Patty | BirdTricks | Parrot Training Blog

Common Behavior Problems Easily Solved With Target Training

 February 14th, 2016
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Jamie gets Rasta to approach her arm in order to touch the target and get a treat.

Jamie gets Rasta to approach her arm in order to touch the target and get a treat.

When some people think of bird training, often the first thing that comes to mind is trick training. They envision the cute routine they saw at a theme park somewhere. While it is very beneficial to a bird to experience all types of training, for the average companion bird, training generally refers to “target/touch training” (aka clicker training).

Target training is a simple process in which a bird learns that when he touches a target stick presented by a trainer, he will earn a reward. It is an example of positive reinforcement training which helps build human/bird bonds while giving us a valuable tool with which to correct behavior problems.

The term target training is self-explanatory: it is the process that allows you to target your bird to different locations without force or bloodshed. Are the wheels beginning to turn yet?

Following are some of the most common behavioral concerns we are contacted about. Each of them are easily solved with basic target training.

“I can’t get my bird back into his cage!”

“I can’t get my bird out of the cage!”

“My bird won’t go into a carrier!”

Do these sound familiar? By positioning the target in a way that causes the bird to have to go into the cage or carrier to touch the target stick or by opening the cage door and positioning the stick outside the cage, your bird will be the one making the choice to go in or out and you will no longer have to be the forceful, bad guy!

As Rasta continues to get comfortable with Jamie's arm, the target in positioned so that Rasta makes contact with her arm.

As Rasta continues to get comfortable with Jamie’s arm, the target in positioned so that Rasta makes contact with her arm.

“My bird won’t step up!”

If your bird is truly afraid of your hands, target training will not convince a bird to step up for you. The one thing that will override your bird’s desire for a treat is the concern for his safety. However, once you have established even the most basic training, you can use it to teach your bird that your hands are not something to be feared.

A few years ago, Jamie did some work with a client’s alexandrine parrot, “Rasta”, who had a fear of hands, a problem she solved completely with target training. In a series of steps which involved using the target to get him to slowly inch closer to a hand (held very still), Rasta slowly discovered that her hand meant her no harm. Once his comfort level increased, she started positioning the target in a way that prompted physical contact with her arm and then eventually, Rasta agreed to step onto her arm briefly to touch the target and earn the reward.

Targeting instigated a learning experience that taught Rasta that hands are not scary. This video demonstrates the final steps in his training: CLICK HERE

Eventually Rasta agrees to step onto Jamie's hand because his experiences with her hand so far have been good ones.

Eventually Rasta agrees to step onto Jamie’s hand because his experiences with her hand so far have been good ones.

It appears that the biggest obstacle people have with target training is getting started – or more precisely, getting their bird to get on board with the idea. A typical comment is: “I place my bird on the training perch and he flies off before we ever begin.”

Sometimes people bribe their bird to stay put with the very treats they intend to use during training and he is already filling up on the treat he was supposed to EARN. Full birds have no interest in treats – earned or otherwise and there is no longer a reason for your bird to stick around.

Many people give up at this point convinced their bird isn’t interested in training. The truth is that the bird has not yet experienced training.

This is such a common complaint that I now automatically suggest that training begin with the bird in the cage. If your bird will come to you at the side of the cage to accept a treat, you are already on your way. Being inside the cage takes flight out of the equation and his focus will on you and your activities at the side of his cage.

As long as you introduce the target stick in an acceptable way (so there is no fear of it), it is easier to get a caged bird to touch it so you can click and reward and they can start to make the connection about what training entails. Once your bird understands training and the benefits of it, he will be much more likely to remain on the perch for a session.
Our DVD series, One Day Miracles addresses these and other types of behavior problems that are solved with basic training: Click here to learn about One Day Miracles .


When Your Birds Hates Certain Family Members…

 January 30th, 2016
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The tip of the week is normally a post only for our Facebook page, but someone suggested I also post this one here for reference purposes….


