I have received much criticism of my atypical approach to using the clicker from beginners to experts alike. Many have noticed that I don't always give treats after using the clicker and that I make clicks while training two parrots simultaneously. I'd like to take a little time to explain how and why I am doing this and the impact it has on parrot training.
First of all, let's go over the typical approach to using a clicker as a bridge. At the moment the parrot does the right thing, a click is issued by the trainer using a clicker. Then at the trainers soonest convenience, a treat is given to the parrot. In other words, the clicker is a promise to give a treat as reward for the behavior being performed at the moment of the click. This is a highly effective techniques for capturing and shaping behaviors in training. Using the clicker can consistently and precisely mark the desired behavior so that the parrot can catch on and repeat it more readily.
I have used and do recommend the standard method of clicker training described above. For the vast majority of parrot owners, trainers, and performers, this may be the optimal approach. However, I have taken the clicker a step further and would like to present my method for those parrot owners and trainers that want to achieve even greater success with clicker training. The fundamental prerequisite is 6-18 months of consistent and successful clicker training using the standard method. The parrot should have already learned a bunch of different tricks and be reliable at demonstrating them. Attempting my special approach with an inadequately trained parrot will surely ruin the clicker and confuse the bird so I do not recommend this approach for most people. Only put this into effect if you have had extensive success training your parrot and want to take it one step further.
My clicker approach is made up of two parts. First is transforming the clicker from a bridge to a secondary reinforcer and the second is to use it in this way with multiple parrots simultaneously. Both of these parts require extensive successful clicker training of one bird at a time. Thereafter, either one or both of these can be applied although I would put off training two parrots simultaneously to the last. If you don't anticipate to move away from one click means one treat, you can skip to clicker training two parrots together.
The main reason I moved away from one click means one treat was because I wanted to train Kili to perform many different tricks but couldn't give her treats for everything or she would get too full. Thus I employed a variable ratio reinforcement schedule when it comes to treats. What this means is that the parrot has to complete the right behavior every time it is asked but only receives a treat some of the time at a random trial. However, one problem with doing this is that if the parrot botches one trick in the process, giving or not giving treats does not provide reliable performance feedback. With classic clicker training, not receiving a treat and likewise not receiving a click mark failure in regards to the bird's behavior. Since treats are necessary for continued motivation but providing them randomly provides poor feedback, I decided to use the clicker every time the right behavior is offered but provide food on a variable interval. Thus the clicker is used a continuous secondary reinforcer while the treats are provided on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. This works out as a perfect blend of feedback and motivation with minimal satiation and maximum success/improvement.
In this way I can have my parrot run through 10 tricks in a row, click for the 9 correct times, not click for the 1 wrong time, and provide just a single treat at a random point (but only following a correct attempt). The parrot is still told that the 9 attempts were correct and could have earned a treat, 1 attempt was wrong and should not be done that way, and motivation was maintained the entire time. Furthermore, 10 treats could be used to elicit as many as 100 iterations (and thus 100 practices of performing the right tricks the right way at the right time) instead of just 10. This is how my special clicker approach is successful and goes well beyond the classic one click one treat approach. By having 110 trick attempts, 100 correct/successful ones, and 10 incorrect unclicked ones, he parrot has 10 opportunities to learn what not to do and 100 chances to learn what to do for the same number of treats that would have only provided 10 opportunities for learning. This allows my parrots to practice more behaviors, exercise more flight, and be overall more reliable than with the standard clicker approach.
Since the clicker has been so closely associated with food from the beginning, doing things to hear clicks can become desirable and thus a conditioned reinforcer of its own. Since good things tend to happen around clicks but don't have to, the parrots are still more inclined to demonstrate clicker-worthy behavior. This is also a great way to retain motivation through very high ratio variable reinforcement. For example, if I am going to make Kili fly 20 recalls to earn a single treat, as long as she keeps getting clicks, she knows it is worthwhile to keep trying and not give up. She knows from past training that as long as she keeps getting clicks, there will be a treat offered at some point. Since there is no other way to get that treat except to keep trying, that's the course she has to take to earn it.
Keep in mind that I only use this approach while I am sustaining tricks through practice. I do revert to the more effective continuous reinforcement strategy of one click one treat when teaching a fresh new trick. Once the parrot is well accustomed, I add that trick to my list of tricks to practice using variable reinforcement.
There are times when I chain behaviors either out of convenience or because it is a trick that requires multiple components. This is another great time to employ my click for correct behavior rather than treat for every correct behavior approach. Many times when I am training tricks to my parrots, I continue having them fly recalls to me from across the room for exercise. I used to feel bad when I would divert treats away from flight recall (which is valuable exercise) and use them for trick training instead. Lately, I've come up with a much better approach where I make my parrots first fly a long recall (or several) to me just to get the opportunity to practice a new trick to earn a treat.
After years of training, both of my parrots understand very well that new tricks earn treats every time while old behaviors only some of the time (although they are easier so they love to perform them). For this reason, they are very eager to give me some flight recalls for the chance to get a guaranteed treat for learning a new trick. Plus it's simply more fun that way.
Now when it comes to chaining tricks to form a long sequence, the clicker can apply in the same way. Let's take Kili's famous stroller trick (which was performed on the Late Show with David Letterman) as an example. Clearly the complete sequence is comprised of several independent tricks that she must perform in order. First she must pickup her baby, then she must patiently hold it for demonstration, then she must take it over to her stroller (and not the bed) and place it in, then she must walk around the stroller and start pushing it, then she must stop pushing and walk around, then transfer her baby from the stroller to the crib, rock the crib, and then finally wave goodnight to baby. How do you teach such a long chain to a parrot without stopping every couple of seconds to wait for it to eat a treat? This is where the click for every correct behavior but only a treat at a random time approach proves such a success! Obviously I taught Kili the separate tricks that combine into the sequence separately, but when I was finally teaching the complete sequence, I used this exact clicker approach. A problem that I was running into was her eagerness to skip steps to jump to the end and get the one final treat for finishing the sequence. For this reason I went back to the click every correct behavior and offer a random treat to ensure that all steps in the sequence are equally rewarding. After she got really good at the trick, I returned to clicking along the way (to remind her that she is doing things right by not skipping to the end) and only giving one treat at the end. Since she won't get a treat at the end of she misses a click along the way, she learned to patiently go through the entire routine.
The final non-standard complex use of the clicker I employ is teaching two parrots simultaneously while using just one clicker. I sneaky (but too annoying) approach could be to have two different sound makers where one is for each parrot and they know their sound. I differentiate who is earning clicks through attention and eye contact. Even though I say I train the parrots together, it's not actually in the exact same moment. Normally I'll have one bird stay on its training perch while I have the other fly over to me to learn something. The parrot near me knows it is earning the clicks and not the one far away. If I have the two birds on perches next to each other, they know when I am clicking for them because I am looking at them at the time of the click. Sometimes I have them perform the same tricks at the same time. In this case I am looking in a blank way toward both of them. They are exceptionally intelligent and catch onto all of these subtleties. The important thing is that I am consistent in these methods so the specifics they learned apply each time.
Although it might seem that mixing the clicker in the ways I do would be confusing or dilute its effectiveness, this couldn't be further from the truth in reality. Parrots are so highly intelligent and catch on to things very quickly. They learn the multi-dimensional complex of the clicker based on the context they observe. It's like we can hear the sound “toooo” and still be able to understand whether we are talking about “to”, “two”, or “too”. Since my mixed clicker strategy has not resulted in a diminish in clicker effectiveness (and in fact improved it), I am certain that parrots too can learn to understand things in context.
So that is my special mixed method of parrot clicker training. Although I would not recommend anything but the one click-one-treat approach to most people, I think this article should help clarify what I do and why. Also for the select few who have taught many tricks and wish to take their training to a new level, I share my approach. Whatever clicker approach you use, as long as it is effective, the parrot is learning, and you are both having fun in the process, it is already a major success.
The most common questions I receive have nothing to do with advanced trick training or flight. Instead, I am constantly being asked how to get a parrot to do basics like come out of the cage, step up, or not bite. These basic questions are fundamental to parrot ownership. Unfortunately many owners cannot enjoy the most from their parrot if they cannot accomplish basic handling.
Michael, Kili, and Truman
I faced these very same questions when I bought my first parrot, a Cockatiel. I had never so much as touched a bird before in my life and here I was with a bird in the transport box and a cage but absolutely no idea what to do. I spent a lot of time and money to buy training information but unfortunately most of it was unhelpful. Sure there are lots of books and dvds about the methods for teaching specific tricks but few or none of them teach you about the absolute basics. They tell you to take the parrot out of the cage and proceed with training. Well I know from personal experience that this presumption that the owner can get the parrot out of the cage is flawed. Many owners cannot enjoy the thrill of teaching tricks to their parrot because they do not even know how to handle it or reduce aggression in the first place.
A year ago I had written the How to Teach Parrot to Step Up guide on The Parrot Forum and it is still to this day one of my most popular articles. I understand that this basic information is very sought after. Yet I still receive many questions that are even more basic still or that weren't covered in the original article which was predominantly about target training. So now, I sit down to write what I hope to be the ultimate guide to the basics of parrot taming and training. I hope you enjoy the information contained herein and find it helpful. Please read through completely, watch the videos, share with other parrot owners, reread as necessary, and ask your questions on The Parrot Forum. Welcome to the world of parrot training.
Why should you read this? You may be a first time parrot owner that just got home with a new bird wondering why it did not come with an instruction manual. Or perhaps you have had some parrots for a long time but regret the inability to interact with them and wish to learn how to approach them. Maybe you found a lost parrot and need information about how to handle it so that you could foster it. Alternatively you got a rescued or rehomed parrot that is anything but friendly. Regardless of how you came upon a parrot or found this article, you are here because you want to improve your relationship with a highly intelligent, beautiful, and complex feathered companion.
This guide is meant to teach you everything you need to know to begin handling a parrot no matter what the history or circumstances. It does not matter how long you have had it, how old it is, what species the bird is, where you got it from, or what its history is. Certainly these things can affect how long it will take or how difficult it will be. But I guarantee you that if properly and patiently applied, these methods will work. These techniques will work just as well for a Parakeet, Conure, Amazon, Cockatoo, African Grey, or Macaw.
The only case that I can think of where this guide does not apply is for unweaned baby birds that are still hand feeding. Please have an experienced breeder or hand feeder take care of the baby or at least coach you through the process and do not attempt to apply these techniques to a young fledgling.
