This article is about how to do bad things to your parrot. Scratch that, you shouldn't be doing bad things to your parrot. Let's call it doing “sucky” things to your parrot. Sucky things may be inevitable or necessary such as going into a carrier, being toweled, going to the vet, putting on a harness, moving to a new house, getting groomed, receiving medication, etc. These aren't necessarily bad things, some may even be life saving, but they can certainly be seen as sucky and undesirable from the parrot's perspective. This guide provides some tips on making these things go by more easily. I'm not going to look into the specifics of each task (such as teaching the parrot to go into the carrier) but rather an approach to dealing with these situations in general.
The first step is to try to make the best of any situation. If you have to do something sucky to your parrot, try to make it as harmless as possible. For example if your parrot is terrified of carriers, towels, and grooming, perhaps you can do just the grooming at home without a towel to avoid making the experience triply terrible. Try to make uncomfortable situations go by quickly and smoothly. But do not rush or be too forceful in trying to make it go by faster. Instead try to be efficient by thinking the experience through in advance and even practicing it out before putting the parrot into it.
Whenever possible, try to use positive reinforcement to desensitize the parrot to sucky things or situations. Teach the parrot to go into the carrier by itself, teach it to put the harness on voluntarily, etc. Anything that is meant to be for the pleasure of the parrot must not be applied in a sucky way. In other words forcing the harness so the parrot can enjoy being outside is terribly counterproductive. The parrot will be so preoccupied being upset about the harness being forced on that it will miss the enjoyment of being outside.
Being wrapped in a towel for veterinary procedures on the other hand is not be for the parrot's pleasure (though it may be essential for the parrot's health, the bird does not realize this). Still, you can greatly eliminate the stress of the veterinary visit by ensuring that all the other aspects aren't sucky for the parrot. If you use positive reinforcement to train a parrot to be comfortable with the towel and use the towel in non-threatening ways at home, the experience of being toweled by the vet won't in itself be traumatizing. Nor will the carrier to get there, the handling, etc. This leaves the parrot to be stressed only by the actual blood draw or other medical procedures. Instead of being traumatized by all the uncomfortable handling and force, the parrot is left with much less to worry about.
A great counter condition to necessary sucky experience is to make it desirable beforehand. For example, rather than letting your baby parrot's first encounter with a towel be a bad one at the vet, make hundreds of good experiences at home first. Then when one bad exception time happens at the vet, the parrot won't hold a grudge because the good times far outweigh the bad ones. If your parrot hates towels already, you can take the time to undo the damage and counter condition the towel as something desirable. If hundreds of good experiences at home outweigh the infrequent bad ones, it will remain less sucky to the parrot and your parrot will suffer less for it.
Things like new toys should never be sucky at all. Sure, many parrots are scared of new stuff. But the last thing you want to do is make the bird scared of what it is actually meant to enjoy. For skittish parrots, hanging a toy straight into the cage figuring it will get over it is not always the best idea. The bird will still have prolonged anxiety in the process of desensitization. Instead, offer a social modeling form of learning by being proactive. Play with the toy yourself in view of the parrot or use targeting to teach the bird to come closer to the toy to get comfortable on its own.
The more “sucky” things that you turn into neutral or better yet “awesome,” the better prepared your parrot will be to deal with any life changes as they are to come. The more you train, socialize, travel with your parrot, and build good experiences, the easier this process continues to become.
As you teach your parrot how to overcome and even enjoy sucky things, your parrot will begin to develop a trust for anything you provide. For example, Kili used to get scared of new trick training props. I would work with her using targeting to have her walk around in the vicinity of the new toy and progressively closer until she was no longer scared. Over time, these targeting sessions became quicker and quicker because she was already familiar with the desensitization process. Eventually we reached a point where if Kili was scared of something new, I could just show her the target stick and ask "do we really need to even go through this?" and then Kili would stop being scared of the new toy and just proceed to learning the new trick. Not only are new toys not sucky to Kili anymore, she looks forward to them. I have reversed the appearance of something new from being sucky to something to look forward to. Kili knows that new training props mean fun new tricks to learn.
Occasionally there are some rare non-recurring sucky things that must be done. Preparation may be impossible. In those cases just get it done. But for all other things that you can control, take the time to make them pleasant and your parrot will have an overall better life. The fewer things that inevitably have to be sucky, the less stressed your parrot will be and the more trusting of people it will remain. Preempt experiences that may be bad with a lot of similar good experiences beforehand. Less suckiness in your parrot's life is already a better way to live.
Check out this video of how I handle Kili & Truman in a positively reinforcing way in preparation for grooming and other necessary handling. Basically it's just how we play but it has useful benefits in the long run: