Article Archives

From A Recent Conversation About Flying Parrots

DSC_5792No place we keep parrots is 100% safe. Actually it seems that accidents in the aviary were more dangerous than flying freely. But it was mainly the things we were not expecting that caused us the most problems flying outdoors or in the aviary. The things we did expect were not the problems we expected them to be. These are not nearly the easily answered questions people think they are. In fact, people who have little or no experience flying parrots have all kinds of fears that are not justified. No one can blame them, that is human nature, to make guesses about what might be dangrous. Flying parrots outdoors does have its dangers, but they are not what most peopel think they are. It is the unexpected that usually gets us, just like in the rest of life.

I understand the concern and fears related to flying parrots. I also understand the question people have as to WHY fly parrots at all? I also understand the concern that regular people cannot learn this and that only professionals should do it. But again, I must point you to hard evidence. I have had great success teaching students through my classes where we discussed the theory and science I rely on and then spend time working with them as they work with their young birds. These classes result in their birds skillfully flying complex locations. More than one of our students went a few weeks later and bought another bird and trained it all by themselves. In one case it was a HY that he bought. I have photos of this bird flying level 5 locations, from the top of 1000 ft cliff where there is no recovery possible if the bird does not come back on its own. The point being these skills are easily learnable with the right instruction. Most professional bird trainers do NOT understand how to teach these skills, mainly because they do not fly birds this way or know how.

Once you have experienced a bird this way, it is very hard to go back to keeping it mostly in a cage, even large cage. I built a 30 ft x 100 ft aviary and it was not enough. I still needed to let them fly outdoors. The birds are ALIVE when flying and everything about them is expanded and celebrated in ways I have never experienced before. It is like owning a dirt bike motorcycle and keeping it in the living room, never taking it out to the track. The person that actually rides that motorcycle on the track has an appreciation and understanding of the motorcycle that the person who keeps his in the living room will never understand. And all his fears will remain grounded in theories he lacks experience to validate. But unlike the motorcycle, which could not care one way or the other, our birds LOVE being loose every day, even though they sometimes are chased by hawks. They get to LIVE as birds, instead of living as a hamster. They are designed through natural selection to be incredible atheletes of the sky and if you are around them very long as flyers it shows and is obvious how much they enjoy this aspect of their lives. Once you experience this there is no going back. The level of understanding that comes from being around them as flyers will change how you view parrots and training. The approach I use is simple and easily learned by anyone. Not all parrots though can be trained this way. Instead of working with the birds we have, we select the best possible bird for achieving success and then we structure EVERYTHING to insure success. The process is fun and highly rewarding. And then once the bird is trained, the relationship and activities that you both have available are unequaled.

The reason not all birds can be trained this way is because the way nature trains flight requires many things to be learned during certain stages of development. Once that stage of development is passed, it is much more difficult to learn those things, sometimes even impossible. As has been noted, there are dangers involved with flying parrots outdoors. So for me, I prefer to train only the student that has every advantage and thus the greatest chances of success. Yes I can train older birds but the risks are much higher. And if I am teaching a new trainer, the last thing I want is a difficult bird for them to work with. I want the new trainer to have the easiest bird possible. It is far safer for both of them this way.

In the wild the young parrot would learn to fly through the trees at full speed without poking its eyes out with any of those tiny branches, it would learn to fly with a flock and to communicate with its parents and other birds in the area, it would learn to use local land marks to navigate back to the nest area or to water sites. All this is learned BEFORE weaning. The bird cannot get to the food to learn to feed itself if it cannot do all those things. Think about the mental stimulation going on in that little head during those processes, the neural activity involved. Then think about the mental activity of the baby bird that grows up weaned by most breeders. The breeder is insuring the physical body is healthy but what about the mental development? This is a very very important stage of development and the brain needs that level of stimulation to properly develop. Neurobiology is making this fact more and more clear all the time now. Aviculture is still in the dark ages when it comes to the way parrots are raised. Someday maybe people will realize how important it is for these birds to have their mental needs also tended when raising baby birds.

Parrot Chronicles Article

Hawk Identification

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 25 February 2010.

Identifying hawk species can be tricky. It takes study and practice. I've included a link below to a good educational hawk identification presentation. It is a 42 Mb Power Point presentation so can take awhile to download. If you are like me, you will need to review this several times and fairly often. HMANA ID Presentation Download Link For more information here are some good books for learning to identify hawks: Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight by Jerry Liguori and David Sibley Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors by Sibley, Sutton, Dunne A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors by Brian Wheeler and William Clark
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Click & Treat

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 17 February 2010

The question is often asked "Is it important to offer a treat every time you click a behavior?" Yes it is important to follow each click with a treat. The clicker only gains its value as a training tool due to the association the animal makes with the sound of the clicker and the following treat. Fail to deliver the treat and the effectiveness of the clicker will diminish. This is different than choosing not to click a correct behavior and thus not reinforcing that correct behavior - see also the article on Variable Reinforcement. The click serves three main functions:
  1. The click identifies the exact moment the animal did something that earned it a goody.
  2. The click promises a goody has been earned and is on its way.
  3. The click signals the end of the behavior.
A click is a bridging signal and it means something very specific to the animal, otherwise it is of no value. That is the concept behind what is termed a secondary reinforcer (or conditioned reinforcer). The secondary reinforcer gains its reinforcing value from being paired with another reinforcer - either a primary reinforcer (unconditioned reinforcer) or another secondary reinforcer. The primary reinforcer needs no pairing with another reinforcer to have reinforcement effect. If you use the secondary reinforcer and fail to offer the following reinforcement, then essentially you are undoing the pairing and at some point your secondary reinforcer will have no value any more or at minimum will have weakened value. It may cease to function as a secondary reinforcer. Failing to follow the click with the promised treat will diminish the value and effect of the click as a training tool. I was just going over some material I have from Marion and Bob Bailey and noticed the following. Due to past discussion I have had with other trainers of what qualifies a reinforcer as a primary or secondary reinforcer I am posting this quote. Some have previously insisted that social interests and play interests are secondary reinforcers because they are 'learned'. I have disagreed on the grounds that the fact that they are learned is not part of the definition, and that the only consideration that really matters as per the definition is the inherent reinforcement value and not needing to be paired with another reinforcer to gain reinforcement effect. Notice here that they specifically and very clearly include play and social activities as primary reinforcers. Again the defining issue is NOT about being "learned", it is about having reinforcement value without associative pairing with some other reinforcing stimuli. "The behaviors we have been examining here are typical of what goes on in the case of the so called primary reinforcing stimuli. These are stimuli that are usually associated with basic biological necessities such as food, drink, a mate, the young, body comforts. Primary reinforcers also include other natural, built-in, often preferred behavior patterns that the organism engages in spontaneously. These include social contacts and social activities, play and "exercise" behaviors, exploration. We may also identify here the primary punishing stimuli, or primary aversive stimuli. These are punishers or aversive stimuli that are naturally painful or unpleasant -- natural objects or events that the organism in question would tend to avoid if possible." ~ Marion and Bob Bailey. Marion Bailey not only had her Ph.D. but also had the experience of being one of B.F. Skinners grad students and she also had the experience of training thousands of animals through her company Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE). Her scientifically reviewed paper, Misbehavior of Organisms, written by Marion and Keller Breland (her first husband), had significant impact on the world of operant conditioning. Bob Bailey, as the general manager of ABE, also knew B. F. Skinner and trained thousands of animals. In my personal opinion there is currently no one with equivalent credentials on behavioral subjects than Marion and Bob Bailey. Misbehavior of Organisms is a short paper that is well worth the time it takes to read it. I would highly encourage everyone interested in animal training to become familiar with this paper. It emphasizes that operant conditioning is only part of the behavior equation, with evolution and instinct being critically important. PRIMARY REINFORCERS Reinforcers that are not dependent on their association with other reinforcers. (Compare secondary reinforcers.) I would prefer the term 'Non-Dependent Reinforcer' over primary reinforcer but this is not a commonly used term. SECONDARY REINFORCERS Reinforcers that are dependent on their association with other reinforcers. Also called conditioned reinforcers. (Compare primary reinforcers.) CONDITIONED REINFORCER (S,) A stimulus that initially has no reinforcing properties but, through occurring simultaneously with unconditioned or strongly conditioned reinforcers, acquires reinforcing properties. Also called secondary reinforcer. I would prefer the term 'Dependent Reinforcer' over secondary reinforcer but this is not a commonly used term. For more on how to actually use positive reinforcement in training, read the articles Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training and Target Training.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Selecting The Species To Fly

Selecting The Species of Parrot To Fly

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 20 November 2010

Not all species of parrots are equally good flight candidates. Some have physical features that make them better (large, loud and colorful) and some have mental features that make them better (highly social with strong roosting site fidelity). No doubt other species that don't have these qualities can also be flown, but I would consider them only for trainers with some experience. In my mind, Greys, Senegals Cockatiels fit into that class. That is why I have not spent money to buy and fly an African Grey. If someone gave me a baby Grey I would of course fly it. But I won't spend money to buy a bird that does not match my criteria for best flight candidate. There are two main factors I consider when selecting a parrot species to fly outdoors: recoverability and hawk avoidance. Without any doubt a large, loud and colorful bird is easier to find in a tree or see or hear at a distance. That makes large macaws and large cockatoos good flyers from a recovery stand point. The smaller parrots are more susceptible to hawk attack simply because there are more hawks around that eat smaller birds. Larger birds like macaws have fewer hawk species to worry about than does smaller or medium size bird like a conure or a grey. To fly these smaller birds we prefer to fly them in flocks for greater protection from hawks. A Freeflight list member wrote: "I am amazed at how close he stays to me when flying. He never goes more than 100 yards out or 15 yards up even if he has miles of space. I imagine this is because Sun Conures are flock birds and don't feel comfortable away from the trusted crowd. I have several questions:' Your observations match ours in that sun conures do not appear to like to fly solo out in the open. If you think of them as little yellow targets, then it would make sense with such bright coloration, they must have some other method of protecting themselves. Such an alternate method may be numbers. Ours seem to be quite happy to fly out in the open, leaving the trees in a flash to fly out over the valley as a gyrating mass of up to 22 birds (11 of our flock are sun conures). With more birds, you have more eyes watching for predators, means earlier detection. Early detection is the key to evading a hunter that relies on surprise to catch its prey. Once up to speed and out in the open sky, most prey birds can actually out fly the larger predator birds. But that takes peak physical fitness and adequate warning to reach top speed prior to the predator making contact. Perches with good height and adequate space to take off in all directions is one element. But having a group of equally alert buddies is probably the most helpful. "What birds do best?" I am not quite sure what you are asking here. Do best at what? If you mean do best at being outdoor flyers, I would say we really do not have enough data to make such comparisons. But we can report what birds thus far have seemed to do well and which have shown some potential problems. Macaws, and conures seem to respond eagerly to flight training with positive reinforcement methods (as should most species) including from beginner level trainers. Large birds seem to do better against predators when flown solo. Colorful birds seem to be easier to spot in trees. Loud birds seem easier locate if lost. My usual recommendation for which species of parrot to select as a pet freeflyer involves large, loud and colorful birds since they are generally the safest to fly and the easiest to locate if things go wrong. Based on this criteria and our experience so far, large macaws and cockatoos are probably the most suited as pet flyers. "Which are most difficult?" I personally have found Indian Ringnecks to be less social and thus do not respond to social interaction as well as most other species of parrots. This means my reliance on social interaction is not effective as a training tool for young ringnecks. Makes flight training ringnecks dependent on weight management, which I don't like using. African Greys seem to be like really intelligent cats, smart but kind of aloof. Training dogs can be easier than training cats so maybe that would mean greys are not the easiest birds to train. Some will probably disagree or dislike this idea. Greys also look a lot like pigeons so some raptors may more easily "recognize" them as prey they are willing to go after. Senegals are reported to have uncontrolled spook responses, though that has not been my experience with the Senegals I have raised. It may have something to do with how they are raised, I really do not know. But Senegals are small parrots that are not very noisy, that makes them difficult to locate. Cockatiels are not large, loud or colorful, making them difficult to locate. They also are somewhat nomadic in the wild which means they may tend to wander as flighted pets. They are also "n" strategy survivors, rather than "k" strategy survivors. This means that the species relies more heavily on having lots of babies rather than being smart enough to deal with predators. "K" strategy birds rely more on intelligence and have few babies. This means that "n" strategy birds are probably not the smartest birds in the sky. That makes cockatiels and other "n" strategy birds less ideal flight students than other species of parrots. I have known people who flew african greys, senegals and cockatiels so it is possible, just not ideal. These are birds I would recommend only for people with experience flying parrots already. "Is there much difference in training methods between species?" Most of our training methods are based on the principles of operant conditioning and developmental sequences. This means that for the most part the training is very similar between species. There are some differences between species so a study of ethology can help understand how a particular species might respond differently than another species. There are other factors though that can have far greater impact on the behavior of your bird than the species selection. Issues like the age it was first exposed to flying, its social interests in people or other birds, its comfort in facing new situations or locations, or how much of its natural developmental processes were completed, to name just a few. "Has anyone trained a parakeet to free fly outdoors?" I don't think we have any one on the list currently but there are records of people who have. The Duke of Bedford is one such person; he flew a large flock. Anyone wanting to increase the safety of flying their current larger parrot outdoors but does not feel they have room for several more large birds might consider training up a flock of budgies to act as additional eyes. We are doing it with sun conures but I don't see any reason it would not also work with budgies. There is of course the risk of sharp shined hawks to consider and each person would have to weigh the benefits and risks for themselves.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Clicker Training

Clicker Training

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 31 January 2010

Success training parrots to fly out doors depends largely on your ability to set the animal up to change its behavior. Before attempting to flight train a parrot outdoors I recommend you master basic training skills. There are several articles on this site about clicker training. I also recommend you watch this short video by Behavior Works. A Freeflight member wrote: "I went about ten feet from him and with my hand held out clicked two times, he kind of looked at me funny like i was crazy but when I clicked twice again he went to his perch, so i placed him back on the cage and tried again, same reaction." This demonstrates the beauty of using positive reinforcement strategies for training, you can do it all manner of wrong and still get good results. I think it is great that this person and his birds have made such progress. But let me show you how you can use the clicker to get better results. Lets start out by discussing how a clicker is normally used and some of the theory behind this. Usually we use a clicker to do three things: 1) mark the exact moment the bird did something we want, 2) promise that a reinforcer (desired treat) is on its way, 3) mark the end of the behavior. Normally we do NOT use the clicker as a cueing signal, as you are doing. The idea here is that a bridging signal (the click) is a way to tell the animal what it just did that has earned it something it wants. This way it can more easily and more accurately understand WHY it is getting the goody. What did it just do that earned it the goody? What ever it was doing at the moment the clicker sounded is what earned that goody. This is very valuable information and not always that easy to communicate to an animal with accuracy without such a bridging signal. As such it is also important to use the clicker with great accuracy on your part, making sure to click at exactly the moment the desired behavior occurs. And in long duration behaviors, it also tells the animal that it is finished with this repetition. With continued use, the click may become associated with good things enough that the sound itself becomes a secondary reinforcer. Some animals will work just to earn the attaboy sound of the click and may even ignore the treats themselves. I would not expect this but it is interesting to observe when it happens. Like with any number of visual or audible signals you could use the clicker as a cueing signal but then what will you use as the bridging signal that has the same precision and uniqueness as the clicker? I do not recommend using a clicker as a cueing signal. I think it is far more valuable as a bridging signal. The real value of the clicker is that it is very precise due its very short crisp sound and it is unique. You are very unlikely to accidentally tell the bird that it just did something right and that a goody is coming while you were talking on the phone and commented how you have a "good bird" and then fail to follow through with your "promised" goody - some people advocate using "good bird" as a bridging signal. The only time the bird hears a clicker is when you actually intend to use it. Even if you are using it with another animal, the bird can still see that every time the click is sounded someone gets a goody. With a clicker you can very accurately mark a quick or very brief behavior so the animal knows it was that very tiny bit of behavior that earned it the coming goody. This is highly useful since many behaviors must be trained as a series of tiny steps or approximations. This is called shaping the behavior. Essentially this means that the end behavior is trained by starting with whatever level of behavior is available and then reinforcing slight improvements toward the goal behavior. To do this you break the behavior down into the smallest parts you can and then train each part before moving on to the next part. To start this we usually begin by "charging the clicker" as some people call it. Which simply means we will help the bird associate the clicker with receiving the goody. Essentially we click and then immediately hand the bird the treat. Do this a few times and usually if you click, delay a moment and watch the bird, it will look to the hand that delivers the treat. This means the bird has made the connection that when it hears the click it expects to get a treat. Now we can start using it to identify actual behavior. ok i wasn't quite sure what everyone was talking about as far bridges go, but this post made it a bit clearer lol, so in some way i am also using a bridge and did not know it, because first thing in the morning i open all of our flocks cages (5) and when i go to the kitchen can hear them all playing around on the cages, louie will start calling and chattering up a storm and his favorite things to say are louie bird, and louies a good bird, and then starts his whistles to call the dogs, but he won't leave his cage until i say louie come to dad, and immediately you hear the beat of his wings and into the kitchen he comes, so is this good or am i still doing things wrong This is not doing anything "wrong" but it is not using a bridging signal either. Are you telling the animal it just that moment did the very behavior that you want to give it a goody for? And is there a delay between when that is communicated to the bird and when it receives the goody? In the above description the answer is no you are not doing either. Whenever you reinforce a behavior it is important that the animal can make the contingent connection between doing the behavior and getting the reinforcement goody. Any delay between the behavior and getting the goody will only diminish this association. It is one thing to stand in front of the bird and immediately hand the bird a goody when it does the correct behavior. The bird can easily determine "Hey if I do this, then cool, I get the goody." But if you are on the other side of the room and the bird does the behavior, you jump up from your chair, walk across the room and as you hand the goody to the bird, it is scratching the feathers on its butt. It now thinks "Cool, if I scratch the feathers on my butt, I get goodies." Which of course is not what you really meant. So by using a bridging signal, if the bird does the behavior, immediately you click, get up from your chair, take your time walking over to get the goody and hand it to the bird. And even if it was scratching the feathers on its butt at the moment you hand it the goody, it still knows that it got the goody because of what it was doing at the moment you sounded the click, not what it was doing at the moment it received the goody. Now for this to work, we must first teach the bird how the clicker is used to mark a behavior. This is usually done with training targeting, touch the end of a stick. Click here to read more about Targeting and using the clicker to train a behavior. Chris - I do have to disagree with your point below.  About saying "good bird" while on the phone and your bird getting confused because it didn't get a treat. I think they can tell the difference between when we're just talking, and when we're interacting with them. That being said, I still try to minimize when I use a possible bridge if I'm not actually bridging them for anything. The concept of a bridging signal is that the signal marks a moment in time and then points to a coming reinforcement. This again is another associative pairing process and is often considered a secondary reinforcer. If you use that bridging signal in a non bridging manner, then you are weakening that associative pairing. How much this will interfere with your training will depend largely on how much you continue to strengthen the pairing through correct usage. To use the best form and have the greatest effect, you would simply select a bridging signal that is used as a bridging signal only, and it would not be used at any other time or function. The same is true for selecting a signal that is precise. Yes you can get away with all manner of bridging signals, including "good bird", but if you really want to use good form and get the most from your training, you will select a bridging signal that is specifically selected to produce a crisp short signal. Of course this is supporting a clicker as a general training tool. There are situations where a clicker would be a very poor bridging signal and some other signal would work far better - like try to train during a rock concert or at a distance of 1/4 mile from the student. The most common reason given for not using a clicker is people wanting to keep both hands free. To me this is a bit like arguing that a calculator is too complicated to be useful for doing math. Bob Bailey says training is a mechanical skill and then he sets to teaching you how to use your hands with a clicker in it. I agree of course - how can you disagree with Bob Bailey on anything related to training 🙂 ? If a magician were to take the stance that many other people take against learning to use his hands, most card tricks would never get performed because it is simply too difficult to do with the hands. Sometimes the benefits are worth the effort and time spent doing a little practice to develop one's coordination to learn to do something you could not easily do before. Today I can easily use both my hands to handle and train one or two birds, while holding a target stick, clicker and treats all at the same time. I do it all the time and give no thought to it. I guess it all comes down to what is acceptable for each person. Early on I was told that a clicker gives me a significant clarity and accuracy advantage when training. And I can say I have seen this many many times with even taming a new hand shy bird. I have learned how to use that clicker both from a theoretical stand point and from a physical and mechanical stand point. So for me personally, there is simply no question about if a clicker is a great training tool. Everyone else is free to like it or dislike it as you like. For more on how to actually use positive reinforcement in training, read the articles Clicker & Treat and Positive Reinforcement and Target Training.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Positive or Negative Reinforcement

Terms of the Four Quadrants Identified

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 5 January 2010

Increase Behavior Decrease Behavior
Add Something Positive Reinforcement Positive Punishment
Remove Something Negative Reinforcement Negative Punishment
A Freeflight list member wrote: "Since you mentioned the term "negative punishment". I wonder, Is there anything like "positive punishment"? I Thought all punishment were negative by their very nature." There is both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and positive punishment and negative punishment. Remember that these terms are scientifically defined, not just defined by common use. In Operant Conditioning terminology some words have very specific scientific meanings that differ from common public use and can take some getting accustomed to in order to use them correctly. Operant Conditioning is a leading field in the scientific study of learning and behavior. The main concept is that all living creatures repeat behaviors that have rewarding consequences for them and avoid behaviors that make bad things happen to them. In common usage we think of consequences as coming in two forms, rewarding and aversive but in the scientific definition consequences increase or decrease the target behavior. The active elements of a consequence are either added or removed. Reinforce means the consequence causes the target behavior to increase, be maintained or more likely to happen again in the future. Punishment means the consequence causes the target behavior to reduce or be less likely to happen again in the future. Positive (+) is to add something. Negative (-) is to remove something. Note: the "something" is a consequence immediately following the behavior that results in increased or decreased future behavior. So: Positive Reinforcement (R+) is to add a reinforcer that results in increasing the behavior. Generally this means the bird's behavior causes desired things to be added so the behavior increases. Negative Reinforcement (R-) is to remove a reinforcer that results in increasing the behavior. Generally this means the bird's behavior causes undesired things to be removed so the behavior increases. Positive Punishment (P+) is to add a punisher that results in reduction of the behavior. Generally this means the bird's behavior causes undesired things to be added so the behavior decreases. Negative Punishment (P-) is to remove a punisher that results in reduction of the behavior. Generally this means the bird's behavior causes desired things to be removed so the behavior decreases. Note: From a strict technical sense the punisher or reinforcer are not qualified as good or bad, desired or undesired. They are defined purely by their effect on the future behavior. Generally though reinforcers are desired and punishers are to be avoided. Defining the target behavior is critical in determining which quadrant is involved. It is currently popular to limit training to Positive Reinforcement (R+) but it should be remembered that each of these four quadrants exist in real life experiences. Each quadrant does in fact have actual training value, even if only in very limited and specific circumstances. And though we focus most of our training efforts in the positive reinforcement quadrant doing so can at the same time be viewed as using negative punishment when withholding the treat for poor performance. Things can start getting a little confusing if you think of withholding the treat as diminishing the specific poor behavior (negative punishment) and at the same time withholding the treat increases the specific good behavior (negative reinforcement). Often there is another cross quadrant simultaneously in play. For more on how to actually use positive reinforcement in training, read the articles Click & Treat and Clicker Training and Target Training.

Parrots: more than pets, friends for life.

Chris Biro

AFA convention “Importance of Flight and the Freeflying Lifestyle”