Ask Lafeber

Question:

July 1, 2021

My cockatiel hates me


So I volunteer at a Bird Sanctuary every Friday. I got my first cockatiel at Christmas and he loves me and lets me pet him and everything. I just got another one recently and she doesn’t want anything to do with me or my family. I got her from the sanctuary so I don’t know anything about her past or even how old she is. She will constantly try to bite us even through the cage. She (Honey) doesn’t get along with my other cockatiel (Charlie) when in the same cage. But when they are in separate cages Honey will scream if her cage is not next to Charlie’s. Honey won’t let us get near her cage without trying to bite us and she has bit me pretty badly a few time. I don’t want to take her back because I have already grown attached to her even though she doesn’t want anything to do with me. I want her to be able to get along with the family and everything. I want to be able to pet her and hold her without being bit. What do I do?


Answer:

Hi Maddi,

First, you need to change the way you think about her. She doesn’t hate you – she acts on instinct and she is scared of you and doesn’t trust you. It isn’t personal – it is never personal with birds. Cockatiels are a wild species with wild instincts. They are not domesticated like a cat or dog, therefore you have no guarantee that they will be social towards humans. Pet birds are typically hand fed, which means they are more likely to remain tame to people, but even some hand fed birds never care for people that much. You know nothing about this bird, other than she is a female and doesn’t trust people. The fact that she bites may suggest that she was picked on in the past, or she could be hand fed and simply never bonded with people.

Female cockatiels are not as friendly as the males in general. Of course there are exceptions, but most of the time the females are more likely to keep their distance and less likely to accept any physical contact from a person. You can’t have any expectations for her. It’s not realistic to expect that she will ever be the same type pet as Charlie. You may never be able to hold her, much less pet her. And whatever relationship you end up having with her, will be slow to establish and could always be changing. If you can’t accept that she may never be tame, then it’s best to take her back. But if you can be open to her possibly never being tame, then you should be patient and give her time to adjust on her own time schedule.

The fact that she is only content when she is near Charlie suggests that she lived with other cockatiels, or even had a mate. And most likely the other cockatiel or birds also were not tame. You should not be putting her and Charlie in the same cage. While she may be wary of him to begin with, she clearly is interested in him. When birds share a cage, even if they are the same sex, they will almost always form a bond and will end up losing interest in people. Rather that her becoming tame, you are going to lose Charlie as a pet. It’s instinct – a bird will almost always choose another bird over a person. If left together, Honey will end up trusting him and will become friendlier with him. His instincts and hormones will kick in, and you will end up with two birds that don’t want to be handled, and now want to breed. I don’t know how old Charlie is, but even if they aren’t caged together, Charlie may one day get hormonal and decide he wants to be with Honey. These are all very likely scenarios, and really the rescue should have discussed all of this with you before letting you take home a female when you already have a male.

All of that being said, you have decisions to make. You could get another un-tame cockatiel as a companion for Honey. This increases the chance of her laying eggs at some point, but that doesn’t mean you have to give her a nest box or let her hatch eggs. The way she is now, Honey will be happiest with another cockatiel. You could take her back to the rescue and let them know about her behavior towards people, although they should have already been aware of this. You can keep trying to work with her. If you do this, you need to stop trying to pick her up or handle her. You need to gain her trust before you even think of handling her. You can sit next to the cage and talk to her, put treats in her dish, but make no movements towards her. Eventually, she will hopefully start to sit near you and take an interest in you. Until she is ready to approach you, on her terms, there is no hope in taming her. If she does start to react positively to you, the nest step is to rest your hand near the cage and get her used to it. She needs to trust that you aren’t going to try to grab her or touch her. Cockatiels are prey animals, so they do not like being grabbed because this is what a predator would do. Once she accepts your hands being near her, you can try offering her some treat from your hand. Each step may take weeks, or months or longer. And again, you may never get very far at all. It’s possible that you can teach her to step up on a stick if she won’t accept your hand. But each time you push her too far, such as reaching for her, it will set you back, sometimes to the beginning.

You have Charlie and should focus on him as being a good pet. If Honey doesn’t warm up to you, you may have to settle for just giving her a stable home and letting her be a Cockatiel  But again, I can’t stress this enough – it doesn’t matter how tame Charlie is, he is still a bird – keep him away from Honey as far as close contact. It is heartbreaking to have a previously tame bird suddenly start biting and only wanting to be with another bird. Below are a couple of links with more information on training and taming and pet bird behavior.

Teaching Your Bird

Pet Bird and Parrot Behavior

Thank you for asking Lafeber,

Brenda

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