Sometimes I think about the kinds of choices adults make. We choose where we work, who we marry, what and where to eat. We choose practical things like our homes and vehicles and fun things, like which books to read, what hobbies to pursue. We choose our vacations. We browse the internet for hours, or read the Sunday paper. We choose to spend time with friends we enjoy.
While a little more limited, children have lots of choice in their lives, too. They can choose to play sports, like soccer, or to learn piano. They choose which books they want to read, and they remind their parents what they want for lunch. Children choose their favorite cartoons to watch, and choose the games they want to play outside.
When my Goffin’s cockatoo, Ellie, came home to me as a baby, I provided for her the most enriched environment I could imagine. I chose fantastic toys for her, and rotated them every day. I made foraging toys for her. I taught her tricks I thought she’d like, and ensured she had four hours of out-of-cage playtime every day. I chose her playtime and her bedtime. I chose her treats.
I also realized that because I chose pretty much everything in her life, her daily options were: whether to eat the chop and pellets I provided, whether to snub my toys, and which houseplant to destroy when I wasn’t looking.
I so deeply value my freedom, my ability to choose. I wanted that for her, too. I wanted my cockatoo, a brilliant parrot who could potentially live for 60 years, to be able to tell me YES and NO.
The Power of “Yes”/ “No” Communication
This desire drove me to tinker with methods to teach Ellie yes/no communication, without much luck. For years, I bit my lip, staring at her and wondering how to break the language barrier that kept us from communicating.
In August, 2016 I began to teach her phonics as an enrichment activity. Within several months she’d learned all of her letter sounds, and started blending the sounds into reading words, ultimately learning words like “Yes” and “No.”
And then, with a little training, she started communicating “Yes” and “No” easily, fluently, and a whole world of understanding opened up between us.
She began choosing the music we listened to, and the activities we did during the day. She chose her toys and what she wanted me to cook for breakfast. She chose her learning activities, and even her favorite friends.
Communicating with an animal so easily, so clearly, felt magical. It still feels magical. It’s not magic, of course. It’s just training. But it has brought indescribable joy to our lives.
These days I train parrot owners through online classes how to communicate with their birds in a very simple way, using red and green objects and a few vocabulary words. The magic begins within even just a few short lessons — and below are the steps you can take to teach your parrot to communicate with you!
“Yes” and “No” communication is composed of three processes:
1. Target training
2. “Yes”/“No” training
3. Simple vocabulary development
Selecting “Yes”/”No” objects
The bird is going to be taught to associate “Yes” with a touch to one object, and “No” with a touch to a different object. For parrots I am training, I often use a green object to indicate “Yes” and a red one for “No.” I recommend objects such as index cards or wood. Green and red are easy colors for parrots to discriminate, and they are also easily remembered: Green means “Go” and red means “Stop.” If preferred, you could use alternative communication objects, such as two different shapes.
Select Two Vocabulary Objects
After selecting the yes/no objects, you will need two more objects: something your bird wants, and something (non-aversive) that your bird does not want, like a bowl of cold water. I often teach “treat” as the first vocabulary object and “water” as the second.
Most birds will want a treat, and (if they aren’t thirsty) probably won’t have much interest in the water. We call these “neutral no’s.” They are things the bird doesn’t particularly want, but items that are not at all aversive. Some other ideas include broccoli, a spoon, or something similar.
Training materials needed:
- An object to indicate “Yes” and an object for “No.”
- An object your bird wants (treat?) and a “neutral no” object.
Step 1: Teach “Yes” and “No”:
- Target train “Yes.” Present your pre-conditioned “Yes” object (i.e., the green index card) near the bird, and say “Touch yes!” As soon as they touch “Yes,” click, reinforce, and repeat for several repetitions.
- I do this repetitively for a minute or two, holding it in different locations near the parrot, so they have to move to the left, move to the right, take a few steps, to touch “Yes.”
- Target train “No.” Repeat Step 1 until the bird has spent a few minutes learning the “No” object.
- Offer both “Yes” and “No” objects. Using errorless learning, place the “Yes” one nearby and the “No” one further away. Say “Touch yes!” The goal is for the parrot to easily select “Yes,” because it is the nearer one. Repeat this step, bringing the “No” object nearer and nearer, while the parrot grows used to selecting “yes.” Ultimately, both objects should be presented at equal distances to the parrot. The training is complete when they select “Yes” with 70% or better accuracy.
- If the bird is repeatedly inaccurate or random, move the “no” object farther away again, and retrain, slowly bringing the “no” object closer.
- Then swap, and do the same with the “no” object.
- If the bird is still inaccurate after a few presentations, go back to Steps 1 and 2. Two of my three cockatoos caught on quickly; the third took a few days of training.
Step 2: Teach two vocabulary objects
- Once the parrot has mastered “Yes” and “No,” they are ready to learn two new vocabulary words. Use the same technique to teach them to touch your two chosen objects—one desired and the other a “neutral no.”
Repeat Step 1a for each of the two items independently, and give the parrot reinforcers for touching the treat as you teach the word “Treat,” and the cold water bowl as you teach “Water,” upon verbal prompt. Then repeat Step 3 above, discriminating between the two objects, to ensure they have learned the vocabulary words fluently.
Step 3: Teach “Yes” and “No” meanings:
- Teach “Yes.” Pair their desired object (like a treat) to “Yes.” Ask: “Do you want a treat?” and present the “Yes” and “No” objects.
- If they pick “yes,” give them what they’ve requested (a treat). Do this several times so that they understand picking “yes” results in them getting the object desired.
- If they pick “no,” remove the “yes”/“no” objects briefly and then recue, presenting “yes” and “no” again. They may pick “no” several times—each time, remove the “yes”/“no” and then recue. If needed, hold “yes” closer, so that they pick “yes” and are reinforced. Then repeat, until they choose “yes” fluently, when asked if they want a treat.
- Teach “no.” Pair a “neutral no” object to “no.” Ask “Do you want [water]?” and present the “yes” and “no” objects.
- If they pick “yes,” offer the water for a few seconds, observing their “Meh” response.
- If they pick “no,” remove the water and reinforce with a treat. “You’re right. No, you don’t want water.” Repeat until the behavior is fluent.
Parrots can be taught new vocabulary objects through Step 2 in this process. You can also find nine pages of vocabulary ideas and enrichment—as well as video tutorials and pictures for teaching birds to communicate and learn phonics—in our downloadable manuals. www.myreadingpets.com.