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Teach Your Pet Bird The Skills He Needs

Teach your parrot the living skills it needs for a life in your home, such as eating a healthy diet and playing with toys independently.

Pamela Clark, CVT, CPBC
Posted: May 22, 2013, 2:30 p.m. PDT

Cockatiels often live to be 25 years old. Amazon parrots can live to be 80 years or older. I know of one blue-and-gold macaw that lived over the age of 100. Such a long life requires preparation when young.

Amazon Parrot
Teach your pet bird the skills it will need to live and thrive in your home.

Adopting a young parrot is delightful fun. The day he comes home is full of promise. But a young parrot has an empty suitcase for this journey. You must help him pack that suitcase with all the living skills he will need for a long, happy life. 

It’s important to enjoy every minute with him ,and it’s even more important to step into the role of teacher and offer the gentle encouragement and positive reinforcement that will help him learn to keep busy and happy, and prevent future behavior problems.

Use Positive Reinforcement With Your Parrots
Packing a young parrot’s suitcase with good behaviors is easy. Your pet bird has a natural desire to learn and a strong drive to explore his environment. Provide the raw materials that will stimulate his curiosity and then use plenty of positive reinforcement to guide him as he learns. He will take care of the rest!

He will behave in many different ways as he explores and learns about his environment. Sometimes he will be loud. Sometimes he will be quiet, as he attempts to solve a puzzle toy. He might be shy and dependent, wanting to be on your shoulder. At times, he will be more independent, playing with something in his cage.

Always, he will look for feedback. He wants to learn how he can best get your attention and any other rewards you might have to share. He needs consistent guidance.

Lots of positive reinforcement, offered for desirable behavior, produces the best results. By teaching your parrot what you want him to do, you prevent him from learning the things you would rather he not do. If you want to see a behavior increase, you must provide some type of immediate reward — positive reinforcement that tells him "Yes! That was good. Do that more often.”

Discover Your Parrot's Favorite Things
What should you use to reward (reinforce) good behavior? Observe his choices. Does he love nuts? Does he love best having his head scratched? Does he always play with a particular foot toy? Discover what is most important to him and then use that to reward his desirable behavior. Realize also that what he loves now may change as he grows older.

Next, make a list of behaviors that he will need to be a happy, healthy adult parrot. Think of these as living skills. The more living skills a parrot has, the happier he will be and the more fun you will have with him.

The whole family can sit down and decide what to put on your pet bird’s training list for the first year. Do you want your pet bird to learn to climb a ladder? Do you want it to fly to your hand, if his wing feathers aren’t trimmed? Anything is possible. Remember, it is a smart and resourceful young parrot.

Living Skills To Teach Your Parrot

Teach your parrot to:

Build A Stimulating Environment For Your Parrot
Once your list is made, create an environment that fosters learning. He needs to be able to make lots of choices in a stimulating environment full of enrichment.

Provide the largest bird cage you can. The larger the bird cage, the more choices he can have, in terms of perches and toys. He also needs plenty of alternate perches, located throughout the house. Try placing a perch in every room, so that he can be with you as you move about. Perches that hang from the ceiling, desktop perches and free-standing playgyms are all good choices. The more variety you provide, the more variety he will learn to enjoy.

Offer a varied and healthful diet. Create a landscape of healthy choices for him. If he came home to you eating a seed-only diet, teach him to also eat a good-quality pelleted diet and a variety of fresh foods. Getting him on a good diet now ensures good health later.

Indian ring-necked parakeet on playgym
Have a playgym for your bird that you can bring room to room so he can spend time with you.

Examine each item on his learning list and make sure that he has the raw materials he needs for that behavior. For bathing, he needs a stable, nonslip shower perch. For learning to keep busy, he needs independent time, abundant opportunities for foraging and plenty of destroy toys. If you want him to stay put on his playgym, he needs lots to do while he is there.

Getting Started
Once you create a stimulating environment, make your list of living skills and any other behaviors you want to teach, and know what to use for positive reinforcement, you are ready to begin!

As you work to guide him and teach new behaviors, take your cues from him. Observe his body language when he interacts with you. Each young parrot has a different "personality,” dictated both by genetics as well as his earliest experiences with the breeder or pet store. Is he bold or is he shy? Does he appear confident or does he seem afraid when you ask him to step up? Do not rush a shy, young parrot into interacting in ways that aren’t comfortable for him.

To start out, work to catch him in the act of being good. Get into the habit of watching for any desirable behavior he might offer. If he tries to bathe in his water dish, plays with a toy or eats his pellets, reward him. Keep an eye out for anything he does that you want to see again. Reinforce him immediately for that, either with praise, social attention or a small food treat. Ignore any undesirable behaviors, such as loud vocalizations. If a behavior gets no attention, it is less likely to occur again. Remember, he’s always looking to you for feedback!

Teach Independence To Your Parrot
Teach your young parrot to be independent. This is one of your most important goals in the first year or two. While it may be cute now that he wants all of your attention, this won’t be desirable later on. Don’t allow him on your shoulder for any longer than a few minutes. A young parrot sitting on your shoulder is only learning dependence; he is not learning anything else. Instead, encourage him to perch near you and provide him with an interesting activity while he is there. That way, learns to entertain himself while you are busy with your own activities. He becomes more resourceful and is a more interesting companion as he matures.

