The Importance of Scale Training Parrots




As prey species, wild parrots will hide signs of illness until they are really sick, in order to avoid predation or ejection from the flock. This survival instinct is still very strong in our companion parrots, so if your bird appears sick, it has likely been ill for some time already. This is where the importance of scaletraining the captive parrot becomes essential because weight drops from lack of appetite are often the first sign of illness. It also helps to keep an eye on weight gains, as overweight birds are common in captivity, and this can lead to many different health and behaviour issues.

We regularly teach clients to train this as a core husbandry behaviour. Weight data allows parrot owners to monitor their bird’s health and is very handy when vet visits are required. We also regularly work with institutions to train their tame captive animals for the same reasons—notably Kaarakin Black Cockatoo Conservation Centre (located in the Perth Hills). Kaarakin hosts approximately 200 birds at any given time. Most of these are wild black cockatoos in various stages of rehabilitation, preparing for release back into the wild. Kaarakin also houses non-releasable tame birds that have the important role of ‘species ambassadors’ to help educate the public about the plight of their endangered wild counterparts, so they need to be in optimal health and condition.

Our team leads the birds’ training, as well as monitoring their health and wellbeing, and teaches the volunteers to train these behaviours.

If these birds were regularly caught to be checked and weighed, they would begin to fear people quickly, so, among other willing health checks, we have taught the birds to climb onto scales on cue as a fun experience for all! So, how do you go about training parrots to be weighed willingly?

STEP 1: TEACHING A TARGET


Training a parrot to come to a target stick or spot when asked with a hand cue is easy and has endless applications for future behaviours such as scaletraining.

It can also be used to move birds which may display fear responses to stepping onto hands, without force.

Begin by showing the bird a reward—usually a favoured food item—in a close and easy-to-achieve location (eg, one step across a perch, click and reward). Slowly increase the criteria until you have successfully lured the bird from point to point in small increments as the bird is ready. From there, start to hide the reward and insert your cue instead (eg appearance of a target stick, a finger tap cue, or flick of a closed fist), rather than the bird just blindly following food.

STEP 2: INTRODUCING THE SCALES


Using gentle desensitisation, introduce the scales to the bird so they are comfortable and not backing away. Depending on the individual’s response to new items, it may take a few sessions for the bird to approach the scales without fear. Other birds may approach the scales almost instantly. Make sure you reward that!

Using a clicker and the bird’s favourite treat, place the scales on the ground or a flat surface at a distance at which the bird notices them but shows no fear response to them. Using your new targeting cue, use shaping techniques (reinforcing the small increments towards the scales) to move the bird close to the scales—the closer they get, the bigger the reward. By asking them to move away from the scales on cue between repetitions, you will speed up the process.

STEP 3: STEPPING ONTO THE SCALES


We use perch scales but, if using flat scales, it is a good idea to place a non-slip mat or a small cloth on top. If the bird is already known to follow target cues, this is a good spot to cue them onto for a reward. It is good to remember that putting two feet up onto a potentially threatening object may be scary, so clearly defining the criteria before entering a session is important. The first few toes or one foot on the surface are worth rewarding, before asking for the whole behaviour. Once on the scales, some birds will choose to jump straight off again, so the next step is achieving duration on the scales, so you can get a good reading.

STEP 4: DURATION AND A CORRECT READING


When training for duration, start with a small increment of time (one second for example) waiting on top before clicking and rewarding the bird a second time. Slowly increase this time until the numbers on the scale are stable and easily read.

Free rewarding with an open palm is helpful. When used with tiny crumbed treats, it may assist with duration if you do not want to operantly train the waiting. If you are training a large parrot with a long tail, reward with your palm held low in order to get its tail off the ground.

Once this behaviour is trained, the presentation of the scales becomes the cue to come over to them, and it becomes great fun for the bird! When working with a flock, you can get overly enthusiastic birds. For example, the Kaarakin volunteers often take more than one set of scales into an aviary to avoid conflict between birds which are impatiently wanting to climb onto them. To combat these unwanted behaviours we have begun to train wait behaviours and station points, so the birds learn to wait their turn harmoniously.

This easy-to-train behaviour means that companion and tame parrots can be monitored for health and assessed without stress. It is a core husbandry behaviour for anyone, from those with hundreds of parrots, to companion owners with a single bird.
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