I received a message from a customer who's rescue Amazon is terrified of the Training Perches she ordered. It's not a flaw with the Training Perches but rather a somewhat common problem that parrots get scared of new stuff. Since I'm sure this isn't the first or last time a bird will be scared of a Training Perch, or some new bird stand for that matter, I decided to make a video and article on the topic to help everyone out. Katie asked:
I am so happy with the quality of your training perches. Unfortunately, my new rescue Amazon is TERRIFIED of the perches (the wood part). She goes into a panic when she sees them clear across the room. It's so bad that it's heart-breaking. This is the only time i've witnessed this behavior. I have not been able to handle her yet, and now that I know of this fear, I feel hopeless. Do you have any tips or videos to point me to? Thanks in advance.
Now once on the Training Perches, training a parrot should be a breeze. The Parrot Wizard Training Perches are height adjustable, simple, and comfortable. This helps get the parrot at a comfortable height with no distractions for maximum attention during learning exercises provided during training.
Most parrots will just step onto the Training Perch off the bat or at most with a gentle nudge onto them. Afterall, why not? The perches are very plain and non invasive looking. Yet, there will always be the one bird that is just petrified for no explainable reason. Abused birds, older or rescue birds, and African Greys are most likely to fall into this category. However, any parrot, even a baby, can be fearful of anything at any time. So, when you introduce your parrot to Parrot Training Perches, or any new bird stand, here are some steps to follow to minimize the fear and even prevent the possibility of becoming fearful preemptively.
1) Use a similar perch in the cage. Give the parrot a chance to become familiar with that style of perch, wood, shape, material at its own pace in the cage before encountering the training perch, tree, or stand for the first time! To make this easier to accomplish, Parrot Wizard NU Perches are offered as a series of perches for cage, training perch, scale, window perch, tree stand, and more. So once the parrot gets used to the NU Perch in its cage, it is much more prepared to accept not only the Training Perch, but an entire series of bird furniture that you can use around your house.
Once the parrot starts perching on the NU Perch, it will fall in love with the comfort and shape. It's just like a comfortable pair of shoes, relaxing on the feet. Many parrots will just go to a Training Perch after because they realize it will be a comfortable place to stand. Or at least, the parrot will be more familiar with the perch on the top of the training stand so it will only be a matter of getting used to the sight of the stand at that point. This will still alleviate fear and make further steps simpler.
When you buy the "kit" version of the Parrot Training Perch Kit direct from Parrot Wizard, it comes with a free bonus cage NU Perch so that your parrot can start getting used to the same style of perches right off the bat.
2) Set the Training Perch up to the cage. Give the parrot the chance to explore the Training Perch at its own pace. You might have the patience to spend 5 or 10 minutes introducing the bird to the Training Perch. But, if you have a really scared bird it could take hours or days. As a person, it's hard to be patient for so long. However, by leaving the Training Perch up to the parrot's cage, it will give the parrot all the time in the world to think it over and explore.
With the cage door open, you can set the Training Perch at a suitable height to just peak inside the cage. At some point the parrot may walk across or onto it. Another way to set it up is with the parrot on the door or on top of the cage, the Training Perch height can be raised so the parrot could get onto it. The ability to manipulate the Training Perch makes it easy to create this hybrid step between the parrot not being on it and getting used to it nearby until it gets comfortable.
3) Target the parrot onto the Training Perch. With the parrot on your hand (if it's already hand tame) or with the parrot inside the cage (just starting training), you can use target training to teach the parrot to get onto the Training Perch entirely on its own!
The method of Target Training is a whole other topic, however, the Training Perch Kit comes with included clicker, target stick, and DVD to help you learn this training method effectively. Generally, the Training Perch is the best place to perform the target training exercises. However, if you have a fearful parrot and need targeting to get the parrot to come onto the Training Perch, that puts you in a bit of a bind. No problem. Teach the parrot how to target inside the cage through the bars. The parrot will feel safer in its enclosure and you will feel protected because you can't get bit. Next, you will be able to use step 2 and 3 to get the parrot onto the Training Perch to let your training experience really begin.
All 3 methods mentioned here are far less intrusive or intimidating than just forcing a highly fearful bird onto a stand. They give the parrot time to adjust so that it can be at ease and in a good learning mindset once on the Training Perch. Just remember that the more fearful the parrot is, the more time it can take to desensitize it. Patience is key. Never push the parrot into a panic by moving too quickly with any of the steps. Give the parrot plenty of time to get used to seeing the new perch in the cage or at a distance for seconds, minutes, even days if necessary before bringing it closer. You have to be the judge based on how your bird responds on a case by case basis. But if you patiently work at it and give the bird a chance to get comfortable, your bird will adjust and be ready to use the Training Perches before long.
