by Tani Robar
But first, before you begin trying to teach the bird tricks, make sure the bird is completely tame and well socialized. The bird must be willing to come to you, sit on your hand, and allow himself to be touched all over its body, its feet, and under its wings, It must also readily take food from your hand. In other words, there must already be a certain degree of trust between you and your bird before you ever start trick training. If you are afraid the bird will bite you, or if the bird is afraid you might strike it or hurt it in some way, no real learning is going to take place. Complete trust is the key.
Once your bird is tamed and well socialized, you can think about trick training. First, where is the training to take place? You need a quiet area free of distractions- no ringing telephones, noisy kids or barking dogs running through to compete with your “students” attention. Preferably this is an area away from other birds and the bird’s own cage.
I use a small table where I can sit comfortably while working with the bird and the bird can not get out of reach. It goes without saying that the wings should be trimmed. If you prefer to stand, by all means do so, but do not worry about the fallacy of having to have your head higher than the bird. This might be a factor if you were working with a bird with a behavior problem, but you shouldn’t be trying to teach such a bird tricks. Your tame bird already knows that you are in charge and head height will not enter into it. Just get comfortable and relaxed.
Another fallacy is that birds have a short attention span. I have no trouble keeping a bird’s attention. Keeping the lesson moving seems to be the key. As soon as the bird has mastered one behavior I move on to the next. No boring endless repetitions. I might quickly review previously mastered tricks at the start of a lesson, but then I move on to tricks in progress and finally, I introduce new ones. I see no need for several short sessions a day as I have heard some trainers prescribe. Most people don’t have that kind of time. Make it one good session, and as long as you keep it fun and interesting , you won’t have to worry about the length of the lesson.
Any of the parrots, and basically any age parrot, can be trick trained, but the younger bird is probably easier to train because it has fewer pre-formed habits. The ideal situation is to work with a young bird that has been hand-raised by loving humans and given lots of attention. But whatever the age, just start. You’ll have fun.
Regardless of what kind of bird you are working with or what trick you are trying to teach, the method popularly called “positive reinforcement” is the method used by almost all professional trainers, whether they are teaching a bird, a seal, a dolphin or just about any wild animal. The type of positive reinforcement or “reward” that we use for teaching a desired behavior varies with the bird. Some owners report that their birds respond to a scratch on the head and petting as their sole reward, while other owners think that their praise is all the bird needs to perform. But most trainers feel birds work best and most reliably with a food reward. I use safflower seeds with the smaller birds, peanuts or larger nuts with the larger birds. Watch what your bird selects first from its seed dish, then remove that seed from the birds regular food and give the bird that seed as its reward when it has performed correctly.
Keep the reward to whatever the bird can consume quickly and easily. My birds are fed pellets only, plus the usual fruits, vegies and people food. Therefore, seeds are a big treat to them. I leave the pellets in self feeders in front of the birds at all times, but take away the fresh food a couple of hours before a training session or show. That way they are slightly hungry, are not sleepy and are more than willing to give me their full attention in return for their favorite seeds.
The “reward” is our main way of letting the bird know they have pleased us and done what we wished. If you always use a “bridge” word, like “good”, right after the correct behavior and before you give the food reward, the bird quickly learns to associate the verbal praise with the correct behavior and also that a food reward is coming. This is part of what you are teaching with your first few tricks above and beyond the trick itself. It makes all following trick training easier.
Take your prospective “student” to the proposed training area several times before you start the actual training. Play with it there, let it see the T-stand you will use and become comfortable sitting on it. Gently tip the bird onto its back while holding it in your arms or lap, scratch it on its head and belly, pick it up with your hands over its back, and feed it its special seeds. Let your bird see this is a fun place to be. Then and only then are you ready to start formal training.
First lesson: We are going to begin with the “turn around”, then go to the” wave”, and finally the “shake hands”, and yes, all can be taught in the first lesson!
With the bird sitting comfortably on the T-stand or similar perch in front of you, feed it a treat, (I’ll say seed since that is what I use), and talk to it quietly. Using the “come” command, have the bird step onto your hand, and then back to the perch with the “perch” command Even though these are behaviors the bird should already know, do them a few times, saying “good” each time he performs them correctly and offer a treat/seed as the reward.
Next, holding the seed in the right hand at about the bird’s eye level, let the bird see the seed. Tell it “turn around”. As the bird reaches for the seed, move your hand around the bird to the back so that the bird must first turn its head and next, hopefully, its whole body, to follow and reach for the seed. If the bird turns half way around to face the back, tell it “good” and reward it at once. Then coax it to turn the rest of the way around by following the seed in your right hand. Use the simple command “turn around” each time you ask it to turn. . Once the bird turns from front to back and then back to front readily, insist it turn all the way around before it gets its reward.
This is a simple first trick and it might not interest you as a future trick, but what you are teaching the bird here is more than just a trick. You are teaching it how to learn and what is expected of it, and how it will be rewarded. Remember, a bird will not repeat a behavior for which it is not compensated in some way.
In the next step, let the bird follow the seed around in your right hand, but hold another seed in your left hand. Once the bird has completed the turn, reward it with the seed from your left hand. Gradually raise your right hand a little higher each time the trick is successfully repeated. Next, have no seed in your right hand and just make the right hand move in a small circle above the bird’s head, being sure to immediately reward the correct behavior with a seed from the left hand. Eventually you will be able to just circle the right index finger above the bird, and drop the command altogether. A tip to remember, a bird responds much more readily to a visual cue than to a verbal one. But in the beginning teach both. The verbal command forces the bird to pay attention, and gives the trainer focus. For now be satisfied with the bird turning around on the T-stand, even if it does so a bit awkwardly or slowly. Think of what the bird has learned in just a few minutes. It has heard a command (turn around), it has seen and learned to respond to a visual cue (the right hand, index finger circling over his head), it learns that the word “good” means its owner is pleased, and finally, that a reward will be following. And all it had to do was turn itself around!
Once the bird has grasped this idea, move on to another trick. Don’t bore the bird with endless repetition. Keep this, and all future lessons, exciting. I am excited by each small increment of success the bird has achieved and I let the bird know it. When the bird has finally performed a desired behavior we have both worked hard on, I have been known to pick up the bird and rush into my husband’s office and have the bird do the trick for him. This might sound bizarre, but for some reason the bird seems to understand and after the initial shock, is happy to repeat the trick again while my husband and I both express our delight, give it treats, and tell it what a wonderful bird it is. Now this is not something I recommend as a training method, but it seems to work for me as it is a spontaneous act and also seems to be a good foundation for the bird learning the fun of performing in front of others.
Trick 2: “The Wave”. Have the bird “wave” with the left foot,” shake hands” with the right. Don’t let the bird do these behaviors with the same foot since it will only lead to confusion later. Most birds are left footed (oh yes, birds have definite foot preference) and will step onto a perch with the preferred foot first. To teach the “wave”, have the bird sit on the T-stand again, wiggle the fingers of your right hand as in a small wave, say “wave”, or whatever verbal cue you wish. It could be “good bye”, “salute,” etc., just remember it really makes no difference as you will be dropping the verbal cue soon and just going to the visual cue as you tell the bird that has mastered the trick to wave goodbye, say hello, or, as I use it in one of my tricks, to salute the flag after my bird has raised it, all with just a small wave of the fingers.
So, just wiggle your finger tips, then immediately proffer your hand /finger for the bird to step on. The bird willundoubtedly try to step forward onto your hand. Do not let it! The minute you see it start to lift its left foot, pull your hand away, tell it good, and give it the reward you are holding in your left hand.. It won’t take very many repetitions before it gets the idea that all it has to do to get the reward is to lift its left foot. You no longer need to offer it your hand to step on, just wiggle your fingers and the bird will begin tentatively raising its foot. When it does this readily, start withholding the seed just a few seconds longer. The usual reaction is to lift the foot a little higher. When the bird gets the foot as high as you think it is going to and then starts to drop it, reward it immediately, and you have the beginning of the wave. Do this only until the bird is lifting its foot readily and you can delightedly praise it. Then move on.
Teaching these two tricks should have taken about half an hour. If you are still having fun and the bird is still watching you fully, move on to trick three. This is not too much to teach in one session and you will see that the birds actually seem to enjoy it. Don’t worry about the bird doing it perfectly. All you want the bird to do now is to get the idea. Perfection can come later.
Trick three: ” Shake Hands”. Easy trick! With the bird on the T-stand as before, offer your right hand across its body to in front of its right foot. Remember, its wave with the left foot, shake hands with the right foot. The bird will undoubtedly try to step onto your hand with its left foot as this is what you wanted before. Don’t let it. Insist the bird raise its right foot and try to step onto your hand with that foot. Be persistent, it finally will. Then follow with lots of praise and the reward. Just let it touch your hand with the right foot, don’t let it transfer weight and try to step onto your hand.
It will amaze you how quickly your bird will get the idea after having gone through the other two tricks. It has learned that all it has to do is something simple like raise a foot and it gets fussed over and a treat. Birds are very smart and once you show them what you want them to do, they are usually more than happy to comply. Only after your bird has placed its foot on your proffered finger fairly readily, should you attempt to raise and lower your hand as in the traditional “shake” motion. Finally, lightly touch the top of his foot with your thumb. If you have done all the “taming” things mentioned earlier in preparation for tricks, touching the birds feet and moving your hands around will not alarm the bird.
At this point you might want to review the three behaviors you have just taught, but if either of you are tired, quit while you’re ahead. Have the bird finish with something it did well. Praise it, reward it and return it to its cage and leave it. Don’t follow with a play session. Let the training session become its special time with you and your bird will look forward to that.
Your first session should have taken 30 to 45 minutes. Longer if you were both having fun, shorter if either you or the bird got stressed. But if this has happened, you were doing something wrong. Help the bird to have as many “successes” as possible. Reward each little increment along the way. It’s much better to guide him to the right response than to have to correct the bird for a wrong one. If the bird does not do something right, try it again another way so that the bird can be rewarded for the correct moves. Trick training is valuable even if the bird never performs for anyone other than its owner. Training teaches a bird discipline, and as you spend more time observing your bird and its reactions, you will understand it better, and the bird will at the same time also learn better how to respond to you and what pleases you.
These are just the first three basic tricks. Each succeeding trick will come easier. Don’t get discouraged if everything doesn’t go perfectly. Be patient and don’t give up. Success will come, sooner than you think.