Kili & Truman are well adapted to the cold. They have thick down feathers that they molted in during the fall. So now when I take them outside on 40 degree days, they aren't bothered by the cold.
You see during the fall I would put the birds out in the outdoor aviary on progressively colder days. First the days were in the 70s, then 60s, 50s, and eventually 40s. Their bodies and feathers adapted to this. When the winter got colder and I stopped taking them out, the only other thing I did to keep them more winter ready was to keep the indoor temp a bit lower (high 60s) so that the change to outdoor temperature would be less substantial.
The down feathers on Kili & Truman's heads are much much ticker than Santina's. Especially for Truman, he spends a lot of time out in the aviary during the colder months. His feather density feels nearly double what is is during the summer. When I run my hands through his feathers, they feel almost twice as thick and this is because the down feathers underneath the plumage are much thicker than usual.
On the other hand, Santina had come from a rescue where the temperature was constant. Her down is not much thicker than in the summer. For her going outside was much colder.
In just 5 minutes outside in 50F and direct sunlight, Santina was already shivering and had to be taken back inside. Kili and Truman managed to spend an hour outside at the park freeflight in 40F weather and sunlight. The flying definitely helped keep them warmer but since they take turns to fly and the other bird sits, flying wasn't the biggest factor.
This is why aviary parrots can manage most above freezing temperatures but housebirds should not be taken outside in strongly contrasting temperatures. As a rule of thumb, 10F less than indoors is no problem at all. 20F less than indoors is usually ok if it's sunny, not windy, and not for a prolonged period of time. Less than that only if they are under your jacket (and briefly) or well acclimated to colder temperatures. Avoid taking baby, old, sick, or frail birds outside in colder temperatures. If the bird's feet or beak feel cold, it is definitely time to move it inside and you should generally try not to stay out long enough for it to get to that. More tips on taking parrots outside in winter here.
It is winter. It is cold. We value days of warmth more than ever and so do the birds. This has been an especially cold winter and opportunities to get the birds outside for some natural sunshine have been very limited. This is why the moment it is sunny and not so cold I jump on the opportunity to get them out!
Yesterday it was a warm 46 degrees Fahrenheit. So I took Santina out briefly and she had her first encounter with snow. Since Santina comes from a warm room and heated rescue, I did not venture to keep her outside for long. She is not adapted to the cold. Kili and Truman on the other hand sport really thick down coats. When I pet their feathers, I notice an unusually thick layer of poofy white down beneath. The reason is because in the fall I continue taking them outside in the cold and also drop my apartment temperature some. They become acclimated to lower temperatures so brief encounters with temps above freezing are not a problem.
Since yesterdays outing was not expected, the birds were already fed and the timing was bad so they didn't care to fly much. Today, I checked the weather and realized it would be warm again. So I skipped morning flight training at home and got them outside for some freeflight instead. They're not used to flying in such weather but they did a stellar job none the less. They have been training up for this moment and keeping their muscles in shape with 1-2 mile nightly training sessions at home.
Truman seemed really eager so I let him fly first. He did one flight recall off the bat but refused to do anymore. He went back on his leash while Kili showed him how it's really done. She zoomed all around the park like a flying ace. She had not forgotten a thing in the months since her last freeflight. Truman was burning with jealousy and when he got his turn flew better than ever before. He flew longer, further, and more reliably. They both did a stellar job on this cool, sunny, February winter day!
My parrots do what I want. This is contrary to most people's parrots that do what they don't want and don't do what they do want. My parrots step up for me whenever I ask them to. They come out of their cages and go back into their cages when expected. They fly to me when called and allow me to touch, hold, handle, and grab them. They never bite me and they don't bite other people either. They voluntarily put on their harnesses and travel with me. They even freefly outside without restraint and come back to me. My parrots do what I want them to do! But why do they do that? I will attempt to explain that in this article.
Note in this article I use examples of my freeflight experiences with Kili & Truman as the ultimate demonstration of my parrots doing what I want with full freedom. I am not recommending that anyone try this with their parrot. I am only hoping to convince you of the extent of the effectiveness of my approaches and to encourage you to use them with your parrot in your home. It is best that you do not attempt outdoor freeflight.
It comes down to training, motivation, challenging, patience, and realistic expectations. Without all of these components, it is unlikely that your parrot will do what you want. Let's start with realistic expectations. In part this means understanding and accepting the wild side of a parrot and that it may never change. On the other hand it's about having expectations that are achievable and relative to the parrot's current level of training. In other words when I work with a less trained parrot, I don't expect it to do what a more highly trained parrot can. If what I want the parrot to do is relative to what it can do, then I am more likely to be pleased that the parrot is doing what I want.
But wanting the parrot to do what I expect it to be capable of doing isn't enough. I also want the parrot to learn to do better and this is where challenging the parrot comes in. I challenge my parrots and other parrots that I train to do better. This is a perpetual process. Even when my parrots are good at what they do, I challenge them to do better still or to move onto tougher challenges that will continue to challenge them. By raising the bar of their capabilities - as well as my expectations - it assures that the easier things will remain while newer challenges will be achieved as well.
Patience is the bridge between expectations and achieving actual challenges. These things may take time. But what's the rush? The bird will live a very long time and it's a fun road for us to share together through the behavior improvement process. But expectations, challenges, and patience simply aren't enough. An infinite amount of these will still keep you exactly where you're at if you don't apply training. Training teaches the parrot how to do the things that we wish to challenge them with. I'm not going to get into how to train parrots because that is the subject of this blog and my book, but it is undeniable that training is a key component.
Yet, even people who apply the training approach end up failing to achieve desired behavior from their parrots. One more component is irreplaceable: motivation. The parrot has to want what you want or at least want what you can do for it in return for doing what you want. Parrots may be highly intelligent but they are also highly selfish. As are we. We want our parrots to do what we want; likewise our parrots want us to do what they want! Having an outstanding relationship and well-behaved parrot lies on the intersection of those two desires! There must be compromise on both sides in order for it to work.
The secret to getting your parrot to do what you want is to make it so that the parrot wants to do that. We can call this motivation. Forcing the parrot to do what you want may work at times. But the down side in most cases is that if the parrot doesn't genuinely want to do that, then at the first opportunity to bail it will. For example, I take my parrots to freefly at the park. On the way to and from the park I have them wear their aviator harnesses just to be safe. However, at the park they are given the freedom to fly. If the only reason they wore harnesses was because at home I forced them to wear the harness, then at the park they could easily fly away from me to avoid having it put on. You see, the difference now between a parrot that WANTS to put the harness on from the parrot that HAS to put the harness on?
Another element that I find to be crucial to success with parrots is not clipping their wings!. I think wing clipping is to a large extent responsible for parrot owners' failure to teach the parrot to do what they want. And it's not the other way around, either. I do believe that people think they are clipping a bird because it does not do what they want. But in reality, they never taught it in the first place. But by clipping the bird's wings, they are actually eliminating the possibility of teaching their parrot to behave the way that it should. The parrot does not stay on its tree because it should, it does it because it has to! The parrot doesn't avoid flying over to people because it doesn't want to bite, but because it can't. Wing clipping ends up forcing a parrot to appear to do what we want (like be with us) but in actuality there is a strong chance the parrot does not want to. In that case, it is a failed application of teaching the parrot to do what we want it to do. This ultimately leads to failure and a highly misbehaved parrot.
Parrots are born to fly. It's not just their feathered appearance that is evolved for flight. Their entire cardio-respiratory system is like a turbocharged engine that is dying for flight. Their brain is capable of processing its spatial surroundings, navigating, planning, and thinking at the speed of flight! Without flight, the muscles and the brain decay from disuse. We need that brain to stay sharp to learn to be the great pet that we desire. Eliminating flight eliminates the intelligence that we need to tap into to teach the parrot to cooperate.
The goal is to have a parrot that looks forward to seeing you and cooperating with you. If the parrot only does these things because it has to, then at the first opportunity to not have to do them, it won't. Yet if the parrot is put in the situation that it wants to do these things and chooses to, success is assured all around.
Here's a great test to figure out if the way you approach your parrot is improving or harming your relationship: if your parrot will fly away from you as a result, it is hurting. If your parrot will voluntarily fly to you to get to participate in your handling, then it is improving. The only way to find out is to have a flighted parrot. Simply guessing what your parrot would do is not enough because there is no concrete feedback. A clipped parrot that cannot fly may be stuck enduring much that it does not want. This will slowly add up and then at some point what seems like "biting for no reason" is actually quite justified because of all the things it had to do that it did not want to do. By allowing the bird to fly and using this as a gauge for what it wants/does not want to do, you can only use approaches that actually work. This reduces the fallout of doing things that the bird does not want and having revenge seemingly out of nowhere.
Most of you know that I use food management to train tricks/behavior to my parrots. It would seem that the parrot is "forced" to do what I want because otherwise it would not get to eat. But actually this isn't the case for several reasons.
First this has to do with a realization I've made some time ago. It's not my job to feed my parrots. It is their job to feed themselves. It is only my responsibility to make food available to them but it is up to them to make the feeding take place. Think about it. In the most basic case, the owner puts food in the bowl and the parrot climbs over to eat from it. The owner is making food available but the parrot is choosing to take the steps to eat the food. Likewise, in the wild, parrots fly distances from tree to tree to feed themselves. What I am doing is shifting the gap from eating from a bowl inches away to something closer to eating from a tree miles away. It is not only natural but also instinctual for parrots to search, forage, and behave in ways that get them food. Through training and soliciting good behavior ("good" is relative and in this case I mean "behavior that is desirable to me") I am directly appealing to a parrot's natural desire to do what it takes to feed itself.
Furthermore, if my parrots are failing the challenges I make for them to "feed themselves," I - in my sympathy - can reduce the challenges to something that they are known to be capable of to ensure they do manage to feed themselves. In other words, they'll still be fed. But it gets even better still. During this process we develop alternative forms of reinforcement that are not food. The birds develop habitual good behavior and maintain it even though they never receive food for it. Not biting, stepping up, coming out of the cage, touching, handling, grabbing, stepping up for other people, putting on harnesses, etc are so much practiced and habitual that my parrots continue to exhibit all these excellent behaviors without receiving any treats for them. So, yes, food was used to teach them these things initially, but as they have become habit, the parrots are no longer dependent on food to maintain these.
As I challenge my parrots to always do more behavior, better, for smaller treats, and for less frequent treats, they become adapted to just doing the behavior. They also become more in tune with very subtle conditioned reinforcers. Getting a click of the clicker or just a smile from my face can become much more effective when the parrot has been challenged to do a certain behavior for a treat once every 10 or better yet every 50 times. By employing variable ratio reinforcement schedules, I am able to make the behavior more reliable while also making the parrot less dependent on food as a reason for doing it. Also, as I challenge my parrots to do harder and harder things (such as extensive amounts of strenuous flying), it makes other things comparatively easier. My parrots perform tricks, step up, and behave well in other ways much more readily because those are far easier ways to earn attention, scratches, and other good subtle non-food things than flying. It's a piece of cake to step up for me for a head scratch rather than to fly to me for it. So step up is absolutely reliable and fool proof. Flying 50ft recalls at home is easier than flying 200ft recalls at the park, so after flying 200ft recalls at the park, the parrots are even more reliable at flying 50ft recalls at home. As I continue to challenge my parrots' ultimate behavior challenges, all easier behavior becomes near automatic.
If you challenge your parrot to go just a little further, do just a little more, with time the behavior will be better and better. First it may be a matter of walking a few inches to the food bowl to eat. Then the parrot can learn to target a greater distance to target and eat. Then you can take this even further and have the bird learn to fly some distances to you to get the same. The bird still gets to eat the full healthy portion that is suitable for it but it will just learn to do more and more for it and this will be normal. In the process the parrot will become more fit and your relationship will blossom. No matter how much we challenge our parrots, it still doesn't even come remotely close to the challenges of nature. But the more we train our parrots, the happier we will be with having a more suitable pet and the healthier the parrot will be as well.
I treat training, and particularly flight recall training, like I am a tree. In the wild, parrots will fly from tree to tree to find the ones with ripe fruit, nuts, or seeds. Some trees may not have anything while others will be more rewarding. I tell my parrots to "forage me with their good behavior." In the wild, they will be challenged to find the food and then to extract it from its natural protections. In the home, they can experience the same mental challenge but in a way that benefits our relationship at the same time. They have to try to work out the puzzle of extracting their food from me by figuring out what I want them to do and doing it to the best of their ability! This is so natural to them. It feels like more of a crime to deny them the opportunities to express these natural tendencies. They love to be challenged.
While my parrots are practicing flight in home and outside, not only are they learning to fly better, they are also building stronger muscles. As long as I keep challenging them to fly a little more or a little further each time, they get stronger and have greater endurance. This also makes it easier for them to fly small distances and makes them more reliable when I really need them to fly. Flying a short distance is easy for a stronger bird so it takes less motivation to elicit it. At the absolute best, I was able to get Truman to fly a total distance of 1.5 miles and Kili to fly 2.6 miles in a single 1 hour long flight training session at home. Considering that Kili came to me clipped as a bird that had never fledged, this amount of flying strength that we have built is colossal! Better yet, watch her flying outside with skill and ease. She will now fly to me from any part of the park, even when she can't see me. She has learned to dodge obstacles, turn, and find me by the call of my voice.
By allowing parrots to fly, we have the glorious opportunity to be that parrot's wild foraging tree. We can tap into that natural instinct to fly across distances and feed not only to exercise the parrot but also to teach them how wonderful it is spending time with us. Through the flight recall training process, you can teach your parrot to think on the fly and to do what we want it to do. As we challenge our parrots with strenuous tasks such as flight (which are otherwise perfectly natural for them), we can develop high endurance levels of motivation. That motivation can be tapped to encompass all the other good behavior that we require of our parrots in order to be good pets.
