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.
The primary purpose of training our pet parrots is to get them to behave more how we would like. Whether that's not going on your furniture (by staying on parrot perches), flying to you on command, or going back in the cage when it is time, training can help. However, training is useless with motivation. The owner needs to be motivated to train as well, but I'm talking about the parrot's motivation to do as the trainer requests.
From a behavioral standpoint, motivation can be measured by the rate of learned responses to stimuli by the parrot. The motivated parrot is more likely to perform the behavior, with quicker promptness, with greater accuracy, for more repetitions, for a great span of time. A motivated parrot will also learn new behavior quicker.
In the early stages of parrot training, motivation may be less crucial. The very basic things you need to teach at first such as step up, targeting, and taming may be successful with the bare minimum unmanaged motivation. However, when you wish to proceed to more challenging behaviors, motivation will play a tremendous role in whether your succeed or not. Besides teaching or performing tricks, motivation is essential for flight training exercise, harness training, socialization toward strangers, solving biting and problems, and for all around good behavior.
Since food motivation is most universal and replenishable, I will mainly focus on managing motivation with food. However, I similar approach can apply to toys, attention, petting, and other things you may find motivate your parrot. There are three key elements to controlling motivation from food:
-Quantity/hunger -Quality/desirability -Effort to gain it
I covered the importance of weight management in my previous article. The main reason to manage your parrot's weight is to keep it healthy rather than for training. However, with your parrot's weight already managed to keep it at the optimal healthy weight, motivation for food can exist. An overweight parrot with constant access to food will not only be unmotivated to eat, but it will also be less motivated to participate in activity because it is physically harder.
Besides establishing a healthy weight for your parrot, it is also important to implement a feeding schedule. Twice a day for most species, three times a day for the smallest ones, works great. Many zoos and professional shows will go so far as feeding a lot of food but only once a day so that the parrots are inevitably super hungry and motivated by show time. I do not recommend their approach because I believe it is more stressful than spanning food out some.
Another reason why weight management is imperative is to compensate the parrot's training treats from meals. If you don't adjust your parrot's food portions, the training treats (which are normally fattier or sweeter) will implant excess calories and cause weight gain. By weighing your parrot before all meals and adjusting food portions to maintain the target healthy weight, you will be able to compensate for treats and maintain a stable weight long term. Some days the parrot may train better than other days (aside from motivation factors) and thereby receive more or less treats. Feeding the same sized meals may be unfair when the treat portions are different. Compensating this with an adjustment in meal portions will ensure the weight stays healthy and that the parrot is free to volunteer to train or not. Since the parrot's training is voluntary, it is up to us to find ways to solicit maximum motivation without food deprivation that can impact health.
By scheduling food meals and training just before (rather than after), you can expect maximum motivation from mealtime hunger. You can further enhance motivation at training time by padding the prior meal with low calorie foods such as broccoli or carrots. That way the parrot still feels filled up but since it received fewer calories, will be more eager to fill on the next meal. This will be balanced out by the weight management approach by analyzing empty weights and adjusting pellet portions accordingly.
Desirability of treats highly impacts motivation. Part of it is how much the parrot enjoys the treat food but part of it is relative to the food it normally eats. If the parrot is fed nothing other than pellets or vegetables in the cage, it leaves all other foods to be more desirable. I never feed fruit, pasta, seeds, nuts, or pretty much anything else my parrots get (other than pellets or vegetables) in the cage. Since they don't need these other foods in abundance anyway, saving them exclusively is treats not only helps motivation but is healthier.
There is also the desirability of certain treats over others. This can be a great aide in training. There are two ways to improve motivation based on the relative value of different treats. You can generally use less favorable treats but then mark major success with the better treats. The other approach is to mix all treats and provide different ones randomly. This approach is good for sustaining motivation because the parrot never knows what it's going to get. It must keep trying because the next treat may just be a whole nut. This also helps ensure the parrot does not get bored of the current treat. If you keep using the same treat, once the parrot no longer wants that specific food, motivation will diminish. Learn about choosing and evaluating treats here.
But now I want to get to some of my more interesting discoveries about managing parrot training motivation. My goal is to maximize motivation for specific tasks and to sustain it for a longer period. The reason both of these are important in training is because if you can get your parrot to do difficult tasks or endure long sessions at home, you'll have much greater success for easy/short tasks when you really need your parrot to deliver. For example if my parrots can fly 50 flight recalls (50ft out and 50ft back) in a training session, the likelihood of them making the one critical recover flight when lost outdoors is greatly improved. So you see this isn't strictly for training them to perform in shows.
Strong motivation is needed for the more complicated or strenuous tasks. Flying requires greater motivation than waving. A lot more. The parrot can probably wave 100 times for the amount of energy it takes to fly 100 feet. Does that mean we have to give a treat that is 100 times better? No. The biggest reason is because the treats we are giving for something small like wave is far excessive of what it could be. If my parrots can fly a dozen 50ft out and return flights for a single sunflower seed, then they can do the wave trick for an infinitesimally small treat or do an insanely large amount of waves for a normal treat.
Now this doesn't mean that the parrot just learning to wave thinks it's any easier than flying. While teaching the trick and shortly after, high motivation is in fact required. But once the trick is learned, in order to increase motivation for other things, you MUST challenge your parrot further. You must always strive to get your parrot to do more for less. This is the secret to achieving outstanding motivation. When my parrots normally have to do 20-50 flights an evening for a dozen treats, performing tricks at a show is comparatively easier and the motivation is extremely high. Likewise when I needed to work on Socialization to teach my parrot to stop biting strangers, I was able to make the situation far more desirable by differential reinforcement. Since the parrots normally have to do so much for so little, I can solicit an insanely strong level of motivation for comparatively easier task. For example step onto a strangers hand for 5 seconds without biting and I'll give you the same treat you normally have to fly your butt off to earn.
Obviously you're not going to jump from teaching a parrot to wave to flying 20 times for a treat. You need to build your way up there. This is why I always say you must challenge, challenge, challenge your parrot. When you challenge your parrot to wave a little higher, wave a little longer, wave for a smaller treat, wave more times for the same treat, you are teaching your parrot to be motivated by less! After some months or years of this constant sort of challenge, the parrot develops a tremendous level of capability and motivation. When you go from 1 treat for 1 wave to 10 waves for a treat to 50 waves for a treat (using variable ratio reinforcement), you have diluted the treat ratio so far that it virtually looks like your parrot does the trick without any reinforcement at all. All you have to do is occasionally reward that trick out of the blue to maintain that variable reinforcement ratio level. But this goes even further where you can maintain tricks with no food reinforcement at all. When the parrot can wave 20-50 times (and I mean in separate instances, not at once) before getting a treat, that parrot can just as well wave for a little attention or a head scratch. The motivation level required for performing the trick has become so low that virtually any minor reinforcement will suffice!
If you are not challenging your parrot to do better, more, for less, you are actually regressing in your training. Think about a parrot with a foraging toy. At first it can't figure it out but once it has, it gets the treat out in no time and the foraging toy becomes useless. It is similar with trick training. After the parrot "gets it" that picking up its foot gets it a treat, it takes less effort to do it. There is also the exercise component as well. After waving daily for a week, that foot is stronger and it is even easier still to wave. So if you are still giving the same quantity/quality of treat for the same behavior, you are in fact making your parrot give you less motivation (not more and not the same as before)! The only way to increase motivation is to increase the challenge, reduce the quality of the treat, reduce the quantity (break off a smaller piece), or increase the number of behaviors it takes to earn it (chaining or variable ratio reinforcement).
The point about exercise is not to be taken lightly either. If you fly your parrot regularly, their flight muscles become stronger and the amount of motivation to take an extra flight becomes less. You can challenge your parrot to fly further, more times, and for fewer or less desirable treats. This ensures that motivation continues to increase in the long run.
Sustaining motivation for duration is another part of the equation. If you can manage a 30 to 60 minute training session at home, 5 minutes of glory in front of your friends or an emergency flight recall are going to be more successful. Sustaining longer durations of motivation is also great for molding good day-long behavior from your parrot. If the parrot can spend an hour doing what you ask, it can also learn to do it any time of day outside of training. Here are three tips for sustaining motivation longer. First do all of the above for maximizing motivation and minimizing treats. By giving smaller treats, using variable ratio reinforcement, and making the tasks easier with time/challenge, your parrot will be able to continue to go longer before it is too tired or full. The second thing is to compensate the treats/difficulty with time. In the beginning of the session, start out with small and less desirable treats. But as the session progresses, you can squeeze motivation for longer by increasing the desirability of treats to keep the parrot going. Lastly, begin the session with tougher training and progress to easier tasks as you wrap up.
Varying levels of motivation required depending on challenge: (from low to high motivation requirements)
-not doing anything (being tame) -overcoming minor fear (taming) -stepping up -performing easy known tricks -performing complex known tricks -learning new tricks (training) -overcoming bigger fears (i.e. socialization/strangers) -flight recall (and other flighted behaviors) -flight recall amidst distractions (outdoor harness/freeflight)
So to make the most of the motivation in a training session (after a warm up if one is needed), begin with more difficult or strenuous tasks first and then work your way back toward easier things by the end. For example, let's say your parrot knows 5 tricks, step up, and flight recall. But at the same time you're teaching a new trick and working on getting the parrot to let you grab it. To maximize training motivation and get the most out of a single training session, work on some flight recalls first, then teach the next portion of the new trick, then practice some old tricks, and end the session by taming. Since the taming process for grabbing merely involves the parrot tolerating your hand's presence or touch (without spending any effort), the parrot will still gladly take treats while you work on desensitization. If you worked on the taming in the beginning of the sessions, your progress would have been marginally better. Yet the parrot would not be hungry enough to be motivated to flight recall to you after getting a bunch of treats for taming.
Finally, here are a few more little tricks you can use to maximize motivation during the training sessions when you really need it (or inadvertently get it). My parrots seem to get really motivated to eat when rain is approaching. That makes sense, they probably naturally want to fill up before they can no longer feed. Even if this is occurring midday or when motivation isn't expected, it's worth trying some training and it gives your parrot the opportunity to earn food when it wishes. Sometimes I have to leave early so I uncover my parrots and leave their meal. Naturally they eat it right away but a byproduct is that they are more hungry come training time. I take advantage of this heightened motivation since it is already there. I don't normally do this intentionally but if there is a training session where I want to stimulate greater than usual motivation this technique can help. It doesn't work long term though because then they just get used to a different feeding schedule. The last strategy that can sometimes help boost motivation is skipping training on occasion. Sometimes the birds just get bored and need a break. By skipping a session, it also means they are missing a chance to get treat foods. After a few days of not getting to have treats, even without major hunger, there may be a stronger motivation to earn it.
Thus the secret to teaching your parrot to be more motivated is to keep training and challenging it! The more difficult stuff you can get it to do, the easier it will be to get it to do the easy stuff. Sustain motivation longer by diminishing the difficulty of tasks throughout a training session while increasing the reward value. Exercise your parrot's muscles and brain through extensive flight training. As your parrot becomes stronger, flying will be easier and likewise it will be more motivated to fly. So there's nothing silly about teaching your parrot dozens of tricks, it just makes the parrot even easier to teach something new. Have fun.
Check out this video that demonstrates varying degrees of motivation from some previously unused clips.
Weight Management for captive companion parrots is a necessity but does not get the attention it deserves. Like wing clipping, free-feeding is still the status quo. But just like wing clipping, free-feeding is neither natural nor healthy for parrots. In this and the next few articles, I am going to share with you some of my success with using food management and why you should too. The intricate details of actually applying it, however, I'm going to suggest you buy my book which will be out by the end of the month. Stay tuned.
Some people mistakenly think I starve my parrots to get them to perform. Neither of these things are true. First of all, they are not starved and I will get into this in great depth in this article. Second of all, I don't weight manage my parrots for doing tricks! I will go into great length about motivation (and how food management applies to it) in the next article. But the important point that I want you to leave with is that number one reason I weight manage my parrots is for their health!
I would weight manage Kili & Truman entirely regardless of tricks, shows, and training. There are periods of time (sometimes months) when I'm too busy or too lazy to train them as regularly as I usually do. Yet I still weight manage them during these periods because I am convinced that this is healthier for them. Their health and well being is of paramount importance to me and I'd give up the tricks if they were in any way conflicting. But the good news is that they're not. The byproduct of the weight management that I do for health is food motivation for training (which will be covered next time).
There is nothing natural about free-feeding your parrot by leaving food in its bowl all day long. Parrots in the wild do not spend all day eating. They neither need to, want to, nor are able to. Although they "could" decide to try and eat at times they shouldn't, they won't. And that is because the outcome would likely be a bad one. First a simple example that I doubt anyone would argue against. Night. The parrot is not going to get off its roost at night to go searching for food. Even though it has the freedom to go eat at night, it doesn't. It would probably crash into a tree (like George of the Jungle) trying to fly at night! Thus it is silly for parrot owners to be leaving food in the cage over night. The parrot won't be eating it but it will attract nocturnal pests such as bugs and rodents. So don't leave food in the cage at night.
Now let's look at daytime feeding. In the wild, you generally won't see parrots (and in fact most birds) eating in the daytime. In fact you won't see them at all because they are probably in some tree napping. During all my travels in Africa, the only time I have seen African parrots eating (or out and about) was in the morning and evening. In the mid-day time, it is too hot and too dangerous for a parrot to be out getting lunch. Birds of prey take advantage of daytime air currents fly around and catch the birds that couldn't wait till evening to eat. The heat is also a problem because it becomes more difficult for parrots to fly in extreme heat. Since most parrots are equatorial, this plays a significant role as well.
Thus in the wild parrots don't really have access to food all day long. They only eat in the morning and evening. Since this is the schedule that the environment demands, parrots are evolved to best function with this kind of feeding. Their metabolism, crop, and other aspects of their digestive system optimize them to take in food and use the energy accordingly.
The other aspect of food management that naturally happens in the wild is weight management. In fact this is true of all animals. Simply put, there's not enough food for everyone. So many animals just don't make it. The ones that do, are getting by on the bare minimum. But that's ok because millions of years of avian evolution has lead to the highly efficient bodies that these parrots now posses. They are like that car that gets the best gas mileage. Even on the last gallon of gas, they'll go very far.
In the wild, food portions are regulated by the environment as well as the competition. Sometimes there is more plant matter (food) and other times there is less. When there is less, the strongest parrots make it and the weaker ones die. When there is a greater food abundance, the strong ones still eat but the weaker ones get to live too. For this reason, the amount the birds get to consume is rarely more than the minimum. Occasionally there are opportunities to really pig out (for example a fruit tree just blossomed). Parrots take that opportunity to stuff themselves to the limit because future feedings are never certain. They may go days without food afterward.
Parrots have no natural shut off mechanism when to stop eating besides being stuffed to the max. In the short term this is ok but in the long term it leads to obesity. Since there is so little food and so much competition in the wild, the bird will quickly return to equilibrium. In the unnatural household environment with a constant supply of food, the parrot will act on its instinct to stuff itself now. But it will continue to do so daily because that natural food limit is never restored that will take its weight back down. In the wild parrots don't need to "know" when to stop eating to be healthy. The resource limits and competition naturally dictate this and millions of years of evolution have optimized the parrot's body to work with that natural limit. All of the parrots that required a differing amount of food than the environment would offer died before they could reproduce. This not only includes the ones that couldn't get by on too little food. This also includes the ones that may have eaten too much to the point where obesity degraded their bodies. But since food tends to be on the low side rather than high side, the natural instinct for the bird is to top off now just in case.
Understanding the natural constraints that work in the wild help us realize that unlimited food availability is unnatural and unhealthy. The parrot is driven to eat as much as it can to protect against later deprivation but since it never comes, the parrot ends up overweight. But this problem of becoming overweight goes beyond just the amount of food eaten. It also has to do with many other unnatural factors. The parrots are fed too much food, with too many calories, that is too easy to get, with too little exercise! All aspects of household pet life for the parrot drive it toward obesity.
Parrots have strong immune systems and tend to stay healthy. However, they do not have good defenses against obesity. The reason is simple, you don't see obese parrots in the wild so they don't need to have evolved protection against obesity problems. They sooner have natural ways of surviving and dealing with excess hunger than excess weight.
When you come to think of it, the same hold true for people. Even though we "could" eat at any part of the day, we don't. Or at least we shouldn't. Humans tend to eat at several scheduled meals a day as well. We don't go around eating all day long and neither should our parrots. And when people do eat a little all the time, they tend to get overweight and not feel good. Just think about sitting around with friends with some tapas or snack foods around. After a few hours, you are beyond stuffed and can't believe how much you ate a little at a time. Likewise for the parrot that is presented with food all day long, even if it doesn't really need or want it, it picks at it just because it's there. The bird ends up eating food that it could really do without. Eating out of boredom is unnecessary as well as unhealthy. Human children tend to stay pretty fit while they are young because they don't have non-stop access to food and only eat when their parents feed them. But as we get older and our access restrictions are lifted, it is harder to keep the weight off. Instead of thinking of food/weight management as deprivation, think of scheduled/portioned meals as healthy feeding for a child.
Whether seeds, pellets, fruit, or other household foods, the things we feed our parrot are generally far more packed with calories per mouthful than what they would eat in the wild. Fact is most of these foods are engineered for maximum yield for human consumption (or at least chosen for it). Since there are more calories in the food by volume, even if the parrot tries to eat the amount that feels right to it (without intentionally putting on fat for a rainy day), it will get more calories than naturally. Next, the parrot isn't spending any energy to actually eat the food. The household parrot simply eats the food out of a bowl instead of flying for miles, climbing, and foraging for it. Lastly, since the parrot is confined, it simply cannot get as much exercise as it would in the wild.
Most parrots spend a lot of time in a cage. This is time they are not flying and barely climbing. Most parrots are clipped and can't even get any exercise when they are out of the cage. But even the ones that are flighted can only fly short distances in the confines of our home for the limited time that we let them. Even well exercised parrots like Kili & Truman get far less flight and exercise than their wild counterparts. They only spend about an hour a day flying at home during training. Even when I take them to the park or gym to fly, that's only a few days a week. Wild parrots don't get a day off. They are flying and working hard every single day. So no matter how many calories they consume in their limited food, they end up spending it all for feeding again and living.
Since it is outside of our capability to give our parrots the same amount of exercise that would be mandated by the excessive food abundance they consume, training and weight management are the things we must resort to.
The overweight parrot is also the parrot that is hardest to give sufficient exercise. Even flighted, the overweight parrot is not motivated to fly for food and it is hard for it to fly because it is heavy. For airplanes, you need to quadruple the power when you double the weight. So for a parrot that is 10-30% overweight, flying requires 40-120% as much effort. The numbers may not be exact but it should illustrate why excess weight can adversely affect a parrot's weight both directly and indirectly. Directly by leading to obesity related problems. Indirectly by discouraging it to fly and thereby preventing it from getting sufficient exercise.
While motivation to fly for food is stronger when the parrot is more hungry, the direct affect of the weight plays as much if not a greater role! Over the years I have watched how my parrots fly at different weights and have definitely seen a huge difference. Even when the motivation exists for the parrot to fly while at a heavy weight (example is the parrot is overweight but then misses a meal), you can tell that the parrot is struggling to stay airborne. The parrot has to fly faster, you hear more flapping noise, and the parrot tire out much quicker. This is as strong a deterrent from flying as there can be. On the flipside, when my parrots are on the lighter side, I have discovered that it takes far less food related motivation for them to fly. Even after a meal when they are no longer hungry, they are more likely to willingly fly. The lighter weight parrot will fly more because it is easier for it to fly. Less motivation is required to get it to fly because it is easier and the rewards are sooner justified.
This leads to discovering the cyclical nature of the polar opposites of a parrot's weight. Either the bird is going to be light, fit, and healthy or heavy, obese, and suffer health problems. There is basically no middle ground. The heavy parrot will eat a lot, exercise little, fly little, and thus stay heavy. The light weight parrot will have a lot of food driven motivation, fly eagerly, get more exercise, and become stronger. As the light parrot becomes stronger (from flying a lot), it will be able to fly with even greater ease and thus be able to get even more exercise flying for even less food reward.
Another reason it is unhealthy for parrots to be on the heavy side has to do with hormones and reproduction. An overweight parrot is more likely to become hormonal and develop behavioral problems related to that. Those parrots get less out of cage time and attention because people have trouble dealing with them so they tend to remain caged more with little left to do than eat. The heavy parrot is more likely to lay infertile eggs and become egg bound. The lean parrot that has just enough to sustain itself but not another, is less likely to become hormonal or lay eggs. The lean parrot is more focused on feeding itself and its own survival to be in the reproductive state that can cause those other behavioral and health problems.
Thus the healthier approach to keeping companion parrots is to properly manage their food intake to keep them at a healthy weight. Usually, that healthy weight is well below the weight the parrot is on free-feed. In fact free-feed weight shouldn't even be used as a standard or be called normal weight. Free-feed weight is unnatural and is actually overweight for what the parrot would naturally be. So when a reduction of weight from free-feed weight is discussed, it's usually to get the parrot to stop being overweight rather than some kind of deprivation.
Parrot's food intake should be managed such that they attain and maintain the optimal healthy weight as can be inferred from body condition by an Avian Veterinarian. I am not suggesting that the target weight should be determined by behavior, mathematics, guesswork, or chance.
Kili & Truman recently paid the avian vet a visit for a check up. Partly because it is about time for an annual check up, partly because I wanted an outside opinion about their weight and body condition, and most importantly because I'm having a baby. I want to ensure that my existing birds are in top health before I add another. You can watch the videos of two separate avian veterinarians, Dr. Alexandra Wilson, DVM and Dr. Anthony Pilny, DVM, ABVP, giving their expert opinion about the trained parrots' condition. It is mainly evaluated based upon breast muscle, keel sharpness, breast shape, and checking for other fat deposits. A rounded or somewhat sharp keel bone is what we're looking for. Cleavage, where the breast meat/fat stick out past the keel bone, is a sure sign of obesity. Use this as a basic idea of what to consider, but then have your parrot evaluated by an avian vet to determine the optimal weight and condition for your bird.
I also opted to have some blood work done on one of the parrot's to check for any abnormalities or deficiencies. Since they are on similar diets, I decided one would be enough unless there were issues. Truman took one for the team and gave blood like a champ.
The blood chemistry turned out perfectly healthy and neither vet thought either bird was remotely underweight. In fact they both said they are at a good healthy weight and could safely be even lower. I brought them into the clinic at about the lowest typical weight I've been keeping them at lately. The training motivation at this weight is great, but I'm not doing it for that reason. I target the optimal healthy weight based on body condition and then take the training motivation byproduct that I get with it (which in fact is very high). Surprisingly the optimal healthy weight is much lower than the weight I would keep the birds at strictly for the sake of "starving them to make them do tricks." At the last vet wellness exam, the vet warned me that Kili was getting too heavy. The reason that happened was because I stopped weighing her and fed her as much as possible as long as she performed well. Well, I've since learned that this is not healthy and that I must manage the weight for health rather than just for training.
In conclusion, Kili & Truman are healthy parrots. Their weight is kept low with love for the sake of keeping them healthy and closer to what would be natural. Just because "nature" may be brutal, doesn't mean household life has to be. They get to live relatively sheltered lives, enjoy their health, and never have to starve. Their weight may be kept lower than if they were given unlimited food, but this is much healthier for them. Their condition and behavior is better as a result. Of the 3 avian veterinarians and many other experts, no one has ever told me that the birds are underweight, unhealthy, starved, malnourished, or in any way deprived. In fact they are considered healthy in all regards.
I could fill an entire book about this topic of food management, but there isn't sufficient interest yet. People don't realize just important it is. But food management isn't relevant just to professional trainers nor is it too difficult for responsible parrot owners to implement at home. Just like the attitude about seeds has changed to pellets, clipping is starting to change to flight, I hope to convince people the importance of managing how much food their parrots consume.
This article isn't meant to teach you how to food or weight manage. It is merely to try to convince you that food management is the way to go for the health of your parrot. I hope this article will convince you to begin learning about how you can nurture your parrot's health by ensuring it is fed the correct amount. Absolutely don't just reduce the amount your parrot eats without a significant understanding of how it is done properly. Keep in mind that some birds may already be at the right weight and that management should not be applied to baby birds, sick, or extremely elderly ones. The topic is quite extensive. I have written about it in great detail in my upcoming book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well Behaved Parrots. It will be available by the beginning of June and it covers all aspects of accomplishing well behaved companion parrots.*
Tom Sawyer your parrot into doing what you want. Want your parrot to try a new food? Or to accept a new toy? Or to step up reliably? Or to fly to you when called? Why is it that our parrots manage to pick up on everything we don't want them to do and then serve little interest in doing what we try to encourage? For this, Tom Sawyer offers a great lesson and plays a marvelous role model!
Recall how Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer made his friends pay him for the opportunity to whitewash his aunt's fence and thus completing Tom's chores for him. Instead of paying (with toys and food) his friends to do his work for him, Tom made the work so lucrative that his friends agreed to pay him just to have the chance to try it. Well this unlikely literary lesson comes in very handy for parrot training!
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing itónamely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. (From Chapter II of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain)
I have noticed the same effect to work marvelously on my parrots when it comes to training. Doing something directly for a treat is "work." Believe it or not, often times our parrots will be more willing to do stuff without getting treats!. Now isn't that something? You save money on bird food and the bird returns the favor by doing more tricks/good behaviors for you? Well that's the Tom Sawyer effect for you.
I have several examples to share with you. First a more illustrative recent one and then some others that have worked very well in the long term. Lately I've been working with Kili on some new tricks and desensitizing Truman more to being grabbed. The downside to working on these new behaviors with the birds is that if I spend a lot of treats working on non-flight stuff with them, then they will fill up and not want to fly recalls for practice/exercise. A large portion of my parrot training involves flight because I think it's the best exercise and bonding experience but teaching new tricks seems to be mutually exclusive. But it's not!
I got Truman, who has a reputation for being a really stubborn bird, to fly more flight recalls that he was not getting any treats for at all for the opportunity to be grabbed than he would when he gets treats for flying recalls only!!!! Not only did he fly more flight recalls in this process but he also flew them reliably on the first time without any hesitation. Likewise, Kili's recalls have been rock solid and I can use my treats only for working on the new tricks. When I don't have to spend treats on flight, I get the benefit of knowing my birds got some much needed exercise, are dependable fliers, and have lots of treats left over to teach new tricks or behaviors with. The amazing thing is that the birds end up doing more work to get the same amount of food or less than if they just flew the recall for the treat directly.
I have found this method so effective that I even took it another step forward with Truman's grab training. I have Truman flight recall to my hand, then I put him down on his cage (that he lately doesn't like being grabbed from which is why we are working on it), then I grab him but don't give him a treat for that either, and finally I let him do one of his tricks on my hand to earn a treat. Since the birds are more eager to fly or accept handling for the opportunity to do something easy to earn food, I am turning flight recall and grabbing into something I don't have to ever reward with food. For several weeks now the birds have barely received any treats for flying recalls. Instead, they earn an opportunity to perform a trick to earn the food.
I suspect that in their little bird brains they see flight as a difficult way for earning treats but doing tricks as an easy one. So they treat flight as a means of coming over but performing the trick as the easy way to earn a big treat. In other words flying recalls for treats is work but flying over to do a trick is simply coming over to get started. Or it's just more fun to do it the Tom Sawyer way.
Before you have an "aha moment!" and post a comment saying that the birds are getting treats on a continuous interval whereas before I had them on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, NOPE! They are still on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule which makes this all the more exciting! So a single treat may be rewarding the following sequence with Truman:
1) 50ft flight recall 2) Short flight from hand to cage 3) Grabbing off of cage 4) 50ft flight back to perch 5) Stay until called again 6) 50ft flight recall 7) Short flight from hand to cage 8) Grab from cage 9) Wings Trick 10) Receive reward and fly 50ft back to perch
If getting Truman to do all of the above for a single pellet isn't pulling a Tom Sawyer on him, I don't know what is. Note, the food management level used is comparable to what was done before applying this method.
Now that you are convinced that this is a useful strategy, here is how you can apply it to your own parrots. First and foremost this should apply to stepping up. My parrots never get treats for stepping up at all, yet they do it 100% of the time when asked. Why? Tom Sawyer. The birds have to "white wash the fence" for me by doing the work of stepping up for the opportunity to find out what they'll get to do. Sometimes it's the chance to do a trick, sometimes it's to watch what I'm doing, sometimes a head scratch, sometimes getting groomed, etc. However, since they never get treats for stepping up, this ensures that they won't refuse to step up when they don't desire a treat.
Another place where this applies marvelously is for coming out of the cage. Better yet, I've taught my parrots to station to get to come out. Basically what this means is they climb down to an easy to reach perch for me to take them out rather than me bending my back and my arms into a pretzel to get to where they are. Whenever I come up to the cages, they climb to the perch nearest the door and wait to be taken out. They never get a treat for this, yet they pay me with this work for the opportunity to come out and see what they have in store.
Chaining tricks, variable ratio reinforcement schedules (random rewarding by giving a treat once in a while), and requiring multiple behaviors to earn one treat gets the most exercise for your bird, the most reliable presentation of behavior for you, lowers the dependence on treats, ensures the parrot will behave well anytime/place, saves you treats, reduces your parrot's overeating habits, and ensures the best relationship between you. Now go thank Aunt Polly for giving you this task and put your Sawyer skills to the test by seeing how much more behavior you can get from your parrot for less food.