I flew by airline to Phoenix, Arizona for a few days to help my favorite rescue, Ginger's Parrots. Although not new on the scene, the rescue recently incorporated and acquired 501c3 status. On Saturday we held a Grand Opening event for Ginger's rescue to celebrate making everything official and to draw attention to the organization.
Ginger's Parrots is a new kind of rescue specializing only in certain species of parrots and with a different approach. Most rescues inevitably become overfilled with parrots as the number of unwanted birds only grows while the birds live long. So instead of focusing on quantity, Ginger focuses on quality instead. Running the small rescue out of her own home, Ginger works individually with the parrots to prepare them for pet life. Rather than trying to get the birds adopted to anyone that will take them, her focus is to make the birds as good or better than baby parrots that can be bought at stores. If the birds are good, they have a much better shot at staying in the same home than in the condition they were brought to the rescue.
The Grand Opening Event brought a nice turn out and collection of donations. I offered a talk on my well-behaved parrot approach as well as a harness training demonstration. During the demonstration with parrots from the rescue I was able to demonstrate the harness desensitization process with visible progress. One of the Senegals was doing so well that I challenged him all the way to voluntarily walking across the perch to sticking his head into the harness collar.
As the event continued, I signed copies of my book, the Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. The rescue event was a very suitable place for selling these books as Ginger applies the techniques I teach in the book on her rescue flock. Also she wrote the foreword to the book based on her success applying my methods to a whole lot of parrots.
I had already been to Ginger's rescue twice and conducted a lot of training work with the birds, setting in motion an approach that Ginger has continued. However, we have bold goals for these birds so there are further skills they could learn. This time, I set a goal of initiating harness training with the birds so that Ginger could take them out and socialize them with people more frequently. Considering the novel no-clipping policy at the rescue, outdoor safety can only be assured with a harness or carrier. The trouble with a carrier is that it doesn't get hands on time with the birds so it narrows everything down to harness.
Since the main focus of the rescue is Senegal Parrots, aggression is the key target for rehabilitation. Ginger has noted a tremendous decline in biting while an increase in confidence with the birds since they've been flighted. Although the birds are capable of flying away, they generally don't. They merely use their awareness of being able to fly away to drive their confidence to cooperate without reverting to biting. One challenge, however, has been to keep the Senegals from fighting with each other as they are no longer geographically isolated because they can fly.
One of the solutions to reduce territorial issues with the parrots (while also simplifying cleaning) is to eliminate the long standing trees (which were arranged one per bird) in favor of a more communal approach. We wheeled all the tree stands out of the room and set out to make a full new set of hanging play gyms instead. I shipped ahead a bundle of NU Perch sticks I was donating for the bird room remodeling. On the spot we bought a few additional supplies and in 2 afternoons built 8 original play gyms and hung them from the ceiling. The all hanging approach eliminates base cleaning and makes a single cleaning of the floor a lot easier. It also provides an unstable platform that stimulates the birds to think more about getting around. It has been a blast watching the birds get around their stands because they tip and rotate in place as they climb. When one parrot flies off a stand, the remaining parrots end up going for a merry go round ride. The birds were so preoccupied with the new stands that they were too busy to get into fights with each other.
To ease the transition to the new stands, I played a targeting game with the birds to encourage them to climb around. Not only was I able to get them to climb to all ends of individual stands but between stands as well. One particular Senegal who has been really difficult to tame, really took to target training. In a single attempt, I was able to teach him to target. I'm sure he'd been watching the other Senegals and had it all figured out. He was just waiting for the opportunity to be involved as well. In no time I had him climbing between playgyms and flying to other perches for opportunities to target.
A different Senegal has recently regained his flight feathers but was unsure how to use them. He seemed very eager to target but just didn't fly for it. So I put together a set of Training Perches and began the perch to perch targeting method of teaching him to fly. Before the evening was over, the parrot that just didn't know how to fly across 4 inches, was flying 15 inches between stands with ease. An interesting thing is that he wasn't really doing it for the food. He was much more eager to fly across the gap to target (ultimately for a treat) than directly for a treat lure. Since the birds get to watch each other targeting, they see a particular excitement for the opportunity to play. The motivation they exhibited in targeting around the room far exceeded their hunger for treats motivation.