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:
I hate getting bit. In fact I hate it so much that I make sure that I don't. I have approached countless birds – that aren't mine – at stores, rescues, and other people's homes and I rarely if ever get bit. This is because I don't put myself in harm's way. I adjust to the bird and let the bird adjust to me. I read the bird and act in a predictable way to help the bird read me. This article is about offering food to a parrot from your hand that you don't know or think will bite.
If you don't personally know a bird (and by personally I mean where it has stepped up for you before; just cause it has stepped up for others doesn't mean you know that it will do the same for you), the safest approach to keeping your blood inside your skin is to take caution as though the bird could bite. On the other hand, if you already got bit by the bird offering food in the past or know that others have, then you especially need to follow these steps. Even if your bird doesn't bite you, you will still want to familiarize yourself with these steps in case you encounter someone else's parrot or someone else needs to encounter your parrot!
Being able to read and understand body language is important but sometimes you just don't know. If it's your own parrot that you have a long experience with, you may be able to read the body language and avoid a bite on yourself or someone else. But if you are visiting a bird or just acquired a new one, until you see body language in context, you just may not know.
Offering food from your hand is the first essential step to being able to apply positive reinforcement training to teach the bird to step up, accept head scratches, and more. Until you can get within touching range of the parrot, inevitably you will end up relying on negative reinforcement and positive/negative punishment. So to have greater success with the parrot and to get it to like you, it is important to get to the point of being able to safely offer food as soon as possible. There are safe ways of offering food and then there are ways to get bit instead.
I really came to realize the importance of this procedure when my friend Ginger, from Ginger's Parrots Rescue, got bit by Santina. Here is someone who deals with many birds and surely knows what to do but still mistakenly put herself in harms way. A few weeks prior, my little sister got bit while offering food to Santina as well. On the flip side, I watched my brother use my same approach and was able to handle the large macaw with no trouble.
One of the problems I have is that Santina is super sweet to me and never bites me (since I brought her home from the rescue) so I don't really know her aggressive body language. It kind of has to do with dancing around and being fluffy but then again she looks much the same way when she wants a head scratch from me. Since she has experienced so few other people, inevitably the first few end up being test dummies to see if she will bite and what kind of postures she displays at that time.
First, you are going to need to find out what the parrot actually likes as a treat. Offering something the bird doesn't like won't protect you from a bite. On the other hand offering something the parrot would like can quite likely become a sufficient distraction from biting. Finding out the bird's favorite treats was already covered in this article. But if you're approaching a bird without knowing what it likes, some go to treats include millet spray for budgies/cockatiels, sunflower seeds for small parrots, almonds for medium parrots, and Brazil nuts for large ones. Not only are these treats favored by most parrots but they are also large (relative to the size of the bird's beak). This will improve the likelihood that the bird's entire beak will be occupied by the treat and not leave room for a bite. Also, the treat is so big that you can protect yourself behind the extended treat as I will explain.
The first step is to leave the bird alone! All too often people get too excited about wanting to handle a bird that they overwhelm it. Instead, give the bird some time to get comfortable with your presence. If you have a visitor apply the same procedures to guide their interaction with your bird. At first, ignore the bird completely. Don't even look at it. With a little more time, from a distance begin to interact with it remotely. Make slow but deliberate steps toward the bird with the special treat in hand. If at any point the bird begins to flip out (jumping off perch, flying away, snap biting toward you in the air, etc), you've got a lot more of an issue than just offering food without getting bit. That type of situation is beyond the scope of this article, please refer to my book instead. But if all you are dealing with is slightly aggressive posture, eye pinning, or other agitation that is not extreme, continue slowly moving closer. Maintain a pace that evokes the least of this type of reaction until you can get into range.
Never put yourself closer to the parrot than the distance it would take for the bird to bite you. Except in some extreme cases, most flighted parrots will not fly to attack you. If they get too scared they will just fly away. If in a cage or clipped, the parrot is left with no choice but to bite if it feels trapped. This is why we are going to work on the careful no-bite food exchange to show the bird that first of all absolutely nothing bad will happen (negative reinforcement) and that in fact something good will happen (treat, positive reinforcement). At first the negative reinforcement element actually plays a more substantial role in early training but if the treats are desirable, positive reinforcement will quickly take over.
When you can reach the distance within a few feet from the bird, it is time to slow down and exercise greater caution. Show the treat in very plain sight. Maybe even pretend to eat it and make a big deal about how nice it is. So while up till this point the goal was to move closer to the bird without freaking it out too much, from this point the goal is to move the treat toward the bird without getting bit. Realize that the bird has different ranges of reach. It can bite what is right at its beak, it can reach forward and bite and it can make a lunge snap bite that can reach furthest. What I do is walk up to a point where I can reach the bird with my arms without moving my feet any more. I reach the treat at a slow but constant rate toward the bird. I keep going closer and watch for the bird to teach to take it. I put the treat just far enough that the bird can stretch its maximum range to try to get it from me. If the bird is looking at and reaching for the treat, I am strongly assured that the bird wants the treat and shouldn't bite. I don't let my guard down completely yet. While holding the treat at the furthest point, I continue to reach it closer toward the bird until it is just close enough to take the treat but not close enough to bite yet. I hold the treat loosely and make it easy for the bird to take it out from between my fingers. As soon as the bird grasps the treat I take my hand back out of bite range but I don't go away. I stand around while the bird eats the treat to build more trust. If the bird avoids eating because I am imposing too much, I might take a step or two back but I still try to stay close while it eats. Then I recede to get another treat and try again.
After several treats, the parrot should start to become more at ease because it knows that all you want to do is provide a treat. On the other hand you should be able to get more confident that the bird isn't trying to bite. Depending on how aggressive/scared the bird is, the rate of your continued progress will vary. Maybe you have now gained the trust of an already tame bird and it will let you scratch its head and step up. Or maybe this is just the beginning of a long taming process. But either way, with the power to apply positive reinforcement in your training, things have the potential for major improvement from this point further.
Try to make the first approach happen within the span of about 30 seconds from when you begin to approach the bird to when the treat is in the beak. With success, keep trying to cut that time in half. You don't want to take too long any more than you want to rush. A rush can scare the bird into biting. But drawing the process out too long can lose the parrot's interest in the treat and hinder your chances at success.
If the parrot drops the treat but doesn't bite, try finding a more desired treat. Look for greater interest from the parrot's gaze. If the parrot bites, end the session and focus more on finding very desired treats and practice your approach to be able to bring in a treat without giving the parrot enough reach to bite. If done properly, you should not end up receiving a bite using this approach. The more times the parrot can take food without biting, the less likely the bird will consider biting as something to do in similar circumstances in the future.
This approach helps you have a more confident approach because it protects you from being bit but also is more comfortable for the parrot (thereby reducing the desire to bite just the same). The parrot will learn just to get treats for nothing and success will come with practice. For more information about taming and training parrots, please refer to my complete approach presented in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. Here is a video in real time of me teaching Ginger to approach Santina in a way that gets her to take the treats rather than bite.
Several outbursts of territorial aggression have already been broke out from Kili against Truman. So I know that this problem exists and will need to be dealt with. Until Truman arrived, I had Kili trained pretty well not to ever land on that cage but since his arrival she has landed on there at least several times and tried to attack through the bars. Whenever I walk by Kili's cage with Truman on my arm, she jumps onto the cage bars and gets really big. She fluffs up her feathers and starts showing her beak, eyes pinning. I have never seen such demonstrations of aggression against any other person from her before but the new bird seems to provoke her more than anything. Finally, there was one instant where I had both birds out at once. It was Kili's time to be out but I just wanted to gauge Truman's weight. Kili was at the far end of the room minding her own business but as soon as I got Truman out of the cage she flew over. She then flew at Truman and I had to deflect her attack by putting my arm in the way and knocking her off her flight path.
Needless to say, quarantine has been violated multiple times already. Truman has landed on Kili's stuff and Kili has landed on Truman's stuff. Living in a single room with flighted parrots makes a successful quarantine nearly impossible. I have been weighing the birds regularly and both seem to be doing just fine. Kili has been healthy for two years and Truman got a full array of blood tests by the breeder's vet. I am not having a strict quarantine anymore but I am keeping the cages apart and only taking one parrot out at a time until this aggression issue is dealt with better.
Luckily Kili really likes training and food. These two things can keep her focused enough often times to ignore other things that are distracting her. So by having her do tricks near Truman's cage and eating treats, it teaches her to "look but don't touch." She is thus developing a habit of not landing on Truman's cage and not attacking Truman. This in effect is an application of differential reinforcement and teaches her what not to do by making an alternative even more rewarding.
I brought over one of Kili's training stands and put up high (about 5ft) to put her at the same height as Truman and just one foot away from him outside his cage. I had her do some tricks and then munch away at her carrot dinner while looking at him. This should also serve as a learning experience for Truman because he refuses to eat carrots. Hopefully watching Kili eat them will make him more likely to eat carrots now as well.