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Training Your Macaw (Moved from Blog Section)

Holiday

Mac Mama
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Since the forum is dismantling its blog section, I was asked by the Admins to move my blog entries to the forum. I hope they'll continue to be of use to those who are interested. As it says here, I do not consider myself an "expert," just someone who has picked up a few things from reading and personal experience. I particularly intended this material to be of use to beginners who've taken in a rehome or rescue.

Training Your Macaw: Step 1 - Know Your Species
06-08-2011 at 12:28 PM (613 Views)

For the past few years, I've watched people post requests for help on training their birds, and I have noticed a lot of people asking the same questions over and over, and so I'd like to start this blog as a way of providing some information that may cover some of the most common issues. Now, I'm not an expert, but I do own several macaws, most of them rehomes, and I've had some success in implementing the training strategies of popular, well known trainers. They're the real experts; I'm just a case in point. Still, though, it's sometimes useful for people to hear from another macaw owner, rather than just reading expert opinions.

In the real world, we sometimes have to first train our own minds to best accomplish the tasks at hand before we can start to take steps toward training. Expert trainers usually already know a lot about animal behavior, but ordinary bird owners sometimes don't. Knowledge is power, and savvy members of internet forums will often admonish the bewildered new owner to "do research." They're right, of course, but not only is good information sometimes hard to find, but also the new owner sometimes just doesn't realize how important this information really is. He or she usually just wants something simple, like getting the bird to stop screaming or biting. But, owners sometimes need to realize that getting these seemingly simple things isn't as easy as asking a question and getting an easy answer.

Experienced people know that the best way to get good behavior is not by starting off saying, "It's not doing what I want it to do" (or some variation on this theme). The best way to get cooperation from your bird is actually to stop thinking of it as an object or a pet that is there to serve your wishes and to start thinking of him as a being in his own right, one that has been taken out of an environment to which he was perfectly adapted and placed in one to which he is poorly adapted. For example, it's just not fair to get a baby large macaw and merely expect him to know how to use that powerful beak of his on tender human flesh. In nature, his parents (experts at maneuvering a beak like that) would teach him how to interact appropriately and what objects are okay to use those massive jaw muscles on! Without his parents to teach him, how is he to know? In our domestic world, macaws are creatures with wild instincts and urges and the intelligence and emotional need of a small human child. Sometimes, in training, it may be helpful to think of your bird as a child and yourself as a surrogate parent. But, sometimes, it will be more useful to think of him as a wild animal (which is what he really is). So, I'd recommend approaching the training of your bird first and foremost by thinking: What is his natural behavior? How can I best channel it to work in my household? How can I respect his needs and still let him know what I want from him? How can I reward him when he does well?

Macaws can learn to adapt to our domestic environments, if they are shown how. But, expecting your bird to do so without help is not reasonable. The first step, again, is knowing your bird. Okay, so, you may ask: how do I know my species? Well, that's what I'm here for. I'll tell you about them.

Macaws are not domestic pets. No matter how tame your bird may be, he is not a domestic animal like a dog or cat (which have had centuries of molding to fit into a human world). And expecting him to be something he's not is setting him up for failure. You should know first and foremost that macaws are jungle or forest creatures with powerful wings and the ability to fly for long distances in search of food, sometimes many miles a day. While most live in the rain forest surrounded by an abundance of fruits, flowers, seeds, berries, nuts, and huge trees to roost in, some live in arid semi-desert regions with scrubby little wooded areas and have to spend more time scrounging and foraging for their meals. They all have big, loud, squawky voices designed to carry over large distances, so that they can communicate with each other from afar. Some have bare faces that are designed to help keep messy meals from sticking to their feathers. Others have feathery faces and thick down that protects them from cold nights at higher altitudes. Most macaws have large beaks in proportion to their faces. The larger the beak, the better it works as a tool for cracking hard-shelled nuts, which is a staple in the diet of most macaws. Macaws love to crack nuts, because nature designed them to do so. They have a big nut-cracker on their faces, after all! Since they have to remember where food sources are, and since they have to figure out the best ways of securing food and rearing offspring, all macaws are intelligent and have good memories and sound problem-solving skills.

They also have certain in-built instincts. One is the desire to find a mate and bond for life. This urge is part of who they are--fierce loyalty to a mate means that the pair will be more successful in defending their nest site and rearing their young. They also have the need to chew wood. As cavity nesters, the most successful birds in the wild are the ones most adept at hollowing out nest cavities in trees (or in the case of some, cliffs). A macaw that can make the splinters fly is a macaw who would be likely to attract a mate! When you see your mac making goo-goo eyes at you over a destroyed wooden toy, she may be saying "Look, see what a suitable mate I am!" I've noticed that mine look very proud indeed when they've demolished a significant amount of wood.