The morning after the event and upon the 5th harness training session, I got a harness entirely on the promising Senegal. Ginger and I took him to a Sunday morning parrot group that meets at a park with their birds. Although this was sooner than I would have liked to put a harness on a parrot in this stage of training, we went for it for lack of time. However, I knew this would not be a problem because this was a super tame bird that doesn't mind being held. He was not upset having the harness on (which is important to avoid trouble putting it on next time) but he did want to chew it. To reduce chewing, I grasped him in my hand, through a towel, or did things to occupy his attention as much as possible. Once at the park outing, he was preoccupied with the activity and paid less attention to the harness.
I taught Ginger about socializing the parrot to complete strangers and went from very controlled interactions to random interactions based on my 12 step socialization approach. The Senegal went from hand to hand, allowed people to scratch him, and didn't bite anyone. The outing was a tremendous success and we got a harness upon him with ease for another outing the following day.
Since that Senegal Parrot is extremely hand tame and enjoys laying in hands, I held onto him a lot to keep him from chewing the harness. Since the squeeze of my hand is more noticeable than the harness it took his mind off of it. I began playing a game with him and in no time taught him a new trick which is to allow me to toss him in my hand like a bean bag.
The event, bird room remodeling, training, and outings have been a tremendous success. Not only have we made big improvements but we also set things for continued improvement in the future. I signed countless books and talked to parrot owners. Although I hope these things were educational, most of all I hope that they were inspirational. Rather than expecting someone who came to one of my talks - or met us on an outing - to have the skills to succeed, I hope to leave them with the inspiration to continue their education and to set goals of what to achieve. I want people to realize that parrots young or old, friendly or mean, can all learn these basic pet skills. If I can teach these rescue parrots to wear a harness or target fly in such a short span of time, then surely any parrot owner can achieve these things with a little more patience.
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.
Kili and Truman are fantastic examples of how well-socialized a parrot can be. The concept of socialization is a broad scope of everything a parrot may encounter and how it reacts. Simply put, the socialized parrot doesn't get scared and even enjoys visiting new places, handling new objects, and meeting new people.
The main benefit of socialization is that it removes a parrot's fears across the spectrum. As the parrot is exposed to more objects, places, and people in a harmless way, the less fearful and thus better behaved it is in future encounters. Since a lot of biting is driven by fear, teaching a parrot not to fear novelty results in a tremendous reduction in overall biting. Furthermore, other forms of biting such as jealous, displaced, territorial, and possessive are diminished with socialization as well.
Taking parrots outdoors is a great way to expose it to a multitude of random objects, places, people, and situations. The more times the parrot is exposed to these, the less of a big deal these exposures are in the future. The parrot learns to handle situations with greater ease. Also, taking parrots outdoors is essential for their health and well-being.
One of the ultimate challenges is taking the parrot to a busy playground. Anything and everything can happen at a playground. Kids are running around, there's screaming, birds are flying around, bikes are zooming buy, cars are backfiring, you name it. But after several years of going to the park regularly, none of this bother Kili and Truman. They are calm and enjoy the situation. It is very rare for them to take off and even when they do they usually just fly over to me.
I spend a lot of effort teaching controlled outdoor harness flight. On one hand I am giving the parrots exercise and flight practice, but on the other hand I am also teaching them to stay. Since the harness, even with leash extension, isn't terribly long, the parrots have learned that there is no benefit to flying (unless called). Thus they have learned to be more stationary than they would normally be at home. If they kept trying to fly around while being harnessed, crashes and tangles would be rampant. But using the method of encouraging recalled flight only, I have been able to set some very reliable guidelines that make the harness less of a burden.
The training and preparations I do at home make the parrots more prepared to handle the park. But the socialization, desensitization, and extensive challenges of the park also make them better behaved at home.
