Reinforcers And Parrots Who Are Fearful Of Humans


Regular Member
Reinforcers and how to use them with a Parrot who is fearful of humans

Building a history of Reinforcement from almost nothing

We all have to start somewhere. A new parrot will have had no time yet to build a nice long history of reinforcement with us. Maybe that parrot is used to humans and being handled in which case new reinforcers are quickly learned. But maybe that parrot is afraid of humans. Where do we start?

It might be a good idea to read this thread first which explains more about reinforcers:

To recap, if the outcome to a behaviour is desirable, then we will repeat that behaviour. That outcome or consequence is said to be reinforcing. Primary reinforcers are unlearned – there are very few eg. food, water, heat. Secondary reinforcers are learned by pairing them either with primary reinforcers or other secondary reinforcers eg. head scratches, praise, the clicker and thousands more! It therefore makes sense to use a primary reinforcer like food – treats - with a new addition to our flock since there is no learning involved. But how can we use treats if we can’t get close to our newcomer?

Negative Reinforcement
Another example of a primary (unlearned) reinforcer is escape from an aversive. Negative reinforcement is also known as escape/avoidance learning. The behaviour is strengthened (reinforced) by escaping an aversive (something the parrot doesn’t like). For example, pushing a hand into the bird’s chest to make it step up. The bird steps up to escape the sensation of being pushed in the chest. The bird has no choice but to step up… or may well learn to bite to make the hand go away. Not the best way of teaching a step up since you are also pairing yourself with an aversive, but we can use negative reinforcement in a more positive way when approaching an "untame" bird.

Note: if you have to use negative reinforcement at any time, it should be immediately followed up with positive reinforcement. However normally, negative reinforcement should be avoided.

Ollie (Orange-winged Amazon) came to me "untame", "cagebound" and afraid of humans, especially hands. He had very few reinforcers and certainly none where humans were concerned. I had to find a way to get close enough to then be able to offer positive reinforcement. My presence was an aversive. He was frightened of me. I used negative reinforcement:

I would walk towards his cage very slowly beginning from the far side of the room. When he showed slightly uneasy body language that was my starting point. I took a couple of steps back and waited for him to show relaxed body language (RBL) again. When I saw RBL I took a slow step forward (introducing an aversive). His continued RBL then earned half a step back (removing the aversive). I’d wait a few seconds and then took another slow step forward. His RBL earned half a step back, and so on until I could get closer and closer to his cage without him freaking. I did this every time I had to approach his cage. If his body language changed at all, even slightly, then I would go back a couple of steps until I saw his RBL and then break the steps down even smaller.

Positive Reinforcement
When I could get close enough I would offer him a palm nut. I knew the palm nut was reinforcing because he continued to take them from me. Then I noticed he was choosing cashews out of his dry bowl first, so sometimes I offered a whole cashew (whole so my fingers could be as far away from him as possible). When he was successfully taking a whole cashew I would then offer half, and then slowly broke them into smaller pieces. So now we had two reinforcers – the palm nut and pieces of cashew.

Handing him treats like this began to pair me and my fingers with the delivery of good things therefore my presence and fingers started to become reinforcing. My presence and fingers became a secondary reinforcer (learned by pairing in this case with a primary reinforcer – food).

Watch out for Reinforcers you can use!
I noticed Ollie would swing a bell and stick his head underneath so it would catch his head feathers – a self head scritch! The bell catching his head feathers was reinforcing. By this time he was used to my hands in his cage, so I carefully unhooked the bell and gently swung it above his head and he put his head down so it caught his feathers. Gradually I made the chain shorter until I was scritching his head holding the bell itself. Still reinforcing. I began handing him various favourite foot toys and because he was used to me skritching his head with the bell, he began putting his head down so I could skritch him with a foot toy.

My fingers got closer and closer until one day I gave him a short head skritch with my fingers. I gave him a piece of cashew as extra reinforcement. The process took 6 months.

Head scratches became hugely reinforcing and he would ask for them often. So just for fun I used them to start balancing various objects on the nape of his neck and then head.

Today Ollie has many reinforcers all built up over the years paired with other reinforcers. It is now reinforcing to come out of his cage, fly, chew boxes, go sit with Kobe the Blue-headed Pionus (Kobe doesn’t find this particularly reinforcing), explore the floor, go out into the aviary, even explore my arm the other day.

I usually use pieces of cashew to reinforce targeting, stepping up, and turning circles (all these were learned by shaping):

First I used to use pieces of cashew to reinforce him keeping his feet still as I cut one toenail at a time, but now I switch it up with head scratches or animated talking. As an experiment I paired a head scratch with a silly squeak and managed to cut a nail just using the squeak as a reinforcer:

A newly slotted in food bowl reinforces Ollie’s flying back to his cage to eat. What a simple way to have a parrot go willingly back into his cage without even having to touch him!
My bird would bite whoever tries to get near his cage. He isn't scared when we get near him, but when we try to touch him, he would bite us. How should I approach him without getting bit?

Michael Reynolds

Regular Member
the best answer is do not force him to come to you, if he bites then he is scared and you should hold back and let him relax. you have only had him a day, and building trust can take time. the important thing in building a strong relationship is not gaining trus but it is not loosing trust you have gained


Elected Forum Trainer
Regular Member
Biting is communication. It sounds like your bird is uncomfortable at being touched for now. How long have you had him? What sort of bird is he?

Right now, try not to do anything that results in a bite, because if you do, you are only teaching him to bite more in that circumstance. Instead of pairing yourself with aversives (being touched is an aversive for the bird at the moment) try to pair yourself with good experiences for him so that you gradually gain his trust.

Can you please tell us more about the bird?
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