In captivity, these intelligent creatures, with powerful wings and jaws, created by nature to fly through interesting, colorful jungles or large tracts of arid semi-forest all day, to be loyal to a special someone, and to rear clutches of babies that they would defend with their lives, are placed in dull cages a few feet wide (or, at best, on playstands a few feet wide) and asked to do nothing more than sit quietly and look exotic. Scary thought, right?

So, again, the first thing to remember is this: No matter what s/he does, your bird is not being unreasonable. You are. Now, you may say, "No I'm not! Lots of people keep macaws as pets." Yes, and lots of people have macaws that scream, bite, pluck, sway back and forth, or just sit and look horribly bored all day. I'm sorry to say it, but captivity is basically unreasonable. I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty. After all, I keep macaws as pets too, and I love every second of it! But, one of the reasons I have patience with my birds is because I know deep down that what I am asking from them is a huge sacrifice. No matter what I buy them in terms of large cages, play gyms, climbing ropes, wooden toys--it'll never be enough to make up for what they've lost. Because of this, I owe them every ounce of patience I can muster and more. I think this mind-set can be helpful to other macaw owners, and that's why I'm suggesting that others at least consider it.

Okay, so you have a fruit-and-nut-eating, wood-chewing, pair-bonding creature that loves to yell loudly, and fly, and solve problems, and see new things, and remember the best ways to find and use resources. How do you train it to live in your house? Well, assuming that you have a suitable environment for your bird (a fair amount of space, for instance, and lots of interesting and/or chewable toys), you can do so by playing to his/her strengths and innate abilities. For instance, allowing your bird to maintain the ability to fly will usually help him/her to feel more natural in your home. This does pose some problems and require some training, but it can be done and may help the bird to feel less powerless and at odds with his domestic environment and allow for a little bit of natural exercise. Likewise, providing wooden toys to chew will help your macaw feel more at home and stop him from chewing up your furniture. Training your macaw not to bite you may take a little time but isn't all that hard given enough time, because macaws can learn to be very gentle with their beaks. They have to be, because, in nature, they have to preen each others' faces, feed tiny, fragile baby birds, and get along with other members of a family or flock. They can learn to treat you in the same way. All you have to do is let your bird know how to do this (usually by gentle touches to the beak and head) and let him know when he has done well (praise and food rewards). Training your bird is about respecting his needs and instincts and taking the time to build good habits that will last a lifetime.

If you have a good, trusting relationship with the bird, it's easy to get started. So, the next stage will be: Step 2 - Trust

Training Your Macaw: Step Two—Trust
06-11-2011 at 11:33 AM (596 Views)

Trust is the single most necessary component to training any animal, but perhaps most especially a parrot. As prey animals in nature, it is instinctive for them to be suspicious of possible danger, and parrots often do not trust easily; their trust must be earned over a period of time. If you have a baby bird (in large macaws, this is a bird under a year old; in minis, it’s a bird under 6 months), it may be relatively easy to earn his trust, because babies are naturally trusting. But, if you have a rehomed adolescent (1-4 years for large macaws, or roughly 6 months to 2-3 years for minis) or adult, gaining the bird’s trust may be a whole series of steps in and of itself, steps that must be accomplished before and during training. If you have attempted to provide a home for an abused bird or a retired breeder, you may really have your work cut out for you, and an expectation of years of work would not be unreasonable. I am going to forego talking about trust-building with babies, because I assume that most people will be able to get a baby macaw to trust them just by gentle touch, feeding, and providing pleasant companionship and humane training. But, a rehomed adolescent or adult can pose a challenge for a new macaw owner. And, as the number of macaws in rescues and classified ads continues to grow, it seems like more and more new owners are trying to provide homes for the surplus birds. Some of these new owners need a starting point, and that’s where we begin. (By the way, if you have adopted a rehomed macaw, kudos to you—and this blog is for you).

Okay, so the first stage is desensitizing the bird to your presence. Time is the most important factor here. New things can be frightening for any creature, humans and parrots included. So when we bring a new macaw into our homes, we need to ensure that the bird is comfortable and has some sense of safety. This needs to be developed in the first few weeks. A spacious, well stocked cage, aviary or bird-proof room is a necessity here, because the new macaw may need to spend a fair amount of time in and on his cage (or in his room) as he and his new owner build a relationship. Sometimes, a new macaw will lunge at the new owners or scream in fear. Other birds may be on their best behavior (the so-called “honeymoon” period), watching and waiting to see what will happen to them before they reveal the habits they have built prior to their arrival. We have to remember that what we see when we bring a new rehomed bird home is often not the normal behavior of the bird. It may be much worse or much better than the bird would display under more usual, comfortable circumstances. Either way, though, the trust-building procedure is the same, and we must be patient and consistent in our interactions with the bird.

