I have been writing this book for the last half year but more importantly it is the culmination of five very intense years of parrot education, training, consulting, and performing. I've taken everything that I have learned, applied it, and then wrote down for you the essentials that you can apply to your bird. This book isn't there to teach you how to teach a million tricks or become a performer. It's about how to achieve a well-behaved parrot and ultimately a mutual relationship!
It's not that I think I know better than others, but I just was never very pleased with the other books I've read about parrot keeping. Many of them are obsolete and don't recommend best practices. But even some of the books I agree with, I just found terribly boring. They are written by experts for experts and really leave the common parrot owner in the dust. Parrot owners don't need the nitty gritty technical stuff, they need something accessible that they can apply and that will work! I understand this because I'm a pet parrot owner and it wasn't long ago that I was desperately seeking help on the most basic things.
Instead of teaching you how to do absurdly complicated tricks with your parrot, my book is there to teach you all the essential stuff from merely approaching your parrot's cage without it freaking out to being able to grab it. A lot of emphasis is placed on taming, health, safety, and other things that are essential elements of keeping a pet parrot. Also the first chapter is entirely about how to choose a parrot in the first place for folks who do not yet have one and attempts to answer the classic question, "what kind of parrot should I get?"
In my book, I tell it how it is. I don't try to sugar coat things or make a parrot owner out of everybody. The purpose is to help those who want the help and to get them to achieve a good relationship with their parrot. The book takes a very balanced approach keeping both the parrot's well-being but also the parrot owner's sanity in mind. I realize that people are busy, have other commitments, may not have the means to buy fancy stuff. That is why my book is down to earth and really about finding a way that anyone can make it work rather than a professional approach to training performing parrots.
Unlike any other parrot book I've ever come across, mine presumes that parrots are flying creatures and takes an approach to keeping them as such. Despite the recommendation of keeping them flighted, the book presents countless ways to get more out of your parrot than if it were clipped! Flight safety, flight recall training, flight trick training, and managing flighted parrots are key themes throughout the book. Even if your parrot is clipped you will find this book extremely helpful and I think it will convince you that you can still have a relationship with your parrot by allowing it to fly. Better yet, you will have a better behaved, healthier, safer, and more fun parrot than it could ever be while clipped!
Problem solving receives an entire chapter in the book. Solving problems such as biting, screaming, plucking, and even flighted related issues are extensively covered. However, the main purpose of the book is to present an approach to follow from day 1 to ensure that those problems don't arise in the first place. This information is all based on problems I have solved in my own parrots or have helped others solve with theirs.
You'll find it interesting that I barely wrote any of this book at home. It has bits written all over the world on planes, trains, and automobiles. I've been writing it on the go during my travels. Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia are some of the places I was in while writing the books. During those trips I got to observe parrots in their natural habitats so it was especially encouraging to me to help owners find the best compromise between a parrot's nature and desirable household pet qualities.
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.
The greatest perceived safety hazard to keeping fully flighted parrots is the potential for escape. Once outside of the human household, the parrot is exposed to infinite dangers from starvation to predation. Therefore it is critical for owners of all parrots (including clipped ones because they have been known to have just enough might to fly out the door and into a tree) to maintain a 100% safety record in terms of preventing accidental escape.
This article is about ways to bird proof your home or set up your parrot's out of cage time in order to guarantee safety. There aren't many pictures because this is a more conceptual article but I hope you take this into full consideration nonetheless. It is my hope that all parrot owners can come away from reading this with a better understanding of how to keep their parrots safe indoors whether they are flighted or clipped. Furthermore, I hope that for owners of clipped parrots this will give them a means of providing safety so that they could allow their parrot flight in their home.
The most common way a companion parrot is unexpectedly lost is actually by taking it outside unrestrained and not out from the house. This happens to clipped and flighted parrots alike. The owner doesn't realize the parrot's potential for flight and then is shocked when it takes off and drifts away out of sight. This mostly happens to clipped parrots because their owners don't realize that clipped parrots, although poorly, are still capable of flight. A less common way is when owners of flighted parrots think their parrot is reliable enough that it will stay with them or come back. The problem with this is that without the proper training, the bird may simply be unprepared to deal with wind and outdoor factors adequately. And the other way is when owners of flighted parrots walk outside with their flighted parrot on them without remembering. Folks will go out to pick up the mail with their parrot on their shoulder and then something scares it into flying off. For all of these reasons, it is absolutely necessary that owners do not intentionally or accidentally take their parrot outdoors without proper restraint (carrier or harness). It only takes one time so it's necessary to use proper precautions every time.
From inside the house, the most suspect escape path is the front door. This door is most frequently (and unexpectedly) opened so it should receive the most thoughtful attention. Ideally, there should always be 2 doors between where the parrot is and outside. Only one door must ever be open at a time. In my situation, I have a front door at street level which leads to a staircase and another door at the second floor entrance. This is a perfect safety catch and has the added bonus of the vertical separation in addition to two doors. I realize most people do not have this convenience so I will mention options I have thought about and DIY means of ensuring there are 2 doors between the parrot and outside. If you have birds and are planning on moving, definitely keep this two door entry situation in mind when searching for a new place.
For home owners that have a front door that leads straight into their living room (or through hallways but without doors), I very highly suggest installing a second safety door. When you realize that your parrot will be living there with you for 20-80 years easily, it is an invaluable investment that will ensure that your parrot lives out that entire span safely with you. This is by far the easiest and most secure solution but it is also the more costly. If you already have an entry room or hallway that goes from the front door into your living area, you may be able to mount a door directly in that space. Ideally you should have a professional or someone handy do it. But if you don't care as much how it looks, you can save a lot of money by buying a couple 2x4s and a prehung door at Home Depot and installing it yourself. This can be done for as little as $200. That is just $10 a year or less than a dollar a month in the lifespan of a single 20 year living parrot! You will end up spending more on bird food to keep it alive so don't overlook this important means of keeping it in and alive.
If you absolutely can't put a solid door but have that narrowing area to hang something, you can try to find a sliding curtain to hang. I don't recommend strings of beads for small birds because I have seen them fly through that or at least land on them. If you have more than one or two people living there, I would strongly suggest hanging a sign on the inside door or in plain sight to remind people “Live Birds - Only open one door at a time.”
The next scenario is a front door that drops you smack into the living area without any narrowing area or hallway for a second door. In this case my best suggestion is to build out a small piece of wall to produce a small hallway to mount a door. It can be as small as 3ftx3ft but allows sufficient space to have a second door to ensure safety. If you are serious about keeping a parrot for the many years that it will live, this is still a small price to pay to ensure its safety. The beauty of having two doors is that it is virtually fool proof. There is still a bit of risk involved in the event that someone opens both doors at once but it still makes things tighter and the bird is more likely to be caught in the safety catch room. If there is any chance to have a 90 degree turn upon entrance, that makes things even safer than a straight two door run.
If you live in a situation where is is outright impossible to make modifications and a second door is not possible, there are other ways to ensure that a parrot is kept safe behind two doors or to ensure a procedure for entry that prevents escape. For example, it is possible to limit the parrot to out of cage time only in a removed room that has its own door (that door makes the remainder of the home act as a safety catch prior to the front door. Although, less fool proof, keeping a parrot on an upper or lower floor separated by an open staircase, it is much less likely to fly that angle AND out the door in the same flight. Still it is best to add a door at one end of the staircase or at least hang some form of curtain to ensure safety.
Another way to establish a safety catch and second door is to put the second door outside instead of inside. It may be possible to enclose a portion outside with netting or walls and add a second door outside to avoid taking up space on the inside. Just keep in mind that security, screen, and storm doors are no substitute for a separate safety door.
