Pet tips: How to Train Birds

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Learn some simple beginners' tips for training your pet bird. Before long, you will have your feathered friend eating-and talking-out of your hand.

Have you ever called someone a bird brain?

The poor creatures have quite the reputation for being the dunces of the animal kingdom. Pet birds, especially, are often viewed as nothing more than pretty furniture accessories. Sure, one may find the occasional bird in a pet shop who can belt out “Polly wants a cracker,” but what else are pet birds good for?     

The answer is plenty. Birds may have small brains, but unlike some other members of the animal world, they tend to use every ounce of that brainpower. Some birds bury seeds hundreds of miles apart, flawlessly retrieving those very same seeds months later. Many more can find dozens of resourceful uses for an item as simple as a stick. Others can easily distinguish colors, shapes, and even human speech. In fact, it is not at all unusual for some captive birds to nurture vocabularies of 100-plus words.  But how does a determined bird owner bring out the best in his pet? Following are a few bird training tips fit for even the most hopeless “birdbrain.”

Before a bird can perform the fancy tricks or talk like a miniature Einstein, he must first meet one simple criterion—he must actually like his trainer. Comfort and affection are just more simple words for the process of taming and acclimation. Most birds are territorial, and it may take them quite some time before they trust you enough to allow you into their “space.” Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to make this process easier. Just remember, frequency and repetition are the keys to any successful taming. Be around the bird as much as possible, and try to initially limit the bird’s human contact to one person: the trainer. After the bird has been tamed, other family members can begin the process of bonding with the bird, but during the training stages it is crucial that the bird form as strong a bond as possible with its trainer (minus the distractions of other human beings).   

During training sessions, the bird should also be free from environmental distractions. The best training session should take place in a small, confined room free of mirrors. The cage is not recommended as a training ground, as birds tend to be territorial of their living space. So, the cage should be taken into the training room. In order to safely remove the bird from its cage, the best approach is to turn the cage on its side and take the bottom out. Place the cage on the floor, and wait for the bird to venture out. If the bird remains hesitant, then you may be forced to begin the session with the bird still inside of the cage.  

In either event, use either your finger or a small wooden perch to approach the bird. If your bird is a biter, it is probably best to begin training with a stick and graduate to hand taming later. The first step in the bird’s taming will be to get the bird to “step up” onto your finger (or stick, if you are beginning with the perch). Approach the bird carefully, as any quick, sudden movements will cause fear and distrust within the bird.  Take your finger and slowly approach until you are touching the bird’s abdomen.  If the bird moves backward or attempts to fly away, keep trying.

Remember, repetition is crucial. It may take several attempts, but eventually, the bird will step onto your finger, if only for a moment. In order to encourage him to stay perched, offer a small food reward (such as sunflower seeds) every time he “steps up.” He will begin to associate the reward with the action. In order for the association to become permanent, it is important to reward your pet immediately after he perches. Also, talk in gentle, soft tones to the bird and encourage him. Say “step up” every time you present your finger, and the bird may even come to associate this verbal command with perching on your finger. However, keep in mind that associations can also come in negative forms. If you frequently perform unpleasant tasks on a bird with your hands (such as claw-clipping), then wear gloves during these tasks to prevent the bird from associating your hands with bad feelings.

Your bird will be successfully hand-tamed when he can stay on your finger for an extended period of time, even as you move about. Many birds will retreat to your arm or shoulder in order to escape the hands, but stay persistent with your pet and you will soon have him eating out of your hand, literally. Once you have successfully completed the “stepping up” exercise, add the next step by drilling your bird to “step up” from one finger (or stick) to another. Once you are ready for the bird to return to its cage, gently press his abdomen against the cage door and say “Step down.”  After repeated drills, he should learn this command as well. All of the “stepping” drills (and every subsequent training drill) should last no longer than fifteen minutes, as your bird will become easily distracted and bored.  However, it is best to perform drills with your bird several times a day. Two per day is the very minimum number of sessions a serious trainer should schedule with his pet.

We have addressed the actions you as the trainer can take to tame your bird. But keep in mind that there is another, equally important factor in this relationship— the bird himself.  Birds, just like people, come in every shape, size, and personality. Some birds are introverts, while others are sociable and outgoing. If you desire a bird that will be receptive to training, then take some time before selecting your pet. If you are in a pet store, then observe which birds are happily chirping and bouncing about the cage. These birds are far more likely to welcome human contact than a quiet and withdrawn bird. Once you have selected your pet, it is also important to learn his moods. Think about it. Do you not have periods of time when you want nothing more than to be left alone? Would you want a friend calling you up during these depressing times asking if you wanted to go to the mall or shoot some hoops? Your bird will be the same way. If he is chirping and flapping his wings, then he will probably be a good student that day. If he is sullen and sedentary, then it is probably best to wait for a better time.

Some signs to look for in a moody bird include: enlarging or shrinking pupils, growling or hissing, drooping wings, fanning tail feathers, repeated clicking of the beak, a rigid body, and, of course, biting.  On the other hand, birds that are in a happy mood will chirp, sing, chatter, purr, wag their tails, grind their beaks, flap their wings, and relax their bodies. In order to ensure your bird remains in a happy state, give him a nice home (cage) at least one to one-and-a-half times his wingspan. Keep him close enough to the hustle and bustle to feel included but far enough away to remain secure.

If you do encounter continual behavioral problems (such as biting) with your bird, then try saying a loud “No!” every time the bird performs the bad action.  Also, try placing the bird back in its cage and covering the cage with a sheet for around fifteen minutes to eliminate negative behaviors. It is important to note that birds are naturally curious, so they may gently gnaw on an object before they feel comfortable approaching it. This type of slow, natural reaction is not the same as biting, and should not be discouraged.

Once your bird has been hand tamed, then the sky is the limit.  Repetition, reward, and resilience will unlock neat little tricks you never dreamed of, from climbing a ladder to walking a tightrope. But perhaps the most entertaining and challenging activity you can engage in with your bird is speech. Almost any bird can mimic at least a few sounds, although some are more verbally inclined than others. African grey parrots, Amazon parrots, macaws, and cockatoos are among the most proficient “talkers” in feathered society. Also, birds between four and twelve months old will be the most receptive to speech. As with taming sessions, a speech lesson should last around fifteen minutes. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

• If possible, hold the bird close to your mouth so that it knows you are talking especially to it. In fact, gently cupping the bird in your hand will create a sense of security.

• Unlike taming and trick exercises, a bird will be most often be receptive to a speech drill when he is in a quieter mood.

• Begin with a simple, one-syllable word. As the bird progresses in speech, you can begin adding phrases. However, be sure to teach a phrase one word at a time, adding the preceding word to each new word.

• Repeat the word slowly over and over, adding a short pause in between each utterance.

• Speak distinctly and loudly. This is a primary reason why curse words are so often easily picked up by birds.

• Always speak in the same tone of voice.  Birds are particularly inclined toward high-pitched and strongly accented words.

• Do not encourage whistling.  A whistling bird is less likely to pick up speech.

Finally, do not get discouraged. Some birds may begin speaking in a matter of weeks, while others can take months to train. The most important lesson you can take away from your bird-training experiences is this: patience is a virtue. It is a lesson that will serve you well in all aspects of life.