Take it slowly. Most rehomed macaws won’t start to demonstrate a more normal mode of interaction for at least a few weeks; for some, it will be more like months. How long it takes for the bird to be truly comfortable will vary from bird to bird. So, the best way to begin in the early days is to get yourself settled in for the long haul. Make a mental commitment; tell yourself that it doesn’t matter how long it takes. When you approach the macaw, always have a kind word or a treat, or both. Ignore any negative behavior by the bird, such as lunging, and just speak softly to him/her. Don’t try to provoke negative behavior; just avoid it and/or ignore it. Some people recommend spending a certain amount of time sitting quietly by the bird’s cage, talking or singing. I’ve found these suggestions valid and helpful, especially when combined with high value treats like nuts or halved grapes. Sometimes, finding the right treat to reward the bird can be a challenge. Like a young child, a rehomed macaw may resist your attempts to reward him. He may spit out the treat or purposely throw it on the floor. That’s okay. Just wait a while and try again. Time is on your side.

Some macaws will resist being touched in the early going. Others won’t and may even find a little scritch reassuring. If you see any pulling away, lunging, or uncertain behavior in the bird (like nervousness, pinned eyes or ruffled head feathers), don’t try to touch him. You may need to build up to this gradually. Pushing a bird to accept touch often results in a nip or bite. Humans, there is no excuse for this! If the bird nips or bites you because you pushed him, this is your fault, and it’s a sign you’re moving too fast or jumping ahead of the training. In most cases, we should regard this as a serious setback in training, and any such contact should be avoided in the future. If your goal is a gentle bird who will almost never be inclined to bite you, then you have to establish yourself as “the one that should not be bitten.” How your bird sees you is very important. Your bird can get into a habit of not biting you just as he can get into a habit of biting you. You want positive, healthy habits over the long term.

The basic principle here is that the bird learns that you are a good person and a friend; we don’t usually bite our friends, and, usually, neither do birds. So, any time he sees you, the association should be positive. You are the one who brings a smile, a laugh, a song, a toy, a kind, encouraging word—food! Who wouldn’t like someone like that? :)

After the bird has been in your home a little while (days or weeks depending on the bird) and seems to be more comfortable with you, you will want to start some early, basic training. Training relies on a base of trust, but it is also a good way to build further trust once that initial base is established. Having your macaw come toward you for a treat is the most basic and effective way to begin. Tell him, “Come here” and then praise and reward him when he does. Always be consistent in your actions. If your bird is unwilling to approach you, just drop the treats into his dish and walk away. Soon, he will begin to recognize you as the treat-bringer, and he will be likely to approach when he sees you. If the bird is willing to accept touch at this point, you may try a brief touch to the beak.

My B&G was a lunger when I first got her and would not allow touch. I gradually built up over a few weeks to having her allow a touch to the beak. First, I had to find out which treats she liked, then I had to get her to accept them from me, then I had to get her to come toward me, and then I had to get her to let me touch her beak. When I got to that point, I said, “touch beak” and reached out my hand slowly. If she allowed me to touch her beak without trying to nip, she got a pistachio. If your bird is more confident, or already trained, you might want to try getting him to step up onto your arm (For beginners, this is done by presenting the arm and saying “step up” –do not flinch if the bird reaches out and uses his beak to steady himself. Try not to flinch at all. Macaws can tell if you are afraid of their beaks, and they respect confidence. For more on how to do this, see Step Three). If s/he’s not stick-shy, and/or you’re not sure you want to use your arm or hand yet, you may want to use a dowel or t-perch (if she is stick shy, you may have to dismiss this option or try to desensitize her to the stick, depending on how extreme the reaction is—some birds have been abused with sticks or brooms, and these negative associations are often permanent. If your bird shows fear, back off and re-evaluate). But, however you approach it, keep the sessions short at this point. One successful step up/step down is worth gold in the early going. You want perfect execution, not number: Quality--not quantity. It should be a brief, pleasant, memorable experience. And when your bird does well, you should praise and treat him and end the session. You can return later and try again when you and your bird are ready.

Keep your interactions fairly low-key in the beginning, but you may increase the drama and excitement as your bird gains confidence. Most confident, happy macaws love excitement and drama, so the most effective means of praising them once you have their trust is by acting like a clown at kids’ birthday party: lots of superlatives and big smiles. I’m a fairly dignified person, normally, but I have been known to do a happy dance for the benefit of my B&G’s training She loves it and will even join in! Don’t jump the gun and try this with a shy bird, though. Keep it on an even keel at first: Reliability, then fun.

