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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

The Difference Age Makes

Why Age Can Be A Important Issue For Training Flight

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008.

Here are the main factors that make training a bird at the natural age of fledgling (prior to weaning) to your advantage:
  1. Highest Learning Rate
  2. Peak Physical Fitness
  3. Parental Bond
  4. Motivated to Fly
  5. Lack of Fear
  6. Fewer bad habits
Highest Learning Rate - As a baby parrot grows and develops it reaches a point in its life when nature has it ready to learn to fly. We call this time Fledging. At the natural age of fledging there are various physical and mental aspects to its life that are especially in its favor for quickly learning to fly. A bird that learns slowly in the wild is at greater risk of predation since most predators are keen to locate individuals that display signs of being handicapped by decreased skill or ability; usually the very young, the old or the ill. The fledgling aged birds that I have flight trained learned the vast majority of their flight skills in just a few days or weeks, as compared to many adult birds that take months or years to learn a similar set of skills. Peak Physical Fitness - The fledgling aged bird is primed by nature to be a peak athlete as soon as it leaves the nest. I have seen fledgling conures make first flights that were far longer than the flights I see from my physically fit adults who make frequent long flights out doors almost everyday. The fledging aged bird has a significant advantage if quickly allowed to fly outdoors and build on that high physical fitness level it starts out with at the natural fledging age. In contrast, adult birds living indoors simply lack the opportunity to be in good physical condition. I have yet to see an adult bird, even living in a 3000 sqr ft aviary have much stamina worth mentioning. Parental Bond - The baby bird at the fledging age is especially bonded to mom. The baby bird is naturally determined to stay close to parent/food source. Since flying away or getting lost is a big issue with new flyers, So anything that helps the bird stick close to you during this phase of learning is especially valuable and helpful. Some people misrepresent the value of the parental bond during flight training. So let me try to make this clear here. The primary goal at this stage is getting the bird to master its basic mechanical flight skills without it getting lost or facing some other critical problem. The faster the bird can master these skills, the safer it will be. The bird should already have mastered how to control its basic flight functions indoors and should already have good recall response indoors. Now it has a host of new basic skills to master once introduced to flying outdoors. It needs to learn how to cope with greater speeds, increased height issues, potential obstacles and factors that limit visibility to handler, land in swaying tree branches, select suitable landing sites, fly in wide open spaces, compensate for windy conditions, navigate around the immediate area without losing contact with the handler, do all this at the same time, etc. These each can cause the bird significant problems and can be factors to cause the bird to be stressed. A stressed bird will not respond predictably. Increasing any element that can reduce the negative effects of facing such new challenges is to your advantage. This is where learning at the natural age of fledging is so helpful since the parental bond helps keep the bird near you as the bird masters these various skills. It is important to note that the parental bond has characteristics that make it particularly helpful for flight training but this is not the same as the social bond or the bond with a mate. People should not be confused into thinking that the social bond they have with their adult bird will function for flight training the same as the parental bond developed with a hand feeding baby. Of course at some point that parental bond will fade and you will have to keep the bird close through the same methods someone would use if they had an adult bird. But if you have done this correctly, then all of these various skills have been mastered by the time the parental bond fades and all you have left to do is motivate the bird to do what it knows how to do, come when called and stay nearby. That is very different than trying to motivate the bird to come when called and stay nearby AT THE SAME TIME the bird is learning to master those outdoor flight skills. Add to this for older birds a decreased speed in learning these skills and it just becomes that much harder and more risky project. Motivated to Fly - Every baby parrot will reach a point that it really just wants to fly. Sometimes it can be difficult to prevent flight at this age. By contrast often the older bird will be reluctant to fly, at least in the beginning - a real bummer if it is being reluctant while sitting in a tree as you wait for it to come down to you. Training a bird that is eager to fly is a very different experience than training a reluctant flyer. Accepts Change - First time events are a normal thing for a fledging bird since at this stage so much of its life is about first time events. The older bird can more easily be overwhelmed with new things or at least react fearfully when exposed to new things. Of course this will not always be the case but it has been my experience that few adult birds easily accept new things. Fewer Bad Habits - The baby bird comes with a clear slate, ready to learn new things and ready to adapt to the life you will provide it. The adult bird comes with many previously learned ideas about what life is like, maybe not even the life style you will be providing it. Often these previously learned ideas result in troubling habits that must be broken before reliable flying outdoors is possible. That makes the fledgling aged bird a far easier bird to flight train. However, as helpful as this age factor is, it should be understood that this age advantage is not a substitute for good training. As the bird matures, the bond of the baby bird to "mom" will decline. That is normal and ok. But during the strong parental bond period, if those good behaviors are reinforced correctly, then they should continue even after the parental bond has diminished. The parental bond can give you a significant head start in training these behaviors. Someone on the Freeflight list asked "How do I train my 5 month old African Gray? Is there a difference between training a baby and an adult?" 5 months old is hardly what I would call an adult but it is also no longer at the natural age for fledging. The main difference will be the need to build a more solid behavior history for recall. The more the bird loses the parental bond, the more you have a bird that will be independent and willing to go take care of itself. To compensate for this greater independence, you need to establish rock solid recall responses and may need to use a bit more hunger to keep the motivation high to comply with cue requests. You still need to get the bird comfortable and calm being in the intended outdoor environment, you still need to practice flying the bird to and from a perch so the behavior you will ask the bird to do once outdoors will already be very familiar to the bird. And of course you do need to be able to easily handle the bird so a good relationship is still important. I should note though that it is possible to flight train parrots to fly outdoors that cannot be handled but I think that only makes the entire process just that much more difficult. I do not recommend pet owners attempt to flight train birds they cannot easily and comfortably handle. I am sure your 5 month old will be easy for you to handle. Hopefully the bird at 5 months old is already flying well indoors. There is a reason most of the articles here are about training a fledging aged bird and not about training older birds. The difference in the responses of the bird are quite extreme with the fledgling aged bird being very easy and quick and the older bird being much slower. A 6 month old macaw will still be fairly quick to pick up flight skills, much more so than a 6 year old. But I am uncomfortable coaching novice trainers through the internet on freeflight training any bird not at the fledgling age. The more the bird is out of that natural window of time in which they would learn to fly in the wild, the greater the risks. The process is essentially the same but the trainer will NOT be able to rely on the social bond as much with the older bird - the personal bond between trainer and bird will not prevent the bird from flying off accidentally. With an older bird the bond is not the key people often think it is, solid response history is the key. In other words, with the older bird you two should do hundreds of repetitions getting correct responses to get the bird into good physical shape and to solidify a solid recall response in each of a variety of locations indoors before going outdoors. So as a rule, I don't counsel people on line who want to flight train adult birds. The adult bird is possible to flight train, as many professional trainers have proven. I believe training an adult bird to fly outdoors is a fairly advanced endeavor that requires fairly advanced training skills and is not appropriately taught to novice trainers via on line coaching. Due to the ease and speed at which a fledgling aged bird will learn to fly, I am comfortable offering advice to new trainers who are ready to follow my instructions with a fledgling aged bird.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Styles of Flying

Flying Styles Defined and Discussed

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008.

I see two styles of show flying: Point to Point (A to B) and Freestyle. I see five styles of flying for most pet owners: Indoor, Point to Point, Freestyle, At Liberty and Sport. Competition Flying has not yet become reality. I don't care too much what the names are but I think we should be able to identify which style of flying is going on when discussing our training. Indoor: Indoor flying, or Aviary flying, is generally the safest style of flying. This is where the birds are confined and protected by walls, wire or netting but have sufficient space to do some flying.
Indoor flying

Indoor Flying

Point to Point: A to B flights, A to A flights or A to B B to C, etc. These would be very directed flights with little or no tolerance for variation from the intended flight plan. Typically these are shorter flights. These are often used for shows where time and space is limited. This kind of flying is often a first stage learned before advancing to other styles of flying.
Point to Point

Point to Point

Freestyle: The handler sends the bird out to go fly where ever it wants to fly and for however long it wishes to fly but it must return to a designated landing perch (and not land any other place) - typically the landing is on the handler. Some shows are doing this kind of flying and some pet owners are also doing this kind of flying. This style of flying can also be a stage of learning achieved before advancing to At Liberty flying.
Free style


At Liberty: The bird is turned loose and is free to go where ever it wants and do what it wants until the handler calls the bird back to a specific location. This gives the bird the most control of its activities. Usually these are well trained advanced birds but in some cases these will be birds that are untrained but controlled only by the location and timing of their feeding. At liberty flying is usually done at home or at a nearby park and is the only flying style that can be done unsupervised, though of course this adds additional risk factors to consider.
At Liberty

At Liberty

Sport: The bird is flown in a variety of challenging locations and conditions. Sport style of flying is where the birds master skills not normally needed for the other styles of flying and it requires a high degree of teamwork between the handler and the birds.
Sport & Competition