I feel that the ultimate measure of success in regards to parrot ownership is the combination of the birds' health/well-being and being able to get my parrots be the kinds of pets I want them to be. Success is that bridge of the parrot doing what we want and allowing the parrot to get what it wants from us!
Please learn more about my complete approach to achieving a great companion parrot in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. It is the first book of its kind to provide a complete approach to parrot keeping and also to presume parrots to be the flighted animals that they are. This approach does not come with a caveat that says it will only work if the parrot has its wings clipped because it is an approach to make the bird want/choose to cooperate rather than to artificially force it. It's an approach to teach the animal to want what you want and encourage it to be a willing participant in the pet lifestyle in which it lives. With this approach, everyone benefits both human and parrot alike. You will be happier to have the pet you want but the parrot will also be happier to have ways by which to fulfill it's natural instinct for survival. Ultimately it's a more natural, mutual, and caring approach.
I took Kili and Truman to the park today in the usual manner wearing their aviator harnesses. First I flew Truman using the long leash and he did an outstanding job with over 20 flights. Not only did I call him back and forth the length of the leash from the same perch, I ran around to give him more distance to fly. I had him go to different benches and places in the park. He's been getting pretty good lately, but this was by far his best day.
Before I go any further, I must very sternly warn you: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Don't do it. Don't think about doing it. Just don't. With extensive research, 5 years of very extensive training experience, and a very special circumstance, I knew that this was something I could safely do. I didn't think it was going to be ok, I knew it (which I'll explain further). This is not a training guide or a suggestion of what you can or should do. You simply shouldn't do it. I'm not sharing this to be a role model but simply because it is something I've done. This is not something parrot owners should be doing with their pets. Watch this video in full and you will lose any thought about taking your pet parrot outside unrestrained (even if it's clipped!).
Now when Kili's turn came to fly, in the spur of the moment I decided to take her harness off and let her fly unrestrained! It's not a decision that came lightly but it wasn't something I set out to the park to do. At that moment, I simply KNEW that Kili would do what I was expecting. I could sense absolute and complete motivation from her. Sometimes her motivation is good and sometimes it is bad. In that range it is often hard to tell if she will really choose to perform or not. However, this time I was able to sense the most intense motivation from her with certainty.
A combination of factors lead to this unmistakable motivation. First of all I weighed the two parrots in before heading to the park and found that their weights were pretty low (still well within healthy range), lower than most park sessions. However, this is not something to exclusively gauge motivation on. Motivation, particular outdoors, can be affected by many factors. Temperature, humidity, wind, distractions, and other birds can play a big role. I've already noticed in the past that my parrots get especially motivated to eat (regardless of weight) prior to rain or thunderstorms and sure enough there is a thunderstorm forecast for tonight.
I can also have a good idea how the second bird will fly based on the first. Usually either both birds fly well or both fly poorly. When it's too hot, both don't want to fly. If there are too many distractions, it usually affects both birds. But today the circumstances were just perfect. The temperature was warm but not too hot. The wind was near calm. The kids at the park were a well behaved audience. This plays an important role because sometimes there are obnoxious kids that distract or bother the birds. Today I saw that they just tagged along but did not get in the way. Given the right group of kids, they actually can motivate the parrots to fly better for their attention.
Given all of these optimal conditions, I knew that it would be no challenge for Kili to do a perfect job harnessing flying all over the park. Having flown her extensively at home, in theaters, in a large gym, and in the park on a harness, I have had enough previous experiences where I experienced this "perfect motivation" that I knew today was the day. I don't remember the last time Kili "flew off" outside and I depended on the leash to save her. After years of socialization, desensitization, and going through this same flying routine at the park, I knew this was going to be like any other day minus the harness. Rather than take Kili to some desert or special place to freefly, I knew she was safest flying in the same park where she is accustomed to flying on her harness. If she can fly outside with the harness without a hitch and can fly in large gyms without a hitch, thus I know she can do this outdoors unrestrained as well.
HOWEVER, there is still the risk. Even if most of the time she does everything right on harness or indoors, there is absolutely no room for error outdoors. If Kili were to end up outside the park, there's no telling where she could end up. Senegal Parrots are particularly unsuitable for outdoor freeflight because they are small, quiet, and green. If one were to get lost in a tree, it would be damn near impossible to find. While some kinds of parrots could be lost and then found again, with a Senegal it's closer to all or nothing which is why I've avoided freeflight all this time.
But after so much routine and habit of harness flying in the park, I felt confident that even if someone were to scare her (which almost certainly wouldn't happen cause she's seen it all over the years), that she would either fly back to me or to some perch in the park. I didn't even fear her going into a tree because she has had opportunities to do this in the harness as well. But out of training and habit, she has learned only to land on the benches and low fences. I know that she simply would not consider landing elsewhere. I could not stand the thought or even the chance of losing her. But this day the circumstances just so happened to be that I knew it couldn't happen.
I took Truman off the leash extension and was about to apply it to Kili's harness. This was the moment when I decided that she would fly without it instead. I put the extension in my pocket, got Truman up on my shoulder, asked the kids to back up and make some more room, got some treats out, and then proceeded to take Kili's harness off. This was probably the most nerve-racking moment of truth and my hands were shaking a little. It was not that I was afraid she'd fly away but it was just something difficult to get myself to do. It was like taking the step out of an airplane to jump with a parachute, it was the moment of truth. I heard folks gasp as I took the leash off. People really couldn't believe what I was about to do. I took Kili's harness off and left it on the ground while I took some steps away and called her.
She instantly flew over to me and got a nice treat prior to returning to where she had perched. By this point I was too focused on the training session and almost forgot that she was untethered. I ran around the park calling her and flying her to different places like she would while wearing a harness. I never had to call more than once because her flight recalls were perfect. She came every time without delay. She got big treats but still not every time. Since she normally flies for a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, I felt no reason to change this now. I did, however, give her bigger and better treats than usual to reward her especially for doing such a great job. I was able to recall her for longer distances than I usually can with the limitation of the leash length. I tried to avoid taking my eyes off of her but I did at moments while stepping away or looking around. But this was ok because it was no different than when she is normally harnessed. She did not do anything she would not have done while wearing the harness which made me certain that I had interpreted her behavior correctly.
I continued to fly her for nearly 20 recalls to different locations in the park, almost no different than if she were harnessed. We did many back to back recalls where she flew multiple times to get just a single treat. I was going to end things early just to be extra safe. I reached in my pocket to get more treats to reward her for putting the harness back on but I could sense her eagerness to keep going. So instead, I had her play flighted fetch unrestrained. She did such an outstanding job flying up off the floor with the ball without the added weight of the harness. I also had her fly to the floor to play dead (again uninhibited by the cumbersome harness). I finished off the session with a few more flight recalls for big treats and then put Kili back in her harness for one final treat. I did not bother flying her any further in the harness and took this as a good opportunity to end the session and go home. Kili got her dinner extra early to celebrate doing such an outstanding job flying. She even had leftover training motivation by normal training time to outfly Truman for some extra treats!
It was a really exciting experience and I am so proud of her ability. She has always proven me right whenever I took chances flying her in challenging environments whether it was on big stages with unreachable ceilings, in gyms, or on the harness. I have a good feeling for when she is motivated, and especially when she is a sure shot. It was a lot of fun and a good experience, but I will not let it cloud my judgement and make me think I can just do that any time. I will continue using a harness (possibly with similar exceptions under the right circumstances) when I take her out to eliminate risks of loss entirely. Losing her simply is not a chance I can take. However, this experience has taught me a lot and I think to Kili as well. We have strengthened our bond and she has proven how capable she really is. Most importantly, doing this even further reduces the likelihood of ever losing her in a circumstance where she could inadvertently find herself unrestrained outside.
Edit: Some Afterthoughts. Although I made no specific preparations for this flight, all of Kili's life we have been preparing for this. I was always taming/training her (and especially when it comes to indoor freeflight and outdoor harness flight) to be able to safely recover her should she end up outdoors. She has been trained to fly down from high places, she has been trained to turn around and come back to me, she has been trained to think on the fly. All of these skills gave me the confidence that she could fly her way back to me and stay within the confines of the park.
Furthermore, there's the endless desensitization and socialization. She's extremely used to everything going on at the park and none of that scares her. I still have a video of her at the park from a few weeks back I have yet to share to show this. I can set off a cap gun right next to her and instead of getting scared she can rationally think through doing her trick. I really can't think of what can spook this bird or what has in recent years. The birds of prey factor was still present but to the same degree it is present for harness flying so that was not something extra to consider. If there was one place Kili could do a flawless job, it was at the park she always flies at.