Getting Parrot Into the Cage for the First Time
If you just acquired a new parrot – whether it is from a breeder, store, or rehomed – you will need to transfer it from the transportation enclosure to its new cage. The parrot may be in a travel carrier, crate, or cardboard box. Regardless, the procedure will be the same for getting it into the cage. There are several possibilities of how tame the parrot is. If you do not already know, you're about to find out. Bring the carrier into the same area as the cage. Close all doors and windows.
Most likely the parrot is quite scared so putting the carrier door up to the cage door will not be encouraging for the bird to come out on its own. Food lures won't work either since a scared bird will refuse to eat for several days. Your intervention will definitely be required.
You may be lucky and have a friendly parrot that already knows how to step up. The problem is that you may not know that in fact the parrot is friendly and aware of stepping up. The best way to test this is to open the carrier slowly and bring your hand toward the bird. As you open the carrier door, keep the opening minimal and blocked with your hand so that the parrot cannot rush out. Slowly bring your hand closer and closer to the parrot. If the parrot doesn't react to the hand much, then keep going closer. However, if the parrot is opening its beak and aggressively snapping toward your hand, then the stepping up method is unlikely to work.
For the non-aggressive parrot, keep bringing your hand closer and aim your fingers perpendicular to the feet. Depending on the size of the parrot you'll want to use anything from one finger to your entire arm. The main thing is to place your hand parallel to the perch it is standing on and slightly above its feet. If it was trained by the breeder to step up, it is a good idea to say “step up” as you have your hand positioned. As soon as the parrot steps up, slowly take it out of the carrier and then bring it into the cage. Like with your hand before, aim the bird in such a way that the cage perch runs parallel to your hand and slightly above its feet. The parrot should now step up onto the perch. You can close the cage door and talk to the parrot for a little while but then be sure to give it some time alone to adjust to its new home. I wouldn't suggest handling the parrot anymore at this time unless you are already experienced with parrots.
Getting parrot out of the carrier
If it turned out you are dealing with an aggressive parrot or it didn't step up using the method previously mentioned, you're going to have to get a hold of the bird to get it into the cage. Don't worry about this affecting your relationship. The parrot will eventually get over this. In fact it probably won't even realize what happened if you do it quickly enough. You definitely don't want to draw out this unpleasant experience any more than necessary as the fear will escalate and only make it more difficult to catch. It is especially important not to let the parrot escape the carrier if it is flighted because you will have a much tougher time getting a hold of it somewhere in the room.
Ideally you should just use your bare hand and grab the parrot out of the carrier. If you are too scared, you could wear thin leather gloves or use a towel. The best place to grab the parrot by is actually the neck, just below the head. Not only is it a safer place to avoid getting bit, it's also least likely to harm the parrot. If you grab by the belly, it could restrict airflow, but grabbing by the neck will not. By holding under the beak, you can keep the parrot from being able to turn its head and bite you. You can do the same with a glove. If you use a towel, you can either grab through the towel, or just get the bird in it and wrap it until you can get it in the cage. In one bold motion reach in toward the parrot. Even if it is backing away, just keep moving your hand toward it and back it into a corner. At this point the bird can't get anywhere and you can get a hold of it. Regardless of how you got a hold of it, don't prolong this and hurry up and get it in the cage. Whatever you do, don't let go of the bird (even if it bites). You'll have a much tougher time getting back if it gets loose in the room. If you had to use this more forceful method, it's a good idea to give the bird a bit more time to settle down before proceeding to taming and training.
If the parrot stepped up for you, the bird is probably quite tame and this basic taming should go much quicker. Since it is stepping up reliably, you will be able to ask the parrot to step up to come out of the cage. On the other hand if you had to grab the bird out of the carrier, odds are you will have to continue doing this until it has learned to step up.
No matter what method you had to use to get the new parrot into the cage, do not overwhelm it with attention immediately. Not only does it need some time to calm down and settle in, you also don't want to make it too dependent for attention. It is likely that the new parrot will eat little or none for the first few days. This should not be of too much concern. Just be sure that it has access to food and water and that it is already familiar with the food you are providing. This is not the time to try to do a food change or to instate any kind of food management for training.
Approaching the Cage
It is very important not to make your parrot afraid of you by rushing at the cage. Until the parrot is more used to you, it is essential to approach the cage very slowly. Don't make any sudden noises and walk carefully not to trip, fall, and terrify the bird. First impressions are important and it is critical not to let the first one be a bad one. If you have a particularly fearful bird, don't even make eye contact with it as you approach the cage. Just slowly approach while looking somewhere else. By making eye contact, it may feel like it has been singled out by a predator.
If you take an unnecessarily cautious approach, there is no way that will hurt your relationship. You will be able to speed things up in the future. However, if you rush this and scare the bird, it will be much much harder to undo the fear that is developed.
You must determine your parrot's comfort threshold. It is quite likely that the parrot is accustomed to human presence and will not freak out if you come all the way up to the cage. However, if it does, you'll need to slowly desensitize it to your presence over time. If you find the parrot trying to bite at you, thrashing around the cage, or making any other drastic displays of discomfort in response to your presence, the following technique is necessary.
