Photo: CP Buckley. Trainer Neena MacNulty in Chicago, USA teaching her birds Otto and Emma the ‘fly to me’ move
The basics, the early stages in working with a companion parrot, are critically important. Get them right and you could be on for a rewarding long-term relationship, says Dot
BABY parrots are like sponges; they absorb everything that happens to them. It’s not hard to teach a baby parrot and just-weaned birds only require some basic essentials to make an agreeable companion. But what of older birds that might already show signs of a lack of trust and be reluctant to step up? Yes, that’s harder, but it is still possible. The principles of positive reinforcement have become increasingly widespread in the pet parrot community.
The first important behaviour is the step up. Without it, you cannot move the bird from one place to another, put her back in her cage at night or when you go to work, or take her to the vet in a crate. If you have to chase a parrot around the room with a net or towel, it won’t trust you and may develop other unwanted behaviours such as biting.
Step up with a young bird
Here’s my experience with my African grey Artha almost 20 years ago. She was bred in Suffolk by Barrett Watson, an expert and conscientious breeder. She’d been hand fed since she was two weeks old and at 12 weeks was fully weaned. Barrett had already taught her the step up. He used the traditional method of holding his hand against her chest, applying slight pressure until she’d step onto his hand. That was how I continued with her once she came home. You can also encourage the bird to step onto your open palm to get a treat and I also tried this with Artha to step up onto a stick.
The step up is a natural movement for a bird that has learned to perch. Mike Simmons of World of Wings, one of the best trainers I know, told me: “When the process of stepping up is learnt, the reinforcer can change from a primary source such as food to a secondary source such as toys or companionship and interactions.”
If you place a young bird gently on the perch and hold your hand palm up with a treat next to her, you treat her for each movement towards the hand. It is thrilling when first one claw comes onto the hand, then one foot and finally two feet. Once the bird is on your hand, praise it and give the treat. You can then place her back on the perch and treat again.
How long will it take? That varies. With a trusting bird, it happens after a few sessions. Artha could step up from the moment I brought her home. Mirt, a wild-caught Timneh, took two years before she would step up willingly onto the hand and fly to me on command.
It’s easier for a bird (that’s the way they are built) to step up rather than to step down. If you hold your hand slightly above the perch and say “step down”, the bird will do this more readily. It seems odd to say “step down” when actually the parrot’s stepping up, but you’ll soon get used to it. Another useful tip for a nervous bird is not to crowd too close to her. Parrots don’t perch close to one another unless they are great friends or a bonded pair.
‘Fly to me’
Your parrot is nicely on the perch. You are standing a little apart and you say, “fly to me” or “come here”. The parrot will usually make a short hop/flap and land to get the treat held in your other closed hand. To start with, you may show her the treat (called luring), but once she’s coming to you from maybe a metre or so, close the hand. The parrot then has an expectation: what am I going to get?
You need to choose your own cue of “fly to me”. Mine is left arm bent, palm out away from my body, then a tap on my left arm while saying “fly to me”. Once this is mastered, the next step is “fly to perch”. You approach close up to the perch with the parrot hand or arm and say, “fly to perch”. I use the cue I was taught at a training workshop, which is a twirl of my right index finger. Verbal or physical cues can be anything you like, as long as you keep the same ones each time.
The basic exercises: step up, fly to me and fly to perch form the basis of outdoor free-flight training. Free flight is not the norm, since most pet parrots are indoor birds or aviary birds. However, the training can provide a safety net should your parrot ever get outside and find herself bewildered and afraid.
Practice makes perfect
When your bird is having out-of-cage time, it is a perfect chance to practice fly to me. Make a game of it. I hide in another room and give our contact call, which is a wheep. When my birds were younger, they’d always respond and fly to find me. Now, they’ll respond with a contact call, but not always leave their comfortable play station.
Indoors or outside, when you’re out of sight and your bird sends out a contact call, respond by asking her to come to you, as her flock mates might have done had she been a wild bird. When she does, you’ll both feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Dot Schwarz shares her life with 10 species of psittacines, four pet parrots and 20-plus parrot and parakeet rescues and rehomes.
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