My parrots do what I want. This is contrary to most people's parrots that do what they don't want and don't do what they do want. My parrots step up for me whenever I ask them to. They come out of their cages and go back into their cages when expected. They fly to me when called and allow me to touch, hold, handle, and grab them. They never bite me and they don't bite other people either. They voluntarily put on their harnesses and travel with me. They even freefly outside without restraint and come back to me. My parrots do what I want them to do! But why do they do that? I will attempt to explain that in this article.
Note in this article I use examples of my freeflight experiences with Kili & Truman as the ultimate demonstration of my parrots doing what I want with full freedom. I am not recommending that anyone try this with their parrot. I am only hoping to convince you of the extent of the effectiveness of my approaches and to encourage you to use them with your parrot in your home. It is best that you do not attempt outdoor freeflight.
It comes down to training, motivation, challenging, patience, and realistic expectations. Without all of these components, it is unlikely that your parrot will do what you want. Let's start with realistic expectations. In part this means understanding and accepting the wild side of a parrot and that it may never change. On the other hand it's about having expectations that are achievable and relative to the parrot's current level of training. In other words when I work with a less trained parrot, I don't expect it to do what a more highly trained parrot can. If what I want the parrot to do is relative to what it can do, then I am more likely to be pleased that the parrot is doing what I want.
But wanting the parrot to do what I expect it to be capable of doing isn't enough. I also want the parrot to learn to do better and this is where challenging the parrot comes in. I challenge my parrots and other parrots that I train to do better. This is a perpetual process. Even when my parrots are good at what they do, I challenge them to do better still or to move onto tougher challenges that will continue to challenge them. By raising the bar of their capabilities - as well as my expectations - it assures that the easier things will remain while newer challenges will be achieved as well.
Patience is the bridge between expectations and achieving actual challenges. These things may take time. But what's the rush? The bird will live a very long time and it's a fun road for us to share together through the behavior improvement process. But expectations, challenges, and patience simply aren't enough. An infinite amount of these will still keep you exactly where you're at if you don't apply training. Training teaches the parrot how to do the things that we wish to challenge them with. I'm not going to get into how to train parrots because that is the subject of this blog and my book, but it is undeniable that training is a key component.
Yet, even people who apply the training approach end up failing to achieve desired behavior from their parrots. One more component is irreplaceable: motivation. The parrot has to want what you want or at least want what you can do for it in return for doing what you want. Parrots may be highly intelligent but they are also highly selfish. As are we. We want our parrots to do what we want; likewise our parrots want us to do what they want! Having an outstanding relationship and well-behaved parrot lies on the intersection of those two desires! There must be compromise on both sides in order for it to work.
The secret to getting your parrot to do what you want is to make it so that the parrot wants to do that. We can call this motivation. Forcing the parrot to do what you want may work at times. But the down side in most cases is that if the parrot doesn't genuinely want to do that, then at the first opportunity to bail it will. For example, I take my parrots to freefly at the park. On the way to and from the park I have them wear their aviator harnesses just to be safe. However, at the park they are given the freedom to fly. If the only reason they wore harnesses was because at home I forced them to wear the harness, then at the park they could easily fly away from me to avoid having it put on. You see, the difference now between a parrot that WANTS to put the harness on from the parrot that HAS to put the harness on?
Another element that I find to be crucial to success with parrots is not clipping their wings!. I think wing clipping is to a large extent responsible for parrot owners' failure to teach the parrot to do what they want. And it's not the other way around, either. I do believe that people think they are clipping a bird because it does not do what they want. But in reality, they never taught it in the first place. But by clipping the bird's wings, they are actually eliminating the possibility of teaching their parrot to behave the way that it should. The parrot does not stay on its tree because it should, it does it because it has to! The parrot doesn't avoid flying over to people because it doesn't want to bite, but because it can't. Wing clipping ends up forcing a parrot to appear to do what we want (like be with us) but in actuality there is a strong chance the parrot does not want to. In that case, it is a failed application of teaching the parrot to do what we want it to do. This ultimately leads to failure and a highly misbehaved parrot.
Parrots are born to fly. It's not just their feathered appearance that is evolved for flight. Their entire cardio-respiratory system is like a turbocharged engine that is dying for flight. Their brain is capable of processing its spatial surroundings, navigating, planning, and thinking at the speed of flight! Without flight, the muscles and the brain decay from disuse. We need that brain to stay sharp to learn to be the great pet that we desire. Eliminating flight eliminates the intelligence that we need to tap into to teach the parrot to cooperate.
The goal is to have a parrot that looks forward to seeing you and cooperating with you. If the parrot only does these things because it has to, then at the first opportunity to not have to do them, it won't. Yet if the parrot is put in the situation that it wants to do these things and chooses to, success is assured all around.
Here's a great test to figure out if the way you approach your parrot is improving or harming your relationship: if your parrot will fly away from you as a result, it is hurting. If your parrot will voluntarily fly to you to get to participate in your handling, then it is improving. The only way to find out is to have a flighted parrot. Simply guessing what your parrot would do is not enough because there is no concrete feedback. A clipped parrot that cannot fly may be stuck enduring much that it does not want. This will slowly add up and then at some point what seems like "biting for no reason" is actually quite justified because of all the things it had to do that it did not want to do. By allowing the bird to fly and using this as a gauge for what it wants/does not want to do, you can only use approaches that actually work. This reduces the fallout of doing things that the bird does not want and having revenge seemingly out of nowhere.
Most of you know that I use food management to train tricks/behavior to my parrots. It would seem that the parrot is "forced" to do what I want because otherwise it would not get to eat. But actually this isn't the case for several reasons.
First this has to do with a realization I've made some time ago. It's not my job to feed my parrots. It is their job to feed themselves. It is only my responsibility to make food available to them but it is up to them to make the feeding take place. Think about it. In the most basic case, the owner puts food in the bowl and the parrot climbs over to eat from it. The owner is making food available but the parrot is choosing to take the steps to eat the food. Likewise, in the wild, parrots fly distances from tree to tree to feed themselves. What I am doing is shifting the gap from eating from a bowl inches away to something closer to eating from a tree miles away. It is not only natural but also instinctual for parrots to search, forage, and behave in ways that get them food. Through training and soliciting good behavior ("good" is relative and in this case I mean "behavior that is desirable to me") I am directly appealing to a parrot's natural desire to do what it takes to feed itself.
Furthermore, if my parrots are failing the challenges I make for them to "feed themselves," I - in my sympathy - can reduce the challenges to something that they are known to be capable of to ensure they do manage to feed themselves. In other words, they'll still be fed. But it gets even better still. During this process we develop alternative forms of reinforcement that are not food. The birds develop habitual good behavior and maintain it even though they never receive food for it. Not biting, stepping up, coming out of the cage, touching, handling, grabbing, stepping up for other people, putting on harnesses, etc are so much practiced and habitual that my parrots continue to exhibit all these excellent behaviors without receiving any treats for them. So, yes, food was used to teach them these things initially, but as they have become habit, the parrots are no longer dependent on food to maintain these.
As I challenge my parrots to always do more behavior, better, for smaller treats, and for less frequent treats, they become adapted to just doing the behavior. They also become more in tune with very subtle conditioned reinforcers. Getting a click of the clicker or just a smile from my face can become much more effective when the parrot has been challenged to do a certain behavior for a treat once every 10 or better yet every 50 times. By employing variable ratio reinforcement schedules, I am able to make the behavior more reliable while also making the parrot less dependent on food as a reason for doing it. Also, as I challenge my parrots to do harder and harder things (such as extensive amounts of strenuous flying), it makes other things comparatively easier. My parrots perform tricks, step up, and behave well in other ways much more readily because those are far easier ways to earn attention, scratches, and other good subtle non-food things than flying. It's a piece of cake to step up for me for a head scratch rather than to fly to me for it. So step up is absolutely reliable and fool proof. Flying 50ft recalls at home is easier than flying 200ft recalls at the park, so after flying 200ft recalls at the park, the parrots are even more reliable at flying 50ft recalls at home. As I continue to challenge my parrots' ultimate behavior challenges, all easier behavior becomes near automatic.
If you challenge your parrot to go just a little further, do just a little more, with time the behavior will be better and better. First it may be a matter of walking a few inches to the food bowl to eat. Then the parrot can learn to target a greater distance to target and eat. Then you can take this even further and have the bird learn to fly some distances to you to get the same. The bird still gets to eat the full healthy portion that is suitable for it but it will just learn to do more and more for it and this will be normal. In the process the parrot will become more fit and your relationship will blossom. No matter how much we challenge our parrots, it still doesn't even come remotely close to the challenges of nature. But the more we train our parrots, the happier we will be with having a more suitable pet and the healthier the parrot will be as well.
I treat training, and particularly flight recall training, like I am a tree. In the wild, parrots will fly from tree to tree to find the ones with ripe fruit, nuts, or seeds. Some trees may not have anything while others will be more rewarding. I tell my parrots to "forage me with their good behavior." In the wild, they will be challenged to find the food and then to extract it from its natural protections. In the home, they can experience the same mental challenge but in a way that benefits our relationship at the same time. They have to try to work out the puzzle of extracting their food from me by figuring out what I want them to do and doing it to the best of their ability! This is so natural to them. It feels like more of a crime to deny them the opportunities to express these natural tendencies. They love to be challenged.
While my parrots are practicing flight in home and outside, not only are they learning to fly better, they are also building stronger muscles. As long as I keep challenging them to fly a little more or a little further each time, they get stronger and have greater endurance. This also makes it easier for them to fly small distances and makes them more reliable when I really need them to fly. Flying a short distance is easy for a stronger bird so it takes less motivation to elicit it. At the absolute best, I was able to get Truman to fly a total distance of 1.5 miles and Kili to fly 2.6 miles in a single 1 hour long flight training session at home. Considering that Kili came to me clipped as a bird that had never fledged, this amount of flying strength that we have built is colossal! Better yet, watch her flying outside with skill and ease. She will now fly to me from any part of the park, even when she can't see me. She has learned to dodge obstacles, turn, and find me by the call of my voice.
By allowing parrots to fly, we have the glorious opportunity to be that parrot's wild foraging tree. We can tap into that natural instinct to fly across distances and feed not only to exercise the parrot but also to teach them how wonderful it is spending time with us. Through the flight recall training process, you can teach your parrot to think on the fly and to do what we want it to do. As we challenge our parrots with strenuous tasks such as flight (which are otherwise perfectly natural for them), we can develop high endurance levels of motivation. That motivation can be tapped to encompass all the other good behavior that we require of our parrots in order to be good pets.
I feel that the ultimate measure of success in regards to parrot ownership is the combination of the birds' health/well-being and being able to get my parrots be the kinds of pets I want them to be. Success is that bridge of the parrot doing what we want and allowing the parrot to get what it wants from us!
Please learn more about my complete approach to achieving a great companion parrot in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. It is the first book of its kind to provide a complete approach to parrot keeping and also to presume parrots to be the flighted animals that they are. This approach does not come with a caveat that says it will only work if the parrot has its wings clipped because it is an approach to make the bird want/choose to cooperate rather than to artificially force it. It's an approach to teach the animal to want what you want and encourage it to be a willing participant in the pet lifestyle in which it lives. With this approach, everyone benefits both human and parrot alike. You will be happier to have the pet you want but the parrot will also be happier to have ways by which to fulfill it's natural instinct for survival. Ultimately it's a more natural, mutual, and caring approach.
Kili, Truman, and I had an awesome time traveling around Texas for our recent book signing tour. It all started with an 11 hour non-stop flight from Linden, NJ to San Marcos, TX. The flight was initially supposed to take 10 hours but due to headwinds and barely sufficient fuel, I had to slow down to stretch things a little. The reason for going to San Marcos was to take advantage of a special $1/gallon fuel promotion they were running that month.
While in San Marcos, the birds and I took advantage of the time and car rental to go see downtown San Antonio. The parrots remembered the Alamo and strolled down canal ways of San Antonio.
We met the Vintage Mooney Pilots group at San Marcos airport for lunch. The birds showed off some tricks and flying. The more fascinating aspect of this encounter was that I had the birds flying around a conference room enclosed by glass windows on all sides. Despite the amount of potentially crashable surfaces, the birds never hit anything and new exactly what they were doing. I wish I had a picture to share because for a bird that does not grasp the concept of glass, this room could have been a death trap. Kili & Truman understand perfectly.
After gassing up for $88 in San Marcos, we flew onward to Phoenix. We went on a Sunday morning group parrot outing at Joe's and then visited the Arizona Exotic Bird Rescue for a book signing event. I stayed the week with Ginger and worked on a secret project (that you'll have to wait a bit to find out about) and helped out at the rescue. I took care of the morning routine with the parrots by changing food, water, and papers. It's not hard but when there are that many birds, it can take quite a while. Luckily, there's always a bird around who's willing to come along and help out.
Learning that Ginger never gets out for a vacation, I dragged her out and made her forget about the birds for a day. I took her up to Las Vegas which was just a two hour flight in my plane. We walked around the strip and joked about how many parrot themed things we could spot. After gambling away the rescue's veterinary fund (just kidding), we flew back to Phoenix.
As close as Ginger has ever been to New York, New York. But in Las Vegas.
When the week ended I bid Ginger goodbye and returned to Texas with the trained parrot duo for some more weekend book signings. We did a performance for the Tree Top Bird Center in Dallas and then another event for the Fort Worth Bird Club the following day. The birds performed very well and in fact I had to fly them for more treats after each to satisfy their desire to show off, exercise, and get treats. Many books were sold and signed and the events were not only a success but a pleasure as well. Kili & Truman are big showoffs and love a crowd.
Between events, the birds went all over Dallas and Fort Worth with me. They visited Downtown Dallas and paid homage to JFK (this is the place where Kennedy was assassinated), they paid a lot of attention to frequently passing trains, they saw fish at an aquarium, and they showed off to restaurant patrons at the west end. In Fort Worth, they visited the downtown area and the Stock Yards. The birds had lunch with me outside and watched the famous cow drive. Truman was really intrigued and said he wanted to be a cowbird or at least a cowparrot.
Truman playing dead by the book repository building
Here's the trip summary video with Kili & Truman touring San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth:
There are many good behaviors that we can teach our parrots but there are just as many (if not more) bad ones we can inadvertently teach that may put our parrots in jeopardy. I have been seeing way too many photos of parrots placed in potentially dangerous situations. Often times the situation isn't dangerous in the moment the photo is snapped but it is teaching the parrot a behavior that is likely to some day get it hurt.
The most common circumstance I've seen in photos that I strongly object to is having a parrot on the stove. In many cases the parrot is actually being trained to go on the stove using operant conditioning through positive reinforcement. People are using the same techniques I use to train my parrots to go to their training perches, but to go to a dangerous place such as a stove instead! Even without food, just the act of laughing, taking a picture, or making a big deal about it can be socially reinforcing in itself. In other words just from someone putting their parrot on a stove and their reaction to it, may encourage the parrot to fly, walk, or jump there on its own some other time.
Even if you are careful not to cook when your parrot is out, which you should be, doesn't mean it's ok to allow the parrot on the stove when it's cold. As the parrot learns that the stove is a safe, fun, and possibly feeding place, not only does it lose deterent from going there but it is even encouraged. Even if you maintain a 100% perfect track record, there is still the possibility of someone else coming over and using the stove while the parrot is out. But not just that. There is also the possibility that your parrot will someday end up in a different home (whether boarding, rehoming, temporary care, etc). If your parrot was encouraged to do potentially dangerous behavior in your home, it could be the end of the bird in someone else's. That is why it is absolutely your responsibility to solve bad behavior and encourage good.
I was originally planning to link photos and stories related to this that I found disturbing but decided I don't want to single anyone out. But I don't want to downplay the severity at all. Believe me, these things are all too common and horror stories are real. The stove is one of the biggest ones that comes to mind but there are plenty of others. Always consider whether or not something could pose a danger to your parrot down the line. Don't encourage that sort of behavior now if it could cause harm later. A good starting point is if you wouldn't allow a toddler to be there or play with that, you especially shouldn't for a parrot!
In my book, I end up talking a lot about encouraging good behavior and cooperation in parrots. But the most important, free, simple, cheap, easy piece of advice I can give toward having a well-behaved/safe parrot is to avoid encouraging bad behavior in the first place! We're not talking about punishing or trying to eradicate bad behavior. We're talking about not giving it the opportunity to develop in the first place. If your parrot is stove obsessed, making it not want to go there is extremely hard and someday the stove may be cooling down and still hot enough to burn the parrot going on there. On the other hand, if you never put your parrot there or allow leftover food to encourage your parrot to go there, you are partly on the way.
Another element to avoiding a parrot from going some place is to never allow it to see you or anyone else there either. For example, my parrots want to chew up my keyboard and things they see me using in their presence. Since I never cook or even approach the stove while they are out, they don't see that as an interesting place. This isn't to say that it's impossible for them to land on the stove, but it makes it damned unlikely because they never saw it as a place birds/people go. It's very hard to keep a parrot from going to places it found to be fun or rewarding. However, preventing it from being rewarding is much more manageable.
So what I encourage you to do, is to think about what kind of household places or things you do may pose a danger to your parrot (not only under your supervision but even under others'). Not only that, don't give your parrot opportunities to play with or chew things that may be dangerous. Prevention is key. Put dangerous items away. Don't allow your parrot into dangerous rooms (such as kitchens/bathrooms). Don't let your parrot see you using potentially dangerous items. Never place reinforcing things (such as food or toys) in potentially dangerous places. And if your parrot does on its own come in contact with something that isn't imminently dangerous (just in the long term), don't make a big deal about it. Don't laugh, don't take a picture, don't give a toy instead, better yet don't do anything. There is a good chance the bird will get bored and that will be the end of that. Almost anything you do will more likely lead to reinforcement of the behavior so no reaction is best.
If the bird takes an interest to a dangerous place (such as a stove) without you reinforcing it, the only remaining solution is to prevent it from being in that room or perform direct training to keep the bird too occupied to have the opportunity to explore unwanted places. For example, place the parrot on a training perch and do some target training to distract if from what it wants to do. Break the bad habit by positively reinforcing a good one. Just remember to prevent and ignore unwanted behavior and then reinforce desirable. For lots more info about achieving a well behaved parrot, check out my book.
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.