Start out of the room or out of sight. Approach the cage slowly and wait for the discomfort response. The moment it begins, stop and stay where you are. Do not approach further but do not retreat. Wait for the parrot to calm down. It may still look uncomfortable but as long as it has made a relaxing trend from the original outbreak, you may reward the parrot by turning around and walking away. By using this method, the parrot will learn that it actually takes calming down rather than making a big scene to get you to leave. You are showing the parrot that the only way to get what it wants is to be calm.
Continue this technique over a period of time. You should be able to approach progressively closer and closer. Once you are able to safely approach within touching distance of the cage, you can continue with the following positive reinforcement based techniques.
Determining Treats for Your Parrot
Determine your parrot's favorite treats
First you must find out what kinds of treats your parrot will enjoy. This is fairly easy. Parrots will often enjoy seeds, nuts, dried and fresh fruits. Mix a variety of these treats in a bowl and serve it to the parrot in the cage. If this is a new parrot, it is quite possible that it is not yet familiar with these foods so the first trial may be inaccurate. Give the parrot a few days to familiarize itself to these foods unless a clear favorite is demonstrated up front. Parrots are picky eaters and will eat their favorite food first, then the second, etc. You can determine a pretty clear order of which foods they like. For smaller parrots such as Cockatiels, Budgerigars, Lovebirds, Parrotlets, and other Parakeets, millet spray generally serves as the ideal treat.
Now that you have determined your parrot's favorite treat, never serve it as part of the daily cage meals. The favorite foods are only to be used as treats for training. If you have discovered a secondary and tertiary treat, you can also save those to use for training as well. The most effective method will be to feed only pellets and vegetables in the cage and use all other foods as treats for training. However, if your parrot is on a seed diet and you are unable to convert it to pellets, then at least stop serving the favorite kinds of seeds and save them for training. Use the secondary/tertiary treats for most training and use the absolute favorite treats when the parrot does a major breakthrough.
Getting Parrot Out of Cage for the First Time
Now whether you just acquired a new parrot or have had one trapped in the cage for a long time, eventually you will have to take the parrot out. Not only is daily out of cage time important for the parrot's mental health, but it is also important to be able to clean the cage from the inside on a regular basis.
Now simply opening the cage door and waiting for the parrot to come out to you on its own is pointless. The parrot is already going to be scared of everything and the cage will at least be the most familiar place for it. You're not going to achieve a hand tame parrot by doing this and might spend forever waiting till it comes out. So instead, I will explain how to get the parrot out for the first time and then you should immediately begin the appropriate taming and training exercises so these methods no longer need to be used and the parrot will just step up for you whenever you want to take it out of the cage.
There are two methods that can be used for getting a parrot out of the cage for the first time:
1) Target training 2) Force out & reconcile
Except for the initial training, do not let the parrot come out of the cage on its own. Always reach in and request it to step up. This will help develop a positive relationship because you will get all the credit for the thrill of being able to come out. The parrot will begin to look forward to seeing you because it will learn that you are the source of good things like coming out.
Although the first method is least stressful, it also takes a much longer time to implement. On the other hand the second method is more hands on. I would say that the force out method is safest to be used on young hand raised parrots. This can range from merely asking it to step up to toweling it out. Either way, the experience outside the cage is made so rewarding that it reconciles being forced out initially. Baby parrots are much more forgiving and less likely to bite so this method can actually work quite well and create no trauma for the bird. Most likely the parrot was already accustomed to the breeder grabbing it to feed it anyway. If you are an experienced parrot owner and not afraid of the potential of being bitten, go ahead and use the force out/reconcile method. Similar to getting the parrot out of the carrier for the first time, you can test step up, just grab the parrot, grab with a glove, or use a towel. Just get the parrot out of the cage but then give it a super rewarding time outside of the cage with additional training. I will detail the taming/training exercises to do shortly afterward.
For everyone else including first time parrot owners, people afraid of getting bit, owners of rehomed/rescued parrots, and owners of parrots that were for a long time cage bound, I am going to advise against forcing the parrot out but instead to train it inside the cage. Not only does this method buy time for the parrot to get used to the owner, but it also helps the owner get used to the parrot. It mutually reduces fear and builds a positive relationship.
Performing target training in the cage begins with teaching the parrot to accept treats from your hand. This part could take as little as a few seconds to as many as a few weeks. The important thing is not to scare the parrot of your hands in the process. If the parrot isn't too shy, you can come to the side of the cage nearest the parrot and extend the treat through the cage bars up to the bird. However, if you find the parrot running away whenever you approach, then just come to a slightly further end of the cage and wait patiently. Just hold the treat through the bars and don't move. Let the parrot come to take it on its own. This may not happen on the first try but if you consistently offer treats like this, eventually it will let down its guard and come over to take it. You can use longer strands of millet spray for small parrots or a strip of fruit for larger ones. This will give your hands a bit more separation from the parrot. Do not worry about biting. Not only do the bars protect your hands, but the parrot is sooner to want the tasty treat than to bite you.
As soon as you feel the parrot feels safe eating treats from your hand, it is time to introduce the clicker. The only reason you don't want to begin using the clicker too soon is because it may scare the parrot from eating treats from your hand. But as soon as it is comfortable, you should click every time you are about to give it a treat. If you find the click to be scaring the bird, you can muffle the sound by holding it behind your back or inside your sleeve. Once it is no longer scaring the bird, you can start clicking closer and closer. The goal of clicking when you give treats is to teach the bird that the sound of a click means it is going to get a treat. This will become the bridge for the remainder of your training. The click bridges the time gap between when the bird performs the desired behavior and receives the reward. This way it eliminates any confusion about what you wanted the parrot to do to earn its treat.
