Archive for July, 2009


Scritches for Everyone!

July 31, 2009

After a whole year of watching Mika enjoying head scratches, Stewie has decided that he’s going to allow me to touch him. Not just touch him, but rub his neck and pinch the keratin off his new feathers! Pin feathers are itchy and uncomfortable and, in the wild, parrots engage in allopreening to help each other get rid of the hard substance that protects the feathers as they grow in.

In our homes, where they don’t have other parrots to preen them, they have two options: either live with the icky pin feathers and wait for them to fall off on their own, or let the humans help.

For two years, Stewie has not wanted me to touch him. He was all about preening me — trying remove moles from my neck, pulling on hairs, removing errant schmutz — but has not wanted my hands on him. Don’t get me wrong, Stewie is very affectionate. He gives me kisses, lets me smother him with kisses, crawls into my shirt… but he let me know that he doesn’t like hands coming at him or touching him and I always respect his personal space. Not respecting his no-touching rule would mean getting bitten, but more than that it’s a matter of maintaining trust and open communication. No hands invading where they aren’t wanted.

But for some reason in the last couple of days, Stewie has welcome neck and head rubs, scritches and help with his pins. Not sure why I even tried — I stopped trying to touch him long ago — but something about how he was all fluffy with his head down just said “scritches please”. After all, that’s the position Mika adopts when she want scritches.

Breaking pin feathers is a delicate operation; even if you’re careful, you could rub that feather the wrong way, which hurts. But Stewie has been very tolerant and patient with me.

Because of the fact that Stewie is kind of a bitey bird, I’m careful to watch his body language very carefully and always stop long before I think he’s getting antsy. I only break up two or three feathers at a time, at most and then take a break. When Mika is done with scritches, she just pushes me away, but I think that if I were to irritate Stewie he’d let me know a little more forcefully.

This foray into helping Stewie preen is a huge leap for us. These types of breakthroughs… with a bird who was aggressive and distrustful for months after I got him … is really the best part of working with parrots.

Scritches for everyone!


3 Common Clicker Training Mistakes

July 3, 2009

Clicker training is a fantastic method for taming and training parrots, effective on everything from little budgies and cockatiels to ornery cockatoos. It’s amazingly simple and easy to do, and yields really fast results. The basis of clicker training is positive reinforcement/operant conditioning, and the “secret” of the clicker is that it’s a simple way to communicate. As soon as your parrot starts to understand that “click” means “good, now here’s your reward”, it opens up so many possibilities.

If you don’t know anything about clicker training birds yet, please start by signing up for the Bird-Click discussion group, where you’ll find a wealth of resources in the list and in the files, or by reading the book: Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds.

If you’ve started clicker training and aren’t seeing great results, check to see if you are making any (or all) of these three common clicker training mistakes.

Mistake #1: Clicking But Not Delivering a Treat

A click is a promise of a treat. If you click for the desired behavior but don’t follow up, you are breaking the implicit contract of clicker training your bird. “Click” always means treat, even if you made a mistake and clicked for the wrong thing.

However, after the behavior is well established and you are sure that your bird understands what you’re asking for, you can phase out the clicker. You should continue to reward the desired behavior, but a treat is no longer required 100% of the time. (In other words, you can treat without a click, but a click always means a treat is coming.) In fact, variable reinforcement can actually be much better at creating a stronger behavior (both bad and good).

Solution: Perfect your clicker timing and always deliver a treat after clicking.

Mistake #2: Not Using a Consistent Marker

As I mentioned in my clicker training myths post, there is nothing magical about the clicker that causes the bird to do what you want, but it has several advantages: it is a distinct and sharp sound that can mark a very precise point in time; it is a consistent noise that always sounds the same; it doesn’t sound like anything else the bird is likely to hear during non-training times. The bird understand that the click has one simple function: to signal that they did the right thing and earned a treat.

You can choose not to use a clicker device as a marker (or “bridge” to the reward), but using a verbal marker is not as precise and could cause training (and learning) to go much slower. If you choose to use the word “good” as a bridge rather than a mechanical click, be conscious of using the same intonation, inflection and timing every time. If your supposed marker is just a combination of long sounds all strung together — “gooooooood. good. gooooood biiiiiirrrrd” — your bird will probably understand that you’re pleased, but have no clue what specific thing is generating the praise, which is the whole point of the marker.

Solution: Use a clicker. If you can’t use a device that makes a distinct, sharp sound, then clicking with your tongue would still be preferable to using a word.

Mistake #3: Using the Wrong Training Reward

The first “trick” you should start teaching your bird is targeting, but even before that the first step of training is figuring out what your bird’s favorite treat is. “Treat testing” involves offering your bird several high-value food items and seeing which one it consistently eats first. Whatever that is, is what your bird prefers most and will probably be willing to work for.

Birds are not like dogs in that their owner’s approval is enough to make them jump through hoops (figuratively or literally). They need to know there’s something in it for them. You don’t have to use food as a reward but it tends to be the easiest to deliver. Things like a head rub could potentially be used as a reward, but only if the bird finds it rewarding enough to work for it. Giving scritches to a bird who barely tolerates them, in other words, is not the correct way to C/T.

The problem with rewards is that we (as humans) tend to focus too much on what we ourselves think should be rewarding, not what actually is to our training subject. Remember: a reinforcer is only a reinforcer if it causes the behavior to increase. I.e., if your bird isn’t eagerly working to get that reward… it’s not much of a reward.

Solution: Conduct treat testing and observe which treats your bird is most enthusiastic about. Remove that item from his daily diet and only use it as a training reward.

Learning to Clicker Train the Right Way

Here you’ve learned what not to do when it comes to clicker training. If you’re interested in learning how to do clicker training the correct way, please join Melinda Johnson’s Bird Click group on Yahoo or get the book: Clicker Training for Birds (from Amazon).

Please also see our previous post: Clicker Training Myths and Misconceptions