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The Proof Is In The Pudding

The proof is in the pudding…about positive reinforcement training, that is. Sometimes I don’t even like to use the word ‘training’ when I’m talking about the way I interact with birds because some people tend to think ‘training’ means to teach them tricks or ‘training’ means teaching a bird to fly to you when requested. Yes, both of these examples are training but training happens each time anyone of us interacts with our bird, our dog, or our horse. We are all trainers and the importance lies in exactly what we are training the animal to do. We unknowingly train our birds to bite harder and scream louder while un-training the desirable behaviors like perching quietly and playing independently. There is always a place to begin turning these behaviors around because I know you can always teach an old dog new tricks. I know it.

A lot of times when I talk about training I will use the terms ‘positive reinforcement interactions’ because it takes the weight off the person doing the listening. By this I mean they don’t have to look at the word ‘training’ in the sense it is often perceived as I mentioned above. Positive reinforcement interactions or training is not a fad…it is a way of living and the best advice I can give anyone are a few. It takes practice and not necessarily much to see the strong results. Learn from your mistakes, is another piece of advice I give. I make mistakes every day. I’ll see a bird reacting in a way I did not see coming or find myself thinking “I pushed the bird too far’. So learn from it. Take a step back and think “What brought that on? How can I approach this differently next time?” This is also why I stay as far away from generalizing species of birds as I possibly can. By this I mean generalizing in a sense of saying “Start with a small bird or Greys are phobic.” I’ve seen dynamite come in small packages and I’ve seen the biggest of birds be the biggest chickens. See, I just generalized the chicken. 😉

Each bird is its own individual and instead of looking at “What kind of bird is it?” I say “What behavior is it that I want to work with or that I’m dealing with?” It doesn’t matter the species of bird, actually it doesn’t even matter the animal. I don’t want a parrot lunging at me any more than I want to hear an owl clack its beak at the sight of me. If I see or hear either of these happening, I always respect what the bird is saying. That lunge and that clack is a form of communication for that bird and if I ignore it, I’m interacting or training that bird to learn that it either needs to move to the next stronger line of communication like flying away from me to biting, or I’m interacting with it or training it to learn that no matter what it tries to tell me, I’m not going to listen. This approach is not going to do me any favors in trying to develop a relationship or line of trust with the bird.

I train the birds at Nature’s Nursery, a wildlife rehabilitation center near me. One day I walked in and their program pigeon and blue jay flew to me. Francis the pigeon landed on my hand and Pete the blue jay landed on my shoulder. I didn’t call them and I didn’t knowingly cue them. All I did was walk in. Someone turned and looked at me and said “Look at you. You’re just like Snow White. All the birds just come to you.” Do you know how many times I’ve thought about this statement? What that statement told me was that particular person hasn’t yet experienced the true strength in positive reinforcement interaction or training yet. I looked at her as I raised an eyebrow and thought “Hmm, should she be my next training subject?”

The reason this has gone through my mind so many times over the past year is because it lets me know how many people out there truly don’t know of the strength in this type of interaction with animals or people. (*see note at end of paragraph) These two birds didn’t just fly to me because I have this magical aura and a long blue dress and a crown. They flew to me because I’m the deliverer of positive reinforcers. I’m the communicator that respects their body language and has learned to read them and backs off when the bird tells me to back off. I try my hardest to never push a bird to the point where it has to tell me to back off with its body language. If I do, I call that a mistake and I learn from it. *To read an additional blog post I wrote in working with reinforcers with animals and with people click this link: Unknowingly Punishing Desired Behavior 

Those birds flew to me because I reward desired behaviors. I quickly identify reinforcers and then reserve them for times in which I need or want to deliver for a behavior I want to see maintain or increase. I’ve been accused of bribing birds. Hmm, when this was directed my way I thought “What did I not explain or communicate clearly to this person?” It was an opportunity I took from which to learn. We all move towards things we want or desire and away from things we don’t want or outcomes we don’t desire. The things we move towards we do so because we are reinforced for doing so. Sometimes we even move towards things we don’t like because the reinforcer outweighs the negative feelings we are given when we move towards them. For example… work. Someone who hates their job continues to go because there is a reinforcer….the paycheck. See where I’m going? Try to think of any behavior you exhibit and have their not be a reinforcer for doing it. We give behaviors because there is some type of outcome we want. That is why I always positively reinforce the behaviors of birds, other animals, and people that I want to see maintain or increase. When one of my birds or a bird in which I’m interacting with exhibits a behavior I want to see maintain or increase, you bet your bippy I’m going to reinforce that one. If it earned them a positive reinforcer (reward) this time, chances are they will see if it works again. It is my job as this type of trainer to identify the reinforcer and then use it or them sparingly to keep that behavior strong. Francis the pigeon flew to my hand so I rubbed her beak. That is one of her reinforcers. Pete flew to my shoulder so I turned my head and talked to him in a way I always talk to him. Attention from me is a reinforcer for Pete. Also, the bird is always the one that decides the reinforcer. Never us. Stick that one in your thinking cap for tonight when you are trying to sleep. 😉

I am working with a bird now that I have no clue of its history. Not a clue. I do know that the first time I raised my hand to it to step up it growled at the proximity and probably pace at which I raised my hand. Mistake…I learned from it. I should have known better than to approach an animal in the pace I did and if someone was watching me, they probably would not have thought I moved fast at all. When this bird growled at me, that could be a sign that the history and pairing of a human hand to this bird has not always been a good one. Not anymore and not in my presence. When I began working with this bird the only obvious reinforcer I could identify was food. So, in the beginning I continually paired food with the proximity of my hand. Yes, I hand delivered most of its food the first day or two. Whatever food I left behind for the bird was nutritious, but not necessarily all of the bird’s favored pieces. Those pieces remained in my hand.

I fed the bird small morsels from between my finger tips. Pairing or Conditioning….I was pairing my hand and my proximity with this bird’s obvious and highly valued reinforcers. For the first day, my only physical interaction with the bird was walking up to it and handing it a morsel of food from between my fingers. Yep, that’s a lot of getting up and feeding. The bird’s reaction to seeing me getting up became a cue that its favored food was coming. This was an enormous reinforcer for me. “It’s working and quickly!” I thought. The next day I was delivering food in an open flat hand. It saw more of my hand and continual pairing of pairing me with what the bird desires. I’m just the deliverer of the desired at this point. Soon me, and any interaction with me, I hope will be a reinforcer for this bird. That’s how it works out the majority of the time anyway.

My goal was to be able to walk up and offer my flat hand, open facing down, asking the bird to step, and have the bird step onto my hand. Through consistent pairing of rewarding behaviors I wanted to see increase, this goal was accomplished the next day. Note, that each bird is its own individual and this may take shorter or longer, pending on the bird. A few days later I felt confident in being able well read the body language of the bird when it was getting ready to fly somewhere so I started offering my hand as a form of transportation for the bird. By observing the bird for a few days, I could tell the things it liked to fly to so when I took it to where I thought it wanted to go, that line of communication and understanding became a reinforcer for the bird to continue stepping on my hand. Guess what? No food involved here! Delivering the bird to its desired destination was the reinforcer and it is strong because I consistently paired myself with it. I can now walk by this bird in close proximity at a normal pace without hearing a growl. The bird is now scale trained, flies to areas on cue, steps on my hand 98% of the time when asked (I made a mistake the other day or it would be 100%, I learned from it), and is being recall trained with great success.

In closing, I want to relate quickly to how positive reinforcement interaction or training works on all or most living things. I have yet to meet a bird that did or does something for no reason. Over the past few days my neighbor has hired a man to work on the outside of her house and her lawn. She just left an hour ago. She told him she was leaving and he said he would stay until five and he would see her tomorrow. The progress in these last two hours of the day may very well be her reinforcer for continuing to hire him to come back. The reason I say “may” is because tomorrow isn’t here yet. I’m assuming he will continue to earn her trust in him by showing that work is being done while she is not home. His reinforcer for coming back tomorrow will be his paycheck.

The worker enjoys watching me train birds in my back yard everyday and he often makes one comment a day on my interaction with the birds. Today he told me “It’s really neat to see how you interact with the birds and how they are always eager to do what you ask.” “Yea?” I said as I put my hands on my hips while turning and observing these lovely creatures all perched around the aviary. “It’s not magic.” I said as I turned back to him and smiled. No need for a crown and blue dress in this show.

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  1. shelley
    September 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Thanks Lara….The more I read your stuff..the more I “get it”…Always enlightening to read your posts. Thanks also for reminding me of how to better interact with Boo…seeing his behaviors for just what they are..able to be encouraged or discouraged..

  2. poodle of doom
    October 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Great post. Glad I found this blog. I have two birds and am considering number 3 and info like this is so valuable. I wish I had this stuff when I had my first birds but there was no internet back then.

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