Target training parrot inside cage
The next step is to teach the parrot to target. This is where you hold a target stick (chopstick or dowel) out and the parrot walks over to touch it with its beak. Naturally, at first the parrot will not know that this is what you want it to do. This is why you need to teach it by giving it a chance to touch the stick and earn treats. At first, hold the target stick through the cage bars really close to the parrot. Quite likely, the parrot will bite the stick out of shear curiosity. The moment that it does, click and give it a treat. Repeat this a few times. Eventually, test if the parrot is motivated to make a slightly bigger move to touch the stick by holding it a tiny bit further away. Try to get your parrot to lean in to touch the stick, turn its head to touch the stick, and then eventually to take a few steps to touch it. Bear in mind that this may not happen all at once and may require several training sessions to achieve.
If your parrot absolutely does not make a single effort to touch the stick for the first time (which is necessary for it to realize that it can have a treat for this), you can touch the stick to the beak the first time to give yourself an excuse to treat the parrot. Do not do this too many times though. Eventually the parrot must do this on its own in order to learn to target. If you are having too much trouble, the parrot might not be motivated enough for food. Stop and try again another time when the parrot is hungrier.
There is a possibility that the parrot is afraid of the target stick and runs away from it. In this case, do not chase your parrot around with the stick. Instead, hold the stick steadily in one spot and just watch the parrot's movements. Whenever the parrot moves away from the stick, don't do anything. However, if it makes any motion toward the stick (it could be as little as taking a step toward it or even turning its head that way), click and reward. Reward any effort from the parrot that ventures in the direction of the stick. You can continue this progressively by rewarding bigger and bigger steps toward the stick and not walking away or making smaller steps. This will eventually teach the parrot to get close to and touch the stick. It is like the game of hot/cold when you tell the other person if they are getting closer/further from some hidden scavenger prize. When the parrot moves toward the target stick, that is getting warmer and it gets rewarded for this.
Hold target stick, clicker, and treat
Eventually, you will be able to target the parrot around the cage to any place. The parrot will watch the stick and walk/climb to wherever you point it. This is the point at which you know you are ready to reach into the cage for the first time. If you're not fearful you can use your bare hands. But if you have any reservations, you can wear a leather glove or better yet hold a perch for your parrot to step up on. It is best to use a perch from or similar to the ones in the cage. You will need to master the one handed target maneuver to continue. This involves holding the clicker, target stick, and treat all in one hand because your other hand is where the parrot will be taught to step onto (or the perch it is holding). Hold the clicker in your palm and use your middle finger to click. Slide the target stick into your hand and hold the treat with thumb and forefinger. You may want to practice this a few times away from the parrot to be sure you can do it right. If you fumble with these training aids at the time of training, it may scare the bird and set back progress.
Target parrot out of cage
Prior to proceeding, practice a few known target touches to get the parrot in the mood for training. Then slowly open the cage door and continue practicing targeting inside the cage but with your hands in the cage. This is not a bad exercise to practice a few times to get your parrot used to hands inside of the cage. Next you can hold a perch in one hand and target the parrot from the cage perch to your handheld perch. Don't think that you can immediately take the parrot out and all is done. Target the parrot off of your handheld perch and back to the cage. Practice this a bunch of times so that the parrot can get comfortable. Now after practicing this enough times, you should be able to carry the parrot out of the cage and to your designated training area. At this point you are ready to train your parrot like any other.
Target Training Parrot Outside the Cage
Whether you got your parrot out of the cage with ease, unwillingly, by targeting, or any other method, you will want to begin your parrot taming and training experience by target training the parrot outside of the cage. Parrots can get territorial but also easily distracted inside their cage. Therefore the cage is not a suitable place for training. From my personal experience, Parrot Training Perches are the ideal stand to use for parrot training. However, a free standing parrot stand, chair back, or table top perch can be your next best training solution. Do not provide any toys, feeders, or other distractions in the parrot's training area. It is important for the parrot to focus on you and nothing else.
Get your parrot from the cage to its training stand using methods outlined above. Give it a little time to get used to the stand but as soon as it calms down, proceed to training. The first few times you have it out will only be about teaching it to accept treats from your hand. You should have already figured out what treats are suitable from the procedure outlined previously. Now offer those treats from your hand. You can test your parrot's eagerness and motivation to eat from your hand by holding the treat a few inches from the parrot and seeing if it walks for the treat or not. If the parrot is willing to make a few steps to get the treat from you, you'll know you're ready to begin target training.
User a clicker for training
Once your parrot is comfortably eating from your hand (and remember this may involve several training sessions), you should introduce the clicker. A clicker is simply a handheld box that makes a click noise when you squeeze it. This device is used as a training bridge to communicate to the parrot when it has completed the behavior you are trying to train. The way that the parrot knows that a click means it got it right is because you will start the clicker training with clicker conditioning. This is the process of simply clicking, and giving the parrot a treat immediately. Soon the bird will learn that when it hears a click, it will get a treat. Once you begin teaching the actual tricks, the parrot will realize that whatever it did at the moment the click happened, it has earned a treat. So go ahead and clicker condition the bird for a few sessions by clicking the clicker and giving a treat. You will know that the parrot is ready to proceed to the next step when it becomes more attentive/excited upon hearing the click sound.
Chopstick serves great as target
Now that the parrot accepts treats from your hand and knows what a click is, you are ready to begin target training. Target training involves showing a stick to the parrot and it then walks over to touch the tip of the stick. The purpose of this is to teach the parrot where you want it to walk by having it follow the stick. This is more effective than luring (just holding the treat and waiting for the bird to come get it) because the bird isn't distracted by the food. A chopstick or wooden dowel works best but any non-toxic object can be used for this purpose as long as it is consistent. Even if you used the target method for getting your parrot out of the cage, it is still a good idea to practice this skill with your parrot in the new training area.
Do not let the parrot attack, play with, or chew up the target stick. Not only will this ruin the training aid but it will also teach the parrot a behavior different from what we are trying to achieve. Use the distraction of the click upon touching the stick to catch your parrots attention. Immediately bring forth the treat while pulling the target stick away. If the parrot continues biting the stick too hard, you can click and reward when the parrot approaches the stick and is about to touch, but before the beak has actually clasped the tip of the stick.
Begin target training by holding the tip of the target stick close to your parrot's beak. Most parrots will bite the stick out of mere curiosity. The moment the parrot's beak touches the stick, click and offer a treat. Do not let the parrot play with or chew the target stick. Try again. After several attempts, the parrot will begin to catch on that touching the stick will earn it food. If the parrot is not approaching the stick, try to wait it out and see if it will go for it eventually. Try to resist the temptation to return the stick closer and closer if the parrot is not approaching. Instead, take the stick away, and try setting up an easier target scenario the next time. As the parrot becomes better at targeting, you can try to hold the stick further and further away. First it may be just far to bend the neck toward the stick, then to turn the head, eventually to take a single step toward it. Before you know it, you'll have the parrot walking all over the perch to touch the stick.
You can improve targeting skills by targeting the parrot toward you and away from you. Also hold the stick higher and lower. The parrot will in this way learn that only touching the tip of the stick is what will earn it a treat. Do not click or reward your parrot unless it touches the tip of the stick. If it touches higher up on the stick, take it away and request it to target again. It is not required, but a good idea to say the word “target” or “touch” as you show the parrot the stick. This will over time develop as a secondary command besides the sight of the stick. This can be used to give extra encouragement for the parrot to go touch the stick when it may not be paying the best attention.
Establishing Training Motivation
Keeping your parrot motivated is the key to successful training. Your parrot must want the rewards. Otherwise they do not serve much purpose. There are several easy ways to ensuring that your parrot is most motivated by food rewards.
Parrots naturally feed in the mornings and evenings so training is best done during these same times. It is best to train your parrot at its hungriest, so it doesn't make any sense to do it right after it ate a meal. Instead, take the food out of the cage overnight. In the morning, do training first and then put the parrot's meal back in the cage. You can let it eat all it wants, but be sure to take the food away again prior to the evening training session.
How long prior to training you need to take the food away will vary. Some parrots are driven by the tastiness of the treats rather than hunger. Meanwhile for others, you may end up using the same food as treats so hunger will be key. For basic food management, you do not even need to use a scale to weigh the parrot (we may introduce this for advanced training but for the purpose of the basic training in this article it is unnecessary). First try training the parrot without taking the food away at all. Next time, take the food away one hour prior to training. Next time try taking it away two, then three, and all the way up to six hours. Do not leave your parrot without food for more than six hours (except overnight while it is sleeping) unless you are capable of tracking your parrot's weight/health. Six hours without food will not harm your parrot but will simply give it the hunger to strive to do what it takes to earn treats during training. You will find the optimum duration to leave your parrot without food when training motivation improves.
After training sessions, let your parrot eat as much as it wants to so that it can maintain a healthy weight. Be sure to provide a healthy balanced diet. Pellets serve as a solid nutritional basis. Fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains can be provided in moderation. Be sure to save the parrot's favorite foods only for training.
Teaching Parrot to Step Up
Practice targeting with parrot
Now that your parrot knows how to target, it should not be too difficult to turn this into stepping up. After practicing a few step ups to get your parrot warmed up, you can start by targeting your parrot to step up onto a handheld perch. This is a good way to desensitize it to your hands without being too forceful. Progressively you can hold the perch closer and closer in so that the parrot has to stand closer to your hand every time it is targeted onto the perch.
Once the parrot is stepping up onto a perch satisfactorily, you can begin training it to step up on your hand. If the parrot still bites a lot and you are scared, you can wear a glove during the earlier parts of this training. However, keep in mind that the glove also encourages the parrot to bite because they like chewing leather. Hold your hand a short distance away from the parrot and slightly higher than its feet. Hold the target stick such that the only way the parrot can reach it is by stepping onto your finger or hand.
You may want to hold out your arm (for bigger parrots) or the back of your hand initially in case you are worried about the parrot biting your finger. Once you get more comfortable with each other, you can have the parrot step up.
Target parrot to step up
on your finger. After you achieve some success doing this, you can begin to recede the use of the target stick. Begin by saying step up every time you practice this exercise. Then stop targeting the parrot onto your hand but hold the stick in the other hand in sight. Eventually you won't even need to show the target stick at all and the parrot will know how to step up.
