By Cheryl Lock
Whether you’ve lived with birds all your life or your new friend is your first feathered companion, you’ve likely noticed that most domesticated birds love to play. But even playtime needs structure.
In general, birds can learn new behaviors relatively quickly, says Barbara Heidenreich, an animal training and behavior consultant who has been working with birds for 27 years. “However, what really makes a difference is the skill level of the trainer,” she added.
“Animal training is really a form of communication, and it follows a very systematic approach,” Heidenreich explained. “The better the person is at applying the training technology, the better he or she will communicate what is required to earn desired consequences.”
Being sensitive to body language and creating a relaxing and comfortable environment are integral steps to helping your bird to learn, Heidenreich said.
So how can you help your bird to learn tricks, even if it’s your first time? Follow these steps.
Start With the Basics
Before beginning to train any animal, it first needs to be relaxed and comfortable, says Heidenreich. “I generally do not move an animal to a new space to train unless it’s a space with which [the animal] is already very familiar,” she said. “The next most important thing to do is to identify potential reinforcers.”
A reinforcer is either a thing or experience your bird seeks to acquire or engage in, like preferred foods, toys, or physical affection.
Choose Your Method of Teaching Very Carefully
In Heidenreich’s experience, positive reinforcement has been the most effective training tool.
“This means that whenever your animal presents the desired behavior, something good is going to happen, like the delivery of a desired treat, toy, or attention,” she said. “This method of teaching creates eager participants. It also fosters trust because parrots are empowered to choose to participate, and when they do, good things happen.”
Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice) of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics, has a similar outlook on training. “The name of the training that we apply to birds is ‘applied behavior analysis,’ and it’s totally based on positive reinforcement,” she said.
Practice Patience With Your Bird
Learning a new behavior depends on the complexity of the behavior, the comfort level of the bird, and the skill of the trainer, says Heidenreich.
“Some behaviors can be trained in as little as one 20-minute session, and some may take a session a day for several weeks,” she said.
Also, keep in mind that birds are very smart, says Dr. Hess. So, if you use your bird’s instincts to teach him tricks that would come naturally (for example, smaller birds like budgerigars — aka parakeets — don’t typically speak a lot of words, but they can easily be taught tricks like pushing a lever or picking up a block), then the training should be much easier for the both of you.
Start Out Easy and Build Up
If you’re a novice to training, avoid frustration by starting with the easiest tasks.
“Almost all animal training begins with target training,” said Heidenreich. “This is a very simple behavior that involves teaching an animal to orient a body part towards something.”
With a bird, Heidenreich says she usually asks them to orient their beak towards the end of a stick or a closed fist (using a treat to entice them to do so). “Doing this results in a desired consequence, and once a parrot has learned to target, the target can then be used to direct a parrot where to go without touching the bird.”
This targeting method can be used to teach your bird to turn in a circle, step onto a scale, step onto a hand, go into a transport crate, or step back into their enclosure.
Take Your New Wisdom for a Test Drive
Here are three tricks many novices can follow.
Train your bird to retrieve
(courtesy of Heidenreich)
- Set the bird on a small perch and offer a small toy — like a wooden bead (the type found in bird toys) — in your hand. Usually birds will pick the toy up with their beaks out of curiosity. If yours doesn’t, try hiding a piece of food behind the bead so the bird must touch the bead with its beak. Say “good” to reinforce when the bird touches the bead with its beak. Continue approximating the retrieving behavior (a process called “shaping” the behavior) by rewarding your bird each time it touches the bead until the bird actually picks it up.
- Hold a small bowl under the bird’s beak. Eventually the bird will tire of the bead and drop it. Catch the bead in the bowl. Say the word “good” when the bead hits the bowl. Offer a reinforcer. Repeat this process several times.
- After several repetitions, move the bowl slightly to the side. The bird will probably not drop the bead in the bowl. Offer the bead again, and allow the bird to miss one or two times without reinforcing.
- Go back to trying to catch the bead in the bowl. Say “good” and reinforce.
- Try moving the bowl to the side again. If the bird gets the bead in the bowl, offer lots of reinforcement. If it misses, go back to step 3 and work up to step 5 again. Keep repeating this process until the bird understands the bead must go into the bowl in order to get the reinforcer.
- Once the bird gets the concept of the bead going into the bowl, start moving the bowl a little farther away. You will find you may have to go through steps 3-7 again. But eventually, you will be able to hold the bead on one end of the perch and the bowl on the other.
- Once the bird understands this concept, you can try switching the object to something else. To do this, go back to holding the bowl under the bird’s beak and catching the object, gradually moving the bowl farther away. This should go quickly this time. Once the concept is well understood, try placing the bird and bowl on another surface, such as a table. Again, you may need to repeat steps 3-7 to get on track, but eventually the bird will learn to generalize and perform the behavior in different environments and with different objects.
Train your bird to dance on cue
(courtesy of Dr. Hess)
- Start by paying attention to your bird’s actions. Turn on some music and pay attention to whether your bird moves, sways, or dances (most will). If he does, praise him — either with food or a verbal phrase.
- Continue to praise your bird for his dancing when you turn the music on for a number of days or weeks.
- Eventually you can get rid of the food treat and simply use a verbal cue or scratch on the head to praise your bird when he dances.
- Once this positive behavior is reinforced, your bird should dance whenever he hears music played.
Train your bird to wave hello
(courtesy of Dr. Hess)
- Once again, pay attention to your bird’s actions. When you notice that he picks up his foot (it doesn’t have to be waving), immediately reward him with a treat.
- Once he’s mastered picking up his foot for a treat, move on to having him hold his foot up once he picks it up before receiving the treat.
- Continue the first two steps for a number of days or weeks until it seems he understands that in order to receive his positive reinforcement, he needs to pick up his foot and hold it in place.
“If you keep raising the expectations for behavior, then your bird has to eventually actually pick up his foot and move it to get the treat,” says Dr. Hess. “What you’re doing is shaping the waving behavior.”
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP