Easy Guide To Positive Reinforcement Training Birds

Published by Joseph Calabrese on

Ready to level up your parrot training skills?

Learning how to use positive reinforcement in bird training will help you do just that!

If you’ve done any sort of research into bird or parrot training, you would definitely come across the term “positive reinforcement” or “reward-based training”. 

And there’s a good reason why all the experts use it to train bird behaviours…

Because it’s the most effective way to train!

This article will simplify the basics of positive reinforcement and how to use it to train your bird. 

Let’s dive in…

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What Is Positive Reinforcement Bird Training?

Firstly, what actually is positive reinforcement training?

Here’s my simplified explanation:

Giving a reward to an animal in exchange for them performing a behaviour you desire.

Another term is “reward-based” training.

For example, a bird trained with positive reinforcement will step up onto your hand because they expect a reward. They expect this reward because the stepping-up behaviour has been positively reinforced plenty of times in the past.

Positive reinforcement is used to train many different animals.

From dogs and cats all the way to horses, bears, and tigers.

Rewarding your bird for doing something that you like is positively reinforcing the behaviour.

Positive reinforcement bird training

Examples Of Positive Reinforcement

To help you better understand positive reinforcement, we’ll cover some simple examples.

The best example I can think of is how money is used to “train” human behaviours.

Since money can be used to buy desirable things, it works as an effective reward for getting a human to do something. If a human was asked to do some extra work for extra money, they would be motivated to do it due to the reward being offered.

That’s why you can get a kid to do his homework in exchange for an allowance.

The kid is then being “trained” to do his homework because he expects a reward from his parents.

He expects that reward because the behaviour (doing homework) has been positively reinforced in the past.

Image source: Pixabay

This is why a bird steps up onto your hand; because they’ve been trained to expect a reward.

It’s also why a tiger will touch a target stick; because they’ve been trained to expect a piece of meat in exchange for doing so.

It works the same with almost any other behaviour, including flying to you, spinning, or speaking.

What Is Negative Reinforcement Training In Birds?

By now, I hope you understand what positive reinforcement training is.

But there’s another side to that same coin…

Negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is training your bird to do a specific behaviour because not doing the behaviour will result in something bad. You might take away their food or punish them because they didn’t do the behaviour, which motivates them to do it in the future.

Instead of rewarding good behaviours, you punish bad behaviours.

You can probably tell that this is not a nice way to train a parrot.

I definitely do not recommend training your parrot this way.

The reason it doesn’t work is because the bird has no idea why it’s being punished.

It only understands that it’s being harassed or bullied and to not trust the human again.

Examples Of Negative Reinforcement Training

1 common way people try using this is by covering the cage to stop the bird from screaming.

In rare cases, people will sometimes resort to the extremely cruel act of hurting the bird to stop them from screaming. Other cruel ways of negative reinforcement include screaming at the bird, rattling the cage, or depriving them of food.

negative reinforcement bird training
Image source: Pixabay

Let’s look at a human example to make it clearer…

  • Smacking a child so they learn not to swear at their parents
  • Taking away a child’s toys or devices because they failed a math test
  • Freezing bank accounts to teach people not to donate to politically incorrect protests
  • Yelling at a child for spilling food on the floor

However, it’s important to note that negative reinforcement actually does work for humans, but not birds.

Humans obviously know why they’re being punished.

Parrots and birds do not.

Focus on rewarding the good behaviours instead of punishing the bad for the best training results.

How To Use Positive Reinforcement To Train Your Bird

Target training positive reinforcement parrot
My cockatiel target training via positive reinforcement

Rewarding behaviours you want to see more of is the basic principle of positive reinforcement training.

For example, if you want to get your bird to consistently step up onto your hand, you need to reward that behaviour when it happens. Give something your bird loves, like a high-valued treat, the very moment they step up.

Because your bird remembers getting rewarded, they’ll be motivated to step up in the future.

A bird will do a trained behaviour, such as stepping up, because:

  • They believe they’ll get some food for doing it
  • They believe they’ll be rewarded with social interaction with their favourite human
  • They think they’ll get their favourite toy
  • They expect some other reward

Before they expect rewards, you’ll need to teach them the link between doing the behaviour and earning the reward…

Linking Bird Behaviours With Getting Rewards

To do this, you’ll need to create the very first instance of the behaviour.

For a bird who has never stepped up and has no idea they’ll get rewarded for it, you’ll need to encourage the behaviour and then heavily reward them when they do it.

My two favourite ways of encouraging first-time behaviour are:

  1. Luring using a high-valued treat
  1. Encouraging the behaviour with a target stick (the bird must first be target trained)

Let’s assume your bird isn’t target trained

So you’ll need to entice the behaviour with a treat your bird loves.

To encourage step-ups for the first time, you can lure them onto your hand with a treat.

Once they step up, give them the treat and lots of praise!

After enough repetitions, your bird will understand that stepping up = reward.

That’s positive reinforcement training in action!

parrot stepping up, positive reinforcement training

Using Cues To Request Behaviours From Your Parrot

Each trained behaviour should have its own request or command cue.

Here are the cues I use for some of my cockatiel’s trained behaviours:

  • Step onto my hand = I say “Hop up” and offer my hand to his chest
  • Fly to my hand from a distance = I say “Come here” and raise my hand
  • Spinning around on a perch – I say “Spin!” and wiggle my finger above his head

When he receives the cues, he knows that if he now performs the specific behaviour, he’s likely to earn a reward.

It’s important to link a specific set of cues to each behaviour you want to teach.

It simply makes it easier to request the behaviour from your bird.

When they do the cued behaviour, you must positively reinforce it so they’re able to link the cue with the behaviour, and then with getting rewarded.

Using a Clicker To Train Parrot Behaviours Faster

If your bird is clicker trained, you can use the click sound to encourage behaviours faster.

The clicking sound is not the reward, instead, it marks the exact moment your bird did something right, which tells them to expect a treat. A clicker-conditioned bird will know to expect a reward after they hear the clicking sound.

They quickly understand that hearing a *click* means they did something good.

Eventually, it’ll work as extra reinforcement of the behaviour.

This ultimately boosts training speed and effectiveness.

Read this guide on Target Training Your Bird right now to learn more about parrot training…

I hope this has been helpful.

Take care.



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