If you just added a new parrot to your family, it can be a disappointment to find out it’s not tame. What in the world are you going to do with this fearful and possibly aggressive bird? Will it ever be a confident and maybe even cuddly pet? You’re probably asking yourself how to tame a parrot.
Don’t panic! Let’s go into the basics of getting your parrot used to you and take the first steps into parrot training.
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How to tame a parrot: Negative or positive reinforcement?
What not to do
The very first thing you need to know in order to start taming and training a parrot is that these birds don’t respond to negative reinforcement. That’s fancy language for punishment, basically. A parrot won’t understand why you’re punishing it.
If you yell at a parrot, that’ll just cheer it up: these birds love noise. If you put it back in its cage, it’ll begin seeing its home as a negative place. Swatting at, shoving or even hitting a parrot will only hugely escalate any unwanted behaviors and can severely ruin its ability to bond with humans.
So how to tame a parrot then? It’s all about positive reinforcement.
Tip: Many sources recommend your parrot’s wings be clipped for easier taming. Here at Psittacology, we don’t see good reason for this. It’s perfectly possible to tame a parrot without taking away its ability to do what it was born to do: fly.
Parrot training used to be based very much on dominance-based techniques. Luckily, we’ve gradually discovered that parrots respond much better to “focus on creating relationships based on clear communication and positive experiences” (Martin, 2007). So what does that mean in practice?
Well, basically, what we’re after is to be a positive force in our parrot’s life. A great way to achieve this is to not punish unwanted behaviors (negative reinforcement) but rather, reward wanted behaviors (positive reinforcement). For a parrot, a reward can involve attention, access to a toy, and most importantly: a treat.
Taming a parrot involves exposing it to things it’s not used to (like your hands) and might be scared of. It’s not difficult to understand why rewards work much better here than forcing things! What you’re after is to turn these new things into positive ones for your bird.
Tip: One very important thing to always remember when it comes to how to tame a parrot is that these birds will honestly sell their soul for a treat. If you want something done, one way or another, with positive reinforcement involving food you can probably achieve it.
How to tame a parrot: Where to start
What will you need?
Technically, you don’t need anything to tame a parrot. Just a bird, a calm attitude and plenty of patience. That being said, there are a few tools that can come in very handy.
- Treats! The most important tool of all.
- An extra perch. Some birds really don’t want anything to do with your hands, so allowing yours to step up on a perch instead can really help in the initial stages.
- A clicker. Clicker training is not just for dogs: it works wonders with parrots as well.
- A (colored) stick. Target training (possibly combined with a clicker) is a handy way to convince your parrot to explore new things.
Where to start in the taming process depends on your parrot. For the most fearful individuals, who might go into a panic due to your presence alone, you’ll have to start really simple.
- You can start by just being around your bird while its in its cage. Try being relatively still at first, like sitting down and reading a book next to the cage. Calmly speaking to the bird is also great.
- Once your parrot appears relaxed in your presence, you can move on to moving around the cage. This way, it learns that you moving around doesn’t necessarily mean you’re coming at it to do something bad.
- Parrot looking comfy? You can try to offer some food now. A long sprig of millet is perfect to stick through the cage bars.
- It can take a bit before your parrot feels comfortable enough to go for the food, so keep trying! Eventually it’ll cave and prioritize its love for food over its discomfort with humans. In the process, it’ll learn that your hand is not there to do anything bad to it.
- At this point, you can try offering food while your hand is inside the cage. Exceptions would be parrots that are very prone to biting.
Once your parrot is comfortable accepting food from your hands, you can go ahead and congratulate yourself. Well done!
You’re now ready to move on to training and you’ll find that in most cases, progress comes a lot quicker now that you can use food as a motivation.
How to tame a parrot: Target & clicker training
There are various ways to approach parrot training, but over here at Psittacology headquarters, we’ve found that positive reinforcement through target and clicker training works like an absolute charm.
The reason this type of training works not just for teaching your parrot intricate tricks, but also for initial taming, is that it helps motivate your bird to get over its fears in search of a reward. You tell it what you want it to do with the target and then use the clicker to inform it that it’s about to receive a tasty treat.
If you’ve gotten to the stage where your parrot accepts treats from your hands, here are some handy steps to continue the taming process:
- Introduce the clicker. Just click every time you’re about to give your parrot a treat. Soon, it’ll know that a treat is imminent when it hears the clicking sound.
- Pick your target. A chopstick or a colored pencil works fine. What you’re after is to get the bird to understand that touching the target results in receiving a treat. This way, it’ll eventually follow the target anywhere, getting over its reservations in search of that tasty morsel.
- Introduce the target. Approach your parrot in a non-threatening manner with the stick. Most of them will be unable to resist touching or chomping the stick with their beak. If that happens: click and treat!
Place the target a bit further away next time. Eventually your parrot will walk or fly over to touch the stick whenever it sees it.
- Introduce the perch. You can open the cage door and present your parrot with a perch. Touch the perch with the target to entice the bird to come over and check the perch out, hopefully stepping up to touch the target. Click and treat to reward!
- Introduce your hand. If your parrot doesn’t seem overly scared of hands, you can soon start replacing the perch with your hand. Use the target and clicker to get your parrot to step up.
Eventually, your bird should associate your hand with treats to the point where it’ll step up without even needing the cue from the target. Congrats, a big step!
- Introduce touch. Part of taming is teaching your parrot that being touched by you is nothing to be afraid of. You can use the clicker to work up to being able to gently tap your parrot’s beak. After that, you can do the same thing with body touch.
Eventually, trust will hopefully build to a point where you won’t even need to use a treat anymore. Your parrot may even come to you for help scratching those hard-to-reach spots in its neck.
- Putting your parrot back in its cage. Training time over? Make sure going back into the cage is a positive experience for your bird. Fill up that food bowl so that it has something nice to come home to!
- Be creative. At this point, when it steps up and accepts touch, your parrot can be considered pretty tame. By now, it’ll likely trust you and enjoy hanging out with you on a perch nearby. Maybe it even likes sitting on your shoulder or arm. Don’t stop training, though!
Think about other desired behaviors to teach your parrot. Maybe train it to accept its feet being touched for nail clipping. Going into a travel cage willingly. Getting it used to other people besides yourself. For some species, you can even consider talking training!
Your target and clicker are your best friends here. They can be used to teach your bird pretty much anything, strengthening your bond along the way.
Tip: It all sounds very easy when laid out here in bullet-points. In reality, in many cases, training is a process. Sometimes your parrot will suddenly take some steps back, or just refuse to progress to the next one for a long time. Just don’t give up. Even when training doesn’t work out like you want it to, in the process of trying, you’re still strengthening your bond with your bird.
If you have any more questions about how to tame a parrot or want to share your own experiences, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.