Bird Training 101
A bird is one of the cleverest animals you can choose as a companion pet. That being the case, you want to make sure that your bird knows who is in charge (that would be you), and knows how to behave respectably in social situations. Most parrots can never be fully domesticated, always retaining a bit of their wild side. But with consistency and patience, you and your bird can happily coexist in the same "nest."
Keep in mind, too, that some birds have very long lifespans, so the lessons you teach now will make the difference between living with a pleasant, semi-domesticated animal and an unapproachable, unruly flying menace. Here are 10 training tips to get you started:
1. Be prepared
Before you begin any training routine, equip yourself with the proper tools:
- Treats, such as nuts or fruits, that are not part of your bird’s regular meals
- A sturdy perch or dowel that you can hold in your hand
- A small, light colored towel
- A small sized stick or dowel
- Bitter apple spray for deterring your bird from biting and chewing inappropriate objects (e.g., window blinds, furniture)
- Bird harness/leash (choose the size according to your type of bird)
- Pet carrier or travel cage (for when you need to travel)
2. Be realistic
Just like you, your bird is an individual with its own personality and preferences. Some commands will take longer to teach than others, and there may be tricks that your bird will just refuse to do, no matter how good the offered treat is. And just as there are moments in the day where your mind is sharp, your bird will have moments when it is more receptive to learning and being handled.
Pay attention to your bird's cues and learn to recognize them. Your bird will feel safer and more trusting when it knows it has no need to feel anxious. Keep the training sessions short and consistent. Ten to fifteen minute sessions spaced out two or three times a day should be enough.
3. Handling your bird
It is best to begin with the basics. Get it comfortable being touched and held. Always stand above the bird, never below, so that you remain in the master position. Place your finger against your bird’s lower breast, just above its feet, and encourage the bird to step onto your finger, with the commands "up" or "step up." If it obeys, reward it with words, such as "good bird" or something similar. Be careful not to hold the bird too low or it may try to gain higher ground by climbing up your arm, but don’t the hold the bird too high, either. The proper level is about chest high.
During the sessions, repeat the stepping up motions and verbal commands by having your bird "ladder" with your hands. Using your free hand, place your finger against your bird’s lower breast, above its feet, and say, "step up." Do this several times, as each hand becomes free, staying aware of your bird’s interest and ending the session before the bird bores with it. As you are holding the bird, use one of your fingers to lightly stroke and lift its toes. This will accustom the bird to having its toes touched, making later toe clippings easier.
To train your bird to step back down onto its perch, practice the same motions in reverse. Do not place your bird in the cage or on the perch backwards, but turn the bird so that it is facing its perch, and hold it just below the perch so that it has to step up onto the perch, though you will be using the words "down," or "step down" this time. When the bird follows this request, make sure to tell it that it is a "good bird." You may also follow-up with a small treat after successful training sessions.
If your bird is going to grow into a large parrot, however, do not allow it to sit on your shoulder. This will enforce a bad habit that will certainly lead to a later injury. Birds, no matter how well trained, will bite when they get spooked, and you never want a spooked bird to be in the vicinity of your face. Small birds tend to have smaller and less injurious bites, but still keep this in mind.
4. Giving treats and feeding your baby bird
Treats should not be given indiscriminately; they should be reserved for when the bird is doing something that is to be encouraged. Be careful to feed your bird treats in small portions to avoid overfeeding. Things like fruits need to be cut into tiny pieces before feeding to your baby bird – or adult bird, for that matter. While it is still young, begin to give your bird handheld treats after it has climbed onto your hand or followed a command. Just be careful of how you hold it.
The treat should be held with the tips of your fingers facing out to the sides rather than from top and bottom. This is to protect your fingers from accidental bites, because the bird may mistake your fingernail for a nut and bite into it. You can also hold the treat on your open fingertips. A few foods that you can feed to a baby bird include: bird seed, pellets, millet seed, thistle seed, freshly-washed dark leafy greens (torn into small pieces of course), berries, unseasoned scrambled eggs, and unseasoned chicken. Be sure to check with your veterinarian about the specific portions of food to give to your baby bird.
5. Towel Training
Getting your bird accustomed to a towel is essential, since you will be using towels for various situations, such as for grooming, giving medication, or handling an injury. You will want to include towel training in your regular training sessions.
Using a small white or light colored hand towel (bright colors may alarm your bird), allow your bird to step onto the towel, perhaps to eat a small treat that has been laid on the towel. Once the bird is accustomed to the towel, take the towel and wrap the bird from behind, taking special care not to press against the bird’s chest with the towel or your hands. (Birds need to be unrestricted at the chest, or they can easily suffocate.) Hold the bird’s sides only, so that it cannot squirm out of your grasp, and using your other hand, place your middle finger and thumb on each side of its neck, with your index finger resting on top of the head to keep its head still.
6. Discourage biting and aggression
Be mindful that birds often use their beaks to balance, placing their beaks on the object they are about to step on. Do not jump back expecting to be bitten or your bird may become nervous about stepping onto your hand. Birds also like to taste things, including your skin, so you may find it appearing to nibble on you, but it is really just touching its tongue to your skin. You will know the difference.
Additionally, biting should always be discouraged. But rather than screaming or punishing the bird, try to remain calm, and in the master position at all times. Timeouts are not effective, either, as you may unintentionally train your bird to bite when it simply wants to be left alone. Instead, firmly say "no," place your hand, palm out, in front of its face and use a stop gesture.
On the other hand, if your bird is behaving aggressively – flapping its wings, screaming, or raising itself high (to make itself appear big and scary) – do not ignore it or stand down, but stay close and use calm words until it has settled down. You should also never try to hold the bird when it is overexcited.
If your bird does get you in a bite hold, try a puff of air to make it let go, and repeat the discouraging words. Needless to say, there will be no treat after a biting session.
To prevent your bird from biting and chewing on furniture or window blinds and coverings, you can use a veterinary approved deterrent called bitter apple spray. Spray this on the objects that you want your bird to keep its beak off of.
7. Use a biting stick
Teaching your bird early what is appropriate to bite and also giving it plenty to chew on can help to keep its beak busy. You can use a wooden chopstick or similar small stick, placing it with the bird’s reach. When it does bite the stick, praise it for doing so. The bird will quickly catch on that biting a stick is a good thing.
There is really no simple way to discourage screaming. It is what birds do, especially large birds. Having a cage cover or small blanket handy to cover the cage can often settle the bird down. Music can also be a good distraction for a screaming bird. But never go to your bird when it screams, or it will learn that this is an effective way to get your attention.
9. Going outside and travel
Birds like to go outside, too, for obvious reasons, but even clipped wings are not the best protection. It is possible to train a bird to go out on a leash, but this must begin early. Using a size appropriate harness, place the harness on the bird. Immediately after a successful harnessing and trip outside, give your bird a treat. That way, your bird will look forward to your trips.
Because most birds can learn simple commands, over time you will be able to get your bird ready for an outside trip by saying, "do you want to go out?" The bird may even assist you in getting its harness on. For longer trips, meanwhile, a small cage that your bird can see out of easily is best.
10. "Polly want a cracker?"
One of the coolest things about having a parrot is teaching it to "talk" (see the top 10 talking birds). Your bird’s ability to speak will depend on a number of things: how early you begin, the frequency of speech training, and your individual bird’s capacity or temperament. Otherwise, the process is pretty simple: repetition, repetition, repetition. If you want your bird to repeat a phrase or a song, say it or play it over and over again. Still, that is no guarantee that your bird will repeat the words you wish it to.
A word of caution on speaking: your bird may choose to repeat words that are not desirable in mixed company. Take care not to use foul language around a talking bird. Also, keep in mind that emotional language is especially appealing to birds. You may find that your bird laughs along with you, cries with you, coughs and sneezes with you, and … it will also use words from arguments it has heard and movies it has seen. While this can be quite amusing, your pastor or grandmother might not agree.