Rachael Prewitt sits at her kitchen table with a tiny stack of plastic rings. On the other side, her cockatiel, Bumble B., bobs his head in anticipation. Rachael points with a wooden dowel to the only ring left on the table and clicks her tongue. Bumble B. picks up the ring and drops it on the stack. The puzzle is complete. His reward is a bite of millet spray, a dry seed and his favorite snack.
This demonstration is a result of “clicker training”, a form of animal training grounded in positive reinforcement. Instead of an animal being punished for unwanted behavior, a desired action is encouraged, and rewarded with treats. If the animal does not follow through with the desired action, there is no reward.
With Bumble B., training him to complete the trick was a step-by-step process. It began by leading him to the target, the plastic ring, and rewarding him for that action. Then Rachael raised her expectations. Reaching the target was not enough to get a reward. Bumble B. had to touch the ring. After achieving that, he had to pick it up to be rewarded. Then he had to complete each of these tasks and drop the ring on the stack.
“Initially, clicker training just seemed like a fun way to interact with my birds in a positive way, and teach them amusing tricks,” says Rachael. When she adopted Duck, a maroon bellied conure with aggression problems, clicker training became a tool for building trust. “He used to flying attack my face, and run up a hand-held perch to attack my hand,” Rachael says. “Over time he learned to accept treats from my fingers, and stand calmly on the handheld perch while I transported him.”
The same trick-and-treat process that had taught Bumble B. to stack rings, helped Duck bond with Rachael. For other bird owners struggling with similar problems, clicker training may offer a second chance. “I attribute the progress made with what had once been a completely unhandleable bird to clicker training,” says Rachael.
Rachael also notes that “useful behaviors” can be taught with clicker training. Some of which include coaxing cage-bound birds out onto a perch, teaching birds to drink medication from a dropper, and to lift their wings during routine wing trimming. Even for well adjusted birds, the process can have practical every-day uses for their owners. Just don’t forget the millet spray.