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:
Getting your parrot accustomed to being held with a towel is a fairly important exercise. There will be times in its life that toweling will be necessary such as vet visits, grooming, drying, or frantic capture. Unfortunately most people go about toweling completely the wrong way and make their parrot more and more fearful of the towel. In this article I will tell you about why Truman became phobic of towels and how I trained him to be toweled in just three days.
After I had discovered that Truman was phobic of towels, I contacted his breeder and learned she had never toweled him. I suspected this by the fact that he was cautious around towels in the first place. I had never bothered toweling him myself since I got him as he is completely tame. He always stepped up and I was able to grab him, so I never even considered toweling him. However, during Truman's last vet visit, I noticed he was very uncomfortable being grabbed by a towel. The harsh treatment during the procedure probably contributed to his phobic response to towels. I realized that this towelphobia was serious when I walked past Truman with a towel and he took flight. I knew we would need to work on this.
First of all, I would like to say that toweling should never be the primary means of taking a parrot out of a cage or handling. This will only make the parrot more fearful of the towel and make the aggression you are trying to block with the towel even worse. While I do say in my taming guide that a towel could be used to extract the parrot out of the cage for the first time, positive reinforcement training must immediately be employed to overcome the distress caused by the circumstances. Such toweling should not be used beyond the first few times being taken out (or better yet avoided all together by targeting). The parrot should not be chased with, cornered, or trapped under a towel. All towel interactions should be positive.
I am horrified by the advice I hear given to newbies at pet stores and online about forcibly toweling the parrot regularly to make it used to handling. This is terrible advice not only because it is ineffective but also because it does not build a relationship based on trust. The parrot has no reason to like its human just because it has been broken to stop fighting a towel. And yet, this is possibly one of the most advised methods out there. Please do not use or advise toweling as a method for taming a parrot to handling. Instead, use my Taming/Training guide for a better approach. This Toweling article builds on that taming approach to extend it to toweling but is not a primary means of taming.
Just because you can capture/grab a parrot with a towel does not mean that you should. It is easy to break feathers or possibly a wing in such rough handling. These types of incidents elicit a fight or flight reflex and teach the parrot to be fearful both of you and the towel. Ideally, positive toweling should be introduced prior to any unavoidable negative toweling (vet, grooming, etc). If the parrot becomes accustomed that the majority of toweling is positive and the rare vet visit is unpleasant, the parrot will still remain towel tame. A big mistake that many people make is to only use the towel when necessary and therefore all towel interactions are averse.
The first step in towel taming a parrot is to let it observe the towel in a harmless way. How long this needs to be done will depend on how scared the parrot is of towels or new objects. I prefer to use a specific towel for parrots only but this is optional, just don't use a used towel because there could be mold on it. Begin by hanging the towel on a chair or placing it inconspicuously at a great distance from the cage for the first day. In the span of several days to a week, leave the same towel out close and closer to the parrot's cage. Once the parrot is used to the site of it, just walk around the cage area holding it but without much attention on the parrot. Definitely do not come straight at the parrot with the towel. Just walk around casually to and from the cage holding the towel and even play around with it. This will show the parrot that the towel is harmless.
The prior steps can be done with a completely untame parrot, however, to continue with towel taming, it is important that the parrot is already accustomed to coming out of the cage and stepping up. If it is not, follow the steps in my taming guide prior to continuing with towel taming.
Now begins the formal towel training. I recommend putting the parrot on a Training Perch because it will keep it focused on you with limited space to go. The training perch will keep your hands free for manipulating the towel and parrot. Put the parrot on the perch. Once again show the towel from some distance and approach slowly. Hold the towel casually and not pointed straight at the parrot. Drape the towel over your shoulder or arm and handle your parrot normally. Cuing some tricks (such as targeting) and providing treats is a good way to get your parrot to relax in preparation for towel taming. Only at this point will you try to gauge your parrot's fear threshold to towels. Hold a small tip of the towel out and let the rest hang away. Slowly approach the small tip of the towel toward the parrot. The moment it begins to back away or attempt to bite, stop and hold the towel there for a few seconds. Withdraw the towel and reward the parrot with your other hand. It is important not to push too far to the point of eliciting biting or flight. If the parrot is given the chance to bite or fly away, it will become negatively reinforced for that response.
Continue the approach and hold method with the towel for several training sessions. Eventually you should be able to hold the tip of the towel closer and show a greater portion of it. The reason for showing just a small tip at first is to make it less big and frightening looking. But as the parrot becomes more familiar, you can show more. You will keep practicing this until you can gently touch the parrot's back with the tip of the towel. Lay a corner of the towel on the parrot's back and give it a toy or treat to play with while the towel is there. If the parrot still pays attention to the towel, you need to practice the previous steps further. But if the parrot entirely ignores the towel and enjoys the reward, negative reinforcement is no longer necessary because the parrot is not scared of the towel. What this means is that taking the towel away from the parrot is no longer the main reward but the treat/toy is.
All that is left now is to go from touching the parrot with towel to grabbing it. This is kind of the tough part if the parrot is afraid of being grabbed with a towel. The mistake I made the first day was approaching Truman with the towel to grab and giving him the chance to fly away. Every time he got to fly away from being grabbed by the towel, negatively reinforced flying away from towels. He was learning that flying away is the best way to deal with his fear of towels. This might work great for him but it is counter productive to my goal of towel training him. Here we reach a fork in the road where it is necessary to choose between flooding and strict positive reinforcement.
The positive reinforcement approach is probably "nicer" in practice but will take drastically longer to achieve. To use the strictly positive reinforcement approach, continue practicing the method mentioned previously squeezing with ever slightly more pressure with every approach of the towel and then rewarding. This will need to be practiced and practiced until the parrot can be grabbed and held with the towel.
The positively reinforced flooding method is much more effective though. It accelerates the training and helps you be over with this procedure sooner. It should not be used as a short cut to avoid careful and deliberate training. It is just a way of showing the parrot straight out what is required and reconciling rather than taking a long time to let it figure it out on its own. Do not skip the previously mentioned steps and jump straight to flooding because then you won't achieve the tameness required for a parrot to voluntarily accept toweling. Once you are confident that the parrot is not fearful of being touched by the towel, place the towel on the parrot and squeeze to hold the parrot. Use your other hand to block the parrot from flying out of the towel while the towel is approaching. Essentially you force the parrot to be in the towel and grabbed. Once the parrot is grabbed, it can no longer kick or flap. Wait a few seconds for the parrot to calm down and release it back to its perch with a preferable reward. Continue practicing this by either holding the parrot prior to applying the towel or at least keeping another hand up to block it from avoiding the towel. If the parrot is having a major panic attack here, this training will not be effective and you need to go back to the basic taming listed above. However, if the parrot is tolerating the towel with only slight discomfort, you are making progress. Continue practicing this until you no longer need to block the parrot from flying away from the towel. Do this by keeping the blocking hand looser and then further away with each try. Successful completion of towel taming is when you can hold a towel in your palm, approach it to the parrot, and grab it without any resistance.
While in the training progress you may have forced the parrot to be in the towel against its will (otherwise, how would it find out that it won't hurt and a treat will be given if it never tried?), it is important to get to a point where the parrot accepts toweling voluntarily. Treats and painless interaction will erase the fear originally created by the towel or mild flooding process. Continue practicing toweling in a positive manner from time to time to maintain the comfort. Eventually you can reward toweling less and less frequently but the parrot will have no reason to resist because it knows the towel is harmless. You can transition to social rewards in place of food/toys for toweling. You can make toweling fun by toweling the parrot and then cuddling/petting it. On a cold day or after a shower, toweling will in itself be rewarding to keep warm. If you practice toweling in these positive ways, the occasional bad experience of necessary toweling will not outweigh all the good ones. It is just important that the vast majority of toweling times be good, that's all.