Parrot & Bird Terminology for Training

Learning about parrot training is fun! However sometimes the terminology used to describe training can get a bit confusing. Good Bird Inc has prepared a list of terms commonly used in animal training to help parrot training enthusiasts become familiar with some of the commonly used language. The list could go on and on, however we decided to focus on the words most may encounter on their journey into animal training.

Behavior Analysis:

The science of behavior change; the study of the functional relations between behavior and environmental events. It attempts to understand, explain, describe and predict behavior. In many ways it is a study of how animals learn.


Showing the reinforcer the parrot will receive prior to performance of the behavior. This can be an acceptable practice to initiate a behavior, but should be quickly phased out so that the reinforcer is not seen before presentation of the behavior. This is because the animal may learn to wait and see what will be offered before deciding to present the behavior.

parrot trainig

Example of bribery:

To get a Nanday Conure to enter a crate, his trainer started the behavior by making a trail of sunflower seeds leading into the crate. Once the bird was comfortable entering and exiting the crate for the visible treats, the trainer switched to not showing the treats and using a target to prompt the bird to enter the crate.

Yellow Collared Macaw

Bridge or Bridging Stimulus:

A signal or marker that indicates when an animal has done something correct. It bridges the gap in time between when the animal did something correct and when it will receive positive reinforcement. Some examples of bridges are clickers, whistles, the word “good” or a touch.

parrot training

Example of the application of a bridging stimulus:

When training your Eclectus Parrot to lift his foot you use a click sound the moment his foot is in the air to let him know this is the behavior you are marking. This is then followed by him receiving his favorite treat.


Capturing a Behavior:

Catching an animal in the act of presenting a behavior. Typically the behavior is presented in its entirety. When followed by a reinforcer this can teach the animal to present the behavior again. This may lead to the behavior being offered frequently. At this point a cue can be inserted prior to the presentation of the behavior. A challenge with capturing a behavior is if the behavior breaks down, a trainer must wait for it to be offered again to recapture it and put it on cue.

parrot training

Example of capturing a behavior:

Your Hyacinth Macaw offers the word “cracker” when he sees you eating dinner. Because you like this behavior, you immediately offer a piece of the bread you are eating to your parrot. Once this morsel is consumed, your parrot repeats the word “cracker” again. In essence you caught your parrot in the act presenting a behavior you like. By following it with a positive reinforcer (the bread) this behavior is increased and likely to be presented again.

Hyacinth Macaw


To be coerced is to be compelled under duress or threat to do something against our will. Coercion enters the picture when our actions are controlled by negative reinforcement or positive punishment. (Sidman 1989) In addition actions that contribute to control via negative reinforcement or positive punishment need not be severely aversive to be coercive. Seemingly innocuous activities such as scooping a parrot onto a hand, pushing a rabbit into a kennel and redirecting a wandering opossum on a table all incorporate force. Not recommended.

Example of Coercion:

To get your Goffin’s Cockatoo to wear a harness you have your partner restrain the bird while you strap on the apparatus. The bird cannot escape from the restraint or the harness if his body language indicates he is not comfortable. The next time you approach with the harness he flies away from you. This experience can make it very difficult to train your bird to wear a harness in the future.


Researchers have coined the term contrafreeloading to describe the phenomenon that animals choose to perform a learned response to obtain reinforcers even when the same reinforcers are freely available. For example, given a choice between working for food and obtaining food for free, animals tend to choose to work, often quite hard, with a bowl of free food placed right next to them. This phenomenon has been replicated with rats, mice, chickens, pigeons, crows, cats, gerbils, Siamese fighting fish, and humans (Osborne, 1977); starlings (Inglis & Ferguson, 1986); Abyssinian ground hornbills and bare-faced currasows (Gilbert-Norton, 2003); and captive parrots (Colton, et al., 1997). There are several interesting hypotheses explaining why this phenomenon occurs. For example, contrafreeloading behavior may be motivated by innate foraging behaviors that are otherwise frustrated in captivity; animals may be engaging in information seeking behaviors as they work to predict the location of optimal food sources; or they may be responding to the additional reinforcement provided by stimulus changes when one works for food such as the sound of a hopper. (Friedman, 2005)

Example of contrafreeloading:

A Cockatiel was offered food in a bowl along with food scattered among the leaves of a piece of Astroturf. Rather than eat from the bowl, the cockatiel chose to forage within the turf to gather his meal.



