Training Parrots to Talk

by Heike Ewing Ott

What is the best way to train parrots to talk? Do those training tapes work at all? Learn about several training methods for teaching birds to talk. Some thoughts about training parrots to do tricks are included towards the end of this informative article.

I’ve seen several questions lately about training tapes…

I know quite a few people who’ve used the records and tapes of people talking. Mostly they produced little result in the larger parrots, although tiels and budgies may learn to mimic from them.

Our Quakers learn to talk in order to communicate with us, much like small children do. Hearing “sounds” repeated over and over again from a mechanical device is not communication from the bird’s point of view, and although they may learn to make the sound they don’t attach any meaning to it. In the few cases I know of where birds DID learn to repeat things from the tapes, they most often became closet talkers that talked when alone, since that was when they heard the sounds they learned to repeat.

In my opinion, talking to your baby Quaker as if it were a human baby that you expect to learn to communicate by language produces the best talkers. Also, constantly repeating a word or phrase that you want your bird to learn may not produce the desired results. John has been trying for weeks to get Bear to learn “Ooooh, Baby!”, but she’s not even showing any interest in it. What she is learning to repeat are the words that have =meaning= to her, such as Hello, Pretty Bear, Step UP, and of course Dammit! She USES these words to communicate, such as saying Pretty Bear and Step Up when she wants attention or out of her cage.

Another excellent method is “modeling,” where a human ally or another bird models the desired behaviour in front of the student and is rewarded for performance. You can learn more about modeling from the articles that have been written about Alex the CAG, at:

http://www.cages.org/research/pepperberg/index.html

(sorry, link no longer works)

where there are several links to articles that describe the techniques and methods used in training Alex. This method is also good for trick training.

The method of trick training that has worked best for me is to expand on a “natural” behavior and turn it into a trick by beginning to reward the bird for doing it. For example, I taught Beaker to “eagle” (spread out both wings and stand tall) by catching her in the middle of a natural stretch and rewarding her with effusive praise and/or a treat while saying “Eagle! Eagle! Good bird, Eagle.” After only a couple of weeks she would spread her wings upon hearing the word “Eagle.”

The lifting of one foot can be turned into a hello or bye-bye wave, and a tendency to lie upside down is easily turned into a “play dead” routine. Using the bird’s own natural and unique behaviours also results in “original” tricks that not everybody’s parrot does, and ensures that the learned tricks are things the bird is comfortable doing.

Step Up, Step Down, and some equivalent of No! are necessary commands that all birds should learn for basic discipline and safety, much as all dogs should learn Sit, Come, Stay, and No, but beyond that take advantage of your bird’s unique personality and traits to develop original and unique “tricks” that will delight and entertain your friends, you, and your bird. BTW, since parrots have short attention spans in general, short (10 – 15 minute) training sessions conducted frequently are more productive than a few long sessions.