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Tag Archives: Bird Learning

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Teaching a Parakeet to Perform Tricks – Target and Clicker Training

The Parakeet, Budgerigar or “Budgie”, Melopsittacus undulatus, arrived on the European pet scene in 1840 and has since become one of the world’s most popular pets. However, perhaps because they are small and inexpensive, Budgies are sometimes not viewed as “real parrots” by their owners, and consequently are not given the chance to show off their many talents. In addition to being wonderful mimics, Budgies can learn a great variety of tricks…and seem to take pleasure in doing so!


Getting your pet to accept your presence, and then to be comfortable with your hand in its vicinity, is an essential first step in training. This is generally quite simple, as budgies are sociable by nature and rather miserable without human or avian company.  Please see this article for more on basic care and creating trust. Read More »

Canaries Are Endowed With Unique Song-Learning Abilities

Male canaries (Serinus canaria), long prized for their beautiful songs, may have unique learning abilities that explain their outstanding performances. Most birds acquire singing abilities by listening to others of their kind early in life…without appropriate role models, they fail to develop normal songs. Young canaries, however, seem able to switch learning strategies so as to develop normal songs even under unfavorable circumstances.

Effect of Imperfect Song Tutors

Serinus canariaResearchers at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology exposed young male canaries to adult males that sang imperfect songs. The young males mimicked these songs to some extent, but by adulthood were singing near-perfect songs. This indicates that canaries likely have an internal “song template” that helps to correct deviations in the songs of their role models. The template seems to be activated when the youngsters hear an adult song, even if that song is imperfect.

Effect of Isolation

Canaries raised in complete isolation from adults do try to sing, but the sounds they produce bear little resemblance to a normal male’s song. Usually, birds do not modify their songs after reaching adulthood – what they learn as juveniles remains their song for life. However, when the canaries raised in isolation were exposed to a normal canary songs, they modified their own songs, despite having reached adulthood. In time, their songs improved greatly. So, unlike most birds, canaries remain able to change and improve their songs even after reaching maturity.

Human Language Development

Children raised in isolation have great difficulty in acquiring language skills later in life. It is hoped that the canary research will help us to understand human speech problems.

The Canary Song CD

As canaries seem able to learn throughout life, it’s never too late to try helping your pet to improve. A Feathered Phonics Canary Song CD may do the trick.

Further Reading


Most people are not aware of the dramatic story behind the canary’s entry into the pet trade. Please check out Shipwrecks, Vicious Dogs and Escaped Birds for details.


Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by LC-de

Research Update: Both Learning and Genes Contribute to the Zebra Finch’s Song

Research conducted at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Nature: May, 2009) has, for the first time, illustrated the complex interplay of genetics, learning and social situation in the acquisition of birdsong.

Learning What Song to Sing

As is true for all birds studied, zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) raised in isolation from others of their kind fail to develop the song typically sung by the species.

It was therefore long believed that birds learned species-specific notes by listening to the calls of adults.  In fact, zebra finches that are raised by society finch foster parents sing the song of the society finch, not their own, once mature.

The Surprising Influence of Genes

In the Cold Spring Harbor experiment, finches raised in isolation developed odd songs that were not typical of their species, and this song was mimicked by their chicks.  However, after 4-5 generations, the typical (natural, wild-type) zebra finch song began to emerge, despite the fact that the birds had never heard this song.

The shocked scientists concluded that the song is stored within the genome, but that several generations must pass before it emerges spontaneously.  Under normal circumstances (i.e. where the chicks are raised with exposure to the adult song), learning interacts with genetics to assure that the song is acquired right away.

Future Research Objectives

Ornithologists are interested in discovering if the same process is at work in other species as well…perhaps even the complex and beautiful song of the nightingale is encoded in each male chick.

This research also is expected to have important implications in the study of human language development, and will hopefully lead to new advances in speech therapy.

Further Reading

The zebra finch is one of our most important laboratory animals, and the story of its entry into the pet trade has some surprising twists and turns.  Please see my article The Unknown Side of the Zebra Finch for further information.

A review of this species’ vital role as a laboratory subject is posted at



NightingGale image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Orchi.

Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part 2

See Part 1 of this article: Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I


Last time we discussed some finch training basics…getting your pet to calm down when near people and out of its cage. Please see Part I of this article for further details.

CanaryReturning to the Cage

As mentioned in Part I of this article, canaries and other finches are much easier to train when outside their cages. If your bird is to become truly tame, it is essential that it return to the cage on its own, and not be chased there. This may take a great deal of time, and will require you to be very patient.

Use treats to lure the bird inside. Canaries and finches often relish egg food, and may respond quickly when it is offered. Many finches cannot resist small insects. A convenient way to keep these handy is to utilize canned insects most silkworms are nearly always a big hit.

Your pet may also respond to fruit treats – freeze dried mango, coconut, papaya, blueberries and others work well for many species.

If you must net the bird, darken the room and try to be as quick and careful as possible.

Calling your Bird to Hand

The treats mentioned above may also be used to induce your pet to fly to your hand. If you call the bird each time food is presented, it may eventually fly to you when called, even if it does not see food in your hand. Continue to provide a treat each time it responds, but, as time goes on, hide the treat until your pet actually alights upon your hand (or head, as the case may be!).

Again, canaries are most apt to respond to this type of training, but I have also run across surprisingly responsive spice finches, Java rice birds, zebra finches, fire finches and others.

Further Reading

Although canaries are perceived to be natural songsters, a good deal of learning is involved…and you can help (no, you needn’t be a good whistler!). Learn more about improving your canary’s singing abilities in my article Teaching Your Canary to Sing.


Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I


When we think of tame birds, it is most often the parrots and mynas that come to mind. Canaries and other finches, on the other hand, are largely thought of as pets to enjoy for their bright colors, active ways and cheerful songs. To a great extent, these perceptions hold true…but not entirely. Just as there are parrots that would frustrate the patience of famed animal trainer Gunther-Gable Williams himself, there are finches that become wonderfully tame and trusting.

Good Candidates

Most who have tried to tame finches agree that canaries and the closely-related green singing finches make the best candidates. Their calm demeanors, modified by thousands of generations in captivity, are a great asset to the first time bird-trainer.

A friend once showed me a number of photos of 2 incredibly tame zebra finches owned by her father in Taiwan. The birds slept in his pocket, responded to several commands, and seemed to solicit petting and other attention. She assured me that trained finches were quite common in her father’s community, and in other places on the island as well. In any event, zebra finches have long captive histories, and some individuals seem unusually calm even without much close contact.

How Nature Affects Training

When attempting to tame your pet finch, it is important to keep its nature and natural history in mind. Finches are smaller than the majority of the predators in their habitats….even spiders and frogs make meals of them on occasion. Most are, consequently, alert, high-strung and quick to take flight.

It is important to avoid sudden movements and noises around your finches …move slowly and speak in low tones. Keeping your birds at eye level is a good idea, as most become stressed by movements above their heads. In the beginning, avoid direct eye contact, which birds may associate with danger. I first read of this tip in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder (Martin, 1963)…the advice was later echoed by experienced co-workers at import facilities and the Bronx Zoo, and has proven very useful to me.

Make the same low sound or whistle each time you enter the room, and spend as much time as possible in the area…sitting quietly, in the main, for the first few days. Watch your birds for clues as to when it is time to move on with the process. Once they stop flitting about and begin feeding, bathing and preening in your presence, you can begin to try some closer contact.

Moving to Free Flight Training

It is nearly impossible to tame finches in their cage…your hand within their territory will be too threatening. The best technique is to allow them liberty in a bird-safe (cover windows, mirrors, etc.) room. Do this only after your pets have accepted their cage as a safe haven and regard it as their territory. The time period involved will vary, but 4-6 weeks is a good starting point.

When first releasing your finches, slowly insert an 18 inch perch through the bars near the cage door, and then open the door. This will allow the birds to exit slowly…many birds (and most animals for that matter), are reluctant to just burst into unfamiliar territory. Finches will prefer to hop out onto the perch for a look around, and may take a surprisingly long time to leave their cage completely.

Never attempt to chase your bird from its cage, as even one bad experience, especially with species other than canaries, can easily ruin your chances of gaining your pet’s trust.

Be sure to have a comfortable perch (i.e. another cage top, potted tree or well-secured natural branch) set up some distance from the cage as well, so that the finch will have somewhere to alight.

Returning to the Cage

Now that the finch is flitting about the room, how does one get it to go back home? Please check Part II of this article next week for tips on hand-taming and returning your bird to its cage.

For a different perspective on bird training, please see my article, Hand Taming Wild Birds.


Check out Part II of this article for additional information.

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