There are some commands that every bird should learn as part of a basic obedience home course. Birds learn best through positive reinforcement training – reward the behaviors you want to be repeated and ignore the behaviors you do not want to be repeated. It sounds simple, but takes some time and practice to hone your skills. When you first get your new bird, or if you are just starting to train your current bird, restrict any favorite treats only to training sessions. This will encourage your bird to work harder for the yummiest treats! Use verbal praise (“good bird”, “okay”) and pair it with a treat to train your bird, and he will quickly realize the connection and how to get more treats.
You should never scold your bird for behaviors that are unwanted (except of course a calm “no bite” command when needed). In general, birds love attention – even negative attention. If you yell or become overly frustrated with your bird, chances are he will think that is just as fun as getting rewarded and will continue to perform that behavior. This is why we recommend ignoring behaviors that are unwanted. A great website for training information for birds is www.goodbirdinc.com. Here are the commands we believe are vital that your bird learn:
This is the first command your bird should learn. Offer your hand and see if your bird will step up onto it. If your bird steps up, then praise him and give him a food reward. If your bird does not readily step up, then you can try gently moving your hand into your bird’s body until he puts his foot on your hand. You can also hold your hand close to your bird but a step or two away, and encourage your bird to come toward you for a treat. When your bird puts his foot on your hand, reward him with a treat. Repeat that process until your bird is comfortably stepping up. Sometimes we have to do what is called shaping behaviors – if a bird is not stepping up entirely at first, then reward for a foot touching your hand, then a foot on top of your finger, and progress to the full step up command. Do not force your bird or get frustrated – some birds will be very outgoing and step up easily, but some take time. Remember birds are smart and deserve a lot of respect, so with training, you always want to be working as a team instead of thinking of yourself as a commander in charge of your bird. Working relationships will thrive if you guide your bird rather than force him!
Your bird should also step down off your hand on cue. This is trained in a similar way to step up, with your bird being rewarded for moving off of your hand. You sometimes have to tilt your hand slightly to encourage that first step down. Always reward your bird with praise and a treat during the training process!
You should teach your bird to stay on a perch or cage when asked to do so. Start with small steps – ask your bird to stay only for a second or two. If your bird does not move, reward this action. If your bird does move, do not scold him but simply take him back to the original spot and ask again for a stay. Once your bird is staying put then slowly increase the time and distance you move away from your bird’s position. Remember to work in small steps at your bird’s pace and give rewards each time your bird stays.
Training for Medical Procedures
If you are trying to find new things to teach your bird, try these! Training medical procedures ahead of time can reduce stress during hospital visits. It may also benefit you in the long run when you eventually need to administer medications to your bird.
Playing With A Towel
Every bird we handle in our hospital gets held wrapped in a towel. This is to help prevent the bird from injuring itself (with wings, feet or beak) and allows our technicians to hold the bird comfortably for a variety of procedures. Unfortunately, this is often the only time a bird gets exposed to a towel, so they begin to associate the towel with stressful events. Teach your bird at home that the towel is a fun toy – play peek-a-boo, wrap your bird in a towel while giving it treats, and expose your bird to different colors and sizes of towels. We can always tell which birds are used to towels because they are exposed to them at home. These birds are calmer, with lower respiratory and heart rates, and in general much less stressed during their exams.
Playing With The Feet And Wings
Lots of birds come to the hospital to get nail and wing trims. One trick you can teach at home is the “high five” where you play with your bird’s feet and get him used to having toes handled. Another trick you can teach is the “handshake” or “wing-shake” where your bird learns to stretch out his wings and you grab a gentle hold. This can simulate what we do during a wing trim.
Teaching Your Bird To Take Medication From A Syringe
Even though we flavor our medications with berry or sweet flavoring, a large number of birds hate taking medications. Here is a great procedure you can teach them far in advance of when they actually need to take medications. Get a syringe and give something your bird will like (apple or grape juice or weakly brewed chamomile or lavender teas work well – make sure they are caffeine free!). Teach them to accept the liquid from the syringe. Do this at random times and they will realize the syringe offers yummy stuff! Then when you finally do have to give the medications, they are willing to take it from the syringe. You still have to alternate the good liquids with the medications (always in a random pattern – they are smart enough to figure out when they are getting medicine if it is on a set schedule so you have to fool them so they don’t know which they are getting!). This is a valuable tool that will make giving medications much easier.
Weighing Your Bird
We weigh birds in the hospital by asking them to step up on a perch or directly onto a scale. If your bird is not trained to “step up” or “step down” onto a perch or scale, training him to do so will be helpful during veterinary visits. It is also highly recommended to purchase a gram scale and weigh your bird routinely at home (read more about this in the health info section).