Living with a Cockatoo
– Jan. 2014 edit: wow, it’s been about five years since I first wrote this. Mitri still lives with me and is still doing great!
–Author’s note: I was going to write a short bit on my new cockatoo, but it turned into this essay about living with cockatoos in general. What I intended to do is outline what living with a cockatoo can be like, to help people considering adopting one make an informed decision. I also put a list of resources at the end for more information on the topics I bring up here. I encourage all people considering one of these birds to think carefully about their decision and learn all they can about cockatoos before adopting one.
The Big Decision: To adopt or not to adopt.
My husband, Quentin, and I have been fostering or bird-sitting various cockatoos for a few years, and our current foster bird is a stunning, seventeen-year-old male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo named Mitri. He was surrendered to a local rescue when his owner became unable to care for him. He’s actually the second Lesser Sulphur we’ve fostered, the other being another male named Fergus. Fergus was adopted by a great home after a few months with us.
Anyway, we’ve had Mitri for about seven months and he seems to be doing great here. He adores my husband and gets along great with me as well. I’ve been doing some clicker training with him and he’s now learning fast! He repeats a few words, is target trained, and he goes back onto or in his cage on cue. He also does a wolf whistle if I ask if he thinks Ripley (our Amazon) is pretty. He gets sunflower seeds as reinforcers, but I have to end each training session by giving him a good head scratch. He asks for those by bowing his head towards me.
Of course, the thought of adopting him occurred to us. However, this was a decision we didn’t want to make lightly. A cockatoo like Mitri can live as long as a human can, making it probable that he’d still be around when we retire. Cockatoos are also incredibly high-maintenance pets. Mitri, for instance, needs to be let out of his cage for at least a few hours daily, while he can be supervised. I also have to constantly replenish his supply of chew toys. And he’s very, very messy. However, since we’d had a few cockatoos living with us and since we’d been handling Mitri just fine (and rather enjoy his company), we decided to adopt him.
Mitri is a fascinating character. He’s quite affectionate and enjoys having his head scratched, though he is sometimes nervous with strangers. However, if no one’s around to scratch his head for him, he’ll take a Popsicle stick or he’ll bite a piece off of a wooden perch or wicker basket and scratch his head and back with that:
From talking to other cockatoo owners, I’ve learned that a lot of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos will do this. I wonder if this behaviour stems from a part of their courtship display. For instance, watch what the male Black Palm Cockatoo does to court females:
I have actually seen a male Umbrella Cockatoo hold a stick and drum it on a perch like that. I’ve also seen Moluccans drum their feet on perches, but not with sticks. Nothing I’ve read on the behaviour of Indonesian white cockatoos indicates that they do any drumming with sticks as a part of their courtship display. On the other hand, wild Indonesian cockatoos really haven’t been well studied at all. If anyone reading this has seen wild cockatoos other than palms use drum sticks, I would be very interested in hearing about it!
Back to Mitri’s display, I wonder if he has an innate tendency to hold sticks and just figured out on his own that he can use them to scratch his back and wings. He could have, one day, reached behind his head while holding a stick and realized that it felt good to do that. Most cockatoos seem to enjoy receiving a good head or back scratch, so it makes sense that many of them would eventually figure out how to scratch those areas themselves.
Keeping a Cockatoo Busy
I have to provide Mitri with lots of interesting things to chew. He can make a huge mess with his chew toys, but he needs them to keep busy. A cockatoo with nothing to do can become a very noisy, unhappy bird. Many cockatoos with inadequate stimulation become feather pluckers or they start to scream excessively.
I do buy Mitri toys from the pet store, but he really seems to enjoy the stuff I get him at the craft store. These include plain wicker baskets, clothespins (with no metal), Popsicle sticks, and big wooden beads. The clothespins and Popsicle sticks get used as back scratchers, or they get chewed up. I’ve noticed that a lot of cockatoos love to chew on items they can hold in their feet. The wicker baskets hold all of his “foot toys,” but if he chooses, he can chuck out the foot toys and chew on the basket itself. He also gets natural branches from outside.
He does an odd thing with the wooden beads. He’ll either hold them in his feet and “comb” his crest with them, or he will roll them down his back and then catch them in his beak. I’ve also seen him put a bead on the back of his neck, hunch his shoulders to keep it there and preen himself in this odd posture. I’ve seen other cockatoos do that as well, either with wooden beads or nuts. Below is a video of Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo I fostered, doing this:
Mitri loves to shred paper as well, and he has a toy that can hold a roll of adding machine tape. He will also shred the newspaper on the bottom of his cage and kick out the mess. Actually, he displays a “digging” behaviour quite often by chewing at items on the ground (or on the ground itself) and then kicking one foot back vigorously. A lot of African Grey Parrots do this as well, and ones in outdoor aviaries will often dig little holes in the dirt, especially in corners.
Many cockatoos love swings and similar toys. Some will hold on to a swing and flap their wings to make it move. So, I got Mitri a large “boing” (bouncy, coiled rope) for him to bounce and play on, but he’s wary of it for now. That’s the way it goes with parrots: you can buy them a $50 toy and they might ignore it! However, I have hung the boing next to Mitri’s cage so he can learn that it’s not dangerous.
Despite having lots of toys, Mitri will often go on little walkabouts to find other interesting things to destroy. He’s chewed on a few shoes, has torn up part of the cover on the couch (luckily, it’s replaceable) and has bitten apart the zippers on a few jackets. He leaves lots of white dust everywhere as well. Cockatoos have special feathers called “power down” feathers. These are fine down feathers that gradually break apart to produce a fine white power that coats the bird’s feathers. The dust also winds up on areas around the cockatoo and it’s very noticeable on black furniture in particular. The down feathers themselves get shed during molts and can stick to rugs and curtains.
If I hadn’t made it clear by now, cockatoos really aren’t the best pets for very neat people who aren’t willing to put in extra time cleaning up after their pets. Cockatoos are great at spreading around wood splinters, dust, seed shells, crumbs, bits of fruit, bits of paper, and poop all around their living area. To deal, I place a big rubber mat under Mitri’s area, which makes it easier to clean, but his mess often spreads beyond that. Shop vacuums are ultra-useful items for cockatoo owners.
While Mitri makes a big mess, he likes to keep his own self quite clean. To help him out, I give him a shower about twice weekly. Some cockatoos like to go right in the shower in the bathroom, but that’s too scary for Mitri. So, I spray him with a bottle of water. He loves it! He spreads his wings, flaps, and even hangs upside down in his cage. Cockatoos that do not get showers can wind up with very dry skin and are often somewhat grimy looking. When giving a cockatoo a shower, it’s important not to spray the bird right in the face. Rather, aim the spray just above his head, so it falls over him in a fine mist.
Cockatoo Voices and Talking Ability
A couple of my parrots are outgoing enough that they can be taken to classrooms and out shopping (as long as the shops do not sell food). The most common question I get about them is, “Do they talk?” Most people lose interest when I answer with a “no.” None of my parrots are talented talkers. Now Mitri (who I have not taken out in public) can say a few words, but he’s not a prolific talker. Some individual cockatoos can talk quite well, some can say only a few words, some spout lots of incomprehensible gibberish, and some cannot talk at all. In general, cockatoos should not be purchased by those looking for a talking parrot. Actually, I generally advise anyone wanting a parrot only because they talk to not get one. Believe me, the novelty of having an animal that can talk will wear off. One must love parrots for what they are to be able to keep one as a companion for the long run. Most people who get parrots “only” for their talking ability eventually find they are not willing to provide optimal care for the parrot for the next fifty (or more!) years once they are used to the fact that the parrot talks.
At any rate, few cockatoos speak as well as the average African Grey, but they have very powerful voices and most use them frequently. How often will depend on a lot of factors, but cockatoos are the loudest of all parrots, with macaws, Aratinga and Patagonian conures, and Amazons coming next. Their ultra-powerful voices are among the many reasons that cockatoos often get rehomed. They are generally not suitable pets for apartments.
Well-adjusted cockatoos can be quite screechy at times – often at the worst times, such as when one is on the telephone or trying to concentrate on something. Many vocalize while excited, while trying to “call” to their people, or while alarmed. Wild cockatoos have a loud, shrill “contact call” they use to communicate with their mate or young, and they also shriek when danger is spotted. Wild cockatoos are noisiest during their morning foraging expedition, as I noticed while watching free-living cockatoos in Sydney, Australia, at the botanical gardens. The Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were simple to find there in the morning because they were so noisy calling to each other! They do not shriek all day though, and neither should a pet cockatoo. Most are quiet during the late morning and afternoon, while they rest.
However, cockatoos kept permanently apart from their human family can become extremely noisy, as can ones that have few toys. Other times, the reasons for excessive screaming may be a bit more complicated. Dealing with a cockatoo that has become excessively noisy requires plenty of patience and even a bit of detective work to figure out just what is causing the screaming. Most books implore parrot owners to always ignore a birds’ screaming, but this can be difficult with a persistently noisy bird. Teaching the bird to get attention using a quieter call can help, but this, again, requires some patience.
Mitri has a few different calls, all of which are very loud. There’s his usual contact call, a drawn out, raspy AAAaaaaakkkk!! He can let out a very sharp, high pitched Eeek! He’s loud too – he can be heard from outside on the sidewalk if he really gets going. His calls become more frequent if he’s alone but knows there are people in the house, so he has play areas upstairs and downstairs so he can be where the people are. Most hand-fed cockatoos are like this and it makes sense. Cockatoos are very social flock animals, and just don’t tolerate being caged alone too much.
Mitri is happy as long as my husband or I are in view and he’ll happily chew or preen while in the same room as us. Sometimes he’ll crawl up my husband’s leg and insist on sitting with him while he works on the computer. Needless to say, cockatoos are not suitable companions for people who aren’t home much. I’d say that a cockatoo needs around three-four hours out daily, with more on weekends. Even that is not enough for some cockatoos. Moluccan and Umbrella Cockatoos are generally the most demanding of the cockatoo species. Lesser Sulphurs like Mitri are usually a bit less “clingy” than the Moluccans and Umbrellas. However, all cockatoos, regardless of size, are demanding animals to keep.
Aggression and Biting
Making a generalization about cockatoo personalities is very difficult because so much of a parrot’s behaviour is shaped by its life experiences and how it has been trained. There is a huge amount of variation in cockatoo personalities. The most docile and the most aggressive parrots I have ever met have been cockatoos. Generally, female Umbrella Cockatoos tend to be the most tame and trustworthy of the cockatoos, with male Lesser Sulphurs, Umbrellas, and Moluccans tending to be the most likely to bite “unpredictably.” I put that last word in quotes, because birds do not bite for no reason, but it may not seem that way to the person who was bitten! But, as usual, there are exceptions. A lovely, sweet female Umbrella Cockatoo I fostered for a time was very affectionate to most people, but if she formed a strong bond with a person, she would guard that person and bite all others. On the flip side, I’ve met some very friendly male cockatoos.
Overall, though, most cockatoo owners get bitten badly at some point and cockatoo bites can be very deep and painful. Occasionally, they require stitches to close. No one who’s going to get upset over being bitten should consider a parrot as a pet, and especially not a cockatoo. Because even very affectionate cockatoos may bite, I’ve heard more than one person describe a cockatoo as having a “Jekyll/Hyde” personality. This is because some cockatoos can be very cuddly and affectionate one minute and may bite the next. Other cockatoos adore one or a few people and attempt to bite all others. However, it’s important to understand that they don’t do this just to be mean or difficult. The reasons cockatoos may bite are many and complicated.
Sometimes, bites can simply be accidents, as was the case when Mitri bit onto my husband’s thumb after slipping off of his arm. This particular bite probably severed a few nerves, as Quentin could not feel his thumb for quite some time afterwards. I was badly bitten by Mitri when I messed up trying to wrap him in a towel, something he normally likes.
Cockatoos may also bite out of fear, particularly if they’ve been mistreated by people. Sadly, a lot of cockatoos wind up being neglected. I’d say they are the large parrot type most likely to be mistreated, although large parrots in general are difficult pets and rarely get the care they need. Too many people who buy cockatoos later find that the bird is noisy and difficult to handle and may yell at, strike at, or throw things at the unfortunate, confused bird. Other people will bang on the bird’s cage and yell at him out of frustration, or will banish the bird to a garage or back room, a sad fate for such beautiful, social creatures. Frankly, I’d say that confining a cockatoo to a small cage for its life is a form of cruelty. Additionally, cockatoo chicks that were under-socialized as youngsters may also be fearful of people and may bite if they feel there’s no other way to get a scary person to leave them alone. And, some well-treated, normally friendly cockatoos may become nervous and a bit bitey in new situations due to fear.
Then there’s the phenomenon of the cockatoo who starts off as a sweet, cuddly fledgling and becomes a great deal more difficult to handle as he ages. This is because as cockatoos hit sexual maturity, their bodies start pumping out higher levels of sex hormones. This makes them want to guard a nest hole, and seek out and guard a mate. Cockatoos don’t hit maturity for a few years, but since a one-year-old cockatoo looks almost the same as a seven-year-old cockatoo to most people, few cockatoo owners expect such changes as their bird ages.
So, upon hitting maturity, some cockatoos display the behaviour wherein they bond to one person and attempt to drive off all others. This can be a huge problem, but the cockatoos don’t do this to be a pain: it’s simply a product of their instincts. It’s in their nature to form an exclusive bond with another bird, or in the case of a human-imprinted bird, a human. A lot of captive-bred cockatoos are imprinted on people, since most cockatoo breeders take chicks away from their parents at ten days old (some even incubate the eggs) and hand raise them. This works well to get the babies used to humans and it generally produces extremely tame, affectionate chicks. However, the baby parrot may completely imprint on people. Baby birds learn what species they are and what species they should seek as a mate from interacting with their parents. This is why hand-fed parrots often court humans by regurgitating to them or performing courtship displays to them. Once a person is chosen as a mate, the cockatoo may attempt to drive away other people, just as a wild cockatoo would drive other suitors away from its mate during breeding season. However, birds left with their parents for several weeks (as opposed to 0-10 days) or those raised with other cockatoo siblings around are less likely to do this. Such birds are less likely to see people as potential mates.
It’s hard to predict if a cockatoo will become such a “one-person bird” because not all end up this way. Having all family members interact with the bird regularly can help prevent this behaviour. “One-person” birds can also be trained to interact with other people using operant conditioning. I’ve trained a cockatoo that initially attacked me quite brutally to go in and out of his cage on cue and become easier to handle. This requires lots of patience, and it helped that I had taken a few courses on training exotic animals.