Without a doubt, this is the most common question we get here: “my bird loves me, hates everyone else” or “my bird loves everyone but me” or “I used to be the favorite, now my bird likes someone else better”.

If you have not yet figured this out, brace yourself, this is going to sting: your bird is self-serving. He thinks HE is the most important cog in the wheel and will do whatever is necessary promote what is in HIS best interest. He will favor whoever proves to be the most beneficial to him.

From our point of view, it appears that the affection we get from our bird is love or a show of gratitude for the great toys and yummy snacks. But the reality is that their relationship with us is all about their survival and safety. It always comes back to their needs and we either fit into their plan or we don’t.

Before you go running for the tissues with hurt feelings, consider this: you are just as self-serving. Your bird is in your house today because it was in some way beneficial to you. Either you wanted a bird because you thought it would be a fun addition to the family, or were looking for something to nurture and love, or caring for needy birds fills your cup. Whatever. In there somewhere is a benefit to you.
Magically, somewhere in the midst of all this selfishness, humans and birds build bonds with the strength of super glue. Just never forget we all have our bottom line – this will help you understand your bird’s behavior.

In almost all cases, a bird will have a favorite person and there is nothing wrong with that. It is NOT acceptable, though, when your bird rejects, or worse, attacks everyone else. Birds select long term mates in the wild and we have seen footage of small birds attacking a predatory bird in defense of its mate or nest. This instinct is what causes our birds to sometimes “defend their territory” when someone comes too close their chosen person, especially during breeding season.
But birds are also social flock animals. A flock has an unwritten agreement to protect each other. They often all play a role in teaching the young members about foraging and safety matters. Everything about a flock speaks to a bird’s feelings of safety and security.

This problem isn’t just about our feelings of rejection when we are denied a relationship by a bird. Without a flock a bird feels vulnerable. Having a bird that will not tolerate the entire family, or will not be handled by everyone, affects the emotional well-being of the bird.
Part of our job as bird owner is to make sure that our birds have a permanent home with us and to prepare them for any unthinkable future events. What will happen to your bird if you die and your bird hates everyone else in the house? How long will you be able to keep your bird if it repeatedly attacks family members?

So how to solve the problem?

Remember your bird’s bottom line, that self-serving nature. If you want to earn a place in your bird’s world, you have to show him that you, too, have value from his point of view – not just the chosen person. Training is the fastest and most effective way to demonstrate what you can bring to the table.

While you are establishing your worth, ask yourself why your bird has chosen another person? What do they have or do that you don’t? Was there an event which caused the bird to back away? What is the favorite person doing right that you can utilize? And, this a hard one, is the favorite person working against you without realizing it? Sometimes the chosen person doesn’t want to risk their status as favorite and will find reasons to keep things as they are. Almost always the person doesn’t realize they are doing this.

If you are the favorite, try to back off a bit to allow a new relationship to blossom with another family member (it’s probably best if that happens one person at a time). Sometimes your presence will hold the bird back rather than make him feel more at ease.

If your bird has switched their allegiance away from you to another person, there is a reason for it and you will have to respect this decision. This happens a lot with people who travel often or are away from home for long stretches. Try to understand and sympathize with your bird’s reasons for moving on to someone who feels more reliable. The bird’s well-being has to be the main consideration and you will be doing your bird a huge service by being magnanimous in this matter.

As always, proceed slowly and let a new relationship grow naturally and comfortably – especially since you are trying to show your bird that you have value and can be trusted as a companion.

You may never be the favorite person, but your bird should respect you enough to interact politely with you at all times.

Things I wish I Had Known When I First Got A Parrot

 January 10th, 2016
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Galah on a climbing net

Galah on a climbing net

People who are new to parrot keeping will agree on one thing: having a bird in the house is a challenge. There is a lot of reading you should do to understand a bird’s needs and wants, and how to keep them safe in the human environment. This is all vital information.

Here, though, are some tips that I have stumbled across during my own journey with my birds that you won’t find in the parrot care books. I wish I had known these things from the beginning…

Challenge Your Bird

It is so easy to get the idea in our heads that the perfect life for a pet bird is one that offers convenience and leisure. Nothing is further from the truth. The companion birds that do best are the ones whose humans have figured out that there is a link between their bird’s physical and emotional health.

