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.*