Building trust with a bird is often a time-consuming process, and some people can find it frustrating. But, the rewards of doing it patiently and correctly are well worth the effort. Depending on your bird and his/her previous experiences, you may have to think creatively about how to overcome specific obstacles, but the most important thing to remember is that the recipe for success is good intentions + consistency + time.
Training Your Macaw: Step Three--The Everyday Necessities
06-26-2011 at 11:48 AM (575 Views)


Once you’ve built trust with your bird, the next step is training him or her with the most central behaviors that will allow for a successful life in captivity: stepping up and stepping down (I mentioned this in the last entry, but I'd like to take the time now to go into a bit more detail). It’s not just important for us to train our birds for our own convenience—training empowers our birds and enables them to build a skill set that will serve them in possible future homes. We have a responsibility to help our birds live as successfully and happily as possible, whether in the present or the future. Many birds are rehomed because their owners did not know how to train them, and the birds built bad habits that made their lives in captivity difficult. We can avoid this if we commit to just a few minutes a day to build good habits for a high quality of life.

Before I talk about training, though, there is one consideration that has to be addressed—environment. Not all behavior problems are training-related. Some are merely a function of inadequate surroundings. If you have your macaw in a cage that is too small, or you don’t provide enough out-time or toys, or you have a pack of dogs constantly yipping, snapping at, and distracting the bird, then the environment is not suitable, and training may not be fully possible. In order for training to work, the bird has to be calm, comfortable, and reasonably content. S/he has to trust the owner and want to learn. All of this has to take place in a suitable environment that includes a reasonable degree of quiet. It should also include a large cage or aviary, a play stand (not just a t-stand, although those can be useful for training), and a healthy diet.

Okay, so if your bird is well set up, healthy, and reasonably content and calm, training the basics can begin. “Step up” is the first behavior that must be trained. With a mini, we usually train this with our hand or arm. However, it may pay to allow the bird to come out of the cage on his own before we offer our hand to step up on. Some birds may be territorial in their cages, and putting a hand in to step the bird up can sometimes lead to a nip, especially if the bird is a hormonal adult. With a large macaw, teaching “step up” with a stick is a necessity, because, let’s face it, sometimes our birds can be a little moody. Macaws also have a particular reputation for challenging their owners or being a bit stubborn. Luckily, stick training the step-up command is simple (assuming the bird does not have a stick phobia).

First, we need a suitable stick. For a large macaw, a large dowel, about 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter and about 28 to 30 inches in length will work well for most birds. However, if the bird is a rehome with aggression issues, a large t-stick may be preferable, so that the bird cannot easily run up the stick to bite. Of course, before we proceed, we must get the bird accustomed to the stick by building positive associations. We should calmly and slowly present the stick, bringing it gradually closer so that it is at lower stomach level and reasonably close to the bird so that the desired action is easy to perform. If the bird approaches us, beaks the stick or otherwise approaches or “targets” it, we should (initially) give them a treat to build positive associations (obviously, we do not treat for biting or chewing the stick, although I’ve personally always allowed them to do that just a little so that they feel in control before I proceeded; it’s a matter of preference, and you may choose to discourage this by moving the stick away and re-presenting it). The next step is to actually say “step up.” For some birds, you may need to hold the treat up so that the bird can see that s/he will be rewarded for this action—also, it may help get some momentum going in the right direction. If the bird sees that he needs to step up on the stick to get the treat, he’ll be more likely to do so.

It may take a few attempts before the bird does this correctly (and you may need some practice yourself!), and we may need to build up to it by thinking in terms of intermediate steps: if the bird makes a move forward and puts a foot on the stick, we should praise him briefly to let him know he’s on the right track. Do not repeat the prompt more than twice, as this teaches the bird that he needn't bother responding right away. If he doesn't respond, walk away and try again later. When the step-up is actually accomplished, we should immediately praise and treat the bird. Remember, one really well executed and well rewarded step-up is more important than immediate repetition. We can repeat in the coming days. For the most part, keep training sessions short and pleasant for both you and your bird. Also, remember that some days are just not good training days. Your bird may be out of sorts or just not in the mood. We need to accept this and be ready to walk away and try again tomorrow.

“Step down” or “step off” is also pretty easy to train, and it’s almost intuitive for most birds. When we begin training, it may be best to just allow the bird to step up onto the stick, get the treat, and just step right off again. This diminishes fear and builds positive associations. Once the bird is comfortable staying on the stick, you can use the stick to move the bird from place to place.

To accomplish this, you just calmly put the stick and bird near and slightly below a perch you want the bird to go to, and say the prompt (please note that “step down” should not normally be literally downward in direction—it’s physically easier for your bird to step to a slightly higher perch. I do sometimes have a bird step just slightly down from stick to perch by placing the stick on the perch, but the upward movement is more natural to the bird and placing the training stick slightly below the perch works better for starters). As with “step up,” it may help to have the treat visible just a short distance away in the desired direction. Again, offer praise and a treat when the bird does well. In most cases, we will want to use what trainers call a “bridge” word, such as “good,” and be consistent with it; some people use a clicker. So, the bird performs the action, we immediately say “good” or click, and then we treat. After we bridge and treat, we can add additional praise as an extra drama reward. I’ve found that this works very well with macaws—they love praise! Since they are intelligent birds, we can eventually get them to perform tasks that have multiple steps before we offer the treat. They will understand that they need to perform the whole series before they get a reward. But, for starters, we should keep it very simple. They need to fully understand the principle of behavior and reward before we try to make training too complicated.

