Archive for the ‘Bird Training’ Category


Should You Train Your Bird for Freeflight?

August 7, 2014

If you’re asking the Internet “How can I train my bird for freeflight?” the better question is really “Should I try to train my bird for freeflight?”

(Free flight, to be clear, means flying your bird outdoors without physical restriction.)


I’ve shared my personal, amateur opinions about freeflight before, but today I wanted to share a professional’s opinion.

A few months back, we had the pleasure of meeting Hillary Hankey and since then we’ve really enjoyed the work she does and her perspective on loving and living birds (all kinds, not just parrots).

Hillary just published this great article about freeflight training that I wanted to share:

So you want to train your pet parrot for freeflight….

There are no simple tricks to make free flying your birds easy and risk-free. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a charlatan. Buying an unweaned baby to increase your bond won’t bring back a poorly trained bird. Training  your bird via “weight management” so it recalls better won’t prevent fly-offs. And no DVD training kit will give your pet bird the experience it needs to outrun a predator in the wild.

Can it be done successfully? Of course there are examples of people who do it. But even professionals have lost birds. And the amount of work it takes to free fly a parrot is, in my opinion, more than a casual bird owner is going to take on.

Take a read through Hillary’s excellent overview of what freeflight involves, and if you’re still not convinced, please, please, please spend a lot of time doing research and talking to reputable trainers (not people who will try to teach you how to train your parrot over the internet or over a weekend workshop).

p.s. The other day we learned about something called Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, which states “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” Now, the reason that the answer is “no” according to Betteridge doesn’t really apply here — read the Wikipedia article  to see what the trick is — but I admit I did want you to open this post up so you could read why the answer is no.

 image credit: Wisely,  used via Creative Commons license.

2012 in review

December 30, 2012

Happy New Year!

It’s been a light year on this blog, but WordPress ginned up a report for the site. According to the report, my most popular posts for the year were written in previous years:

Screen shot 2012-12-30 at 4.20.08 PM

Not so surprising, given that it’s not been a prolific writing year. But what was surprising was that my readers came from 166 countries!

Screen shot 2012-12-30 at 4.20.27 PM

My resolution for 2013 is to try to write a bit more, if I can. Leave a comment to let me know how you found this blog and what you’d like to see me write about.



Interview: Dr. Irene Pepperberg

October 10, 2012

If you love parrots, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard of Alex the African Grey. The woman behind Alex’s accomplishments and the research that showed the world that parrots don’t just mimic but actually understand language was Dr. Irene Pepperberg, adjunct associate professor at Brandeis University. The main focus of her work with parrots is to determine the cognitive and communicative abilities of these birds, and compare their abilities with those of great apes, marine mammals, and young children. She studies the mechanisms of their learning as well as the outcomes.

In 2008, she published (and I reviewed) her memoir “Alex & Me.”  This year, a new film about Alex was released called “Life with Alex“. Dr. Pepperberg was kind enough to participate in an interview for our blog.

Q: First of all, everyone wants to know: how are Griffin and Wart doing? Can you share what they’re working on?

Dr. Pepperberg: Both are doing quite well…we have one paper in press on their ability to work together to maximize payoff (Griff does to some extent; Arthur is selfish) and another paper accepted pending revision showing that they can both reason by exclusion–that is, choose location X when they know that a treat is not at location Y, and show they know exactly what is at X and Y. We are following up on the reciprocity research with both birds, and Griffin is almost done with a study on optical illusions.

Q: What’s a common misconception people seem to have about you and your work that you’d like to dispel?

That Alex was some kind of avian “Einstein”. He had the advantage of being an “only” bird for his first 15 yrs in the lab, with a small army of humans treating him like a toddler. Griffin always had to share this attention, and Alex interrupted all Grif’s sessions. Too, we tried out some training methods with Griffin that proved unsuccessful (audio and video tutoring), so he has had less overall effective tutoring that Alex. That said, Alex seemed more interested in solving problems, but more so later in life, so there’s still that possibility for Grif and Arthur.

Q: You’ve been known to say that parrots have the intelligence of a small child. Do you still feel this is an apt and useful comparison?

For the general public, yes. Not only to gauge parrot intelligence, but also to understand the type of enriched environment that is required to keep these birds happy and healthy.


Watch a profile of Irene Pepperberg and Alex on NOVA ScienceNOW

NOVA: Dr. Pepperberg Profile


Q: My friends from Facebook want to know: Do you feel that African Greys are special or smarter than other types of parrots? Could you teach a different species the same things you taught Alex?

Have no idea! I could answer that question only by working with other species, and that isn’t going to happen at this point.

Q: What inspired you to share a more personal part of your own life in the book?

Actually, it was my publisher who pushed for those bits….although in retrospect, I can see how my story could inspire other young people.

Q:  Please tell our readers about your new film. How is it different from the book and what would you like viewers to be get out of it?

Life with Alex” is a memoir, told more from the standpoint of my lab manager, Arlene Levin Rowe, than from mine. It gives the public a feel for the birds’ daily lives and their personalities, how they play as well as work, how they interact with their human partners, things that come through more clearly in video than in the printed word.

Q: What was the hardest part of continuing your work after Alex died?

Primarily, simply missing him. Secondarily, realizing that many of the studies we planned may not be done, because Griffin and Arthur still need to learn a lot to be able to be tested in those ways.

Q:  A really important part of science is for other people to be able to replicate findings. Are there currently other people doing similar work that will be able to carry the mantel moving forward?

Not exactly, although there’s a terrific group at the University of Vienna that is looking at cognition rather than communication in Greys, and making some outstanding progress, with keas as well as Greys; they also plan to work with cockatoos. Two other groups that were looking at communication did not replicate my training techniques or the environment of the birds, and thus could not replicate my findings.

Q: What is some of the most interesting animal research happening in the field right now? 

Lots of work being done on a large number of different avian species–corvids and parrots–to determine their intelligence. Mostly being done in the UK and in Austria, however.

Q: Anything else you’d like my readers to know?

That funding for this type research is still close to nonexistent in the US, and that we are dependent right now exclusively upon The Alex Foundation to keep the lab open and running.

Photo by Mike Lovett. A big thanks to Dr. Pepperberg and Arlene Levin for their help with this interview. For more background and videos, check out my book review of Alex & Me


Introducing Shy and Scared Birds to Strangers

December 5, 2011

What a fantastic positive reinforcement training video. I really like everything about this training and the instructions the narrator/trainer gives:

Note how (aside from the initial couple of seconds in the opening that establish that the macaw is uncomfortable), the woman doesn’t push into the bird’s space. She holds her arm or hand steady and allows the bird to come to her, rather than the other way around.

When the bird is encouraged to get closer, but walks away instead, the trainer narrates: “It’s really important to realize that he’s not being stubborn. He just doesn’t have the confidence [to step up.]”

The majority of animal training is really about training the humans. So many people would just keep moving closer to “encourage” him. But once you realize the bird is scared or uncomfortable, instead of obstinate, you’re going to have a lot more sympathy and you’ll realize you need to slow down —  that means not getting any closer and allowing the bird to be the one to decide when and how to close the distance.

This video does a wonderful job showing you how to use food rewards and positive reinforcement to work with a shy or fearful bird to get them to come closer and interact with you or a stranger. Notice how the trainer emphasizes being predictable, giving the bird choices, and allowing the bird to associate the visitor with only good things (great foundations for good training, and the opposite of the truly terrible training advice you might come across on some other sites).

These precise steps won’t work, however, with a bird who is aggressive and who attacks strangers. In that case, offering your hand will likely get you bitten. (It’s also worth mentioning that this video doesn’t show an example of clicker training because there isn’t a behavior-bridge-reward pattern. The treat is being used as a lure or bribe. But that’s fine. Nothing wrong with a well-used bribe every now and then, IMHO.)



Clicker Training for Parrots – Workshop Slides

November 17, 2011

In case you missed it, here are the slides for the Clicker Training for Birds workshop presented at Phoenix Landing in September.

This class focused on the principles of operant conditioning and, specifically, how it applies to our interactions with our birds — and how to use those principles in conjunction with a clicker to mark behavior.

In addition to explaining how clicker training works, ideas for getting started, and strategies for overcoming training challenges, the class included interactive learning with hands-on exercises designed to let participants work on clicker timing and shaping behaviors.

