Rebecca K. O'Connor
One of the first training behaviors you should teach your parrot is to step up.
There are few things as exciting as bringing a new (or new to you) parrot into your home. With their big personalities and long lives, you know you may be looking at 30 or even 60 years of cheerful companionship. However, with any relationship that long, you can expect things to evolve and challenges to arise. After all, life changes and living creatures, whether parrot or not, adjust with it. Whether or not your pet bird handles these changes like a champ or turns into a chump has a lot to do with how you prep it for the future.
There are hundreds of things you might teach a parrot to prepare it for the future, and you have many years to help it acquire the tools and the skills that it needs. You can train specific things such as to go into a crate or to wave on cue. There are several specific behaviors that you should work on right away. Overall however, training is every interaction you have with your parrot.
Your most important task as a parrot owner is to learn to be mindful when you interact with your parrot. Every time you give your parrot attention or a treat you are saying to your bird, "I like it when you do that. When you do that I will come pay attention to you or give you something you like.” This is probably what gets parrot owners into the most trouble. Who hasn’t walked up to a screaming parrot and said, "Hush”? It’s natural. However, all your parrot has to go on is your actions. Your actions are far clearer than your words to a parrot. When you say, "hush” all you parrot understands is that the screaming got you to come pay attention to it.
Shaping good behavior is just as easy as shaping bad behavior and an incredibly important skill to learn. It is not about controlling your parrot, but giving your parrot clear communication about the behavior you do or do not appreciate. If you can clearly communicate things to your bird — such as that you appreciated when it plays quietly — it has an opportunity to control its world with behaviors you like. Everybody wins and your relationship stays positive. So what should you start to encourage?
Even if you have a bird that already knows the drill, the first thing you should train is a step up. This is good practice for any parrot owner and a great relationship builder. Your parrot should learn that "step up” is a request, not an edict. The result of teaching your parrot that when you present your hand and say, "up” it has a choice and a possibility to be rewarded for choosing to do what you are asking will change your relationship. You will not create a situation where the parrots are running the house, but rather prove that you are trustworthy and that your parrot has some control and input in its daily life. You are teaching it that interacting with you is always positive and that it can have a conversation with you. Consider training the step up a building block of a lifelong positive relationship.
Don’t want a parrot that screams? Then the first thing you should do is make it clear to your parrot what noises get your attention. Parrots that have learned to scream to get their human companion to interact with them likely tried a whole array of noises before they figured out that an ear-piercing scream gets the owner to scream back or come running. Decide right away what appropriate noise, a whistle or perhaps a word, should get your response. Then when your bird whistles, whistle back at it or visit it for a few moments. Teach it what gets your attention before it discovers attention-getters that are impossible to ignore.
Surprisingly, not all parrots know how to play. This may be especially true of "new to you” birds that come with an unknown history. If the bird has never been exposed to new toys and new situations, it may not know how to interact with toys. A zest for investigating, interacting with and even destroying new toys put in the cage or play area is critical to a parrot’s well-being. All animals need enrichment, something to occupy their minds. If you have a bird that does not touch new toys, teach it the benefits of play. You can start by offering toys that have places to insert treats, or already incorporate nuts or some other treat. Then make sure that you make a big deal every time you see your parrot playing with toys. If you reward your bird when you see it touching its toys, it will start investigating toys for the reward, but eventually discover that the reward is in the toys themselves.
Change things up. A bird that is always finding new things in its bowl and new toys in its cage will never get stuck on one thing. Sure, like all animals and humans, your parrot will have preferences. However, life is full of possibilities and variety. Your parrot will benefit from being willing to try new things. If its environment is always changing, your parrot will adjust to any surprise changes with ease. In these times new jobs, new people in the house and moving your home to a new location is commonplace. Make sure your parrot is ready for the inevitable change.
Biting: Most new parrot owners figure that when a parrot suddenly starts to consistently bite, something is wrong with their parrot. Maybe something snapped, because their loveable bird has changed without any warning. This is pretty unlikely. Biting is almost always a learned behavior, which is great news if your parrot does not bite. With a little thought you can make sure you do not accidentally teach your bird to remove chunks of your flesh.
Pay close attention to body language that suggests your parrot is about to become aggressive. It may be pinning its eyes or fluffing certain feathers. There are always signs, but we often miss them. However, learning to read this body language and to back off when your parrot is about to become aggressive means that your parrot never has to bite to get its point across. If it frequently has to bite you because you are not paying attention to its other signals, it may skip the body language and go straight for the bite. This is how you "suddenly” have a frequent biter.
Screaming: This is also a very easy thing to teach a parrot to do by accident. If having you in the room talking to it is one of your parrot’s favorite things, it is going to try a variety of ways to get you to come pay attention to it The one thing that often works well is to scream. Maybe you try not to encourage it, so you wait 15 minutes before you finally give in and tell it to be quiet. The next time you hold out a little longer, maybe 20 minutes and then a half an hour before you cannot stand it and yell back at it. The problem is that your parrot has now learned that it takes persistence, a half an hour sometimes, to get you to respond the way it wants. Now you’ve got a parrot that consistently screams for long lengths of time. Teach it that there are better ways to get your attention, and ignore the occasional scream.
Swearing: This is quite possibly the quickest thing a parrot that has an affinity for talking will learn to repeat. When we curse we are usually animated and loud, creating just the kind of commotion many parrots enjoy. So Polly is definitely listening, if not taking notes. It might seem funny the first time a parrot says a curse word. In fact, it’s hard not to laugh or react in some way that gives the parrot attention. However, you may live to regret having a parrot that consistently swears. They will embarrass you at dinner parties, when your in-laws visit and any time there are serious occasions in your home. Worse, if something happens to you and your parrot needs to find a new home, you have effectively narrowed its options.
Not every parrot lover loves a parrot with a potty mouth. Try not to swear in front of your parrot or let others swear either. If your bird does pick up a curse word, do not react to it or encourage your bird in any way. Ignore it and react positively to other things it says instead.
Bad behavior that is encouraged in pet birds only gets worse. Some behaviors, unfortunately, are self-reinforcing and encourage themselves, such as chewing on the furniture or destroying all the houseplants. If your parrot climbs off the cage, chews on the table legs, chases the dog or climbs up the curtains, do not treat it like it is no big deal. Troublesome parrots become more troublesome. They also get hurt. It is always best to deal with undesired behavior when it first appears. If your parrot has begun to climb off the cage, make sure there is something more worth its while in or on the cage than on the floor. Train it that staying on top of the cage gets it attention and treats. Make a plan on how to circumvent developing bad behaviors immediately or you will end up with a parrot so troublesome that it has to be locked in the cage all of the time or worse, given up to another home.
Clean birds with great plumage are healthy birds. However, not all birds like to bathe and they should not be forced. Misting a bird with a spray bottle because it needs a bath and thinking you are not "hurting” it, is a bad idea. Associating yourself with anything negative will undermine your relationship, and if your bird is moving away or squawking and trying to escape when you spray it, the misting is not positive. Take the time to train a bird that does not like to bathe to step into a mist of water. Reward your parrot for sitting still when you spray water away from it and then reward it as it sits still and you get closer and closer with the spray. Let it step in and out of the water for a reward. Take it slow, and you teach it that getting misted is a positive thing and keeps its feathers in great shape!
Parrots that are afraid of new things have stressful lives. Things change in their environment and they have no control. Being fearful of the sudden introduction of a new piece of furniture or a new household pet is the sort of thing that can drive a parrot to pluck. A parrot owner who isn’t sensitive can teach a parrot that the introduction of a change in its environment is destined to bring bad things. Do not assume that your parrot will "just get over” the scary toy you shoved into its space or the crazy sculpture you moved next to its cage. The parrot cannot choose to move away from these things that scare it. Pretty soon, it is going to decide that every scary thing that appears in the house is likely to be forced on it and its poor, frayed nerves. Take the time to slowly introduce your bird to new objects in its environment. Teach it that new does not mean bad.
As you help your parrot prepare for its future and become a good citizen in your home, don’t forget that everything is not so very serious. It is important that your parrot fit into your home so that you can all live in bliss, but you probably did not get a parrot thinking that you were going to mold it into an example of avian perfection. You just wanted a great companion and a lifetime of camaraderie. So have fun!
An event marker is using a clicker or a word like "good” to mark the moment your parrot did something you wanted it to do or something you appreciate. After you say "Good” or click, then you run to your parrot with a treat or give it a scratch on the head. The parrot will quickly learn that the event marker means that it just did something you wanted it to do.
To teach or not to teach, all of these things are simple. They do not require elaborate training plans or a huge time investment. Teaching a parrot how to be an enjoyable interactive member of your home really only takes being mindful of your actions and paying attention to details. A little bit of effort goes a long way, a lifetime in fact. The best part is that your parrot probably has a few great things to teach you as well. So get busy teaching!
Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, September 2009 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing, LLC.