Pleasantness and consistency are the most important aspects of training. We need to perform our training the same pleasant way from day to day. Our birds will come to expect certain things and even look forward to being trained. Some people slack off and don’t use the correct bridge and treat system once the bird has learned a desired behavior. In my opinion, this is a mistake. We should continue to reward our birds consistently, daily, for good behavior. It makes for a strong bond with the bird, and it gives the bird a daily sense of accomplishment and mastery of his environment. Training shouldn’t get old and dull. It should be a vibrant and rewarding part of our birds’ everyday lives. Remember, in the jungle, they would find rewards every day for performing necessary tasks. Their lives in captivity should also involve motivation and success. It’s only natural.
Training Your Macaw: Long-term Goals--Talking
06-26-2011 at 07:05 PM (569 Views)

Training your bird to speak is, well, optional. Some people may choose to do so; others may not. Some people simply may not care to put in the extra effort. Other people may have strong feelings on the subject, one way or the other. It’s a complex subject, certainly, and it’s one that’s sometimes fraught with some tension. The reason for the tension surrounding the topic is that too many newcomers to the world of parrots base their decision to get a bird solely on the idea that the bird will talk. This is unfortunate because a “talking bird” in such instances represents little more than a novelty, and people wanting a bird for this reason would be better off by far getting a battery-powered toy that will talk when you press a button. Parrots are far too high maintenance, too expensive, and too sensitive a pet to choose for such a silly reason.

Also, real birds have varying abilities in this area, and as any long-time bird owner will tell you, not all birds will talk. Talking ability varies by species (and sometimes gender) and individual. Macaws tend to speak less clearly and less often than some other species. Their clarity is probably at least somewhat impeded by that gigantic nutcracker on their faces—how clearly would you speak with that equipment? J Another consideration, of course, is that their voices are also more designed for volume than for fluidity. Owners of talking macaws have to be like parents of toddlers. We must learn to understand our individual bird even when others have difficulty doing so. And, of course, we should acknowledge that some macaws simply can’t talk. And even those that can have to start off slowly, and simply, and they have to build on what they learn gradually.

Some long-time parrot owners feel nearly as strongly against training for talking as newbies feel in favor of it. Sometimes, this is a knee-jerk response in the opposite direction of the newbie desire for a talking bird—a way of showing strong disapproval for the “I want a bird that talks” phenomenon. In some cases, such owners may feel that they are protecting birds from an unrealistic set of expectations. I do agree that our expectations should not exceed our bird's abilities and that we should not be too disappointed if his aptitudes lie in a non-verbal direction. We can still take pride in his ability to solve puzzles. The most important principle here is that training is always for the bird (that is, in his interests), not for the owner. If we keep that principle in mind, we won’t go wrong.

How can talk training benefit a bird? Well, for one thing, it is a great way for the owner and bird to interact and spend quality time with one another. Positive interactions in general are often inherently beneficial because they give the bird an opportunity to learn (mental stimulation) and earn rewards (enrichment). But, aside from that, talking can actually give a bird some control over his or her environment. Obviously, I’m not talking here about a bird merely mimicking the name of a family’s favorite sports team or saying a few choice obscenities. These things may amuse some owners, but they don’t really do the bird much good. Beneficial talk training should be approached in very much the same way that a teacher of special needs children would approach helping them to gain verbal skills. The point isn’t to make the children amusing; it’s to make the children’s lives richer and more rewarding.

Teaching a bird how to ask for what s/he wants may help that bird feel more in control in the world of captivity. Anyone who has ever been to a foreign country with a different language knows how comforting it can be to speak a few words, enough at least to ask for a few necessities, food, water, etc. I think we owe our birds some courtesy along the same lines. Just as a casual example, today, I was making a sandwich, and my Blue and Gold, who loves bread in nearly any form, spied my effort. “Want so’ bread,” she said. I dutifully pinched off the corner of my top slice and took it to her. Of course, she’d eat my whole sandwich if I let her, so I don’t, but both she and I are very pleased that she can so clearly and sensibly ask for what she wants, within reason.

Have I sold you yet? Excellent. So, now let’s talk about how it’s done. If you want your bird to move beyond just the repetition of a few meaningless words, assuming your bird is willing , a serious commitment and attention to detail will allow you to reward him in productive increments. It's best for the owner to be ready to identify, evaluate, and reward meaningful learning and communication as it occurs. Anyone who loves their bird, and is willing to pay close attention to him or her, can do this to one degree or another.

