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Clicker Training for Birds: My Parrot Training Bible

January 16, 2009

Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson is my bible for anything related to parrot ownership, including taming or training my parrots. If you read my blog or read the Bird Board forum, you’ll notice that I mention it frequently — both to people who have problems with their birds (e.g. “my bird bites me”, “how do I teach my bird not to scream so much”, “my new parrot is scared of me”) as well as bird owners who have great relationships with their pets and are interested in teaching their parrots to do some cool tricks to show off.

Can clicker training solve every parrot problem? No. But it’s a fantastic place to start. And I bet it’ll help way more than you expect it to. Can I guarantee your bird will be the next Alex the African Grey? Probably not. But you and your bird will have a ton of fun learning and impressing everyone with what he can learn.

Clicker Training My First Bird

I belonged to the former camp when I discovered the concept of clicker training birds. In the summer of 2007 I adopted a sun conure from the local animal shelter. The name I chose for him was Stewie, after the Family Guy character because that Stewie was also a misanthrope who especially hated his mom. But as a baby, no one could understand what Stewie was saying so they all thought he was just being cute and babbling when he was really saying “Louis must die!!” and plotting her demise.

That’s what I thought my little orange ball of feathers was thinking about me.

After several months of trying to make friends with a bird who enjoyed nothing more than biting me, I started doing research on taming an unfriendly parrot and stumbled across the Bird Click group, moderated by Melinda Johnson.

There I learned that clicker training is a great way to improve your relationship with your bird because it teaches you to communicate with your parrot, so I gave it a try. The process of training helped me to tame Stewie by building trust. I showed him that I was the source of yummy treats and that it wasn’t that hard for him to manipulate me into giving them to him. Because of the training he eventually stopped biting. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen faster than I thought it would.

Today, Stewie still has a nippy moment every now and then but he’s no longer out for blood. He’s an affectionate bird who enjoys hanging out on my shoulder, preening my face or trying to climb into my shirt.

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Check out the Clicker Training for Birds Starter Kit:

  • Clicker Training for Birds, 150 page book of complete training and care
  • i-Click Bird Clicker
  • Target Stick
  • Sample Treats

Or just click on the banner and browse the site to buy any of the items individually or check out related bird clicker training resources.

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The Best Book for Training Birds

The thing to understand about Melinda Johnson’s Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds is that it doesn’t focus on step-by-step guides to individual tricks. Clicker training, as I see it, isn’t really about the tricks. It’s about learning a common language, about teaching trust, about establishing a rapport, about learning how to teach and learning how to learn. One Amazon reviewer only gave the book a so-so review saying:

“This book is mostly about behavior in parrots. There is a lot of good information on that subject but not enough on the clicker training which is the reason I bought the book. Still, there’s enough to give you the idea of how and why it works to make it worthwhile reading. What I would rather have seen is a book that concentrated on just the clicker training aspect.”

But I think this review misses the point of the book. It’s not a cook book with a bunch of recipes to follow. Melinda Johnson’s approach is about learning how to train your bird as much as it’s about your bird learning how to learn. A book that only focuses on the step-by-step of how to teach a particular trick, might show you how to teach that one trick… and then you have a bird who might know one trick. But a book that explains the whys and hows of positive reinforcement training and the principles of training, gives you the resources you need to teach any trick you can think of and a parrot who understands the joys and rewards of figuring out what you want, and then trying different ways to please you.

Chapter 1: Clicker Training Is for the Birds! explains that training can add “a special dimension to a bird’s life” because birds in captivity tend not to have use their minds the way their wild counterparts do. Training stimulates their creativity and resourcefulness. When they figure out that you’re trying to communicate and play with them in new ways, it sets the foundation for a great new, multi-dimensional relationship. Chapter 1 gives a brief overview of what “clicker training” is, the role of the clicker, why this type of training works so well, what types of birds can be trained, what kinds of tricks can be taught and who makes a good clicker trainer (hint: it’s you!) From there, we go backwards a bit to set a foundation to make sure you and your birds are set up for success.

Chapter 2: Birdie Basics explains the importance of diet, exercise, sleep, lighting, parrot health, wing trimming, and toys.

Chapter 3: Getting Ready covers things like when you should start training, how you train multiple birds, where to train, how to train cage-bound or aggressive birds, how long training sessions last and who makes a good parrot trainer (hint: it’s you!)

Chapter 4: How Learning Takes Place is, in my opinion, the money chapter. This is where Melinda introduces concepts like classical and operant conditioning (and explains positive reinforcement, punishment and non-consequence). You learn the purpose of an “extinction burst”. You learn why punishment is not effective at behavior modification — not just that you shouldn’t use punishment, but why it doesn’t really work. Basic concepts like dominance, flooding, systematic desensitization and the “ABCs of behavior” are also discussed. If you understand how learning happens, you’re already armed with some amazing relationship-changing tools.

Chapter 5: Treats is about… you guess it: treats! What’s a good training treat, what’s not, how do you deliver a treat reward, what’s the difference between a bribe and a treat, using praise, how to work with a bird who doesn’t want treats, etc.

Chapter 6: All About the Clicker explains everything there is to know about the device that makes the clicking sound. What is a clicker, how does it work, why does a clicker work better than no clicker, why is timing important and how can I improve mine, when do you click, what do you do afterward, and lots of other clicker FAQs.

Chapter 7: Clicker Training Basics is about putting into practice what we learned in earlier chapters. It helps you create your training plan and goes into specifics of how to train: capturing a behavior, modeling a behavior, luring, shaping/refining behavior. It gives specific examples of how to chain a behavior. We also learn about begging in this chapter, how to deal with blocks, learning how to observe carefully and, importantly, how to deal with unwanted behaviors.

Chapter 8: Prop Behaviors is where we get into the nitty gritty of teaching specific behaviors. Start inside the cage if you have a cage-bound or aggressive parrot or outside if you have a friendly bird. Either way, you should start with targeting to a target stick. Chapter 8 teaches you how to do that. The book then covers various aspects of stepping up (that’s right, step up isn’t the first trick to teach) and gives some suggestions on half a dozen or so prop behaviors you can start with. At this point, it’s pretty much up to you to teach whatever you’re comfortable with – the book gives some tips on how to start. Find parrot training props here.

Chapter 9: Non-Prop Behaviors goes into a lot of fun tricks that don’t require props or toys. Ever want to teach a bird to dance on cue, take a bow, nod, flap, wave, shake hands or roll over and play dead? These are things you can learn in Chapter 9.

Chapter 10: Star-Spangled Manners answers questions like: how can I get my bird to go back in his cage? How do I potty train my parrot? How can I get my birds to stop chewing on my furniture or encourage them to stay on their playgym? Can I teach my parrot to enjoy showers? Come to me when I call? Stop using foul language? How can I get my bird to cooperate with a wing trim or nail clip? How do I teach my bird to accept a harness? Take medicine from a syringe? In other words, how can I teach my bird to behave? By now, at this point in the book, you probably already have some ideas about how reinforcement works – it’s just time to apply it.

Chapter 11: Screaming: The Call of the Wild. Birds vocalize to communicate and express themselves. This chapter talks a bit about parrot vocalization to put everything into perspective and gives some tips and tools for curbing and coping with yelling. How to stop a screaming parrot isn’t really a major focus of this book, but luckily there are plenty of other resources on the Web that teach you how to curb excessive screaming.

Chapter 12: To Chomp, Or Not to Chomp discusses biting and what you can do about it. The first trick to discourage your bird from biting is — ready for this? — to not get bitten. First and foremost Avoid the Bite! That’s right, avoid getting bitten. You’ll notice this runs counter to a lot of advice you find on the web, which says to “ignore the bite.” When I first learned about avoiding the bite (and how counterproductive ignoring the bite really is) in the Bird Click group, it was the most profound and best advice I’ve ever gotten.

In this section of Melinda Johnson’s book, we also learn how to discourage biting before it becomes a problem (among young birds), how to give your words meaning, dealing with learned aggression. We learn why we need to observe body language, how to change motivation, about height dominance, laddering, shouldering, fear, cage possessiveness and how to get creative.

Chapter 13: ‘Fraidy Birds discusses how to clicker train phobic birds and gives an example in Melinda’s own life dealing with an extremely fearful Goffins. The concept of systematic desensitization (covered in chapter 4) is detailed in practice as the author explains step by step how she got her Goffins to slowly accept and then welcome her. We also learn how we need to change how we approach a scared bird to earn its trust, how to build confidence, the importance of cage placement, how to educate family members about respecting the bird’s space, the effects illness can have, fear of falling and more.

Chapter 14: Resources is a short chapter with some additional resources for clicker training birds, including the Bird Click Yahoo group. Too bad this site here isn’t on that list! ;)

Silly Parrot Tricks

I started clicker training with Stewie over a year ago and it has been an amazing journey. I’ve learned so much and I feel like I’m doing better by my birds because of it.

