Socialization is crucial for companion parrots because if not for what we teach them, they're wild birds. All too often a parrot will bond to its caretaker or someone in the family and then be aggressive toward everyone else. If you think about it, this makes sense. The parrot gets everything it needs/wants from this individual while everyone else is erratic, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous.
Guests, visitors, and strangers are possibly the worst people from the parrot's perspective. At worst they come and invade their territory, scare them, and make them feel helpless. At best, they leave them alone while diverting their owner's attention away from the parrot. Either way, there is nothing to be gained by the parrot and everything to be lost so it's not a wonder parrots typically don't like company. This is why socialization through a positive reinforcement approach is essential. Here I will outline the steps I take with my birds and suggest you do with yours when introducing any new people.
First, never take the parrot's tameness for granted. Just because it steps up for you and doesn't bite (if it does, you're going to have to go back to basics before introducing others) does not in any way mean that it will behave this way towards strangers. Hopefully the parrot has a history of training and positive reinforcement from you which gives it reason to be around you. Or perhaps it's just used to you and nothing else. Regardless, don't take this for granted and invite others to handle your bird straight out because most likely this will result in failure, bites, and worst of all encourage your parrot to be aggressive towards people.
Here are my 12 steps toward introducing people and having a well socialized parrot that will step up for any person:
1) Ignore the bird. More importantly have your visitor ignore the bird. The worst thing that could happen is your visitor gets excited that you have a parrot and goes straight to the parrot cage upon entry. The parrot doesn't know what to think of this but is safer to get defensive than wait to see what happens. Even if the parrot doesn't get a chance to attack your guest, it will still develop a bad first impression that this individual is potentially dangerous. So instead, it is best to pretend the parrot doesn't even exist for the first 10-60 minutes. The visitor should avoid eye contact or walking straight toward the parrot. Otherwise the visitor should just go about things as though you didn't have a parrot at all. I usually tell people that I'll show them the parrot later but for now something else. This shows the parrot that the guest is harmless and avoids setting a bad impression. This gives the parrot a chance to watch within the safety of its cage without feeling trapped by an approaching stranger.
2) Let the bird loose. Let the parrot out of the cage and choose whether to approach or not at its own pace. Again, don't allow the visitor to impose upon the parrot. Ideally the parrot should be flighted and given the chance to fly closer or retreat at its own comfort level. Most likely in no time it will approach out of curiosity or come to you for security. By letting the parrot set the pace rather than the guest, it's guaranteed that it won't have reason to be terrified.
3) Show how to handle parrot. You must realize that most people have never handled a parrot before and don't know how to. Even the ones that have still probably don't know how to handle your parrot so assume you must start from scratch with anyone. This is best because then the way guests approach your bird will be similar to how you do and familiar. Show your visitor how you approach the bird, how it steps up, how you pet it, etc. Don't give people the opportunity to treat your bird like a dog or child. They have to understand that this is an intelligent free willed animal deserving respect and admiration.
4) Human perch. Let your visitors first contact with the bird be as nothing more than a human perch. Guide your visitor into holding their arm or finger out to accept the bird and do nothing else. NEVER let them just reach in and have the bird step up. You can't be sure what they'll do and the bird especially. Many times this will result in a nasty bite but if nothing else, will assure the bird that it's safest to just avoid strangers all together. It's a great idea to target train your parrot beforehand and then use the targeting method to target the parrot onto your visitors hand and then back off. Again, remember that the first time on someone's hand should be uninvolved. The person should not pet or handle them yet. Showing the parrot that it can stand on random people's hands without anything happening is far more reassuring than something unpredictable going on. If the bird doesn't target or is well capable of going on other people's hands, just put the parrot onto their hand. Use your hands to keep their attention and deflect a potential bite. Don't give an opportunity to either visitor or parrot to get scared. If one gets scared, the other is sure to become scared too and ruin everything. A scared, biting parrot will make a human scared; by the same token, an unsure human will scare the parrot into biting.
5) Tricks. The bird should be trick trained beforehand. This is yet another reason why trick training is so useful. Have your visitor cue tricks from your parrot and reward it with treats. This is fun and exciting both to visitor and parrot. Allow the visitor to present bigger treats or the best ones you refrain from using too much. This will help the parrot overcome the unfamiliarity and even look forward to visitors instead of dreading them. This is a fun, safe, hands off approach to use positive reinforcement with the parrot for socialization.
