Posts Tagged ‘Bird Training’


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


Getting Started Clicker Training Mika

July 28, 2008

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to convince Mika to eat a bigger variety of food. I’ve put off training with her because she’s such a picky eater that it’s hard to remove treats from her regular diet to use for rewards.

Furthermore, she’s a very slooooow eater. So far there’s nothing she likes that doesn’t take her a few seconds to eat, so we’ve been very slow to get started with training — that’s because the training reward should be something that can be eaten quickly enough that it doesn’t stop the flow of training. The bird should not be given any opportunities to get distracted from the behavior being reinforced.

My first goal before I even started training was to change her diet: no more peanuts, fewer seeds, high-quality pellets instead of filler and, if possible, fresh foods. In addition to being better for her, it would be awfully convenient if Mika and Stewie ate the same foods – it would cut preparation time in half!


(In the past few weeks I have convinced her that Nutriberries — Stewie’s favorite treats — are yummy, but that’s a little like convincing a kid who only eats candy that oatmeal cookies are good! lol.)

The good news is that seeds are finally a much smaller part of her diet, with the majority of it consisting of a combination of Zupreem Avian Maintenance Natural pellets, the same type as Stewie’s but bigger, and Kaytee Exact Organic pellets, plus a mix of dehydrated vegetables. She still gets pumpkin seeds for snacks, but the sunflower seeds are only for rewards now.

Even though unshelled sunflower seeds still take a little longer for Mika to crack and eat than I’d like, it seems like the best training treat option for her. I might even try shelled sunflower seeds if it appears that it takes her too long to shell them herself.

So I think we’ve finally overcome the hurdle to the very first step of clicker training: finding an appropriate treat.

We’ve started on the second step of clicker training: charging the clicker. This is where we introduce the parrot to the concept that click –> treat.

Once that’s established we work on teaching that trick –> click –> treat (i.e. that specific behavior –> reward)

I actually never charged the clicker with Stewie — we just started on tricks right away; to tell the truth, I’m not sure he even gets the whole concept of the clicker — but he certainly “gets” training. For some reason it just seems like Mika requires more introduction to the concept and the clicker might be necessary for marking the desired behavior more precisely since she does react more slowly than he does.

Here’s a video of me charging the clicker with Mika and asking for step ups:

At the end of this session, right after this video ended, I tried introducing the target stick, but she just ran away from it, so I’m saving targeting for a separate training session.

Since I haven’t really done any training with Mika, there aren’t a lot of videos of her. So if you’re wondering why there are quite a few of the Stu-monster and so few movies of my pionus, that’s why. I promise it’s not one of those no-one-takes-photos-of-the-second child things 🙂 I’ll take more videos once she knows how to do some tricks, and I’ve asked my videographer friend who did the cute Introducing Stewie video to make one of Mika as well. With her looks, there’s no reason she can’t be a movie star too.

Update: July 31

Only our second training session ever and she already seems to get targeting. She’s even taking a few steps towards the target on her own. Hurray!


Teaching My Parrot to Fetch: Step 1

April 2, 2008

I pulled this old draft out of my archives. It’s from late last year, but I thought I’d go ahead and publish it now, even though he already knows how to retrieve and put the ball in his cup.

After very fast progress with targeting, we hit a bit of a bump moving on to the next trick.

It’s not that my bird isn’t smart, but rather the problem was that I wasn’t communicating what I wanted clearly. So we ended up having to take a few steps back and simplifying the task dramatically.

He was doing fine touching the wiffle ball I was using for a prop, and sometimes he’d even grab it — but he always dropped it very quickly. I got stuck at getting him to hold on to it.

This is how I got Stewie to actually grab the toy, not just beak it:

I put it in the way of his treat dish. He grabbed the toy to move it out of the way, but before he could drop it, I c/t for grabbing it and catch the toy before he dropped it. Okay, I admit, it was cheating a little and it’s better to have your bird learn by really experimenting with new behaviors himself, but we weren’t making progress and he was frustrated.

So we did a lot of reps of him grabbing the ball and lifting it a bit. I started delaying the click to make him lift it higher, so he’d grab it lift it all the way out of the cup and move it around as if to say “Hellllo! See me lifting it? What are you blind? Where’s my treat?!”

After that I wanted to teach him to put it in my hand. I held my hand out to force contact with the ball and c/t’d. Didn’t seem to work. Then I tried taking the ball, but that resulted in him biting me — he was still afraid of or mad at hands at that point — which was a major setback. Clicking and biting shouldn’t go together!

So I stopped trying to take the ball and kept trying to shape bigger and bigger lifts out of the cup, but didn’t know how to proceed from there.

Then one day, when his wiffle ball was sitting at the bottom of his playstand, he climbed down, grabbed it, climbed all the way back up his stand and put the wiffle ball in his cup!

Ah ha! I was trying to teach him to lift the ball out of his cup, but what he had LEARNED instead was that he got a treat for putting the ball BACK in his cup. Smart birdy!

So I changed course and followed his lead. Rather than getting him to take the ball out of the cup and give it to me, I simply started handing him the ball to place inside the cup. After several sessions he’d even walk a few steps to take the ball and a few steps back to deposit it. This method also gave me more control over how close my fingers got to him since I wanted to avoid getting nipped at.

That’s how Stewie learned his first “real” trick — how to put a ball in a cup — even though I was actually trying to teach him retrieve. The student teaches the master 🙂

Watch the video of Stewie doing his “basketball” trick here.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post where I explain how we went on to learn actually to retrieve.


Teaching Flighted Recall: First Steps

March 9, 2008

In the last couple of weeks Stewie has had a few flight feathers grow back in. He was clipped when I got him last summer and he’s been to the vet for a follow-up trim because one was growing in really uneven.

But this time around I’ve been wrestling with the decision whether to keep him clipped or try to let him fly. So far he has two full flights on each side and that’s enough to get him pretty mobile. He’s not an expert flier, but he can fly enough to get into trouble 😉

I started recall training with Stewie this weekend and our first session went really well.

First I asked him for regular step ups. I kept increasing the distance a fraction of an inch until he could barely reach me with his beak if he stretched as far as he could. (He had to reach real far, put his beak on me and then lunge to pull the rest of himself onto my

When I was just out of reach I brought out the big guns: a Nutriberry – his very favorite treat in the whole world. That got his attention. Using the Nutriberry as a lure, I coaxed him to get up on my arm.

It took a little while of him running up and down his cage trying to figure out how to reach me and then after much hesitation, he hopped over. That got him lots of praise and a whole Nutriberry! He dropped half of it, which I retrieved and used to get him to do it again.

That first 2 hops were the most difficult. After that he just got his regular safflower seeds as a reward. Going from a short hop, to a
short hop with a little wing flapping, to a flight of a couple of feet went very smoothly.

Stewie did all that in just one session. Now need to keep reinforcing it and trying lots of distances, changing the heights, etc.

He’s still not doing it all the time, and today he won’t attempt longer distances even if it’s a distance he’s comfortable flying; but if he got every single trick down cold in just one session, I’d be at my wits end trying find new ways to keep him challenged.

Flighted recall is probably one of the most important tricks to teach a parrot who can fly, so I’m going to try to be more vigilant about training and reinforcement for this one than I’ve been with some of his others.

Related Post: Teaching Parrot to Fly


Just How Smart Are Cockatoos? Check It Out!

February 6, 2008

This cockatoo’s puzzle solving skills are really impressive.

Doesn’t she look like she’s having fun? Just another example of children’s developmental toys making good (large) bird toys too. (Imagine having to keep a toddler entertained and healthy … that’s at least how much work a cockatoo takes too!)