I did not feel like I was evaluating risk, it was more like evaluating opportunity. Up till then, I always saw the idea of freeflight strictly as risk. However, during this special encounter and the motivation I observed, I felt confident (to the 99.9% degree) that Kili would not fly off in the first place. To compound that, I felt confident (99%) that if she were to fly off, that she would fly to me or remain within the confines of the park. The long harness I fly my birds with affords them the opportunity to fly up and get stuck in a tree and even out of the park at times. Yet they just don't do it. It's not because the harness holds them back but because of the safe places and altitudes they have learned to fly at. Kili did not need a leash to keep her flying between me and the park benches. I also feel that this exercise helps ensure that if she were to accidentally get loose, that she would find her way to the park and I'd end up finding her sitting on a park bench doing tricks begging passerbys for food.
This was not the scariest endeavor I have undertaken with Kili which is also a big part. Having her on the huge stage (like 80+ ft high ceilings) for America's Got Talent with unknown/unrehearsed lights and noises going off had me much more worried. And although we were inside a building, the places she could get lost should she fly off were endless. It was also my first encounter where the stakes were so high regarding a fly off. She didn't perform that well but she didn't contemplate flying off which was a huge deal. Flying her in the huge gym with 60ft rafters and plenty of those high places to land was also a scarier time. I was less certain of the outcome in that gym than I was at the park. Although she would remain confined in the gym should she fly off, I had absolutely no idea how I'd be getting her (and moreso Truman) from those places. At the park, I have seen exactly what she would do countless times with her harness. I try to fly the birds such so that the harness never actually confines them by moving around myself to allow for slack.
I was not out to prove anything or show this to anyone. I did not do it for the purpose of sharing it online either. Just in retrospect I thought it was an interesting story. I was just there in the moment and I knew this was something that could be done. Kili was poised to fly to me no matter what so I realized it really didn't matter if she was harnessed or not.
Kili's first outdoor freeflight was nothing like I might have pictured. There was no safety line, no netting, no transmitter, no pre-printed "lost parrot" fliers (although I do have one made up on my computer for each parrot but more with the mindset of in case of an accidental house escape), no helper or spotter, no camera. I did not even tell anyone in advance to be available just in case. I did not come to the park with the intention of freeflying and this was probably the best part of preparing both myself and the bird. We just did everything exactly the same as we would normally do so it wasn't unpredictable or frightening. In fact it was very predictable. The relationship and training experience holding Kili in my vicinity was far stronger than any harness! This is the main reason I feel safe using the harness in the first place.
All that said, I still have anxiety over all this and will continue to use the harness for my own peace of mind. I am glad her skills are there and perhaps under the same perfect circumstances we will repeat this. But for the most part, I will opt to keep using that lifeline that lets me sleep at night knowing my parrot is alive and well.
The primary purpose of training our pet parrots is to get them to behave more how we would like. Whether that's not going on your furniture (by staying on parrot perches), flying to you on command, or going back in the cage when it is time, training can help. However, training is useless with motivation. The owner needs to be motivated to train as well, but I'm talking about the parrot's motivation to do as the trainer requests.
From a behavioral standpoint, motivation can be measured by the rate of learned responses to stimuli by the parrot. The motivated parrot is more likely to perform the behavior, with quicker promptness, with greater accuracy, for more repetitions, for a great span of time. A motivated parrot will also learn new behavior quicker.
In the early stages of parrot training, motivation may be less crucial. The very basic things you need to teach at first such as step up, targeting, and taming may be successful with the bare minimum unmanaged motivation. However, when you wish to proceed to more challenging behaviors, motivation will play a tremendous role in whether your succeed or not. Besides teaching or performing tricks, motivation is essential for flight training exercise, harness training, socialization toward strangers, solving biting and problems, and for all around good behavior.
Since food motivation is most universal and replenishable, I will mainly focus on managing motivation with food. However, I similar approach can apply to toys, attention, petting, and other things you may find motivate your parrot. There are three key elements to controlling motivation from food:
-Quantity/hunger -Quality/desirability -Effort to gain it
I covered the importance of weight management in my previous article. The main reason to manage your parrot's weight is to keep it healthy rather than for training. However, with your parrot's weight already managed to keep it at the optimal healthy weight, motivation for food can exist. An overweight parrot with constant access to food will not only be unmotivated to eat, but it will also be less motivated to participate in activity because it is physically harder.
Besides establishing a healthy weight for your parrot, it is also important to implement a feeding schedule. Twice a day for most species, three times a day for the smallest ones, works great. Many zoos and professional shows will go so far as feeding a lot of food but only once a day so that the parrots are inevitably super hungry and motivated by show time. I do not recommend their approach because I believe it is more stressful than spanning food out some.