Below are the slides from the workshop.

Clicker training is a fun way to interact with your bird, but it’s also a useful tool for addressing behavioral issues.

Learn more about clicker training birds, common clicker training mistakes, and misconceptions about clicker training.


Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment — They Don’t Mean the Same Thing!

August 31, 2011

Over at PBS, the folks at NOVA have started a new blog series called “Animal Acumen” where they post interesting stories about animal cognition. Always interesting! The latest article is about the incentive for animals to cooperate in society.

Group Weight Lifting and Tug-of-War Event
Photo by prashant maxsteel

Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed about this post was that in the second paragraph the author makes a mistake that so, so many people make in talking about how animals (including humans) learn. It’s a mistake that makes me wince like I’m hearing nails on a chalkboard: she mixes up “negative reinforcement” with “punishment.”

Since the reply I tried to leave ended up being really long and their commenting system seems to be down, I figured I could just turn the comment into a blog post of my own.

Below are the first couple of paragraphs from the Inside NOVA blog post:

Why do most of us work together for the common good, even when it might personally benefit us more to cheat? Is it because we fear we would be punished for not following the rules? Because we have been taught to treat others as we would want to be treated?

Because cooperation is vital for survival in a variety of contexts, it may be that fair play is an evolutionary adaptive behavior, scientists say. Of course, the flip side is that when an individual does behave selfishly, others often use some form of negative reinforcement to dissuade such behavior in the future. [emphasis added] It appears animals do the same. First, though, an animal must recognize unfair situations.

Here’s the gist of what I tried to write on the Inside Nova blog:

In animal behavior language, the phrase “negative reinforcement” means something specific — in fact, it means the opposite of what is meant in this context. “Negative” means “absence or removal” not “unfavorable”, and “reinforcement” means “something that causes the behavior to increase.” Therefore “negative reinforcement” is taking stimulus away in order to *encourage* behavior. What the paragraph is trying to express (i.e., other members of the group provide “feedback” that dissuades repetition of the undesirable behavior by an individual) is actually “positive punishment”.

I know in popular speech people say “negative reinforcement” because it sounds less harsh than “punishment”, but that’s just wrong; reinforcing something you’re trying to discourage will backfire and thus would be a social strategy that groups of animals would quickly stop doing.

The word “punishment” in the realm of animal behavior science doesn’t have a bad connotation (it simply means “something that causes a behavior to occur less frequently”). In fact, “negative” doesn’t have a unfavorable connotation either, funny enough. Negative isn’t bad, it’s simply absence/removal of stimulus (which could be desired or not desired by the subject). Positive punishment isn’t the oxymoron it sounds like either — remember, in behavior lingo “positive” does NOT mean “good.”

wild parrot Photo by artolog

Words Matter…  aka. Why You Should Care

So why is it such a big deal that everyone always gets this wrong?

I know I’ve been flamed on parrot blogs for getting my knickers in a bunch that other members used “negative reinforcement” and “punishment” interchangeably. Actually, I think it’s more fair to say I was flamed for getting my knickers in a bunch that members continued to willfully and obstinately continue to do so, on purpose, after it’s been explained what the difference is.

So, back to the question: Why am I such a stickler? Because when people are trying to solve behavior problems and they are given the steps and the tools for solving those problems, it matters that they understand the concepts and the words used to refer to them.

If an animal behavior export or trainer begins to tell their client “avoid using punishment” and the client responds “oh, I would NEVER punish my bird! Never! I only use positive reinforcement.” … should you trust the client understands what “punishment” means? Nope! In my experience, as soon as you say the word “punishment”, people go on the defensive and claim they don’t do it. But they don’t take the time to really understand that just because they don’t mean something to be punishment, or just because they have good intentions, that this doesn’t mean that they aren’t *discouraging* the animal an action. You don’t have to hit an animal to “punish”. Punishment can be something as simple and tame as a stern look (which works wonders on dogs, by the way!).

It bears repeating: just because YOU don’t think something is punishment, doesn’t mean it’s not. What matters is whether the stimulus decreases the likelihood of the behavior in the future.

