Archive for the ‘GoodBird Magazine’ Category

Recognizing how not to do it!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Just recently there seems to have been a flood of experts available online to solve all kinds of parrot behavioral issues, it is also worthy of note that many of these experts seem to have tendrils back to a single source. That single source appears to be rather inexperienced in training in general and behavioral science for sure!

I am not going to mention any names or link to any web sites as on the internet the ranking of names and sites in Google and other search engines relies upon other sites’ links to each site. The more times a site is linked to the better its ranking. Besides which my philosophy is to educate people so that they are capable of recognizing who really understands their subject and who is simply selling snake-oil!

While browsing a Yahoo group this morning I saw a link to some information about parrot training, it was a video being promoted to demonstrate the skills of the expert, unabashed self promotion. Well I can’t argue with that, everyone who has a business knows the power of the reputation of the people involved in that business and what better way to illustrate one’s skills than a video on YouTube!

The video showed two segments of biting birds and how the behavior was fixed “in minutes”. I doubt it was actually fixed at all, but that isn’t the point of this article. The point of this article is to bring attention to the technique used and more importantly to use this to show the linkage between two things that I try to avoid. Firstly Negative Reinforcement and secondly aversives.

So, imagine a bird standing on a perch, a person approaches and immediately the bird begins to lunge towards the person. The person stops and (being directed by an of-camera voice) then steps back as a “click” is heard. This is repeated with the person approaching closer and closer and a “click” just as they step back. After some time (15 minutes according to the off-camera commentary) the person is able to allow the bird to nuzzle their hand without getting bitten.

What is going on here?

To understand one needs to break down the technique into two parts. First, the approach of the person is clearly an aversive from the bird’s perspective. As I said earlier I believe that aversives should be avoided, they do nothing to add to a positive, trusting relationship with the bird. Secondly, the person walking away appears to be reinforcing the fact that the bird did not bite (not that it really had the chance to; the person was way out of reach!). I certainly did not see any behavioral change that warranted a click and retreat. However, if we assume that the trainer perceived some behavior they liked then asking the person to walk away may have reinforced that behavior. So what we have here is Negative Reinforcement. Again, not a contributor to trust between trainer and bird.

I have read one comment that this technique is flooding. In my opinion that is not the case because the aversive (person too close to the bird) was removed. If this were flooding the person would simply have stood there, maybe even gotten closer until the bird stopped the lunging etc..

What this video shows, in addition to not being the best way to deal with a biting bird, is that typically Negative Reinforcement and the purposeful introduction of aversives are inseparable. In order to apply Negative Reinforcement (removing the person) the aversive (again the person) had to be introduced by the trainer.

Finally, just to drive home the point of what a great example of how not to deal with a biting bird this is let me ask you to think about this … was the bird ever positively reinforced? I certainly didn’t see it, once again nothing that happened in these training sessions worked towards establishing a positive, trusting relationship between trainer and bird.

Here is an article written by Dr Susan Friedman and Lee McGuire about biting. It was first published in one of the best resources for how to train companion birds the right way, Good Bird Magazine.


Bird Tricks to Avoid

Friday, December 12th, 2008

In doing research online about bird training the visibility of several web sites seems to have rocketed over the last few weeks. Because I like to stay aware of who is doing, saying, and selling what into the companion bird community I often follow these links. What I found increasingly interesting was that many, in fact the majority, of search results led in one or two clicks to the same products, those sold by Bird Tricks. A company that promotes some of the poor training strategies that were the subject of my guest blog on the Best of Flock Parrot Blog last week. To be honest that wasn’t surprising to me, as I have said before I consider them company to be Internet marketing specialists and not bird trainers, so of course they should excel in their field of expertise. What did surprise me however was a more recent development in their marketing strategy.

As a part of my research on Bird Tricks marketing strategies I discovered that Womach Productions the owners of the Bird Tricks web site has in fact some 70+ Internet domain names (Internet locations) registered. This one fact alone explains in part how they have raised their Internet visibility. Now there is nothing wrong with this strategy; for anyone whose primary goal is a money making scheme using the Internet it is a great idea. The actual number of domain names registered to Womach Productions may well be even higher because as I researched various web sites I found a new trend, hiding access to the data records of who actually owns the site.


In the past this data has been openly available to anyone to access, one simply uses a free tool called “WhoIs”. Indeed if you go to Google and type “WhoIs” you will find the full data record available. It is my philosophy that “transparency”, the openness that reveals who owns what, is the ethical way to do business. As I have written in the past, do not trust information from “ducklover488”, if they hide their true identity how can you trust what they say. Not only is our own domain name data openly and freely available but also those of you who receive email about this blog or our Safari newsletter will notice at the bottom of each email there is full contact information. This is a requirement of the mailing company we use (Vertical Response) and one of the reasons we chose to use them. Once again it is the ethical way of doing business as far as I am concerned. Now, I do not know for sure that the hidden domain name records are owned by Womach Productions, however I do know that clicking on almost any link on those anonymous sites leads to … Bird Tricks.


Now let me reveal the most disturbing and ethically questionable part of this whole development. Some of these web sites appear to be lists of links to valuable training resources and writings by some of the leading bird trainers and companion parrot advocates in the USA. Amongst them are Barbara Heidenreich, Steve Martin, Dr Susan Friedman, and many others including me. What is ironic is that my article critical of training stategies on the Best of Flock Parrot Blog was referenced! The articles themselves are not available on the web sites, nor are links back to the sources. However if you are searching for these valuable articles you will probably arrive at one of these valueless web sites, just a click away from  … Bird Tricks! Now that really is a trick isn’t it?


From my perspective the use of my name, intellectual property, and reputation to drive traffic to these sites is completely unethical. I do not and will not support, recommend, or promote Bird Tricks or their products. In the past my approach has been to not mention them because that raises their Internet profile. However, from now on I will be actively mentioning them as I encourage each and every one of you to tell your friends to avoid Bird Tricks and their products. We can use the power of the Internet to protect the intellectual property of those professionals in the bird training world who are motivated to help you and your birds rather than line their own bank accounts using ethically questionable tactics.


This latest development once again highlights a subject that I have written about before, and that is separating the noise from the information on the Internet. Once again the golden rule of information validation is the one that should be applied … if the source of the claims made or the identity of the source is hidden then one should always question the information provided. Openness and transparency will always help in deciding what is worth pursuing and what is not.


Knowledge is power; so with your new knowledge of the strategies employed by Womach Productions and Bird Tricks you can decide for yourself if you wish to trust the valuable relationship between you and your birds to them and their products.


Finally, I encourage everyone to spread the word by sending a link to this blog to all of your friends and colleagues. Peer to peer, friend to friend, one link at a time we can keep the spotlight on these questionable tactics and hopefully reduce the reward that I am sure they get for their efforts. As people who understand the science of behavior we know that behaviors that are not reinforced will eventually go away … now wouldn’t that be an ironic turn of events, the science they obfuscate and ignore being their downfall!



Clear and Accurate Communication … Training Tenet

Monday, July 21st, 2008

I received an email from someone who had just read an article written by one of the people for whom I have great respect, Karen Pryor. The reason the person wrote to the bird training blog was to ask if they were correct in their reading of the article; stating that it was confusing in its use of some very important Operant Conditioning (OC) terminology. The article is available online at

The article sets out to answer the question:

“Can you teach everything without punishment? By punishment I mean “correction” which I translated to “punishment” in my question …”

When I read this article I have to admit that I was very disappointed in what I read. Here was an article from someone, as I said earlier, that I really respect. Karen Pryor has brought so much to not only pet owners but also to zookeepers around the world with her writings about training and in particular Clicker Training. Her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is in my opinion required reading for anyone who works with or owns animals. This article however is so misleading in its use and definition of what is a well defined OC and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) term that it does nothing to educate the reader and gives a wrong answer the original question posed.

Let’s be clear here, if this article were not written by a well respected trainer it probably wouldn’t matter too much, it would be just another online writer misunderstanding and misstating the science.

Here is the scientific definition of “punishment”:

Stimuli that serve to reduce the likelihood that the behavior immediately preceding it will be repeated in the future.

Now let’s take a look at the definition from the article:

On the other hand, a punishment is something aversive that you do on purpose.

As you can see this is absolutely not what punishment is at all.

The article goes on to say:

But, a punishment does NOT have a predictable effect on the future.

Once again this is completely wrong. From our definition of punishment we know that it has a very well defined effect upon future behavior. Further more, if the stimulus, i.e. the so-called punishment, does not reduce the likelihood a behavior will be repeated then by definition it is not a punisher. Punishers or reinforcers only get to be called those things if they have the defined effect upon the behavior preceding them. Plus, their effect is always judged by the behavior of the subject.

So, why is this so important and why does it disappoint me so much? It comes down to one of the tenets of good training and that is good communication. One of the biggest problems experienced by folks that are new to training is the rather arcane words that are used to describe the process. Several of the well defined terms of OC and ABA come to the science with a long history and emotive meanings. “Punishment” is a prime example; because of its long use in a social rather than scientific context it brings many assumptions to the mind of the reader. It is therefore important that whenever a trainer describes a training process or a technique that they take extreme care to not only define these terms but use them exactly and accurately, in this way the trainer clearly communicates the process and understanding to whoever is reading the article. Consistent and accurate communication is not only required of trainer to subject, it also required of trainer to trainer, and trainer to student. With careless and incorrect use of terms in an article that purports to be a training article comes just more confusion. This was demonstrated by the person who wrote to me asking about this mentioning that the article had been promoted in a discussion group as a “very good” article that would clarify what aversives and punishment are. In fact it does quite the opposite.

