Understanding The Training Diet

Understanding The Training Diet

 January 12th, 2012
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Hyacinth macaw

If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that I used to have a real problem with the idea of a training diet. It seemed unthinkable that a bird, virtually a wild animal in terms of its lack of domestication, should be locked in a cage and then denied food, something it would be free to acquire in the wild. It is psychologically damaging for any sentient being to be kept at another’s mercy, how could this ever be considered a good thing?

Training bridges a gap, fills in the blanks in the relationship between a human and a parrot. Where there was an inability to communicate, there is now established a “language” that both could understand and build a relationship around. Instead of looking at each other like aliens, you and your bird are comrades, teammates. It changes everything.

Blue and Gold Macaw

Of course, I wanted this for me and my bird, but I didn’t want to have to starve him to get there. I was afraid that while I was laying the groundwork for communication, that I would be violating the very basic understanding and trust that I would care for him and see to his needs. One step forward and two steps back – it didn’t seem worth it.

It took me a while to come around to the notion that food management did not equal suffering, but I had to let go of some of my “old” thinking to reach that conclusion.


My first hint came when I began studying the habits of wild birds – looking at the ways they spent their time and realizing the difficulties they face everyday. Life in the wild isn’t easy. There are times when food sources are not abundant and birds may go to roost at night having had barely enough food to get by.

With the best intentions at heart, we have the tendency to feel that we owe our birds the ultimate in comfort in our homes. There are likely many different reasons for that thinking, but this is not necessarily what is best for our birds. It is unnatural for birds NOT to work for their food, which never, ever appears to them in the wild by way of a hand out.

When done properly, food management will teach your bird to see his empty food dish as an opportunity to train – something he will anticipate as the bonding and learning experience it is, but also as a way to earn his food.

Congo african grey

Trainers will refer to “motivation” in the training diet. This speaks to the level of hunger your bird is experiencing. A properly motivated bird is hungry enough to want to train and be eager to go through the steps. A bird that is too hungry will be uncoopereative and unwilling to “earn” food. Letting your bird get to that point is not only unproductive from a training standpoint, but it will damage your relationship with your bird.

If you are doing it right, your bird should never even be aware that you are managing his food. Using measurement, and through trial and error, you can get a fairly accurate idea of how much your bird eats and limit his portions to only that amount.

You never want to take your bird’s food away, instead, you want it to run out. There is different psychology involved between the two actions. When you remove a dish from your bird’s cage containing food, you might be presumed to be the cause of your bird’s hunger. If the food runs out, there is simply no food, just an empty bowl. Once you begin training, your bird will see the empty bowl as an opportunity, as I said before.

Blue throated macaw

Another advantage, two actually, in using a training diet and feeding your bird at a later time in the day is that: 1) your bird loses his expectation for timely feeding, something else that rarely happens in the wild. He will no longer call out demanding to be fed when he sees the first rays of dawn or at another time of his choosing, and 2) if you feed him just before he normally starts his sundown calls, it can eliminate a potentially loud and unnerving part of the day for your neighborhood.

I promise you that your bird will not starve to death if you don’t place a bowl of food in the cage at the crack of dawn, or even at the crack of noon. After observing how food management lends itself to the training experience, I now know that it does not cause hardship, but helps to set the stage for success in what is one of the most rewarding parts of your bird’s life.

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9 Comments on “Understanding The Training Diet”

Freada Dillon  01/14/2012 4:34 pm

I’m seeing something I haven’t seen before on the blog — the clicker with a stick extension. May I assume that is to get the treat there at the speed of sound, so to speak, for those birds with ADHD like U2s and (evidently) Hyacinths?? lol This is a great idea, if that’s what it is, because by the time I click and run over to give the treat, my U2 has forgotten what he did right and gotten sidetracked trying to de-construct the play tree. My vet says there’s a reason they call ’em ‘toos’ — they always act like they are ‘two’. Boy is she ever right! Love the little imp, but good lord he can ‘play’ dumb when it fits his whim.