Unfortunately, most cages are set up having toys and food bowls conveniently within a few steps, offering no encouragement for activity. However, a bird’s body is not designed to sit idly all day, nor is its mind. Arrange your bird’s cage in a way that creates the need to move and plot out ways to accomplish tasks.

Obviously foraging is an ideal solution but placing food and water bowls at opposites ends of the cage or even in difficult to reach places can get a bird up and moving during the day. Place favorite toys (or strips of paper) on the outside of the cage so your bird has to hang and reach to get them. When your bird is active, it is occupied and happy.

Your job is to keep your bird healthy both physically and emotionally. It is not to make life easy. This is the human presumption of the “good life” – it is not a good life for a bird.

Fix Problems Immediately

The minute you experience an unwanted behavior, it should be dealt with – even the small ones. Unaddressed problems only ever escalate over time and what you are experiencing today will be worse in a couple of months.

An example: whenever your bird sees your hands at rest, he will go to them and prod them until his insistence is distracting enough that you give him the neck rub he is demanding. This sounds pretty harmless, but there will be times when it is inconvenient. The prods might develop into nipping when you resist.

The cycle began when you didn’t stop his insistent behavior early on. You have taught him that you will give in to his demands if he pushes you. You can expect that lesson to rear its ugly head in many other ways as well.

Behavior is a lot like muscle memory in that default behaviors will develop in response to certain things. The longer you allow a pattern of behavior to continue, the more ingrained it becomes and the harder it is to eliminate. It isn’t easy to break a habit – so don’t let it develop.

Blue and gold macaws with tasty "ball"

Blue and gold macaws with tasty “ball”

Get Your Bird To Play With His Food

As I have said so many times before, getting your bird on a healthy diet is the single most important thing you will do as a parrot owner. However, converting to that diet can be a tricky business. One thing goes without saying – if your bird never goes near the food, it is guaranteed that it will never be eaten.

For a very young bird, the weaning process involves presenting adult foods to them every day for exploration. The more often you can get that beak dipped into a pureed or soft food or wrapped around a piece of carrot, the more familiar the taste and texture becomes and the more likely it is to be sampled.

This holds true with older birds as well. A game I have always played with my cockatiels is flicking a small wad of paper to them soccer-style. They chase the paper ball everywhere. One day I decided to do it with some frozen peas that had spilled on the counter. That was the day my tiels discovered yummy peas, and the day I discovered a new trick.

I have used this method of food introduction with every stubborn bird I have had since. While I don’t necessarily hurl food at all the birds, I figure out a way to bring them to the new food, since bringing the food to them is so often unsuccessful. It’s all about trickery.

I have learned over the years is that you have to be proactive and forward thinking when you are a bird owner. Try to always be a step ahead by keeping a clear picture in your mind of the bird you want yours to be five years from now.

2015 In The Rear View Mirror

 January 3rd, 2016
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DeeDee and Tinky

DeeDee and Tinky

So long, 2015. We hardly knew ye. Seriously. It went by so fast that’s actually what it feels like.

I am not a fan of the “New Year’s resolution”. I have never understood the value in it. It seems wrong to commit to being a better version of yourself only once a year. I feel we should carry that commitment with us always and re-evaluate to adjust our trajectory as it is needed.

I prefer “New Year’s Reflections” at which time I look back on the previous year as a whole to try to extract the most important lessons. Every year I try to share a lesson that my birds have taught me.

In review, one idea stands out above the others: never complacently expect “status quo” with your birds.

I have said in many of my posts here that the relationship you have with your bird is a work in progress. These bonds are fragile and require maintenance and upgrading to keep them in good working condition. The same can be said about the relationships between your birds.

This past year pointed out to me that I had been taking my 20+ year history with my two cockatiels for granted and I was forced to adapt to keeping up with a new set of needs as their own relationships were changing.

