Avian Expert Articles

Learn the Polite Way to Train Your Parrot

Editor’s note: The bird community lost Liz Wilson when she passed away on April 13, 2013. Please visit our dedication page for her full biography, photos and comments from her colleagues.


As an offshoot of my last column (“Parronting” Styles with Parrots), I’ve been thinking about the importance of companion parrots and politeness. I am not, of course, expecting pet parrots to be polite. As far as I can tell, what humans might conceive as politeness is not a concept that parrots understand. Not something they need, so they don’t have it. (This reminds me of a biologist’s charming response to a child’s questioning if his pet frog would learn its name. “Your frog doesn’t really need that information, so he has no place to put it.”)

But we humans do need politeness, and we also need to practice it with our pet birds.

Politeness means accepting that our parrots should not be expected to wait around in the hopes that we will choose to interact with them. They have their own lives, after all, and they have a right to choose not to interact with us whenever we might wish it. It means not expecting them to be at our beck and call.

After all, parrots evolved in the wild without humans. Unlike the modern dog (essentially a man-made creature that is the result of genetic manipulation), parrots evolved away from people, living their lives without human interaction other than us being an occasional predator. First- or second-generation, domestic-bred parrots are likely to perceive things similarly to their wild counterparts.

Do You Want to Step Up?

As I mentioned in my previous column, I was originally an authoritarian parrot person. When I gave a “command,” I expected it to be followed. When I opened a parrot’s cage door, offered my hand as a perch and said, “Step up,” I expected the parrot to do exactly that. I was, after all, the human!

But, as I matured in my dealings with parrots, I came to understand that my style of interacting with parrots was unnecessarily strict and most assuredly rude. My friend and colleague Chris Davis taught me a much better approach, and this is the technique I use to this day.

When I go to get my old macaw Sam out of her cage, I stop at the closed door and ask Sam, “Would you like to come out?” Sam generally answers that question immediately. Perhaps she looks askance and turns her back. Perhaps she looks at me as if I have two heads and gives me one of those “Why would I want to do that?” kinda looks. If so, she obviously does not wish an interaction, so I go away and come back later.

If Sam’s response is positive, my response is different. Perhaps she looks interested and raises a foot. Perhaps she perks up and heads in my direction. So I then open her cage door and offer my hand, saying “Step up, Sam.” Then I bring her out with much well-deserved praise and adulation. I have not asked her (no, not commanded her) to step up until I feel certain that is what she would like to do.

However, if a tidal wave is imminent or the house is on fire, or whatever, I would likely use the command of Step up. Under such circumstances, I expect Sam to obey. In this instance, I am not asking a polite question. But we haven’t had any house fires or tidal waves in recent memory, so I haven’t used that command in a looooong time.

This approach works well with people as well. If my husband tells me to do something, I am likely to resist, just on general principles. My colleague Dianalee Deter commented years ago that her daughter was a headstrong young woman from an early age, so Dianalee found if she said, “Put on your shoes” she had a fight on her hands. If instead she said, “Would you like to put on your right shoe or your left shoe first?” no battle ensued. This is a perfect approach, as only acceptable options are suggested. The no-shoes option is not offered. As founder and CEO of the Phoenix Landing Foundation (www.phoenixlanding.org), Ann Brooks puts it, “Choice is my favorite word!”

The Problems with Petting A Pet Bird

Problems often arise when authoritarian people expect their pet parrots to accept being petted whenever the human wishes. If the parrot resists, this is construed as the bird’s problem when in reality, it is the person’s problem. Whose body is it, after all? While people might see themselves as the owner, it is quite obvious that companion parrots do not see us that way, as they do not appear to see themselves as being owned. So it is their body and, under normal circumstances, they get to decide what happens to it.

Years ago, I had a bird grooming client who had one of the mildest African grey parrot hens I’d ever met. Our relationship only entailed me gently wrapping the parrot in a towel and trimming her nails, so there was no earthly reason why she should’ve seen me in a positive light. But she had never attempted to bite me, not once. So I was quite startled when the owner complained that the African grey had started biting her. Questioning indicated the grey was biting her when she tried to pet her. Further queries revealed the grey was politely pushing her hand away repeatedly prior to biting.

In other words, the African grey was respectfully requesting — repeatedly — that the owner cease her attentions but the woman was ignoring the bird’s requests. Only when the bird finally resorted to aggression did the woman finally back off. So the owner was teaching the bird that biting was the only effective way with which to communicate — at least with her.

I greatly preferred a friend’s courteous approach to petting his African grey parrot. He would crook his finger and say, “Wanna scritch?” and then wait. If the idea appealed to his African grey, it would come over and offer its neck to be petted. If not, my friend would withdraw.

When interacting with parrots, simple courtesy is much more effective than approaching with the attitude that your opinions and wishes outrank theirs. And oddly enough, this works with other species of animals as well!

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2 thoughts on “Learn the Polite Way to Train Your Parrot

  1. I like this article, it feels right and well overdue. Just studying canine communication and think it is definitely time this whole dominance over animals mentality was rethought. The canine communication has made a big difference to my relationship with my dogs and I hope this does with my Senegal. Thanks.

  2. Hello, Liz…thanks for this article on bird behavior. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were describing perfectly my African grey, Spike. At age 16, he’s just a middle-ager but our interaction is as you say, cooperative and polite. I learned long ago (and occasionally painfully) that I could sense his wishes by his body language and eye contact and we reached detente. However, I quietly remind him from time to time that I am in charge even though he rules his roost.

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