6) Step Up. Only after going through the prior steps do you actually allow a new person to request the parrot to step up. What we did was build a certain level of trust in the bird before having someone actually move their own hand toward it. By the time you think it's appropriate for a visitor to approach the bird for step up, the bird has received good things and nothing bad so it's worth a try. My preferred way for having my parrots step up for visitors is by surrounding the bird with tricks..My parrots are accustomed to receiving treats after performing a trick. Thus I have the visitor cue a trick, then while approaching with the treat, ask the parrot to step up to get it. The parrot already knows it earned a treat so it might as well step up to get it. This gives the parrot less reason to doubt motives. After a few successful step ups as such I switch it around. I have the visitor get the bird to step up first for the opportunity to preform a trick for a treat. Thus the parrot learns to simply always step up to earn potential opportunities and not exclusively when a treat is in the hand. Again, it's good to go through these stages with your parrot yourself before completing them with visitors so that the parrot knows what to expect.
7) Petting. Now that the parrot is comfortable being on hands, we can introduce hands for petting. Remember that people don't know how to handle or pet a parrot so you must show them the way your bird likes it. This is not a time for experimental petting. If your bird won't end up liking it then it will avoid allowing people to do it in case it's bad like that again. I have my parrot perch on my hand and hold its beak between my fingers. This teaches it a submissive pose, puts a buffer between biting guests, and it tells it what's about to ensue. I begin by scratching my bird's neck the way it likes and then having the guest reach in and join together. Then I take my hand away and allow them to continue. Since the parrot was enjoying it from the start and the visitor did nothing more than continue it, the parrot allows it and even enjoys it. This creates a reason for the parrot to look forward to visitors and not dread that they will manhandle it in some terrifying way.
8) Bird Potato. Play bird potato with one or more guests by randomly passing the parrot around between people and handling it. Mix tricks, scratches, step ups, and breaks randomly so the parrot just becomes accustomed to as many people and hands as possible but always keeping it desirable for the parrot.
9) Grab training. Teaching the bird to allow itself to be grabbed by different people is not only useful when that needs to be done (grooming, vet, boarding, emergency, etc) but also builds a greater level of trust. If the bird will trust someone to grab it and not bite, then it will especially feel safe and not bite just standing on their hand. At first this process may take days or weeks so work with someone familiar but eventually the more people you follow these steps with the easier and quicker it will go. Have the visitor come as close to the bird as it allows and give a treat. Then the visitor should progressively bring the hand closer to the bird without touching and then give a treat. Eventually the visitor should be able to touch the bird for a treat, cup it, and finally grab it for a treat. In the long term have visitors grab and carry the bird to other parts of the room, grab it on/off the cage, and give treats and mixed intervals. The parrot will just become accustomed to being handled by people as a normal activity.
Repeat the above steps with as many people as possible at home. Once the bird is ok with at least a few people you can begin trying the next approaches.
10) Private Outings. Bring the parrot on private outings with not too many people. Take the parrot to dinner with family, over to a friend's house, etc. Start with smaller events that can be controlled before going to things that are more bustling. These are great opportunities for the parrots not only to meet new people but also to become more at ease with people they already know. My parrots can get more bossy at home but when out they are much nicer to other people. This is a good opportunity to continue the socialization process and mend bridges. People that were previously enemies can become friends in unfamiliar places.
11) Public Outings. Once the parrot is used to some people and places you can begin taking it on outings to public places. Parks, malls, streets, carnivals, etc are all great opportunities for your parrots to learn that people are harmless and good. Inevitably people will want to handle your parrot and they will be willing to listen and do as you say. This is your chance to guide the interaction as you have done at home and ensure that interactions with other people will always be good. Since the parrots are busy taking in all the activity of being outside and not within their own territory, they will be less likely to protest. Since humans have always been a safe thing before and the new unfamiliar ones are being presented in familiar ways, the parrot will cooperate. Again it is your responsibility that the parrot does not bite or scare people and vice verse. However, successful public outings like this will make your parrot infinitely more robust and social towards people and changes in their life.
12) Uncontrolled Random Interactions. It's inevitable that at some point or another someone will handle your parrots not in ways that you would recommend. Most likely this has already happened previously and set things back a lot. Well once you reach this last stage, it should be ok for this to happen sometimes. Ensure that the parrots are not hurt but as long as it's not harmful, allow people to handle them in random unpredictable ways. Every now and then someone will just run up and touch my parrots at the park or pet them in ways I wouldn't recommend. But the parrots realize that this is harmless and get over it. If you always shelter your parrot from this, then of course these unpredictable interactions will be terrifying. But once your parrot is already well socialized, allowing some of these to slip by now and then just makes them more robust and prepared to deal with things you could never have foreseen to prepare them for.