Considering how Kili was becoming a tremendous biter (toward everyone but me), I have definitely come a long way. My socialization approach not only reversed the biting but made her the sweetest parrot ever. Anyone can walk up to Kili, grab her, turn her any which way, play with her, pet her, hand her off to someone else and all the while she does not bite. In fact I think she enjoys it and will show off her tricks (not for treats) in the process. Truman on the other hand never bit anyone. By using the same socialization approach with him from the start (as well as ignoring any remote attempts at biting), he has never developed a biting issue in the first place. Between solving Kili's biting and solving Truman's biting, I have really come to appreciate the importance of socialization and outdoor time with parrots.
I think this park outing embodies the epitome of all my parrot training endeavors. I can have a fun time with my birds, they can enjoy fresh air, the birds are outgoing and fun, and everyone benefits. This special relationship that I have developed is the basis of my upcoming book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. The book has now moved into the printing stage and will be coming soon. The book is 296 fun-filled pages about all facets of parrot ownership. But ultimately it is based on my experience achieving well-behaved parrots and helping others achieve the same. The 10 chapter book starts from how to choose a parrot and then goes through an extensive array of easy things you can do with your parrot to achieve the easy-going pet you've always dreamed of. You don't have to be a performer to be able to achieve a well-behaved parrot and that is what my book is going to teach you. If you enjoy my blog, you'll especially enjoy my book because it is written in a similar easy to follow style. But it covers many things I have not considered blogging about and it really ties everything together in one easy read.
Enjoy the following video of how well-behaved my parrots are and then please order my book when it is released. This park outing best embodies what I consider to be well-behaved parrots.
I took Kili and Truman to the park today in the usual manner wearing their aviator harnesses. First I flew Truman using the long leash and he did an outstanding job with over 20 flights. Not only did I call him back and forth the length of the leash from the same perch, I ran around to give him more distance to fly. I had him go to different benches and places in the park. He's been getting pretty good lately, but this was by far his best day.
Before I go any further, I must very sternly warn you: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Don't do it. Don't think about doing it. Just don't. With extensive research, 5 years of very extensive training experience, and a very special circumstance, I knew that this was something I could safely do. I didn't think it was going to be ok, I knew it (which I'll explain further). This is not a training guide or a suggestion of what you can or should do. You simply shouldn't do it. I'm not sharing this to be a role model but simply because it is something I've done. This is not something parrot owners should be doing with their pets. Watch this video in full and you will lose any thought about taking your pet parrot outside unrestrained (even if it's clipped!).
Now when Kili's turn came to fly, in the spur of the moment I decided to take her harness off and let her fly unrestrained! It's not a decision that came lightly but it wasn't something I set out to the park to do. At that moment, I simply KNEW that Kili would do what I was expecting. I could sense absolute and complete motivation from her. Sometimes her motivation is good and sometimes it is bad. In that range it is often hard to tell if she will really choose to perform or not. However, this time I was able to sense the most intense motivation from her with certainty.
A combination of factors lead to this unmistakable motivation. First of all I weighed the two parrots in before heading to the park and found that their weights were pretty low (still well within healthy range), lower than most park sessions. However, this is not something to exclusively gauge motivation on. Motivation, particular outdoors, can be affected by many factors. Temperature, humidity, wind, distractions, and other birds can play a big role. I've already noticed in the past that my parrots get especially motivated to eat (regardless of weight) prior to rain or thunderstorms and sure enough there is a thunderstorm forecast for tonight.
I can also have a good idea how the second bird will fly based on the first. Usually either both birds fly well or both fly poorly. When it's too hot, both don't want to fly. If there are too many distractions, it usually affects both birds. But today the circumstances were just perfect. The temperature was warm but not too hot. The wind was near calm. The kids at the park were a well behaved audience. This plays an important role because sometimes there are obnoxious kids that distract or bother the birds. Today I saw that they just tagged along but did not get in the way. Given the right group of kids, they actually can motivate the parrots to fly better for their attention.
Given all of these optimal conditions, I knew that it would be no challenge for Kili to do a perfect job harnessing flying all over the park. Having flown her extensively at home, in theaters, in a large gym, and in the park on a harness, I have had enough previous experiences where I experienced this "perfect motivation" that I knew today was the day. I don't remember the last time Kili "flew off" outside and I depended on the leash to save her. After years of socialization, desensitization, and going through this same flying routine at the park, I knew this was going to be like any other day minus the harness. Rather than take Kili to some desert or special place to freefly, I knew she was safest flying in the same park where she is accustomed to flying on her harness. If she can fly outside with the harness without a hitch and can fly in large gyms without a hitch, thus I know she can do this outdoors unrestrained as well.
HOWEVER, there is still the risk. Even if most of the time she does everything right on harness or indoors, there is absolutely no room for error outdoors. If Kili were to end up outside the park, there's no telling where she could end up. Senegal Parrots are particularly unsuitable for outdoor freeflight because they are small, quiet, and green. If one were to get lost in a tree, it would be damn near impossible to find. While some kinds of parrots could be lost and then found again, with a Senegal it's closer to all or nothing which is why I've avoided freeflight all this time.
But after so much routine and habit of harness flying in the park, I felt confident that even if someone were to scare her (which almost certainly wouldn't happen cause she's seen it all over the years), that she would either fly back to me or to some perch in the park. I didn't even fear her going into a tree because she has had opportunities to do this in the harness as well. But out of training and habit, she has learned only to land on the benches and low fences. I know that she simply would not consider landing elsewhere. I could not stand the thought or even the chance of losing her. But this day the circumstances just so happened to be that I knew it couldn't happen.
I took Truman off the leash extension and was about to apply it to Kili's harness. This was the moment when I decided that she would fly without it instead. I put the extension in my pocket, got Truman up on my shoulder, asked the kids to back up and make some more room, got some treats out, and then proceeded to take Kili's harness off. This was probably the most nerve-racking moment of truth and my hands were shaking a little. It was not that I was afraid she'd fly away but it was just something difficult to get myself to do. It was like taking the step out of an airplane to jump with a parachute, it was the moment of truth. I heard folks gasp as I took the leash off. People really couldn't believe what I was about to do. I took Kili's harness off and left it on the ground while I took some steps away and called her.
She instantly flew over to me and got a nice treat prior to returning to where she had perched. By this point I was too focused on the training session and almost forgot that she was untethered. I ran around the park calling her and flying her to different places like she would while wearing a harness. I never had to call more than once because her flight recalls were perfect. She came every time without delay. She got big treats but still not every time. Since she normally flies for a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, I felt no reason to change this now. I did, however, give her bigger and better treats than usual to reward her especially for doing such a great job. I was able to recall her for longer distances than I usually can with the limitation of the leash length. I tried to avoid taking my eyes off of her but I did at moments while stepping away or looking around. But this was ok because it was no different than when she is normally harnessed. She did not do anything she would not have done while wearing the harness which made me certain that I had interpreted her behavior correctly.
I continued to fly her for nearly 20 recalls to different locations in the park, almost no different than if she were harnessed. We did many back to back recalls where she flew multiple times to get just a single treat. I was going to end things early just to be extra safe. I reached in my pocket to get more treats to reward her for putting the harness back on but I could sense her eagerness to keep going. So instead, I had her play flighted fetch unrestrained. She did such an outstanding job flying up off the floor with the ball without the added weight of the harness. I also had her fly to the floor to play dead (again uninhibited by the cumbersome harness). I finished off the session with a few more flight recalls for big treats and then put Kili back in her harness for one final treat. I did not bother flying her any further in the harness and took this as a good opportunity to end the session and go home. Kili got her dinner extra early to celebrate doing such an outstanding job flying. She even had leftover training motivation by normal training time to outfly Truman for some extra treats!
It was a really exciting experience and I am so proud of her ability. She has always proven me right whenever I took chances flying her in challenging environments whether it was on big stages with unreachable ceilings, in gyms, or on the harness. I have a good feeling for when she is motivated, and especially when she is a sure shot. It was a lot of fun and a good experience, but I will not let it cloud my judgement and make me think I can just do that any time. I will continue using a harness (possibly with similar exceptions under the right circumstances) when I take her out to eliminate risks of loss entirely. Losing her simply is not a chance I can take. However, this experience has taught me a lot and I think to Kili as well. We have strengthened our bond and she has proven how capable she really is. Most importantly, doing this even further reduces the likelihood of ever losing her in a circumstance where she could inadvertently find herself unrestrained outside.
Edit: Some Afterthoughts. Although I made no specific preparations for this flight, all of Kili's life we have been preparing for this. I was always taming/training her (and especially when it comes to indoor freeflight and outdoor harness flight) to be able to safely recover her should she end up outdoors. She has been trained to fly down from high places, she has been trained to turn around and come back to me, she has been trained to think on the fly. All of these skills gave me the confidence that she could fly her way back to me and stay within the confines of the park.
Furthermore, there's the endless desensitization and socialization. She's extremely used to everything going on at the park and none of that scares her. I still have a video of her at the park from a few weeks back I have yet to share to show this. I can set off a cap gun right next to her and instead of getting scared she can rationally think through doing her trick. I really can't think of what can spook this bird or what has in recent years. The birds of prey factor was still present but to the same degree it is present for harness flying so that was not something extra to consider. If there was one place Kili could do a flawless job, it was at the park she always flies at.
I did not feel like I was evaluating risk, it was more like evaluating opportunity. Up till then, I always saw the idea of freeflight strictly as risk. However, during this special encounter and the motivation I observed, I felt confident (to the 99.9% degree) that Kili would not fly off in the first place. To compound that, I felt confident (99%) that if she were to fly off, that she would fly to me or remain within the confines of the park. The long harness I fly my birds with affords them the opportunity to fly up and get stuck in a tree and even out of the park at times. Yet they just don't do it. It's not because the harness holds them back but because of the safe places and altitudes they have learned to fly at. Kili did not need a leash to keep her flying between me and the park benches. I also feel that this exercise helps ensure that if she were to accidentally get loose, that she would find her way to the park and I'd end up finding her sitting on a park bench doing tricks begging passerbys for food.
This was not the scariest endeavor I have undertaken with Kili which is also a big part. Having her on the huge stage (like 80+ ft high ceilings) for America's Got Talent with unknown/unrehearsed lights and noises going off had me much more worried. And although we were inside a building, the places she could get lost should she fly off were endless. It was also my first encounter where the stakes were so high regarding a fly off. She didn't perform that well but she didn't contemplate flying off which was a huge deal. Flying her in the huge gym with 60ft rafters and plenty of those high places to land was also a scarier time. I was less certain of the outcome in that gym than I was at the park. Although she would remain confined in the gym should she fly off, I had absolutely no idea how I'd be getting her (and moreso Truman) from those places. At the park, I have seen exactly what she would do countless times with her harness. I try to fly the birds such so that the harness never actually confines them by moving around myself to allow for slack.
I was not out to prove anything or show this to anyone. I did not do it for the purpose of sharing it online either. Just in retrospect I thought it was an interesting story. I was just there in the moment and I knew this was something that could be done. Kili was poised to fly to me no matter what so I realized it really didn't matter if she was harnessed or not.
Kili's first outdoor freeflight was nothing like I might have pictured. There was no safety line, no netting, no transmitter, no pre-printed "lost parrot" fliers (although I do have one made up on my computer for each parrot but more with the mindset of in case of an accidental house escape), no helper or spotter, no camera. I did not even tell anyone in advance to be available just in case. I did not come to the park with the intention of freeflying and this was probably the best part of preparing both myself and the bird. We just did everything exactly the same as we would normally do so it wasn't unpredictable or frightening. In fact it was very predictable. The relationship and training experience holding Kili in my vicinity was far stronger than any harness! This is the main reason I feel safe using the harness in the first place.
All that said, I still have anxiety over all this and will continue to use the harness for my own peace of mind. I am glad her skills are there and perhaps under the same perfect circumstances we will repeat this. But for the most part, I will opt to keep using that lifeline that lets me sleep at night knowing my parrot is alive and well.
The primary purpose of training our pet parrots is to get them to behave more how we would like. Whether that's not going on your furniture (by staying on parrot perches), flying to you on command, or going back in the cage when it is time, training can help. However, training is useless with motivation. The owner needs to be motivated to train as well, but I'm talking about the parrot's motivation to do as the trainer requests.
From a behavioral standpoint, motivation can be measured by the rate of learned responses to stimuli by the parrot. The motivated parrot is more likely to perform the behavior, with quicker promptness, with greater accuracy, for more repetitions, for a great span of time. A motivated parrot will also learn new behavior quicker.
In the early stages of parrot training, motivation may be less crucial. The very basic things you need to teach at first such as step up, targeting, and taming may be successful with the bare minimum unmanaged motivation. However, when you wish to proceed to more challenging behaviors, motivation will play a tremendous role in whether your succeed or not. Besides teaching or performing tricks, motivation is essential for flight training exercise, harness training, socialization toward strangers, solving biting and problems, and for all around good behavior.
Since food motivation is most universal and replenishable, I will mainly focus on managing motivation with food. However, I similar approach can apply to toys, attention, petting, and other things you may find motivate your parrot. There are three key elements to controlling motivation from food:
-Quantity/hunger -Quality/desirability -Effort to gain it
I covered the importance of weight management in my previous article. The main reason to manage your parrot's weight is to keep it healthy rather than for training. However, with your parrot's weight already managed to keep it at the optimal healthy weight, motivation for food can exist. An overweight parrot with constant access to food will not only be unmotivated to eat, but it will also be less motivated to participate in activity because it is physically harder.
Besides establishing a healthy weight for your parrot, it is also important to implement a feeding schedule. Twice a day for most species, three times a day for the smallest ones, works great. Many zoos and professional shows will go so far as feeding a lot of food but only once a day so that the parrots are inevitably super hungry and motivated by show time. I do not recommend their approach because I believe it is more stressful than spanning food out some.
Another reason why weight management is imperative is to compensate the parrot's training treats from meals. If you don't adjust your parrot's food portions, the training treats (which are normally fattier or sweeter) will implant excess calories and cause weight gain. By weighing your parrot before all meals and adjusting food portions to maintain the target healthy weight, you will be able to compensate for treats and maintain a stable weight long term. Some days the parrot may train better than other days (aside from motivation factors) and thereby receive more or less treats. Feeding the same sized meals may be unfair when the treat portions are different. Compensating this with an adjustment in meal portions will ensure the weight stays healthy and that the parrot is free to volunteer to train or not. Since the parrot's training is voluntary, it is up to us to find ways to solicit maximum motivation without food deprivation that can impact health.
By scheduling food meals and training just before (rather than after), you can expect maximum motivation from mealtime hunger. You can further enhance motivation at training time by padding the prior meal with low calorie foods such as broccoli or carrots. That way the parrot still feels filled up but since it received fewer calories, will be more eager to fill on the next meal. This will be balanced out by the weight management approach by analyzing empty weights and adjusting pellet portions accordingly.
Desirability of treats highly impacts motivation. Part of it is how much the parrot enjoys the treat food but part of it is relative to the food it normally eats. If the parrot is fed nothing other than pellets or vegetables in the cage, it leaves all other foods to be more desirable. I never feed fruit, pasta, seeds, nuts, or pretty much anything else my parrots get (other than pellets or vegetables) in the cage. Since they don't need these other foods in abundance anyway, saving them exclusively is treats not only helps motivation but is healthier.
