March 31, 2016 10 min read

What is positive reinforcement for parrots and why you should learn these training strategies

Does this sound familiar? You adopted a pet bird and things were going pretty “fly” with the parrot training.

Your parrot is getting used to its new home and you feel like you’re bonding well. Then, all of a sudden your parrot begins displaying some troublesome behavior. Screaming, biting, aggression or even dreaded plucking.

Good parrot care requires training.

You are losing your cool and don’t know what to do. After all, the bird wants for nothing and you feel like you’re doing everything right. You might even be to the point where you are thinking about getting rid of your bird.

However, this would be cruel. As a pet bird caretaker, it may be time to look at your parrot training strategies.

What is positive reinforcement for parrots?

Its very simple.  When a bird gets what it wants after performing a certain behavior, it'll repeat it over and over.

Parrot training as a key ”Googled” hundreds of times a day, but the sad truth is that the internet is full of misinformation regarding parrot training.

It seems that everyone who ever owned a bird has declared themselves a parrot behavior expert. But, trained and licensed behaviorists know the research.

Parrot training research shows that promoting prosocial behaviors with positive methods makes for a happier, less nervous pet. Positive reinforcement makes for a better behaved pet that you socialize with more.

It is so easy to promote unwanted behaviors, especially with such an intelligent pet. 

After all, we think that we can reason with our smart little bird. Every day, as the CEO of BirdSupplies.com, I get phone calls from distraught plucking parrot caretakers who, full of good intentions, reinforce their pets plucking even throughout the phone call. “Stop that plucking. 

I need to go pick him up so that he doesn’t pluck.” The solution for many parrot behavior problems is to be mindful of what you’re reinforcing.

There are many ways that you as a bird owner can reinforce desired behaviors. As an ambassador for parrot care, you must make it a habit to use positive reinforcement for parrots correctly to avoid ongoing behavior problems. Read on to discover 5 Easy Steps to Kick Parrot Care Up a Notch.

 

5 Steps to Kick Parrot Care Up a Notch with Positive Reinforcement
Photo by BirdSupplies.com: Clicker Training

 

1. Discover ABC

First things first. In order to change an unwanted behavior, you’ve got to figure out what causes the misbehavior.  Simply put, every behavior is sandwiched between a trigger (called an antecedent) and a motivator (called a consequence).  Here’s an infographic to help you understand.

5 Steps to Kick Parrot Care Up a Notch with Positive Reinforcement

Once you know what triggers your parrots' problem behavior, you can change routines and eliminate the triggering event.  Likewise, once you become aware of what consequence sustains the behavior, plan for a different consequence.

 2. Learn the function of behavior

According to applied behavior analysis, all behavior serves a function, whether it is screaming, biting or plucking. We literally know of 4 functions of behavior. What is your parrot getting out of its undesirable behavior?

 

5 Steps to Kick Parrot Care Up a Notch with Positive Reinforcement

3.  Find behaviors that you wish to see more of

The first step to any parrot training effort is to sit down with yourself and decide which behaviors you want to reinforce. 

Common prosocial behaviors that make for a fun parrot include:

  • Stepping up onto your hand to get in or out of the cage
  • Staying in the expected place, such as on a play stand during out of cage time
  • Chirping, whistling, and talking
  • Playing, exercising, exploring
  • Having a safe beak
  • Coming when called

Try to think about any assimilation of these behaviors.  For instance, when you're teaching your parrot to come when called, the first step is that your bird looks at you when it hears its the words, "Come, Peachy!"

Next, pair looking at you with stepping up on to your hand and reward that behavior.  You'll want to be very in tune with your pet to progressively reward behaviors required for the complete behavior. 

Without intentional planning, it is easy to accidentally provide attention for misbehavior while forgetting to reinforce desired behaviors. Even if you are unaware of it or not doing it on purpose. 

Have you ever found yourself talking or even yelling at your bird when it screams or having a really animated response to a nip? Hmmm. Polly got the attention she wanted!

Birds love any form of attention and they especially love animated responses.  They're not so good at interpreting the emotion behind your spirited responses, though. So, if you jerk back your hand and yell "OUCH" with a nip, Polly gets a real charge!

So, sit down right now and decide which behaviors you want to "reward" and which ones you want to redirect by teaching an alternative behavior. Literally make a list of them. 

Next, make a list of how you want to intentionally reinforce those behaviors and how you'll ensure that you are NOT reinforcing the unwanted behaviors. Your list might look something like this:

Prosocial Behaviors

Unwanted behaviors

  • Whistling and talking
  • Stepping up / stepping down
  • Staying on the bird stand
  • Attending to you when its name is called
  • Playing with toys
  • Screaming
  • Getting nippy when asked to step up
  • Posturing for aggression
  • Crawling off play stand and onto floorPlan how to reinforce what you want to see more o

4.  Plan how you'll reinforce desired behaviors

 


Let’s circle back to the function of your birds' behavior.  Remember, the behavior may be performed either to gain something desired such as social attention or a tangible reward, often food.

 

 

Behavior may also be performed to escape something undesired, such as going back to the cage, avoiding a bath, or in the case of plucking - releasing endorphins that allow it to escape anxious feelings.

 

 

 

 

Make an effort to reinforce desired behaviors that serve the same function, if at all possible.  So, if I want to curb screaming, which my bird does to get my undivided attention, I'd reinforce talking or whistling with my undivided attention.

 

Positive Rewards that gain something desired

Planned Elimination

  • Food Reinforcers 
  • Calling its name and whistling to it 
  • Creating a special whistle and standing by it whistling and dancing
  • Scratching its head 
  • Playing with your pet
  • Planned ignoring the unwanted behavior
  • Walking away from the bird
  • Redirect the birds' focus on a trained trick, like waving.  This is especially helpful if the cue to perform the trick is a gesture versus a word.

 

Keep in mind that, in parrot training, your goal is to build your pet's trust with you.  When you’ve trained your parrot that when it performs an expected behavior it will get rewarded, which builds trust and ensures that the behavior will be repeated over and over again.  

Think of trust with your pet as a "trust bank account." Positive reinforcers are like deposits in that account. They build upon each other over time.  Anything that the animal sees as negative or aversive is like a withdrawal.

Negativity makes your pet want to escape. It leaves your bird confused and frustrated.  You can tell if you've somehow frustrated your parrot by observing its body language. Whenever your pet is disengaging from a training session, ask yourself, "What did I do to invite that behavior."

5 Steps to Kick Parrot Care Up a Notch with Positive Reinforcement

Parrot Training should focus on making positive trust deposits, not trust withdrawals

5. Plan how you’ll cope with unwanted behavior.

Finally, it is essential that you sit down with yourself and plan on how you'll completely eliminate reinforcing the unwanted behavior going forward. 

Again, to do this correctly, you’ll have to know the function of your pet's behavior. The part involves you training yourself in the fine art of ignoring unwanted behavior!  It’s called planned ignoring and it is, admittedly kind of hard to do.

So what is planned ignoring in the first place? This is when you pay absolutely no attention to your bird when it is misbehaving. That means not looking at her and not talking to her during problem behavior. 

For example, you hop on a phone call and immediately your bird starts plucking or screaming. You could walk away and continue your conversation in another room and then as soon as the behavior stops return an offer your bird a treat.

The key is to reward your bird with a lot of attention for desired behavior but don't give her any attention when she behaves badly.

By consistently eliminating all attention to problem behavior paired with attending to desired behaviors, you'll shape your bird's behavior over time. Planned ignoring works so well because attention is such a reward for our social birds.

Think back in time. How many times have you accidentally rewarded your bird for misbehavior?  It's probably in the hundreds. Likewise, How many times have you inadvertently forgotten to reward positive behavior with attention? Again, it's probably in the hundreds.   

It's likely that the problem behavior has been well reinforced over a long period of time. Keep this in mind when you're working toward eliminating the problem behavior. Plan on this process taking four or more weeks when used consistently.

People often think that's scolding their bird will make it stop a behavior. But this is very far from the truth of how the bird sees it. Your bird doesn't care if you're screaming at it or criticizing it.

The fact is it doesn't know that you're upset. It just knows that it's getting attention from you and even if is not it's favorite kind of attention it's still attention that leads to more bad behavior. 

Actually, this principle is true with kids, too. Kids would rather have any form of attention then no attention at all. What makes parrots unique though, is that wild parrots scream at each other as their form of communication.

Your parrot thinks it's getting the best kind of attention of all when you scream at it!

Planned ignoring tips:

  • Completely ignore. It is essential that you completely ignore your bird when it's misbehaving. Don't look at it. No glances over at it. No reactive facial expressions. No noise whatsoever.  In the case of screaming, you may need to purchase some earplugs to use for a few weeks to keep your sanity.
  •  Start ignoring immediately when the behavior begins. Once you start ignoring, count slowly for 20 seconds. You may have to quietly leave the room if you can't contain yourself. However, you must make it a point to immediately attend to the bird as soon as it stops the misbehavior.
  •  Figure out how you'll distract yourself.You know that it's going to be hard to ignore certain behaviors such as screaming and plucking. Try putting some headphones on and listening to your favorite music. Do some breathing exercises to keep yourself calm.  The key is to stay calm. Don't let your bird ruffle your feathers!
  •  Most importantly, pay attention to natural, safe parrot behavior.While it will take effort on your part, your social pet needs attention. Providing attention for desired behaviors makes planned ignoring work better and faster.

Does planned ignoring always work?

There are certain cases when planned ignoring is not the best option. Ask yourself these questions:

 Is the behavior rewarded by something else?

Sometimes, other family members or even pets reward the parrot with attention for misbehavior. For instance, I'd love to ignore Timmy when he's dropping his pellets on the floor, but I can't compete with the attention that he gets from the dogs. They love it when he feeds them.

Ignoring him in this instance will do no good because the dog's attention is so reinforcing. In this case, it would be better for me to switch up the antecedents such as removing the dogs from the vicinity when I fill Timmy's food bowl.

You can't eliminate dangerous behaviors with planned ignoring. 

Timmy is hormonal and he’s bonded with the new puppy. He kept crawling off of his play stand and walking around on the floor.  I don’t want to risk a dangerous puppy bite.

Climbing down from the play stand was not a behavior that I wished to ignore. So, I simply made it impossible for him to climb off.  I put the seed guards back on the play stand. Guess what? Now he can’t feed the dogs either!

Behavior tends to get worse before it gets better. Can you handle it? 

When you suddenly start ignoring behavior that you've consistently rewarded in the past your bird will perform the behavior over and over again, sometimes with greater intensity in an effort to get your attention.

How will you handle this, because giving in one time will only teach your bird to misbehave more intensely in the future? if you don't think you can handle the problem getting worse for a short period of time, don't choose to use planned ignoring as your first line of defense.

Can you ignore the behavior whenever it happens?

If you choose to use planned ignoring it is crucial that you use it consistently. If you use it sometimes, but not at other times, like say when company is over, planned ignoring simply won't work in fact, It will make the problem worse.

You'll have to figure out ways to cope during the planned ignoring process or else you run the risk of making the behavior worse. We often see this with screaming.

People try planned ignoring for a while and give up because the process isn't working fast enough. This just taught the bird that persistence pays off. 

Slow & Steady: Tracking Your Progress

Bird training is not the easiest thing in the world, however, it does not have to be the hardest either. Know that anytime you're trying to change unwanted behavior two types of training are taking place.

First, your bird has to learn that it won't get attention with its old ways. Second, your bird must learn to perform a whole new set of behaviors in order to get attention.

Finally, both you and your bird have to develop new habits. Training takes time and impatience.

 One way to help yourself stay on track is to chart your birds' progress. Check out this article onhow to collect baseline data.

In conclusion, training your parrot should be fun and stress-free. Positive reinforcement for parrots is the right choice.

It's the most humane method of training and the training method that gives you the best results. Some people say that their bird is just stubborn. But, the truth is that positive reinforcement really works well when you follow all five steps.

(Our Feather Plucking Workbook offers painless, research-backed methods to help curb your bird's feather plucking behavior.)

 

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