The first step is to get your bird started. This is done, as you might suspect, by talking to your bird. Always talk to your bird. Tell him things, like what you are doing, what he is doing, etc. “I’m bringing you some water, Elvis, water” I’ll say, as I bring in a dish of water. “Oh, I dropped your toy.” If she repeats that last word or phrase, or part of it, then I bridge and treat (I keep a pocketful of treats ready). Many young birds will make word-sounds, half words and half sounds, in response to their owners’ talking. They should be immediately praised and encouraged for this. Repetition leads to association, which leads to meaning, which leads to communication. When he actually says a word correctly, bridge and treat. It should be a big deal. You should let him know that he’s done something in which he can take pride.

A lot of people in the parrot-owning community are familiar with the concept of “speaking in context.” This is when a parrot associates a word or phrase with an action, object, or state of being. If your bird says “Night night” when you switch off the light (and many do), then he’s speaking in context. He may not realize that he’s bidding you a good night, but he knows that’s what you say when you switch off the light. He’s associating the word with the action. Many parrots show a natural ability along these lines, and it’s that natural ability that we hope to tap into.

To teach your bird word association, hold up a favorite treat, for instance, a small pinch of bread, where your bird can see it. Present it and say “Bread,” and ask, “Want?” “Want bread?” See the yearning on his face and then give him the bread. In my experience, with enough practice, he will associate the word “bread” with the bread and the word “want” with wanting the bread. Hopefully, he will begin to say “Bread” or “Want bread” when he sees it. You can then give him some. J When your bird wants out of his cage, you ask, “Want out?” Soon, many macaws will start to say “Out! Want out!” (All of mine sure do--every single one, ha!). If so, you should immediately let them out. Eventually, with time and consistent training, some macaws will come to understand what it is to “want” something and be able to say “want” when they want something even if they don’t know what it is. Elvis just says “Want some” when I have a food she doesn’t recognize. That’s okay—I still understand.

Keep in mind that your bird will never speak or understand like an average human. At his very best, he will understand and speak about as well as a developmentally challenged two or three or maybe four-year-old human. We have to accept and understand that. So, it’s important that we don’t become frustrated and start to underestimate or under-appreciate him. Parrots don’t have the same brains that we do; they are structurally different, so they understand differently, but that doesn’t matter. Even if he babbles and repeats things (and all talking parrots do) or gets stuck and keeps saying something over and over, your bird is doing no worse than some human youngsters with certain disabilities. And, like those youngsters, he is still learning and mentally developing, and we should appreciate his efforts. In time, he may come out with surprisingly clear and meaningful things when you least expect it. Cherish these moments when they occur, because they’re the best reward you’ll get for all your hard work. And even if his speaking doesn’t improve, it doesn’t matter, because who knows how much he understands even if he can’t speak? At any rate, I’m a firm proponent of giving the bird the benefit of any doubt.

The Twelfth Fairy: Undoing Bad Training
08-16-2011 at 10:31 AM (314 Views)
When thinking about the rescue or rehome that has been mis-trained, mishandled, or even abused, I always recall the story of the Sleeping Beauty and the fairy curse:
"Turning to the terrified King and Queen, the evil fairy said, in a loud voice: "When the Princess is fifteen years old she shall cut her finger on a spindle and die!" Having said this she flew away.

The King and Queen were in despair, and the courtiers stood aghast at the terrible disaster; while the little Princess began to cry piteously, as if she knew the fate in store for her.

Then the twelfth fairy stepped forward.

"Do not be afraid," she said, "I cannot undo the wicked spell, but I can soften the evil. The Princess shall not die. Instead, she shall fall asleep for a hundred years...."

...........................

The reason this story comes to mind is because we, as owners/trainers of a bird with behavior issues, are in the position of the Twelfth Fairy, trying to positively modify something that may take a lot of time to undo. Macaws, like people, are the sum of their DNA, instincts, and their experiences. So, we can never completely take away the influence of the bad things that they have been through, but we can soften the evil. Unfortunately, as the wise fairy godmother knew, this sometimes involves a great deal of time.

I will admit right now that I've never worked with a truly abused bird. But, I have worked with birds who have apparently been forced to do their owners' bidding or who have trust issues or who received inadvertent reinforcement for undesirable behaviors like pinching or screaming. And it has always taken months to years to undo or modify the bad training. But, how does it work?

According to expert trainer Barbara Heidenreich, the key to extinguishing any undesirable behavior is to IGNORE it (or, as I have found, to respond in a very bored/boring manner). Always. In The Parrot Problem-Solver, she writes: "If you want a behavior to go away, do not reinforce it. If you want a behavior to continue, reinforce it" (17). This can be very trying and frustrating, especially if you are having a bad day, because the temptation to yell or react in some dramatic way to, say, a scream or bite is human nature. But, consistency is a must. If you do not consistently ignore bad behavior, or respond boringly, you will make it even worse by your use of sporadic reinforcement.

