Teach Your Bird to Play Family Games!
In my childhood household, you weren’t an actual human until you could play the card game Rummy. Our family comprised two parents and four kids, and my poor youngest brother only became fully and properly recognized when he was finally able to hold some cards, count, and match.
Night after night we sat around the kitchen table talking about the day, beating each other, betting each other, and more than a few times someone ran to the bathroom with milk spilling out their nose from laughing too hard.
Now grown, I don’t have children. I found myself longing for those days, and looking sideways at my cockatoos wondering, Could I teach them to play cards with me? Could we pop popcorn and play Go Fish, rocking out to the Beatles?
The answer was yes! I have been delighted with the results of this quest, and will share some ideas for including parrots in family game night, including: Go Fish, War, “Which Hand?” and Bingo. Throughout the games, the parrots are reinforced with treats. I give myself “treats” too as part of the game, often pieces of fruit or chocolate.
The games are categorized by difficulty, and at the end of this article are training guidelines for two important concepts related to these games: yes/no communication and match-to-sample.” Go Fish requires several steps of concept training. It is my very, very favorite, and is perfect for game night with a group of people and birds!
Most of the games are also compatible even with parrots who cannot be held due to aggression, but with whom the trainer can interact using an object intermediary.
As a reminder, prior to training, ensure the parrot has been desensitized to the game materials.
The “Which Hand?” game
Difficulty Level: Easy
Some physical contact
Amongst us siblings, the “Which Hand?” game was a favorite in the backseat during car rides.
- A treat or desired object, small enough to fit in the hand.
Here are the steps to train parrots to play “Which Hand?”:
- Train the parrot to touch your fist for a treat.
- Show the parrot a treat in your hand.
- Close both hands into fists, presented equidistant 4 inches from the parrot’s chest.
- Say “Where’s the treat?” The parrot should naturally try to touch the hand they observed that contained the treat.
- When the parrot touches the hand containing the treat, they get the treat!
- Train the parrot to guess which hand has the treat.
- Show the parrot the treat in your fist.
- Behind your back, swap the treat into the other fist.
- When the parrot touches the original hand, show them the alternative hand with the treat.
Once the parrot realizes the treat might be in either fist, they will spend a bit of time trying to “guess” which one actually has the treat!
Modification: The parrot gets the treat when they pick correctly, and the trainer gets a treat when the parrot guesses incorrectly—being careful to not frustrate the parrot with more than a few wrong guesses in a row. If the parrot chooses incorrectly several times, place the treat hand closer to the parrot and the non-treat hand further away, so it’s the easier choice to win!
“War” card game
Difficulty Level: Moderate
No physical contact
During the long afternoons of summer, my friends and I would lie on our stomachs playing War for hours and hours—until we never wanted to play again. And then we started over the next day anyway.
My friend and behavior enthusiast Vidhyalakshmi Karthikeyan modified this game and trained both her dog and her cat to play it, and then taught me the rules for my parrots, too. Essentially, the parrot will learn to discriminate larger quantities against smaller quantities based on print volume on the card.
- Small objects for quantity learning such as peas or buttons
- A traditional or blank deck of cards (with dots added)
Note: While I describe here starting with actual quantity cards, it is possible to initially train this skill with physical objects such as buttons or peas—lots in one hand, and one in the other. You can also create your own cards by adding dots to a blank card deck.
Step 1: Train “more” and “less.”
- Using a normal deck of cards, target train the parrot to touch a 10 card, while saying “More.”
- Target train the parrot to touch an Ace, while saying “Less.”
- Have the parrot discriminate between the two cards upon presentation—which one is more? Which one is less?
- Slowly bring the quantity discriminations closer—for instance, next train 9 and 2, then 8 and 3, 7 and 4, and so on.
Step 2: Play War!
- Draw two cards. The card in the trainer’s left hand is the trainer’s card. The card in the trainer’s right is the parrot’s card.
- The parrot selects which one is bigger. If a correct selection, the parrot gets a reinforcer.
- Whoever has the bigger card wins the round and gets a treat.
- Whoever has the most sets at the end gets an extra treat!
The next two games are Go Fish! and Bingo, and both utilize yes/no communication cards and match-to-sample tasks.
Teaching yes/no communication
“Yes” and “No” communication is composed of three processes:
- Target training
- “Yes”/“No” training
- 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.
Selecting 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, such as the objects in this game, through Step 2 in this process.
Matching games are premised upon a simple training technique, “Match-to-sample.” This consists of:
- Simple object vocabulary training – colors, shapes, or other objects.