Competition: The birds are flown to specific tasks in a competition with other flyers. Such tasks may include recall promptness, directed flying to selected perches, duration of time in the air, or a cross-country agility course. I did not use the term "sessional" because it seems to me that a session of flying is more about the duration than the style. I did not use the term "unstructured" or "structured" because both At Liberty and Freestyle could be called "unstructured". I mention the food controlled untrained birds here because I have personally seen Chris Shank let untamed cockatoos loose and then get them back into their cages for feeding later that evening. I have also done this with unhandlable Blue Front Amazon, getting him back inside his cage every night through feeding. Jim Dawson Wrote: "IMO. most bird shows follow a formula that is based on moving birds quickly through the arena, lest you exceed the extremely short attention span of the audience. There is no time for complicated behaviors, unless its something that mimics human behavior -- like talking or playing basketball. A to B's are about all of the flight that can be squeezed in before time is up. I hate to say it but that's all a lot of show trainers know. I've worked with a lot of them and many have never tried to do anything more complex." I have seen several shows that were only Point to Point (A to B) flying. But lately I have seen a couple that have had much more freestyle flying included. I see this as a welcome change. Though if everyone else starts flying this way in their shows also that means people will not be as impressed with my 9-10 freestyle and At Liberty birds all loose flying at the same time during our shows <grin>. I think the audience LOVES to see these guys flying loose and under their own control. My guys delay my show all the time because they do more flying than I intended but it only seems to cause the audience to be just that much more impressed. It simply blows people's minds that they can be loose to do their own thing thought our day and during our shows and still they come back when we call them down. And if Ariel (Scarlet) and Gleam and Dretti (Blue Throats) or Boomer or Grace (Calicos) do several large laps instead of the two they are normally supposed to do, then the audience patiently watches and waits and then applauds just that much louder when they do return. I have no doubt that people will sit through more flying because it offers just so much more value to them than do the simple and short point to point flights. Plus people only get to see them "jinking" with the longer flights and never with point to point flights. And yes Point to Point flights can be trained with higher weight birds. I do not weigh any of my birds and each of them get all the food they want in the evening. And I get good responses doing the Dollar Bill trick where the birds fly out into the audience to retrieve dollars and bring them back to our stage. Last year the three were doing this about 300 times per day and no one was underweight - each trip earned them a sunflower seed and they continued to work until they were visibly bulging and just too full to fly any more <grin>. These are point to point flights though one of the points is variable and identified by an audience member waiving money in the air. We really love this trick. We try to give everyone a chance to do it at least three or four times <grin>. I think I am seeing more of this freestyle flying at zoos and theme parks. When ever we get a chance we like to visit the zoos in the areas we do our shows in. And their bird shows are always of great interest to us. "I think someone bashed the womach's on here last week, and it got me thinking about asking the question of what "camp" the free flyers are in." There are several different "freeflying camps". From what I can tell we have the womach camp, the Steve Martin camp, the Joe Krathwohl camp and the Chris Biro camp. People like Hugh Choi are in the Joe K camp. The womachs are trying to create their own camp but essentially are also in the Joe K camp. The Joe K camp is essentially a falconry based approach to training flight. Weight Management and strict recall response are heavily practiced by this camp. Mostly this camp flies A to B and some freestyle flying. People like Janet, Sid Price, Chris Shank and Barbara Hiedenriech (not really sure on Barbs camp since I have no knowledge of her doing any flying in recent years) are in the Steve Martin camp. The Steve Martin camp is similar to the falconry approach but is softened by inclusion of more OC material and less of a reliance on weight management - though Steve is reported to use weight management fairly often for his shows. Strict recall response are heavily practiced by this camp. Mostly this camp flies A to B and some Freestyle flying. I will let people chime in on their own if they want to be listed in the Chris Biro camp. The Chris Biro camp uses OC but relies more heavily than the others on coordinating with the influence of evolution and instinctive tendencies. The Chris Biro camp does not use weight management at all (at least extremely rarely) but instead relies heavily on natural appetite, favorite foods, social interest and play interest. This camp flies A to B, Freestyle flying and Sport flying. From what I can tell the Chris Biro camp publicly demonstrates the most advanced flight skills in their birds of any of these camps. Recall is practiced by this camp but Rally Point Fidelity is considered more important than recall.

Parrots: More Than Pets, Friends For Life

Chris Biro