A signal that tells the animal what to do. Many trainers use verbal and/or hand cues. Cues are learned via association with the behavior followed by reinforcement. They are not necessarily immediately understood.

Example of a cue:

Einstein the African Grey parrot who lives in Texas learned to copy the sound of the alarm beeping whenever a door opened. The sight of her owner heading towards a door became a visual cue to her to make the beeping sound.

Congo African Grey Parrot


Deprivation is the absence or reduction of a reinforcer for a period of time. Deprivation is an establishing operation that increases the effectiveness of a reinforcer. A challenge for the animal training industry is to define how long is acceptable for reinforcers be withheld and how much deprivation is acceptable and how much is misuse.

Example of deprivation in training:

Your Scarlet Macaw has a toy that she prefers over all other toys. Lately she has been reluctant to return to her cage when cued as she seems to prefer your company. When you cue her to her cage and she does present the behavior, you offer her favorite toy which you have been saving to use to only reinforce this challenging behavior.

Hahn’s Macaw

Differential Reinforcement:

Involves two or more physically different behaviors; one behavior is reinforced, and all others are extinguished. It can also be defined as the reinforcement of one behavior and not another.

Example of differential reinforcement:

 For a Moluccan Cockatoo that gets very excited and sometimes flips to the presentation of aggressive behavior, one may differentially reinforce the presentation of body language associated with calm behavior as opposed to those associated with highly aroused behavior

Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior:

Reinforcing an alternate acceptable behavior while withholding reinforcement for the unwanted response.

Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior:

Reinforcement is provided for one behavior that is incompatible with another undesired behavior.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior:

Reinforcement for any behavior other than the undesired behavior

Establishing Operations:

An antecedent event or change in the environment that alters the effectiveness of the reinforcer and the rates of the responses that have produced that reinforcer previously. Having just eaten a large meal will diminish the effectiveness of edible reinforcers. Similarly, deprivation will increase the effectiveness of reinforcers.

Example of using establishing operations in training:

Your Senegal Parrot is reluctant to step up onto other people in the household. However he finds being on the floor less desirable than being on an elevated perch. When he accidentally ends up on the floor, less preferred family members offer their hand for the parrot to step onto for an elevator ride back to a higher perch. Being on the floor changed the establishing operation making the behavior more likely to be presented.

Food Management:

Food reinforcers are often used to increase motivation to present a desired behavior when training birds. Desire for food reinforcers can be created by managing when and how food is delivered, what food items are offered, and the ratio of food items offered. This practice is referred to as “food management.” Most parrot training can be accomplished using food management practices.

Example of food management:

There are many strategies for food management. One example is as follows: You would like to train your Pionus Parrot to present a new behavior of stepping onto a scale. However he has no interest in any treats you offer. To create interest in treats for a training session in the morning, you remove his food bowl when he goes to sleep. In the morning before offering him his diet, you conduct a training session. With this approach he eagerly accepts a treat and you are able to have a session.

Yellow Naped Amazon Parrot


A process of teaching an animal to cope with a situation it fears. The process is generally traumatic and relentless. The animal learns nothing it does will change the outcome and learns to submit or tolerate the situation. Not recommended!

Example of flooding:

Everyday a Quaker parrot is required to be moved from one location to another. The bird does not step up voluntarily. It is decided the bird must be moved and the bird is chased with a towel until the parrot is captured. This is repeated two times daily to move the bird inside and outside. Eventually the bird stops running away from the towel and freezes when it sees the towel. This allows the bird to be captured easily.

Free Flight:

Training parrots to fly outside without any types of restraint devices or enclosure.


An unusually large or valuable reinforcer delivered contingently only upon the first occurrence of a high quality or difficult approximation. At this point in time jackpots are not proven to be effective by scientific study. However the animal training community does use them.

parrot training

Example of application of a jackpot:

In training a Budgerigar to step up onto the hand, a single millet seed has been offered for each step closer the hand the bird has made. When the parrots toenail touches the hand for the first time, a jackpot of several bites of millet spray is offered in hopes of communicating touching the hand is of more value than simply moving closer to it.

Blue and Gold Macaw

Learned Helplessness:

The result of flooding procedures. Parrots learn nothing they do can influence the outcome and give up. Not recommended!

Matching Law:

This law states that when given a choice between two behaviors the animal will behave in the way the produces the most or more preferred reinforcers.

Example of the matching law:

Your Patagonian Conure seems to be interested in nesting. Seeking out nesting locations or cavities is a constant behavior. Rather than staying on the cage, crawling under the couch is most often where the bird can be found. Because the parrot is choosing to crawl under the couch rather than stay on the cage, it can be concluded that being under the couch is more reinforcing than being on the cage. To increase staying on the cage, it will require this behavior be more reinforcing than going under the couch.

Negative Punishment:

The removal of a positive reinforcer that serves to decrease or suppress the frequency of the behavior. The use of negative punishment can create behaviors related to frustration when used alone. It is best paired with immediate reinforcement of the desired behavior. It is sometimes referred to as a time out from positive reinforcement. In general when used appropriately a time out should only last a few seconds.

parrot training

Example of negative punishment:

Your Sun Conure has past experience stepping   onto your hand to receive a treat as a positive reinforcer. This time when you offer your hand for the behavior of step up your conure tries to bite your hand. You remove your hand and the treats your bird was destined to receive for stepping up (removal of positive reinforcer). After a few seconds you present the cue again. This time the bird steps up immediately and receives his treat (differential reinforcement).

Sun Conure

Negative Reinforcement:

The removal of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behavior. Another name for negative reinforcement is escape/avoidance training. Negative reinforcers tend to be aversive or unpleasant stimuli. To avoid negative reinforcers, learners often only work to the level necessary to avoid them.  Not recommended!

Example of negative reinforcement:

Your Blue and Gold Macaw is reluctant to go back into his cage. When he sits on top of his cage you have noticed that showing him a towel will cause him to move away from the towel. Without touching him you present the towel in a manner than corrals him back into his cage. Once he enters the cage, the towel is hidden away. The next time this happens you present the towel and he runs into his cage at the site of it.

Positive Reinforcement:

The presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that serves to maintain or increase the frequency of the behavior. Another name for positive reinforcement is reward training. Positive reinforcers tend to be valued or pleasant stimuli. To get positive reinforcers, learners often enthusiastically exceed the minimum effort necessary to gain them. Recommended!

parrot training

Example of positive reinforcement:

You present your hand to your Umbrella Cockatoo for the behavior of “step up.” Instead your cockatoo curls his beak into his chin with his head feathers fluffed. You respond by scratching his head. When you present your hand again for the “step up” behavior, your cockatoo again curls his head to his chest. The positive reinforcer is the head scratching. The behavior that has been increased via positive reinforcement is curling his head to his chest when a hand is presented.

Umbrella Cockatoo

Positive Punishment:

The presentation of an aversive stimulus that serves to decrease or suppress the frequency of the behavior. The use of punishment tends to produce detrimental side effects such as counter aggression, escape behavior, apathy and fear. Also, punishment doesn’t teach the learner what to do to earn positive reinforcement. Not Recommended!

parrot training

Example of positive punishment:

Your Amazon Parrot is sitting on his cage screaming. When this happens you grab a spray bottle filled with water. During a bout of screaming you spray him in the face (aversive stimulus). He stops screaming and also tries to move away from the water stream. The next time he screams you present the water bottle and he stops screaming. Not Recommended!

Rose Breasted Cockatoo

Primary Reinforcers:

Primary reinforcers are reinforcers the effectiveness of which does not depend on its contingent relation to another reinforcer. This can be a stimulus, such as food, water, or sexual activity that usually is reinforcing in the absence of any prior learning history. They are sometimes described as reinforcers which are necessary for the survival of the species. The list of primary reinforcers is typically very, very small.

parrot training

Example of a primary reinforcer:

When your Caique hops into a kennel when cued he is offered a piece of almond.



Prompting is described as a supplementary stimulus to help a learner respond. For example, if a student cannot remember a technical term we can give a prompt by, for example, telling him or her the first letter. Note that later prompts are "faded" so that the student eventually responds without them. Another definition would be an antecedent that induces a subject to perform a behavior that otherwise does not occur. (Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies)

Example of using prompting to train:

To teach a Lovebird to pick up a small whiffle ball, you may choose to hold the ball in front of the birds beak. This can act as a prompt for the bird to touch the object. If this is followed by positive reinforcers for touching the ball, the behavior may be repeated.



Decreases behavior. The two types of punishment commonly seen in animal training are positive punishment and negative punishment.


Increases behavior. The two types of reinforcement commonly seen in animal training are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement

Secondary Reinforcers:

Secondary reinforcers are reinforcers that are dependent on their association with other reinforcers. They are also called conditioned reinforcers. They are a stimulus that initially has no reinforcing properties but, through occurring simultaneously with unconditioned or strongly conditioned reinforcers, acquires reinforcing properties. They are also called learned reinforcers. The list of secondary reinforcers can be endless.

Example of secondary reinforcer:

Your Sulphur Crested Cockatoo is an escape artist. Once the cage is opened, he regularly hops to the windowsill and chews the wooden frame. The opportunity to chew the wood acts as a secondary reinforcer for the escape behavior.

Shaping a Behavior with Approximations:

Once a desired behavior is identified, it is possible to look at that behavior as a series of small steps. The first step must be learned before moving on to the next step. Eventually all the steps when joined together lead up to the final desired behavior. Approximations are used quite often to train behaviors. This strategy can be used to train a bird to step up onto the hand, go onto a scale, step onto strangers, enter a kennel, wave and much more. 

Training with approximations is like a dance between the trainer and the parrot. The bird may take a few steps or approximations forward, but if the bird is hesitant to move forward more, the trainers may choose to accept a step that had been mastered previously. The training may remain at this step for a few repetitions as the bird gains confidence before a more challenging step is attempted again. There is a constant shifting and adjusting to meet the capabilities of the bird, but eventually more steps are taken forward then backward and the bird learns what the trainer is trying to teach. It is an intricate dance and one that makes training such an interesting activity. It challenges a trainer’s skills. Very rarely does training become boring. Each species, each individual, each behavior brings a new set of criteria to the table.

parrot training


To train a Ringnecked Parakeet to step onto your hand you may have to shape the behavior with approximations. This may mean reinforcing your bird for taking tiny steps towards your hand, barely touching your hand  with his foot, putting a foot on your hand and them removing it, putting a foot on your hand and leaving it there, put a second foot on the hand and so on.

Blue Crowned Conure

Systematic Desensitization:

A form of desensitization training in which the client repeatedly images anxiety-arousing situations while relaxed. The client progresses systematically through a hierarchy of more and more disturbing situations, typically without ever experiencing great anxiety. Combining relaxation with a hierarchy, of fear-producing stimuli, arranged from the least to the most frightening.

parrot training

Example of systematic desensitization:

As the conscientious companion parrot owner approaches her Green Cheeked Parrot’s cage with the new toy, she notices her bird quickly moved to the back of the cage away from the approaching toy. Rather than put the toy in the cage, she decides to take a few steps back until her bird shows behavior that indicates comfort. She then gently and slowly places the toy on the floor in her bird’s line of sight. Each day the companion parrot owner gently moves the toy slightly closer to the cage. All the while noticing if her bird responds with any behavior indicative of fear. If she notices fear responses, she moves the toy away from the cage until the bird shows calm behavior. Over time the companion parrot owner has been able to get the toy so close it is right next to the cage. She then gently hangs the toy on the outside of the cage away from food or water bowls. (This is because she does not want her bird to driven away from his resources by fear.)This process is known as systematic desensitization. It is the idea of gradually exposing a subject to fear producing stimuli, arranged from least frightening to most frightening in combination with a relaxed state.



Targeting is simply teaching an animal to orient a body part towards a specific target. The target can be an object such as a stick, food bowl or square of carpet. However targets can also be less tangible things such as a light or a sound. Blind animals are often trained to orient to a sound as their target.

Notice in the description of targeting, what body part is oriented towards the target was not clarified. That is because the body part can be different for different species. In most situations the target is being used to help direct an animal where to go. In these cases usually the body part that is chosen to make contact with the target, is the body part the animal most readily chooses to investigate its world. Parrots will often investigate the world with their beak and mouth. It is usually quite easy to teach a parrot to touch a target with its beak. However what body part will be touching the target can also be different depending on the training goal identified

parrot training

Example of using targeting to train a behavior:

A Parrot showed aggressive behavior towards hands whenever they entered his cage to change food and water bowls. To address this, the parrot was trained to follow a target until he got to a perch on the other side of the cage. Here he was reinforced for sitting on the perch. Over time the bird learned to go to his perch whenever someone entered his cage to change bowls.

Double Yellow Headed Amazon Parrot

Weight Management:

Once a weight range that corresponds to acceptable behavioral responses to food is established, a diet is prepared to maintain the bird in that weight range. The weight range may be adjusted depending on response during training sessions. Various conditions may influence behavior, such as weather, age, food items, etc., and should be taken into consideration when evaluating weights and diets. These weight ranges may also vary between individuals of the same species. The goal is to work towards as high a weight as possible, provide the greatest amount of food, and also maintain a response to food during training sessions.  While effective, in most cases weight management is not required to achieve parrot training goals and can create problems if not monitored extremely closely.

References and Resources:

Center for Behavioral Studies

Warren, N.K., Young, R. J. (1997). Effects of foraging enrichment on the behavior of parrots. Animal Welfare 6, 357-363.

Freidman, S.G. (2005). He said, she said, science says. Good Bird Magazine  Vol 1 issue 1 Spring

Friedman, S.G. and Heidenreich, B. (2005) Pick a Principle Good Bird Magazine. Volume 1 Issue 4.

Gilbert-Norton, L. (2003). Captive birds and freeloading: The choice to work. Research News, 4 (1).

Heidenreich, B (2004). Training birds for medical and husbandry behaviors. Proceedings Animal Behavior Management Alliance conference

Heidenreich, B (2006) Training your Bird to Target Good Bird Magazine Vol 2 Issue 3 Fall.

Heidenreich, B (2006) An Introduction to Positive Reinforcement Training and its Benefits Bird Keeper Magazine.

Heidenreich, B (2008) The Ethics of Animal Training and Handling Proceedings International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators conference

Heidenreich, B (2007) Prompting and Coercion Good Bird Magazine Volume 3 Issue 3 Fall

Inglis I .R., Ferguson, N. J. K. (1986). Starlings search for food rather than eat freely available food. Animal Behaviour, 34, 614-616.

International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators

Osborne, S. R. (1977). The free food (contrafreeloading) phenomenon: A review and analysis. Animal learning & Behavior, 5 (8), 221-235.

Sidman, M. (1989) Coercion and its Fallout. Boston, MA, Authors Cooperative Inc., Publishers.

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