You should practice step up in all different areas. Have the parrot step up from finger to finger. Practice the parrot stepping up from inside the cage. Also have the parrot step up from you to other people so that it is accustomed stepping up for all people and not just yourself. If the parrot is scared and doesn't want to go to the other person, try targeting it onto their hand rather than forcing it.
Basic Taming and Handling
Once you have achieved some basic skills with the parrot like targeting and step up, you should continue taming the parrot to being touched and handled. I'm sure you want to be able to pet and hold your parrot so the following procedures are important to follow. Also the parrot should be used to being held and toweled for when it visits the vet or groomer.
The taming method is the same every step of the way. It involves figuring out your parrot's comfort threshold, pushing it slightly, waiting till it calms down, removing the discomfort, and then rewarding the parrot with treats.
The first thing you will need to achieve is the ability to touch your parrot. The beak is one of the best places to start because if you are touching the beak, you know where it is and can avoid getting bitten. Start by placing your hand in front of the parrot and slowly move it closer and closer. If the parrot makes any moves to bite or move away, stop right there. Hold your hand in that position and wait for the parrot to calm down. Wait a few seconds after it calms down, take your hand away and give a treat. Keep repeating this procedure so that you can get closer and closer. Eventually your parrot will tolerate you touching its beak. You can scratch the beak with your fingernail; the parrot will like that.
Tame parrot to be used to towel
Next, use the same method to tame the parrot to let you touch its body. Hold your hand over the parrot and approach slowly. At the first display of discomfort stop and wait to calm down, then reward. Eventually you'll be able to touch the parrot with one finger and if you keep practicing this, your whole hand. Once you can put your entire hand on the parrot's back, begin practicing cupping your hand around the back and wings. With every step of the way, apply more pressure until you have such a grip that you can pick the parrot up. At first pick it up only briefly and then put the parrot back down (don't forget to reward). But eventually you will be able to pick the bird up for longer and longer.
One of the biggest problems/mistakes parrot owners make is making going back into the cage an unpleasant experience for the parrot. If the parrot does not want to go back into the cage but is forced to by the owner, not only will it upset the relationship but it will also make the parrot resist stepping up for fear of being put away.
The solution to this problem though is very simple. Develop a routine of taking your parrot out in the mornings and evenings, prior to meal times. Spend the time you want with your parrot out and do some training. Then put the parrot away in its cage to a delightful meal. The hungry parrot will be looking forward to going back in its home to be fed rather than disappointed for having to be put away.
Also, be sure to use step up for good things other than being put away in the cage. Some people only use step up to put the parrot away and let the parrot roam on its own all the other time. In that case, the parrot will soon learn that step up means being put away and may choose to bite instead of stepping up. So instead, mix things up. Have your parrot step up so that you could put it on a different stand. Have the parrot step up so you can scratch its beak. Have the parrot step up so you can cue a trick and give it a treat. By mixing up what step up is used for and keeping it positive, you can guarantee that the parrot will remain tame and willing to step up.
This article should have answered basic questions such as: how do I get my new parrot into the cage for the first time? How can you take a parrot out of the cage initially? What is the best way to teach a parrot to step up? What do I do to train my parrot to target? How should you go about clicker training? How to teach a parrot to step up onto the hand? What are the steps to taming a parrot to allow being grabbed or touched? How to towel a parrot?
The key to parrot training is the use of positive reinforcement. You need to make things such that the parrot wants to
Michael with Kili
do what you want. Always think of the parrot's perspective and what's in it for the bird. When it comes to taming, it's all about slowly desensitizing your parrot to things. Make your parrot slightly uncomfortable with a new object or place to touch, wait for it to calm down, and then reward by taking it away and giving treats. Make scary things (hands, towel, other people, new objects) less scary by presenting them without any force and giving your parrot the opportunity to make them go away by calming down. Make this super rewarding by providing treats as well.
I hope this training guide will help you on your journey with your feathered friend. After reading this, you should not need to purchase any book, dvd, or online guide for parrot training. You have been given the tools for basic parrot taming and training and I am sure that when put to use, they will bring you surprisingly wonderful results. You can subscribe to the trained parrot blog to receive updates when new parrot training articles are posted.
Update: If you liked this guide, you will especially like my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. It's not just a tutorial about teaching a parrot to step up, but a complete approach to parrot keeping. From what parrot to get to flight training and problem solving, this book covers what a pet-parrot owner needs to know. You can purchase the book on Amazon or receive free shipping, clicker, and target stick included when you purchase directly from the Parrot Wizard.
You can support the Trained Parrot Blog effort by purchasing a set of Parrot Training Perches to use in training your own bird. These come in either Java or Dragonwood and are sized for small, medium, and large parrots. They are a wonderful training aid and can be seen used in most of the training videos included with this article.
For anyone wondering how to touch your parrot's beak or what is the best way to develop personal confidence handling a biting parrot, this article should be particularly helpful. This is a taming technique I have rarely seen discussed but has helped me personally with all parrots I've ever interacted with. This taming method is for everyone beginner through expert and can be used on any parrot from tame to aggressive as long as you can safely approach the parrot. This should apply to all parrot species except for the smallest ones.
