Those YouTube and Facebook videos are so cute, aren’t they? An endless parade of conures and macaws and amazons and cockatiels doing little tricks like picking up rings and dropping them onto spindles or pushing shopping carts around. I’ve even watched in great envy as cockatoos pick up dollar bills from audience members and stuff the bills into little boxes. More and more people are demonstrating their training techniques for us on video, too. I’ve seen shy quakers learn to put colored pegs into correct holes and soon become proud self-confident parrots.
More than once I’ve thought my birds could do that (especially with dollar bills) — all I’d have to do is train them. How hard could it be? It looks so easy. Just catch the bird doing a behavior and reward it, right?
Except it never quite seems to work out that way.
Well, if you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to train your bird to do something, too, you might be making one of the following five common mistakes. Let’s use Dilbert, a female green cheek conure who is healthy and quite full of herself, to help us understand how to properly train your pet bird. Of course, never attempt any kind of training if your bird is ill or injured. If you’re unsure, be smart and take the bird to a qualified avian veterinarian.
1. Attempting To Do Too Much At Once
Dilbert’s attention span is approximately zero, so effective training consists of working with tiny blocks of behavior, one at a time. For example, if you want her to put colored rings onto colored spindles, you’ll have to break the trick down into steps and train her on each step, one-by-one, making sure she thoroughly knows the first step before moving on to the next one. It helps if you write the idea for the trick down and then break it into individual steps that you can then teach your parrot.
Say you want Dilbert to put a red ring onto a red spindle. The first thing you need to do is show Dilbert what you want; demonstrate the trick for her. After she ignores you and wanders off, gently bring her back and guide her to the red ring. Tap it to get her attention. When she touches it with her beak, immediately make a big fuss and reward her.
Once she’s learned through your consistent repetition that you tapping the ring means she’ll be handsomely rewarded if she touches it with her beak, she’ll be more enthusiastic about what’s coming next. And what’s coming next is having Dilbert pick up the red ring. Then walk with the red ring to the spindle. Then touch the spindle with the ring. Then put the red ring on the spindle, and so on.
2. Being Inconsistent
Yesterday you wanted Dilbert to push a toy supermarket cart, and you rewarded her lavishly at each successful step. Today you decide it might be more cute for Dilbert to flip over on her back, and you’re running low on almond bits.
Your cues to Dilbert need to be consistent. If you tap on a red ring today but then slide the red ring tomorrow, Dilbert won’t realize those two cues mean the same thing. Give the cheeky conure a break and use consistent signaling.
3. Too Many Distractions
It’s hard to focus when you’re Guardian of the Universe. Parrots are on watch all the time, instantly tuned into their environment for any danger, real or imagined. Make things easier by turning off the music and television. Work in a quiet room with the curtains closed to block out any scary events going on outside. Keep interruptions to a minimum.
4. Going On Too Long
Stop your training sessions when Dilbert is having a good time. Yeah, she won’t like that since she is having a good time, but that’s exactly why you should stop. By stopping while she’s enjoying the session she’ll be more eager to try it again the next day. If you go on too long, she’ll get bored and try to get away. If you persist after she’s become tired or bored, she may try nipping or running away, which are not the things you want Dilbert to associate with training.
Training is supposed to be fun for both you and the bird. It’s much better to have more sessions than to have ones that go on too long.
5. Giving Your Bird The Wrong Reward
By now you should know what Dilbert really likes and what treats she’ll eat or not eat. In our case, Dilbert is all about the almonds. You can give her plain, unsalted popcorn all day long, and she’ll happily eat it all day long, but her primary food motivator is a nice bit of almond. She will pay closer attention and work harder if she knows there’s that heavenly bit of almond and not another boring piece of popcorn awaiting her. Put yourself in her place — would you work harder for a bowl of plain cereal or a nice, big piece of cheesecake? Make the treats extra special by not offering them at any other time except for training.
Training your parrot can be fun and healthy for both you and your bird. If you’re not sure what trick to train for first, just check out some YouTube or Facebook videos. When you watch these videos, always keep in mind that we never, ever, not once do something to or with the bird that would damage her trust in us.
And relax. You two have all the time you need and more to learn little tricks. Parrots are almost never in a hurry about anything, and they probably laugh at us rushing around trying to get ready for work or a date. Be cool, like a parrot.
Remember to be consistent, take it slow, be generous with your praise, and make it fun. Then, after Dilbert has learned to pick up those dollar bills and stuff them in a little box, give me a call.