Stuffing Birds with Words

wpid-20150317_090951.jpgMimicry.  It’s one of the most charming things that parrots can do, to the delight of parrot owners everywhere.  There is something magical for us humans about actually being able to communicate with another species, in our language!  Of course, there is still some controversy surrounding whether it’s actual communication or simply haphazard regurgitation, on the part of the parrot, but in either case it’s delightful to hear a bird spouting off phrases we can understand.

So how does the process work to get birds to be vocal?  Some of it can be attributed to the natural tendency of parrots to mimic sounds.  However, there are some definite things that parrot owners can do to help the process along or encourage a more extensive and/or selective vocabulary.  Here are a few tips and tricks:

  • Be selective when you purchase a bird. In some species, males tend to talk more often (as can be the case with budgies and cockatiels).  Also, if you get a younger, hand raised bird, you can work on training and bonding earlier.  Certain species of parrots are also know to be more apt to talk.  According to this article on, the best talkers are the African grey, the quaker parrot, and the budgerigar.  Fun fact: although tiny in size, budgies are some of the most prolific talkers in the parrot world.  According to the aforementioned article, a budgie named Puck has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records for knowing more than 1,700 words!
  • Spend time building a relationship with your bird.  The more time you spend with your parrot bonding positively, the more likely it is that your feathered friend will want to talk to you.
  • Speak clearly to your bird and pay attention to what your bird really keys into.  If you are saying something to your bird and he cocks his head or appears to listen more intently to what you’re saying, chances are he will want to repeat the word(s) you are currently using.
  • Make a big deal out of words/phrases.  If you put emphasis on what you are saying, oftentimes the bird will find it more interesting.
  • Reward your bird for being vocal.  If you are training with treats, you can carry that training over into talking.  Either reward your bird for giving you phrases you want on cue or just reward him for being a talkative bird.
  • Keep it fresh.  Once your bird has a phrase or few phrases down, introduce something new and continue to do that throughout your training.  It will be more exciting for your bird to hear new things, and it will keep training fresh for you as well!

Teaching a parrot to talk can be so much fun for both bird and owner.  I will leave you with a video of my cockatiel, Sydney, when he first began talking.  In this video, I actually had him talking into a mirror, which is another trick you can use to get your bird to become chatty!  Hopefully he will entice you to also stuff your bird with words!


Relationship Rules Responses

Embed from Getty ImagesSydney recently started biting my finger. Not just putting his little beak on me or giving me a warning nibble, but offering me a full course (appetizer and dessert included) bite. It happens almost exclusively when I ask for a “step up” (a request for him to step onto my finger and perch there). This is so unlike the bird I had know prior to the last few weeks. He was usually always gentle and very willing to do what I asked when I needed him to. So why, I began to think, did this biddable little bird become Sir Chomps A Lot over the recent few weeks? A large part of the answer, I concluded, is relationship.

In the realm of working with animals and training them, a majority of the information that is shared revolves around the mechanics of teaching different behaviors and how to increase those behaviors and make them reliable. What isn’t touched upon enough is the fact that building a relationship is as important, if not more important, than the training process (and can help immeasurably with the latter concept). This is extremely necessaryu in the world of birds, as they often tend to be a bit more unforgiving than other species.  When work requests are favored over a solid connection, many things can suffer.  In Sydney’s case, trust fell away as I limited my time with him during recent, hectic weeks and became pretty adamant (instead of patient) about his stepping up in a timely manner. Trust is huge.  When it erodes, it plays a large part in other things that suffer in the wake of a poor relationship.  Predictability becomes shaky.  This happens both for the animal and the human, as the human handler no longer is able to feel comfortable about what the animal is going to do, and the animal isn’t able to count on a routine or familiarity when it comes to what the human is doing.  The latter is pretty important, as animals greatly rely on routines and the ability to predict outcomes. To them, oftentimes that is survival!   Finally, as there is less joy and pleasure in a partnership, the animal’s willingness to interact can suffer, leading to non-behavior or worse, aggressive behavior in the wake of requests.

So what might sound like the bad news, for you pet owners and animal trainers out there, is that it’s imperative that you build time into your schedules to nurture relationships with your animals. The good new is…that’s the fun stuff!!! Walk your dog. Take your bird out and sing to it. Let your dog play fetch in the water. Let your bird sit on your computer chair while you turn it around. Yes, that last one really happens at our house. No one can ever accuse me of not trying.  Here is a lovely video by one of my favorite bird trainers, Barbara Heidenreich, which talks about training parrots to do tricks (a great way to teach your parrot some useful behaviors and build a relationship with them).  Outside of the presentation she gives on working with a bird, notice how she handles the bird’s decision to get on her hand and do some behaviors she hasn’t necessarily asked for.  Her patience and enthusiasm, even in the face of “surprises,” allow the bird to remain at ease and willing to work with her!

So, the point here is, don’t be “all work and no play.” Your animal companion will greatly appreciate it, and his performance and interactions with you will reflect it in many positive ways!

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Reinforcement: It’s Where the Nose Goes

 “Finish!” That is the word which always preceded the final part of many exercises I and my dog were asked to perform during competitive obedience.  It meant that my dog was to walk around behind me and sit smartly at my left side.  However, that’s not all.  He had to be precise and place his sit in such a way that his right shoulder was in line with my left leg.  Although I would start sweating a little each time he started the journey around, I cannot remember a time when his cute, fuzzy butt landed in an ill placed sit.  Why?  Because anytime we worked on finishes in training, I was careful to only feed my dog treats at my left side.  Right by my leg, where his head needed to be.  I was “feeding a habit” you could say. Continue reading

Enrichment: It’s So for the Birds

wpid-20141218_163449.jpgSomeone had decided to have frozen breaded shrimp for dinner and was kind enough to save the box for us.  It still smelled strongly of the shrimp, and for a moment I got a little hungry.  Then, I refocused on the task at hand…place the box in one of the animal enclosures and log it, so that during the next enrichment session, the animal would get something different to explore.  This scenario happened regularly during my time as a zoo volunteer.  Animals were given items to change their environment.  Items that challenged them to use natural behaviors like scenting, foraging, and burrowing.  Items that kept boredom to a minimum and heightened enthusiasm.  This concept is a wonderful one to use for our pets as well!   Continue reading