Rachel, my wife's Blue and Gold Macaw, has been going through terrible twos for the last few years. This is the adolescent period where much changes in a parrot's life. It grows up from being a naive baby to an independent adult. Most parrot owners are quite surprised by the changes that happen when the parrot stops being cooperative during this stage.
The age at which adolescence hits will vary by species. Roughly speaking it's around 1-3 years old in the small parrots, 2-4 in the medium, and about 3-6 years old in the large ones. During this period, the parrot's behavior can change unexpectedly. The bird will be more testing, bold, fearful, and all around cranky. Allegiances with other birds and humans can also become reversed. It's an all around jumbled, confusing, unpredictable, and unpleasant experience.
The once sweet baby now bites the hand that feeds. It might prefer someone it didn't like before or seem all around intent to hunker down in the cage and not even come out. When asked to step up, the bird runs away, bites, or just flat out ignores so what to do?
Predicting that Rachel will go through this, I began preemptive training early to help combat the worse of the symptoms of parrot adolescence. I trained Rachel to step-up using clicker and target stick, taming, harness, and some tricks beforehand. But as the age started to come, Rachel's behavior was still in a slow decline. It is difficult to realize an imperceptible downward slippery slope until it jumps out and bites you. Sometimes literally.
My wife Marianna, who raised Rachel since she was a baby, learned about parrot adolescence the hard way. It wasn't until she got bit by the baby she raised that she got a full grasp of what the "terrible" in terrible-twos means. She actually got to a point where she was uneasy around Rachel because the bites seemed to be random and unexpected. So, to help her out, I decided to do some step up re-training with Rachel to get her to be more reliable at stepping up and off again.
Rachel already knew exactly how to step-up from previous training so it was more of a matter of rekindling motivation for stepping up and lots of practice. It seems strange having to go back to such basics with a parrot that knows complex tricks. But, when hormones are causing the bird to be edgy and bite, it's what you gotta do.
If Rachel forgot how to step up entirely or would entirely refuse to, I would start the initial step-up training all over again from scratch. However, since we caught it in time while she was still stepping up but not as reliably, it was a much easier fix. I just literally went to giving Rachel a food treat every single time she would step up. She got back into it quickly once she realized she was getting food for such easy stuff.
Normally we begin to take step-up for granted because the parrot is usually reinforced in other ways for participating. For example, step-up and you get to come out of cage. Step up and I'll give you attention. Step up and get a head scratch. Step up so you could do a trick and earn a treat. There is usually a subtle bit of positive reinforcement on an intermittent reinforcement schedule built into the parrot keeping lifestyle that I share. However, when the biological changes that the parrot is going through cause it to suddenly dislike things it normally likes and people it normally trusts, you have to go back to much more basic operant conditioning to remind it what to do.
This came as no shock to me as I had already gone through the same with Kili, Truman, and countless bird owners I have coached. However, it always pins you harder when you were the one that raised your bird and you second guess yourself. This is why a clear mind, good attitude, right approach, and persistence really matter. It's all an uphill battle while slowly slipping downhill when the bird is going through this. With good training and the time for the bird to grow out of the age, everything will settle in place.
I recently took a short trip down to Tallahassee and surrounding parts of the Florida pan handle. I flew down there with my dad and sister for four days and I'd like to share some of the parrot related encounters I had there.
The flight to Tallahassee was rather exciting as we departed New York through fog and low clouds. But once we climbed over top of it, we were met by the rising sun and blue skies. Cruising along at 8,000ft and 160mph, we made it to Florida in about 7 hours with a gas stop along the way. It sure beats flying by airline where they make my take my shoes off, steal my water, and treat everyone like they are guilty till they prove they aren't a terrorist. I depart when I want, have more leg room than my legs can reach, a lot of fun, and just freedom unrestricted by the terrestrial world we are accustomed to.
Here's a video with some breathtaking views of flight in clouds going down there:
Emerald Coast Science Center
When we were visiting the Emerald Coast Science Center in Fort Walton Beach, I couldn't help noticing the parrot cage by the entrance. Inside was a sweet Galah that allowed me to pet it through the bars. After seeing the museum, I asked the employee if I could hold the parrot for a picture. Reluctantly she agreed to try. She said the parrot is finicky and doesn't always come out. She came over to Kiwi's cage and opened the door. She reached her hand in slowly and urged Kiwi to step up. Kiwi did not bite but nor did he comply. He would pick a foot up and then put it down, turn around, walk away, do a dance, etc. The lady kept following him with her hand but with no luck.
Meanwhile my little sister kept yapping and saying things about me. "My brother is good with parrots. Let him try to take Kiwi out!" she would say. After several unsuccessful minutes the employee was getting frustrated and ready to give up. She finally said, "alright, you can try and take him out if you want but he could bite." She stepped away from the cage as I approached. In a single motion not lasting two seconds, I reached my hand through the open cage door, Kiwi stepped right up on my hand, and had him out of the cage melting away in my arms. The lady started in awe and proclaimed, "he must really like you."
How was it that this parrot who barely knew me for a minute stepped right up for me and not for a caretaker that it encounters on a daily basis? Did this parrot hate women but like men? Or could it mysteriously sense that I'm a parrot person? Well it's none and all of the above. I was analyzing the circumstance before I even reached my hand into the cage. I immediately knew what was wrong when the lady was pleading with Kiwi to step up. I could see her insecurity and reluctance. On the flip side, I noticed that Kiwi was not aggressive and would not have bit her if she was more determined to taking him out. But since she held her hand at a distance and didn't make him step up, he just opted to play games with her instead. The more she chased him around with her hand asking him to step up, the more he would resist and keep playing around.
By the time I was reaching in the cage for Kiwi, I already knew that he was tame, capable of stepping up, and I was not scared of him. This combination of confidence and knowledge of the optimal parrot step up approach, got Kiwi onto my hand on the first try and without incident. If I had waffled, the outcome may have been different. But using the approach I describe in that other article, I give the parrot enough time to feel safe and realize what's happening but not enough time to decide to do something different. Also, although I gave him the freedom to choose not to come to me (asking for step up rather than just grabbing), I guided his choice by swinging my hand toward him at a non-stop constant motion that if he didn't step up it would slice through his legs forcing him to step. I'm just trying my best to summarize my approach into words and step by step behaviors to make it clear that "being a bird person" is really just a sum of the behaviors that I perform to achieve the desired result. Thus it appears to any outsider that random parrots just like me but it's because I've developed an approach that works pretty well on most tame parrots (note I say tame parrots that at least know how to step up for someone. I'm at as much of a loss as anyone with a vicious untame parrot that steps for nobody). I explained some of this to the lady hoping that it may give her a better chance of working with Kiwi in the future and not getting discouraged. I hoped to demonstrate to her (and to you) that it is the method and not necessarily the person that allows it to work.
Not being scared of the parrot and being confident that I could get it out were major factors. Parrots don't like people who are scared of them because they are more shaky and unpredictable. Nor do they like people who are too forceful either. There is an ideal middle ground approach that is the culmination of confidence and respect for the animal. I wasn't scared for several reasons. First of all he already let me pet him through the cage bars and I saw that he didn't try to bite the employee. But more importantly, realizing that this parrot which is the size of Truman (Cape Parrot) and beak the size of Kili's (Senegal Parrot), that he really couldn't do much to scare me and I could work through it safely. Thus I made a friend and made Kiwi's day. And hopefully not only the museum employee could learn something from it but you as well!
Gulf World Marine Park
An unexpected highlight of the trip turned out to be the Gulf World Marine Park. I've been to lots of Aquariums but this one was a bit different. First of all, this was the most commercialized one I've ever encountered. They skipped all the boring (yet rare and educational) fish exhibits. Instead they just featured the stuff visitors want to see like sting rays, penguins, sea lions, and dolphins. We came just in time for the parrot show and dolphin show! You read that right, parrot show. Now why half of a "marine" park is dedicated to parrots is beyond me but this is a fact. They had about 10 outdoor aviaries and another 10 indoor stands with various kinds of macaws and parrots occupying them. I learned that they have over 40 rescued parrots that are homed in cages outside public view but they get circulated around the public displays throughout the day.
I was pleased to see unclipped parrots performing tricks including flight during the indoor parrot show. No need to explain as I included bits of the show in the following video. After the show I got to chat with the parrot trainer and exchange some ideas about training while getting the inside scoop on food management. As you watch the parrot and dolphin shows, pay attention to the cues, bridges, and rewards in addition to the behavior. Can you tell what kind of reinforcement schedule is being used?
I included just some small bits of the shows and recommend seeing them for yourself if you are ever out to Panama City Beach, Florida.
Finally here's a shot of Joe Junior, a 14 foot Florida Alligator I photographed on a bank of the Wakulla Springs State Park.
On a recent visit to the bird store I came across a Jardine's Parrot I recognized from last time. It has remained unsold for a while and is around 6 months old already. Besides the fact that parrot sales are down during this terrible economy, you could say that Jardine's Parrots look rather dull in front of all the Sun Parakeets, Cockatoos, and Macaws. To make matters worse, this little Jardine's Parrot didn't even know how to step up.
When I reached my hand into the tank housing the two available Jardine's Parrots, all havoc broke loose. The two terrified parrots fled my approaching hands. I was unable to get one out without a bite. However, once I got a hold of its neck all matters were settled. With the restraint of my parrot hold, the Jardine's struggle was over while I protected myself from additional bites.
Within minutes the parrot calmed down and sweetly cuddled as I held it against my chest. As time progressed I was able to hold a looser grip on the bird with less fear of biting or fleeing. I was able to pet it on the head and neck and hold it any which way.
I was surprised to find out that the bird did not know how to perch or step up. Well it was obvious in the tank that it didn't want to step up, however, it wouldn't step up outside of the tank either. While I held the bird in my hands it stayed calm but would get very uneasy when I tried to let it perch on my finger. The Jardine's Parrot became scared when I approached with a finger to ask it to step up. Worse yet, if I pressed my finger toward its belly to edge it to step up, it simply knew not what to do.
The Jardine's Parrot simply did not know how to lift its legs to step up to perch. Having gone unsold for so long, the poor little bird never learned to perch while living in a flat bottom tank. This is good for the younger birds but they are not expected to go unsold for this long. It had trouble perching on my finger because it curled its toes instead of wrapping them around my finger. I had to straighten the toes out to show it that it can grip my finger better that way.
Although scared at first and unable to step up, this Jardine's Parrot turned out to be really sweet. As long as I held it close, it did not try to bite and let me pet it all I wanted. I carried the parrot around the store with me for nearly an hour. The bird was starting to get the hang of perching. However, when I put it down on a perch to poop, it would not step up when I tried to take it back. Yet when I grabbed it with my hands to pick it up, it did not protest one bit. I was amazed that here was a bird that preferred to be forcefully grabbed to being in control and stepping up. This is quite the opposite of most parrots around though this is not the first Jardine's Parrot I have made this observation with.
I began working on the basics of step up by using a finger to pry its toes off the finger it was perched on. I slowly lifted that foot until it would have to pick the other foot up to follow. I also used a slight disbalance in the hand it was originally perched on by tipping it downward while offering the rock solid finger to step onto. I began adding a reward to the process as well. What reward could I possibly use on a bird I do not own, that isn't hungry, and no training supplies to use? I used stability, attention, vocalization, and height to reward the Jardine's Parrot for stepping up. First I lowered the hand it was perched on to the height of my stomach. Then I offered my other hand slightly higher. The early step ups were forced to demonstrate to it what to do but soon enough it was picking its foot up on its own to step up. Then as soon as it stepped up, I lifted it up to eye level and made excited sounds. This was positive reinforcement based training at work here and it shows that not all positive reinforcement needs to be food. This method proved to be positively reinforcing because the Jardine's Parrot was more readily stepping up with each trial. Positive reinforcement is measured by its affect on behavior and the behavior was increasing. Success.