Now for the scenario of a rented one room studio with an outside facing single door or someone who could make the modifications but is too cheap, you can change the lock to a dead bolt and always keep it locked. Whenever anyone from the household arrives, they must ring the bell or call anyone who is already inside the house to arrange that birds be put away into their cages prior to opening the door. The reason I specifically suggest a deadbolt is because it forces anyone opening the door from inside to go out to take the time to get a key which slows things down just enough to think and not do it spontaneously. For example, doorbell rings for a delivery or you hear a siren outside, having to go through the process of locating a key and opening the extra door should provide some reminder that this is done to ensure parrot safety. Of course having a sign on the door as a reminder is a great idea too. For fire hazard safety it is best to hang a copy of the key near the door inside. A sliding latch lock from inside is another option.
I don't suggest hanging a sign outside whenever bird is out because this is more easily forgotten. Instead, the standard operating procedure must be that no one goes in or out without first checking with someone (best designate one person in charge) that the bird is secured. And it goes without say that prior to opening the sole front door, it is an absolute must that the bird be enclosed in a cage or another room. For families with young children that come and go, it may be necessary not to give them keys but to always have them ring the doorbell or call in order to ensure safe operation of the door to prevent an unexpected entry when a bird is out.
For additional outside facing doors such as the back door, the best procedure is to dead bolt the door shut and agree not to use it. If there are multiple people, hang a sign on the door to say not to use that door except in an emergency. The same applies to sliding doors. Some people have sliding doors that lead to balconies or porches. It is a great idea to enclose the porch so that both you and your parrot can enjoy it together. The fewer doors that are used, the simpler it is to keep track of things. There is no point of going through the effort to add a safety catch to each door if only the front door is utilized and has a safety system in place.
If the back door must be used on occasion, keep it well lock and always ensure that the bird is away prior to use. If the back door must be used regularly, install an indoor or outdoor safety catch as described previously for front doors. This is really the only way to be able to safely open doors without risk of the parrot ending up out doors.
Windows are the other way by which parents end up getting outside. Since the window is relatively small it makes it easy for the bird to get out but hard to get back in. The bird most likely has never even seen your house from outside so it would be entirely lost once it makes it outside. For this reason all windows should stay closed whenever parrots are out. The real problem with windows is remembering to ensure they are closed when parrots are taken out. For this reason it is best to make the system foolproof instead. Put screens on all windows (even though they might not prevent a curious chewing parrot from getting out, they will prevent a flying one) or a security mesh. Make a habit of keeping windows closed to the extent possible. Keep blinds or curtains over the windows that let air but not birds through so that the birds don't even think of flying there (whether they are closed or not).
Another terrible danger to flying parrots is ceiling fans. Just remembering not to use them isn't enough. Someone can accidentally throw the wrong switch when turning on the lights or just have one of those moments when they forget. You must disable the fan all together to prevent a catastrophe waiting to happen. There are only two foolproof ways of doing this without completely replacing the device. Either have an electrician disable the electric switch for the ceiling fan or remove the fan blades yourself. I know there are people who think it is ok to use the fan when the parrot isn't out and that they will remember to shut it off when the parrot is taken out, but this simply isn't enough. There will be that one time when you have friends over midday and the fan is running and you suddenly get the urge to show them your parrot and completely forget about the fan. This is why it is best disabled entirely. An air conditioner or an enclosed fan are the best replacements.
I have already written extensively about other commonly cited safety hazards to parrot flight such as toilets, pots of boiling water, crashing into windows, and other pets in this article. But just for a quick recap, these dangers are very easily avoidable (much more so than the ones discussed above). Always keep bathroom doors closed. Don't worry about the toilet seat, if the door is closed, then the parrot can't get to it. If you want to be extra cautious, you can close both. Never cook or perform dangerous tasks while your bird is out (even if it is clipped). Cover windows with blinds or curtains at least partially. Never let birds and other pets out simultaneously to ensure their safety.
It is essential to make foolproof safety measures and not to rely on standard operating procedures. Telling everyone not to do something isn't as reliable as making it difficult to impossible to do. Marking windows and doors with notes may help remind people not to do things more in the moment than a general verbal warning. Even if you live alone, you may not be completely safe. I recall a time when I was seriously ill and my mother brought a meal over. She said it was really stuffy and opened windows while my birds were out. Luckily there are screens on the windows so this wasn't a catastrophic risk. Had there not been screens and the system simply relied on my remembering to close windows, things could have been different. So keep in mind that making all these safety measures aren't necessarily against yourself but other people who live with you or may show up unexpectedly. The more robust the safety measures you have in place, the safer your parrot will be regardless of the circumstances.
Foolproof safety measures must be implemented regardless of how well trained your parrot is. However, having an extensively flight recall trained parrot should greatly help should something ever happen despite all possible physical safety boundaries in place. I not only practice flight recall inside at home, but also outside on a harness, and at a large gym. Should recovery of my parrots ever be necessary, they have extensive prior experience both flying in large spaces and outdoors. Don't wait until your parrot is lost to think about flight training. If your flighted parrot isn't already flight recall trained, start working on it now. If all else fails, it could be the thing that gets it back.
One thing to keep in mind is that every home, parrot, and situation is different. These are general guidelines to help you start thinking about implementing robust flight safety. However, you must take into consideration all escape routes, people involved, location of the bird, and other variables. Be sure to analyze the situation fully and adjust the suggestions to work in your situation.
Please don't think that clipping a parrot's wings in any way absolves you from undertaking these extensive safety measures. Although these types of accidents are more frequent in flighted parrots, they do happen to clipped parrots just the same. These types of accidents would not happen to clipped or flighted parrots if the proper safety precautions were taken in advance. Don't wait until something bad happens and don't think that clipping has anything to do with this. Birds have wings and birds fly. Please remember this and do everything necessary to keep your flying family members safe.
Tom Sawyer your parrot into doing what you want. Want your parrot to try a new food? Or to accept a new toy? Or to step up reliably? Or to fly to you when called? Why is it that our parrots manage to pick up on everything we don't want them to do and then serve little interest in doing what we try to encourage? For this, Tom Sawyer offers a great lesson and plays a marvelous role model!
Recall how Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer made his friends pay him for the opportunity to whitewash his aunt's fence and thus completing Tom's chores for him. Instead of paying (with toys and food) his friends to do his work for him, Tom made the work so lucrative that his friends agreed to pay him just to have the chance to try it. Well this unlikely literary lesson comes in very handy for parrot training!
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. (From Chapter II of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain)
I have noticed the same effect to work marvelously on my parrots when it comes to training. Doing something directly for a treat is "work." Believe it or not, often times our parrots will be more willing to do stuff without getting treats!. Now isn't that something? You save money on bird food and the bird returns the favor by doing more tricks/good behaviors for you? Well that's the Tom Sawyer effect for you.
I have several examples to share with you. First a more illustrative recent one and then some others that have worked very well in the long term. Lately I've been working with Kili on some new tricks and desensitizing Truman more to being grabbed. The downside to working on these new behaviors with the birds is that if I spend a lot of treats working on non-flight stuff with them, then they will fill up and not want to fly recalls for practice/exercise. A large portion of my parrot training involves flight because I think it's the best exercise and bonding experience but teaching new tricks seems to be mutually exclusive. But it's not!
I got Truman, who has a reputation for being a really stubborn bird, to fly more flight recalls that he was not getting any treats for at all for the opportunity to be grabbed than he would when he gets treats for flying recalls only!!!! Not only did he fly more flight recalls in this process but he also flew them reliably on the first time without any hesitation. Likewise, Kili's recalls have been rock solid and I can use my treats only for working on the new tricks. When I don't have to spend treats on flight, I get the benefit of knowing my birds got some much needed exercise, are dependable fliers, and have lots of treats left over to teach new tricks or behaviors with. The amazing thing is that the birds end up doing more work to get the same amount of food or less than if they just flew the recall for the treat directly.
I have found this method so effective that I even took it another step forward with Truman's grab training. I have Truman flight recall to my hand, then I put him down on his cage (that he lately doesn't like being grabbed from which is why we are working on it), then I grab him but don't give him a treat for that either, and finally I let him do one of his tricks on my hand to earn a treat. Since the birds are more eager to fly or accept handling for the opportunity to do something easy to earn food, I am turning flight recall and grabbing into something I don't have to ever reward with food. For several weeks now the birds have barely received any treats for flying recalls. Instead, they earn an opportunity to perform a trick to earn the food.
I suspect that in their little bird brains they see flight as a difficult way for earning treats but doing tricks as an easy one. So they treat flight as a means of coming over but performing the trick as the easy way to earn a big treat. In other words flying recalls for treats is work but flying over to do a trick is simply coming over to get started. Or it's just more fun to do it the Tom Sawyer way.
Before you have an "aha moment!" and post a comment saying that the birds are getting treats on a continuous interval whereas before I had them on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, NOPE! They are still on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule which makes this all the more exciting! So a single treat may be rewarding the following sequence with Truman:
1) 50ft flight recall 2) Short flight from hand to cage 3) Grabbing off of cage 4) 50ft flight back to perch 5) Stay until called again 6) 50ft flight recall 7) Short flight from hand to cage 8) Grab from cage 9) Wings Trick 10) Receive reward and fly 50ft back to perch
If getting Truman to do all of the above for a single pellet isn't pulling a Tom Sawyer on him, I don't know what is. Note, the food management level used is comparable to what was done before applying this method.
Now that you are convinced that this is a useful strategy, here is how you can apply it to your own parrots. First and foremost this should apply to stepping up. My parrots never get treats for stepping up at all, yet they do it 100% of the time when asked. Why? Tom Sawyer. The birds have to "white wash the fence" for me by doing the work of stepping up for the opportunity to find out what they'll get to do. Sometimes it's the chance to do a trick, sometimes it's to watch what I'm doing, sometimes a head scratch, sometimes getting groomed, etc. However, since they never get treats for stepping up, this ensures that they won't refuse to step up when they don't desire a treat.
Another place where this applies marvelously is for coming out of the cage. Better yet, I've taught my parrots to station to get to come out. Basically what this means is they climb down to an easy to reach perch for me to take them out rather than me bending my back and my arms into a pretzel to get to where they are. Whenever I come up to the cages, they climb to the perch nearest the door and wait to be taken out. They never get a treat for this, yet they pay me with this work for the opportunity to come out and see what they have in store.
Chaining tricks, variable ratio reinforcement schedules (random rewarding by giving a treat once in a while), and requiring multiple behaviors to earn one treat gets the most exercise for your bird, the most reliable presentation of behavior for you, lowers the dependence on treats, ensures the parrot will behave well anytime/place, saves you treats, reduces your parrot's overeating habits, and ensures the best relationship between you. Now go thank Aunt Polly for giving you this task and put your Sawyer skills to the test by seeing how much more behavior you can get from your parrot for less food.
The seminar was an outstanding chance to present to parrot owners the application of taming/training to have well behaved companion parrots. I was able to discuss and demonstrate endless interesting topics without constraint.
The 5 hour seminar opened with a bird show. Dressed as the Parrot Wizard, I entered from the back of the room and paced around the anxious crowd with a Senegal Parrot on my hand. I made a few laps of the room showing off this bird before setting it down and calling Kili and Truman to the front of the room. They swooped over everyone's heads and landed on my outstretched arms. The birds performed their extensive repertoire of tricks without much hesitation and Truman thrilled everyone with his Boomerang flights. I walked around the audience with the parrots so they could see some of the tricks close up or volunteer to assist with them.
After the parrot tricks show, I disrobed and began the seminar. I talked about a lot of advanced trick training and answered questions specific to trick training. I explained the process of teaching many tricks that I haven't made online tutorials for such as play dead, ring toss, slide, and boomerang. Then I went on to demonstrate how easily I can harness my parrots and explained the entire training process. I finished the first half of the seminar by explaining why taming/training is so important for companion parrots beyond just amusement.
During the intermission, audience members got to meet Kili & Truman in person. I was not prepared for such a flood of fans and couldn't control the endless outreach of hands toward the birds. Yet they were unbothered and just dealt with it. Their extensive socialization was really paying off. The parrots stepped on hands and posed for pictures while I answered numerous questions.
The second half began with a special introduction by avian veterinarian Dr. Todd Driggers. He discussed the importance of training for a parrot's psychological well being and compared the idle parrot's life to unemployment. I was very pleased to have the full support of a highly respected vet in the Phoenix Valley. I hope this helped convince people of the necessity to follow my training approach. And if for no other reason, then for the health of their companion parrots.
Then came the best part of the Seminar. I went back to basics, using rescue parrots for the demonstrations. While I had sufficient confidence in my guys to perform, it was entirely unknown how the inexperienced rescue parrots would behave. Luckily, they were very cooperative and were able to demonstrate a week's worth of training progress in front of a live audience for the first time ever.
I worked with an untrained rescue Cockatiel. By the time of the seminar, the only experience he had was a week's worth of target training in the cage. I had never taken him out of his cage until the Seminar. In front of a huge live audience I targeted him around in his cage, then eventually onto my hand, and then out of the cage entirely. This was the first time he had come out of the cage in his known history. I showed everyone how I was teaching him to target for anyone and not just me by having audience members come up and succeed in doing the same.
Next I worked with two rescue Senegal Parrots (a male and a female). Again, only demonstrating a week's worth of training progress, I was able to show how I taught one of them to turn around and the other to be grabbed. Audience members got to interact with these recently wild rescue birds as well as see training improvement before their very eyes. I wrapped up the seminar with a discussion about motivation and how to get parrots to willingly cooperate with us.
What you may find interesting is that I performed the entire seminar without planning it out. All I had was a basic idea of the general topics I wanted to cover and the performance but otherwise I winged it entirely. Even the opening show was chosen at random as I went. The only thing that was previously choreographed was the opening entrance and flight recalls. This keeps my birds on their zygodactyl toes and presents a genuine presentation of their skills. They don't just remember a routine, they can perform any of their tricks as requested.
The biggest reason I could not plan my talk in advance was because, the week leading up to the show was so extensive that I could not predict how much the rescue birds would learn nor what I would learn from them. I wanted to give my audience my freshest and most complete outlook on parrot behavior so I let the experience of training 8 rescue parrots during the preceding week drive my seminar. Being unprepared worked in my favor. It gave me the chance to jump around from topic to topic without constraint. I allowed the audience to help me steer the course of discussion and make sure their curiosities were foremost answered. I was able to get audience participation, answer questions, and share countless anecdotes about specific parrot themes. I think this collective mayhem will just keep you captivated and entertained despite the substantial duration of this video series.
It may seem strange that the seminar and DVDs begin with the most advanced stuff and then work their way back. However, this was mainly done to maintain the order of the parrots involved. You see, Kili & Truman were the highlight of the opening act so I wanted to make the most use of them in the first segment. This is why we focused on demonstrating flight, harness, and advanced trick training in the first half. Since the rescue parrots weren't used until the second half, I saved all the basics and fundamentals for then. For the same reasons, the DVDs begin with advanced results and then return to how to teach them.
I hope you can buy a set of DVDs from the Seminar so you too can feel like you were there and learn everything the audience got to experience. While you don't get the same interactive experience as a live seminar, a major benefit of the DVD is that you can watch it in smaller spans and rewatch parts of interest.
Like the seminar, the DVDs are really meant to be purchased in a 2 part series. However, for people who only want a specific disc, they are also available separately. It is possible to watch the 2nd video alone for learning basics of parrot taming & training or to watch the 1st video alone to enjoy the show and discussion of advanced tricks, flight, and harness. However, I would really like to encourage everyone to just buy the 2 disc set to see the entire Seminar start to finish. Individual DVDs can be purchased for $19.99 + s/h or the entire set for $29.99 plus the same price of shipping as a single DVD. The combo is like buying one DVD and getting the second for half price and free shipping.