By Gina Cioli/BowTie/Courtesy Omar's Exotic Birds
Teaching your parrot to step up onto your hand is one of the most important training cues you can teach your pet bird.
In many respects, life with a companion pet bird is an exercise in trial and error. Fortunately, we can learn from other’s mistakes without even going there. Here are some pitfalls you can avoid just by being aware.
Don’t attempt to pet your pet bird while it is eating. Most pet birds find this annoying and some might even show their annoyance by giving you a warning nip or full-on bite. Imagine trying to stand on one leg while holding food in your foot and then a giant hand throwing you off balance.
Don’t assume that your parrot is OK with you sticking your hand in the cage. For many parrots, the cage is their retreat. Remember the days when you had your own bedroom and how you would go there to relax and chill, and then the door swung open and in jumped your sibling or parents? Many pet birds feel this way about their cage. Instead of making your hand an unwelcome guest, open the cage door and allow your pet bird to come out on its own. Better yet, use positive reinforcement to train your pet bird to exit its cage when cued, such as saying, “Step Up,” and then offering a treat or head scratch when it complies. Of course, politeness takes a back seat to urgency if it’s an emergency situation and you need your pet bird out fast.
Don’t think that you can take your pet bird outside without a recent wing-feather trim, or it being on a harness or in a carrier. Even if your pet bird is a natural snuggle bug, sticking to you like Velcro when you walk around the house, it’s a whole new ballgame when it comes to the unpredictable great outdoors. Your pet bird doesn’t mean to fly off; it probably got spooked by a noise, a passing shadow or something you don’t even perceive. Once your pet bird takes to flying in a panic state, it might be blocks away before it lands, and then you’re looking at a square-mile search area or more.
Don’t get in the habit of stroking your pet bird all the way down its backside. This can trigger your pet bird's hormones , which can lead to regurgitated offerings, nest-site seeking and construction, territorial behavior and egg laying. Limit petting to the pet bird’s head and cheek and don’t go below the nape of the neck.
Don’t offer your pet bird food samples straight from your mouth or from a utensil that has been in your mouth. A person’s mouth can harbor bacteria that can be harmful to pet pet birds. Instead, section off bits of healthy food you want your pet bird to try beforehand and offer it by hand (make sure your hand is clean) or place the morsel in your pet bird’s treat bowl. Pre-marking the food as your pet bird’s sample will also remind you to keep a portion free of sauces, salt, butter and other high-fat, high-cholesterol condiments your pet bird doesn’t need.
Don’t assume that your pet bird will stay where you perch it. You might have a tree-stand or playgym that your pet bird loves to play on, but keep in mind that if you leave the room or the house for any period of time, your pet bird might find something in the room to its liking. Many a determined pet bird has found a way to climb down, flutter or fly directly to its target item, which could be a piece of furniture or plant to sample, or your unattended cell phone.
Don’t think it’s ever OK to vacuum out your pet bird’s cage or spray a cleaner in your pet bird’s cage while your pet bird is still in it. Pet birds are very lightweight, and the suction from a vacuum hose can pick up your pet bird faster than your pet bird can flutter across the cage. Pet birds have sensitive respiratory systems (that’s why there was a canary in the coal mine) so cleaning products should never be used in the vicinity of your pet bird.
Don’t assume that because your pet bird is friendly with you that it will be friendly with everyone. Some pet birds are quite comfortable with their caretakers but timid or downright fearful of others.
If you don’t want your pet bird to fall into the category of a one-person pet bird, take steps to gently introduce it to the notion that other people are not evil. This can include inviting friends over and having your pet bird sit nearby at first, and then politely asking your pet bird to step up onto other’s hands. The person holding the pet bird can offer a favorite treat or a gentle head scratch and praise. Keep the atmosphere light, and remind everyone to keep their conversation at a non-startling noise level so your pet bird doesn’t panic — the same goes for sudden movements.
Don’t get in the habit of going a day or so between water bowl changes. Although you might not even notice a significant dip in the water line, your pet bird needs fresh water daily. Make no mistake, your pet bird does take small swigs of water throughout the day.
Some pet birds dunk their food and toys in the water bowl, which makes it easier to tell that the water is not clear. However, a lot of pet birds take a drink of water after eating, which means remnants of food on the beak and the tongue come into contact with the water, making it more bacteria-laden than it appears.
Don’t give up on offering your pet bird healthy foods just because it turns its beak up at them. Good nutrition is too important to your pet bird’s health to give up on. Pet birds can be finicky eaters (much like some children when it comes to veggies). However, many dedicated pet bird owners have won the “picky eater” game by offering the same food item in different ways.
For example, wedge a carrot chunk between the cage bars. Place it on the clean cage floor, or hang the carrot up high. If that doesn’t entice your pet bird, dice the carrot up and serve it in its food bowl. Still no interest? Steam it, mash it or mix it with plain whole-wheat pasta noodles, and see if that does the trick. It might take your pet bird a day, a week, a month or a year-plus to finally try a new food, but it’s well worth the wait.
Don’t physically punish your pet bird for bad or unwanted behavior. Swatting at your pet bird, blasting it with a stream of water, shaking your pet bird, hitting your pet bird or depriving it of food/water will not bring about positive change, and it will not “teach your pet bird a lesson.” On the contrary, these actions are likely to bring out aggressive and/or phobic behavior in your pet bird, and physical punishment is trust destroying.
If your pet bird bites you, show your displeasure by immediately turning your back on it. If your pet bird chews up your furniture, it probably won’t understand your frustration and, therefore, your tirade will fall on deaf ears.
Be proactive instead: supervise your pet bird when it is out of its cage, and make sure it has plenty of owner-approved items to destroy, like a variety of toys.
Not All Pet Birds Get Along
Don’t get a pet bird for your bird. You might think that your pet bird will be happier with another bird, but don’t assume that because they are both birds they will get along. Although it is generally safer to introduce pet birds of the same size range (bigger pet birds can seriously injure or maim smaller pet birds), there’s no guarantee that pet birds of the same species will like each other.
If you wish to add to your flock, do so with the assumption that you will have to house the pet birds separately and that you will have to supervise all flock interactions.
Dress Appropriately For Your Parrot
Don’t wear your favorite clothing or accessories with your pet bird perched on you. Cockatiels and other small pet birds are notorious necklace clasp destroyers, cockatoos and Amazon parrots are excellent one-bite watchband breakers, and some determined pet birds have a talent for separating even the strongest diamond from its setting.
Experienced pet bird owners know to change from their dry-clean-only clothing into lounge wear or something machine washable before handling their pet birds. Others cover up with old shirts, or they strategically place a towel on their lap or shoulder.
Some pet birds can be potty trained. The trick is figuring out how often the pet bird tends to go and then returning it to its cage or playgym or holding it over a trash can or newspaper until it goes potty.