Another reason why weight management is imperative is to compensate the parrot's training treats from meals. If you don't adjust your parrot's food portions, the training treats (which are normally fattier or sweeter) will implant excess calories and cause weight gain. By weighing your parrot before all meals and adjusting food portions to maintain the target healthy weight, you will be able to compensate for treats and maintain a stable weight long term. Some days the parrot may train better than other days (aside from motivation factors) and thereby receive more or less treats. Feeding the same sized meals may be unfair when the treat portions are different. Compensating this with an adjustment in meal portions will ensure the weight stays healthy and that the parrot is free to volunteer to train or not. Since the parrot's training is voluntary, it is up to us to find ways to solicit maximum motivation without food deprivation that can impact health.
By scheduling food meals and training just before (rather than after), you can expect maximum motivation from mealtime hunger. You can further enhance motivation at training time by padding the prior meal with low calorie foods such as broccoli or carrots. That way the parrot still feels filled up but since it received fewer calories, will be more eager to fill on the next meal. This will be balanced out by the weight management approach by analyzing empty weights and adjusting pellet portions accordingly.
Desirability of treats highly impacts motivation. Part of it is how much the parrot enjoys the treat food but part of it is relative to the food it normally eats. If the parrot is fed nothing other than pellets or vegetables in the cage, it leaves all other foods to be more desirable. I never feed fruit, pasta, seeds, nuts, or pretty much anything else my parrots get (other than pellets or vegetables) in the cage. Since they don't need these other foods in abundance anyway, saving them exclusively is treats not only helps motivation but is healthier.
There is also the desirability of certain treats over others. This can be a great aide in training. There are two ways to improve motivation based on the relative value of different treats. You can generally use less favorable treats but then mark major success with the better treats. The other approach is to mix all treats and provide different ones randomly. This approach is good for sustaining motivation because the parrot never knows what it's going to get. It must keep trying because the next treat may just be a whole nut. This also helps ensure the parrot does not get bored of the current treat. If you keep using the same treat, once the parrot no longer wants that specific food, motivation will diminish. Learn about choosing and evaluating treats here.
But now I want to get to some of my more interesting discoveries about managing parrot training motivation. My goal is to maximize motivation for specific tasks and to sustain it for a longer period. The reason both of these are important in training is because if you can get your parrot to do difficult tasks or endure long sessions at home, you'll have much greater success for easy/short tasks when you really need your parrot to deliver. For example if my parrots can fly 50 flight recalls (50ft out and 50ft back) in a training session, the likelihood of them making the one critical recover flight when lost outdoors is greatly improved. So you see this isn't strictly for training them to perform in shows.
Strong motivation is needed for the more complicated or strenuous tasks. Flying requires greater motivation than waving. A lot more. The parrot can probably wave 100 times for the amount of energy it takes to fly 100 feet. Does that mean we have to give a treat that is 100 times better? No. The biggest reason is because the treats we are giving for something small like wave is far excessive of what it could be. If my parrots can fly a dozen 50ft out and return flights for a single sunflower seed, then they can do the wave trick for an infinitesimally small treat or do an insanely large amount of waves for a normal treat.
Now this doesn't mean that the parrot just learning to wave thinks it's any easier than flying. While teaching the trick and shortly after, high motivation is in fact required. But once the trick is learned, in order to increase motivation for other things, you MUST challenge your parrot further. You must always strive to get your parrot to do more for less. This is the secret to achieving outstanding motivation. When my parrots normally have to do 20-50 flights an evening for a dozen treats, performing tricks at a show is comparatively easier and the motivation is extremely high. Likewise when I needed to work on Socialization to teach my parrot to stop biting strangers, I was able to make the situation far more desirable by differential reinforcement. Since the parrots normally have to do so much for so little, I can solicit an insanely strong level of motivation for comparatively easier task. For example step onto a strangers hand for 5 seconds without biting and I'll give you the same treat you normally have to fly your butt off to earn.
Obviously you're not going to jump from teaching a parrot to wave to flying 20 times for a treat. You need to build your way up there. This is why I always say you must challenge, challenge, challenge your parrot. When you challenge your parrot to wave a little higher, wave a little longer, wave for a smaller treat, wave more times for the same treat, you are teaching your parrot to be motivated by less! After some months or years of this constant sort of challenge, the parrot develops a tremendous level of capability and motivation. When you go from 1 treat for 1 wave to 10 waves for a treat to 50 waves for a treat (using variable ratio reinforcement), you have diluted the treat ratio so far that it virtually looks like your parrot does the trick without any reinforcement at all. All you have to do is occasionally reward that trick out of the blue to maintain that variable reinforcement ratio level. But this goes even further where you can maintain tricks with no food reinforcement at all. When the parrot can wave 20-50 times (and I mean in separate instances, not at once) before getting a treat, that parrot can just as well wave for a little attention or a head scratch. The motivation level required for performing the trick has become so low that virtually any minor reinforcement will suffice!
