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Help Your Scared Parrot Overcome Her Fear

Read your parrot's body language and work with your parrot slowly until she is no longer afraid.

Liz Wilson, CVT, CPBC

Q. I’m a relatively new cockatoo owner and am having a problem with my Sonya being very afraid of everything. Initially, she was an extremely trusting, loving bird that adored interacting with me. Then I was gone for three weeks, and she stayed with my breeder. Since coming home, she is extremely fearful of all the activities she did before, including stepping onto my hand. If I approach her cage, she backs into a corner and shivers. I’ve tried her favorite treats, talking to her sweetly and trying not to make her do anything that scares her. She will crawl out of her cage if I open the door and leave the room. But trying to go back in is a nightmare. The whole situation sends her into another trauma, and thereby creating a cycle of fear. Help!

Woman with bare-eyed cockatoo
Reading aloud is one way to interact with your pet bird.

A: So-called "phobic” episodes in parrots can be a terribly painful for all involved. The good news is that there are ways to get your little girl through this.

Start by keeping a diary. Track the times of day when your ’too seems most skittish and when she is calmest. Note if your clothing makes a difference. Identify the things that seem to trigger her fears. Does she only fear you? Track anything that might relate to the situation, no matter how small. Try to be coolly scientific, and note things carefully and clinically. Her calmest times of the day (often in the morning) are the ideal periods in which to work with her.

Reinforce Braveness
The behavior modification mantra is quite simple. Reinforce the behaviors you want, and ignore those you don’t. Since you do not wish the fearful behavior to continue, ignore it when it happens. Reinforce any brave behaviors lavishly.

At this point, a few methods are available to you, which I will detail in a moment. All are equally useful despite their divergent approaches, and all share a common foundation of positive reinforcement. Under no circumstances should you use aversives with a frightened parrot, as you will simply give the bird more reason to fear you.

As Phoebe Linden, aviculturist and parrot behavior consultant, said, you need to counterbalance the negative incidents you’ve shared with a greater number of positive incidents. So if she only fears you, have others do "scary” things like servicing her cage daily. More importantly, I suggest you not allow Sonya out of her cage until you have a better handle on things. Terrorizing her daily to return her to the cage can negate any positive effects of your training.

Target Training
Target training entails teaching an animal to touch something (like a chopstick), and it is favored by trainers as the first step to almost everything. Once you have target trained an animal, you can teach it to follow the target. This will enable you to return your cockatoo to her cage without stress. Information about target training can be found in multiple sources, such as tips found on this website. However, if working with a truly phobic bird that cannot be approached without triggering a dangerous panic attack, you need to desensitize it to human proximity prior to target training.

Slow Desensitization
Joanie Doss, trainer and writer, suggested identifying how close you can approach the bird before her body language indicates fear; this is the reactive space. Once that space is identified, back up a step at a time until she relaxes, and mark that invisible line with masking tape. Then several times daily, stand at the tape for a couple of minutes.

Initially, do nothing; don’t even look at the bird. When she is comfortable with your presence, look briefly at her, talk and sing softly. (Predators are silent when stalking prey.) Gradually add such things as moving your hands and, when Sonya no longer acts afraid, take a step forward, and put down another piece of tape. Now repeat. By using this gentle desensitization, you teach your ’too that you are not a threat.

Above All, Patience!
By carefully evaluating your cockatoo’s body language, you can assess her level of fear. Drop back slightly whenever she acts afraid, but don’t make a fuss. Reward her lavishly for signs of bravery. By going at her speed, you will be able to reclaim the loving relationship you once shared.

The Chair Approach: Another Desensitization Technique
Parrot behaviorist Sally Blanchard favors placing a non-threatening chair at the edge of this magical reactive space. Positioning the chair at a slight angle, sit and read books or magazines aloud for a few minutes, using Blanchard’s "soft-eyes approach,” look up at the bird briefly, then look away. Keep your face slightly averted, never using the two-eyed predator’s stare. Pretend you are totally unaware of the bird’s existence.

Do this for a few minutes several times a day while watching the bird’s body language with your peripheral vision. Once the bird relaxes in your presence, start turning your head more toward the bird, continuing soft eyes. Hold up the book so you can share pictures with her. This approach focuses on getting the bird to want to come to you. (More on Blanchard’s approach can be found in the Companion Parrot Handbook.)

Add a small table, and try parrot behaviorist Mattie Sue Athan’s idea of doing a jigsaw puzzle just out of reach. Odds are excellent that a parrot will have difficulty resisting all those colorful little pieces. Just make certain you are not overly fond of the puzzle.

Want to learn more about bird fear?

End Pet Bird Hand Fear
Why Won't My Parrot Come Out Of The Bird Cage?

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Posted: July 26, 2012 9:45 a.m. PDT

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Help Your Scared Parrot Overcome Her Fear

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Reader Comments
great article
imani, newark, NJ
Posted: 8/5/2012 9:53:39 PM
liked the article
ann H, jersey city, NJ
Posted: 8/5/2012 9:45:37 PM
Good article!
Qing, Rochester, NY
Posted: 8/3/2012 11:56:04 AM
mark, newburgh, NY
Posted: 8/2/2012 8:54:19 PM
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