Brian Gisi  01/16/2012 3:01 pm

Teaching (training) is useless without motivation to learn. It is erroneous to assume animals will do things just because we want them to want to do so. Manging diet is the primary way to motivate animals because food is directly associated with survival. However, managing strict diet is not synonymous with starvation. Those who think this are making a huge assumption! A properly motivated animal is one who is “frequently in a state of readiness to accept food”. As Patty mentioned, anything more or less can handicap your efforts to teach. One thing that I wish Patty placed more emphasis on is the fact that animals are constantly working for their food in the wild. They are naturally (yet more passively) being conditoned how to behave wen searching for food by their own successes and failures at acquiring food. Training is simply a recreation of this natural process under artificial conditions.

Brian Gisi  01/16/2012 3:18 pm

Freada…I think what you are referring to is actually a target stick and clicker (bridging stimulus) being held at the same time in one hand this metod keeps a free hand for offerng food reinforcement. If you have conditioned your cliker (bridging stimulus) correctly, it is not as important to get the food (primary reinforcer) to your bird immediately. The whole purpose of a bridging stimulus is to allow you to be slightly latent with food but still communicate to the bird that they did something correct and when exactly they did it. Being latent with food reinforcenent is inevitable when you are training things at a distance, so you should have a signal that marks the exact moment an animal emitted the proper response. A bridging stimulus (e.g. clicker) serves this purpose This is why you can teach a dolphin to jump through hoop at a distance without having to get a fish to them in mid air everytime.

Tricia  01/03/2013 2:33 pm

I can’t see why it would be problematic to motivate with food. Obviously they aren’t being starved, their feedings are just being managed. Our B/G Macaw never was much of an eater when she first awakened anyway and our new Greenwing mostly eats later too. I’ve found there is a big difference in how much birds eat from day to day anyway. Some days are eat all day while others are they just pick here and there. They get the same food but their interest is sometimes on more exciting things things going on outside or playing with toys. I think we in USA have often considered food as nurturing and people may think of managing food as lack of nurturing. However, in this case, by building a better bond and comradeship with our feathered friend is far more nurturing in the long haul.

María Paz  02/12/2013 7:56 am

Hi ! It’s my first post and I want to beg your pardon for my english. I have two macaws,araurana (2 years and 8 months old ) and choloroptera (only 8 months old) can I use the training diet with both or the choloroptera is too young ? Thank you for your patient and atention.

Gaye  04/01/2013 9:32 am

Hmmm, looks like I will have to read this “thoroughly” again; fortunately, I haven’t had any “major” behavioural problems with my birds, other than hormonal.

I do respect Patty for her advice, though :-).

melissa  06/21/2013 6:33 am

I understand idea of training diet. The issue I have is working at the 10% bodyweight loss. That’s a lot of weight for an animal with high metabolism to lose. I worked in wildlife rehab, and if we hand an animal drop 5% we would be concerned (mind you these animals were sick, orphaned or injured to begin with). If your bird is sick, and it is normal to have him drop 10%, then in order to realize he’s sick he’ll have to have lost more than 10% which narrows your window to treat.

Stephanie  02/04/2014 2:10 pm

I’m new to the training diet… I usually am at work until 5 pm and as soon as I get home I bring my U2 out until bedtime. Ishould I give her food in the morning so she all day to eat? Or should I limit her play time before bed so she has time to eat before lights out?
Thanks in advance

Lorna  04/11/2015 4:01 am

Hi I’m a newbie to the program and have a pre owned Amazon that I’m trying my best with, first thing Iv done is purchased the program and second is changed her food to the recommended food tops pellets this is where I’m stuck already! She has now gone into her third day and not eaten any or only one or two of the pellets are missing? Iv been giving her a small bowl of fruit and veg along with the pellets which is being eaten which I pleased about as she had not had any fruit and veg before I owned her and was on a seed only based diet!! So the question is now I have purchased the pellets how do I get her to eat them?? Thanks xx