I have been involved in many aspects of aviculture over the past eight years. Of all of them, training has taught me the most about birds. It has enhanced my relationship with my pet birds and has helped me in socializing young birds that we hand raise. Training has helped me to better understand birds’ body language and realize their individualism.Trick training is no longer just for professional trainers. Scientists, such as Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her African Grey, Alex have proven that birds are intelligent. We as pet bird owners, realize this all the time. Mental excersise is as important for a bird’s well-being as physical excersise is. Birds need problems to solve and tasks to perform. The more they learn, the faster they learn. Training is fun and it is great quality time spent together with your bird.
In training we don’t use dominance or punishment. Instead we use positive reinforcement. We communicate what we want with a “bridge”. A bridge is a signal that lets a bird know exactly when he has earned a reward.
Most animal trainers use a clicker for a bridge because of its distinct, precise sound. We first condition the bird that a click equals a treat (or reward). Then we reward any movements the bird makes toward the desired behavior we are after and ignore the ones we don’t want. Rewarding the movements we want increases the likelihood of the desired behavior being repeated.
One of the most challenging obstacles in training birds, is finding a motivator. With some birds, it’s just a matter of finding their very favorite food. With another bird,who is not so easily food motivated, the reward could be a scratch on the head. We want to use something positive that the bird will “work” for.
In using a food reward, we do not employ any food deprivation, but instead use food management. The food reward is witheld from the bird’s regular diet. With my macaws, I use nuts. They need a little more fat in their diet than other members of the parrot family, so this works out well and I can control the amount they get. With my sun conures, I use sunflower seeds.
Also when using food rewards, you want to train before the birds are fed. When I am doing two or three shows a day, I still feed my birds during the day. I give them fruits and veggies in the morning, a couple of hours before show time. They get their treats during the shows and then at night they get their seed and pellet mix.
Once you have found a motivator, it is time to “condition the clicker”, that is, to communicate to the bird that click = reward. The clicker looks like a little plastic box with a piece of metal in it. When pushed, it makes a “click” sound. You click and then treat, if you are using food. If you are using a scratch, you simply click and then scratch. Do this until you feel that the bird understands that click = reward. How can you tell? Your bird will look at you when he hears the click, as if to say “Where’s my reward?”. Once a bird understands this, you can click and treat any small steps and approximations to a desired behavior. Keeping a training journal can be very helpful in helping to stay focused and preventing you from making the same mistakes over again.
If starting with a bird that is not phobic, I prefer to train away from the bird’s cage and use a “station” as a place to condition the clicker. By station, I mean a place where a bird can perch, such as a t-stand. If you start out by trying to condition on a table or the floor, you are going to have a bird that will start to wander around. Another benefit of having him on a station is that he will stay up there and not jump off. It becomes a safe and rewarding place to be. Once he is conditioned and you are ready to begin training, you can work on a coffee table, or a card table, even a counter top. Try and work on an area, where the bird does not have a large space to walk around. It will be easier to keep his attention that way.
One obstacle in training birds would be how to train a phobic bird. A bird that can’t or doesn’t want to be handled can still be trained. You can click and treat from the outside of the cage. If the bird won’t eat in front of you at first, don’t worry about it, just continue clicking and treating. Take your time and be relaxed with it. Birds are very visual animals and can pick up on changes, even subtle ones in your body language.
Finding the time to train is a concern that I hear from a lot of people. It really doesn’t take a lot of time. You can have several small sessions a week or longer sessions, depending upon your schedule and the birds attention span. One thing that I found very interesting in training, is that once a bird learns a behavior, they never forget it. Even if you miss a week or two of training, you can pick up where you left off, or even back up a step, if you need to. Trick behaviors, using props, can help birds get over their fear of new objects, because we take small steps, thus avoiding stressful situations. You can teach your bird color discrimination and then use his “generalizing” abilities to teach him to play an actual tune on a piano by color coding the keys.
If your bird is performing a behavior, he can’t very well bite you at the same time. This would be called using an alternative behavior. We redirect aggression or other unwanted behaviors to something rewarding. Simple yet effective.
In training, we avoid getting bitten, whether that means teaching a bird to step up on a hand held perch or avoiding the situation that is causing the bird to bite.
Clicker training can also be used to train other pets in your family. A great many bird owners who have discovered training are using it to train their other pets. They teach their dogs or cats to back away from their birds or to sit on cue – behaviors that could save a bird’s life or prevent it from great harm. Another benefit of training is that children can learn to do it also. It can become a family project.
The important part of training, is to have fun, pay attention to your birds body language and to keep things very simple. From budgies to macaws, they can all be trained.
We are our birds’ ambassadors. We need to learn as much as we can about them and share what we learn. It is up to us to help them live in our world with as little stress as possible. In my opinion, training trick behaviors is beneficial to owners and birds. Why not give it a try?