For a parrot unaccustomed to perching or much exercise, I'm sure this was challenging. I gave it breaks longer than the actual training session bits for scratches and cuddling. Then I would ask for a step up again and it would do it. Before the end of our short interaction the Jardine's Parrot would simply pick up its foot on the sight of my approaching finger (almost like wave) in anticipation of stepping up. The bird even stepped up for other people and let others pet it as well.
Besides stepping up, I also managed to teach it petting etiquette in the time I held it. I only pet its head if it would let me hold its beak (like I do with Truman). It enjoyed the petting so it did not mind being held in this way. There were children attending the store who were disappointed they couldn't pet the other birds so I carried the Jardine's around and let them interact with it. One lady commented that it's a great idea to hold the bird's beak during petting that way as I let her daughter pet the Jardine's. You don't want the children to get scared of parrots from getting bit and you don't want the parrots to learn to bite. So prevention is key.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to convince anyone to buy the bird and I surely couldn't buy it either. However, now that the bird is a bit more used to hands and knows how to step up, it will have a better chance of finding a good home. Someone will become entranced by this parrots sweetness and will have a cuddlebug on their hands. The store owner was impressed and grateful that I tamed the bird a bit for her. She told me to leave the bird out front to showcase it for buyers.
Even if you don't intend to buy another parrot ever again, it's still a great experience builder to go to a store, rescue, and breeder to handle some parrots. It's win/win for everyone. Most stores/rescues are too busy to give all their birds sufficient handling time and will appreciate an experienced/caring parrot owner to spend time with their birds even if they aren't buying. By handling other birds (possibly bigger or more aggressive) it will give you greater confidence in handling your own. The eventual buyer of the bird wins too because they will acquire a more socialized bird that is accustomed to handling. The biggest winners of all though are the birds themselves. They can really use some love and attention. Here's a brief clip at the bird store and how I was working with the Jardine's Parrot.
The most common questions I receive have nothing to do with advanced trick training or flight. Instead, I am constantly being asked how to get a parrot to do basics like come out of the cage, step up, or not bite. These basic questions are fundamental to parrot ownership. Unfortunately many owners cannot enjoy the most from their parrot if they cannot accomplish basic handling.
Michael, Kili, and Truman
I faced these very same questions when I bought my first parrot, a Cockatiel. I had never so much as touched a bird before in my life and here I was with a bird in the transport box and a cage but absolutely no idea what to do. I spent a lot of time and money to buy training information but unfortunately most of it was unhelpful. Sure there are lots of books and dvds about the methods for teaching specific tricks but few or none of them teach you about the absolute basics. They tell you to take the parrot out of the cage and proceed with training. Well I know from personal experience that this presumption that the owner can get the parrot out of the cage is flawed. Many owners cannot enjoy the thrill of teaching tricks to their parrot because they do not even know how to handle it or reduce aggression in the first place.
A year ago I had written the How to Teach Parrot to Step Up guide on The Parrot Forum and it is still to this day one of my most popular articles. I understand that this basic information is very sought after. Yet I still receive many questions that are even more basic still or that weren't covered in the original article which was predominantly about target training. So now, I sit down to write what I hope to be the ultimate guide to the basics of parrot taming and training. I hope you enjoy the information contained herein and find it helpful. Please read through completely, watch the videos, share with other parrot owners, reread as necessary, and ask your questions on The Parrot Forum. Welcome to the world of parrot training.
Why should you read this? You may be a first time parrot owner that just got home with a new bird wondering why it did not come with an instruction manual. Or perhaps you have had some parrots for a long time but regret the inability to interact with them and wish to learn how to approach them. Maybe you found a lost parrot and need information about how to handle it so that you could foster it. Alternatively you got a rescued or rehomed parrot that is anything but friendly. Regardless of how you came upon a parrot or found this article, you are here because you want to improve your relationship with a highly intelligent, beautiful, and complex feathered companion.
This guide is meant to teach you everything you need to know to begin handling a parrot no matter what the history or circumstances. It does not matter how long you have had it, how old it is, what species the bird is, where you got it from, or what its history is. Certainly these things can affect how long it will take or how difficult it will be. But I guarantee you that if properly and patiently applied, these methods will work. These techniques will work just as well for a Parakeet, Conure, Amazon, Cockatoo, African Grey, or Macaw.
The only case that I can think of where this guide does not apply is for unweaned baby birds that are still hand feeding. Please have an experienced breeder or hand feeder take care of the baby or at least coach you through the process and do not attempt to apply these techniques to a young fledgling.
Getting Parrot Into the Cage for the First Time
If you just acquired a new parrot – whether it is from a breeder, store, or rehomed – you will need to transfer it from the transportation enclosure to its new cage. The parrot may be in a travel carrier, crate, or cardboard box. Regardless, the procedure will be the same for getting it into the cage. There are several possibilities of how tame the parrot is. If you do not already know, you're about to find out. Bring the carrier into the same area as the cage. Close all doors and windows.
Most likely the parrot is quite scared so putting the carrier door up to the cage door will not be encouraging for the bird to come out on its own. Food lures won't work either since a scared bird will refuse to eat for several days. Your intervention will definitely be required.
You may be lucky and have a friendly parrot that already knows how to step up. The problem is that you may not know that in fact the parrot is friendly and aware of stepping up. The best way to test this is to open the carrier slowly and bring your hand toward the bird. As you open the carrier door, keep the opening minimal and blocked with your hand so that the parrot cannot rush out. Slowly bring your hand closer and closer to the parrot. If the parrot doesn't react to the hand much, then keep going closer. However, if the parrot is opening its beak and aggressively snapping toward your hand, then the stepping up method is unlikely to work.
