Training, and Choosing the Right Reinforcer For Your Bird.

I had an interesting search from Google show up under my stats today. I thought I should talk about it…

‘Can you just praise your parrot during clicker training if treats from hands are difficult?’

Assuming that the bird bites or is unwilling to take food (not the owner having an issue juggling both clicker and treats), I can relate to that particular search. We have had similar issues with O. being able to treat Mavi, and Mishka was formerly unwilling to take anything from us. Been there.

Until your bird is willing/able to take treats nicely from your fingers, I found two things that really helped: either dropping the treat close to the bird, but not so close that it feels nervous; or else simply putting the treat into a bowl. Someone also commented that a popsicle stick, tongue depressor, or even spoon can be used to safely relay a treat to the bird. (You may need to desensitise them to the object, first, though.) A T-stand with stainless steel cups attached is good for the above methods, or else something like a coop cup bolted to the outside of a cage. These tips are particularly good during touch training for biting birds – no need to involve sensitive digits.

When working with any animal, the reinforcer (treat) must of be of true value. Vocal praising should accompany a reinforcer, but praise alone generally isn’t enough.

So what’s the best reward? For many animals, food is often the best, yet sometimes parrots just aren’t food motivated. In this case, a favourite toy or a head-scratch can work. You can even be clever about motivation, and reward a behaviour with something the bird wants to do.

For example: Letting your out of his cage, immediately, every time he poops, whilst making a big deal of it. Suddenly, he makes the connection that relieving himself means out-of-cage time and attention. If you start timing the length of time between poops and watching for his body language, you can learn when he is about to go and pair the action with a command, e.g. ‘Poop!’ Soon, you have it on cue. (Yes, toilet-training for us has been as easy as that.)

Or you could try rewarding a bird’s talking or pleasant noises with your attention. Just make a fuss, and suddenly the bird will be more willing to make these ‘sanctioned’ noises for your attention, rather than screaming. Even if he’s only just starting to talk and is shy, responding is the best thing you can do to encourage more. He may stop, temporarily, but he’ll have already made the connection that speaking brings attention.

Stepping up can, and probably should, be followed by doing what the bird wants to do! A treat is good, too, but this is an easy way to persuade him that your hands aren’t a bad thing. He actually could decide that, if you are constantly taking him away from what he wants to see. Instead, by bringing him where he wants to go, he learns that you’re a mode of transportation – and are therefore of use to him. Choice in a companion bird’s life is a thing that should be instigated as often as possible for a healthy pet.

As to what rewards your bird prefers, that’s simply down to you getting to know him a bit. You can figure out what your his most valued treats are quite easily by putting common favourites (shelled sunflower seeds, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, cashews, etc., banana chips, fruit pieces, hemp, millet, or even very small amounts of cheese or whole-wheat bread – not ideal) into a bowl. Hold it up to him, or let him go to it, and watch carefully to see what he picks out first. He’ll almost always go for his favourites.

If your pet gets excited about a food, chances are it could make a good motivator. Remove these treats from the animal’s regular diet and reserve them as a training tool.

Note that a food reinforcer must be able to be eaten quickly, so that the bird doesn’t forget how and why it earned it. Keeping up the momentum, so to speak. Thus, things that can be chopped or broken into small bits are ideal. Things that need to be chewed a long time, or shelled, aren’t good reinforcers.

Most importantly, the bird has to be willing to work for it. A ‘treat’ that doesn’t excite the bird is no treat at all – and birds are individuals. Ptak loves millet, Mishka will do anything for a bit of a chip or crisp, and Mavi adores hemp seed. Pip will even stand on our fingers for a piece of broccoli. Offering your bird the right reinforcer can make all the difference. (What are your birds’ favourites?)

I’m actually off now to start some harness training with Maverick… going to start by doing some of the exercises on the little leaflet, then introducing him to the harness. Today I probably won’t do much more than offer him treats whilst it’s in his presence. Honestly, though, I’m most nervous at approaching his wings, as I have tried to work with him about lifting them before, and got a sharp nip for my troubles. Clicker training for that, too!

Wish me luck.

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4 thoughts on “Training, and Choosing the Right Reinforcer For Your Bird.

  1. Good luck with the training! My lovebird is a rescue and she is difficult to motivate. Treats don’t impress her although I have recently figured out which seeds are a motivator, she always eats the safflower first. Early attempts at training were a disaster, fingers are something to be bitten, and she seems to enjoy it, almost as if it were a game. The rescue group I adopted her from said to stop trying for about six months and let her build up trust. I’m enjoying reading about your experiences and learning as much as I can. The only birds I had before were parakeets, and they were very different.

    • Thanks! And I’m glad my stories help. I know I felt like I’d been dropped in the deep end with our first birds, haha. These little ones seem to truly enjoy fingers.

      If you were able to figure a way around the biting (such as dropping the treat safely away from your fingers) then training would definitely increase trust and confidence – but I think sometimes just letting your bird get used to you in her own time, like you have, is the best thing you can do! Birds who are allowed to be birds are the happiest animals. Good luck with her. 😀

  2. Great entry! Another option to consider, and one which I frequently do with my clients whose birds bite when they offer food by hand, is to offer the treats in a spoon, on a popsicle stick or tongue depressor, or via some other delivery method. Oftentimes the bird will initially be frightened by a new object, but if the object is left in the bird’s cage with food in them for a few days, birds quickly learn that the spoon/stick/whatever is a good thing. Then their trainers can still use food reinforcers for training without the risk of getting bitten.

    Another thing to consider is that, almost every time I’ve done a behavior consult for someone who has told me that their bird isn’t food motivated, it’s because the bird is being fed way too much food, and/or the training sessions are happening during a time of day when the bird has already eaten and has a relatively full crop. Food is a primary motivator because it’s something that all animals need for survival, so with some careful environmental arrangement, we can almost always find a way for birds to become food motivated. Trying our training sessions right before breakfast or dinner, when the birds are at their hungriest, is one way to set ourselves up for success. Another would be to evaluate how much the bird actually eats in a day and only offer that amount of food in their cage. A bird with a whole bowl full of pellets, seeds, nuts, fruit, etc. – enough food to last them a week – offered every single day is going to be less food motivated than one who is offered a reasonable serving of food twice a day with only small snacks available in foraging toys for the rest of the day. So, managing intake is another way that we can set ourselves up for success.

    These are just a few other ideas to help aid you on your path to training success! Good luck and keep up the great work!

    • Great advice, thanks! I love the popsicle stick/spoon trick, that’ll have to go into my post, if you don’t mind! I have to say, monitoring food intake is something that’s made all the difference for all the animals I’ve worked with, birds, horses, cats, and dogs. I don’t personally subscribe to the ‘lose 10% of the body weight’ training diet, but I truly don’t understand why people balk at reining in the food allowance for their pets. We do have one bird, our parrotlet, who isn’t food-motivated in spite of everything. He’ll take millet sometimes, but he just isn’t crazy about eating! He’d much rather sink his beak into my fingers, haha. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

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