds, even a young one the choice to step towards or onto a hand to gain reinforcers. Baby parrots are not inherently afraid or aggressive towards hands. This is learned behavior. This means problems with hands are totally avoidable. In fact using positive reinforcement breeders can teach young birds that hands are the most fabulous place in the world to be. Additional behaviors skilled breeders can train include hopping onto a scale, recall and crate training.

Critical periods of development are specific times during which the environment has its greatest impact on an individual's development. This has been studied extensively in dogs (and humans). Anecdotally we see critical periods of development in other animals as well, including parrots. For many young animals we see receptiveness to new experiences during these times. For example a young parrot may allow manipulation of its wings, feet and beak. It may reach out to explore a nail file, towel or new toy. It may find new environments and people non-threatening and interesting. However as this period of development passes, this window of “openness” closes. Training conscientious breeders will take advantage of this period of development to expose young parrots to new items, people, places and experiences. However they will also be sure to pair positive reinforcers with those new situations. This important step is often missed by those not versed in positive reinforcement. Just because the bird will tolerate it does not mean it will have lasting value past the critical period of development. By including reinforcers such as swallows of hand feeding formula, head scratches, cuddles, etc. baby parrots are more likely to be receptive as they mature. Harness training is just one example of a behavior that is more likely to be successful if started during a critical period and paired with reinforcers.

Including some simple positive reinforcement training strategies early in life can better prepare young parrots to be successful in their new home. Beni the blue throated macaw and Wrigley the double yellow headed Amazon parrot featured in the video clip are parrot ambassadors at the Kaytee Learning Center.   Both of these birds were fortunate to be raised by a breeder who knows the benefits of training young birds with positive reinforcement. These two birds continue to be confident, interactive, well behaved representatives for the parrot community.

Cute, Critical and Core Behaviors
Once a parrot has left the breeder, learning is not over. In fact learning will be ongoing for the life of the bird. That is why it is important to remember the mantra “You get what you reinforce.” Make it a goal to reinforce EVERYTIME your bird does something you like. This includes stepping onto your hand, onto a perch, going back in the cage, recalling, etc. Behaviors you would like to see your bird present need to be reinforced or they will go away. Throw away the notion that a bird should just be expected to behave. Plan on guaranteeing it by reinforcing desired behavior.

A well behaved parrot is the result of this commitment to reinforcement. This means deciding what behaviors you want, spending a little time training those behaviors, and then maintaining them throughout you and your parrot’s life together. Some behaviors may be more essential than others. I have categorized them into Cute, Critical and Core behaviors.

Cute: These include behaviors that are fun and entertaining for you and your bird. They are usually easily trained and can be useful to help you and your bird learn about training. They can also be helpful when introducing your bird to strangers. New people can cue the bird for the behavior. You can also use them for redirecting your bird to an acceptable behavior if needed. For example if your parrot has his eye on chewing up a pen or necklace. They are also useful to help get a training session started and evaluate your bird’s interest in participating or getting back on track if your bird is distracted during a session.

Some Examples Include:
Ø  Wave
Ø  Turn Around
Ø  Retrieve
Ø  Dance
Ø  Wings Up
Ø  Talking

Core: Core behaviors are ones that are essential to day to day life with a parrot. Essentially these are behaviors you would expect a well behaved parrot to know. They make it easy for you to manage your bird’s location, basic activities and interactions with people throughout the day.

Some Examples Include:
Ø  Targeting
Ø  Step Up
Ø  Step Down
Ø  Step onto a Stick
Ø  Go Back into the Cage
Ø  Drop Items on Cue
Ø  Step onto Strangers
Ø  Recall (For Flighted Birds)
Ø  Go to and Stay on Acceptable Play Stands
Ø  Play with Toys
Ø  Foraging Activities

Critical: Critical behaviors are important for the health and welfare of your parrot. Many of them, although often overlooked, are quite easy to train. Furthermore you will be glad you did train them when the day comes that you need these behaviors. Stress from medical procedures can be greatly reduced or eliminated when caregivers take the time to train critical behaviors.

Some Examples Include:
Ø  Step onto a Scale
Ø  Accept Fluid from a Syringe
Ø  Allow Nail Trims
Ø  Allow Restraint in a Towel
Ø  Enter/Exit a Transport Cage
Ø  Recall from Various Heights and Angles (For Flighted Birds)

Preventing Behavior Problems
Early training can make a big impact on preventing some of the most commonly seen parrot behavior problems. In part because embracing a positive reinforcement approach to training means abandoning methods based on force that often lead to problems such as aggressive behavior, fear responses and loss of trust. However parrot owners can prepare themselves further by getting familiar with some of the undesired behavior a parrot might exhibit. The reason it is helpful to identify problems behaviors in advance is that caregivers can be prepared to respond appropriately the first time an undesired behavior is presented. And thus prevent the likelihood it will happen again.

For example if a parrot starts to regurgitate for one family member it may mean the bird has identified that person as a potential preferred mate. This could lead to the presentation of aggressive behavior towards other members of the household. Rather than permit the regurgitation to continue, the caregiver can redirect the bird towards acceptable behavior or consider stepping away from the bird for a moment until it stops presenting courtship behavior. The preferred person may choose to interact with the bird less frequently for a short time and allow other members of the household to strengthen their relationship with the bird. This can help prevent the creation of a “one person” bird.

Some of the more commonly seen behavior problems include aggressive behavior, screaming for attention, bonding to one person and feather destructive behavior. You can learn more about these problem behaviors by visiting the Good Bird Inc Behavior Problem Frequently Asked Questions page.

Having an awareness of the solutions to behavior problems before they appear can help avoid accidentally reinforcing or creating problem behavior in the first place.

While not all of my birds had the good fortune of being raised by a knowledgeable breeder, they are all still extremely easy to live with thanks to positive reinforcement training. A quiet house? Fingers free of band aids? A fun, interactive and engaging pet? Yes, a well behaved parrot is a very realistic goal. And to add his own exclamation point to this article my yellow naped Amazon just sang “What a good biiiiiiiiiird!” What a good bird indeed.

Copyright 2010
Barbara Heidenreich

Professional Animal Trainer

Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training

In 1982 Barbara Heidenreich secured her first job working with animals in a veterinary hospital. After exploring different animal related jobs and receiving her degree in Zoology from UC Davis in 1990, Barbara started her career as an animal trainer in a zoological park. She has been a professional trainer ever since. 

Barbara provides consulting services to zoos, nature centers and other animal facilities. She lectures regularly to the veterinary community and is an adjunct clinical instructor at Texas A & M University, Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences. Barbara is a former president of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators ( and served on the Board of Directors from 1997-2009.  She volunteers her expertise to support conservation projects, The Kakapo Recovery Program and the Bird Endowment. In her career she has trained animals, trained staff, lectured and/or presented shows at over 40 facilities around the world. 

Barbara  has been a featured speaker on animal training in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara teaches learning theory as described by the science of behavior analysis. She is also passionate about teaching excellent animal training practical application skills. Barbara is thrilled to have had the opportunity to train thousands of animals, from rats to rhinos. This experience makes Barbara’s expertise truly unmatched. This hands-on practice with so many different individual animals has been invaluable to helping her provide caregivers the tools they need to solve behavior problems and have a great relationship with the animals in their lives based on trust. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.