The two cockatiels have been happily housed together since shortly after the second one arrived. They didn’t like to be separated for any reason. If one needed an unscheduled vet appointment, the other had to go along as well. I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving a frantically pacing and screaming bird behind.

Their out of cage time would always begin as an adventure of exploration together and would eventually end with one of the birds coming to spend time on my shoulder while the other would perch on my knee or somewhere else nearby.

I have an entirely different relationship with each bird. Tinky has always been about physical attention and does not tolerate an inactive hand which could be lavishing attention on him. DeeDee is the opposite. He will step up cooperatively and agree to handling when necessary, but would prefer not to be touched. He is happy to sit with me, or on me, as long as I keep my hands to myself.

I have always respected DeeDee’s wishes in that area. He has gotten plenty of attention from Tinky and that has been good enough for him. This past year, however, there has been drastic change in their relationship.

Bathing together in more amicable times

Bathing together in more amicable times

In the wild, when a member of a flock becomes noticeably ill, they are ostracized. A weak, young, old or sick bird attracts the attention of predators who opportunistically target an easy kill. This puts the flock as a whole in jeopardy.

This behavior is so hard wired into a bird it is also present in captive bird society where their experience has likely been that predators are not a threat.  Knowing this didn’t help me to not feel devastated watching DeeDee forcibly shun Tinky who was had started struggling with an old foot injury – he was actually blocking Tinky’s path to the food. I posted about it on Facebook.

The behavior change in DeeDee was dramatic enough that I also had Tinky’s bloodwork done to see if there was anything else going on and the results were not good. There was fat found in Tinky’s blood. However, there is no indication of liver disease. While that sounds like a good thing, it is not. It means that his liver is no longer processing properly, likely due to his age. There will be continued testing, of course, but the best scenario will have him on liver supportive supplements for the rest of his life.

So the cockatiels are divorced and have been living in separate homes for a while now and I am discovering changes in each bird as a result.

DeeDee still targets Tinky, so I can’t let them out together at all anymore. Having run off his preening partner, DeeDee eventually got around to coming to me for these services and will occasionally prompt me for a little extra attention as well. He explores less and spends more time sitting with me now. It’s a very “love the one you’re with” thing and hardly flattering, but it sure does feel good to finally be allowed to touch him.

Tinky, out of the blue, has reinstated an old tune he made up years ago which he used to whistle all day long. He sings his name over and over again like he used to. He is initiating old games that I had forgotten about. With DeeDee away, Tinky reminds me more of the bird he was years ago when we first got him. He does not like the twice daily medications, but he lets go of those unpleasantries quickly and doesn’t seem to blame my hands for them.

My lesson from 2015 is this:

Never presume that things will carry on as is and never change. The most surprising turn of events might be just around the corner.

For years now, I have been accustomed to Tinky and DeeDee focusing on each other and going about their cockatiel business together, including me when they are ready. I presumed the tiels were going to be paired together forever. Recent changes have made my role in their lives bigger. I have to release old expectations now and step up to help fill their voids.

Thank you, my precious long-time friends, for the important reminder.




Your Parrot’s Digestive System

 December 6th, 2015
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Camelot macaw

Camelot macaw

Birds eat…and they poop…and then they poop some more. A cockatiel might relieve himself every 15-30 minutes – that’s a lot of relief. Have you ever wondered about the journey your bird’s food takes before it becomes an embarrassing stain on your shoulder?

Let’s go through each step…

The Beak and Esophagus:

It all begins in the parrot’s mouth. The tongue and the inside of the beak are dry – a fact which your fingers may have discovered in an unfortunate way. Deeper into your bird’s digestive system, where the mouth meets the esophagus, saliva is present to assist with the swallowing of dry foods that are bitten off in digestible pieces.