The very aggressive cockatoo I retrained was the previously mentioned Fergus. He was hand-raised and had been passed through at least seven homes due to his very serious aggression problem. I agreed to foster him for a parrot rescue he was surrendered to. One of the first things he did was chase and attack me and give me several deep, painful bites to my hands and arms. The only reason he didn’t get my face was because I blocked it with my hands. He did, however, become quite smitten with my husband and tried to preen his arm on initial contact. So, I started doing lots of clicker training exercises with Fergus while he was in his cage and couldn’t attack me. This worked very well and he became calmer and I decided to let him out again. He quit attacking me but I still had to be careful while working with him. So, while cockatoos may have tendencies to behave in particular ways, they can be quite behaviorally flexible and can learn new things quite quickly.
I feel I should note that Fergus showed no signs of being mistreated – he was just a frustrated, mature male cockatoo. His hormones “told” him to find a mate and breed but he couldn’t in the situation he was in. As he taught me, such birds can be worked with and trained, but, as I’d like to emphasize again, it’s not easy and it requires patience. But, there is hope for people who have very aggressive cockatoos!
Perhaps some are wondering why such a bird could not just be sent to a breeder. Personally, I would not send such a bird to a breeder, even if I wasn’t fostering him for a rescue (which won’t send birds to breeders). First, I don’t think there’s a need to breed more cockatoos, since they’re the most common large parrot surrendered to rescues. At the present time, I think there are more cockatoos out there than there are good homes for them. Secondly, human-imprinted male cockatoos often end up killing any female cockatoos they may be paired with. Lesser Sulphur-crested and Philippine Red-vented Cockatoos in particular are notorious for that. I think Fergus would be very likely to kill any female he would be put with.
Why do some male cockatoos kill their mates? Some parrot species can “re-imprint” on their own species after being housed with them for some time, but that is hard for some cockatoos. Human-imprinted cockatoos may not initially recognize a conspecific as a mate. Additionally, a male who is ready to breed that is paired with a female who isn’t may become frustrated and kill her. And, to be honest, the way some of commercial parrot breeders house their birds leaves something to be desired. Now, some breeders do strive to take exemplary care of their birds, but sometimes, breeder birds are kept in bare, wire cages with a perch or two, a nest box, a water dish (or bottle) and a food bowl. Is it hard to see how an active, intelligent animal could behave abnormally in that situation?
What about the cockatoos who suddenly bite, seemingly without warning, while they are being stroked or petted? This, again, is more likely to happen with human-imprinted cockatoos. This is because stroking the bird in places other than the head and neck – and particularly under the wing and tail – can trigger sexual behaviours in cockatoos. Females may start to crouch and “shudder,” which are sexual behaviours, and males may even try to hump the person’s hand. At this point, a male cockatoo may bite out of frustration. His instincts “tell” him to mate but of course he cannot.
This does not mean that one can never pet their cockatoo. I always give Mitri head scratches, and some cockatoos can be petted all over and present no problems. However, if the bird seems to perceive the touch as sexual (and starts clucking, or shuddering), them petting him or her on areas beyond the head and neck are best avoided. Fergus had this problem, because when he would be petted under his wings, he would go into the typical cockatoo mating position over the person’s hand. So, I would only scratch him on the head to avoid giving mixed signals and provoking bites.
This may seem at odds with the common advice that cockatoos should receive a great deal of attention. How can one pay attention to a cockatoo without cuddling or stroking him? In the case of cockatoos that appear to be in breeding mode, I recommend doing fun training exercises with the animal as a means of giving him attention. A lot of cockatoos love learning new tricks just so long as the trainer uses lots of positive reinforcement and keeps the sessions light and upbeat. Mitri loves his training sessions and is a very enthusiastic learner. I also reward him with head scratches after a session, and of course, I talk to him a lot, and give him plenty of chew toys to keep him occupied.
The Most Difficult Problem
In a way, I’ve been lucky with Mitri – he’s a fully feathered, beautiful bird. However, many cockatoo owners eventually hit a rather difficult problem with their birds: feather plucking. Among all parrots, cockatoos are the most likely to barber, over preen or pull out their feathers. Some individuals even self-mutilate, tearing gaping holes in their chests. There are few bird-related sights more heart breaking to a bird lover than a Moluccan Cockatoo who has, literally, torn itself apart.
Many people assume that a cockatoo who plucks must be unloved or badly neglected. The truth is that while neglect makes it far more likely that a cockatoo will feather pluck, some birds that are loved by their owners do it as well. So, when deciding whether or not to adopt a cockatoo, consider if you could love a bird that has destroyed its plumage.
Just how common is feather plucking? I have found no formal, published reports on this, but one internet-based survey that had a few hundred replies found that 53% of cockatoos over the age of five have plucked their feathers at some point. No other population of captive animals displays such a high incidence of what is a sign of stress. Laboratory monkeys who are housed alone and used in invasive experiments come close. Ultimately, captivity is very hard on many cockatoos, and it takes a great deal of work just to keep them content.
What causes feather plucking? There are a whole host of physical problems that can cause it: infections, injuries, tumors, nutritional deficiencies, heavy metal poisoning, and so on. Most parrot-care books advise owners to take their birds to a veterinarian once it starts plucking. This is sensible advice.
However, most feather plucking in parrots has no obvious physical cause. Here’s where things can get frustrating. A few studies have linked feather plucking in parrots to a dull environment and a lack of environmental enrichment. Providing a parrot with a stimulating environment that contains many items to chew on, foraging opportunities, and room to exercise can often help feather pluckers. An enriched environment also decreases the chance of stereotypies showing up. Stereotypical behaviour includes behaviours that are repeated numerous times and have no obvious function. A zoo animal that paces along the same route repeatedly in its enclosure is displaying a stereotypy.
The other little-known fact about self-injurious and stereotypical behaviour is that it is far more common in birds and mammals that have been taken from their mothers and reared in isolation. This trend has been found in everything from primates (including humans) to chickens. Now, there is little a parrot owner can do about his parrot’s “chickhood,” but being placed in an enriched environment does sometimes reverse abnormal behaviours in animals that have experienced maternal deprivation.
Finally, despite their best efforts to prevent it, some cockatoo owners still end up with a bird who plucks. This can be very hard to deal with because plucking is not caused by one specific factor, and conditions that make one bird pluck may not bother another bird. Even if the conditions that triggered the plucking behavior in a certain bird are reversed, the bird may still pluck (or barber) its feathers out of habit. All I can say to owners of such birds is to keep on providing the bird with the best environment possible, take steps to ensure that its health is good and make sure that nothing in the environment is causing it stress and anxiety.
By now, I hope my main point has come across: cockatoos are complex creatures and are challenging to keep in captivity for the long term. So why do I do it? I actually never intended to get a cockatoo until I moved to an acreage, and I simply wanted to stick with the South American species while fostering or birdy-sitting cockatoos. But, Mitri found his way to me, he needed a home, and he’s a fascinating animal. I consider the privilege of living with him worth the expense and effort. I enjoy the challenge of keeping him busy and teaching him new things.
I researched parrots for a few years before even fostering a cockatoo, and I recommend all people considering such an animal do the same. Because there are so many unwanted cockatoos out there, I also encourage anyone who wants one (and has the time and resources to care for one properly) to adopt an unwanted cockatoo. It’s also a good idea to contact people who’ve owned cockatoos for several years to learn from them. Joining a parrot club can be a good way to do this.
That’s all I have to say, so here are some more resources that go into more detail on some of the topics I touched on above.
Training and Behaviour
Melinda Johnson 2004. Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds. Sunshine Books, Inc., Waltham, MA.
–I highly recommend this book for anyone interesting in training birds. It provides background on all the scientific principles behind animal training, and gives solid instructions on how to train birds. It also addresses how clicker training can help a parrot owner deal with problem behaviours in their parrot.
–an article from this site on how to clicker train parrots and how I used clicker training to help a very aggressive cockatoo.
-an article from this site on the importance of environmental enrichment for pet parrots.
–An article by Barbara Heidenreich on dealing with a parrot that screams excessively. Actually, her blog in general is a useful resource for parrot owners.
-A quarterly magazine for parrot owners that contains a lot of information on behaviour and training.
 “Mate Trauma.” In: Manual of Parrot Behavior, Luescher, Andrew (ed). Wiley-Blackwell
 Lumeij J. T., and Hommers, C. J. 2008. Foraging Enrichment as a treatment for pterotillomania. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 111: 85-94.
Meehan, C. C., Garner, J. P., and Mench, J. A. 2004. Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica) Developmental Psychology 44: 209-218.
Meehan, C. L., Millam, J. R., and Mench, J. A. 2003. Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science 80: 71-85.
 Latham, N. R., and Mason, G. J. 2008. Maternal Deprivation and the development of stereotypic behaviour. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 110, 84-108.
–This is an article I wrote for the November issue of Parrots magazine.
Clicker Training as a Tool to Help Manage Aggressive Parrots
I still have the scars from where Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, bit me several times during a bizarre frenzy. I agreed to foster him for a local parrot rescue and the first thing he did when I let him out of his cage was fly towards me and bite me several times on my hands and arms. In his last home, he had done the same thing to several people. How could such a parrot be rehabilitated? I certainly couldn’t force Fergus to step up nicely onto my hand and allow me to handle him. His bites were also too painful for me to simply ignore. However, I didn’t want him to live his whole life in a cage. I did have the option of having him sent to a new foster home, but I really began to wonder if there was a way I could get him to like being around people so he wouldn’t drive them away by biting. I decided to do some clicker training with him, so I could hopefully show him that interacting with me could be enjoyable. I took this approach because clicker training can be used to teach new behaviours to companion animals, it is humane, it often helps calm nervous or aggressive animals, and it can be done while an animal is in a cage. It’s the method that people who train birds or dolphins for shows at zoos use and it’s based on many scientific studies on how animals learn. So, I hoped it would help decrease Fergus’ aggressive behaviours by teaching him how to behave around people.
The Basics of Clicker Training
Just what is clicker training? Clicker training is based on the principle that behaviours which are reinforced will increase in frequency while ones that are not will decrease. Very little of a parrot’s behaviour is completely inflexible, because parrots will keep behaviours that result in consequences they find rewarding, such as those that result in their getting attention or treats. Some behaviours, like preening, are simply self-rewarding. Behaviours that always result in unpleasant or neutral consequences will decrease in frequency until they disappear.
Reinforcement timing is an important part of clicker training. The faster the reinforcement occurs after the behaviour, the faster the animal will learn to increase that behaviour. There are two basic types of reinforcement that animals can learn from: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when a positive stimulus is presented right after the behaviour. The stimulus must increase the future likelihood of the behaviour occurring; otherwise it’s not truly a reinforcer. For example, giving a sunflower seed to a bird who steps up on a hand would be positive reinforcement if it made the bird more likely to step up in the future. However, it may not be reinforcing if the bird isn’t hungry at the moment. Negative reinforcement occurs when a negative stimulus is removed when the animal presents the desired behaviour. If a bird steps up on a person’s hand to avoid being pushed on his chest, then he’s learned step-up through negative reinforcement.
Another important aspect of clicker training involves the use of conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer is one that an animal has to learn to find reinforcing, and here’s where the clicker comes in. A clicker is a small box with a button on it that makes a click when it is pressed. In clicker training, the sound of a clicker must be paired with the presentation of a treat. The treat is the primary reinforcer, because the bird naturally likes it, but a click can become reinforcing to the animal if he associates treats or other positive things with it. The clicker is sometimes referred to as a bridge, because it bridges the time between the behaviour and the delivery of the reward.
Why use a Clicker?
So, why use a clicker at all? Why not use treats to indicate to the animal what behaviours are wanted? It’s because to let an animal know that what he’s doing is correct, he must be reinforced exactly as the behaviour occurs. Often, delivering a treat or head scratch takes a bit of time, and by the time it has been delivered, the animal has done something else, such as lifting his head. A click is short and can be easy to deliver right as the behavior occurs.
Charging the Clicker
The process of getting an animal to associate a click with positive things is often called “charging” the clicker. This is very easy to do. Just click, and offer a treat immediately after the click sounds. Only a few repetitions are really needed to “charge” the clicker in this manner. I used only ten or so repetitions to charge the clicker when I started training Fergus.
Of course, a clicker does not have to be used as the conditioned reinforcer. Any short sound will do; however a clicker is often used because it is short, easy to deliver, and few other sounds in the environment sound exactly like it. Some people use words or tongue-clicks as conditioned reinforcers. Trainers of marine mammals, like dolphins, often use a loud whistle, and people have even trained fish using lights as conditioned reinforcers.
Choosing a Reinforcer
What are the best things to use as primary reinforcers? Food is the obvious one, and a good way to figure out what food treat is most reinforcing to a parrot is to place a mix of foods in a bowl and see which one the parrot picks out first. Most birds love seeds, millet, or nuts, but dried papaya, pieces of grape, single peas, or kernels of corn are often reinforcing to birds as well. Generally, a type of food that is used as a treat will make the best reinforcer. If the type of food used in training sessions is available to the bird at all times, then he may not be very motivated to work for it. However, some animals will gladly work for pellets. Since Fergus eagerly took sunflower seeds from my hand, I used those as reinforcers.
Use small, bite-sized pieces during training. That way, the parrot can quickly eat the food and he won’t become satiated as rapidly, so more repetitions of the behaviour can be performed during the session. Training sessions are best done before or a couple hours after a meal, so the bird will be motivated by the treats. A few training manuals I have seen mention food restriction as a part of training birds; however, this is not necessary to train pet parrots. Most professional trainers do not recommend food restriction for training pets because all that’s needed is good timing of the training sessions. If obesity is a concern, feed your parrot a slight bit less for breakfast and dinner.
Food is probably the most common reinforcer used in training animals, but there are other possibilities. Toys, praise, or petting can be reinforcers. However, using toys or petting can make it take a bit more time to train the bird, since they can require more time to present than a treat. They also must be taken away or stopped at some point, and some birds may perceive that as punishment, as a positive stimulus has to be taken away. These things may also not be reinforcing to each bird: if no progress is being made, then it may be time to try a new potential reinforcer. After all, something which is reinforcing to one bird may not be reinforcing to another. A gregarious bird that associates praise with positive experiences may enjoy praise but one who has received little socialization with people may not be reinforced by praise. Tailor your training strategy for your specific bird.
What about Punishment?
I never dealt harshly with Fergus or acted domineering with him. I don’t do this with any of my parrots because training is best done with a friendly attitude and by using positive reinforcement as much as possible. Animals, including people, learn faster when trying to receive rewards rather than avoid punishment. It is also more humane to teach animals using positive reinforcement. Additionally, the way most people punish animals rarely works. To be effective, a punishment must occur immediately after the unwanted behaviour. For example, some people place screaming birds back in their cages to discourage the screaming. However, by the time the bird gets to the cage, he has already been picked up and moved, and he may not associate his “banishment” with the screaming. Using punishment can have other fall outs as well. The animal could become afraid of the owner, which will make subsequent training sessions ineffective. The animal could also start to bite the owner to drive him away if he associates the owner with frightening things.
Now that I’ve said that, I must note that, technically, when a trainer withholds treats from an animal who is displaying a behaviour that the trainer wants to extinguish, he is technically “punishing” the animal. In clicker training jargon, there are two forms of punishment: positive and negative. Positive punishment should be avoided as much as possible; this involves applying a stimulus that the animal finds unpleasant. Negative punishment is different in that it involves removing something the animal finds reinforcing. Basically, in this context, “positive” refers to adding something and “negative” refers to removing something. Walking away with your treats from a parrot that screams is a form of negative punishment. Obviously, we can’t reinforce all behaviours, but during training sessions, try to set your parrot up for success: don’t give cues you don’t think he’ll respond to, and don’t hold a session when he’s tired.
The best thing about clicker training is that it can help reduce unwanted behaviours, because a trainer can reinforce behaviours that are incompatible with the unwanted behaviour. For example, teaching a bird to talk can help reduce screaming, since he can’t talk and scream at the same time. Talking can be reinforced, while screaming can be ignored. Providing chew toys can help too, since few birds can scream and chew a toy simultaneously.
A very useful first behaviour to teach a bird is to target. This is the first behaviour I taught Fergus because I could teach it to him while he was in his cage and he couldn’t attack me. “Targeting” is when an animal touches his nose or other body part to the end of an object such as a stick. With birds, this tends to involve teaching the bird to lightly touch the end of a stick with his beak. The target stick should not be similar to one of the bird’s perches, in case he tries to step up on it. I used the end of a wooden spoon as a target for Fergus to touch.
Many birds, like Fergus, will immediately poke their nose to the target stick to investigate it. If this happens, immediately click and treat the bird. If your bird hangs on to the stick, try clicking right before the bird touches the target and remove the target right after it’s been touched. Once the bird is touching the stick reliably, make him stretch a bit to touch the stick. Once that is done reliably, make him take a step, then two steps, and so on. Try having him go left or right, and practice the behaviour in many different areas, with different distractions.
I did this with Fergus, who was an unbelievably fast learner. After one week, he would touch the target even if he had to climb to the other side of the cage or to the cage floor to reach it. I initially trained him while he was caged, but two weeks after his initial attack on me, I let him out of his cage again and he didn’t try to bite me. I began target training him while he was on his cage and he continued to focus on learning. He never bit or attacked me again during the three more months I had him. I suspect he learned that interacting with me could be rewarding, so he no longer wanted to drive me away with bites. I was also sure to provide him with lots of chew toys he could focus on while he was out of his cage.
What about a bird that seems reluctant to touch the stick? I ran into this problem with Ripley, my Red-lored Amazon. Here’s where shaping (or successive approximation) can be useful. Before you shape a behaviour, define what you want the end behaviour to look like. Then, start to teach the behaviour in small parts. For shaping targeting, start by finding out how close the stick can get to the bird before he starts to show fear. Keep the stick in that area initially. Then, start to click him just for looking at the stick, then for moving towards it, and then for bumping it. Doing this, it took me about six sessions to get Ripley to reliably touch the stick. The average training sessions with my parrots last ten to fifteen minutes, but they can be longer or shorter. It all depends on how long the parrot can keep his interest, and I always try to end on a positive note.
Targeting can be very useful for teaching other behaviours, many of which are useful for basic husbandry tasks. For example, I taught Fergus to go back in his cage using his target stick. The key to this was that, for the first few times Fergus went into the cage to touch the target stick, I did not close the door. When I did finally close the door, I gave him a “jack pot,” or a bigger than normal amount of treats. Teaching Fergus to willingly go in his cage made him much easier to manage. Birds can also be trained to stand on a scale or go in a carrier through guidance with a target. I used targeting to get Fergus to stand on a scale at the veterinarian’s office.
Training Step Up
“Step-up” is the cue most parrot owners give to get their parrots to step onto their hands, and this is often the first thing that bird owners teach their birds. It is indeed a very useful thing to teach, but for very aggressive birds, I recommend doing target training first. The target then can be used to guide the bird onto a hand-held perch, hand, or arm.
Many birds who do not step up on cue end up being labeled stubborn, dominant, or spoiled. What is often the case is that the bird really hasn’t been taught what the cue “step up” really means, or he hasn’t been taught to respond to it in a variety of situations. If your bird is like this, try teaching him to respond to the cue “step up” using only positive reinforcement.
To train a step up using positive reinforcement, start at the beginning using shaping, or luring with a target or treat. To shape a step up (on a perch or hand), first reward the bird for looking at the perch, then for moving towards it, placing a foot on it, and so on. Once the bird steps up, then he may not be comfortable being moved around on the hand. Again, use small steps: reward him for allowing you to move your hand a bit with him on it, and gradually move up to you walking to different areas of the house with him on the hand.
Fading the Target
When using a target to coax a behavior out of a bird, such as using one to lure him onto a hand, be sure to start fading the use of the target as soon as possible. Otherwise, the bird will focus on the target rather than the behaviour itself. Gradually make the target smaller, and/or use the same hand gestures used with the target, but don’t use the target. Add a verbal cue, and use it consistently with and without using the target.
Many owners with talking birds enjoy teaching them to say words on cue. For example, Fergus could say “Hello!” and I wanted to teach him to say back it when I said “Hello” to him. What I had to do was capture the behaviour, or wait for it to occur on its own, and reinforce it when it happens. So, when Fergus said “Hello,” I clicked and treated him.
When I got Fergus offering “Hellos!”, and I felt I could predict when he was going to say it, I added my cue, “Hello.” To get the behaviour under stimulus control, I clicked and treated he said, “Hello,” in response to my “Hello.” Soon, he began to figure out that he got treats when he said, “Hello” when I did. This was just a cute behaviour to teach him, but in doing so, I could spend time interacting with him in a positive manner, which I felt enriched his life.
Clicker training is a very effective, humane way to train any animal. It’s also a great way to enrich a parrot’s life, as most learn to enjoy training sessions. Additionally, it can be used to effectively communicate with your pet and let him know what behaviours you would like him to do. I taught Fergus how to act around me and that he didn’t need to drive me away by biting. His story here winds up with a happy ending: He learned to enjoy out of cage time and he was eventually adopted by a kind couple who were also interested in clicker training. This meant I could continue to foster birds, and the bird that I’m fostering at the time of writing is yet another teenaged male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo named Mitri. He’s also enjoying his clicker training lessons.
Commonly Asked Questions about Clicker Training.
Q: Isn’t this bribery?
A: No, because the reward generally comes after the behaviour and it is not shown to the animal before hand, unless it is being used as a lure.
Q. Do I have to keep treats with me all the time?
A: No. You also do not need to use the clicker once the behaviour you want is performed on cue. The clicker is primarily used during the learning stages. However, be sure to periodically offer treats for behaviours like stepping up, and always offer reinforcement after using a click.
Q: I have lots of birds. Will they know who the click is for?
A: Most likely. Many animals can figure out that the click is for them only if the trainer is paying attention to them.
Q: What if my bird imitates the clicker?
A: Don’t worry about it. Just keep going and ignore it.
Q: I can’t juggle the treats, the target stick and the clicker. Help!
A: I got around this by holding the clicker and the target stick in one hand, with the clicker in my palm. One could also forgo the clicker and use a word as a bridge. Just be consistent with which word you use and the tone it is said in.
Ellen K. Cook, DVM. 2006. How Positive Reinforcement Saved a Cockatoo’s Life. Good Bird Magazine. Vol 3, No. 1. (This article gave me hope that clicker training could help Fergus, as the author used this approach with her Moluccan Cockatoo that often bit her).
Barbara Heidenreich. 2005. The Parrot Problem Solver: Finding Solutions to Aggressive Behavior. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ.
Melinda Johnson. 2006. Clicker Training for Birds (Getting Started). Sunshine Books, Inc. – Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Weston, MA.
Karen Pryor. 1999. Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. (Revised Edition) Bantam Books, New York, NY. (This book is not specifically about dogs or birds, but is about the general principles behind clicker training).
Here’s a news story about two Hyacinth Macaws that were seized in a raid on a residence in Calgary. The pair then wound up at the Calgary Zoo. A few other macaws seized were sent to the World Parrot Refuge on Vancouver Island.
The photo below is of a hyacinth I took at the Minnesota Zoo. The bird was a part of the free flight program there. I’m also probably going to be able to see wild hyacinths this summer, as I’m heading to central Brazil for a conference. There are national parks nearby that have large populations of them.
Rescued rare macaws settle in at new zoo home
Valerie Berenyi, Calgary Herald
Published: Saturday, November 29, 2008
Three-year-old adoptees Buddy and Chipper are settling nicely into their new home.
There’s the normal amount of squawking to be expected from youngsters, but they’re otherwise healthy, cracking nuts and preening their cobalt-blue feathers.
The two rare Hyacinth macaws are the newest additions to the Calgary Zoo.
Buddy and Chipper, both males, were transferred Wednesday from the Calgary Humane Society. The rare birds were surrendered to the society when Calgary police seized them in an unrelated raid on a residence, said Lindsay Jones, communications manager for the society.
“They were healthy, but they were pretty stressed out,” said Jones.
Staff at the humane society cared for the macaws, helping them regain comfort in the new surroundings for about a month before transferring them to the zoo.
“They have quite the personalities to them. They’re very intelligent and they pick up on things very quickly,” said Jones. “We had a staff member walk past them and they wanted attention, so one reached out a grabbed a pen from her back pocket. She had trade them for a nut to get her pen back.”
Hyacinth macaws are the largest parrots in the world. Native to central and eastern South America, they’re increasingly endangered due to habitat loss and the pet trade. Jones said the birds’ value ranges from $8,000 to $20,000 each.
The humane society discourages people from keeping exotic birds as pets. Parrots require a special diet, constant social interaction and can live to be 60.
Dr. Doug Whiteside, a zoo veterinarians, said the birds were born in captivity — one in Ontario, the other in Newfoundland — according to metal bands on their legs.