I received a message from a customer who's rescue Amazon is terrified of the Training Perches she ordered. It's not a flaw with the Training Perches but rather a somewhat common problem that parrots get scared of new stuff. Since I'm sure this isn't the first or last time a bird will be scared of a Training Perch, or some new bird stand for that matter, I decided to make a video and article on the topic to help everyone out. Katie asked:
I am so happy with the quality of your training perches. Unfortunately, my new rescue Amazon is TERRIFIED of the perches (the wood part). She goes into a panic when she sees them clear across the room. It's so bad that it's heart-breaking. This is the only time i've witnessed this behavior. I have not been able to handle her yet, and now that I know of this fear, I feel hopeless. Do you have any tips or videos to point me to? Thanks in advance.
Now once on the Training Perches, training a parrot should be a breeze. The Parrot Wizard Training Perches are height adjustable, simple, and comfortable. This helps get the parrot at a comfortable height with no distractions for maximum attention during learning exercises provided during training.
Most parrots will just step onto the Training Perch off the bat or at most with a gentle nudge onto them. Afterall, why not? The perches are very plain and non invasive looking. Yet, there will always be the one bird that is just petrified for no explainable reason. Abused birds, older or rescue birds, and African Greys are most likely to fall into this category. However, any parrot, even a baby, can be fearful of anything at any time. So, when you introduce your parrot to Parrot Training Perches, or any new bird stand, here are some steps to follow to minimize the fear and even prevent the possibility of becoming fearful preemptively.
1) Use a similar perch in the cage. Give the parrot a chance to become familiar with that style of perch, wood, shape, material at its own pace in the cage before encountering the training perch, tree, or stand for the first time! To make this easier to accomplish, Parrot Wizard NU Perches are offered as a series of perches for cage, training perch, scale, window perch, tree stand, and more. So once the parrot gets used to the NU Perch in its cage, it is much more prepared to accept not only the Training Perch, but an entire series of bird furniture that you can use around your house.
Once the parrot starts perching on the NU Perch, it will fall in love with the comfort and shape. It's just like a comfortable pair of shoes, relaxing on the feet. Many parrots will just go to a Training Perch after because they realize it will be a comfortable place to stand. Or at least, the parrot will be more familiar with the perch on the top of the training stand so it will only be a matter of getting used to the sight of the stand at that point. This will still alleviate fear and make further steps simpler.
When you buy the "kit" version of the Parrot Training Perch Kit direct from Parrot Wizard, it comes with a free bonus cage NU Perch so that your parrot can start getting used to the same style of perches right off the bat.
2) Set the Training Perch up to the cage. Give the parrot the chance to explore the Training Perch at its own pace. You might have the patience to spend 5 or 10 minutes introducing the bird to the Training Perch. But, if you have a really scared bird it could take hours or days. As a person, it's hard to be patient for so long. However, by leaving the Training Perch up to the parrot's cage, it will give the parrot all the time in the world to think it over and explore.
With the cage door open, you can set the Training Perch at a suitable height to just peak inside the cage. At some point the parrot may walk across or onto it. Another way to set it up is with the parrot on the door or on top of the cage, the Training Perch height can be raised so the parrot could get onto it. The ability to manipulate the Training Perch makes it easy to create this hybrid step between the parrot not being on it and getting used to it nearby until it gets comfortable.
3) Target the parrot onto the Training Perch. With the parrot on your hand (if it's already hand tame) or with the parrot inside the cage (just starting training), you can use target training to teach the parrot to get onto the Training Perch entirely on its own!
The method of Target Training is a whole other topic, however, the Training Perch Kit comes with included clicker, target stick, and DVD to help you learn this training method effectively. Generally, the Training Perch is the best place to perform the target training exercises. However, if you have a fearful parrot and need targeting to get the parrot to come onto the Training Perch, that puts you in a bit of a bind. No problem. Teach the parrot how to target inside the cage through the bars. The parrot will feel safer in its enclosure and you will feel protected because you can't get bit. Next, you will be able to use step 2 and 3 to get the parrot onto the Training Perch to let your training experience really begin.
