Parrots For Dummies
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Keeping a parrot safe and healthy can be a full-time job. It’s a good idea to teach (or socialize, more accurately) your parrot to understand or get used to things that can save their life someday. Here are 10 things that all parrots should know.

flying parrot Photo by Bonnie Zimmerman

This wild macaw not only enjoys flying, it needs to fly for survival.

The step-up command

All parrots should know the Step-Up directive. In short, when you say, “step up” and present your hand or finger, your parrot should become conditioned to put their little foot in the air and step onto your hand. Some parrots become so used to this directive that they’ll lift a foot if they hear “Step up” from across the room. Some parrots will even say “Step up” and lift a foot when they want your attention.

If your bird doesn’t know how to step onto your hand, removing them from a dangerous situation or retrieving them from somewhere they're not supposed to be will be more difficult. If they fly away, you have a better shot at getting them back if they know that an extended finger or hand means “Step up” and that it’s always safe to do so. Even a stranger will be able to retrieve your bird if they're not hand-shy.

Stick training

After teaching the Step-Up command onto the hand, all parrots should be taught to step up onto handheld perches and sticks of various lengths and diameters. This is useful for handling unpredictable parrots or those that like to get themselves out of easy reach, such as on top of the curtain rods.

Their carrier

Every parrot should be familiar with a safe bird carrier that is designated specifically for that individual bird. If you have the opportunity, start desensitizing the bird to the carrier when they are young. Allow the carrier to remain in sight of the bird, and play with them on and around the carrier, offering food on top of it. Place the bird inside the carrier with their breakfast or dinner. Don’t close the door. You’re just giving the parrot the idea that the carrier is something fun and not something scary. You’ll be glad you did this when it’s time to go to the veterinarian, while traveling, or when there’s an emergency.

Socializing the carrier to an older parrot is a little tougher, but not impossible. Use this same method. Realize that springing the carrier on any bird is scary. You have to let the bird see it and live with it for a while in their nearby environment. That way, at least the carrier will be a familiar object when it’s time to travel or to evacuate in an emergency.

Identify windows and mirrors

Windows and mirrors can be deadly for fully flighted parrots. They don’t understand that the windows and mirrors are solid; instead, they see them as more free space in which to fly. Even clipped parrots that can fly a little are in danger of injuring a beak or neck by landing hard against a sliding glass door or full-length mirror.

Walk your parrot around to all the windows and mirrors, and tap on them with your fingernail, allowing the bird to get very close and tap on them with their beak. Doing this a few times with larger parrots should be sufficient. Smaller parrots may learn by trial and error (and hopefully won’t get hurt doing it). All parrots will eventually learn the landscape of the home. Your best bet is to allow your mirrors and windows to become dirty, or to place stickers on them so that the bird can see the difference between the glass and what’s behind it.

Say their name and phone number

If you have a talking species, it’s not a bad idea to teach the bird your last name and phone number, maybe even an email address if your bird is a very good talker. Some birds will even learn their home addresses. Just repeat the information over and over. Creating a catchy song is a great way to teach this information, too. If the bird ever flies away or gets stolen, whoever finds it (or buys it) will know whom to call to return it.

But you don’t necessarily have to teach your parrot their name and number for them to come back home safely to you. Your avian veterinarian can insert a small microchip into your bird’s breast muscle that contains a unique number, which you then register with the chip company. Most shelters and veterinarians own a scanner that reads these chips. When your bird is found, they can be easily returned to you if the information you provide the chip manufacturer is up to date.

Recognize their cage as a safety zone

A parrot should feel that their cage is a safe place where they can sleep and eat in peace. Don’t change the cage around too much once the bird is settled. Leave the perches and toys as they are. You can rotate toys in and out of the cage, but try to keep them in the same basic location.

Don’t move the cage around a lot. After the parrot gets established in one room in one spot, try to leave them there. If you absolutely have to move the cage, that’s fine, but don’t do it capriciously.

Try not to place scary things near the cage. Parrots are often scared of things you wouldn’t even think twice about, like weird pieces of art, balloons, and large, loud electronic equipment.

If the bird doesn’t want to come out of the cage for whatever reason, and you’re sticking your hand in there only to bring them out to play, leave them alone and try again later. Don’t force or fish them out unless you’re taking them somewhere important. If they're on top of the cage, you can persist a little more, but if they're in the cage, allow them to have their space. The only exception to this is when a bird becomes territorial around the cage.

Know how to take medicine

If you have the time and the patience, try to get your parrot to take a few drops of baby food, coconut milk, or juice from a plastic eyedropper, pipette, or small plastic syringe. You are not going to be handfeeding the bird or even simulating handfeeding. This can cause behavior problems in a weaned bird of any age. What you’re trying to do is to get the bird to take a little bit of what you’re offering out of the dropper. Make it fun. Eventually, if you ever have to give medicine or vitamins to your parrot, you’ll be glad that they like to nibble out of the dropper.

Another way to administer medicine is on a small square of moist pound cake. Offer pound cake once a week, toasted if your bird is fussy. Getting them used to this tasty treat will make giving their meds or liquid and powdered vitamins so much easier.

Be able to trust you

You are your bird’s best and closest ally, but you’re not much good to them if they don't trust you. A hands-on avian pal must come to understand that you’re on their side and that you mean only to provide for them and keep them safe and loved. Sure, they may give you a nicely placed nip (or full-on bite) now and again. If you react with anger, you reinforce the bite and begin to chip away at the bond you’ve built.

Build trust by being consistent. Birds thrive on routine and reliability. If you behave erratically and send your bird mixed messages, she’ll learn to become suspicious and fearful. Be calm, gentle, and loving, and view your bird as an individual with individual likes and needs. If you understand that you’re in a real relationship with your parrot, you can treat them as a whole being, not just as decoration for the living room.

Eat well

All parrots should be exposed to various foods. If you wait too late to offer a variety of healthful foods, your bird may not understand that certain objects are actually food and may ignore them. It’s much easier to get a bird to eat well while she’s a youngster. However, a lot of older parrots do take to new things with the verve of a fledgling.

The word “no!”

Unlike dogs, parrots will never truly understand the word no. However, parrots, like dogs, are mischievous and do get themselves into things they shouldn’t. Life in the average home is full of interesting and dangerous distractions. A very sharp “No!” does get a parrot’s attention. Once you have that, you can stop the bird from doing a behavior by removing them from the situation. Using a sharp “No!” doesn’t work for chronic behaviors, such as plucking or screaming.

Using no is better than using stop it!, which may sound like step up to parrot ears. No is also preferable to shouting your bird’s name. Always use the bird’s name associated with positive things and praise, never as a reprimand.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Nikki Moustaki is an accomplished avian care and behavior expert. She works with clients to heal strained relationships between themselves and their feathered friends. She has published 47 books, including more than 30 covering the care and training of exotic birds.

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