Finding the Best Treat

If you have decided to train your bird with positive reinforcement techniques, you obviously have to find something that is reinforcing for your bird.  As I wrote about in my earlier post, positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder, so what might work for some birds won’t work for others.

Here are just a few things that can serve as positive reinforcers:

  • food
  • attention
  • head scratches
  • toys

A lot depends on your individual bird.

So how do you figure out what your bird likes?  With Static, it was relatively easy.  I already knew that she liked to shred paper towel and have air blown in her face, so I had two reinforcers before I even started looking at food.  To determine which treat she liked best, I took a handful of the hookbill mix we give our birds as treats, and I picked out a sunflower seed and a safflower seed and placed them in the palm of my hand.  Static ate the safflower first.  I replaced the safflower seed, and again she chose it over the sunflower.  At that point, I figured the safflower seeds were the big winner, but I tried other seeds in combination pairs to see which she chose first.

Every time it was available, safflower went first.  Sunflowers were a distant second, followed by everything else.

With Luna, it was a little harder.  Since she is blind, I couldn’t just show her a couple of treats and see which one she picked first.  With her, I experimented by giving a few different treats and carefully watching her behavior.  When she gave me the biggest reaction, that’s the treat I settled on.  We tried seeds, but when offered fruit and especially green apples, she seemed the most interested.

Now you don’t always have to use the same reinforcer every time.  With Static, I’ve already experimented with different rewards.  When I wanted her to get over her fear of the dining room table, I reinforced her with paper towel and puffs of air blown in her face.  When I started to teach her to target, I used a food reward.  For her, there are many things she finds reinforcing, so I just try to pick whatever I think she’ll most enjoy right at that moment.

Luna, being a different bird, doesn’t find as many things reinforcing.  For most behaviors, I stick with apple bites.  However, even she finds scratching and snuggling a positive reinforcer (at least with people she knows) so I can use it to encourage her to be more comfortable with a towel.  Since she has a tendency to want to stay in the cuddle spot for a while after she’s put there, I can’t use scratches for trick training, but I can use them if I want to introduce her to a towel or a new foot toy.

If you are using food as a reinforcer, you’ll want to make sure that you make the treats small enough that the bird doesn’t get full too quickly.  You can break up shelled seeds, nuts or fruit pieces in a food chopper, so you are only giving bite-sized morsels.  For smaller birds, try using a sprig of millet, and offer a bite before moving on to the next repetition.

So what do you do if you have a bird that bites and you can’t safely hand him a treat?

Offer snacks in a long-handled spoon (if he’s not afraid of it) or in his food dish, and carefully observe what he takes first.  If he won’t eat when you are watching, leave the room and peek around the door, or just make a careful note of what you gave him and how quickly it disappeared.

Even if you can’t touch your bird right now because he’s too fearful or aggressive, there is hope.  You can improve your bird’s behavior, even if he is a rescue with an abusive or neglectful past.  The first step is to find something that your bird finds enjoyable, and use that to reward desirable behavior.

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