All 3 methods mentioned here are far less intrusive or intimidating than just forcing a highly fearful bird onto a stand. They give the parrot time to adjust so that it can be at ease and in a good learning mindset once on the Training Perch. Just remember that the more fearful the parrot is, the more time it can take to desensitize it. Patience is key. Never push the parrot into a panic by moving too quickly with any of the steps. Give the parrot plenty of time to get used to seeing the new perch in the cage or at a distance for seconds, minutes, even days if necessary before bringing it closer. You have to be the judge based on how your bird responds on a case by case basis. But if you patiently work at it and give the bird a chance to get comfortable, your bird will adjust and be ready to use the Training Perches before long.
The weekend of September 9/10, 2017 was an exciting, action filled, time at Todd Marcus Birds Exotic in Delran, NJ. The exotic bird store held its biggest sale of the year during the 34th Anniversary event. Parrot enthusiasts came from near and far to partake in the festivities.
Face painting, free food, shopping, bird shows, and inflatable jumping pits for kids were just some of the featured activities. It seems that for most, the biggest highlight of the event was the social atmosphere. Folks sat around the store with baby birds in their arms while chatting with everybody.
I was invited to hold bird shows, provide education, and showcase Parrot Wizard brand products. Kili, Truman, and Rachel helped me debut my new Parrot Wizard NU Perch Tree line.
Since my performance area was outside, I kept all of my parrots harnessed for safety. Not surprisingly, they were not scared and handled very well. They have a lot of experience at even more bustling places. However, it is better safe than sorry, so they remained harnessed the entire time.
This presented a slight challenge for Kili. Since she was the main star of the tricks show, she had to get around the table while dragging the leash behind her. It would have been no trouble at all except that she always manages to twist herself up in it. She always turns in the same direction, so with time it gets twisted up and I have to help her fix it. Otherwise, she has no trouble doing all of her tricks including bowling, color matching ring toss, and her baby stroller routine.
I did not want to burden Kili with too many trick performances because we had to pace ourselves for 10 shows in 2 days. I tried to alternate other birds and talks in order not to overwhelm her. Well, she did all her shows and still had plenty of energy left to do more. I could hardly hold her back from jumping on the table and running to do tricks if she had the chance. She could have easily done even more than she was asked to.
I found a good role for Truman as well. While Truman is a bit boneheaded when it comes to doing tricks, he has grown to be a pretty reliable talker in public. He knows how to say "Hey Cutie," "Kili," "Truman," and gives kisses on command. For 6 years, "Hey Cutie" was Truman's signature phrase. He was the only parrot that could say something long and cute on command. Well, a few months ago Kili learned to say "Hey Cutie" as well. The whole time Truman was supposed to be talking, Kili would echo anything he would say but louder and with greater clarity. Kili tries to be best at everything!
Truman was good for a while but then he shut down. He almost fell asleep during one of the shows and then was seen with his eyes closed shortly after. Truman doesn't care. He can sleep through anything. Once he wants to do something, he just does. I guess it's just a Cape thing.
Rachel spent most of her time in the "showroom." She sat around on the newly released Large NU Perch Tree to show how luxurious and sturdy it is. She spent the better part of 2 days straight harnessed on that tree and did very well. She was a bit nervous about the kids bouncing in the inflatable gym nearby. But as the day went on, she got comfortable and enjoyed her new perch paradise. These trees are now available on ParrotWizard.com.
It was a pleasure getting to meet many fans at the event and sign so many books! And if you live in the NJ, PA, NY area and did not make it, there's always next year! Come see the Parrot Wizard at the Todd Marcus 35th Anniversary Event in 2018.
And finally, here's a video recap of the wonderful time we had at the event:
Toys and perches are very important for your parrot's health and well-being. They're more than just for your parrot's entertainment, although that is a very important role as well. They provide necessary exercise to your bird's beak and feet!
Having a huge cage for your parrot is great. But if that huge cage isn't extensively filled with perches and toys, it is just as well a tiny cage. The main advantage of a huge cage is that there is an opportunity to put a lot of perches for your parrot to move around on and many toys to motivate it to come to. Without them, you'll just have a parrot sitting in one part of the cage all day doing the same as it would if it were in a smaller cage.
Perches are the foundation of your parrot's living space. The bird spends all day on its feet. Having a good variety of different perches provides diversity and comfort to your parrot's feet by allowing it to change and choose its perching. Forget about dowel and plastic perches. Throw them out. They are no good for your parrot. Take caution of natural perches that are straight and smooth as a dowel. Just because they are natural, doesn't do any good if they act the same way as a dowel.
The four typical kinds of perches are:
Natural Rope Cement NU Perches
I would strongly encourage you to offer all four types so that your parrot has the most variety and choice. Wood perches should be the Natural perches are fun because each one is different. The diameter, texture, and shape will vary. This is great for your parrot. Unfortunately, you don't always know what you are getting when ordering online and some natural perches don't offer all of the advantages of being natural. Sometimes it isn't possible to make wildly wavy perches properly fit the rectangular orientation of a bird cage. For this reason, I came up with and patented the NU Perch. These perches offer the maximum amount of variation, choice, and comfort while also being totally safe and affordable. Provide a variety of different lengths, thicknesses, and hardness of perches so that your bird can experience different perching techniques as it moves about the cage.
Rope perches and cement perches are good additions to wood perches but only in moderation. The cement perches can help keep your parrot's claws trimmed and it's a different texture than all other perches. However, excessive use of cement perches can greatly irritate the bird's feet. Never put a cement (or other sanding type) perch where your parrot sleeps. In other words, don't put the cement perch up high or where your parrot goes a lot. Ideally, place a cement perch in a place your parrot visits just a few times a day. For this reason, a cement perch serves very well by the bird's water (bottle or bowl). It only takes a few drinks a day but otherwise does not spend an excessive amount of time in that area.
Rope perches are the exact opposite of cement perches. Instead of being hard and harsh, rope perches are smooth and comfy. This is a good thing but in moderation. Rope perches can provide relief from firmer perches. But if used excessively, they may cause the bird's feet to be too sensitive on harder surfaces. Also, extreme caution must be taken if the bird chews on the rope perch. Two major hazards can be caused by chewed rope perches. First of all, some birds ingest the rope and can develop a crop infection. Another hazard is that the bird can get its foot or claw caught in the chewed strands of rope and get stuck. So, to avoid either case, inspect the rope perches regularly and replace preemptively if there is any sign of damage.
Just as perches are to your parrot's feet, toys are a health requirement for your parrot's beak. Parrots use their beaks quite extensively in the wild for feeding, nest cavity making, and playing. We won't be providing nesting opportunities to our pet parrots but we should nonetheless give them lots of chances to chew. Toys are a good human alternative to the chewing challenges that parrots would encounter in the wild. Abundance of toys is very important. Different shapes, textures, materials, and challenges will keep your parrot and its beak busy in different ways. Some materials such as plastic are tougher and will require harder chewing than softer materials like wood. Providing variety and abundance will improve your parrot's activity and provide the pleasure of choice.
Perches can also be a source of chewing pleasure and beak exercise. My parrots love the NU Perches in their cages not only because they are comfortable on their feet but also because they provide a reasonable chewing challenge. On one hand, the perches are soft enough that the birds can chew them if they choose to. On the other hand, they are tough enough that it takes them a while to really destroy them. I don't know why sometimes they leave perches alone and chew only toys and other times focus on the perches instead of toys. But by providing them the abundance and variety, I can ensure that they are kept busy, happy, and healthy in any case.
Keep in mind that the best deterrent against developing a feather-plucking problem is keeping the bird busy chewing things that are not on its body. Just because there are toys in the cage doesn't mean they are serving much useful purpose if they don't end up in a pile of splinters on the bottom of the cage. Looking, touching, and playing with the toys is only a small portion of their purpose. Getting the beak and mind exercised in the process of chewing them up is the biggest purpose. In the case of most parrots, something is going to get chewed up at the end of the day be it the bird's toys, perches, your furniture or stuff, or its feathers. In order to avoid it being the feathers or furniture, it is best to focus on toys and perches.
Some toys are just too difficult, thick, hard, or boring for your parrot to chew up. Offering a variety of different kinds of perches is a good way to improve the likelihood of the toys working out. However, sometimes the parrot just won't chew any of it up. The best way to get it started is to get smaller or easier toys that are meant for a smaller species than what you have. Letting the bird have success with a toy that is too easy can give it the motivation to tackle some of the tougher toys that are meant for its size. The toys gotta get chewed up in order to be serving their purpose.
Every parrot is different so what works for some parrots may not work for others. Let your parrot exhibit its own personality and develop its own preferences. Provide abundant variety of perches and toys so that it can make the most of them and grow its choices.
Here's a video of Marianna getting some new perches and toys for the flock and then rearranging their cages with the new goodies:
Negative reinforcement is perhaps the most misunderstood of the methods of operant conditioning. Although negative is used in the term, it does not mean “bad.” Instead, negative means “negating” or taking something away. Reinforcement on the other hand refers to increasing behavior. Again this neither means good or bad but just means that the behavior will recur with greater frequency.
In the game of animal training, increasing desired behavior is generally the goal so reinforcement is to be used. But the question remains as to whether it ought to be positive or negative?
When it comes to whether an animal “wants” to do something, it should make little difference whether the reinforcement be positive or negative. Avoiding something aversive may be as, if not more, desirable as gaining something nice. Pretty much any behavior that relates to safety is going to be based on negative reinforcement. There is nothing bad about being safe and in fact it is a good thing.
So why does negative reinforcement carry a bad rep? Part of it is the misunderstanding of the word negative, where in this context it does not mean doing something bad. Many people confused negative reinforcement with positive punishment. Based on common language it would seem that negative reinforcement should be the opposite of positive but based on psychological terms that is not the case. Let's not get carried away with technical definitions and focus more on the meanings.
The main reason negative reinforcement is perceived badly is because professional trainers (or tamers as they used to be called) would intentionally introduce aversives, pressure, or pain to animals for the sake of being able to stop causing it as a reward for desirable behavior. This is how horses, donkeys, camels, elephants, and many other animals have been trained for thousands of years. Basically it would involve beating the animal a lot and letting it learn that if it would do what it was commanded, then the hurt would stop.
If a trainer walks around with a stick, hook, or whip, its very presence symbolizes negative reinforcement and that if the animal stops doing what it is supposed to, then it will be used. What's bad about this? If the animal always does what it is supposed to, the instrument won't even be used. The problem is that the animal is acting simply out of fear and not out of a genuine desire. This does not lead to a great relationship between animal and trainer. If the trainer were to stop carrying around the negative reinforcement instrument, extinction would begin to occur. Whenever the animal would slip up and not receive the normally expected beating, the animal would realize that it no longer has to do as the trainer commands. This is why this type of negative reinforcement is neither truly effective nor nice.
But just because professionals misuse negative reinforcement, does not mean that it is all bad. The professional does not seek to have a personal relationship with the animal like a pet owner would. The professional needs little more than for the animal to do its tricks on command in front of spectators. On the other hand, the exotic pet parrot owner seeks desirable behavior throughout the day and a fantastic relationship to go with it. Thus clearly a relationship based on fear cannot be the solution.
Negative reinforcement is frequently misused in the parrot community although most are unaware they are even applying it. “Stick training” where a dowel is shoved into a parrot's belly until it steps up is an example of the misuse of negative reinforcement that is neither ideal training nor good for the relationship. The parrot learns to step on a stick before it gets nudged. But what happens when a hand is substituted for the stick? The parrot may opt to bite the hand instead because unlike the stick, it isn't inanimate. The parrot doesn't learn to always step up but instead learns to step when a negative-reinforcement instrument is used.
If you aren't scared of a bite and let your arm be like an inanimate object, the same effect can be achieved and the parrot will even learn that biting is futile. But the arm becomes just as much the negative-reinforcement tool as it a part of your body. This is conveniently tempting because unlike treats, you can have this (your arm) with you all the time. The problem is that if the parrot has any alternative to reluctantly complying (such as flying away, clinging to the drapes, running under the cage, etc), it may choose to do those instead because they are less intimidating/painful than the arm into belly shove. The arm is both the thing you want the parrot to trust/like and the instrument of aversion which creates a dilemma. The parrot learns to step up onto the arm to avoid the arm. Thus this example of the classic step up routine, really is a parallel to the circus days of animal training.
If a parrot's wings are not clipped, it is difficult for the trainer to be able to apply negative reinforcement because the bird will sooner fly away than put up with threats to do a behavior. The old school approach of clipping, flooding, and trainer induced negative reinforcement fail to drive cooperation when a parrot is no longer clipped which makes the owner choose to clip the wings again. Genuine success cannot be achieved this way.
I'm not going to get into the more successful positive reinforcement based method to training, you can find the details of this in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. Instead, I'd like to write a bit about the positive side of negative reinforcement. How can negative reinforcement be a good thing?
Well, negative reinforcement is the increase of behavior through reduction in aversives. Thus any means of providing safety is essentially negative reinforcement. Safety is the reduction of danger and thereby a sought thing. There are naturally present dangers that drive fear in a captive parrot's life. By providing safety from these naturally present aversives, we can both provide comfort to our parrot as well as receive some training benefit out of it.
I do not believe that parrot owners should be intentionally causing harm to their pets in order to get to rescue it. But if the aversive already exists, then why not take some training advantage out of it? In fact, capitalizing on these negative reinforcement opportunities should help strengthen the bond rather than harm it. If the parrot realizes that it can receive protection from its fears through you, that will actually improve your relationship. This works as long as those aversives are not created (or even perceived to be created) by you.
For example if there is a loud disturbance going on outside, by stepping up for you, you bring your parrot to a quieter room, the parrot would be negatively reinforced for stepping up. The scary disturbance would be reduced by action you took to protect the parrot and the parrot would be more likely to step up for you in the future.
Here are some other examples from my experience. I take Kili & Truman to the park regularly to fly on harnesses or free fly. Sometimes the kids become too bothersome and I can tell the bird is getting a bit flustered. I will offer the bird a chance to flight recall to me and stay on me to avoid further confrontation. I don't have to give a treat for this type of flight recall because the bird gets reinforced negatively in the process.
Another recent example was when I took Santina to the vet for the first time. I was still in the early stages of gaining trust with her and using a lot of positive reinforcement to encourage her to step up. After Santina came back from anesthesia, Lorelei put Santina down on the floor. From the other end of the room I put my arm down. I did not go over to get Santina but instead she walked over to come to me. I was not giving out treats or head scratches. Santina came to me for safety and thus negative reinforcement for coming. I would not torment her with a towel (and I'm sure the vet wouldn't either) but since it was medically necessary and going to happen regardless, I might as well take the opportunity to take credit for providing safety. This is a case of a good application of negative reinforcement. The parrot learned to come to me for safety in moments of panic rather than to flee or worse yet that the danger was caused by me in the first place.
One of the reasons negative reinforcement tends to be ineffective is because of desensitization with time. As the animal begins to get used to an aversive or pain, it may loose its effect. Especially if the aversive turns out to be physically harmless, the parrot will realize and stop responding to it. For this reason either a stronger dose of aversive is necessary or the behavior is lead toward extinction. Since I don't mind my parrots to stop fearing the naturally present aversives they encounter, I am not worried if the negative reinforcement will lose effect. If my parrots stop fearing these things, I will be just as happy because I don't want them to be fearful. I only use occasional natural negative reinforcement on behaviors that are already trained through positive reinforcement. Since I do not cause the aversives intentionally myself (and disassociate with any aversives that could be perceived as caused by me), the intensity of the aversive should not change. Further, these types of scenarios are fairly infrequent anyway. But since they happen from time to time, I capitalize on the situation and play the role of savior for my parrot.
Let me illustrate with human example. Let's say you are on a long cross country trip with a friend driving. You get an upset stomach and really have to get to a bathroom. So your friend is very understanding and gets you to one promptly to one in return for asking persuasively. We can agree that you gain nothing from going to the bathroom but you do get relief so this is negative reinforcement. You would then be grateful to your friend for helping you find relief from something uncomfortable that isn't your friend's fault. Now what if your friend put something in your lunch that caused this? Even though your friend saves the day by getting you to a bathroom, they were still the cause of your discomfort. Would you be happy and grateful to them? Probably not. You'd be more angry that they caused you discomfort in the first place. This is the difference between giving negative reinforcement to a natural/unrelated aversive vs being the cause of the aversive. Negative reinforcement can only work well when it is providing relief from something you have not caused or associated with.
So am I encouraging you to go and use negative reinforcement with your parrot? Not necessarily. What I am encouraging you to do is to give further thought into whether or not you are rewarding by giving something (positive reinforcement) or rewarding by taking something away (negative reinforcement)? Are you threatening in some way that until the parrot does something you want, you will do something? Why should your parrot comply with your requests and what will the consequence be if it does not? Being more aware and intentional in your training means will ensure that you are making the most effective application but also help you to ensure a good relationship. Making sure that you are not causing aversives but helping to reduce naturally occurring ones will work in your favor.
My book almost exclusively focuses on training using positive reinforcement because this needs to be the basis of any parrot relationship. However, this article is a supplement for those who already use positive reinforcement. This is for those who want to take their training to an even further level and learn to apply the good kind of negative reinforcement responsibly to get even more out of their training.
Avoid using threats (whether it be with a stick, your arm, a squirt bottle, or going back in the cage) and do things so the parrot would want to engage in the behavior without coercion. But on the other hand, when there are opportunities to save your parrot from uncontrolled environmental factors, take training advantage by having the parrot do something for it. Stepping up, coming to you, flying to you, etc are all important behaviors and ones that the parrot can learn to do more readily when it feels scared. By teaching your parrot to come to you rather than away, you can ensure that in times of panic, your parrot is more likely to return to you and that your relationship can be so good that you would be your parrot's means for safety. Negative reinforcement is often misused but it is not always bad. Focus on the good stuff with your parrot and your relationship will be better than ever.
I have now had Santina for over 3 months but because of her questionable health, I had to keep her separate from Kili and Truman on prolonged quarantine. Now that she has taken medication and her infection cleared up, things are all set for the introduction.
Since it is difficult to impossible to truly disinfect colored toys and large porous perches, I opted to play it safe and discard all of the old stuff. Having already spent thousands on her vet care, what is loosing a few toys to make sure this illness doesn't rear its ugly head again? Since Santina would need a new stand in the big room anyway, I took this opportunity to set things for the long run.
I bought a ton of different branches and got to work piecing them together for a macaw megastand. This one incorporates more branches than the original and is entirely free hanging for easy cleaning. I also think that hanging stands are ultimately more natural for birds because they incorporate some natural motion and sway. This stand is so big and heavy that it is stable enough that Santina was not bothered by it. In fact one of the first things she did was to climb up to a high swing mounted on the already hanging structure.
Santina spent all day watching me build her new housing so she was more prepared for it when the time came to try. A tour of the room and features coming soon but in the meantime here are photos and video of Santina's new crib.