Target Training and Clicker Conditioning

Photo by Dave
Location: Orlando, Florida
Trainee: Galah "Bondi"

I just began target training our new Congo African Grey, Cressi. She caught on super fast to it and is learning the clicker more and more at the same time. She's still hand feeding but should be fully weaned soon enough. She's so smart and it's neat to watch her learn and grow. She is already mimicking the parakeets and Bondi, our galah.

For those of you that may be unfamiliar with target training, it's a really great behavior to teach to birds who may be nippy and bite a lot. It gives them something to bite in the training process and saves you from being the one to get bit in the process. It's best to "clicker condition" your bird before target training.

Here is what a variety of what clickers can look like! If your bird is scared of the noise a clicker makes (as some birds aren't properly desensitized) you can also use a verbal cue or a whistle as your event marker. It is, however, best and more efficient for your bird to use a clicker so it's best to get your bird used to the sound it makes. Even if you have to have someone else click it from another room and work their way closer, click and reward until your bird associates that clicker's noise positively.  

To clicker condition your parrot, simply set your bird on a perch and click and reward. All you are trying to do is teach your bird that when he or she hears the click of the clicker, he or she gets a reward. A clicker is an event marker to signify the exact moment when your bird does something correctly. Once your bird starts looking and anticipating his reward (whether it's a sunflower seed or small part of a peanut, the reward should be your bird's favorite treat) then you know he understands the click. This when you can move on to incorporating the target stick. My personal preference of a target stick is a brand new set of chopsticks!  

However, a target stick can be a number of things. I've seen videos where people use the eraser part of a pencil, the cap of a pen, or even a laser pointer. Anything that won't be harmful to your bird, you can use as your targeting stick. Target training is so much easier than people think. It's almost so simple that it becomes over analyzed. Simply hold the target stick in the proximity of your bird; do not poke your bird or bring it too close. Simply just have it within reach. When your bird leans forward towards it or even comes close, click and reward.

Eventually he will come closer and closer and once he touches the end of the target stick with his beak, click and reward. This is the behavior you want. Larger birds tend to try to break the target stick so be careful not to reinforce destroying it if you have a larger bird (such as a macaw or cockatoo) you just want them to touch the end of the stick. Targeting is used on a lot of different types of animals. People use this method of training to get horses to go into trailers and such things. The purpose of teaching your bird to target is so that you can tame and train your bird. Targeting can happen while your bird is INSIDE his cage! You can start by targeting your bird around his cage first, and eventually out onto your hand.  

Birds will be a little resistant the first time, but eventually you can get them to comfortably stand on your hand via targeting. Make sure to target them OFF your hand as well, so all is safe to them and they realize they can do both. Eventually, you can lift your hand and click and they will slowly get used to being held up on your hand. If you bird is fully flighted, you can flight train your bird using targeting.

Article by Jamieleigh Womach. She 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.



Aloha! I am a behavior analyst who works with children but I want to start using principals of behavior analysis to improve communication and interaction with our flock. I am going to start pairing treats with a clicker but when I get to target training, if a bite or breaking of the stick occurs, is there any recommended wait out before you present the stick again?

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