A very common question parrot owners ask is how much time should my parrot spend out of the cage? Or they ask what are the minimum number of hours my ________ (fill in the species) needs to spend outside of the cage every day? The problem with this question is that it asks for a quantitative answer to a qualitative question. Here's my answer. It doesn't matter how long your parrot spends outside of the cage every day! What matters is how it spends its time out of the cage!
Too many parrots get their wings clipped and placed on a tree for hours at a time. The tree thus serves as nothing more than another cage! The bird cannot leave the tree and do what it truly wants (at least within the confines of the house). I'm not saying it's bad to put your bird into different “cages” throughout the day for variety but if the bird isn't free, this isn't “out of cage” time.
In the case of social companion parrots, the parrot wants to spend time with you do and do what you do. Putting the parrot down on a stand while you check email is no less boring to the bird than sitting in the cage. Out of cage time needs to serve as interactive time between you and your parrot for it to really count. The parrot needs to be part of what you are doing and you must be part of what your parrot is doing. No quantity of hours sitting out can replace this.
Parrots want to be in the middle of everything, the center of attention, and do what you do. They cannot be content being a passive part of your life.
Cage vs tree
Is the tree not just another cage if the parrot isn't free to go elsewhere by flight? You wouldn't realize how much your parrot likes or doesn't like its tree unless you can observe it choosing to go there or choosing to leave. Despite how awesome I thought this tree is, it took Truman less time to get bored of it than it took me to build it!
The other issue is that some parrots don't really want to be out. In that case, forcing out of cage time only harms your relationship. Grabbing a parrot out of the cage with a towel to make it serve it's mandated “out of cage time” only makes the relationship even worse. It will only cause stress and distrust. The parrot will not enjoy that time and even though it received out of cage time, it entirely missed the purpose of that time. To achieve a great relationship, the parrot should want to come out and to spend time with you. When you use some of the out of cage time to serve positive interactive purposes such as trick training, it sets real goals for your parrot and reasons to want to be out.
If the parrot isn't enjoying being out, out of cage time is actually doing more harm than good!
Use target training to teach parrots to enjoy coming out of the cage
Parrots enjoying meaningful out of cage time (playing with toys) while exhibiting acceptable behavior. I want to encourage as much out of cage time like this as possible but put them away before they can get bored of toys and engage in nuisance behavior
Actually, I don't think there is a minimum amount of out of cage time. Rather there is a minimum amount of daily interaction, minimum amount of positive reinforcement, minimum amount of flying exercise, and minimum amount of a love that a parrot must have. These minimums aren't known so it is best to give as much as possible that your parrot wants to ensure you are not below minimum (as we all know parrots that don't get enough of these may resort to behavioral problems such as plucking).
In terms of good behavior, less is more. It is actually easier to set a maximum value for out of cage time for parrots than minimums. Although the parrot may wish to be out to interact and play as much as possible, if we let the parrot stay out too long, inevitably undesirable behavior will ensue. Almost no companion parrot can spend all day out of the cage without resorting to doing things that annoy us. Whether it's chewing up furniture, screaming, flying to us endlessly, nipping/biting people, or getting in fights with the rest of the flock, these are all the results of boredom from being out too long. To make the most of your parrot's out of cage time, perform parrot training and keep interactions direct and focused. However, put the parrot back in the cage before it has the opportunity to turn to nuisance behavior. If the parrot becomes accustomed to spending too much time out of the cage, it will be less inclined to be well-behaved and more likely turn to nuisance behavior to seek attention or entertain itself. You must use preemptive measures to keep the parrot trained or occupied. However, eventually these run out. The parrot is no longer hungry for training rewards, the parrot has had its fill of attention, etc. This is when the parrot turns to nipping the owner for fun or attention, chewing the curtains, attacking others, etc. Worse yet, whatever you end up doing in response to such undesired behavior (hurt parrot, put parrot away, yell at parrot, say 'no', etc), will only make things worse. The bad behavior is already learned and the parrot becomes reinforced to seek your attention with it.
Put the parrot back into its cage before the onset of bad behavior. Work on increasing duration with time
Thus the parrot must be put away into the cage while things are still good. Leave some desire for next time to enjoy being out. Keeping out of cage time short but well-behaved is far better than long and chaotic (the parrot will hurt itself or the owner will burn out before you know it). As the parrot develops good habits during short but guided out of cage sessions, it will become more accustomed to behave that way whenever out. You can progressively have the parrot out for longer durations but the habitual good behavior will persist for longer spans of out of cage time!
For new parrot owners or owners with problematic parrots, doing short target training sessions for spans of 5-10 minutes and then putting the parrot away for a meal in the cage is a great way to start building up good behavior. You can progressively expand durations of time and introduce more play/interaction with time. Before you know it the parrot can be spending hours out where the parrot behaves in an acceptable manner to people and the parrot gets to enjoy the things it wants while out.
Out of cage time provides room for flying
One of the top benefits of out of cage time to a bird is the space to fly. The cage almost never provides room to fly and even most outdoor aviaries are inadequate. However, in the space of your living room, the parrot has the space to stretch its wings and exercise. The parrot does not need to be flying all day long to get exercise but to make up for all the time on its legs in the cage, getting to fly while out is essential.
The other type of out of cage time we must seek to offer is out of [house] cage time. Taking your parrot outdoors is very enriching. The sights, sounds, smells, etc are all something different for the parrot to take in. Also the bird requires outdoor time for its health (vitamin D and calcium production). Use a harness to take your parrot outdoors as much as possible. Inevitably this turns into focused together time and is a top way to provide valuable out of cage time.
Outdoor time provides some of the best benefits of out of cage time: fresh air, exercise, sunshine, enrichment
It is good to have a fair amount of predictable routine for your parrot when it comes to the out of cage time schedule. Give your parrot something to look forward to every day. But once in a while, break it up. Some days take your parrot out for longer, take your parrot some place outdoors, or leave it in its cage entirely. This helps the parrot adjust to a more varied lifestyle and prepare it for any changes. The parrot should enjoy out of cage time but it shouldn't be helpless without it.
So rather than imposing silly minimums like "A budgie should get at least 30 minutes a day of out of cage time, a conure should spend an hour outside of the cage, an African grey should get at least 3 hours of out of cage time, and a cockatoo needs to spend all day with you," you should put far more focus on the quality of time the parrot spends outside the cage instead. This is the out of cage time that truly matters. That said, try to provide as much out of cage time as you are able but instead of stressing about the exact amount, focus on making it more interactive, exercising, and stimulating for your parrot.
The out of cage time should be both enjoyable to the parrot but also to the owner. There must be balance such that both owner and parrot are happy for this long term arrangement to last. Keep early out of cage times short and sweet but stretch your parrot's endurance. Practice having the parrot out longer and longer but be sure to put the bird away before things can get bad. Having a well-behaved parrot that enjoys its out of cage time is a win/win for everybody.
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 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.