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Training Challenges

Expert Question

I have 18 parrots, most of whom have been adopted from a shelter. They all have issues; I have pluckers, biters, etc. Since I have so many, training through positive reinforcement is difficult for me as most of my time is spent cleaning and feeding. The flock environment has worked well for me with respect to solving many behaviour problems. The birds seem to gain strength and courage to defeat many of their hang-ups. For example, I have a Patagonian Conure who was left alone in her cage when the household evacuated for a hurricane. She was so frightened she pulled all her feathers out. When I got her, all she would do is run from one side of the cage to the other, screaming. She wouldn’t play with toys, trembled a lot, and ate like a horse, although she was still on the thin side. She has settled down immensely and I believe it is from being in a flock environment and having the security of a routine schedule.

My very first ‘rescued’ bird is still a major concern of mine. He is a Green-cheeked Conure whom I found in a dirty little pet shop five years ago. At the time he was three years old. When I expressed surprise to the shop owner that he had not yet been sold she told me no one wanted him because he bites. She said that sometimes children would come into the shop and poke their fingers at him through his cage. Since she’s the only one running the store she couldn’t be everywhere at once and they pestered him frequently. I went home and thought about that bird for weeks. Finally, I went back to the shop and bought him. I named him Sammy. Sammy has his own cage, as he doesn’t get along with the other birds. He attacks them, even the big ones. He attacks me when I change his food and water bowls, drawing blood with his bites. I have tried different approaches to this problem. I put him outside in my aviary for sunshine but he sits very still and watches all around him, hardly ever moving around. I put my manzanita tree in front of his cage for him to climb around on for exercise. He rarely will come out to do so, but I offer anyway. I have put him in different cages, changed the location of his cage, etc. The only positive rapport I have with him is when we play, “Simon Says.” He will roll his head around a number of times and I follow. He closes an eye, yawns, etc and I follow. Or, I might initiate the action & he follows my movements. There is no physical contact at all. He seems so alone. He has lots of toys but wouldn’t touch them for the first several years. I have tried all kinds of toys in his cage. Now he pulls on one to make noise when he sees me coming, but that’s the extent of his play. About 2 years ago he started barbering his feathers badly and he has looked dishevelled ever since. He is always watching everything going on around him as though he is hyper vigilant. I’m putting Bach’s Rescue Remedy drops in his water now every time I change it. It does seem to calm him down some. He stays in his happy hut longer in the mornings since I started doing it. He vocalizes to me when we play Simon Says but I still can’t touch him without getting bit.

As I said earlier, most of my time is spent cleaning and Sammy is not my only special needs bird. Would you have any suggestions as to how I can better fit his needs to make him happier in his captive setting? I just ordered two Get a Grip nets and had my husband has built frames for them. Plus, I have ordered the DVD, “Captive Foraging,” to see if I can find ways to keep him occupied. I have several books on enrichment and positive reinforcement, but with as busy as I am, a training schedule is extremely difficult for me to maintain.

Any suggestions you may have will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Submitted by: Cindi

Expert Answer

G'day Cindi,

Thank you for sharing your efforts with your collection and your experiences with Sammy. Your approach towards creating a flock environment and your insight into how this has contributed to the success of your birds is inspiring. As someone whose own flock of parrots has steadily increased over the years with the addition of birds with behavioural challenges, I can empathise with the frustration of not feeling like you are able to achieve your training goals as successfully or as quickly as you would like to. There are some really key considerations that your question brings to light, perhaps not only for yourself, but also for anyone involved with the daily management of a large group of parrots. I'd like to share some of these with you and hopefully you will be able to take some of these thoughts away and set some new and achievable goals.

Positive Reinforcement -- Any time, any place…
We tend to only consider, or consciously take notice of, positive reinforcement in the context of specific, pre-planned training sessions. I can remember being in a very similar mind set to you at one stage with some of my aviary birds. How could I engage in positive reinforcement based training with birds that I really only had time to interact with for short periods around feeding and enclosure cleaning on most days? These birds were parent-raised birds with little interest in human interactions so I was challenged to visualise how I could develop a relationship with them. When I reflected on this I realised that we have the opportunity to deliver positively reinforcing consequences with every interaction we have with our birds, regardless of the context and regardless of our perceived lack of relationship with the birds. Managing the day-to-day husbandry of your parrots actually provides a wonderful scope for establishing some important and practical positive reinforcement based training applications. This is something that I learnt well when working with Zoo animals and I apply this awareness when interacting with my own birds. When I worked as a bird keeper and trainer, every time I entered an enclosure to clean it, weigh a bird, place a raptor back on a perch, or change a food bowl, I had the opportunity to make that interaction a positively reinforcing one for the animal -- and without breaking from a tight time schedule! Positive reinforcement can occur at any time, in any place, if we choose to arrange the environment for that reinforcement to occur. When you think about the set of interactions that can occur simply by delivering a bowl of food to a cage each day, or cleaning the cage, or offering a shower, or changing perches, or introducing a new enrichment toy, you realise that you do indeed have the power to make each of these experiences positively reinforcing for Sammy. In doing so, you can build the all-important 'trust account' with Sammy and establish an ever-developing association between the receipt of positively reinforcing consequences and you as the person who delivers those. Training, teaching, learning -- they occur in just about everything we do with our parrots, even if we're not consciously aware.

Setting Goals -- Make them achievable, make them realistic…
Often, the greatest barrier to our success in working with challenging parrots is not setting goals that are either achievable, or realistic, given the current stage of our relationship with them. When faced with an overwhelming sense of not achieving what you really want to with your birds, it is critically important to take a step back, look at the big picture of what you already can do with your birds and work from there, one step at a time. This is where an understanding of 'approximations' and how we use these to shape behaviour is such a valuable tool for every parrot owner. 'Approximations' can be simply defined as the observable and measurable steps that your parrot needs to progressively take to achieve a behavioural goal. When we think of learning we need to see it as occurring along a continuum. Each step along the continuum is an 'approximation' leading towards the final goal. Training using small approximations is the most effective method of establishing solid and consistent performance of behaviours. It is also highly effective when trained behaviours diminish, as we need only to go back to the nearest approximation to the behaviour goal that is still being demonstrated successfully and work from there. Perhaps the first mistake that companion parrot owners make is failing to reinforce small approximations and instead, withhold reinforcement for too long in the hope that their parrot will achieve a behavioural goal from A to Z in one go. Essentially what happens for many pet parrot owners is that they inadvertently make the criteria for success too difficult for the young parrot to achieve. Taking an approach to your training and interactions with Sammy that carefully reinforces small approximations towards your goal behaviour will hopefully help you to avoid the pitfalls of a reinforcement schedule that may be unrealistic or ineffective with your pet parrot.

I would suggest In Sammy's case, you might simply be starting off with small goals leading towards the development of the use of a 'target' to start shaping some of those all important moving around the cage behaviours that can be beneficial to you in avoiding aggressive encounters with him when you need to clean his cage, change his perches, remove an old toy or simply feed him. Developing some target training will take a small investment of time initially to your existing routine but may end up making daily husbandry tasks quicker, easier and with less opportunity for conflict. Barbara Heidenreich explains the process of target training better than anyone. I checked through the catalogue of her 'Good Bird' magazine to find a specific article that you could apply and you know what, just about every issue has an article of relevance to you in your work with Sammy. I would really suggest delving into this magazine for some very cool, practical and well-explained examples of applying basic positive reinforcement training techniques for pet parrots. You can access all of Barbara's magazines via her website at and the WPT store stocks Barbara's books and DVDs, so if you haven't got those, visit

Arrange the Environment -- Set yourself and your parrot up to succeed…
Once you have worked out a goal that you would like to achieve with Sammy, take the next step and ensure that you set the environment up for both you and Sammy to succeed in achieving that goal. When we talk about the 'environment' we consider all the elements involved that can have a variable influence on the achievement of our behavioural goal. Minimising those variables helps us achieve clear contiguity and consistency in our reinforcement delivery. As an example, simple rearrangement of the cage environment in the form of perch and treat bowl placement can help to set up a huge change in not only your ability to avoid a bite occurring, but also to deliver reinforcing food treats without potentially being an invasive presence in his enclosure. Empower yourself with the knowledge that it is you who can make these changes and you can start making progress today. All parrot owners need to reflect on the fact that they are a critical component of the 'environment' and ultimately is 'you' as the keeper of your birds who has the ability to arrange that environment for success and make the decision to deliver positively reinforcing consequences for desirable behaviour.

Be inspired - Access existing resources…
The World Parrot Trust website provides access to perhaps the most brilliant collection of support resources on the internet in the form of articles written by some of the giants in parrot behaviour and training. For your goal of achieving an improved relationship with Sammy, I would recommend downloading and reading the following…

  • '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
  • 'The Success Files' -- Lee McGuire and Susan Friedman PhD

These articles can inspire you to achieve more than you imagined with your parrot. The first four articles will really establish a wonderful foundation of theory and practical application for you. Then make sure you check out Lee McGuire and Susan Friedman's brilliant example of bringing this knowledge together to develop a plan for applying this theory to a situation that I am sure you will find relevance in.
These downloadable articles are all available from

Hopefully the above suggestions for 'where to go from here' will help you develop some ideas and strategies for working with Sammy and indeed, engaging in positive reinforcement training, without even knowing it.

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