Written by Nicole, Oh Mowsie
So he captured your heart in the store with his endearing chirps, clownish antics and downy soft feathers that just begged to be stroked. The problem is, now that he's home in your living room, he won't let you near him with a ten foot pole. You approach the cage, and he clings to the back of it, peering at you with frightened eyes. Wings flap in panic when you open the door to change the water and his beak lunges in preparation to bite if your hand gets too close. Where did the beguiling little creature you fell in love with go? The card on his cage at the store read "Hand-fed Tame Baby." He doesn't SEEM very tame. Will you ever be able to hold him? Will you ever be his friend?
So often this is the scenario met by many who acquire their first bird. Whether you picked out a hand-fed baby from a breeder who was well socialized, a bird from a pet store who may not be as well socialized, or even a rescue bird from a rescue organization or an animal shelter, you'll have to spend some time acquainting yourself with your new friend. Some birds adjust almost immediately to their new surroundings and seem to bond right away to their new human companion, and others take much longer.
There are many different methods for taming birds and each bird is as unique as its companion, but there are a few basic components that should be observed to achieve the best results.
Make certain your bird's cage is appropriate in size and shape. Round and cylindrical cages are inappropriate because they lack corners and birds prefer corners for security. A bird who feels insecure is likely to be on the defensive and not as easy to work with. Make sure the cage is in a quiet location in the room where he can observe the on-goings without being smack in the middle of the commotion. Also, its helpful to place the cage against a wall to provide a sheltered backdrop (to avoid that ‘fishbowl' feeling) and cover the top with a pillowcase as well so the bird doesn't feel as though he has to watch out for things swooping from above. Do your research prior to bringing your bird home and set the cage up in advance with all the appropriate toys, perches and dishes to minimize the need to change things around immediately after his arrival so he can settle in and get used to his surroundings.
Allow him at least 24 hours of cage time once he comes home before taking him out after you bring him home. If you notice that he's a skittish bird, give him even more time. Don't rush him. Some birds take 2 weeks or longer before they feel even remotely settled in. If your bird is still looking at you like you're sprouting a third eye in the middle of your forehead 4 days after you've brought him home, don't despair. He just needs some time.
Birds startle easily at loud voices and jumpy people. Sitting down next to the cage and speaking to your bird in soft tones, and singing to him is a great way to acquaint yourself with your new friend. Try not to make direct eye contact with him. Glance at him from a profile view instead so you'll look less like a predator. Do you feel silly talking to someone who isn't talking back? Grab a book and read it out-loud. Do you have children? Read to your children by the cage and let your new bird be part of the audience.
Open The Door
Sitting with the door open and your hand in the cage is a great way to let your bird become used to your hands and fingers. Many birds are attracted to shiny jewelry so wearing a piece of bird-safe jewelry might gain some headway too. (Bird-safe = no loose stones, non-toxic metals = sterling silver and gold). After a while, a brave bird may come down to nibble on that irresistible piece of jewelry you're wearing while you're talking to him. Praise him gently if he does.
Food is the best tool of all. Most birds love millet, unsalted crackers or other "birdy junk food". If your bird is scared to death of hands, you can try clipping these things to the cage at first so they get familiar with these items as treats. Praise them when they eat them in front of you. Then, over the course of time, introduce your hand in the cage holding the treat. Your arm may ache as you hold very still, but eventually, your reluctant friend may nibble at the treat in your hand. When this happens congratulate yourself and your bird because you've taken a major step toward taming your bird. A fragile bond has been established and he has just shown his first sign that he is beginning to trust you.
So Now What?
Getting beyond the first few weeks is the hardest for most new bird owners who have purchased an unsocialized bird. Once you have made some headway in the trust department, the most important command to teach your bird is to "Step Up". The "Step Up" command not only establishes a bird owner's place as "head of the flock" (which is definitely where you need to be), but it is also useful and can be life saving for your bird. A bird who knows "Step up" can be transported out of harm's way immediately by his human companion should the need arise, and the bird is much more manageable in the household environment.
Learning to take treats from your hand has taught your bird that your hand is not a "bad thing". Now he has to learn to stand on it. Not such an easy task, but it can be done. Pressing lightly on a bird's stomach just above the feet, stimulates a "stepping" response. Millet training worked well for one of my cockatiels. By placing millet just out of her reach inside of her cage while she was standing in a corner of her cage, I placed my finger in front of her (she couldn't back away being in the corner) and said "step up". Many times, she would climb the bars to get away from my hand, but eventually, she got the idea of what I wanted her to do and finally, she hesitantly stepped onto my finger. Her reward was being lifted to the millet sprig that had been previously out of her reach. Once she figured out that if she stood on my finger, she'd get her treat, she was all for hopping on. Other birds are less reluctant to use their feet to step onto an offered finger. They'll offer a biting beak instead. Sometimes, birds who have phobias of hands (perhaps abused in former homes) need extra coaxing to become manageable. In these circumstances, dowel training can be used in place of finger training. Teaching a bird to step up onto a stick or dowel first, and eventually onto a finger can be effective as well.
Remember that Rome wasn't built in a day and your bird won't be tame in one either. Always approach your bird when you're in a relaxed frame of mind. Any tension you're feeling will carry over into your training session and chances are, you'll walk away frustrated and so will your bird. Pick a quiet time and location to work with your bird for the best results. Birds have a limited attention span, so keep that in mind and limit your training sessions to fifteen minutes or less.
You're on Your Way
In my opinion, the two basic fundamentals to training are accepting treats from the hand, and stepping up. It's very important for a bird to learn to accept treats from your hand as it not only establishes trust, but it's essential to reward your bird for good behavior with food or with praise. Therefor, it's the absolute FIRST thing you must teach him. Once he steps up, he can sit on your hand as well, and that opens up a forum for physical contact that will further enrich your relationship. Once you've accomplished these two basics, you're well on your way to a trusting relationship with your new feathered friend.