Training Treats and Diet

anaximander

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Dec 4, 2021
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Sencha - pineapple GCC
Sencha, my 16-month-old GCC, has a training session first thing in the morning, six days a week. His favorite treat is safflower seeds, so I use those for training and only for training. The problem is that Sencha is a very good boy! As such, he generally scores a LOT of safflower seeds (maybe a teaspoon or so?) during a typical training session, increasingly so as his repertoire of tricks increases. Sencha has put on a couple of grams over the last few months.

Sencha's diet consists mainly of chopped vegetables and Rowdybush pellets. He doesn't get much seed outside of training (a little millet now and then) and he doesn't like fruit except for apples.

How can I balance the need for treats for training motivation with the desire to keep a balanced, low-seed diet? Any advice greatly appreciated!
 

wrench13

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We also train daily, Salty and I. We use pine nuts, but it cut them up into 3rds or less, so 10 pine nuts go a long way. You can cut up safflower seeds too. A teaspoon full is a LOT of oily fatty seeds to have daily.
 

LeeC

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Jun 5, 2019
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Parrots
Timneh: Grady;
Senegal: Charlie;
Sun Conure: Peaches (deceased)
Senegal: Georgia
Peach-fronted Conure: Milton (foster)
Brown-throated Conure: Pumpkin (foster)
Senegal: Fletcher
Senegal: Ivy
At Sencha's age, I think gaining a few grams is good, and to be expected, for at least a year to come. Weight is actually a relatively poor indicator of health, but it is easy to measure, and it can be a helpful piece of data. I think humans have been conditioned to put too much emphasis on it. It sure is helpful to know a parrot is not losing weight though!

Every parrot I adopted gained weight, because I give them nutrient-dense foods, which contribute to improved bone density and muscle density. I give them liberty and same-species parrots, which encourages interaction, flight, etc. Being much more active leads to improved physique. My avian vet always notices after follow-up exams, and expresses clearly that it is good weight gain.

Your concern is still valid, of course. A few ideas:
  1. Consider intermittent reinforcement, versus continuous reinforcement (not always giving the reinforcer)
  2. Use praise as the reinforcer, some parrots respond well to praise
  3. Consider the quality of the seed
    1. The more of a food a parrot gets, the more the quality matters
      1. Sprouted seeds are more nutritious
      2. Store them well, as the seeds "age" at room temperature, the good fats in them go rancid
      3. Organic seeds have less toxins
  4. Slip in a different seed occasionally, perhaps a sprouted sunflower seed; diversity is good
 

LeeC

Supporting Member
Jun 5, 2019
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Harrisburg, PA
Parrots
Timneh: Grady;
Senegal: Charlie;
Sun Conure: Peaches (deceased)
Senegal: Georgia
Peach-fronted Conure: Milton (foster)
Brown-throated Conure: Pumpkin (foster)
Senegal: Fletcher
Senegal: Ivy
We use pine nuts
Another great seed to try offering

, but it cut them up into 3rds or less, so 10 pine nuts go a long way. You can cut up safflower seeds too.
Excellent idea, if the safflower seeds are out of the hull. I like giving seeds in the hull, and letting the parrot do some work. We give parrots way too many MREs! (I am an Army veteran; an MRE is a Meal Ready to Eat.) For the mental stimulation and the physical work, parrots need foraging on many levels--daily. If I had to choose between a training session with a parrot and having them truly forage for food (destroy the outside of a pomegranate to earn the delicious insides, for example), I would choose foraging.

A teaspoon full is a LOT of oily fatty seeds to have daily.
Perhaps. Are the seeds in the shell, as safflower often is? 1 teaspoon of in-the-hull seeds is a good bit less than 1 teaspoon of ready-to-eat, seeds. And, is the parrot active? Fat is a nutrient. If the parrot is active, it becomes harder for them to get too much; however, they do need diversity as fats vary widely. It would be good to understand the basics of fatty acids (omega 3, 6, 9, etc.), to help guide food choices. Machelle Pacion explains such things really well. I cannot recommend her book highly enough!
You Can't Take the Rainforest Out of the Bird ...feeding exotic birds really, really well
 
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anaximander

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Dec 4, 2021
25
49
Parrots
Sencha - pineapple GCC
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  • #5
We also train daily, Salty and I. We use pine nuts, but it cut them up into 3rds or less, so 10 pine nuts go a long way. You can cut up safflower seeds too. A teaspoon full is a LOT of oily fatty seeds to have daily.
Thank you! I wasn't sure if that was a lot or not. I'll definitely try to cut down on the volume of training treats.
 
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anaximander

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Dec 4, 2021
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Sencha - pineapple GCC
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  • Thread starter
  • #6
At Sencha's age, I think gaining a few grams is good, and to be expected, for at least a year to come. Weight is actually a relatively poor indicator of health, but it is easy to measure, and it can be a helpful piece of data. I think humans have been conditioned to put too much emphasis on it. It sure is helpful to know a parrot is not losing weight though!

Every parrot I adopted gained weight, because I give them nutrient-dense foods, which contribute to improved bone density and muscle density. I give them liberty and same-species parrots, which encourages interaction, flight, etc. Being much more active leads to improved physique. My avian vet always notices after follow-up exams, and expresses clearly that it is good weight gain.

Your concern is still valid, of course. A few ideas:
  1. Consider intermittent reinforcement, versus continuous reinforcement (not always giving the reinforcer)
  2. Use praise as the reinforcer, some parrots respond well to praise
  3. Consider the quality of the seed
    1. The more of a food a parrot gets, the more the quality matters
      1. Sprouted seeds are more nutritious
      2. Store them well, as the seeds "age" at room temperature, the good fats in them go rancid
      3. Organic seeds have less toxins
  4. Slip in a different seed occasionally, perhaps a sprouted sunflower seed; diversity is good
Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. Now that I think about it, some of Sencha's weight gain may be accounted for by developing flight muscles. He was clipped when I got him but I've let his primaries grow back in and "recall" is now part of his training routine.

Intermittent reinforcement sounds like a good idea. I think I'll start doing that with some of the easy stuff that he has down-pat (waving, turning around).
 
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anaximander

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Dec 4, 2021
25
49
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Sencha - pineapple GCC
  • Thread Starter
  • Thread starter
  • #7
Thank you! I wasn't sure if that was a lot or not. I'll definitely try to cut down on the volume of training treats.
Sencha hasn't tried pine nuts before, so I think I'll try that. Seems like they would pretty easy to chop up. My attempts at shelling and splitting safflower seeds have not gone well--too clumsy!
 

LeeC

Supporting Member
Jun 5, 2019
309
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Harrisburg, PA
Parrots
Timneh: Grady;
Senegal: Charlie;
Sun Conure: Peaches (deceased)
Senegal: Georgia
Peach-fronted Conure: Milton (foster)
Brown-throated Conure: Pumpkin (foster)
Senegal: Fletcher
Senegal: Ivy
Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. Now that I think about it, some of Sencha's weight gain may be accounted for by developing flight muscles. He was clipped when I got him but I've let his primaries grow back in and "recall" is now part of his training routine.

Intermittent reinforcement sounds like a good idea. I think I'll start doing that with some of the easy stuff that he has down-pat (waving, turning around).
Sencha got a great home! It's always wonderful to hear that a parrot will get to fly, and you care about his diet. Few things make me happier than seeing my parrots fly around the house.

I have no experience with baby parrots, juveniles, or even young adults. All of mine were adopted as mature adults. So, I asked the Internet when Conures mature physically. I cannot speak to the quality of the source, but the article I skimmed said up to three years.


So, he could be gaining weight for a while yet—especially if he is well nourished, active, and progressing with flying.
 

chris-md

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Feb 6, 2010
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Aphrodite - red throated conure (RIP)
Lee nailed it on the head. With training animals you have a great relationship with, you shouldn’t be reinforcing every time. Intermittent reinforcement eventually should be introduced once the bird has learned the trick well.

Also, consider that what a lot of professional exotic animal trainers do is simply use the word “good” as they do a clicker - what lee is referring to by using praise instead of a treat. When you charge “good” like you would a clicker, that “good” becomes a reinforcer unto itself vs. just being a bridge/marker. They key is that you have to charge “good” every once in a while, just to remind the bird what it means. What you often don’t see with trainers is the times they’ll spend behind the scenes simply on “good [treat]…good [treat]…good[treat]” with animals they’re training.

Key being that “praise as a reinforcer” only works with animals you have a good relationship with.
 
Last edited:

chris-md

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Feb 6, 2010
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Parker - male Eclectus

Aphrodite - red throated conure (RIP)
Additionally, absolutely as lee intimated move toward lesser-valued treats, another thing you can do when the bird already knows a trick well.

When I first start a trick with Parker, or introducing him to a new object he’s afraid of, I actually use cheese. I don’t do it long, maybe 2 sessions. But I get quick results with cheese and can eventually back off to various nuts.
 

LeeC

Supporting Member
Jun 5, 2019
309
Media
2
347
Harrisburg, PA
Parrots
Timneh: Grady;
Senegal: Charlie;
Sun Conure: Peaches (deceased)
Senegal: Georgia
Peach-fronted Conure: Milton (foster)
Brown-throated Conure: Pumpkin (foster)
Senegal: Fletcher
Senegal: Ivy
Lee nailed it on the head. With training animals you have a great relationship with, you shouldn’t be reinforcing every time. Intermittent reinforcement eventually should be introduced once the bird has learned the trick well.

Also, consider that what a lot of professional exotic animal trainers do is simply use the word “good” as they do a clicker - what lee is referring to by using praise instead of a treat. When you charge “good” like you would a clicker, that “good” becomes a reinforcer unto itself vs. just being a bridge/marker. They key is that you have to charge “good” every once in a while, just to remind the bird what it means. What you often don’t see with trainers is the times they’ll spend behind the scenes simply on “good [treat]…good [treat]…good[treat]” with animals they’re training.

Key being that “praise as a reinforcer” only works with animals you have a good relationship with.
@chris-md, can you offer guidance on the frequency of the intermittence of the food reinforcer? ...And the progression of increasing the intermittence?

I just took a "water treat" to one of my parrots. I do this periodically. I see them out on a branch, and I think, "If took water to her, would she drink it?". They almost always do; yet, they had access to it the whole time, of course. I picked up their dish and took it to them. My question is, can we intermittently offer water, on a spoon as I sometimes do (not as part of training), to a parrot as the reinforcer? If you fed me enough treats in a row, I'd welcome a drink. :]
 

LeeC

Supporting Member
Jun 5, 2019
309
Media
2
347
Harrisburg, PA
Parrots
Timneh: Grady;
Senegal: Charlie;
Sun Conure: Peaches (deceased)
Senegal: Georgia
Peach-fronted Conure: Milton (foster)
Brown-throated Conure: Pumpkin (foster)
Senegal: Fletcher
Senegal: Ivy
Additionally, absolutely as lee intimated move toward lesser-valued treats, another thing you can do when the bird already knows a trick well.

When I first start a trick with Parker, or introducing him to a new object he’s afraid of, I actually use cheese. I don’t do it long, maybe 2 sessions. But I get quick results with cheese and can eventually back off to various nuts.
My parrots, all except one, know and react to the sound of the Kerrygold cheese wrapper! I cut a tiny bit for them occasionally. I think their tongues sense the fat content. Fat is quite a prize. (For me as well.) 😁 Yellow food seems to be well received, in general, too.

 

chris-md

Supporting Member
Feb 6, 2010
4,272
1,898
Maryland - USA
Parrots
Parker - male Eclectus

Aphrodite - red throated conure (RIP)
@chris-md, can you offer guidance on the frequency of the intermittence of the food reinforcer? ...And the progression of increasing the intermittence?

I just took a "water treat" to one of my parrots. I do this periodically. I see them out on a branch, and I think, "If took water to her, would she drink it?". They almost always do; yet, they had access to it the whole time, of course. I picked up their dish and took it to them. My question is, can we intermittently offer water, on a spoon as I sometimes do (not as part of training), to a parrot as the reinforcer? If you fed me enough treats in a row, I'd welcome a drink. :]

Yes, water can be a reinforcer. It’s not common that an animal loves it that much, but I dogsat a 3 legged yorkie so obsessed with drinking water it could easily have been used as a treat, which I did think about trying playing with but left it alone. We had to regulate his access to water.

Like anything variable reinforcement is eased into slowly, to be started once the bird *starts* getting the hang of the request. Start every other treat for a while, then every third time. From there get unpredictable: the 7th time, 5th time, back to back, every other. Variable becomes the norm so long as the bird consistently performs the trick.
 

HeatherG

Well-known member
Apr 25, 2020
3,132
5,600
Yes, water can be a reinforcer. It’s not common that an animal loves it that much, but I dogsat a 3 legged yorkie so obsessed with drinking water it could easily have been used as a treat, which I did think about trying playing with but left it alone. We had to regulate his access to water.

Like anything variable reinforcement is eased into slowly, to be started once the bird *starts* getting the hang of the request. Start every other treat for a while, then every third time. From there get unpredictable: the 7th time, 5th time, back to back, every other. Variable becomes the norm so long as the bird consistently performs the trick.
Huh. I knew someone who compulsively drank a huge amount of water and his Shellie also drank lots and lots of water. Both of them peed a lot. It was kind of funny to watch the dog and man imitate and reinforce each other.
 

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