This incredible parrot taming technique is beak touching. The first step of hand taming a parrot is to be able to touch it without getting bitten. The only place on the parrot's entire body that you can safely touch and not get bit is the maxilla. This is the upper beak on a parrot. The reason you cannot get bit when touching the maxilla is because you are too far from the mandible (bottom beak) but too close for the parrot to be able to move and get your finger in its beak. By touching the upper maxilla, you are safely out of range of getting bit. Touching the parrot's head, tail, wings, feet, or head are far more likely to result in a bite if it isn't accustomed to being touched. And don't think you can touch its back. Parrots can turn their head over 180 degrees and will bite behind them in a flash.
When familiarizing myself with a parrot that I'm uncertain of, I like to start by touching its beak and seeing how it reacts. First as I approach my hand slowly towards its beak (from the front and above), I am gauging the body language and trying to see if it is aggressive or calm. I check to see if the parrot opens its beak and leans in for my hand or stays still. I continue holding my hand above and just far enough that there is no way the parrot can reach to bite. Then I move steady and deliberately right to the upper maxilla and put my hand or finger on it. I like to get my thumb and index finger around the beak and kind of hold on. I may add a scratch from my finger nail. The parrot cannot bite me in this position and I can safely retract my hand upward at any moment and out of range if I need to.
Besides the fact that this is the safest place to touch, the parrot is actually likely to enjoy it. It's one of the places they can't reach to scratch when they want to. The parrot will really like you for scratching off bits of food stuck or beak that is flaking off. So the act itself becomes positively reinforcing. The parrot will learn to remain calm and let you handle its beak. This serves as a behavior alternative to biting. Any attempt at biting will be negatively punished by the termination of beak scratches. As the parrot becomes more accustomed to this sort of hand to beak relationship, it will be less likely to bite the hands because it is used to hands touching the beak rather than the other way around. I'm not suggesting that this will eliminate biting all together. Other taming methods are certainly required, but this is a great supplement to them.
As you touch the parrot's beak more and more, you will develop more confidence around it yourself. Both you and your parrot will have less fear of each other. While you worry about the parrot using the beak for biting, the parrot also fears you using hands for grabbing or hurting. But as you practice the beak touching/scratching, you will both learn that beak/hands are not meant for harm. As you gain more confidence you can scratch the lower mandible as well and move on to the cheeks and head.
Besides the mutual trust this technique develops, it also serves a practical application. This allows you to file your parrot's beak if needed and to scratch off any dirt. So instead of fearing your parrot's beak, turn that around to a game that results in positively reinforcing beak scratches for your parrot.
Fortunately Truman is quite tame from the breeder. He already steps up and allows touching. However, there are some additional taming exercises that I must do with him in order to prepare him for some tricks that I would like to teach him down the line. Furthermore these taming behaviors make maintenance easier as well. The two things I am working on are laying on his back in my hand and letting me pull his wings open.
I have been using a combination of modeling, flooding, positive, and negative reinforcement to begin taming these behaviors. The modeling involves having Truman watch me hold Kili on her back and open her wings. Kili doesn't mind these at all and I don't have to give her treats but I do just so Truman can see he can get treats for it too. Flooding involves the fact that I just do it. I flip him on his back or open his wings whether he wants to or not. He just has to get used to it happening to him. The negative reinforcement is that I flip him back up or let go of his wing when he relaxes and stops resisting me. The positive reinforcement is that I give him a treat upon completion of each behavior.
By using all methods of training in combination, not only can I catalyze learning but also prevent over use of any one method. While I don't want to be too forceful by using flooding and make him phobic, I also do not want him to be overly treat dependent and refuse otherwise. Here is a step by step guide for how to tame a parrot to let you roll it on its back or open its wings:
Rolling parrot on back:
1) The parrot must already know how to step up and be comfortable with you touching it 2) Put your hand on its back and slowly roll it back 3) Stop when the bird starts getting uncomfortable (even if it is not full reclined) 4) Hold that position briefly 5) Upright the parrot and reward 6) Repeat with incremental increase of angle and duration
Opening parrot's wings:
1) The parrot must already know how to step up and be comfortable with you touching it 2) Put your hand under the parrot's wing and press it up slightly to raise the wing under armpit 3) Hold briefly, release and reward 4) Pull gently by the solid front part of the tip of the wing and hold open briefly, release and reward 5) Repeat and progressively open further and hold longer
Here is a video of a taming session with Truman. The video is quite long but I recommend watching it through entirely because I demonstrate different things throughout the video and provide helpful tips as I go. This is a real training session in progress. There are no final results yet but even by the end of the taming session Truman is less resistant to the exercises.
Taming your parrot to lay on its back is not only useful for teaching the play dead trick but also to be able to hold it to trim its nails and to be able to carry it from place to place. Taming the parrot to open its wings is not only useful for training the wings trick but also can be used to inspect wings for broken feathers, clipping, and putting on a harness. Remember that this can be a long gradual process that requires a lot of patience and practice. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months before you see results. However, if you practice these taming behaviors a few times a day over a long period of time, the parrot will get used to this and allow you to do it even without treats. Once your taming is complete, be sure to practice these behaviors on occasion so that the tameness is not lost.
Finally I'd like to mention that Kili and Truman are beginning to get along much better to the point that they were sitting together on a 12 inch perch and not even fighting.