Remembering conditions in the wild can offer important guidance to us as we raise a young parrot. After fledging, he is encouraged to join the flock and develop greater independence. He spends much less time at that point being physically close to his parents. Replicating this phase of his learning in captivity reaps huge rewards later on.

Stepping Up
Next, teach him to step confidently onto your hand when you ask. The conditions surrounding this request and his compliance sets the stage for all of your other interactions. Do not ever force or insist that he do so. Now is the time to develop that necessary bond of trust. Stepping up must be a choice for him — and it is up to you to structure this interaction in such a way that he makes the correct choice!

He might already know how to do this. If so, make sure that good things happen for him every time he complies. Keep a variety of small food treats in your pocket, such as small pieces of nuts or sunflower seeds, so that you can offer him a treat or social reward immediately after he gets on your hand. Let him eat this before you walk with him. Some young parrots are too clumsy to eat a treat and perch on a moving hand at the same time.

Provide a steady hand for him to step onto and keep that hand still until he is perched securely on it before you start to walk. This helps to prevent any falls that might create fear or make him less likely to step up next time. Keep providing him with a reward for this behavior even after he learns it well.

Some young parrots are not given regular perching opportunities before going home, nor do they receive many opportunities to step onto a hand. Some have even learned already that stepping up brings scary consequences. Thus, they can be awkward, uncertain or even afraid when asked to step up. If this is the case, you need to proceed slowly. Insisting that a parrot steps up when he is reluctant or afraid to do so will only backfire later, because it breaks down the trust between you. 

Start by making sure that he will take a food treat from your hand without appearing afraid. You might have to start out teaching this behavior. Once he takes a treat from your hand, encourage him to come closer and closer to your step-up hand to get the treat. Gradually encourage him to get onto your hand for the treat. If he seems uncertain, then put him right back down as soon as he has stepped up and taken the treat. Practice just this a few times a day before you start to take him around the house with you. Proceed slowly, giving him plenty of time to learn that this behavior brings good things. 

Teaching this simple behavior well gives you a good start toward building a reciprocal relationship based upon trust rather than domination. If you do so, you will find that you soon have a young parrot that steps confidently and happily onto your hand from any perch from any height.

Once he’s mastered this behavior, start teaching the other behaviors on your list.

Returning Your Parrot To The Cage
This may present no challenge for your young parrot. However, given the number of older parrots who resist when asked to return to their cages, I know that something breaks down along the way in relation to this behavior. Teach and maintain this important skill from the very beginning.

People sometimes engage in mythological thinking regarding pet bird behavior, which makes us less effective. For example, we tend to believe that a parrot should perform a behavior simply because we want him to. In reality, parrots and all animals offer us behaviors that will earn them the things they want.

Given that, when we ask a parrot to perform a behavior that might be more difficult, such as returning to his cage where freedom of movement is more restricted, we should offer a reinforcer equal to the difficulty of the task. If you provide a sunflower seed for stepping up, you might offer an almond or walnut half for going back into the cage. Do this, even if he offers you no resistance now.

Staying Put On His Parrot Playgym
It is always easier to prevent problems than to correct them later. Many caregivers complain that their older parrot won’t stay put, but instead climbs down and walks around the house damaging possessions or chasing younger family members along the way.

If you want him to stay on his playgym, make sure that it offers him plenty to do. If it’s not an interesting place to be, he won’t want to stay there. Purchase a playgym that offers many places to hang toys and place food dishes. Then, furnish it with foraging opportunities and things he’s interested in chewing. In addition, while he is perched there, frequently praise him and occasionally go over to offer a small treat. He will soon learn that remaining on his gym brings him lots of good things, and he will not be tempted to go wandering.

Conure stepping up
Have the whole family participate in raising your pet bird.

Parrot Bathtime
Now is the time to teach him that bathing is fun — or at least tolerable. Individual pet birds differ in how readily they take to this behavior. Some love it the very first time. Others hang back, afraid of the water. Don’t be discouraged if your pet bird seems afraid the first time you try this. Remember — it’s a skill he needs to have for good psychological and physical health.

Decide whether you want to bathe him; in the shower, with a spray bottle, or some parrots prefer a shallow dish of water. Once you’ve chosen your method, proceed gradually if he seems uncertain. If you take him into the shower, begin by just letting him perch in the bathroom as he listens to the sound of the water. After he is used to this, he can sit on a shower perch just outside the water’s spray. Finally, you can coax him to allow a brief spray onto his feathers, gradually building up to a complete shower at least once or twice a week.

If using a spray bottle, begin by spraying once up into the air over his perch so that the mist settles down gradually over him. If he reacts, walk away then come back a few minutes later with a second misting. As he learns that this doesn’t hurt, gradually increase the length of his bath.

A Lifetime of Learning
Once these foundational behaviors are in place, decide what to teach next. Set aside a few minutes each day to continue his education. Doing this sets him up for a lifetime of happiness and health, while maintaining a strong bond of trust between you. Your young parrot has infinite learning potential and will thrive if provided with regular opportunities. He will maintain his interest in life and you will maintain your interest in him. A parrot with good living skills is a joy to have around. 

Interested in more about living with pet birds? Check out these articles:

10 Facts About Living With Parrots
Pet Bird Training Tips For Owners

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Teach Your Pet Bird The Skills He Needs

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Reader Comments
Excellent article. Thank you Pamela!
Lisa Bono, Barnegat, NJ
Posted: 3/29/2012 12:29:43 PM
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