For the non-aggressive parrot, keep bringing your hand closer and aim your fingers perpendicular to the feet. Depending on the size of the parrot you'll want to use anything from one finger to your entire arm. The main thing is to place your hand parallel to the perch it is standing on and slightly above its feet. If it was trained by the breeder to step up, it is a good idea to say “step up” as you have your hand positioned. As soon as the parrot steps up, slowly take it out of the carrier and then bring it into the cage. Like with your hand before, aim the bird in such a way that the cage perch runs parallel to your hand and slightly above its feet. The parrot should now step up onto the perch. You can close the cage door and talk to the parrot for a little while but then be sure to give it some time alone to adjust to its new home. I wouldn't suggest handling the parrot anymore at this time unless you are already experienced with parrots.
Getting parrot out of the carrier
If it turned out you are dealing with an aggressive parrot or it didn't step up using the method previously mentioned, you're going to have to get a hold of the bird to get it into the cage. Don't worry about this affecting your relationship. The parrot will eventually get over this. In fact it probably won't even realize what happened if you do it quickly enough. You definitely don't want to draw out this unpleasant experience any more than necessary as the fear will escalate and only make it more difficult to catch. It is especially important not to let the parrot escape the carrier if it is flighted because you will have a much tougher time getting a hold of it somewhere in the room.
Ideally you should just use your bare hand and grab the parrot out of the carrier. If you are too scared, you could wear thin leather gloves or use a towel. The best place to grab the parrot by is actually the neck, just below the head. Not only is it a safer place to avoid getting bit, it's also least likely to harm the parrot. If you grab by the belly, it could restrict airflow, but grabbing by the neck will not. By holding under the beak, you can keep the parrot from being able to turn its head and bite you. You can do the same with a glove. If you use a towel, you can either grab through the towel, or just get the bird in it and wrap it until you can get it in the cage. In one bold motion reach in toward the parrot. Even if it is backing away, just keep moving your hand toward it and back it into a corner. At this point the bird can't get anywhere and you can get a hold of it. Regardless of how you got a hold of it, don't prolong this and hurry up and get it in the cage. Whatever you do, don't let go of the bird (even if it bites). You'll have a much tougher time getting back if it gets loose in the room. If you had to use this more forceful method, it's a good idea to give the bird a bit more time to settle down before proceeding to taming and training.
If the parrot stepped up for you, the bird is probably quite tame and this basic taming should go much quicker. Since it is stepping up reliably, you will be able to ask the parrot to step up to come out of the cage. On the other hand if you had to grab the bird out of the carrier, odds are you will have to continue doing this until it has learned to step up.
No matter what method you had to use to get the new parrot into the cage, do not overwhelm it with attention immediately. Not only does it need some time to calm down and settle in, you also don't want to make it too dependent for attention. It is likely that the new parrot will eat little or none for the first few days. This should not be of too much concern. Just be sure that it has access to food and water and that it is already familiar with the food you are providing. This is not the time to try to do a food change or to instate any kind of food management for training.
Approaching the Cage
It is very important not to make your parrot afraid of you by rushing at the cage. Until the parrot is more used to you, it is essential to approach the cage very slowly. Don't make any sudden noises and walk carefully not to trip, fall, and terrify the bird. First impressions are important and it is critical not to let the first one be a bad one. If you have a particularly fearful bird, don't even make eye contact with it as you approach the cage. Just slowly approach while looking somewhere else. By making eye contact, it may feel like it has been singled out by a predator.
If you take an unnecessarily cautious approach, there is no way that will hurt your relationship. You will be able to speed things up in the future. However, if you rush this and scare the bird, it will be much much harder to undo the fear that is developed.
You must determine your parrot's comfort threshold. It is quite likely that the parrot is accustomed to human presence and will not freak out if you come all the way up to the cage. However, if it does, you'll need to slowly desensitize it to your presence over time. If you find the parrot trying to bite at you, thrashing around the cage, or making any other drastic displays of discomfort in response to your presence, the following technique is necessary.
Start out of the room or out of sight. Approach the cage slowly and wait for the discomfort response. The moment it begins, stop and stay where you are. Do not approach further but do not retreat. Wait for the parrot to calm down. It may still look uncomfortable but as long as it has made a relaxing trend from the original outbreak, you may reward the parrot by turning around and walking away. By using this method, the parrot will learn that it actually takes calming down rather than making a big scene to get you to leave. You are showing the parrot that the only way to get what it wants is to be calm.
Continue this technique over a period of time. You should be able to approach progressively closer and closer. Once you are able to safely approach within touching distance of the cage, you can continue with the following positive reinforcement based techniques.
Determining Treats for Your Parrot
Determine your parrot's favorite treats
First you must find out what kinds of treats your parrot will enjoy. This is fairly easy. Parrots will often enjoy seeds, nuts, dried and fresh fruits. Mix a variety of these treats in a bowl and serve it to the parrot in the cage. If this is a new parrot, it is quite possible that it is not yet familiar with these foods so the first trial may be inaccurate. Give the parrot a few days to familiarize itself to these foods unless a clear favorite is demonstrated up front. Parrots are picky eaters and will eat their favorite food first, then the second, etc. You can determine a pretty clear order of which foods they like. For smaller parrots such as Cockatiels, Budgerigars, Lovebirds, Parrotlets, and other Parakeets, millet spray generally serves as the ideal treat.
Now that you have determined your parrot's favorite treat, never serve it as part of the daily cage meals. The favorite foods are only to be used as treats for training. If you have discovered a secondary and tertiary treat, you can also save those to use for training as well. The most effective method will be to feed only pellets and vegetables in the cage and use all other foods as treats for training. However, if your parrot is on a seed diet and you are unable to convert it to pellets, then at least stop serving the favorite kinds of seeds and save them for training. Use the secondary/tertiary treats for most training and use the absolute favorite treats when the parrot does a major breakthrough.
Getting Parrot Out of Cage for the First Time
Now whether you just acquired a new parrot or have had one trapped in the cage for a long time, eventually you will have to take the parrot out. Not only is daily out of cage time important for the parrot's mental health, but it is also important to be able to clean the cage from the inside on a regular basis.
Now simply opening the cage door and waiting for the parrot to come out to you on its own is pointless. The parrot is already going to be scared of everything and the cage will at least be the most familiar place for it. You're not going to achieve a hand tame parrot by doing this and might spend forever waiting till it comes out. So instead, I will explain how to get the parrot out for the first time and then you should immediately begin the appropriate taming and training exercises so these methods no longer need to be used and the parrot will just step up for you whenever you want to take it out of the cage.
There are two methods that can be used for getting a parrot out of the cage for the first time:
1) Target training 2) Force out & reconcile
Except for the initial training, do not let the parrot come out of the cage on its own. Always reach in and request it to step up. This will help develop a positive relationship because you will get all the credit for the thrill of being able to come out. The parrot will begin to look forward to seeing you because it will learn that you are the source of good things like coming out.
Although the first method is least stressful, it also takes a much longer time to implement. On the other hand the second method is more hands on. I would say that the force out method is safest to be used on young hand raised parrots. This can range from merely asking it to step up to toweling it out. Either way, the experience outside the cage is made so rewarding that it reconciles being forced out initially. Baby parrots are much more forgiving and less likely to bite so this method can actually work quite well and create no trauma for the bird. Most likely the parrot was already accustomed to the breeder grabbing it to feed it anyway. If you are an experienced parrot owner and not afraid of the potential of being bitten, go ahead and use the force out/reconcile method. Similar to getting the parrot out of the carrier for the first time, you can test step up, just grab the parrot, grab with a glove, or use a towel. Just get the parrot out of the cage but then give it a super rewarding time outside of the cage with additional training. I will detail the taming/training exercises to do shortly afterward.
For everyone else including first time parrot owners, people afraid of getting bit, owners of rehomed/rescued parrots, and owners of parrots that were for a long time cage bound, I am going to advise against forcing the parrot out but instead to train it inside the cage. Not only does this method buy time for the parrot to get used to the owner, but it also helps the owner get used to the parrot. It mutually reduces fear and builds a positive relationship.
Performing target training in the cage begins with teaching the parrot to accept treats from your hand. This part could take as little as a few seconds to as many as a few weeks. The important thing is not to scare the parrot of your hands in the process. If the parrot isn't too shy, you can come to the side of the cage nearest the parrot and extend the treat through the cage bars up to the bird. However, if you find the parrot running away whenever you approach, then just come to a slightly further end of the cage and wait patiently. Just hold the treat through the bars and don't move. Let the parrot come to take it on its own. This may not happen on the first try but if you consistently offer treats like this, eventually it will let down its guard and come over to take it. You can use longer strands of millet spray for small parrots or a strip of fruit for larger ones. This will give your hands a bit more separation from the parrot. Do not worry about biting. Not only do the bars protect your hands, but the parrot is sooner to want the tasty treat than to bite you.
As soon as you feel the parrot feels safe eating treats from your hand, it is time to introduce the clicker. The only reason you don't want to begin using the clicker too soon is because it may scare the parrot from eating treats from your hand. But as soon as it is comfortable, you should click every time you are about to give it a treat. If you find the click to be scaring the bird, you can muffle the sound by holding it behind your back or inside your sleeve. Once it is no longer scaring the bird, you can start clicking closer and closer. The goal of clicking when you give treats is to teach the bird that the sound of a click means it is going to get a treat. This will become the bridge for the remainder of your training. The click bridges the time gap between when the bird performs the desired behavior and receives the reward. This way it eliminates any confusion about what you wanted the parrot to do to earn its treat.
Target training parrot inside cage
The next step is to teach the parrot to target. This is where you hold a target stick (chopstick or dowel) out and the parrot walks over to touch it with its beak. Naturally, at first the parrot will not know that this is what you want it to do. This is why you need to teach it by giving it a chance to touch the stick and earn treats. At first, hold the target stick through the cage bars really close to the parrot. Quite likely, the parrot will bite the stick out of shear curiosity. The moment that it does, click and give it a treat. Repeat this a few times. Eventually, test if the parrot is motivated to make a slightly bigger move to touch the stick by holding it a tiny bit further away. Try to get your parrot to lean in to touch the stick, turn its head to touch the stick, and then eventually to take a few steps to touch it. Bear in mind that this may not happen all at once and may require several training sessions to achieve.
If your parrot absolutely does not make a single effort to touch the stick for the first time (which is necessary for it to realize that it can have a treat for this), you can touch the stick to the beak the first time to give yourself an excuse to treat the parrot. Do not do this too many times though. Eventually the parrot must do this on its own in order to learn to target. If you are having too much trouble, the parrot might not be motivated enough for food. Stop and try again another time when the parrot is hungrier.
There is a possibility that the parrot is afraid of the target stick and runs away from it. In this case, do not chase your parrot around with the stick. Instead, hold the stick steadily in one spot and just watch the parrot's movements. Whenever the parrot moves away from the stick, don't do anything. However, if it makes any motion toward the stick (it could be as little as taking a step toward it or even turning its head that way), click and reward. Reward any effort from the parrot that ventures in the direction of the stick. You can continue this progressively by rewarding bigger and bigger steps toward the stick and not walking away or making smaller steps. This will eventually teach the parrot to get close to and touch the stick. It is like the game of hot/cold when you tell the other person if they are getting closer/further from some hidden scavenger prize. When the parrot moves toward the target stick, that is getting warmer and it gets rewarded for this.
