How to Get Your Parrot to Play with Toys

In this blog post Barbara Heidenreich talks about How to Get Your Parrot to Play with Toys and the different techniques you can use to encourage the acceptance of new toys in the cage or playstand.

How to Get Your Parrot to Play with Toys

I have been inspired by a question posted to my yahoo group. The question was asked how do you get a parrot used to a new toy? I think that is a marvelous question. All too often we assume because it is a toy, our parrots should automatically be eagerly interacting with it. In general parrots tend to show hesitancy around new items or situations. As positive reinforcement enthusiasts, most of us know that we can train our birds to be calm and confident with change. But it does take some investment on our part. Not a financial investment, but a commitment to teaching your bird via positive reinforcement training strategies. But if in this moment your bird has clearly demonstrated new toys create a fear response, what can you do?

How to Get Your Parrot to Play with Toys

I usually start with systematic desensitization. This means I place the toy a distance away from the parrot. I also make sure the bird is presenting calm relaxed body language. I then leave the toy there for a period of time, maybe even days. Over time I gradually place the toy closer and closer to the cage. Again making sure the parrot is relaxed and comfortable. Eventually I may hang the toy on the outside of the cage, but near the bottom of the cage. I can gradually move it higher. When the parrot is ready, I can try moving the toy to inside the cage. I usually put it away from food and water bowls and preferred perches. This is because if the bird has any concerns with the toy that I failed to notice, it will not be a hindrance to his physical needs and comfort.
Once the parrot is comfortable with the toy in his cage, now I can consider some of my other positive reinforcement tools of the trade. I can use a target to help encourage the parrot to move closer to the toy. I could pair positive reinforcers with the toy, by placing them near or on the toy. I could also “free shape” the behavior.
How to Get Your Parrot to Play with ToysTo free shape, rather than use a target or a food prompt, I would just wait until the bird presents an approximation I can reinforce. For example if the bird looks at the toy I can reinforce that. After several repetitions the bird may move in the direction he has been looking. I can reinforce that. Eventually the parrot may move closer, and over time try to touch the toy. This is all shaped by looking for the slightest approximation towards the desired goal behavior of interacting with the toy.
I recently used this strategy to help my puppy get past a fear response he had with a new vacuum cleaner. First I reinforced him for looking at the vacuum from far away and then reinforced him for approximations he took moving closer to the thing. He then sniffed it and eventually touched it with his nose and paws, and even moved it. The entire process took about twenty minutes. I have promised my yahoo group I would get the video clip on my YouTube site. I will notify everyone once it is up!

Hope this gives readers some ideas for ways to get your parrots playing!

This article was first published in Good Bird Inc Blog

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

Benni at Liberty – The Free Flying Parrot

Benni at Liberty – The Free Flying Parrot by Dorothy Schwarz

macaws free flyingSo my dream of a free flying parrot has materialised. Will it continue to be a success? Benni was hatched next to my aviaries. I let Ben Duffrin erect an aviary next to mine to house his pair of breeding Blue and Gold macaws.  He was being force to move them as a neighbour had made complaints to the Police of their noise. We are lucky that we live down a lane with no direct neighbours. As thanks, the owner offered me the choice of a chick from the next clutch.  I chose the largest of three – just over 4 weeks old. Ben and I both believe it is better for chicks and parents not to pull them too early. Handfeeding went well. I have hand fed parakeets and I had kind friends willing to give advice on handling something as large as a macaw. Although one friend snapped a bit after yet another call. ‘Do you want me to finish the hand rearing for you?’ Of course I didn’t.

According to the book `The Large Macaws` which became my nightly Bible reading, Benni weaned at the right age, kept within the normal weight chart and fledged at the right age too.  A routine of training him every evening before the last feeding developed, followed by cuddle time. A 6 pm bedtime was rigorously adhered to. I trained following the precepts of Positive Reinforcement.

I kept daily notes which are essential whether you are professional, novice or something in between like myself.

I intended Benni to socialise with other people and birds and this has succeeded. His parents who have never been socialised are aloof, impossible to handle. Benni enjoys meeting new people. And as I have grandkids he is used to them also.

Anguel Iordanov (Parrots Essential) and Wayne Cathey, who are regular parrot friends, visit us a few times a year. Both excellent handlers. I‘m sure that if they had more space at home, they’d have a macaw.

blue and gold macaw step upAnguel and Wayne visited or the weekend of October 11th with their three pet Greys. They put their Greys in aviary for fresh air and playtime.  Anguel is a confident handler. In the conservatory, Benni was playing on a play stand.  ‘Step up?’  Anguel asked Benni, who put one claw on his hand. ‘Step up’, repeated Anguel. Benni put both claws on his hand.  Benni performed his first step up on cue.  He was ten weeks old. Then he repeated the action with me which he hadn’t done before.

I’d accustomed Benni to the Aviator harness since he was  six weeks old by putting it on before the midday feed,  leaving it for  a few minutes  then taking off.  Baby parrots are not opinionated and let you handle their wings and so forth. Benni soon realised that the harness heralded a tasty lunch.

Anguel, that same afternoon, having seen how easily Benni accepted the harness, slipped it on and took him outside in the garden for a walk around. Benni appeared relaxed, perched on the arm of someone he already knew and liked. After Anguel had initiated the first outdoor excursion, I continued daily taking Benni for a short walk in a harness. We also walked down the road and he quickly got used to tractors and passing cars.

Serious flight training began before Christmas in a friendly farmer’s huge barn, I took Benni there a few times a week.  Immediately I ran into problems. Sometimes Benni would recall from the 10 metre high straw stacks; sometimes he’d simply stay up there.  And he’d start to play with straw stalks.  On one occasion my eleven year old granddaughter vanished into the straw and re-emerged 10 metres high with Benni on her arm. As there are no free fliers in Essex where I live, my expert advice came from internet friends. I had also completed four workshops at Natural Encounters Ranch in Florida where Steve Martin a world renowned trainer shows his students how to get a parrot flying outside. However he does not advise the practise for non-professionals. After my course and flying macaws with Chris Biro in Moab, I decided I did not have enough skills to train my African Greys to free fly. Also the danger of raptors was a serious consideration.

To have a macaw and start from a baby however seemed doable. Advice given me was contradictory.  When I described on internet forums how Benni reacted in the barn, I received opinions that contradicted one another. Some said an inconsistent recall is terrible training for a flier. Others said Benni was learning to fly and play like a puppy in the park. I followed the latter advice.  At home in evening training sessions, Benni would make perfect recalls for slivers of nuts before bedtime. After three months of barn training several times a week, daily recall indoors at home and also some recalls in our large outside aviary it became a now or never situation.  Dare I try outside?

Luckily, a confident and experienced friend Ryan Wyatt was prepared to drive a couple of hours and help. Without his hands-on support, I might never have conquered both my rational and my irrational fears of losing a young bird to predators or human thieves.

benny free flying parrotOn a clear cold windless March morning, Benni flew two outdoor sessions flying from between Ryan and myself.  The first was 15 minutes at 7.30 am, the second was 15 minutes at 11.30 am. Every day since then, unless strong winds or rain, Wal my husband and I took Benni outside. Wal insouciant, me nervous, and placed Benni on the same rusty blue perch he’d used for training in the barn.  Sometimes he’d fly to us; sometimes he’d fly to an anchor point: bungalow roof, the well strut or the aviary roof.  These were short flights never more than 50 – 80 metres and not high in the air.

Ryan came for another weekend with his two free fliers, Zazu Grey and Kira Amazon. The three birds were released together. Ryan’s seasoned fliers zoomed above the tops of the oak trees. Benni followed but as they turned to swoop away from us, he flew down to my arm. I gulped in relief.

As the number of Bennis flights increased, (I take notes each time he flies; the number stands at 160 as of July 7th) my anxiety lessened considerably.  The overnighters that free fliers describe were a real worry. I took precautions like never letting Benni fly near bed time.

Birds who perform in shows are often trained using food or weight management. This does not suit my way of training. Benni is given supper at 6pm and has a pre-flight snack. I find that if he flies after a 14 hour fast he will station himself on the aviary roof, forage for oak mast and ignore me. On occasion I’ve waited 30 minutes for him to come down. So I now make sure that as well as the supper in his cage, but there’s something for him to nibble in the morning like carrot or an apple.

I started to take him out of the aviary in the afternoons. I was nervous as hell. We only stayed out for half an hour. Then as the weather improved and Benni grew older these afternoon sessions turned into playtime.

We play Hide and seek with me hiding. Benni’s favourite game is ‘hold your hands’.  I sit on the grass .Benni flies beside me rolls over onto his back. He clasps his claws together on cue to rapturous applause of whoever is watching.

2 macaws at libertyThe feared fly off has sort of happened.  In June, Benni was on the aviary roof; he disappeared into the oak leaves.  After couple of minutes I went outside to check the back of the aviary and BENNI WAS NOT THERE.  In which direction should I start searching? I told myself deep breaths – don’t panic.  I heard the beating of wings and Benni landed on my shoulder.  A couple of minutes, later my anxious husband arrived. He’d been walking on the bridle path behind our stable with our dogs when Benni landed on him. Wal immediately turned for home. But Benni flew off into an adjoining field. He must then have changed direction to land back with me. So Wal doesn’t walk the dogs when Benni’s outside. The incident cannot have lasted more than 6 minutes.

Part of positive reinforcement training as I understand it, is giving the parrot the possibility of choice. This becomes apparent in our afternoon outside sessions.  Today at 3pm, I brought Benni out of the aviary and asked him to step up onto his perch.

‘I’m going to watch Wal mending the ladder. Want to come?’ I asked. Benni ignored me, took off on a long circuit and returned to the aviary roof. ‘Want to come?’ I asked again.

He didn’t. His choice.

It started to rain and I’m nervous of letting him fly with wet wings so I tricked him.  I fetched a cleaning sponge, one of his favourite toys and waved it over my head. Benni waddled across the roof (so strange that a blue angel in the air should be a clown on the ground) and stepped up. If he really doesn’t want to come inside, at this point he’ll fly off. But the lure of the sponge in front of his beak kept him on my arm. I edged into the aviary and gave him the sponge.

Benni finds his aviary time more exciting than usual because Kovu, Kira and Zazu are staying here for ten days while Ryan’s human family are on holiday.

The adventure continues…

Two Animal Training Tools I Can’t Live Without

When it comes to animal training you often hear people sing the praises of positive reinforcement. Me too! I love it. But there are two other tools that I can’t live without, systematic desensitization and classical conditioning. Try saying those three times fast! They sound like a mouthful, but they really are very important tools, especially when it comes to introducing your pet to new things or new situations.

Animal Training Tool #1 – Systematic Desensitization

animal training syringe touch parrotSystematic desensitization is exposing your animal to something in a gradual way without evoking a fear response. For example if I want my parrot to get used to a syringe that I would like to use to deliver oral medications, instead of just presenting it in front of his beak, I will have it far enough away that he can see if but shows very little response to it. What I would like to see is mild curiosity or indifference. What I definitely don’t want to see is any body language that indicates a fear response. If I see fear responses, that means I failed at my use of systematic desensitization.  If I use this approach correctly, over time I will be able to gradually bring the syringe closer to my bird and no fear response will be presented.

This same strategy can be used to introduce many different types of objects including stethoscopes, new toys, travel crates, even people. In some of my parrot training workshops I have had participants successfully wrap a towel around a parrot using this technique. It requires very slow movements and excellent observation of parrot body language.

Animal Training Tool #2 – Classical Conditioning

animal training parrot towel trainingSystematic desensitization becomes an even more powerful tool when paired with classical conditioning. This means at the same time I am gradually getting closer with this new object or experience, I am pairing it with something I know the animal likes, usually preferred food items. In other words new things are introduced at a pace the animal can handle and good things happen at the same time. This is a powerful way to help an animal accept new things. And it can happen quite fast. Using this approach I can usually get a syringe, stethoscope or towel very close to a parrot in just a few minutes. This allows me to then transition to using positive reinforcement training strategies in which the animal makes choices to engage with the object to earn desired goodies.


These two tools are great for training behaviours that facilitate medical care and they can also be used to help get your parrot engaged with new toys, new people or just about any new object or circumstance you think might be uncomfortable for your parrot.  Next time you see your parrot or any other pet in your household hesitate around a new object or circumstance, think about pulling these two important but often overlooked tools out of the tool box.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.