Remember that every person is different and that every interaction will make your parrot more social. At first control the interactions very closely to ensure that they aren't too much for the parrot but over time challenge your parrot with tougher less predictable situations. Even when you achieve a socialized parrot, continue to maintain it or over time it will again become too comfortable with you and not with others. Encourage interaction with family members, friends, and strangers that is always positive to the parrot but also always fun/safe for humans. Don't give humans the opportunity to scare the bird but also don't give parrots the opportunity to bite people and make them afraid of birds either. Lastly here is a video of how Kili and Truman have been socialized with Jamie:
Kili and Truman love Christmas. They enjoy all the activity, decorations, attention, and treats. I had to help put up the Christmas tree over at my parent's house so I brought the parrot duo along with me. In the beginning they just watched from their carriers but eventually I started letting them out and closer.
I brought a Parrot Training Perch along to give the birds a familiar place to fly to. They watched as my brother and I erected the artificial tree and sneezed endlessly from a year's worth of dust. I took Kili out first and showed her the beginnings of a tree coming together. Then I let her perch on her training stand at a distance to watch.
Although a bit cautious, Kili was not scared of the new environment and activity. She was most happy sitting on the sidelines watching rather than being directly involved. On occasion Kili would fly back to me to be more involved or I would recall her over to help out. There was no trouble getting her to come as she was eager to see what was going on. Kili rode my shoulder while my brother and I strung out the colored lights onto the xmas tree.
Truman watched from his travel cage, so none of it was a big surprise to him when I took him out and let him join us. One time he slipped off my shoulder and flew through several rooms and landed on the chair in the kitchen. I was happy to know he could find a safe landing place. Another time he flew off, went to another room, circled around, and came right back to me. He's a good flier and can think well on the fly. He did not knock anything over, poop anywhere, or do anything someone would fear a bird doing as a visitor in their home. Whenever the birds needed to poop, they went back to the training perch I had set up for them (with a newspaper below).
While we put up fragile decorations, I put the birds back into their carriers for a break. After clean up, when the tree was finished, I took the parrots out one more time to see the transformation that had happened. They looked on in astonishment and just dreamed of how incredibly awesome it would be to chew every bit of it all into tiny shreds. I did a few more flight recalls with the birds and they had no fear of flying around the Christmas tree. They didn't fly into anything or cause any trouble.
This is just one of many such social outings I take my parrots on. I want them to be exposed to as many different environments and situations possible while they are still young. Since they are flighted, every time they get to fly some place different, it builds their flight skills and makes the chances of recovering them if they get out better with every time.
While the parrots were out, I took several precautions for their safety. I locked the doors and made sure there was no cooking going on in the kitchen. I put their carriers out in a place where they can see everything but also such that they could fly back to them while out. I brought a familiar Parrot Training Perch from home not only to provide a comfortable perching location but also a safe spot to fly back to if spooked. The birds got used to a new situation, had fun, and lightened my day through all the labors of holiday preparations. What are your parrots doing for the holidays? Leave a comment.
I am spend a lot of effort socializing Truman to new people and environments. I try to take him with me everywhere I can, especially when driving. He can still get noisy in the car but with every drive, he's definitely becoming better behaved. This time I took him with me to the airport I fly gliders from.
Even when I do bring the travel cage along, I still try to have Truman spend at least a few hours in the carrier to be more used to it. So I let Truman spend the ride out in his carrier. We waited a long time for him to get quiet in his carrier and rewarded him with a little bit of out of carrier time. Kathleen held him while I drove and let him look out the window.
At the airport, Truman got to go in his travel cage which to him is a big reward. Not only is it more roomy than the carrier, it also has some of his favorite toys. Truman spent most of the day out on top of his travel cage or inside of it playing. I recalled him a few times and had Truman show his tricks to everyone.
Both the car and office of the gliderport have many windows but Truman did not once try to fly through any of them. I usually go around and show him all the windows to get him better acquainted to them. But between the fact that he was too busy playing and not interested in flying anywhere, he stayed well away from any potentially dangerous glass.
It has been getting dark pretty early so Truman fell asleep in the car while I was picking up some supplies at a store. Check out Truman's day out in this short video:
Just a day after completing assembly of the Kings Travel Cage that I bought for the parrots, I began introducing them to it. Actually I had already begun introducing them while my brother assembled it by having them sit on nearby perches and watch. When the birds see humans safely interacting with something, it gives them more confidence to try it themselves rather than be frightened by a newly appeared object they are expected to go into.
Don't just shove or force your parrot into the travel cage or carrier immediately. Ok, it's true that I did this with Truman the day I assembled it, but with good reason. The travel cage looks just like his big cage and he is young and ready to explore. So by putting him into it that way, it did not frighten him at all. He was more excited about checking out the toys. However, I would not have done the same with Kili or most other birds. Instead, use the following procedure.
It is important to maintain the carrier/travel cage experience a positive one. The simple fact of getting locked up in it and ignored for some hours (quite likely bumpy and uncomfortable) is quite unpleasant in itself. This is why it is required to do everything in your power to make carrier time be as good as possible to make up for that. If you don't make carrier time enjoyable for your parrot, it will quickly become scared of going in the carrier and resist by all means. It will fly away, bite, and make it really hard for you to get it in there. Let me remind you that good carrier behavior is not only necessary for taking a parrot out on social outings, but also for emergency vet visits and grooming. Unfortunately, most people only end up using a carrier in time of need. This is likely to be rushed and unpleasant for the parrot. So for all of these reasons, I recommend carrier/travel cage training before you actually need to transport the parrot. I urge everyone who owns a carrier (whether your parrot is already accustomed to it or never been in it) to go and practice some carrier time with your parrot in a pleasant way as I will soon get to explaining, I promise. If you don't have a carrier, please go any buy one and practice these techniques because you can't be certain when you might need to take your parrot some place.
While the first step to a successful carrier introduction is letting the parrot see it and see you working with it, next comes a more proactive approach. Don't just force your parrot into the carrier all at once. Instead, put it on top of, next to, or around the carrier/cage.
I started by carrying Kili over and putting her on the cage top handle perch. She wasn't too scared because the dowel perch looked similar enough to other dowel perches she had previously frequented. But more importantly, she has a clear path to fly away should she choose to because I did not immediately confine her in the cage. To get Kili more used to being there, I targeted her back and forth on that perch. Then I targeted her down to the cage top bars.
Meanwhile Truman was at a distance watching. Unexpectedly he flew over to join us. He wasn't going to miss out on all this fun. He landed on the cage top and wanted to play "target" too. So the birds took turns targeting to various spots on the cage top. I took Kili and brought her down to the cage level. I didn't make her go in but rather targeted her from my hand to the travel cage perch. She stepped right in and was thrilled to get a treat so effortlessly. I continued targeting her around inside until she noticed the new toys and went to check them out.
It didn't take any targeting to get Truman to go into the travel cage. The sight of new toys just drew him right in. Getting him away from those toys would probably serve a greater challenge then getting him to go in. If your parrot loves toys, definitely use this to your advantage by providing better than usual toys in the travel cage to make it more worthwhile. It is very important that your parrots actually like their travel cage or carrier. Just tolerating isn't enough. They have to like it because it will serve as their home away from home. They need to feel safe and comfortable in their carrier. Furthermore, for flighted parrots it is good for them to be super familiar with their cage or carrier so that they have a place to fly back to if they get scared when you're out. One more reason I want my parrots to become super familiar and love their travel cage is in the event they ever get lost outside home, I will put the travel cage outside to lure them back in (I know people recommend putting the bird's cage outside but Truman's cage is not going to fit through the door, so travel cage works great).
The travel cage familiarization was a great success, but how would the parrots react to being locked inside for periods at a time? I began with Truman by pouring a meal of pellets in the travel cage's food bowl and leaving him inside for an hour. Without hesitation Truman went right for the food and had an enjoyable meal. Once again, here is an example of providing a positive cage/carrier environment where something good happens every time the parrot is inside. For the next few days I let the parrots take turns eating their meals in the travel cage and being locked inside progressively longer to get used to being in it.
I am very happy with the custom perch layout I configured. The perches came out to be at an ideal height and distance that either parrot can comfortably use the travel cage. Truman uses his beak to lean and step from perch to perch; Kili hops. Although the parrots can easily climb the cage bars, they have little need to.
Now that the birds were accustomed to being in the travel cage at home, it was time for a field test. The day I took Truman flying in an airplane, I brought him to the airport in his carrier, but I let him ride back home in his travel cage. He loved it. He was endlessly entertained by the toys hanging inside. He would make his way back and forth on the perch to play with the two toys. He held on well and never fell off his perch during the drive (even bumpy parts and steep turns). He was even able to balance on one foot while playing with a bottle cap in his beak and dominant foot. He was so busy playing the whole car ride that he did not scream or cause any trouble.
Later that same day Kili got to spend some time and eat a meal in the travel cage while out as well. Both parrots did great in their travel cage and appear to like it better than their travel carriers. Truman didn't step in poop or his his tail on the sides. Although I found some faults in the set up, price, weight, and value of the travel cage, it was a major hit with the parrots. With the modifications I made and training I did, this travel cage is absolutely worthwhile for the parrots. From the bird's perspective, I definitely recommend this travel cage.
Rather than being some unpleasant form of confinement, I had succeeded in introducing the travel cage as a fun place to be. The parrots enjoyed eating and playing with toys in their new cage. They go in willingly and even fly over and land on top of the travel cage for the hell of it. Regardless of what cage or carrier you use for your parrots, just remember to make it a worthwhile experience. Good carrier training is the first step in being able to bring your parrots out for socializing to the rest of the world.