Hold target stick, clicker, and treat
Eventually, you will be able to target the parrot around the cage to any place. The parrot will watch the stick and walk/climb to wherever you point it. This is the point at which you know you are ready to reach into the cage for the first time. If you're not fearful you can use your bare hands. But if you have any reservations, you can wear a leather glove or better yet hold a perch for your parrot to step up on. It is best to use a perch from or similar to the ones in the cage. You will need to master the one handed target maneuver to continue. This involves holding the clicker, target stick, and treat all in one hand because your other hand is where the parrot will be taught to step onto (or the perch it is holding). Hold the clicker in your palm and use your middle finger to click. Slide the target stick into your hand and hold the treat with thumb and forefinger. You may want to practice this a few times away from the parrot to be sure you can do it right. If you fumble with these training aids at the time of training, it may scare the bird and set back progress.
Target parrot out of cage
Prior to proceeding, practice a few known target touches to get the parrot in the mood for training. Then slowly open the cage door and continue practicing targeting inside the cage but with your hands in the cage. This is not a bad exercise to practice a few times to get your parrot used to hands inside of the cage. Next you can hold a perch in one hand and target the parrot from the cage perch to your handheld perch. Don't think that you can immediately take the parrot out and all is done. Target the parrot off of your handheld perch and back to the cage. Practice this a bunch of times so that the parrot can get comfortable. Now after practicing this enough times, you should be able to carry the parrot out of the cage and to your designated training area. At this point you are ready to train your parrot like any other.
Target Training Parrot Outside the Cage
Whether you got your parrot out of the cage with ease, unwillingly, by targeting, or any other method, you will want to begin your parrot taming and training experience by target training the parrot outside of the cage. Parrots can get territorial but also easily distracted inside their cage. Therefore the cage is not a suitable place for training. From my personal experience, Parrot Training Perches are the ideal stand to use for parrot training. However, a free standing parrot stand, chair back, or table top perch can be your next best training solution. Do not provide any toys, feeders, or other distractions in the parrot's training area. It is important for the parrot to focus on you and nothing else.
Get your parrot from the cage to its training stand using methods outlined above. Give it a little time to get used to the stand but as soon as it calms down, proceed to training. The first few times you have it out will only be about teaching it to accept treats from your hand. You should have already figured out what treats are suitable from the procedure outlined previously. Now offer those treats from your hand. You can test your parrot's eagerness and motivation to eat from your hand by holding the treat a few inches from the parrot and seeing if it walks for the treat or not. If the parrot is willing to make a few steps to get the treat from you, you'll know you're ready to begin target training.
User a clicker for training
Once your parrot is comfortably eating from your hand (and remember this may involve several training sessions), you should introduce the clicker. A clicker is simply a handheld box that makes a click noise when you squeeze it. This device is used as a training bridge to communicate to the parrot when it has completed the behavior you are trying to train. The way that the parrot knows that a click means it got it right is because you will start the clicker training with clicker conditioning. This is the process of simply clicking, and giving the parrot a treat immediately. Soon the bird will learn that when it hears a click, it will get a treat. Once you begin teaching the actual tricks, the parrot will realize that whatever it did at the moment the click happened, it has earned a treat. So go ahead and clicker condition the bird for a few sessions by clicking the clicker and giving a treat. You will know that the parrot is ready to proceed to the next step when it becomes more attentive/excited upon hearing the click sound.
Chopstick serves great as target
Now that the parrot accepts treats from your hand and knows what a click is, you are ready to begin target training. Target training involves showing a stick to the parrot and it then walks over to touch the tip of the stick. The purpose of this is to teach the parrot where you want it to walk by having it follow the stick. This is more effective than luring (just holding the treat and waiting for the bird to come get it) because the bird isn't distracted by the food. A chopstick or wooden dowel works best but any non-toxic object can be used for this purpose as long as it is consistent. Even if you used the target method for getting your parrot out of the cage, it is still a good idea to practice this skill with your parrot in the new training area.
Do not let the parrot attack, play with, or chew up the target stick. Not only will this ruin the training aid but it will also teach the parrot a behavior different from what we are trying to achieve. Use the distraction of the click upon touching the stick to catch your parrots attention. Immediately bring forth the treat while pulling the target stick away. If the parrot continues biting the stick too hard, you can click and reward when the parrot approaches the stick and is about to touch, but before the beak has actually clasped the tip of the stick.
Begin target training by holding the tip of the target stick close to your parrot's beak. Most parrots will bite the stick out of mere curiosity. The moment the parrot's beak touches the stick, click and offer a treat. Do not let the parrot play with or chew the target stick. Try again. After several attempts, the parrot will begin to catch on that touching the stick will earn it food. If the parrot is not approaching the stick, try to wait it out and see if it will go for it eventually. Try to resist the temptation to return the stick closer and closer if the parrot is not approaching. Instead, take the stick away, and try setting up an easier target scenario the next time. As the parrot becomes better at targeting, you can try to hold the stick further and further away. First it may be just far to bend the neck toward the stick, then to turn the head, eventually to take a single step toward it. Before you know it, you'll have the parrot walking all over the perch to touch the stick.
You can improve targeting skills by targeting the parrot toward you and away from you. Also hold the stick higher and lower. The parrot will in this way learn that only touching the tip of the stick is what will earn it a treat. Do not click or reward your parrot unless it touches the tip of the stick. If it touches higher up on the stick, take it away and request it to target again. It is not required, but a good idea to say the word “target” or “touch” as you show the parrot the stick. This will over time develop as a secondary command besides the sight of the stick. This can be used to give extra encouragement for the parrot to go touch the stick when it may not be paying the best attention.
Establishing Training Motivation
Keeping your parrot motivated is the key to successful training. Your parrot must want the rewards. Otherwise they do not serve much purpose. There are several easy ways to ensuring that your parrot is most motivated by food rewards.
Parrots naturally feed in the mornings and evenings so training is best done during these same times. It is best to train your parrot at its hungriest, so it doesn't make any sense to do it right after it ate a meal. Instead, take the food out of the cage overnight. In the morning, do training first and then put the parrot's meal back in the cage. You can let it eat all it wants, but be sure to take the food away again prior to the evening training session.