- “Match” or “No-Match” vocabulary training
For simple vocabulary development, see Step 2 from the Yes/No Communication section. Simply repeat the vocabulary development steps with your choice of:
- Colors – red, green, purple, orange, blue
- Shapes – square, triangle, circle, star
- Holiday symbols – find Christmas, Halloween, spring, and other seasonal objects here to use for match-to-sample!
To teach the parrot match to sample using colors:
- Teach color vocabulary (see above)
- Hold up two red objects and ask, “Is it a match?” Hold up the “Yes” card and reinforce the parrot for touching “yes.” Teach “Yes” to two matching colors.
- Hold up two different colors (red and blue) and ask, “Is it a match?” Hold up the “no” card and reinforce the parrot for touching “no.” Teach “No” to two unmatched colors.
- Quiz the bird with matches and non-matches using the “yes”/“no” cards until the bird’s responses are above 70% accuracy.
“Go Fish!” matching card game
Difficulty Level: Advanced
No physical contact required
As I already mentioned, this modification of the classic Go Fish! card game is my very, very favorite game to play with my parrots! It’s perfect for a fun game night with birds and people. My parrots Moonlight and Ellie, my mom, and I play it every time my mom comes to visit.
Training materials needed:
- A deck of cards (you can find some Go Fish deck ideas here). For example, your deck could be composed of any of the following:
- An actual Go Fish deck
- 6-inch foam colors or shapes
- Paper shapes or objects
- A T-stand or basket, with a platform positioned so the cards are visible to the bird. (I place a large book across the bottom of the basket, so it hangs out like a shelf in front of the bird.)
Step 1: Vocabulary learning (see above training guidelines)
- Teach “Yes” and “No”
- Teach five shapes or colors
- Teach match-to-sample
Step 2: Deck setup
- Create a deck that has only five actual image categories by removing excess. For instance, I kept all of the octopus, shark, fish, turtle, and dolphin cards, and removed all of the others, so there were more frequent matches. There were seven of each of the kept images, so there were a total of 35 cards.
Step 3: Game play
- Place the bird on the basket with the platform just beneath.
- Shuffle the deck (I put all the shapes in a bag and shake it) and give each player three cards. Player 1 goes first, so the card is offered first to Player 1, and then to successive players until there’s a match, or it is placed in the discard pile. After Player 1’s turn is over, Player 2 takes a turn, etc.
- Draw a card for the player and set it in the center of the table (or hold it up). Ask “Is it a match?” or “Is it <name of card>?” and offer the “Yes”/“No” cards.
- For early learners, pick up each option one at a time, hold it next to the selected card, and ask “Is it a match?” to help them see the options more distinctly.
- If the bird responds “yes,” give a treat for the correct answer. The match gets set aside into the bird’s pile, and the bird now has two cards.
- If the bird responds “no,”* recue until the bird responds correctly. Reinforce the correct answer, but do not remove the matched card. The bird still has three cards.
- If the bird has a match and selects “No match,” the card goes to the next person/bird. If the bird has a match and selects “Match,” the card is taken out of play.
- No match:
- If the bird responds “no,” give a treat for the correct answer and offer the card to the next player to see if there’s a match.
- If the bird responds “yes,” recue until correct, and then offer the card to the next player.
- Players take turns until someone runs out of cards.
- Count the matches for each player. Whoever has the most matches in the end wins an extra treat.
*My parrots’ accuracy ranges from 70-80% on this game, and if a bird seems forgetful, I’ll offer a quick refresher training on match/no match.
From my bird household to yours, we hope you enjoy these family games!
Bingo is another game you can play with match-to-sample training
The visual, memory, and logic abilities of birds have been well-studied in laboratory settings. Here are some papers for anyone interested in the science behind the games!
Edwards, C.A. et. al (1982). Acquired equivalence and distinctiveness in matching to sample by pigeons: Mediation by reinforcer-specific expectancies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 8(3), pp. 244-259.
Pepperberg, I. (1987). Acquisition of the same/different concept by an African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus): Learning with respect to categories of color, shape, and material. Animal Learning and Behavior, 15(4), pp. 423-432.
Jen Cunha is an attorney in private practice, a public speaker, and a dedicated “bird mama” to Lily, Ellie, Isabelle, and Moonlight. She has been in the parrot world since childhood, having grown up with parrots. She has owned birds of her own since 2005. As a teenager, Jen volunteered extensively, educating and teaching inner-city children how to read. Jen has been inspired for years by the Gentle Parenting movement, and bases her husbandry practices on a combination of gentle parenting and force-free animal handling.