If you are not challenging your parrot to do better, more, for less, you are actually regressing in your training. Think about a parrot with a foraging toy. At first it can't figure it out but once it has, it gets the treat out in no time and the foraging toy becomes useless. It is similar with trick training. After the parrot "gets it" that picking up its foot gets it a treat, it takes less effort to do it. There is also the exercise component as well. After waving daily for a week, that foot is stronger and it is even easier still to wave. So if you are still giving the same quantity/quality of treat for the same behavior, you are in fact making your parrot give you less motivation (not more and not the same as before)! The only way to increase motivation is to increase the challenge, reduce the quality of the treat, reduce the quantity (break off a smaller piece), or increase the number of behaviors it takes to earn it (chaining or variable ratio reinforcement).
The point about exercise is not to be taken lightly either. If you fly your parrot regularly, their flight muscles become stronger and the amount of motivation to take an extra flight becomes less. You can challenge your parrot to fly further, more times, and for fewer or less desirable treats. This ensures that motivation continues to increase in the long run.
Sustaining motivation for duration is another part of the equation. If you can manage a 30 to 60 minute training session at home, 5 minutes of glory in front of your friends or an emergency flight recall are going to be more successful. Sustaining longer durations of motivation is also great for molding good day-long behavior from your parrot. If the parrot can spend an hour doing what you ask, it can also learn to do it any time of day outside of training. Here are three tips for sustaining motivation longer. First do all of the above for maximizing motivation and minimizing treats. By giving smaller treats, using variable ratio reinforcement, and making the tasks easier with time/challenge, your parrot will be able to continue to go longer before it is too tired or full. The second thing is to compensate the treats/difficulty with time. In the beginning of the session, start out with small and less desirable treats. But as the session progresses, you can squeeze motivation for longer by increasing the desirability of treats to keep the parrot going. Lastly, begin the session with tougher training and progress to easier tasks as you wrap up.
Varying levels of motivation required depending on challenge: (from low to high motivation requirements)
-not doing anything (being tame) -overcoming minor fear (taming) -stepping up -performing easy known tricks -performing complex known tricks -learning new tricks (training) -overcoming bigger fears (i.e. socialization/strangers) -flight recall (and other flighted behaviors) -flight recall amidst distractions (outdoor harness/freeflight)
So to make the most of the motivation in a training session (after a warm up if one is needed), begin with more difficult or strenuous tasks first and then work your way back toward easier things by the end. For example, let's say your parrot knows 5 tricks, step up, and flight recall. But at the same time you're teaching a new trick and working on getting the parrot to let you grab it. To maximize training motivation and get the most out of a single training session, work on some flight recalls first, then teach the next portion of the new trick, then practice some old tricks, and end the session by taming. Since the taming process for grabbing merely involves the parrot tolerating your hand's presence or touch (without spending any effort), the parrot will still gladly take treats while you work on desensitization. If you worked on the taming in the beginning of the sessions, your progress would have been marginally better. Yet the parrot would not be hungry enough to be motivated to flight recall to you after getting a bunch of treats for taming.
Finally, here are a few more little tricks you can use to maximize motivation during the training sessions when you really need it (or inadvertently get it). My parrots seem to get really motivated to eat when rain is approaching. That makes sense, they probably naturally want to fill up before they can no longer feed. Even if this is occurring midday or when motivation isn't expected, it's worth trying some training and it gives your parrot the opportunity to earn food when it wishes. Sometimes I have to leave early so I uncover my parrots and leave their meal. Naturally they eat it right away but a byproduct is that they are more hungry come training time. I take advantage of this heightened motivation since it is already there. I don't normally do this intentionally but if there is a training session where I want to stimulate greater than usual motivation this technique can help. It doesn't work long term though because then they just get used to a different feeding schedule. The last strategy that can sometimes help boost motivation is skipping training on occasion. Sometimes the birds just get bored and need a break. By skipping a session, it also means they are missing a chance to get treat foods. After a few days of not getting to have treats, even without major hunger, there may be a stronger motivation to earn it.
Thus the secret to teaching your parrot to be more motivated is to keep training and challenging it! The more difficult stuff you can get it to do, the easier it will be to get it to do the easy stuff. Sustain motivation longer by diminishing the difficulty of tasks throughout a training session while increasing the reward value. Exercise your parrot's muscles and brain through extensive flight training. As your parrot becomes stronger, flying will be easier and likewise it will be more motivated to fly. So there's nothing silly about teaching your parrot dozens of tricks, it just makes the parrot even easier to teach something new. Have fun.
Check out this video that demonstrates varying degrees of motivation from some previously unused clips.