This is a story of why rather than how to train your parrot.Of course there are many threats and enemies to our parrots' well being and happiness, however, one stands out in my mind as a major hindrance to this is an owner who makes excuses rather than do what is right. There is a psychological term for this called cognitive dissonance. This is when a person truly believes one thing but tries to rationalize it a different way. Sometimes this is to avoid responsibility, difficulty, or simply to try to save face in a losing battle. For example, parrot owners are pretty well informed that chocolate is a toxic food to parrots but if an owner slips some chocolate to a parrot thinking, "one time isn't going to kill him" is an example of cognitive dissonance. The owner knows that it's not safe to do but tries to come up with an excuse for doing it anyway. It is possible that one time kills the parrot but even if it doesn't, testing this out with full awareness of the possible consequences is irresponsible.
Certainly there is a distinction between cognitive dissonance and ignorance. Ignorance in itself could be dangerous (giving a parrot chocolate without knowing any better), however, an owner who frequently engages in cognitive dissonance is establishing a higher long term risk to the parrot's well being. Ignorance can be solved with learning or at least trial and error. If an owner who has been giving chocolate to a parrot unaware of the danger learns that it is dangerous and stops, at least the risk will not continue. However, an owner that tries to rationalize doing the wrong thing, will continue putting the parrot at risk for the rest of its life. The examples can range from trite to lethal but the problem of an excuse based attitude prevails throughout.
Since this blog is mainly focused on parrot training, I will look at more training based exampled of cognitive dissonance and try to take a behavior based approached to solving them. There are two different attitudes I often see regarding untame parrots. There are the people who identify the problem and come to me (likely through putting in the effort of searching the internet) asking for advice how to tame them. This is a logical way of doing things and will hopefully empower the owner to take the training steps necessary to tame the parrot and develop a better relationship. A better relationship is always better both for parrot and owner because the parrot is less likely to get lonely and develop health issues, the owner is more likely to enjoy spending time with the pet, and if there are no such problems, the owner is far less likely to rehome the parrot. A good parrot/owner relationship is always a winning situation. Now on the flip side I will come across (whether it's during online discussion, at a parrot store, or in people's videos) owners blaming the parrot for everything. I constantly hear things like "the parrot is mean," "the parrot wants to be dominant," "I want to let the bird be a bird," "I don't have time to train my parrot," "the parrot doesn't want to come out of its cage," etc. Not only are these excuses untrue, they are detrimental to progress because it gives the owner a reason not to try. If the owner doesn't try, then of course nothing will get solved. I'll take a moment to dispel these common myths in hope of convincing people that they can move past them or other excuses:
The parrot is mean - The parrot isn't necessarily being mean, it is biting in self defense. It is likely defending itself, mate, or cage territory. These things can be solved through proper training because it will teach the parrot that you are no threat and that biting doesn't solve things. Furthermore we can change their cage set up or take them to a different room to resolve territorial aggression for training purposes.
The parrot wants to be dominant - People think that parrots bite when they are higher than a person because they want to exhibit dominance. Mine don't. They will fly down to me from high places or I can reach and have them step up without ever biting. People use dominance as an excuse to blame the bird rather than to realize that the bird just enjoys being in that place more than being with the owner. A very common event where this kind of biting happens is when the parrot is on top of its cage. The owner tries to get it to step up but the bird bites a lot. The owner assumes the parrot is trying to be dominant when really it doesn't want to step up because the most likely thing to follow is getting put in the cage. Many owners let their parrots sit on top of their cage for a long time and only use step up for putting them away rather than doing something more enjoyable than sitting on top of the cage (which of course for many parrots is a big thrill). The parrot simply learns that biting the hand will make it go away and then it can go back to enjoying sitting on top of the cage.