The Crop:

Because birds don’t have hands and nature doesn’t supply shopping bags, parrots have a crop which is essentially a storage area for food.  It serves two purposes: 1) it keeps birds safer because it allows them to gorge at a food source. By quickly collecting as much food as their crop can hold, it keeps them from having to risk going out in the open often during the day to eat. The stuffed crop will slowly dispense food to the stomach at a rate that will not overwhelm it. 2) The position of the crop makes it easy to regurgitate this food for their young. You may also have been the recipient of this gift of food during breeding season.

The Proventriculus:

This is the first of a bird’s two part stomach. A series of contractions directs food from the crop to the proventriculus where digestive acids are secreted to begin the breakdown of the food before it is passed along to the next stage. In birds with PDD (Proventricular Dilation Disease), food is not processed properly and it sits in the proventriculus emitting gases and causing uncomfortable bloating in this area.

Photo from

Photo from

The Ventriculus (aka the gizzard):

This is the tough, muscular portion of the stomach where food is literally pulverized before moving on. Because parrots hull their seed before eating it, and because other parts of the captive diet are soft and easily digestible, our parrots DO NOT require the addition of grit in their diet to break down their food.

The Intestines and Cloaca:

Parrots have large and small intestines. In their small intestine, food is further processed to separate the nutrients from what will become waste matter. Nutrients are disbursed into the blood stream through the membranes of the small intestine. The large intestine connects the small intestine to the cloaca, the area where your bird’s droppings are collected and expelled – an event we witness all too often in the course of a day.

That is your bird’s digestive system – from beginning to end. This past week we’ve had a lot of discussion on our Facebook page about surgeries performed on parrots that bite off and swallow the cotton fibers from fabric accessories, toys and cotton rope perches.

Cotton fibers, in particular, present the biggest problems since they can become a tightly compacted wad in any area of the digestive system. From the diagram included in this article, it is easy to see how many different places a wad of cotton (or any other non-food item) might cause blockage. Please remain acutely aware of this possibility with your bird.

As much as your furniture might disagree, an often pooping bird is a good thing. It’s a sign of proper digestive health and it simply comes with the territory when you take a bird into your home.

What Feathers Tell You About Your Parrot’s Health

 November 29th, 2015
Posted By:
Alexandrine parakeet

Alexandrine parakeet

One of the hardest things for bird owners to come to terms with, especially new bird owners, is the fact that we can’t rely on our eyes to determine the health of our birds. Because sick parrots are targeted by predators in the wild, they hide the appearance of illness until they are no longer able to do so. Eventually, as their illness progresses, they become lethargic, their wing begin to droop and their perching becomes unsteady – all indications of a very sick bird.

With our companion birds, it is the same. There are two things to watch for that will give us hard evidence of a health crisis before it gets to that point: we can monitor their weight and watch the consistency of their droppings – weight loss and poor quality droppings are two symptoms of illness our birds cannot hide from us.

Being vigilant in these two area will help you avoid coming home one day to find your bird puffed up and perched on floor of her cage. You hope to catch illness before it gets to this point.

But being aware of the appearance of the feathers will also be an enormous help to you as your bird’s guardian. Feather may not tell you definitively that your bird is sick, but they can give you hints that something is wrong and help you sidetrack an oncoming illness or they can indicate problems with the environment.

What To Look For…

Your bird’s feathers should always be bright and lustrous. They should look and feel healthy and your bird should preen them meticulously. If your bird is not carefully tending to the feathers it should be considered a sign of illness.

When your bird preens, she will spread oils secreted from the uropygial gland (preen gland) which helps to condition them. The activity of dispersing the oil manipulates the barbs and barbules (see diagram below) and realigns them.  In this process, dirt and debris is also removed.

If your bird is not preening, the feathers will eventually become ratty or ruffled in appearance (picture what your bird looks like after being toweled) and they may even appear dirty. You might notice dried fecal matter around the vent that is not being removed by your bird. In this event, you need to get your bird to the vet.

Feather anatomy diagram from

Feather anatomy diagram from

Even when your bird is caring for her feathers, there are signs that will point you in the direction of a potential problem. Here are some of the most common feather problems we see – and what they might mean for your bird’s future health:

Dry and brittle feathers – Feathers should be soft and pliable and should not feel course and dry. Dry feathers might indicate a humidity problem in the house. This will eventually result in dry and itchy skin which can bring on plucking. It will also eventually dry out the nasal passages which generally brings on an infection if not addressed. You might notice your own skin and hair feeling dry. A humidifier will help – especially in the winter months which are among the driest.

Dull color – If your  bird’s feathers look drab, it is often the result of a lack of sunlight. Many of us without outdoor aviaries have to rely on full spectrum lighting in lieu of natural sunlight. If your bird has access to neither sunlight nor full spectrum lighting, the lack of the vitamin D3 they provide will eventually become a health issue. Vitamin D3 is necessary to the absorption of calcium in the diet. Calcium is crucially important to your bird.

Yellow in eclectus feathering photo from Melbourne Bird Vet

Yellow in eclectus feathering photo from Melbourne Bird Vet

Discolorations – Feather discolorations, such as black tips on feathers, or the appearance of feathers that are not part of the normal coloration of your parrot species (such as a yellow feather on an eclectus where there should be a green or red feather) are problems that are almost always dietary in nature. This will tell you that you have work to do on your bird’s diet, and you cannot put it off. You should also see your vet about this. Dietary issues affect the liver and feather discolorations are an indication that the problem has been ongoing. Your vet can diagnose the condition of the liver and prescribe supportive care while you work on improving the diet.

Stress Bars – These are bands of either discolored or depigmented segments or structurally weakened lines that run crosswise through the feathers. In very young birds, they are generally caused by temperature or other environmental fluctuations during the production of their first set of feathers and, as long as the bird is properly cared for, future feathers will grow in normally. In older birds, it reflects a more serious problem as it indicates that there are inadequacies in the bird’s care. It almost always suggests a dietary issue, but it can also be a result of a period of emotional stress. Since stress bars occur during the formation of the feather, look back around the time of your bird’s last molt to find the cause. Antibiotics will sometimes be responsible.

Depigmented stress bar - photo by Krystal Vlach

Depigmented stress bar – photo by Krystal Vlach

Damaged feathers (NOT related to feather plucking or barbering) – When you find feathers that are damaged, it is sometimes the result of a fall and it should be an infrequent discovery. If you find damaged feathers often, take a look at your bird’s feet to be sure his grip is appropriate and that there are no foot or leg injuries and no pressure sores on the feet. Watch your bird to make sure he is perching stably. Try to determine if your bird is experiencing night frights which might cause feather damage and arrange the cage to minimize any contact with things in the cage during a panicked moment or in a fall. If a single area of feathering seems disrupted, but not the result of plucking, you might find there is a toy or even the cage bars that are rubbing against your bird while she is perched in a favorite spot. A few months ago, after rearranging one of the cockatiel cages, I noticed the very end of his tail was curled upwards. It turns out his tail was touching the cage bars when on his most used perch.

Dark feathers – This might mean there is excess fat in the blood. It is, again, almost certainly the result of poor diet, but this indicates the problem is becoming serious and you should see your vet right away to determine the cause of the discoloration and for medication as needed.

Oily feathers – I have never know feathers that are oily in appearance to indicate anything other than advanced liver problems. The liver is a regenerative organ. However, areas that are scarred and damaged by disease are beyond repair. When there is more tissue in that condition than healthy tissue, well…your vet cannot work miracles, but he can help by providing supportive care to increase your bird’s chances.

Molting – Old feathers that need replacement get molted out. That is the natural process. However, when you have experienced any of the above, molting periods take on a heightened level of importance. The appearance of healthy new feathers tells you that you are on the right track with your bird or tells you there is more work yet to be done.

Barring any diseases like PBFD, the single biggest factor in your bird’s feather health is the diet. A seed or pellet only diet is not adequate to maintain the health of your bird and sooner or later malnutrition will take hold.

Hopefully, this post will make you feel a little less like a helpless bystander while your parrot tries his best to hide important health information from you. Whenever you notice a change in your bird’s appearance, it means something. Take note.