For example, let’s say that you’re trying to tame a fearful bird. Every time the bird gets a bit courageous and comes closer, you try to reward it by petting it on the head. That’s positive reinforcement, right? Well, no. It’s only “positive” in the sense that you’re “adding” stimulus immediately following the behavior, but despite your good intentions, if the bird doesn’t like being touched, it’s not reinforcing at all.

In fact, if the bird learns that you’re going to try to touch it every time it comes close to you, and it doesn’t like that, then it’s going to stop coming close to you to avoid being touched. See? That is, in fact, the definition of punishment. It doesn’t mean you’re evil for wanting to show your pet affection, but if you don’t want to accept that you’ve been “punishing” your bird the desired behavior simply because you don’t like the word, it’s going to be difficult for a behaviorist or trainer to help you do a better job working with your bird.

Did I just say petting is punishment? Of course not!  It depends on the context. If your pet likes being touched and will do things in order to get petted more, then petting would be a reinforcer.

84..365 | [Explored] Angry Birds
Photo by KatKamin

So what about negative reinforcement?

But we still shouldn’t use negative reinforcement, right? No. Again, negative does not mean bad. There are of course legitimate reasons why a trainer might need to pull “negative reinforcement” out of his/her bag of training tricks. You use negative reinforcement by removing something (undesirable) from the animal’s environment in order to encourage a particular behavior.

But if you’re so wedded to the notion that “negative reinforcement” is just a nice, more PC way to say “punishment” than you’re going to have a very difficult time understanding conceptually when and how to use actual “negative reinforcement”.

It helps to remember that negative reinforcement is a type of reinforcement. Does adding or subtracting this stimulus encourage the behavior to happen more? Then it’s reinforcing.

If you don’t understand the terminology (or insist on using terms in the exact opposite of what they mean), how will you be able to truly understand and apply the principles that they describe?

Is it really critical to understand the scientific principles behind training in order to do some basic training? Probably not. But if you have an animal with serious behavior problems that really need to be solved, or you’re giving advice to someone who does, I  encourage you to learn about the terms that professional animal trainers and behaviorists use and how to apply them. I promise it’ll help you put together a better strategy for fixing problem behaviors.

Too long; didn’t read?

Negative reinforcement = encourages behavior
Punishment = discourages behavior
They don’t mean the same thing. Don’t use them interchangeably.

Edited Sept 2: Clarifying that you punish or reinforce behavior, not subjects.


Mika is Flying! (Teaching a Parrot to Fly)

May 31, 2010

Mika showed me this weekend that she REALLY likes Sun Chips: she saw me eating some and flew to my arm to get closer. This is a big deal because Mika doesn’t really fly. Or to be more accurate, Mika doesn’t know how to land. She flies very rarely and when she does it’s usually as a result of a startle reflex. The only place she’s been somewhat comfortable landing is on top of her cage, where her landing doesn’t need to be particularly precise.

So this weekend she landed on my ARM! And then the next day she flew to the back of the couch, where I was hanging out, three times. This is tremendous progress.

Since I’ve been wanting my pionus to learn to fly better — to feel comfortable making the choice to fly, learning how to steer and make decisions confidently mid-air, and (importantly) to learn to land with precision — I used her motivation to get a bit of Sun Chip to entice her into some flying exercises.

There really hadn’t been anything she’s shown nearly as much interest in as a bite of Sun Chip, so even though it’s junk food and not something I’d let her have regularly, I knew this could be the key to unlocking her confidence about flying.

I moved the playstand a couple of feet away from her cage and put a small bit of Sun Chip on one of the branches. It didn’t take long at all. She fidgeted around on her perch doing her “pick me up” dance and then … she flew over to the stand. It was a perfect landing!

She enjoyed her prize and then I broke off another small corner and put it on her cage. Mika thought about it for a few seconds and then flew back to her cage.

We repeated this (flying back and forth between the stand and her a cage) a few times. Although they weren’t all perfect landings, you wouldn’t really notice unless you were looking closely. Mika is starting to look like she kind of knows what she’s doing!

Here’s an eight-second clip of one of her flights. (Sorry for the camera-phone quality)

I’m so proud of her!

Now that I know how to REALLY motivate her, I think indoor flight/recall training might actually work pretty well with her. I’m also excited about the opportunity to get her to exercise a bit more.

Please share your own stories about how you taught a bird to fly.