Below is my method for taming a frightened bird. However, before we begin it is important to answer a few common questions:
“I bought a hand-tamed bird, so why is it scared of me?
Buying a “hand-tamed” bird does not necessarily mean that your bird is ok with being handled. Just because it doesn’t bite doesn’t mean that is LIKES being touched. As with any animal, we need to look at the body language of the animal. Sure you may be able to grab your bird out of the cage, but does it cower and duck away from your hand? Is it shivering the whole time it is held? If your bird is not completely okay with you handling it, every time you handle it you will be reinforcing a negative experience. Once your bird realizes it can bite it will soon realize that it can stop the ‘negative experience’ by biting.”
“If I just handle my bird regularly, will it become tame?
No! If someone punched and tackled you to the ground, would you like them more because they kept doing it? No! Forcing a bird to get used to something (termed “flooding”) will never work unless you are highly in tune with reading your bird’s body language.
Being held and confined is the MOST terrifying position for a bird to be in because they can’t use their primary defence mechanism - flight! When we forcefully handle our birds and restrict their movement – they become afraid and see humans as a negative experience. That’s the opposite of what we want! We want to reassure our birds that any experience with us is a positive one – that they are safe and are still able to choose their own decisions. We want them to CHOOSE to stay with us because they know they will have a great time with us.”
TAMING A FRIGHTENED BIRD
This is the method I used to re-train an aviary bird that was terrified of humans. It works but it is ESSENTIAL that you exercise patience. DO NOT rush it or it simply won’t work. It took me about 2 weeks from stage 1 where the bird would fly to the other side of the cage if I came within two meters of the cage, to stage 2 where the bird would happily step onto my hand from the cage. (If you have already been forcing your bird out of its cage while it is scared, it may take you a little longer to regain that trust and replace those negative experiences.)
For this technique to work you need to determine your bird’s flight distance. All animals have a flight distance (think fight or flight) – a point at which you come too close they will run (or fly) away. So to determine your bird’s flight distance you must look to see how close it will let you get to it’s cage before it moves away
Approach the cage calmly and slowly. Don’t make any sudden noises movements with your arms etc. Avoid eye contact. It may make you appear like a predator. (At this stage it is a good idea to keep the cage in an area that you do not walk past regularly so that you only approach the cage for training and feeding). As soon as you see your bird show signs of DISCOMFORT, immediately stop where you are. What are the signs of discomfort? Your bird may lean back on its perch, crouch down ready to run or fly, step a foot out to the side, suck its feathers in close to its body etc. It’s the movements and signs your bird shows just BEFORE it moves away. Once you see these you must STOP where you are immediately and DO NOT approach any further.
The most important thing is that you must STOP BEFORE YOUR BIRD MOVES AWAY FROM YOU. Otherwise you are just teaching it that moving away from you it will get its reward (ie. by moving away from you it makes you move away also). That is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve – that when the bird calms down it will get the reward of the pressure being released (ie. you move away from the bird).
Stay where you are until your parrot calms down and shows signs of comfort. What are these? Your bird may go back to its normal posture, it might fluff its feathers a little, it may even its weight distribution on its legs so that it is no longer ready to run or fly away.
Once you see that your bird has calmed down while you are still standing there, turn around and walk away from the cage. You have just taught the parrot to decrease the size of its flight distance.
Let me explain why…Let’s say that your parrot let you get to about one meter from the cage. Your parrots ‘flight distance’ is one meter. That means that it feels that it is safe until you get any closer than 1m from its cage. But now it is starting to realize that you were at 1m from the cage and nothing bad happened. It hasn’t been touched, harassed or forced to do something it is scared of. It actually made you go away by calming itself down. It had a choice (to stay or to move away) and it chose the right decision (to stay and calm down) and was rewarded for it (the thing it was scared of moved away = pressure released).
Repeat, repeat, repeat! Gradually the bird’s flight distance will decrease. You will be able to get within 0.9m of the cage, 0.8m of the cage, 0.5m of the cage etc. But it will take time and many repetitions. But at no point let your bird move away before you stop or you will have to start all over from the beginning again. Even I did that a few times when I retrained the aviary bird. But eventually you will become more adept at reading your birds body language.
Once you can reach the cage without the bird flying away, start the same technique but this time with just your hand approaching the cage. (ie. first lift your hand until the bird calms down, then put your hand back down and walk away. Then lift your hand a little higher towards the cage, wait for your bird to be calm, then put your hand down and walk away etc). Once your bird is happy for you to stand next to the cage and put your hand up to the cage, drop a treat into its food bowl and walk away. Now this is like positive reinforcement on steroids. Not only does your bird feel calm when you approach, it now gets a treat too!
For now, that should give you enough to go by. Once you reach that stage, sign up to Vonnegut's mailing list below and I'll send you the next steps for taming your scared bird, starting with getting it to accept treats from your hand and 'step up' onto your hand. Feel free to leave any comments or questions and please share this link with any bird-owning friends. I’d love to know that I’ve made a difference by improving the lives of birds and their owners!