Are You Getting The Best Results From Your Bird Training?

Find out why zookeepers use the power of the silver bowl to train and how you can use it to train your bird.

Find out why zookeepers use the power of the silver bowl to train and how you can use it to train your bird.

If you’re training, hiding your bird’s food can be a better way to get results. 

I love reinforcements, and so do you. If you didn? love them, than they would not be considered reinforcers. Some of my reinforcements are food, water and money. After working in my garden on a hot Florida day, an iced beverage is the perfect reinforcement. When we work, we get money to buy food and other less essential, but equally fun items. We work because we anticipant the end reward. We may not necessarily see the reward in front of us, but we work hard for that goal.

Our companion animals are no different. They do behaviors in order to get things, like food, water and attention from their companion owners. When training, many pet caregivers use food to motivate their pets; however, showing our birds the reward they will receive is not best practices. Keeping the treats hidden until after the bird does the behavior will result in higher quality behaviors.

Don? Bribe Your Bird
Bribery and positive reinforcement are two different, yet similar, tools. Both of which can use food. In bribery the reinforcer (food for example) is shown, and when the bird does a behavior they get that piece of food. In positive reinforcement, the animal performs a behavior and then is given food which they have not seen. The food could be a single treat, five treats, or their entire day? diet. It can and should be variable ?it should depend on the performance. If your bird mimics the most beautiful song, you wouldn? want to give them just one sunflower seed, but instead four or five. Since the bird doesn? know what they are getting, your bird will start putting more enthusiasm behind their work. You will soon see them behaving with more vigor to find out what the reward will be.

When I was working with a zoo to finish up a free-flight macaw behavior we quickly discovered the remarkable power of hiding food. (Free flying your pet bird outside is very dangerous [you can teach your bird however, but you should work with an experienced trainer ?Eds.]) The flock of seven macaws would fly around a quarter of a mile a day. In addition to fruit trees and browse to snack on they also had visitors eagerly wanting to interact with them. Some macaws also enjoyed playing with shoelaces and wheels of strollers.

Half way through the behavior, the macaws would fly up into individual kennels and wait for the next leg of the trail. Staying on path and kenneling was all done voluntarily. No coercing or touching of the birds was wanted or necessary. In the beginning of the training, bits of nuts or fruit were thrown inside the kennel. Many of the macaws would walk inside, but a few were hesitant. Some even leaned in, looked at what was being offered and left. This is one example of why bribery doesn? work. It was as if insulted them with our offerings for entering into a kennel, compared to flying freely around the park and interacting with so many other enjoyable items.


A way to get your bird in her carrier? Try putting a mystery bowl of food in the back that will peak your bird’s interest.

What’s In The Bowl?
We soon realized that by having a food bowl in the back of the kennel provided enough enticement for the birds to walk themselves right in. Depending on their flight up to the kennels, the bowls would be filled with exotic fruit, or pieces of their favorite vegetables or nuts. Other days, a small handful of pellets or seeds were tossed in the bowl. Compared to having the food thrown visibly in the kennels, the metal bowls added to the excitement of the kennel. The macaws didn? know if one of their favorite foods was going to be in the dish or several favorites.

Knowing this insight into training I have applied not showing the food reward to some of the birds at home. My Cayuga duck for example has free range of my one acre fenced in property. Just prior to dusk I cue the duck to walk into the shed, were she is protected from predators. Instead of luring her with food, I place her metal feed bowl in her coop and she waddles as fast as a duck can inside the shed. I place the bowl far enough inside the coop that she can? see what treats are inside. If she comes particularly fast I add a small handful of cracked corn or duck pellets in the bowl which already has her favorite treats. If she is not quick, I will keep the bowl at the predetermined moderate amount of treats I had placed in prior to the behavior.

Honest communication is key to maintaining a trustworthy relationship with your bird. If you have two treats in your hand and you show them to your bird you have to give them those two treats. If you ask them to turn in a circle on the perch and it is slow or sloppy you still have to give them the two treats. They saw the two treats and they will not understand why you are withholding one. The next time you show them a handful of treats, they may not do any of the behaviors you ask, because they don? know if you will be honest.

When I ask my Moluccan cockatoo to step up on her playgym voluntarily, I use the same principal. In the beginning I would place a treat in the food bowl, she would hear the ding and bounce off my hand and find the treat. Now I can cue her to step off and once she does, I then deposit the mystery treats into the bowl. What kinds of behaviors can you achieve by not showing the treats?

Loved this article? Then check out these:

Do You Want To Be A Bird Keeper? 
How To Train Your Pet Bird Like A Zoo Keeper

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Birds

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