by Gay Noeth

(As first published in Good Bird Magazine Volume 2-3 Fall 2006)


Last year, after having attended numerous training seminars around the country, I decided it was time that I took the plunge and actually started training some behaviours to my birds. I’d heard some people say it was dumb, that parlour tricks were dumb but I wanted to make my own decision about it all.

I had little idea where to start or even which bird to start with. My first victim was my pet Meyers named JD. (That’s short for John Deere for any of you guys reading this…you know…green and yellow.)
I found a little stand I could use for a training stand, and plunked JD down on it. I had already chopped up a variety of nut pieces (almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, walnuts) knowing that JD loved nuts and that they also aren’t something I normally have in my birds diet.
So we’re set! Bird on stand, nut bits in hand. “Wave, wave, wave” I cajole while waving my finger horizontally in the air. “Uh, say what?” appears to be JD’s response. “Wave” I repeat. After a bit of bewilderment JD finally moves a foot, probably thinking something like ‘heck, does she want me to grab that finger that’s flapping?’ or perhaps the thought was he was getting out of here. “GOOD!” I scream, probably scaring the heck out of this poor bird while I offer a nut piece. Well at least the nut kept him on the training stand. “Wave, wave, wave” I say again. “Uhhh, ok” followed by a slight lift. “YEAH! GOOD BIRD!” followed by a bird jumping off the training stand.
Ok, ok, my methodology wasn’t the greatest to start with but in spite of me, JD learned to do a wave.


Now I’m empowered, I trained a behaviour! WOW, what should we do next?

Actually, JD was a perfect first candidate in the end. He had lots of patience with me as I learned how to teach him. I eventually got a little quieter and eventually didn’t scare the heck out of the bird each step of the way. In no time I had taught JD to wave, turnaround, target and then follow the target stick, put rings on the pegs, drop the ball in the hoop (on foot), do a flying version of basketball, drop the disk in the slot and that was about all my non-existant imagination could come up with at the time.
To train any of these things I used either shaping or chaining.
Most behaviours are taught using “Shaping” Shaping is reinforcing small successive increments towards the final behaviour. It’s rare when we can actually ‘capture’ a finished behaviour so we reinforce the closest approximation we currently have and gradually up the criteria until we get to the finished product.

There are two different ways to get that upped criteria. One way is by paying close attention to what your bird is offering (and we are paying close attention while training) and noticing your bird naturally offer a variation of the behavior. If this naturally occurring variation is closer to your target behaviour, you reinforce it.

Another means is utilizing something known as an ‘extinction burst’. An extinction burst occurs when a previously reinforced behaviour no longer gets reinforced. The bird is trying to get that reinforcer so when it is delayed, the bird will try harder and toss out more intense versions of the response. We can often catch the next approximation from this burst of behavior.

There is also ‘chaining’, which is actually linking two or more different behaviours together to form a more complex behaviour. With chaining you begin by shaping the individual behaviours and once that/those behaviours are solid, you put them together to form a sequence that becomes a behaviour unto itself. An example of chaining is teaching a bird to play basketball. This is more than just teaching your bird to pick up a ball. It involves other individual behaviours that you will need to shape (described below).

When I first began teaching JD to wave, thankfully I already knew about shaping and how you devise a plan. I may not have known to keep my mouth shut, but I knew the steps.

A guideline for shaping behaviours should involve the following steps.


a) Set the target behaviour. This is the end behaviour you want to see.
b) Decide what is the closest behaviour to the target that your bird already does.

c) Decide on your reinforcer/s, something the bird likes a lot and is quick for you to deliver and the bird to consume.

d) Figure out in your mind (also doesn’t hurt to write these down), the successive steps that may be necessary to get from the closest current behaviour to your target behaviour.

e) Implement shaping plan.

So with the above guidelines I made a plan for teaching a Wave.

A) Target behaviour – WAVE

B) Closest current behaviour – Lifting foot to step up.

C) Reinforcers-A variety of nut pieces

D) Steps –

i) Lift foot up slightly

ii) Lift foot moderately higher

iii) Lift foot high

iv ) Lift foot high and hold the position briefly

v) Lift foot high and hold the position for a longer period

vi) Lift foot high and hold in position with slight toe wiggle

vii) Lift foot high and hold in position and larger toe movement

viii) Lift foot high and hold in position and clench foot

viiii)Lift foot high and hold in position while clenching and

unclenching foot.

I implemented the plan using reinforcement for each occurrence of the desired behaviour. When one step was fluent, I would withhold the reinforcer during the next instance of the behaviour and watch for the next successive step to occur. Since JD figured on getting the reinforcer and it wasn’t forthcoming, he would try a little harder giving me something more.

The art of training (which simply means experience) is in knowing how long to stay at each increment and how large each step should be. It is the bird that will decide these for you and it is your learning to read the bird that will show you. If you stay too long at one step, the bird may get stuck there, if you progress too quickly, the bird may not understand what you want. You already read about my lack of experience and lack of artistic ability to begin with. It will come though, for all who try. If you have trouble getting the next successive step, move back one step and make your next step forward a smaller increment. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to move to the next step. Ensure the previous step is fluent before moving on. As noted above though, your bird will decide the speed. Sometimes it may only take two or three repetitions before the bird does that approximation without hesitation and you can move to the next approximation quickly.


So let me tell you how I used chaining with JD. I used it when teaching him to play basketball.
As mentioned before, chaining involves the shaping of different behaviours and then linking them all together. To begin I used the guidelines above to identify the individual target behaviours I needed to shape.

-Pick up ball

-Hold ball

-Walk with ball

-Drop ball in hoop
The steps involved for each part are dependent upon the bird. To pick up the ball you may have to start with just getting the ball in close proximity to the bird then gradually have the bird approach closer and closer to the ball to earn the reinforcer, until it touches the ball and then finally will pick up the ball. With JD, he was used to playing with the ball so it was easy to get him to take it from me, which is where I began.
When chaining behaviours, it is important to have a very clear picture of what you want the final behaviour to look like. The reason this is so important is that with chaining, you often teach the sequence backwards. The reason chaining is almost always done backwards is so the bird learns quickly what the finale to the behaviour is, that earns the reinforcer.

So with JD, I got him to take the ball from me, and I initially had a cup right below him. When he dropped the ball, I made sure I caught it in the cup. After a few repetitions of my catching the ball, I moved the cup just a tiny bit away from him. Initially he missed the cup. I allowed that to occur two times in succession, and the third try I would move the cup to catch the ball again. I didn’t want him to get frustrated earning no reinforcers.

It only took a couple tries like this before he would drop it into the cup. I then moved the cup a little bit farther away and did exactly as before; allowed him to miss the cup a couple of times and then caught the ball. After this, JD fully understood the cup. I could move it to different sides of him, up high and down low. He understood the ball into the cup earned the nut piece.
At that point, I set the cup down. Actually by then, I had fashioned it onto a stick/stand to be a basketball hoop. I then started with JD close to it again, and got him to put the ball in the cup. I slowly moved him farther away to where he needed to hold the ball and walk with it, to put it in the cup. By this time, JD had already learned the reinforcer came when the ball was put into cup, the end of the chain, so getting him to carry the ball to it wasn’t very difficult.

When I was all done, JD would go pick up the ball and walk to the hoop to drop it in. We also worked on it a little as a flight behaviour, where he would fly to take the ball to the hoop but we never perfected it. When I finally purchased a little basketball hoop with net rather than a cup, we started at close distances again.



So there you have it. Simple training, although perhaps there is a little more to it that I should relate.

You must truly understand that the payoff to the bird, the reinforcer, is in the eye of the bird. When you choose your reinforcers you must ensure they are indeed something your bird desires, not just something you think it desires. Each bird is an individual with its own likes and dislikes. What one bird considers reinforcing, another may not think so.

While training, you generally have some sort of bridge, also called a “marker”, like a sound (clicker or praise). A bridge in training connects the behaviour to the consequence-the reinforcer and is used because it can be delivered faster than the final reinforcer.
A bridge helps because timing is important for good training results.

There must be closeness between the behaviour occurring and the consequence being given (contiguity) to teach the IF/THEN connection (contingency) between the bird doing the desired behaviour and the bird receiving its reinforcement. Too long of a gap and the connection is lost. This is why many trainers use a bridge, to mark the behaviour that has earned the reinforcement that is coming. You may choose to use a clicker or a verbal bridge. The right one is the one that works best and most comfortably for you and your bird.

Also remember that the best way to reinforce a new behaviour, to make it solid, is by giving positive reinforcement each and every time a behaviour occurs.

So what do I say to the people that call them DUMB Parrot tricks?

I tell them how wrong I think they are. There is nothing dumb about them!

Parrots are meant to use their minds. In the wild they would need to do problem solving to find good foraging areas, to find nesting or roosting areas, water and certainly to avoid predators. A big part of their day is occupied doing thus. Their lives in our homes take all this away. They have no decisions to make about food or water, no constant need to be on the lookout for predation and of course, we supply their nesting and roosting spots. It sounds to me that with so few needs to look after for themselves they may stagnate. These are intelligent creatures. What do they have to look forward to? What keeps their minds active? We should try to stimulate their minds in different ways to encourage psychological well being. It’s a form of enrichment. If wanting them to be mentally alert and healthy isn’t enough reason for you there are other spin offs from trick training.



Our relationships are based on trust and predictability. Trust and predictability basically comes about through positive reinforcement. The more positive history you and your bird have together, the more stable and trusting the relationship with humans will be. Also the more positive reinforcement a bird receives will likely make it more forgiving when we slip up or fall into our cultural trappings of punishment. It's too easy for us to notice the things our birds do that we disapprove of while we ignore or just don’t notice, all the acceptable behaviours.

Another important outcome is that it teaches our birds what approval earns. It teaches them a causal relationship - If/Then. It teaches them what positive feedback in their environment actually might mean to them
Still not convinced? Well how about it gives our birds direct one on one, in your face, attention. To train any little trick, you need to focus on the bird. If your attention is reinforcing to the bird, he/she is already reaping benefits just from your direct focus. The direct contact will also teach you how to read your bird better. You will find yourself noticing subtle body language that you never before noticed, body language that may be telling you different things. Once you understand and recognize these smaller nuances of your bird you will find your relationship moving to even greater depths, depths brought about by understanding.
No, I just can’t see anything dumb about them and it’s fun!
With practise you will soon discover how learning the basics of training not only enriches your birds life and your relationship with your bird but it will also help you teach an alternative behaviour to your bird, should it ever develop an undesirable behaviour. You would use the lessons you’ve learned with shaping to shape an incompatible or alternate behaviour to replace the problem behaviour and with the reinforcement offered for that new behaviour, it’s a slam-dunk which one your bird will choose to do.

The behaviours you can ultimately teach your bird are constrained only by your imagination and the biology of the bird. Have some fun with your bird!


Where to find more information and props.


The pages of Good Bird Magazine are full of information for training. If you are searching for a little more guidance and you are on the Internet, there are a couple of different lists you can join.

Of course there is the Good Bird list http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GoodBirdGroup/

Two clicker training lists for birds



and it’s companion webpage http://www.geocities.com/birdtrain/
You can find many of the common props used for trick training at the following E-Stores



Dollar Stores and Craft stores are also good places to look for different props or prop materials. Many props you can build yourself as I originally did with my basketball hoop and my target stick. If you decide you want to use a clicker, they can be purchased at almost every pet store (cost around $1.00) or you can also purchase them from numerous