Avian Expert Articles

Small Bird Taming & Training Basics

Don’t ever let the small size of your small parrot — your budgie, cockatiel or lovebird — deter you from teaching him or her some behaviors on cue. Some commands are really helpful in managing your pet bird. Here are three things to teach your small pet bird:

cockatiel perched on finger1. Step Up

It’s very useful to have a pet bird that will get on your finger. It’s even nicer to plan ahead, and make sure you have a companion bird that will willingly step onto a stick, perch or T-stand. Not every pet sitter you find will be comfortable handling your pet bird, so it’s good to give that person a touch-free way to manage your feathered friend.

Our small birds almost automatically want to get up off the ground when they’ve landed there. Practice the Step Up command anytime your parrot has flown off the cage or perch. Go to your bird and press your finger into the chest just above the feet. Your bird should step onto your finger if he or she is relatively calm. Say “Step Up” as the bird gets onto your finger or a perch. Repeat, using the Step Up command to raise your bird higher and higher off the ground. That is a reward for your bird, getting back to a safe, high place like the cage or your shoulder.

If this is a bird that is new to you, look for signs of fright or distress; which would include hissing, panting, lunging at you, wings spreading the wings out to look big, feathers slicked close to the body and nervously looking around and backing up against a wall. If you see any of the above signs, slow down your training. Just sit by the bird, be calm and talk to him or her. A frightened bird is likely to bite, and you want training to be a pleasant experience. When a shy or frightened bird is in a cage, start training by casually dropping a treat into the bowl, a food item that is not part of the bird’s regular diet. Consider using a bit of hulled sunflower, toasted oat cereal, piece of toast or a bud from spray millet. That associates you with good things. Do the out of cage Step-Up exercise later, once you’ve won your bird’s trust.

If your pet bird is nervous and just asking him or her to Step Up didn’t work, coax the bird with a treat and use a calm, steady voice. Make sure your bird steps onto your finger or a stick or perch to reach the treat, and say, “Step Up” as soon as the bird does so.

After the initial session, keep repeating this lesson. Related commands are Step down, “Get on your perch,” and “Come here.”

2. Come Here

It can be very useful to teach your bird to come to you when requested. Flighted birds can learn to fly to you, but birds with trimmed wing feathers will waddle over when asked. I teach this to prepare for the day when a bird might get outside by mistake. Usually, pet birds don’t know how to come down to their owners; however, a bird trained to come to you might try. Of course it’s fun to be able to call your bird.

Start training “Come Here” a short distance from your bird, and offer him or her a treat and your finger. You might even start with trying to say “Step up” from a distance of a few inches to see if your bird will walk over to you to step up. I turn this into a hand signal of wiggling my finger back and forth, as well as saying “Come” or “Come here,” but you can use whatever commands you wish. Praise and reward your bird when he or she comes to you. Keep practicing this behavior, from an increasing distance.

3. Get Into Your Cage

PeachFaced love birdSometimes our companion birds resist going back home to their cages. It’s nice to have a bird trained to go back in when asked. I tap the bars of the cage and say, “Get in,” as my cue. You can choose any word or signal you wish for this cue.

It’s easiest to train this if your bird receives a really special treat for going in. You might try teaching “Get In” when you fill food bowls. Let your bird out on top of the cage. Fill feed bowls and include a treat in one. Put the bowls back in the cage, and as your bird starts to get in its cage, tap the side and say the verbal cue word/phrase you will use. After a few repetitions, your bird should learn to get in the cage when he or she sees the special treat and/or hears the word or sees your hand signal. Never underestimate your bird’s intelligence. I have one that knows what I’m asking when I tap the cage, but doesn’t go in until I produce a treat!

Through repetition and reward, I taught my cockatiels to step up and then to allow me to hold my hand lightly over their back and wings as we walked back to their cage, and I placed them into it. It’s not natural for our birds to be restrained, so I started just rewarding them for holding my hands over their back and, over weeks, worked up to restraint. It made for a much more calm experience for all of us when it was time for them to go back.

Related behaviors: Up The Ladder (from the floor to cage), On Your Perch, entering and exiting a cage perched on your finger

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