Reinforcers are any response that the bird might interpret as a reward. This includes human screaming, cursing, or laughing--for most birds, any attention is better than no attention. So, don't do it, no matter how much you want to. If your new bird bites your partner, you may think it's very funny, but trust me, it will lose its charm. And, if you laugh, the bird will see the laughter as a reward and will likely continue to bite your partner. The best thing to do is to walk away. In most cases (except the most traumatized individuals, which need a lot of trust-building) since birds would rather have interaction from us, being ignored or having our attention withdrawn is not something they want to have happen. (Of course, again, if the bird is traumatized and does not trust humans, you will have to do a lot of trust building with treats, singing, games, and pleasant interaction before he has this same mindset. He will have to build positive associations with you first. Then, the ignoring technique will work. So, obviously, depending on how many steps you have to go through, it will take more or less time).

It may seem simple enough, but ignoring bad behavior can be a very difficult task to perform. After all, humans are communicative, and it goes against the grain. It can be especially hard to counter the effects of past reinforcement for screaming. But, it is important that the bird be rewarded for being quiet and playing independently along with being ignored for screaming. The owner has to make a consistent, conscious effort to do both, because it's very easy to ignore a quiet bird and much harder to ignore a screaming one!

I've also heard people make remarks like this: "I don't believe in not reacting when a bird bites you--I want him to know I'm upset." Okay, but let's think: what does this actually accomplish from the bird's point of view? If the bird bit you because he was frightened, you're telling him that you get angry when he's frightened. If the bird bit you because he didn't know how much pressure to apply, you are telling him that if he applies that much pressure you will make intriguing and dramatic sounds. Some parrots, and perhaps especially macaws, may find drama of any kind very reinforcing. And, of course, if the bird bit you because he intended to harm you, you are telling him "mission accomplished." Some say, "But other birds scream out in pain if a bird bites them." Yes, and they use exactly the right vocalizations and body language and maybe use their beak to defend themselves, none of which humans can do; and human equivalents of these behaviors may cause breaches of trust. Even in the case that the bird understands what you want, the bird will likely interpret the scream or yell negatively. This can be a problem, since the bird may associate the negative feeling with you overall. As Barbara Heidenreich notes: "...something the animal perceives as negative can be associated with the handler" (20). Thus, this negative association can slowly erode your good relationship with your bird. Ignoring the behavior or having a very boring disapproval response has proven the best technique with my rehome macs. (Please note that I am not suggesting that anyone merely allow a bird to bite them. Rather, I'm suggesting that they react in a way that does not provide a drama reward--by showing disapproval in a non-dramatic way and withdrawing).

Some people grab the bird's beak when he does something they don't like. This is usually someone who knows little about birds' natural behaviors. Because birds use their beaks interactively primarily for courtship, mating, bonding, feeding, preening, and play, birds do not interpret grabbing and holding their beaks the way we do. Their first mode of interpretation is that this is friendly, playful, or loving, and so they will likely see it as a reward. If the beak grabbing is rough or prolonged enough to be perceived as negative by the bird, he will likely associate very negative feelings with the owner. It would be like someone trying to kiss you in a very forceful and prolonged way every time you did something they didn't like. Obviously, one response might be that you'd think they were crazy and want nothing to do with them! It's much better to use beak holding, grabbing, and rubbing in a playful or affectionate manner so that your bird doesn't think you are a sicko ;)

Basically, if the bird associates being with you as a positive and fun thing (something you may have to build up to), and he wants to be with you, then if he does something that makes you go away, he is working counter to his own desires, and he will realize this. When my RFM pinches my arm, I calmly and quietly say "No" as if I am bored to tears, and I put her on her stand and walk away. According to Heidenreich, saying "no" only works if something the bird doesn't like consistently follows--thus, the bird understands that "no" means that the behavior will produce an undesired result (103), and the best undesired result is something that does not create negative associations with the owner. Heidenreich suggests that "no" be followed by discontinuing whatever activity the bird is doing (103). When I do this, my RFM always tries to get me to come back, but I always count off ten minutes before I put in another appearance. When I do, I'm happy and fun again so that she associates my presence with good things. When my B&G pinched me, she used to say, "ow!" and laugh. Clearly, someone did this in her past. I don't. I just put her down, leave the room, and count off at least ten minutes. She really doesn't like that--she wants me back! So, her pinching has grown far less frequent in the years I've had her, not that I've completely eradicated it or the "Ow! Hahaha" yet.

It will take time.

 

Cynthia & Percy

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thanks for sharing
 

Noob

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Love this ty wonderful info :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)
 

macawllyyy

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Holiday, that is a very informative article. Thank you so much.

I like your way. Now, I am encouraging our Blue and Gold macaw to fly. I think that is the key for him to burn some energy out, so he will be calmer.
 

Holiday

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Holiday, that is a very informative article. Thank you so much.

I like your way. Now, I am encouraging our Blue and Gold macaw to fly. I think that is the key for him to burn some energy out, so he will be calmer.