There is also the desirability of certain treats over others. This can be a great aide in training. There are two ways to improve motivation based on the relative value of different treats. You can generally use less favorable treats but then mark major success with the better treats. The other approach is to mix all treats and provide different ones randomly. This approach is good for sustaining motivation because the parrot never knows what it's going to get. It must keep trying because the next treat may just be a whole nut. This also helps ensure the parrot does not get bored of the current treat. If you keep using the same treat, once the parrot no longer wants that specific food, motivation will diminish. Learn about choosing and evaluating treats here.
But now I want to get to some of my more interesting discoveries about managing parrot training motivation. My goal is to maximize motivation for specific tasks and to sustain it for a longer period. The reason both of these are important in training is because if you can get your parrot to do difficult tasks or endure long sessions at home, you'll have much greater success for easy/short tasks when you really need your parrot to deliver. For example if my parrots can fly 50 flight recalls (50ft out and 50ft back) in a training session, the likelihood of them making the one critical recover flight when lost outdoors is greatly improved. So you see this isn't strictly for training them to perform in shows.
Strong motivation is needed for the more complicated or strenuous tasks. Flying requires greater motivation than waving. A lot more. The parrot can probably wave 100 times for the amount of energy it takes to fly 100 feet. Does that mean we have to give a treat that is 100 times better? No. The biggest reason is because the treats we are giving for something small like wave is far excessive of what it could be. If my parrots can fly a dozen 50ft out and return flights for a single sunflower seed, then they can do the wave trick for an infinitesimally small treat or do an insanely large amount of waves for a normal treat.
Now this doesn't mean that the parrot just learning to wave thinks it's any easier than flying. While teaching the trick and shortly after, high motivation is in fact required. But once the trick is learned, in order to increase motivation for other things, you MUST challenge your parrot further. You must always strive to get your parrot to do more for less. This is the secret to achieving outstanding motivation. When my parrots normally have to do 20-50 flights an evening for a dozen treats, performing tricks at a show is comparatively easier and the motivation is extremely high. Likewise when I needed to work on Socialization to teach my parrot to stop biting strangers, I was able to make the situation far more desirable by differential reinforcement. Since the parrots normally have to do so much for so little, I can solicit an insanely strong level of motivation for comparatively easier task. For example step onto a strangers hand for 5 seconds without biting and I'll give you the same treat you normally have to fly your butt off to earn.
Obviously you're not going to jump from teaching a parrot to wave to flying 20 times for a treat. You need to build your way up there. This is why I always say you must challenge, challenge, challenge your parrot. When you challenge your parrot to wave a little higher, wave a little longer, wave for a smaller treat, wave more times for the same treat, you are teaching your parrot to be motivated by less! After some months or years of this constant sort of challenge, the parrot develops a tremendous level of capability and motivation. When you go from 1 treat for 1 wave to 10 waves for a treat to 50 waves for a treat (using variable ratio reinforcement), you have diluted the treat ratio so far that it virtually looks like your parrot does the trick without any reinforcement at all. All you have to do is occasionally reward that trick out of the blue to maintain that variable reinforcement ratio level. But this goes even further where you can maintain tricks with no food reinforcement at all. When the parrot can wave 20-50 times (and I mean in separate instances, not at once) before getting a treat, that parrot can just as well wave for a little attention or a head scratch. The motivation level required for performing the trick has become so low that virtually any minor reinforcement will suffice!
If you are not challenging your parrot to do better, more, for less, you are actually regressing in your training. Think about a parrot with a foraging toy. At first it can't figure it out but once it has, it gets the treat out in no time and the foraging toy becomes useless. It is similar with trick training. After the parrot "gets it" that picking up its foot gets it a treat, it takes less effort to do it. There is also the exercise component as well. After waving daily for a week, that foot is stronger and it is even easier still to wave. So if you are still giving the same quantity/quality of treat for the same behavior, you are in fact making your parrot give you less motivation (not more and not the same as before)! The only way to increase motivation is to increase the challenge, reduce the quality of the treat, reduce the quantity (break off a smaller piece), or increase the number of behaviors it takes to earn it (chaining or variable ratio reinforcement).