How long prior to training you need to take the food away will vary. Some parrots are driven by the tastiness of the treats rather than hunger. Meanwhile for others, you may end up using the same food as treats so hunger will be key. For basic food management, you do not even need to use a scale to weigh the parrot (we may introduce this for advanced training but for the purpose of the basic training in this article it is unnecessary). First try training the parrot without taking the food away at all. Next time, take the food away one hour prior to training. Next time try taking it away two, then three, and all the way up to six hours. Do not leave your parrot without food for more than six hours (except overnight while it is sleeping) unless you are capable of tracking your parrot's weight/health. Six hours without food will not harm your parrot but will simply give it the hunger to strive to do what it takes to earn treats during training. You will find the optimum duration to leave your parrot without food when training motivation improves.
After training sessions, let your parrot eat as much as it wants to so that it can maintain a healthy weight. Be sure to provide a healthy balanced diet. Pellets serve as a solid nutritional basis. Fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains can be provided in moderation. Be sure to save the parrot's favorite foods only for training.
Teaching Parrot to Step Up
Practice targeting with parrot
Now that your parrot knows how to target, it should not be too difficult to turn this into stepping up. After practicing a few step ups to get your parrot warmed up, you can start by targeting your parrot to step up onto a handheld perch. This is a good way to desensitize it to your hands without being too forceful. Progressively you can hold the perch closer and closer in so that the parrot has to stand closer to your hand every time it is targeted onto the perch.
Once the parrot is stepping up onto a perch satisfactorily, you can begin training it to step up on your hand. If the parrot still bites a lot and you are scared, you can wear a glove during the earlier parts of this training. However, keep in mind that the glove also encourages the parrot to bite because they like chewing leather. Hold your hand a short distance away from the parrot and slightly higher than its feet. Hold the target stick such that the only way the parrot can reach it is by stepping onto your finger or hand.
You may want to hold out your arm (for bigger parrots) or the back of your hand initially in case you are worried about the parrot biting your finger. Once you get more comfortable with each other, you can have the parrot step up.
Target parrot to step up
on your finger. After you achieve some success doing this, you can begin to recede the use of the target stick. Begin by saying step up every time you practice this exercise. Then stop targeting the parrot onto your hand but hold the stick in the other hand in sight. Eventually you won't even need to show the target stick at all and the parrot will know how to step up.
You should practice step up in all different areas. Have the parrot step up from finger to finger. Practice the parrot stepping up from inside the cage. Also have the parrot step up from you to other people so that it is accustomed stepping up for all people and not just yourself. If the parrot is scared and doesn't want to go to the other person, try targeting it onto their hand rather than forcing it.
Basic Taming and Handling
Once you have achieved some basic skills with the parrot like targeting and step up, you should continue taming the parrot to being touched and handled. I'm sure you want to be able to pet and hold your parrot so the following procedures are important to follow. Also the parrot should be used to being held and toweled for when it visits the vet or groomer.
The taming method is the same every step of the way. It involves figuring out your parrot's comfort threshold, pushing it slightly, waiting till it calms down, removing the discomfort, and then rewarding the parrot with treats.
The first thing you will need to achieve is the ability to touch your parrot. The beak is one of the best places to start because if you are touching the beak, you know where it is and can avoid getting bitten. Start by placing your hand in front of the parrot and slowly move it closer and closer. If the parrot makes any moves to bite or move away, stop right there. Hold your hand in that position and wait for the parrot to calm down. Wait a few seconds after it calms down, take your hand away and give a treat. Keep repeating this procedure so that you can get closer and closer. Eventually your parrot will tolerate you touching its beak. You can scratch the beak with your fingernail; the parrot will like that.
Tame parrot to be used to towel
Next, use the same method to tame the parrot to let you touch its body. Hold your hand over the parrot and approach slowly. At the first display of discomfort stop and wait to calm down, then reward. Eventually you'll be able to touch the parrot with one finger and if you keep practicing this, your whole hand. Once you can put your entire hand on the parrot's back, begin practicing cupping your hand around the back and wings. With every step of the way, apply more pressure until you have such a grip that you can pick the parrot up. At first pick it up only briefly and then put the parrot back down (don't forget to reward). But eventually you will be able to pick the bird up for longer and longer.
One of the biggest problems/mistakes parrot owners make is making going back into the cage an unpleasant experience for the parrot. If the parrot does not want to go back into the cage but is forced to by the owner, not only will it upset the relationship but it will also make the parrot resist stepping up for fear of being put away.
The solution to this problem though is very simple. Develop a routine of taking your parrot out in the mornings and evenings, prior to meal times. Spend the time you want with your parrot out and do some training. Then put the parrot away in its cage to a delightful meal. The hungry parrot will be looking forward to going back in its home to be fed rather than disappointed for having to be put away.
Also, be sure to use step up for good things other than being put away in the cage. Some people only use step up to put the parrot away and let the parrot roam on its own all the other time. In that case, the parrot will soon learn that step up means being put away and may choose to bite instead of stepping up. So instead, mix things up. Have your parrot step up so that you could put it on a different stand. Have the parrot step up so you can scratch its beak. Have the parrot step up so you can cue a trick and give it a treat. By mixing up what step up is used for and keeping it positive, you can guarantee that the parrot will remain tame and willing to step up.
This article should have answered basic questions such as: how do I get my new parrot into the cage for the first time? How can you take a parrot out of the cage initially? What is the best way to teach a parrot to step up? What do I do to train my parrot to target? How should you go about clicker training? How to teach a parrot to step up onto the hand? What are the steps to taming a parrot to allow being grabbed or touched? How to towel a parrot?
The key to parrot training is the use of positive reinforcement. You need to make things such that the parrot wants to
Michael with Kili
do what you want. Always think of the parrot's perspective and what's in it for the bird. When it comes to taming, it's all about slowly desensitizing your parrot to things. Make your parrot slightly uncomfortable with a new object or place to touch, wait for it to calm down, and then reward by taking it away and giving treats. Make scary things (hands, towel, other people, new objects) less scary by presenting them without any force and giving your parrot the opportunity to make them go away by calming down. Make this super rewarding by providing treats as well.
I hope this training guide will help you on your journey with your feathered friend. After reading this, you should not need to purchase any book, dvd, or online guide for parrot training. You have been given the tools for basic parrot taming and training and I am sure that when put to use, they will bring you surprisingly wonderful results. You can subscribe to the trained parrot blog to receive updates when new parrot training articles are posted.
Update: If you liked this guide, you will especially like my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. It's not just a tutorial about teaching a parrot to step up, but a complete approach to parrot keeping. From what parrot to get to flight training and problem solving, this book covers what a pet-parrot owner needs to know. You can purchase the book on Amazon or receive free shipping, clicker, and target stick included when you purchase directly from the Parrot Wizard.
You can support the Trained Parrot Blog effort by purchasing a set of Parrot Training Perches to use in training your own bird. These come in either Java or Dragonwood and are sized for small, medium, and large parrots. They are a wonderful training aid and can be seen used in most of the training videos included with this article.
Here is an article for the very beginners. This is not an article about actually teaching a parrot to step up, refer to this one for more information about actually training this. This one is about the actual approach to requesting a trained parrot to step up. This is great for members of a household that has a parrot that steps up but want to know how to hold it, folks who bought a tame baby parrot and want it to step up, and just anyone wondering about good ways to hold them.
I've watched videos online, seen people (who claim to be parrot owners) try to pick my birds up, and watched people at the bird store trying to handle the birds. I have amassed many observations of people approaching parrots the wrong way and it won't step up or even bites. Meanwhile I could reach for the same parrot and it steps right up. It's not because the parrot has a specific thing for me and not them but rather because I've developed a universal approach to picking up parrots whether mine or other. I was very disappointed not to have an article like this available to teach me how to hold a parrot when I bought my first and had no prior experience so I would like to share what I've learned with you.
First and foremost, you don't want to leave a bad first impression on the parrot. Avoid making any sudden moves anywhere in the presence of the parrot. This includes both within sight and earshot. If you slam the door, even though your parrot may not have seen it, it may be in a nervous/jumpy mood and picking it up will be more difficult. Always err on the side of being too cautious because if you succeed in interaction, you can slowly be more and more abrupt/normal and it won't bother the parrot, but if you leave a bad first impression it may develop a fear of you. Give the parrot time to adjust at first sight. Don't go straight for the parrot after entering the room. Go about and do some things on your own and slowly work your way closer to the parrot. Of course if you have an existing relationship this may not be necessary but if you are visiting someone else's parrot or this one is new to you, these are definitely things you'll want to do.
Now, once you have established a calm presence in front of the parrot, you can approach for the step up. At this stage the parrot might be on a stand, in the cage, or on someone's hand. It doesn't particularly matter what it is actually standing on as your approach should be roughly the same. Slowly walk toward the parrot watching for any signs of fear or aggression. Assuming the parrot is calm, proceed closer and closer. Stop and stand at half an arm's length from the parrot and reach your arm (right/left handedness doesn't matter, use what is convenient) away from the parrot at first. For small parrots reach out your index finger and tuck the rest of your fingers down. For a larger parrot use your wrist or entire arm. Aim the back of your hand toward the parrot so there is less available to bite or nip. Now from a distance your parrot will already see the cue for stepping up and it will come as no surprise that it is what you want. If the parrot is adamantly against this, you will know before your fingers are close enough to get chomped because you are taking your time approaching the parrot.
Move the hand toward the parrot at a slow but steady pace. This way the parrot has time to think and act. Aim for just above the legs but don't hold your hand at beak height as that will encourage nipping. Parrots don't step down well so definitely don't aim at the feet or below. Once you are within beak length from the parrot, there is no backing down. Bite or not, at this point you have to bring the hand close enough for it to step up. If you back off at this point, the parrot will learn to bite whenever it doesn't feel like stepping up and you'll have a much bigger problem. The time for changing your mind was before you got close enough if the parrot was showing any aggressive body language. If the parrot does start to bite, keep pressing in toward the parrot and that will force it to step up and stop biting. By leaning into the bite you overwhelm the parrot and it should relax the bite. Assuming the parrot doesn't bite, once your hand is close enough it should step up. If it does not, continue moving your hand toward the parrot and gently press on the belly until it begins to lose its balance and is forced to step up. Once the bird is on your hand, be sure to move your arm slowly and gently the rest of the time because you don't want the parrot to develop a terrible association of being on you.
As for grabbing a parrot, once again assuming the behavior is already learned by the parrot and it is strictly a matter of transferring to another person, use the same approach as for step up except swinging your arm from behind and slightly above the parrot. Keep your hand open with the thumb swung out to form a cradle that the parrot will be grabbed in. When you grab, squeeze from the sides onto the wings/shoulders but never hold by the belly because that will restrict breathing. Alternatively you can grab by the neck by holding your thumb to index finger together just under the beak. Not only does this keep the parrot firmly in your hand, it also prevents biting. This is a good grip to use for maintenance behaviors such as clipping nails or checking the wings. Don't actually squeeze the neck but rather make a circle between the thumb and index finger to keep the parrot from sliding out because the head is thicker than the neck.
In conclusion, it is about having a collected and deliberate approach to holding the parrot. If the parrot is not afraid of you and senses that you will be picking it up no matter what, it is much less likely to refuse to step up than if you are shaky and uncertain. The parrot can tell all of this by how you move and act so be confident in yourself and don't be scared and you will be surprised by how much more cooperative the parrot will actually become.
Here is a video where I demonstrate these methods and different ways of holding small and medium sized parrots: