Posted: June 13, 2013, 1:00 p.m. PDT
Many years ago, when I worked at a pet store, an extremely large and aggressive scarlet macaw at the store lunged at faces and screamed when people tried to service his cage. Of course, none of the employees wanted to deal with him.
Recognizing that he would never find a good home with such aggressive behavior, I decided to try to improve the situation. If I had unlimited time to work with him, I would have taught him to come out of his cage with the positive reinforcement techniques. The store owner, however, had lost patience with the pet bird and was about to sell him to a store much worse than ours — time was of the essence. Consequently, I gently toweled him, removed him from the cage and took him into a room he had never seen.
Parrots have an instinctive need to protect their territory, usually the bird cage. Removing your bird away from his bird cage helps remove that instinctual aggression.
The change in his behavior was nothing short of miraculous. Without the instinctive pressure of guarding his cage, he finally relaxed and enjoyed himself. Because I was accustomed to macaws acting aggressive as a bluff, I risked a bite and did not pull away when he lunged at me. I lucked out in this situation, because he was enthralled to finally find someone who wasn’t afraid of him.
When other employees saw the fun I was having with the macaw, they wanted to learn how to work with him, too. Mission accomplished! Incidentally, the miracle of "neutral territory” is only temporary. Once back on its own turf, a parrot’s behavior will return to what it was before. Nevertheless, neutral territory affords people a breathing spell in which to teach a parrot to happily respond to hand and perch training. That control can then be gradually shifted back into the areas where a parrot feels possessive, such as in and around its cage.
When dealing with a bird like this, the first step is for you to teach it to happily step on and off a perch — or basket or whatever — when it is offered. This is called perch training.
Teaching a parrot to do this is easy when special treats and lavish praise are the rewards for compliance. Make certain that you hold the perch steady. If using a stick for this, do not hold the end of the perch in your hand, because the end will drop down when the bird steps on. If this happens, the bird might not choose to mount a perch again. Falling appears to be a universal fear, even with flighted birds. Instead, choose a stick that is long enough to back up on the inside of your wrist. This will make the entire stick as steady as your arm, and the macaw will be much more comfortable as a result.
Once perch trained, other people will find that they can easily remove the bird from its cage when they need to. Because macaws can be extremely territorial, they should always be moved to a playgym before servicing the cage. Being able to easily move the bird about exponentially increases its outside-of-cage playtime, giving it more opportunities to stretch its wings and flap wildly. Blowing off steam also will reduce the bird’s antagonistic tendencies. Parrots with pent-up energy are usually more aggressive than happily tired birds.
Trick Training Your Parrot
Another technique for winning over others is to trick-train the bird to do fun things like wave a foot or lift a wing on command. People love to interact with parrots that do cute things, and this will go a long way toward improving its PR.
Even if people are too afraid to offer physical contact with an intimidating larger parrot, they can still remove it from the cage and enjoy interactions. Socialization does not require intimate contact — just interaction, attention and caring.
Once your macaw is away from his cage, you can work on teaching him tricks, like in this video: