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Basics on Handling and Training Your Parrot

Handling and training your parrot are excellent ways to bond. Your feathered friend will see tricks and trained behavior as socially bonding and interacting, like hanging out and playing with friends. Handling and petting will also increase your social bonding, and knowing how to properly handle your bird is useful in emergency situations. This will add variation to your social time, and be super fun for both you and your parrot!

How Well Do you Handle Your Parrot Now?

You’ll want to be comfortable with handling your bird before you make an attempt to train them. You’ll have to gauge how your bird personally feels about being handled. There are parrots who definitely don’t want to be touched under any circumstances, slow to warm up parrots, and parrots who can’t get enough of petting and chin scratches. Especially if your bird is new, you’ll have to find out what your parrot’s temperament is, and how they feel about being pet. Any way your parrot wants to be pet, make sure that you keep the petting to the bird’s head and feet. A parrot’s sexual organs are underneath the parrot’s wings, so petting down the back or wings which can lead to a sexually frustrated bird, or one that views you as its mate. Anywhere on the head is appropriate though, and hopefully if you pet its feet it’ll get comfortable enough for you to more easily clip its nails. Learn more about Parrots and proper handling here.

Move Slowly, Don’t Force Any Play Time With Your Parrot

The most important thing to remember is not to force any form of touch on your parrot. Your parrot will be clear, either vocally or through body language, that it doesn’t want to be held or touched right now. The body language of a bird who doesn’t want to be touched can look like bending away from you and tighten their feathers close to their body. They might also raise a foot up the way a human might raise an arm up to block or resist, or they might try to push you away. If your parrot is agitated, it might flare its tail feathers or the feathers on its neck or head, open its beak, or its pupils might contract or dilate rapidly. If you ignore all of these verbal “no thank you”s, it is possible that the parrot will bite you. Repeatedly ignoring a bird’s body language can train it to bite you any time that it is irritated, so be careful to pay attention! In the interest of being respectful of your parrot’s autonomy, you should pick up or move your bird by using the “step up” trick, which will be detailed later in the “tricks” section.

When the trick is learned and absorbed, it will look like your bird stepping up on to your arm when you ask it to “step up”. This allows your bird to feel safe and unrestrained, and be cooperative in being picked up and moved. If your parrot doesn’t like being touched or is afraid of human hands, this trick can be taught by stepping up onto a towel or washcloth. This is the safest way to move a parrot, and the way that will be the least irritating for your bird.

So What Happens When You HAVE TO Restrain Your Parrot?

Of course there are times where you will have to hold or restrain your bird, like if it’s fussy about going to the vet, or in emergency situations. In these situations, you’ll want to follow these tips for restraining parrots. Basically, you’ll want to get a towel and move quickly to gently restrain the bird in one motion, making sure the towel is wrapped so the wings are held in close to the body and the head is poking out of the top. You’ll then want to carefully and firmly hold the head from the back with one hand, and the lower body with the other. Remember to be careful with all of the bird’s delicate structure, but especially its chest. If you do the hold properly, the bird is immobile but the chest is mostly unrestrained so the bird can breath properly. Now that you know all the basics of handling, let’s get to how to train!

Training Your Parrot is Fun For You and Your Parrot

Training any animal behaviorally (humans included!) is based on rewarding behavior you wish to be repeated. Basically, when you first start training your bird,you should give them a treat every time they complete the desired task. As they gain proficiency, you will give treats for every other time the parrot does the trick, then every third time, then every once and awhile. This is not to say that you should stop rewarding your parrots once they’ve mastered a trick! Allowing them to get treats on an interspersed schedule will make them more likely to repeat the behavior more often, since they’re aware that they will eventually be rewarded. Over time, rewarding them on a controlled every third time schedule, as an example, will increase the retention of the trick behavior. Think of it sort of like getting good grades; if your parents promised you two surprise pizza parties a semester for getting A’s, you’re much more motivated to get more A’s!

Not All Parrots Learn The Same

Though, of course, every parrot, like every person, will learn a little bit differently. Maybe a fixed schedule doesn’t work for your parrot. Maybe they work fine with getting a treat truly every once in a while, which is called being on a variable schedule. If they’re being trained to do a routine, they might need to keep a constant treat schedule, where they get a treat every time after a trick is being performed. Maybe your parrot doesn’t prefer treats and instead wants positive reinforcement in the form of petting and verbal reward, or in a play session with their favorite toy or game. The goal is that the parrot learns and retains the trick, that your parrot doesn’t forget the trick or why it’s so rewarding. This will require you doing the trick a lot. This whole process will also require a lot of patience from you. It’s a learning process, and even for extremely smart animals, practice makes perfect!

Do Not Punish Bad Behavior

The most important thing to remember is that all tricks and training work on a reward based system. Never punish your bird for incorrect behavior. In the first place, punishing your parrot will definitely make your parrot lose trust in you. If your parrot doesn’t trust you, it won’t be trained, and possibly won’t feel safe in your space. Lack of trust can drastically affect a bird’s health as well. Secondly, punishment is an ineffective method of learning and training. Your parrot will learn much better if they are rewarded for desired behavior and undesired behavior is ignored than if you punish undesired behavior. Seriously, just ignore it; especially if you give a replacement behavior, like saying “food” when hungry in place of screaming, and you reward the replacement behavior, the parrot will continue the replacement behavior and drop the one you ignored.

Tips To Remember About Training

  • Don’t punish for unwanted behavior

  • Keep the session positive!

  • Try to train when you are relaxed and in a positive mind set -- remember, this takes a lot of patience!

  • Pick times when your bird isn’t distracted by other things going on in the house, or meal times

  • Frequent, short training sessions are most effective. Mini trainings of a few minutes with ten or so spread out over the day work very well!

  • Once the parrot is accustomed to the reward, don’t give a treat every time

  • Try starting more complex tricks by using steps, and positively reinforce for every step completed

  • End the session on a positive note; maybe the completion of a step or the full performance of a trick!

Fun Tricks to Try With Your Parrot!

Step Up/Step Down: This is one of the first tricks you’ll want to teach your bird, as it allows you to move them safely and is a precursor to some of the following tricks. At first, you’re going to want to go slowly. It might be a good idea to let the bird hang out on its cage, and habituate it to your arm, hand, or perch from there. Letting your arm be there on top of the bird’s cage will allow the parrot to get used to your arm being in its space, and looks less like an invasion. Once it’s comfortable, you can begin placing treats near your arm or just over your arm, so that the bird will have to lean over your arm. It is likely that your parrot will step up on to your arm or around you, and that would be a good time to cue “step up”. Once you’ve habituated the parrot to getting on your arm, you can slowly begin moving your arm a little bit higher, or a little bit farther from the original space, rewarding your bird each time. Eventually your parrot should be able to comfortably step up when you cue them, and will be calm enough to allow you to move it.

Come Here: “Come here” will allow your bird to either fly (if flighted) or waddle to you on command. Try “come here” from short distances first, maybe even begin with “step up” from a short distance to see if your parrot will come over and step up. You can try to match the command “come” or “come here” with a hand motion to reinforce the behavior. You’ll want to train your parrot for this command the same way you trained to step up, with rewards for correct behavior. Increase the distance when it seems like your bird has got it down. Once this concept is down, you’ll be able to train flying between perches if you’d like!

Wave: When your parrot is restful and attentive, say “wave” and offer your finger/hand/arm for a “step up”. Don’t let your parrot step up, and slowly move your finger away. Your bird will lift its foot in the air in preparation for the step up, and will leave it there just long enough for you to reward your parrot. Continue training your parrot like this, and soon your bird will learn to lift its foot with the prompt “wave”. With any trick you try, remember to reinforce and be positive. With practice and patience, this will be a fun and exciting bonding experience for you and your bird. Let us know about your experiences training your parrot and what trick you know. Send us a video too! Happy Parrot Training!