Parrot Behavior and Training

There’s a lot of misinformation about animal behavior and training in general, but even more so for parrots specifically. Many people believe that parrots bite, scream, destroy furniture, only like one person, refuse to eat certain foods or play with certain toys because they are wild animals and cannot help it, or because they are mean or lazy or dominant.

Nothing can be further from the truth. All behavior is functional. Parrots behave the way they do because at some point in their lives they learned that it works, and it keeps on working. Alternately, they don’t behave in other ways that we want them to because they never learned how to do so. To be good caregivers, we must accept that it’s our responsibility to train them to live successfully in our environment, just as it is a dog person’s responsibility to train her dog not to bark all the time, bite, jump on people or chew the furniture.

Parrot body language

Successful training is a two-way conversation, rather than a one-way ultimatum. To have meaningful and productive conversations with your bird, you need to be able to understand what your bird is telling you in addition to being able to successfully make yourself understood to your bird. This means being able to read your bird’s body language. See the resources section below for some helpful materials on how to interpret parrot body language.

Bird training

There are many theories about how to train animals, but through the scientific study of behavior we have learned that the best methods meet the three E’s:

  • Is it Effective? (Does the training method work?)
  • Is it Ethical? (Does the training method avoid causing physical, mental and/or emotional damage?)
  • Is it Empowering? (Does the training method enable the learner to make decisions about and changes to his environment?)

In other words, training methods that incorporate force, dominance or punishment might be effective, but they are neither ethical nor empowering. Conversely, absolute permissiveness — allowing the learner to do whatever he wants — may be ethical, but it certainly isn’t effective and may or may not be empowering.

Positive reinforcement training for birds

All three E’s can be met through the scientific approach to behavior called applied behavior analysis, more commonly known as positive reinforcement training. The foundational principles of applied behavior analysis are:

  • Rather than assuming whom the learner is, we describe specifically what the learner does.
  • We are objective rather than subjective. Instead of saying “This bird is mean,” we say, “When I put my hand near the bird, he bites it.”
  • Rather than telling the learner what NOT to do, we teach him what TO do.
  • Although our knee-jerk reaction may be to immediately scold or suppress a behavior we don’t like, the better response is to show the bird how to do a more desirable behavior instead.
  • Rather than forcing the learner to bend to our will, we empower the learner to make the desired decision of his own free will.
  • Instead of manhandling a bird to get him to do what we want, we teach the bird to perform the desired behavior voluntarily.

Knowing these principles is the first step, but learning how to train in this way requires help, instruction and guidance from a trained professional. The resources section below lists several free resources, as well as links to websites where you can locate a behavior consultant in your area if you would like more one-on-one assistance.

Resources

Parrot body language: “Understanding Parrot Body Language” video (scroll down to the bottom of the page, on the right)
Free mini-lessons on behavior and one-on-one help: “ParrotBAS” Yahoo group
Articles and information about behavior, and sign-up for online courses: behaviorworks.org
More one-on-one help and resources: “An Ounce of Prevention” section of The Bird Owner’s Manual
To find a certified professional bird trainer in your area: iatcb.com