Today, between the two of them, my birds know several tricks, including prop tricks: targeting to a target stick, how to fetch various objects, put a ball in a cup, deposit coins in a piggy bank, fit a puzzle piece into a slot, put rings on a peg. And perform non-prop tricks on cue, such as: step-up, wave, turn, flighted recall, wings up. Best of all, I think they are much happier and smarter birds because of the mental stimulation they get.

Other cool bird tricks you can teach include: basketball, bowling, flighted retrieve, obstacle courses, play dead, roll over, potty training, nodding yes on cue, riding a scooter, and on and on. The list is practically endless, limited only by your imagination and your parrot’s physical limitations. All these things can be relatively easily with clicker training.

What are you waiting for? Resolve to improve your relationship with your birds by teaching them some fun tricks (or just interact with them more). Buy Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds from the publisher (Karen Pryor, the clicker training guru) or from Amazon.

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9 comments

  1. I completely agree with you! I discovered clicker training when trying to figure out ways to improve the life of my plucking grey (turned out it was due to lack of humidity, not boredom) and it completely revolutionized my parrots’ lives. I only wish I’d discovered it earlier. This book is fantastic!!!


    • Thanks Mary! Don’t you wish everyone had a copy of this book? ;)

      I don’t recall off the top of my head if the book covers humidity, but it does talk a little bit about health and how that’s an important foundation in a bird’s life. Luckily you can do things like start to improve a parrot’s diet at the same time as you’re training, so that shouldn’t hold you up. I find a lot of people delay training because they want to tame their bird or get them on a pelleted diet or whatever first before training, but that misses the point. In theory, clicker training can even help you teach your bird to try new foods, although that’s one thing I haven’t worked very hard on. (I still have some picky eaters who could be better about their veggies.)


  2. I very much do wish every parrot owner read this book! The other thing I hear is that people don’t have the time. Once I got over the initial learning curve of about a week or so, I can get through a session in 5-10 minutes per bird. I can’t think of anything else that gets you so much bang for your buck in terms of positive outcomes!


  3. “Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds” is the easy, step by step book with satisfaction guaranteed, and I can’t say enough good things about it or Melinda Johnson.

    In fact, I wrote that “This book will probably make her name live beyond all eternity!” (I told them to take out the “probably”, it makes me sound wishy washy)

    But, seriously, once we understand how our bird companions feel it’s much easier to communicate with them and to teach them how to respond, and when they know they’re understood many other problems can be avoided and/or remedied. And happy birds are readily trained and well behaved and are a joy to have and to share.

    CONGRATS ON A GREAT BOOK!


  4. I recently adopted a sun conure whose owner couldn’t keep him anymore. After living with him a few days I realized he screams a good amount due to separation anxiety, and he bites when you try to get him off your shoulder (after he climbs up too fast for you to stop him). We’ve made noticeable progress on the screaming in just a few days, but I just ordered this book on your recommendation hoping it can speed the process up and stop the biting for good. Thanks for the recommendation! I hope it works! **fingers crossed!**


    • Thanks for adopting the little guy. It’s good that you are sensitive to his anxieties, but be careful about not inadvertently rewarding his screaming.

      I hope you enjoy the book. It lays a really great foundation for understanding and training your new sun. If you need more help, get stuck, or just want to brag about how well he’s doing, I recommend joining the Bird Click group: http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/Bird-Click/ . It’s run by the author of the book, and the group does a fantastic job helping people who are in the process of clicker training their parrots.


  5. I recently recieved a gift card to a book store and am looking at picking up either this book or the one entitled ‘The Click That Does The Trick” by Robin Deutsch. Have you read the second book, and if so (probably a silly question but) which would you recommend and why?


    • I haven’t read “The Click That Does the Trick” but I get the sense that it focuses much more on teaching individual tricks. It might be good, but I’d want to make sure that it set a good foundation of behavioral science too, before I recommend it as heavily as the one above. I like Melinda Johnson’s book because it focuses on learning to understand your bird and using trick training to build a better relationship through communication; a book that focuses just on the how-tos of individual tricks rather than the principles of training wouldn’t be as useful, IMO. I might have to get Robin Deutsch’s book one of these days and see how well that aspect of it is covered.


  6. my african grey is 4 months old and i have had him for a month hes very friendly and loves attention but i cant stop him from chewing my curtain rings i have put a toy on the curtain pole to try and stop this behaviour am i doing the right thing



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