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Relationship Building with Orange-winged Amazons

Expert Question

Dear Jim, I want to hand or stick train an aviary bird. I have taken in a pair of Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica) aged five - captive bred previously kept in 9-foot aviary and never handled.

I have put them in a 15-foot flight. After 16 days the male will hop or fly onto a broad stick for a monkey nut. I do this 3 times a day. I feed them on pellets and fruit twice a day. Nuts and seeds are for treats. The female remains shy, although will sometimes take a nut and run off. Any tips on moving the training of Basil forward and desensitising him to my hand? He will fly to the stick a short distance but at the sight of my hand, he backs up.

Dorothy Schwarz

Expert Answer

G'day Dorothy, Thanks for your e-mail and request for advice on the training and relationship building process with your Orange-winged Amazons. I have also recently acquired a 5-year-old Amazon parrot (a Yellow-naped -- Amazona auropalliata) that has been an aviary bird for that time and I am embarking on a similar relationship-building journey. What a privilege it is to be working with such a remarkable genus as the Amazona!

I am aware that you have worked with the Natural Encounters team and Steve Martin as a participant in their training workshops. I was keen to pass your e-mail on to a mutual buddy who you worked with at NEI -- Nicholas Bishop. Unfortunately he's roughing it somewhere in the Pantanal with the Guru watching Hyacinth Macaws. Tough work if you can get it. In Nic's absence I'll do my best to help out. The advice that I would impart here is essentially the same as I am sure that you would have received during your training so what I think would be best is to revisit and highlight a few key training and relationship building principles for you to reflect on. I am confident that you can work from there to set some new goals that will hopefully provide the momentum you are seeking in developing your relationship and trust account with your Amazons.

*Goal-setting: Be clear about exactly what behavioural goal you want to set and be conscious of setting goals for each individual bird, as it is obvious from your e-mail that each of your Amazons is at a different level of trust in working with you. Keep in mind that your major goal of having the birds step on to your hand is really only achieved after having reached minor goals that are essential in an effective training and relationship building continuum. That leads into thinking about the next critical part of the picture…

*Map out your Approximations: Once you have established a clear behavioural goal you can work out the approximations you need to be conscious of for reinforcing and shaping the behaviours required for achieving those goals. Perhaps the most common mistake made at this level is by setting up an approximation schedule that makes it too difficult for the parrot to achieve quick and effective learning, or possibly even offering a reinforcement schedule that inadvertently reduces motivation for the parrot to progress further. This requires reflection on the next critical concept for improving training success…

*Criteria Setting for Success: When we reach a point in our relationship building or behaviour-training process where progress is not being achieved its time to consider what our criteria for success has been. In some situations it may help to take a step back in our approximation schedule and lower the criteria for success. However, if you are finding yourself offering reinforcement continually for behaviours you have already captured, you may be inadvertently minimising the motivation for your parrot to progress further in your approximation schedule. In such a situation you may be able to kick-start some forward momentum by actually raising your criteria for success before further reinforcement is offered.

*Size of Reinforcement: One goal you seem to have set is having your Amazons stay in closer proximity to you for longer periods of time. Rearranging your environment will help the shaping of that behaviour. Think about how you might be able to deliver reinforcement treats in contexts that increase the duration of stay near you. One suggestion here is re-think your use of a whole nut and instead place nut fragments in a bowl that you can position where you observe the birds to be secure and confident in their behaviour. Are there possibly other reinforcement treats that you can utilise? You then need to consider your proximity to that bowl as a separate set of approximations to work through. Your daily schedule of feeding and working with the birds can lead you to consider the final training suggestion that I would like to make…

*Maximising Motivation: You should be able to use your feeding schedule to your advantage by ensuring that are attempting to interact with the Amazons at times when their motivation to receive the treats you have on offer is maximised. Combine this strategy with careful arrangement of the environment, consideration of your approximations of proximity of the feeders to you, and consideration of the size of reinforcement treats in the feeders. You can then quickly develop a context whereby you are enhancing the level of desensitisation to you simply through the delivery of their daily feeds. I implement this process daily with my own breeding pair of Galahs to maintain my trust account with a pair of birds who may otherwise have little need for a `human' in their social spectrum.

Expanding on all of the above -- time to have a good read of the following articles from the WPT Reference Library…

  • 'Does your parrot have a trust account?' -- Steve Martin
  • 'Empowering Parrots' -- Susan Friedman PhD
  • 'Step-up: Command or Request?' -- Barbara Heidenreich
  • 'Shaping new behaviours' -- Susan Friedman PhD

These are all freely downloadable from:

Lastly, I'm not completely confident in the use of a `stick' as part of your relationship and trust building process but I can't really envisage how you are using it from your e-mail. Personally, I prefer to challenge myself to arrange the environment of the bird I am working with so that reinforcement delivery can be achieved effectively and possible aversives impeding reinforcement delivery are minimised or removed completely. It might be valuable to revisit some of the excellent resources available on target training to shift the focus of the stick as a `step-up' prop to one that might have more beneficial applications in shaping approximations to you as a target. Barbara Heidenreich's DVD is good first port of call for ideas there.

Good luck Dorothy!

Kind Regards from `Down Under'
Jim McKendry
Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations

Jim McKendry
About Jim McKendry

Jim McKendry BTeach BAppSc (Wildlife Biology)

Jim provides consultancy services on parrot behaviour through Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations ( He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Teaching (ACU) and Applied Science (UQ) and is a Senior Biology and Environmental Sciences teacher. Jim’s approach to education on parrot behaviour aims to connect the behaviours we see amongst psittacines in the wild with those we observe in captivity to best inform environmental arrangement for behavioural success. An Applied Behaviour Analysis approach to assessing behaviour is the foundation of his consultancy assessments on individual parrot clients.

He has worked professionally as an Avian Trainer and Presentations Keeper at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and since 2005 has delivered a series of annual workshops at the Sanctuary on progressive approaches to companion parrot behaviour and enrichment. From 2009 to 2011 Jim worked as the resident consultant on parrot behaviour and enrichment at Brisbane Bird and Exotics Veterinary Services. He is a professional member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators ( and a member of the World Parrot Trust’s Expert Panel of educators.  Jim writes a regular column, Pet Parrot Pointers, for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine and is an editorial consultant on parrot behaviour for this publication.

Visit Jim’s site on the web at