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Teaching Your Bird

Taming and Training

face of cockatooThe First Few Days

The first few days home with your new bird can be very easy or a little traumatizing for the bird, depending on his personality, where he has lived before, his age and how he is introduced into your home. Birds are very adaptable creatures, and if you’ve set up a comfortable place for the bird to reside, he shouldn’t have too much of a problem settling in.

Give the bird a few hours of alone-time when you first introduce him to his new home. Don’t try to play with the bird right away; he should have time to find the food and water dishes, and choose a favorite, comfortable perch. He may also want to explore his new toys.

Many people advise that you don’t play with your bird too much for the first few days, but this really depends on the bird. If you’ve got a gregarious youngster that is used to hands-on play, then certainly you’ll want to oblige. If you’ve got a rescue bird or an older bird that hasn’t had much hands-on experience, you are better off allowing the bird to take some time to get to know his surroundings and his new family.

Get to know what your bird is like without assuming anything about him. Does he already know how to step up, or do you have to teach him? Does he like healthy foods or will you have to teach him to try new things? Don’t assume that the bird is like your others, or that he is like other birds of his species. Each bird is an individual.

Observe your bird to make sure that everything about his new space is acceptable. Is he scared of a particular toy? Are the perches set up correctly? Is the bird soiling his food or water dishes? Can he get to them easily? Watch how the bird navigates in his space. If something needs tweaking, do it right away.

Taming A Shy Bird

caique on perchA shy bird is different from a fearful bird, even though a shy bird may behave fearfully. You’ll notice that a shy bird has some interest in family life when you’re not focusing your attentions on him. Does the bird watch what you do? Is he playing contentedly as you move around the room? Perhaps he is just not used to human contact but is still interested in what you have to offer.

When you approach a shy bird’s cage, he may climb to the back, but will still watch you, looking for signs that you’re not as scary as you seem. If you offer the shy bird a snack, he may hesitantly take it. This is a great bird to work with — he wants to be a part of your flock, he is just wary of his new surroundings.

Start working with this bird by “conditioning” him to your presence. Allow him to become comfortable with family life before you make any demands on him. Once he is completely comfortable when you approach the cage to offer food and water, move your hand closer to the bird for a moment as you service the cage, but don’t touch the bird. Speak softly to him, but avoid direct eye contact. Don’t push contact. The idea is to condition the bird to your hand’s presence.

Once the bird is comfortable with your hand being close, try to touch the bird briefly on the chest or head, and then pull away slowly. You want the bird to understand that your touch isn’t scary, and can actually be pleasant. Do this for as long as it takes for the bird to become comfortable being touched.

When the bird is comfortable with a light touch, experiment with trying to get the bird to step onto your finger, or at the very least, allowing you to scratch him on the head. How you proceed has a lot to do with the progress you’ve made, and also the type of bird that you have. You will have a very different experience with a budgie than you will with an Amazon parrot. A budgie is likely to scramble away from you, and an Amazon is more likely to lash out with a bite. But if you take this process very slowly, and you show no fear, you can gently guide the bird into becoming your friend. Your closeness and your touch should become habit over time, rather than something you force on the bird. Allow the bird to get used to you rather than insisting that he responds the way you want from the beginning.

Taming A Fearful Bird

A fearful bird is not used to being touched by people. Perhaps he was raised by his parents rather than being hand-fed, he was wild caught, or he had been a “breeder” bird for long enough to forget what human touch is like. Perhaps the previous owners never handled the bird, or the bird had a very negative experience with people. Whatever the case, this is a bird that is going to need to gain some confidence in his new home and new human flock.

A fearful bird may thrash around the cage when you come into the room, but more likely he will cling to the back, staring at your warily, being very quiet so that you don’t notice him. He will freeze in place whenever someone is near. When you service the cage, a fearful bird may hiss or click his beak, or make other fearful noises. He is not curious about you; he simply wants you to go away.

Deal with a fearful bird the same way you would deal with a shy bird, but with a little more caution. Be gentle with this bird, and don’t rush into trying to “tame” him. Take a couple of weeks or more to allow the bird to become used to his new surroundings.

Once you are ready to begin touching the bird, do so very cautiously. If you feel that you may get bitten, try “stick training” rather than attempting to touch the bird with your hands. Do not use gloves! Gloves tend to terrify birds and actually make them more afraid of hands. Also, if you tame your bird using gloves, you will have to start all over again when you want to use your un-gloved hand, as the bird will be so used to the glove that he may be afraid of your hand.

Don’t start trying to tame this bird until he has settled down and is accustomed to his new home. Allow him to eat and drink in peace. Don’t change his environment too much in the first few weeks. After a while, you will notice signs that the bird is ready to begin closer contact. He will eat or preen while you are in the room, behave with curiosity when you service the cage, or he may even approach when you offer a treat. Now is the time to start pushing a little further to see what the bird will accept. Take this kind of taming very slowly, and eventually the bird will warm to the idea of having a human friend, we hope!

Teaching “Step Up”

Amazon parrot on perchTeaching the Step Up is critical to the relationship between you and your bird, and may even save his life someday. The Step Up is very simple; it’s when your bird steps onto your finger or hand. Birds aren’t hatched knowing how to do this, so you have to teach the behavior. Your finger resembles a perch, so the good news is that there’s something instinctual about stepping onto it. Some birds, however, learn this a lot more quickly than others. Baby birds that are just learning how to navigate the world learn this in a snap. Usually, if you get a young bird, he will already come to you knowing how to do it. All you have to do to reinforce the behavior is say “Step up” every time you offer your finger or hand.

For a bird that doesn’t know how to step up, teaching it is easy. First, place your bird on a perch or your finger, not a flat surface. Using your other finger or hand as a “perch,” apply gentle pressure to the bird’s lower chest/belly so that you put the bird a little off balance. Once the bird feels off balance, he will generally lift a foot. Place your finger under the foot and lift gently. It’s important that you lift or else the bird will just be holding your finger with one foot and have the other foot on the perch. Say, “Step up.” Repeat this a few times every day until your bird understands that “Step up” means that you want him to stand on your hand.

A couple important notes about teaching this behavior: First, you have to make your hand a very sturdy place to stand on. If you’re nervous about the bird standing on your hand, the bird will be nervous, too. If you waver even once and wobble or drop the bird because you’re scared, the bird will remember that and might refuse to step onto your hand again, or he may even bite. Also, make sure that you teach the Step Up equally with both hands. If you only teach it with your right, your bird may become wary of stepping onto your left. Remember, birds are creatures of habit, so try to teach the behavior in a variety of different scenarios. Once the bird is good at stepping onto your hand, have friends and family reinforce the behavior as well, just make sure they are confident about holding the bird.

Stick Training Your Bird

Stick training is just like teaching the Step Up, but using a perch or dowel rather than your hand. For some birds, this may be the first kind of step-up training that you do; perhaps a bird is a little hand shy or prone to biting, but for most birds, stick training should come after hand taming.

Choose two or three different-shaped sticks or dowels, including at least one very long dowel. The idea here is that you may need to retrieve your bird from a high spot one day, and if he is stick trained, that will be a lot easier.

It is possible that your very friendly bird will take to stick training right away. Other birds may be fearful of sticks. That’s okay; you will just need to condition the bird to the presence of the sticks. Start by bringing the sticks into the room. Place them a few feet from the cage and leave them there for about a week. Then, move the sticks closer to the cage gradually, day by day, until they are right next to the cage. Once the bird seems comfortable with the sticks being nearby, move them to the top of the cage, or even inside the cage. Allow the bird to touch the sticks on his own if he chooses. Then, in a very gentle, comfortable moment, try to get your bird to stand on the stick. At this point, it shouldn’t be an issue.

Once you can get your bird to stand on the stick, use the “laddering” technique where you ask the bird to step up onto your hand, and then ask it to step onto the stick, then your hand, and so on, until it becomes like a game. Do this for a few minutes at a time a few times a day, but don’t make the exercise tedious for your bird. Once the bird is comfortable stepping up onto one type of perch or dowel, try other types with different colors and textures. Also, make sure that you don’t use a smooth dowel, a bird might be afraid to step onto a slick surface. Practice a few times a week to continue to reinforce the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement Training

budgie parakeet on perchYou may have heard a lot about positive reinforcement training when it comes to dogs, but you can use it on parrots as well. Positive reinforcement works extremely well on intelligent creatures like birds. The idea behind positive reinforcement is that you reward good behavior, and ignore unwanted behavior. Unwanted behavior gets no reward so, in a perfect world, the unwanted behavior diminishes and the desired behavior increases. The trick to using this technique with parrots is to quickly identify the desired behavior so that you can reward it, and also to identify what the reward will be. For some parrots, the reward might be a food treat, and for others it might be some attention.

Here is an example of how you can use this method: Let’s say that you have a parrot that screams for attention. You have determined that the screaming is not because the parrot is ill, lonely or hurt. Often, a parrot is positively reinforced for screaming; when the bird screams the owner may scream back at the bird or confront the bird — ah! What nice attention the screaming gets! The bird doesn’t understand that your yelling is a reprimand. He thinks that your yelling is  your way of joining the screaming party, which is so much fun. Screaming back at the bird positively reinforces the screaming. So, to get the screaming to stop, you have to reinforce the quiet moments. It’s very easy to ignore or pass by a quiet parrot. Rather than ignore the quiet moments, approach the quiet parrot and say, “Good quiet!” Do this consistently enough, and the bird will get the idea that being quiet and playing by himself gets attention and screaming doesn’t. Remember, you can’t just ignore the screaming and ignore the quiet moments; lonely parrots should scream because that is their way of getting attention. But if enough attention is lavished on a quiet parrot, he will have less reason to scream for attention. You can use this method for any type of behavior you would like to change — it works on people, too!

Disciplining A Parrot (Can It Be Done?)

Eclectus perchedPunishing a parrot is impossible. Yes, that’s right, impossible. It simply doesn’t work. Parrots are creatures of instinct and habit, and “punishment” for them is very different than punishment for us. For them, punishment is not getting what they want, but it has to be countered with getting what they want for real learning to take place.

There are a variety of old school “punishments” that have been circulating over the years, and they don’t work. Here are a few:

  1. Spraying The Bird With Water This method accomplishes one of three things. 1. The bird will think it’s bath time, which is great fun for many birds. 2. This will make a bird fearful of water. 3. The shock of the water will stop the behavior, but the bird has really learned nothing and the behavior will commence again. The idea behind the water spray is “aversion therapy,” but it just doesn’t work in this way for birds.
  2. Flicking The Beak The beak is a very sensitive area and should be treated with respect. Please do not flick or tap your bird’s beak as a punishment. Some birds do like gentle tapping of the beak, but that’s more for bonding time, not punishment.
  3. Wobble Or Drop Sometimes a bird will bite the hand he is standing on, and the owner will wobble the bird or drop him. This is not punishment. This is meant to avoid the bite, which is actually critical to teaching the bird not to bite. So, the wobble or drop method of avoiding a bite is fine if done gently, as long as you understand that it’s not a punishment.
  4. Time Out You can give your parrot a “time out,” which will certainly teach him something, but that will usually not drive home the message that something the parrot did was wrong. A “time out” is usually more for the parrot parent to gather his or her own composure after a bite or a bout of screaming. Yes, a “time out” can work to quiet a screaming bird and can work to quell noise, but only if the parrot is praised when he is being quiet.
  5. Violence Never, ever use any type of violence against a bird. This is animal abuse and doesn’t work to teach the bird anything other than to be afraid of you.

Rather than continually recognizing what the parrot is doing wrong, start to recognize and praise what the parrot is doing right. This teaches the bird a lot more than “punishment.”

Potty Training

Parrots can be successfully potty trained, contrary to popular belief. It just takes patience and consistency, but it is easier than you think. There are a couple of primary ways to do it, so you just have to choose the right method for you.

  1. Verbal Cue You can add a verbal cue to your bird’s “business,” which can later translate into you being able to control when and where said “business” is done. For example, you choose an acceptable cue word or phrase like, “Go poop,” or “Bombs away.” Every time you see that your bird is just about to let loose, say the cue in a very excited manner, and then praise the bird. Eventually the bird will come to associate the “business” with the cue. Then, when you use the cue, the bird should drop the bomb where you choose.
  2. Physical Cue If you want your bird to drop onto something specific, like a paper plate or piece of newspaper, stand by with the paper and wait until the bird is ready to “go,” and then catch the waste with the paper and praise the bird. Do this enough, and the bird will come to understand that when the paper is beneath it, you are expecting some “business” to be done. You can add a verbal cue to this method, too.

Remember, don’t “punish” or scold a bird if he has an “accident.” This is bound to happen. Training isn’t an exact science. Each bird is an individual, and some may never come to learn this behavior, while others pick it up quickly. Warning: if you train your bird so firmly that he should only “go” when you say the cue word, he might “hold it in” for a long period of time, and may even become ill. Don’t be too strict with your potty training. Allow the bird an acceptable place in or around the cage where he can “go” freely.

Introducing A New Bird to the Flock

two lovebirds on perchA new bird should go through a period of quarantine away from your other birds for 30 to 40 days to make sure that he isn’t carrying any contagious diseases. During this time, he should pass a battery of veterinary tests. Once that’s done, you can bring your bird into the flock.

Make sure that your new bird has his own cage and separate area away from the other birds at first. With many birds, meeting is either love at first sight or extreme jealousy and territoriality, followed by fighting. You don’t want to risk a fight and injury on either side. Also, some species will gang up on a new bird and kill it. Before allowing your birds to cohabitate, you have to make sure that they are going to get along. Here are some signs to watch for:

  1. Preening If the birds are preening one another (allopreening), that’s a very good sign. It means that they accept one another. It doesn’t mean that they will always accept one another, but it’s a great first step.
  2. Feeding Birds feeding one another are becoming quite bonded, and are unlikely to fight unless they don’t have enough space or resources, so be sure to give each bird enough of what he or she needs to remain comfortable.
  3. Beaking Bonding birds will often tap each other on the beak and grasp each other’s beaks.
  4. Fighting Fighting is very obvious; beaks are open and feathers are flying! Keep these birds well away from one another. It is unlikely that birds that fight at first meeting will ever get along.
  5. Indifference It does happen that birds are absolutely indifferent to one another. They will not acknowledge the other at all, and this can go on for years! At least it’s better than fighting!

Don’t buy a bird “for” your other birds unless you know that the birds are going to get along. If they don’t, make sure that you have a way to return the new bird, or be prepared to keep him and give him as much love and attention as you do the established bird. Do not, whatever you do, place a new bird into an established bird’s cage. This can be a recipe for disaster. If you want to introduce the birds, do it on neutral turf.

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