The point about exercise is not to be taken lightly either. If you fly your parrot regularly, their flight muscles become stronger and the amount of motivation to take an extra flight becomes less. You can challenge your parrot to fly further, more times, and for fewer or less desirable treats. This ensures that motivation continues to increase in the long run.
Sustaining motivation for duration is another part of the equation. If you can manage a 30 to 60 minute training session at home, 5 minutes of glory in front of your friends or an emergency flight recall are going to be more successful. Sustaining longer durations of motivation is also great for molding good day-long behavior from your parrot. If the parrot can spend an hour doing what you ask, it can also learn to do it any time of day outside of training. Here are three tips for sustaining motivation longer. First do all of the above for maximizing motivation and minimizing treats. By giving smaller treats, using variable ratio reinforcement, and making the tasks easier with time/challenge, your parrot will be able to continue to go longer before it is too tired or full. The second thing is to compensate the treats/difficulty with time. In the beginning of the session, start out with small and less desirable treats. But as the session progresses, you can squeeze motivation for longer by increasing the desirability of treats to keep the parrot going. Lastly, begin the session with tougher training and progress to easier tasks as you wrap up.
Varying levels of motivation required depending on challenge: (from low to high motivation requirements)
-not doing anything (being tame) -overcoming minor fear (taming) -stepping up -performing easy known tricks -performing complex known tricks -learning new tricks (training) -overcoming bigger fears (i.e. socialization/strangers) -flight recall (and other flighted behaviors) -flight recall amidst distractions (outdoor harness/freeflight)
So to make the most of the motivation in a training session (after a warm up if one is needed), begin with more difficult or strenuous tasks first and then work your way back toward easier things by the end. For example, let's say your parrot knows 5 tricks, step up, and flight recall. But at the same time you're teaching a new trick and working on getting the parrot to let you grab it. To maximize training motivation and get the most out of a single training session, work on some flight recalls first, then teach the next portion of the new trick, then practice some old tricks, and end the session by taming. Since the taming process for grabbing merely involves the parrot tolerating your hand's presence or touch (without spending any effort), the parrot will still gladly take treats while you work on desensitization. If you worked on the taming in the beginning of the sessions, your progress would have been marginally better. Yet the parrot would not be hungry enough to be motivated to flight recall to you after getting a bunch of treats for taming.
Finally, here are a few more little tricks you can use to maximize motivation during the training sessions when you really need it (or inadvertently get it). My parrots seem to get really motivated to eat when rain is approaching. That makes sense, they probably naturally want to fill up before they can no longer feed. Even if this is occurring midday or when motivation isn't expected, it's worth trying some training and it gives your parrot the opportunity to earn food when it wishes. Sometimes I have to leave early so I uncover my parrots and leave their meal. Naturally they eat it right away but a byproduct is that they are more hungry come training time. I take advantage of this heightened motivation since it is already there. I don't normally do this intentionally but if there is a training session where I want to stimulate greater than usual motivation this technique can help. It doesn't work long term though because then they just get used to a different feeding schedule. The last strategy that can sometimes help boost motivation is skipping training on occasion. Sometimes the birds just get bored and need a break. By skipping a session, it also means they are missing a chance to get treat foods. After a few days of not getting to have treats, even without major hunger, there may be a stronger motivation to earn it.
Thus the secret to teaching your parrot to be more motivated is to keep training and challenging it! The more difficult stuff you can get it to do, the easier it will be to get it to do the easy stuff. Sustain motivation longer by diminishing the difficulty of tasks throughout a training session while increasing the reward value. Exercise your parrot's muscles and brain through extensive flight training. As your parrot becomes stronger, flying will be easier and likewise it will be more motivated to fly. So there's nothing silly about teaching your parrot dozens of tricks, it just makes the parrot even easier to teach something new. Have fun.
Check out this video that demonstrates varying degrees of motivation from some previously unused clips.