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Parrot Glossary

A lot of people misunderstand Negative Reinforcement by confusing it with Punishment. Remember that Reinforcement is any consequence that encourages a behavior to continue and a Punishment is any consequence that discourages a behavior from continuing.

Negative Reinforcement starts with a negative condition (like pain) that encourages an organism to perform a behavior that will trigger a reward of relief. The pre-existing negative state can be natural or induced by a trainer.

Example of Natural Negative Reinforcement: If a person has a headache, then takes Tylenol and finds relief, the relief from the headache is reinforcement to take more Tylenol in the future if the headache returns. This is negative reinforcement because the person started out in a negative state.

Negative Reinforcement starts with a  negative state and ends with a neutral state.

Positive Reinforcement starts with a neutral state and ends with a positive state.

In a way, you could say that Negative reinforcement involves the use of a pre-punishment.

Many scientists in the field of psychology argue that it is not needed to define the differences between negative and positive reinforcement because they are both so similar. For example, if an animal is hungry so you give it some food, you could say that this was negative reinforcement because he was originally in a negative state of hunger and now he has food which puts him in a neutral state. You could also say that this was positive reinforcement because he got a treat that he loves which probably caused him pleasure.

Example of Positive Reinforcement: You tell your nephew that if he says you’re his favorite uncle you will take him to the Zoo. He then says you are his favorite uncle and you take him to the zoo. He has been positively reinforced.

Example of induced Negative Reinforcement: You put your nephew in a headlock and tell him you will only release if he tells you that you are his favorite uncle. He tells you that you are his favorite uncle and you release.

Which of these two examples do you think will work to better gain your nephew’s trust?

Negative Reinforcement in Parrot Training

In order to use negative reinforcement in parrot training, you would usually have to set up some sort of pre-punishment to induce a negative starting state from which you can then provide relief. If a bird gets thrown into a negative state at the start of each training session then he is essentially being punished for coming out to train. This will teach him to avoid training sessions. That would be bad :( For this reason, it is recommended that parrot trainers only use positive reinforcement when training parrots when ever possible.

One important exception for parrot trainers

If your parrot is scared of you or hates you, then your presence in a room with him will cause a negative state that can then be relieved by you leaving the room. In this case it would be wise of you to use this to your benefit. Enter the room and approach the birds cage to where you see he starts to get uneasy. Wait for the parrot to calm down and then leave the room. The bird is learning that when he is calm, you do good things. This is a good example of when negative reinforcement is not only the best solution when parrot training, it may be the only solution.

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Punishment is any consequence that discourages a behavior after or while the behavior is being performed. Punishment can be natural or artificial (man-made).

Example of Artificial Punishment: If you yell at your dog for eating from the trash can he may be afraid to eat from the trash can in the future. This punishment is artificial because a human designed it to stop the dogs from eating from the trash.

Example of Natural Punishment: If your dog cuts his mouth on a piece of broken glass while eating from the trash can, then he has been naturally punished by the broken glass. It is natural because no human intended for the glass to punish the dog, it just happened naturally.

Punishment discourages a specific behavior and is the opposite of Reinforcement which promotes a behavior.

Reinforcement has been clinically proven to shape behavior more effectively then punishment on all animals and people who were tested.

Punishment in Parrot Training

Mild forms of Punishment can sometimes be effective in parrot training but all professional parrot trainers prefer to use rewards (or reinforcement) instead when ever possible. The reason is that parrots will quickly lose trust in a trainer that frequently delivers punishment.

Many bird owners have found that covering a bird’s cage with a blanket when the parrot is screaming can cause the parrot to scream less often. Unfortunately this form of punishment has caused some birds to start plucking feathers. It is highly recommended parrot owners reinforce quiet behavior instead of trying to punish screaming.


Reinforcement is any consequence that motivates an animal to continue a particular behavior. Reinforcement can be natural or artificial (man-made).

Example of Artificial Reinforcement: If you tell a child that he can have a tootsie roll if he says “Please” and then you give him the tootsie roll after he says please, then you have Artificially Reinforced the behavior of saying please. It’s artificial because you set the rules your self and determined the consequence.

Example of Natural Reinforcement: If you are cold and wet from being outside in the rain and then you come inside and are rewarded with warmth and dryness, then the behavior of coming inside has been naturally reinforced by the consequence of becoming dry and warm. It was natural because the consequence was set by nature and not invented by another human.

Outside of the scientific community “Reinforcement” is often used interchangeably with “Reward”. You reward (or reinforce) desired behaviors to encourage them to occur again.

Reinforcement promotes a specific behavior and is the opposite of Punishment which discourages a behavior.

Reinforcement in Parrot Training

Reinforcement is the best way to train a parrot because parrots do horrible with most forms of punishment. Unlike dogs, parrots will quickly lose trust in a trainer that frequently delivers punishment. It can take a lot of work to regain a parrot’s trust once trust is lost. If you want a parrot to do anything for you, you better be willing to bribe!


A Consequence is any event that is triggered by an earlier event. A consequence can be natural or artificial (man-made). It can also be negative, positive, or neutral.

Example of a Negative Natural Consequence: If you get your arm stuck inside a vending machine while trying to steel a pack of m&m’s, then your arm getting stuck was a natural negative consequence of trying to steel from a vending machine. It was natural because the inventor of the machine simply wanted it to be difficult steel from, he did not plan for you to actually get your arm stuck inside the machine.

Example of a positive Man-Made Consequence: If you pay a store owner for some m&m’s and the store owner lets you eat the m&m’s, then you getting to eat the m&m’s is a positive artificial consequence which was created by the store clerk who intentionally set the rules. Yum!

Example of a neutral consequence: When you buy a bag of m&m’s, the store owner puts the money in the cash register. The money went into the register as a consequence of you buying the m&m’s but for you this was a neutral consequence. You didn’t actually care what the store owner did with the money just as long as he let you eat the m&m’s.

Consequences in Parrot Training

When training parrots, or any animal for that matter, we create artificial consequences to help shape the parrot’s behavior. If the parrot says hello when we tell it to say hello, we can then give the bird a positive consequence like a treat or some loving attention as a reward. If a parrot is screaming at the top of its lungs for attention we can give it the negative consequence of being ignored it until is calm. When the bird has been calm for a while, we can then give the bird a positive consequence of attention as a reward.

Operant Conditioning is the official word describing the use of consequences (both negative and positive) to shape the behavior of a living thing. The goal of operant conditioning is to get an animal (humans included) to willingly perform or stop performing a certain behavior.

Example of Operant Conditioning: If at the dinner table you only pass the butter when someone asks with a ‘please’ you are attempting to train them using Operant Conditioning.

Operant Conditioning in Parrot Training

In Parrot Training, operant conditioning is how we get our birds to do what we want them to do whether that is simply stepping up onto our hand or doing a triple flying back-flip through a hoop while singing the Star Spangled Banner :)


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