It does seem to help here :)
 

macawllyyy

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Holiday,
Yes, it does. :) Thank you!
 

Jarrah

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Such an informative write up, so much good information. Holiday I appreciate your views on keeping birds and making captivity easier for them, And very well written might I add ;) I just recently got a beautiful 8 month old Hahns. And want her to has as close to natural normal parrot life I can provide for her in captivity. With the leaving her to let her know your disappointed and then coming back later happy and all. Her wings are not clipped and will just fly over to me if she feels. Not that she has any bad habits (besides only sometimes being toilet trained [working on it]) yet. But if some where to start any recommendations for stopping them.
 

Holiday

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Such an informative write up, so much good information. Holiday I appreciate your views on keeping birds and making captivity easier for them, And very well written might I add ;) I just recently got a beautiful 8 month old Hahns. And want her to has as close to natural normal parrot life I can provide for her in captivity. With the leaving her to let her know your disappointed and then coming back later happy and all. Her wings are not clipped and will just fly over to me if she feels. Not that she has any bad habits (besides only sometimes being toilet trained [working on it]) yet. But if some where to start any recommendations for stopping them.
Thanks (and sorry I didn't see this until now; perhaps you can use the tag function when you want to address a post to someone--it's a great function that we have here at AA). Glad to hear her wings aren't clipped. My minis all have flight (although some are better than others), and it seems to help substantially with behavior, especially screaming. I'm not an advocate of potty training them on command, but I do think that stations can provide acceptable areas. My BGM and RFM are willing to do that for me part of the time. ;)
 

Gypsy

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Thanks for posting this. I didn't even know there was a blog section. This was very informative.
 

Holiday

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Thanks for posting this. I didn't even know there was a blog section. This was very informative.

There used to be, but it was dismantled because new members found it confusing.
 

Gypsy

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I have been a member for a number of years and didn't know a blog section existed until this was posted. lol.
 

msplantladi

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Huge thank-you for providing a great article. I have had big birds in my life off & on. I currently rescued a pair of macaws. The military is coming along nicely..slow but I see progress. The scarlett not so much. He is very much a biter-the minute I get him on a perch I get bit and hard ( I am running out of band aides ) These birds came from a guy that knew nothing about birds and just thought they would be cool to have. They are approx 2 yrs old and very little human interaction . I can hand feed both birds, sometimes the scarlett will let me kiss his beak through cage bars. Anytime the scarlett is out of his cage I try to take him away from the cage as he is very territorial but its hard to do as he is quick w/ the bit. And he does nothing but scream out of cage, even if he is just allowed to play.I am not sure how to proceed. :(
 

Holiday

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Huge thank-you for providing a great article. I have had big birds in my life off & on. I currently rescued a pair of macaws. The military is coming along nicely..slow but I see progress. The scarlett not so much. He is very much a biter-the minute I get him on a perch I get bit and hard ( I am running out of band aides ) These birds came from a guy that knew nothing about birds and just thought they would be cool to have. They are approx 2 yrs old and very little human interaction . I can hand feed both birds, sometimes the scarlett will let me kiss his beak through cage bars. Anytime the scarlett is out of his cage I try to take him away from the cage as he is very territorial but its hard to do as he is quick w/ the bit. And he does nothing but scream out of cage, even if he is just allowed to play.I am not sure how to proceed. :(

You're most welcome :) It's hard to break bad habits like biting, but I think the best advice is always to start over, go slowly, and try to avoid bites at all costs. Biting can become a self-reinforcing behavior, and with a bird with a troubled history, it's particularly important to make sure that those habits are not continued.
 

msplantladi

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I am alittle confused, where do I start over from...which point?
 

tapahtyn

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I am training my macaw, but it's not been very consistent and I know that. She's adopted some bad habits and i feel a little lost. I wish I could find some actual good videos on behavior problems and how to change this. I want her to be a better bird, she loves me more than anything, but she will bite everyone else and me sometimes too. I know that's always a risk and Im ok with that, but I am not sure what to do past using a clicker and touch training, (birdtricks) they are great but im having serious issues
 

Holiday

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I am training my macaw, but it's not been very consistent and I know that. She's adopted some bad habits and i feel a little lost. I wish I could find some actual good videos on behavior problems and how to change this. I want her to be a better bird, she loves me more than anything, but she will bite everyone else and me sometimes too. I know that's always a risk and Im ok with that, but I am not sure what to do past using a clicker and touch training, (birdtricks) they are great but im having serious issues

Sorry you're having problems. We're always happy to answer questions if you want to post a thread about your bird. :)
 

Coki

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Holiday, this is an awesome thread! Would you mind if I translate this to Spanish to post it in an Argentinean group of parrots?

thank you!
 

Holiday

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Holiday, this is an awesome thread! Would you mind if I translate this to Spanish to post it in an Argentinean group of parrots?

thank you!


That would be fine :)
 
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