I want to let the bird be a bird - There is no point in using this defense because the bird isn't in the wild, it's in a home. This is already unnatural. The purpose of training and bonding is to give the human and parrot the greatest enjoyment and best lifestyle possible in the unnatural home environment. There is no need to compete with nature, instead, if we can find the most successful and least intrusive ways of providing for our companion parrots' health and well being, we are successful. Of course we need to balance our own sanity and preserving our homes so there obviously needs to be compromise. The beauty of training is that it teaches/convinces the bird that the things you want from it (which may totally be unnatural like stepping on a human hand) are what it wants anyway.
I don't have time to train my parrot - If someone can't find 10-30 minutes a day to train their parrot, I doubt they have time to give it adequate care at all. Most owners will spend a few hours a day with their parrot so reorganizing that time to include a little bit of training is pretty easy. The important thing for basic training and taming is consistency rather than duration. The kind of taming/training required for a good relationship requires more days and routine of practice rather than length of individual sessions. 10 minutes every day will go a longer way than an hour once a week. The amount of time you save on dealing with parrot nuisance/problems will outweigh the time it takes to do a little training (cleaning poop from unwanted places, excessive destructiveness, biting, refusing to go into cage, etc). If you chose to have a parrot as a pet, it should be both in your interest and responsibility to find some time to spend with it every day.
The parrot doesn't want to come out of its cage - Well duh! If the parrot hasn't been out of its cage or hasn't had a good time when it was out, of course it won't want to come out. For many untame parrots their only human experience was people grabbing them at stores to shove them in boxes and moving them around. Unlike domesticated animals, parrots are pretty much wild animals. The only thing attaching them to humans is what they had learned. It may be hard to convince a parrot to come out the first time but if you use some in the cage training methods you can make it want to come out by following a target stick or you can force it out and then make the out of the cage experience so wonderful that it forgets being forced out and starts to like coming out. Until it comes out and has a good time, it won't have a reason to want to come out.
So as you can see, there are real solutions to real problems. Excuses don't get their parrots or owners anywhere. Taking a problem solving approach, doing some research, and patiently applying it is always the way to go. Excuses/rationalizations can come both for doing something or not doing it. Mainly training related excuses are for the purposes of not doing it. On the flip side, owners will make excuses for justifying things they do that they know to be wrong. The one excuse I absolutely hate the most is "I clip my parrot for its own good." This is an excuse plain and simple. When someone says that, what they really mean is "I clip my parrot for my own good." Most owners of clipped parrots fear that their parrot won't want to be with them if it can fly away, that they won't be able to train it if it's flighted, that it will poop everywhere, that they won't be able to put it away, that the bird will get hurt, that the bird will get lost, etc. However, I believe that with a little caring, sacrifice, patience, and training, almost any household can keep flighted parrots.
Now I realize there will be exception cases of injured parrots that maybe shouldn't fly or parrots at overcrowded rescues that can't afford to keep them flighted, however, these are exceptions and really shouldn't apply to most companion parrots. I believe the quality of life improvement for the parrot being flighted far outweighs the convenience of it being not. Some benefits include extensive exercise, lower stress (and healthier plumage as a result), better safety, lower or eliminated chance of feather plucking, greater mental stimulation, and most of all: freedom of choice. Birds naturally flee what they are scared of in the wild by flying away and they can explore the things they are afraid of at their own pace. Clipped parrots are constantly forced into interactions whether they want them or not and whether the owner is aware of them or not.
By giving out parrots greater amounts of choices (even if we teach them to make the choices that we want), many behavioral byproducts of eliminating choice are avoided. Like I previously mentioned about the case of a parrot that knows how to step up biting instead of stepping up to avoid being put away, the lack of choice is causing stress on the parrot (and possibly biting or displeasure with the owner). If on the other hand going into the cage could be a more positive experience, the parrot would choose to go in. If going in the cage is what it wants, it won't bite the owner who is trying to have it step up.
The biggest problem with parrot training is getting the parrot to want what we want from it (whether it's performing a trick or going into the cage). If the parrot already has everything it wants, then it is difficult to find something it wants even more to motivate it to do what you want. People who spoil their parrots (constant and extensive supplies of food, toys, and attention) are more likely to revert to punishment for undesired behavior rather than using positive reinforcement for desired behavior. This may appear effective in short sight but is terrible in the long run. For example using the cage as a means of punishing a parrot for unwanted behavior such as screaming is counter productive. First of all, if the parrot likes its cage, going back may not be much of a punishment. On the other hand, if the parrot dislikes its cage, then it will try to avoid ending up in the cage by biting. In an attempt to reduce screaming, punishment could lead to flying away from the owner or biting the owner to avoid being put away. Even if the parrot is small enough that the owner feels unaffected by the bites, the parrot is likely still going through the stress of being forced to do something against its will.
So ask yourself, would you prefer your parrot see you as a wonderful provider of good things or the bad person who takes good things away? Performing the role of punisher doesn't discipline or teach the parrot any kind of respect either. It just teaches it to try to avoid the person who punishes it all together. When I talk about being a tough owner, I do not mean forcing the parrot to do things against its will. Being tough is more about having the patience and self control to resist giving into what the parrot wants when its behavior is unacceptable. Being tough is wanting to take out a parrot to play with it but not taking it out because it is screaming. Being tough is ignoring a bite when it happens. But being tough is not putting a parrot in a cage for biting, this is just being vengeful (without regard to the actual long term effectiveness of the consequence).
Something that peeves me is when an owner expects a parrot to like him or do what the owner wants merely for the fact that the owner paid money to buy the bird. Or even for doing things like putting food in the bowl, water in the cup, and cleaning the cage. The simple fact is that the parrot has no correlation between these things and the owner. Food just shows up in its cage daily no matter what. The parrot doesn't learn to be on good behavior in order to get food. A more successful approach is to shift the presence of good things to coincide with the owner and good behavior. This is what training is all about.
Using some basic food management as well as managing other favorable resources isn't deprivation. It's just a shift in the timing so that they can be rewarding. So instead of letting a parrot eat 100% of its food in the cage, perhaps feed it 80-90% in the cage and then let it earn the rest from you for good behavior. The only thing is that motivation is highest at peak of hunger so it is more effective to train the parrot using the first 10% of its meal as the reward rather than the last 10. I'm not going to spend too much time getting into how to use effective food management and management of other favorable parrot resources but instead I will show some ways that a trained parrot makes a good pet.
My parrots step up for me automatically and unlike in the training videos where I explained teaching step up, I never give treats just for stepping up. To someone who doesn't know, it would appear that may parrots just obey and always step up without reason. However, there is a reason and a very good one. The parrots have learned to trust my step up requests because they inadvertently lead to desirable things (positive reinforcement) indirectly. If Truman steps up, I may walk over and show him something interesting, I may pet him, or I may cue him to perform a trick and earn a treat. Regardless, step up is likely to lead to something favorable for the parrot and never anything undesired. Since I make even going back to the cage a favorable experience, there is almost nothing bad that happens as a result of step up so my parrots step up very willingly.
This is why trick training is so useful even if you aren't particularly interested in the tricks themselves. Trick training sets up an atmosphere for learning and also teaches both you and your parrot to work toward better behavior. Training never ends and it is important to always expect your parrot to do better. This keeps it learning and doing more and more good behavior for fewer and fewer treats. At first you may need to give a treat for every step up. However, when you've taught your parrot to wave, you could have it step up without a treat for the opportunity to stand on your hand and wave to get a treat. At first it's just a trick chain but eventually the basic tameness becomes second nature. Your parrot may get used to being held or touched for the training of certain tricks (such as wings) and later on this proves helpful for routine maintenance behavior.
My parrots are excited to come out of their cages because being out can lead to treats, petting, flying, talking, and other things parrots enjoy. So I know that coming out is in itself rewarding and can be used as reinforcement for good behavior. I make sure my parrots aren't screaming, and in the case of Kili says hello, before I even consider letting them out. I taught Kili to say hello when she wants to come out instead of screaming by letting her out a lot of times after hearing her say hello (she got the hang of it realizing that saying hello just gets her out some of the time). I upped the requirements from there to also being on a perch to be let out. It's kind of hard to get Truman out of the canopy of his dome Cage so instead of chasing him around the cage to get him, I figured he's the one getting the special treat of coming out so I'll let him do the work. I used to open the door and hold my hand near the closest convenient perch and he had to climb down to it. Now when he sees me coming to let him out he goes there himself and it's a signal to me that he would like to be out. I never let the birds climb out of their cages on their own. The only way they come out is by stepping up. Thus I am giving a super reward for step up (the reward of getting to come out) at least twice a day, every day for the parrot's lives. This is such an easy way to reinforce step up and get credit from the parrot without creating any additional deprivation. The parrot already has to spend time in its cage so the deprivation of out of cage time is naturally present. I'm not suggesting putting the parrot in the cage on purpose to teach this, but since it is already anyway, let it be to your advantage.
Some people can't pet their parrots because they are scared and don't know it feels good. By using some basic taming/training techniques, the bird can be taught to accept touch in return for food. Once it is used to being touched and no longer scared, you will have the opportunity to pet it the way it likes and develop an alternative primary positive reinforcer to food. But without knowing what petting is like, the bird won't let you so it can't know what it is missing. So food can be effective for taming these other methods of reward. I don't think it is necessary to withhold petting just to be used for training, however, it is important not to do it during or after undesirable behavior. For example don't start petting your parrot because it bit you when you stopped to make you continue. As long as bad behavior isn't going on during petting, you are already rewarding behavior alternate to bad (like biting, screaming, etc).
Now of course what we perceive is bad behavior may well be natural behavior to parrots in the wild. Biting enemies and screaming to flock mates are survival tactics highly rewarding in the wild. Since these are harmful to our pet/human relationship, it is best for us to use training to avoid these. They may not be entirely avoided with positive reinforcement training, however, the more non-bad behavior that you can reward, the less bad behavior can occur. When you spend 20 minutes training tricks, that is a concentrated dose of good behavior learning for your birds. They learn that shaking their head, waving their foot, or showing their wings gets them what they want. By learning effective methods of getting what they want, they are also eliminating some ineffective methods (that are more natural and effective in the wild). Then the things they learned in training help the rest of the time when they are out because good behavior is differentiated from bad. And as long as the owner avoids rewarding bad behavior outside of training, the learned stuff carries over outside of training to lead to a well behaved parrot.
There is so much I can say about how resource management and training leads to well behaved, healthy, happy parrots but instead I will just share a video that shows how I can spend time with my well behaved parrots outside of training time. While I may spend 30-60 minutes a day teaching flight recalls for treats, at other times I can recall my parrots just for the sake of hanging out but they already know what to do from training. The same applies for step up, going in the cage, petting, and virtually all other "good behavior" from them. By constantly challenging my parrots and setting higher requirements for rewards, the easier things or things previously learned become routine and are maintained through indirect rewarding. Over time this good behavior begins to look natural and it's easy to forget the true source of all of it: parrot training!
LOL at 1:50
Very interesting Article.
Watching the video, I can see a lot of similarities between the behavior of Kili and Truman and Einstein. Einstein is more than happy to come out of the cage for me. I have a perch on the door, so when he see's me opening it, he perches on it. He then greats me with a "love you", "gimme kiss", or a kissing sound.
Doesn't matter where he is, when I say step up, he step's up. There is never any fuss. He goes to his cage when I take him to it, though we had a problem with him flying off, he has gotten over that phase.
When he's anywhere, I can say his name, and he will instinctively come to me.
I haven't done very much "formal training" with Einstein though. Step up was taught when I first got him using millet, and flight recall was taught using millet and a clicker. Both tricks he caught on extremely quickly.
I don't think that you NEED to do a lot of training to get them to be well behaved. But maybe Einstein is just naturally perfect