Learn bird training from the experts (addendum)

Learn bird training from the experts (addendum)

I previously wrote an article about Avian Behavior International (ABI), where I attended two week-long bird training workshops a couple of years ago. I also mentioned that they offer an on-line version of their training for a monthly fee.

The purpose of this article is to illustrate the value I’ve gotten from the on-line version since I’ve joined. Here’s an example of a tricky issue I was having that where I was unable to find help with a Google search.

Used with permission from Avian Behavior International.

The dilemma

After failing with Google, I posted my question to the ABI forums and here’s a shortened/edited version of what I posted.

I have a group of three cockatiels that free-fly for a few hours every day around dinner time. They fly from room to room, perching on various desirable and undesirable locations. They will fly and land on shoulders or arms, but the head is highly popular. Some people are OK with this but others dislike it a lot.

It doesn’t matter if the person is known to them or whether they are standing or sitting. The only thing that really works is if someone is wearing a hat, but I don’t want to impose hat wearing on everyone.

Here are some things that have been tried and failed. Moving them with my hand right when they land. Rewarding them for being taken off the head. Rewarding them for landing in a desirable location, but this is tricky because there are a lot of desirable locations so it’d be treating every 10 seconds if they are doing a lot of flying. They would probably end up being confused by being inconsistently rewarded.

The only thing that seems to help is to increase the number of desirable locations and just provide more activities for them to do. It decreases the problem but it still happens enough to annoy people. For example, we have a foraging bowl and a bowl of grass and both can occupy them for 15 mins at a time, which is pretty good for a cockatiel.

As I mentioned in the other article, the forums are populated and monitored by ABI trainers and also other subscribers. In this case, a dialog was started with an ABI trainer who also happened to be the founder. I was able to get some tremendous advice that substantially improved the situation.

I’ll quote some snippets, some of which need some explanation of training terminology.

Maintain consistency first. So I want to keep them off my head as much as possible. If they land on my head, I will gently ask them to hop off on to a perch, preferably without stepping them on to my hand so there is no need to use a reinforcer or get my hand involved as a potentially negative or positive. I need to hop them off as quickly and smoothly as I can, as staying on is likely reinforcing, as you observed.

Hillary Hankey—Avian Behavior International

A reinforcer is a reward, whether it be food or a head scratch or a favorite toy that is given immediately upon performing a desired behavior. Part of this may require teaching the bird how to go to a perch on command. Rewarding the moving from head to perch could backfire as the bird may equate landing on the head with getting a reward after they move to the perch.

If I see them flying toward my head, I will catch them and offer a lower value reinforcer than if I had asked for a flight to the hand, if that makes sense. They just “happened” to land on the hand, but didn’t really mean to, but I want it to be positive. 

If it’s too hard because they are so fast, then the next best thing would be to quickly hop them off the head on to an appropriate place to forage without getting them on the hand. That way, there is no need to step them up and it won’t become a cyclical chain: Fly to head, step up for treats, hop off for more treats.

Hillary Hankey—Avian Behavior International

By “catch” she means interrupt their flight to the head by sticking a hand out in front of them. A low value reinforcer basically means a reward they like but is not their absolute favorite. Maybe they love millet and a favorite toy but if you place both in front of them, they’ll go for the millet every time. The millet would be a high value reinforcer.

Using the low value reinforcer means they know they did something good but that there are behaviors for which they get the greatest reward of all, so they will be steered towards those.

Reinforce the heck out of those foraging trays, reinforce persistence! So if they are at those foraging trays, you can keep them there by sprinkling in a few surprise treats/extra special goodies so that the payoff for staying at the foraging stations will be super high. You can even go to the trays, hop them up and put them back down. You can also make the foraging a bit more challenging to keep them working harder and harder for the same amount of goodies, though like you said 15 minutes is pretty good! 

Hillary Hankey—Avian Behavior International

This is a form of what animal trainers called stationing, which is similar to teaching a dog to stay. You just reward staying a short time, then gradually increase the time they must wait.

Do you think there is a way to make it easier for them to be successful first when you have company over, like staying on their foraging stations or calling them to the hand or arm, so that you can start teaching them what success looks like? What are some things you could realistically do that would stack the odds in your favor?

Hillary Hankey—Avian Behavior International

Setting the stage for success was taught to us a very important part of the training process. One example might be removing distractions while you are training, which makes it more likely the birds will stay focused.


Every time I post a question and get a great response like this, I feel like it’s worth at least 3 months of my subscription, which would be about $50. Imagine training away a very bothersome behavior and what it would be worth it to you.