In order to be a good educator one really needs to follow the tenet of clear and accurate communication. The science of OC and ABA are still in their “formative” years in the context of the greater public. It is the responsibility of those of us to work to raise public awareness of this science to serve it well by being diligent and careful when we write or speak about it. Using and defining its terminology in a careless and inaccurate way will only serve to further confuse our audience and will certainly not serve our goals of raising awareness and use of these powerful training techniques.

Read this archived article for an overview of the terminolgy, also Dr. Susan Friedman made a similar appeal for clear communication in her Goodbird magazine (Vol 2-1) article “Terminology Tumult: Coming to Terms with Terms”.


Food and weight management

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I returned from my trip to the IAATE conference in Holland to find a lively discussion going on in one of the yahoo groups for parrot training. The subject of the discussion is one that crops up from time-to-time and it always elicits lively, often polarized views. That subject is the use of food or weight management for training birds. It is also a subject that is often not fully understood by either the vehement supporters or detractors.

When training any animal one of the very first steps is for the trainer to figure out what the animal may find rewarding; this is what the trainer will use as a reinforcer for the behaviors being trained. If one is beginning with an animal that has no training history it is necessary to choose a primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is one that does not require any learning on the part of the animal. Primary reinforcers include sleep, food, air, water, and, in the opinions of some, sex. When working with birds the primary reinforcer typically chosen is food. Once the subject understands the training process it may be possible to introduce secondary or conditioned reinforcers such as attention, verbal praise, or access to toys.

While food is a primary reinforcer not all types of food are reinforcing for all birds; just like people birds also have food preferences and an observant trainer can quickly learn the preferred food type of the subject. Once identified this preferred food item can be removed from the daily diet and only offered to the bird as a training reinforcer. This method of training is the one that many companion parrot owners try to begin training their birds and it is also the one that many find to be ineffective, “my bird just isn’t interested in food”.

However, what these trainers forget is that the value of any food item is dynamic, after a large meal even our own preferred food items are less desirable to us. Therefore when using food as a potential reinforcer we need to be sure that the items being offered have real value to the subject at the time they are offered. This does not necessarily mean that we have to reduce the total amount of food offered to the bird; it simply means that by controlling access to food we create the perception, from the bird’s perspective, that food may not be as abundant as it was. Rather than repeat here what has already been very well written on this subject I would like to direct you to a Barbara Heidenreich article on her Goodbird Magazine Yahoo site that goes into detail about the use of food as a training aid and also an article by Natural Encounters trainer Cassie Malina about “Psychological Appetite.” (See further reading below.)

What I have written about so far is food management; selection of preferred food types and control of access to food. The other technique used to create motivation to perform behavior is weight management. With this technique the total amount of food offered daily is reduced from the amount the animal would eat given free access to food. This results in an increased desire for the food and therefore an increase in the motivation to perform the requested behavior. When using weight management it is essential that the trainer monitor the weight of the bird very closely.

Weight management is a powerful tool for manipulating motivation and with its use comes a greater demand on the skill set of the trainer. Imagine a bird that is not responding to the cue to fly to the trainer. A novice or unskilled trainer may think they need to make the reinforcers being offered more valuable so they reduce the overall diet being offered to the bird, reducing its weight, and increasing its focus on the trainer. This will work, the hungrier the bird gets the more focused it becomes on the trainer and the trainer gets reinforced by the bird performing the requested behavior. This last point, the trainer getting reinforced for reducing the weight of the bird, is what makes weight management so attractive, maybe even addictive, a technique to novice trainers. Each time behavior falls short of expectations the weight is dropped a little more, the bird performs, the trainer is reinforced. As the weight is dropped the trainer should really be asking themselves how they feel ethically about using this degree of deprivation in order to achieve their goals. So, what can they do?

The first step is to not become over-focused on the scale and the weight of the bird, rather, focus sharply on the behavior and the antecedents of that behavior. Antecedents are those things that occur right before the behavior. The bird’s motivation by the perceived value of the potential reward for executing the behavior is only one antecedent in play.

