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How To Train Your Pet Bird Like A Zoo Keeper

Break out the treats. You're going to need them.

Green-winged macaw
It's easy to train a bird if you have something to motivate them, such as treats.

"You do not have to be a professional animal trainer for your pets at home to be well-mannered and well-behaved,” said Beth Richmond, leader keeper of the Interactive Animals Program at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Omaha, NE, Richmond. She has been working with animals professionally since 2007 and is a Certified Professional Bird Trainer — Knowledge Assessed (CPBT-KA).

When asked about the most rewarding part of working with animals, she said, "When training works.” She admitted, "Communicating with animals can be tough and frustrating.” However when an animal learns that walking into a crate, stepping on a scale, or shifting into a new enclosure is stress-free then all individuals are safer and happier.

Richmond’s first tip to having a trained bird at home is to be positive. Having a good attitude is important; however, she refers to positive reinforcement for those who want to live harmoniously with a companion bird. Simply put, "Ignore the unwanted behaviors, reward the desired behaviors," she said. Once a bird caregiver teaches themselves to think of behaviors that they want to see, rather than behaviors that they don’t want to see, training will be a snap.

In order to be a successful trainer, you will need to tell the bird what to do, rather than what not to do. If you want to eliminate screaming, you will not be as successful by telling the bird to stop screaming, compared to if you asked the bird to do something. A behavior that is incompatible with screaming — like whistling, singing, or playing with a toy — are all great alternatives. Once the bird is doing an appropriate behavior you should reinforce the bird.

This change of behavior — adding something that the bird likes in order to increase the likelihood of that behavior happening again — is positive reinforcement. Many times when the bird is on the playstand mumbling away, being adorable and soft spoken, bird caregivers leave them alone and do not provide any extra reinforcement. If you like a bird that is busy and mumbling softly — reinforce them, and you will see that behavior increase.

Finding the right reinforcer, for the right animal is essential if step one is going to work. "Find your pet's favorite food reward and use it to your advantage during training sessions,” Richmond said. "Rather than relying on tactile or verbal reinforcement alone,” she suggested using treats. Head rubs and cooing back softly to your bird is good, but food rewards are sometimes overlooked and used inefficiently.

A bird’s diet, treats and snacks are primary reinforcers. They are innately good. The bird did not have to learn from you that food is something that they like. Head rubs, verbal praise, the sound of a clicker and playtime with a toy are called secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers are conditioned; the bird had to learn that those things were fun.

The trick with using food as a reward is volume control. You want to have the treats small enough so that the bird does not have to sit there for several minutes chewing. I trained a green-winged macaw to recycle an empty soda bottle into a receptacle using only three pieces of unsalted popcorn. Each piece of popcorn was broken into 10 or 15 pieces. Prior to training, look at your treats and ask yourself, "Are these treats as big as my bird’s head?” If you answer yes, then you need to break them apart. Imagine if someone rewarded you with a treat the size of your head. Sure, it would be awesome the first time, but you would become satiated and loose interest in working the rest of the behavior.

The last tip Richmond suggested is to keep the training sessions short and offer training sessions multiple times a day. Every interaction you have with your bird is a training session. Keeping the training sessions short helps reduce the bird from becoming satiated and bored. Long training sessions can cause the bird to become frustrated if the same behavior is asked repeatedly. Training sessions can range from one minute to a few. As long as you have something to reinforce your bird with you, you are ready to begin a training session. Having a clear set of criteria is also essential prior to starting the training session. Knowing exactly what you will accept from you bird, will allow for clear communication and a smooth session. Throughout the day, these short training sessions will allow you to improve your relationship with your bird far better than one interaction.

Loved this article? Then check out these:

Do You Want To Be A Bird Keeper?
From The Zoo To You: Tips For Feeding & Enrichment For Parrots


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Posted: January 15, 2015, 10:15 a.m. PDT

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