Taming, Training, and Talking to Birds

It is very desirable to have a tame, affectionate, and interactive bird as a family pet. Small birds such as finches and canaries may prove very difficult or challenging to befriend. There are many methods and opinions described by various people to tame and train birds. This handout is designed to give some guidance to you during this process. Your patience may be strained, and you may sustain some bites, but the rewards of your new relationship with your bird will be fulfilling and long-lasting. The ultimate goal is to earn your bird's trust and respect. Some larger urban centers have reputable bird trainers. Speak to your avian veterinarian for recommendations and try to get some references first.

What do I need to know before I start training my bird?

When selecting a pet bird, try to choose a young bird, as it will be easier to tame and train. Remember, you are trying to bond with the bird. Young birds are easier to tame and adapt readily to new environments and situations. Hand-raised babies usually make better pets as they have been completely socialized with humans and bond readily. Older, wild, colony or parent-raised birds may prove difficult to tame.

"Both you and your bird need to start gaining trust in each other."

After purchasing a new tamed or untamed bird it is wise not to stress the bird by beginning daily training too much for the first week to allow the bird to become accustomed to its new environment. The new arrival in your house is usually moderately stressed. The bird has abruptly changed locations and has lost its familiar cage mates and familiar handler or feeder. Remember that you and the bird are strangers and need to get to know each other. Both you and your bird need to start gaining trust in each other. Everything is new to the bird. The activities in the house, the people, sounds, smells, and routines are all new experiences. Place the new bird in a quiet part of the house away from a lot of commotion. Keep it on its former diet, and do not change any of its familiar foods for a couple of weeks. It is important not to alarm the bird with sudden movements or loud noises. Taming and training can begin when your bird appears to be settling comfortably into its new surroundings.

You may want to consider having your bird’s wing feathers clipped by your veterinarian. This will usually make the bird more dependent on you during the taming process.

Birds can bite and even a small bird such as a budgie or a cockatiel can break the skin. Although gloves may provide some protection from most bites, a bird may become frightened of them and may not distinguish between the five-fingered shape of the gloves and the five fingers of your hand. You do not want the bird to become fearful of your hand.

How do I hand train my bird?

Start slowly! One or two five to ten-minute sessions per day is a good start. Gradually work your new bird to about two 20-minute sessions each day. Too much attention may produce an overly dependent bird. Your new bird must be able and encouraged to entertain itself. Ensure your bird is introduced to lots of different people over time (e.g., young, old, big, small, males, and females). Positive reinforcement with healthy food items (almond slivers, pieces of carrot, Nutri-Berries®, or sunflower seeds) is very beneficial to reward your bird for allowing handling and training after the session is over. Simple commands like “step up” and “stay” should be taught to all pet birds.

"Simple commands like 'step up' and 'stay' should be taught to all pet birds."

Having the bird become comfortable with the presence and closeness of your hand in the cage may be accomplished by getting the bird to take food out of your hand. The next step is to work slowly and gently train your bird to step onto a stick. Move slowly, but deliberately and talk quietly to the bird as you introduce the stick into the cage toward your bird's upper legs and lower chest area. Once your bird is comfortable perching on a stick, you can move the hand holding the stick closer to your bird until your hand replaces the stick as the perch.

Remember that birds (especially larger birds) use their beak as a third hand for balance and will often reach out to hang on while stepping up. You must attempt to show confidence and try not to move. Pulling away suddenly may frighten your bird and lead to a bite. Your bird may also learn to control you by simply reaching out with the beak to make you "go away". Food may help to distract your bird as well as reward it. Friends and family should be coached and encouraged to work with your bird in the same way. You have now made great steps forward in the training process. Touching, petting, head-scratching, and snuggling will follow from here with persistence and patience.

What if my bird bites me?

If your bird tries to bite you, keep your fingers together and curled inward. It is harder to bite a flat surface than individual fingers. Pull your hand a short distance out of its reach but hold your ground. If your bird does bite, try to remain calm. If your bird is on your hand and biting, some recommend a short downward shift of the bitten hand. A stern verbal "NO" is useful. NEVER hit your bird, as they do not respond to this sort of discipline. They will lose their trust in you and may learn to fear hands.

Can my bird learn to talk?

Budgies, Cockatiels, various Amazon parrots, African Grey parrots, Cockatoos, and Macaws all have the capacity to "talk" or mimic speech. Some species speak better than others do. Even among the same species, some individuals may never talk while others will not stop talking. Individuals may develop extensive vocabularies of words, songs, verse, whistles, sneezing, coughing, and electronic noises such as telephones. The bird is simply mimicking what it hears, and it will generally repeat sounds it hears frequently. Many words and sounds that a bird is capable of learning are those that happen all the time, even though you did not sit down and "teach" the bird. Generally, males tend to be better talkers but there are wonderfully talented female talkers. Some suggest that you do not teach your bird to whistle since this is easy and may be preferred to talking. Once again, it takes time, patience, and repetition to train a bird.

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