Consider the situation as a balance with the motivation of the bird on one side and things that work against that motivation on the other. To get the bird to work well the trainer must have the motivating side of the balance out-weigh the non-motivating side.
Things that affect the motivation of the bird include not only its desire for food (its degree of hunger) but also:

  •  The reinforcement history of the bird.
    • Does the bird fully understand that the executing the cued behavior will result in a desired reward?
    • Has the trainer always been honest in their reinforcement of behavior in the past or for example was a large visible reward offered by the trainer to elicit a behavior switched out for a small treat when the behavior was completed?
  • What is the relationship like between the trainer and the bird?
    • Does the trainer have a history of positive rewarding experiences with the bird?  

These are just a couple of the things that contribute to the “will perform” side of the balance. Meanwhile on the other side of our imaginary balance are all the things that are telling the bird not to perform the behavior.

  • Is this a new or poorly trained behavior?
  • Is the bird physically capable of performing the behavior?
    • An example would be asking a bird to fly down from a high perch to the trainer at an acute angle.
  • Is the trainer being clear communicating what they are expecting of the bird?
    • Clear, concise, consistent cues are essential components of this clear communication.
  • Is the bird in good health and not exhausted by behaviors performed earlier in the training session?
  • Is the trainer asking for a downwind flight?
    • o Birds prefer to fly into the wind, using it to increase lift and assist in control. Think of aircraft taking off and landing into the wind!
  • Is the bird in a novel environment with new distracting noises and/or sights?
    • Generalization of behaviors in varied situations is an essential step in training any bird. When entering novel situations a trainer should relax their criteria for the behavior and build the bird’s confidence.

Once again this is not a complete list; however for each of these issues on the “may not perform” side of the balance the trainer who is not aware of them may have only weight reduction to resort to in order to get the required behavior.

By addressing the “may not perform” issues before reducing diet and therefore weight the trainer will find that the bird is willing and able to be flown at higher and higher weights. Indeed professional trainers making high demands on birds in complex show situations are finding that by paying primary attention to the “may not perform” side of the balance they are able to fly birds at weights that are near or even above those of the birds when being free fed, the so-called ad lib weight.

An essential part of training using weight management is the continual evaluation of the behavior of the bird. Novice and inexperienced trainers will often get fixated on a “flying weight”; the bird performs well at a particular weight and the trainer blindly maintains that weight. The training process should be to increase the weight of the bird and to carefully observe the behavior. A good trainer keeps increasing weight until they observe the early subtle signs of the behavior breaking down. By using this process the bird is flown at the highest weight possible.

In summary, food and/or weight management are used by professional trainers almost without exception. However, the decision to reduce diet in order to increase motivation is taken after all other factors have been considered and addressed. Indeed, sometimes the only ethical decision when trying to fly some birds in these situations is to choose not to fly them. It is true that almost any bird can be motivated to fly in pretty much any situation by using food/weight management; the question each trainer should ask is how far they are ethically prepared to go to achieve that goal.

Finally, choosing the right bird for the job or even the right job for the bird is probably the most important training decision we make.

Keep soaring,
Further reading:

Welcome to the Bird Training Blog

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

Welcome to the blog; the idea of this blog is to have a place where I can answer questions about training in general and bird training in particular. You will see that this blog does not display comments on the posts. This is by design; the blog is where you read my training philosophy and my understanding of Operant Conditioning and Applied Behavior Analysis.
I have set up an email address  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   where questions about OC and ABA may be posted. As and when time permits my idea is to select a question and answer it in the blog. Hopefully the blog will become a good gathering place for some of the concepts of OC and ABA and at the same time looking at the questions will enable me keep on top of the subject too.
There are several documents that I consider as prerequisites for training and I ask that everyone read them before posing a question. They are:

  1. The ABCs of Behavior – Dr. Susan Friedman PhD
  2. First published in 2001 this paper gives a really good practical outline to the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. It is on my list of prerequisites because the first step in being able to address training and behavioral issues and goals is to be able to describe the training goal or behavior problem in a way that is precise and therefore more widely understood.

  3. Training Animals – The Art of Science – Steve Martin (Natural Encounters Inc.) & Dr. Susan Friedman PhD.
  4. This paper was first published in 2004 at the Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference and I include it because it is essential for trainers to realize that although the sciences of Operant Conditioning and Applied Behavior Analysis appear to provide a very well defined set of rules that govern behavior modification they are only the start of a life-long journey of learning how to apply the science, in other words the “art” of training.

  5. What’s in it for me? – Steve Martin (Natural Encounters Inc.)
  6. This is perhaps the most important question a trainer can ask on behalf of any animal they are training.
    The writings of Dr. Susan Friedman, Steve Martin, and the staff of Natural Encounters provide a wealth of information and I encourage you to visit the web sites and read as much as you can.

I have one more short article that I wrote for Good Bird Magazine (itself a great resource) called “Science and Art in Training“, it outlines by background and my training and teaching philosophy.

So, read and enjoy and email  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   your training questions to TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom.