African Grey Learns to Kiss on Cue via Observational Learning

Out of my entire flock of parrots (which consists of nine) only one of them is a real talker. Many of them talk/mimic human words, but only one shows a great interest in doing so consistently - and that is my male galah, Bandit. 

Bandit is such a talker, that he does it most of the time, including when humans aren’t around him.

He usually shares close quarters with my female galah, Bondi and Congo African Grey, Cressi. Because of this, they get the privilege of listening to his antics the most. 

Dave and I have always joked about our African grey Cressi being “defective” since most people get grey parrots for their well known talking ability and our grey, Cressi, has never talked at all (she does whistle, however, but only ever got half of a wolf whistle down). 

While touring on the Norwegian Dawn, Cressi began mimicking everything Bandit was saying, but in her more “robotic” tone. She would say “c’mere” and “bandit”. But even cuter than that, she began mimicking his kiss noises because she would see me warm him up before our bird show by cuing him to give me a kiss and then I would give him a treat once he did.

Now, Bandit’s full routine is to lean in, touch his face against my cheek and make the kissing noise, followed by “I love you!” 

Cressi caught onto the kiss noise alone, but it sounds nothing like Bandit’s. Once I started hearing her offer it (which was usually at the same time I was warming up Bandit) I began giving her treats as well. This is called “capturing”. It means to capture a behavior your bird does on its own, and eventually put it on cue.

This is what I did with Cressi’s kiss, and now it sounds/looks like this:

This shows the power of observational learning - when you have more than one bird, this is often how you can train both birds to do the same thing without having to have the full training sessions. 

Another example of this among my own flock is when I taught my female galah, Bondi, what I call the “rock out”.

Video of Bondi and Bandit rocking out at the same time (skip to 1:15 in the video to see it)

Bandit watched Bondi do this so much and get rewarded for it, that he began to copy her. You will notice in his version, his wings are not all the way out and his head movement is not in full circles like hers, but it is quite close and was learned all on his own:

This is Bandit's rock out.

All we had to do was start rewarding him for doing his version of the rock out, and once he was “begging” (doing it often enough he understood when he did it = a treat) then we implemented the cue (meaning, only when we give the cue does he get the reward and not just when he “begs” by offering the behavior when HE wants the treat.) 

As you can see, observational learning is powerful! And saves you a lot of time too. If you understand training enough, you can take these learned behaviors and “shape” them to be exactly what you want. Shaping a behavior means changing a behavior in small increments until it’s exactly what you want it to be. 

For example, if I wanted Bandit’s wings to be higher for his rock out to match Bondi’s… I would only reward him when his wings reached the highest level of his current rock out and keep it at that level - never rewarding for low winged rock outs. 

What happens during shaping a behavior is that the bird will eventually exaggerate the behavior - in this case Bandit would try so hard to earn the treat that he would lift his wings really high as his attempt. And when he did that, he would earn a jackpot of treats. 

These are just a couple of examples of observational learning at work.

Many animal trainers use this when training young animals - naturally, baby animals follow their mothers and do what they do. So when you train the adult, the baby follows and learns the routine/behaviors too. It can be very useful! With parrots, however, I’ve never used it in that form of a parent bird teaching the chick but you can see how observational learning can extend to a variety of the animal world and how it comes so naturally. 

And we always recommend you work with nature, never against it. Train behaviors your bird wants to do or shows a natural interest in. It’s easier on both bird and trainer. 

You can find more information on shaping behaviors and capturing in our Bird Ownership Guide.  

Jamieleigh Womach has been working with parrots and toucans since the age of 17. She isn’t homeless but is home less than she prefers to be. She travels the world with her husband, daughter, and a flockful of parrots whom she shares the stage with.

Be the first to comment

All comments are moderated before being published