Bird Handling Techniques

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Person trying to get a parrot to step up using a towel

Should a pet bird be handled?

Your bird should be a part of your family and you should spend some one-on-one time with him every day, but that doesn't necessarily mean holding and stroking the bird. Some birds just don't like human hands on them; they love to hang out and play with their people, but prefer not to be physically touched. Other birds might view you as a potential mate, so you should limit physical interaction, especially during hormonal season. And then there are birds who want nothing more than to sit and have you scratch their heads for hours. You need to become familiar enough with your bird to offer the amount of touching that he is comfortable with.

When you first bring home a new bird, it is important to establish a routine that you can maintain. Try to handle and interact with your new bird as much as you plan to six months from now. For example, if you think that you will have an hour a day to interact with your bird, that's how much time you should spend together from the beginning. Disruptions in routine can cause frustration and stress in the future.

How to pet a bird correctly

To help your bird build a healthy bond with both you and other people, keep caresses and petting limited to the head or feet only, and ask others to do the same. The reason for this is that birds’ sexual organs are located directly under the wings on a bird’s back. If you offer your bird full body strokes, you are actually stimulating the production of sexual hormones. Petting down the back or under the wings can lead to a sexually frustrated bird, or a bird who perceives you as a mate rather than a companion. A mated bonded bird can be hostile to others in your home, becoming jealous or possessive of you. This can also stimulate egg production, which can cause health issues over time. It’s also fine to handle your bird’s feet. In fact, it’s a good idea because if your bird is used to you handling his toes, it will be easier for you to clip his nails.

A respectful companion relationship is the goal. Often, birds will encourage inappropriate handling, so it is the human’s responsibility to maintain healthy boundaries.

How to pick up a bird

The appropriate way to pick up your bird is to offer your hand or arm and say, “Step up.” The act of stepping up should always be a fun and rewarding behavior for the bird. Reserve his favorite treats or games for the times when he steps up for you. Don’t ever grab your bird or force him to step up onto your arm. You can ruin a good relationship by making a bird do something he doesn't want to do. In fact, you can actually teach a bird to bite by not paying attention to his body language when he is trying to tell you no.

As mentioned above, some birds are frightened by human hands, so if that’s the case with your bird, you can teach him to step up on a towel or even a washcloth. It’s pretty simple to do this: Just use lots of positive reinforcement, such as treats or play, to help him associate good things with stepping up.

Bird perching on shoulder 

At the Parrot Garden at Best Friends, we discourage the practice of having birds perch on our shoulders. When a bird is on your shoulder, you are unable to see and read the bird’s body language. If a bird is startled, she may fly off your shoulder toward something dangerous or react with a bite. If she’s on your arm, you can immediately see that she’s agitated and take steps to make her more comfortable. That's impossible to do if the bird is on your shoulder.

It is also difficult to get a bird to step up from a shoulder if he doesn’t want to. He can move around to the middle of your back, where you can’t reach him. Preventing birds from perching on shoulders helps control the environment and assists in keeping them safe.

Wearing jewelry around pet birds

Another caution around letting your bird perch on your shoulder: Parrots love bright and shiny things. If you wear jewelry, expect them to try and play with it. This can mean damage to a necklace or earrings being forcibly removed from your ears. You need to know your bird, and only wear jewelry around him if you know he isn't interested in grabbing at it.

Parrot step-up training

If you adopt a bird who doesn't understand the step-up cue, or who has never been handled in that way, you will need to start from scratch to help him learn what it is you are asking him to do. You also want him to learn that stepping up is pleasurable and rewarding. This behavior is best taught outside of the cage. A cage is your bird's home, and if he doesn’t trust you yet, you are violating his personal space by inserting your hands into the cage.

Here’s how to teach stepping up:

  1. Let the bird hang out on top of the cage. Place your arm on the cage top in front of the bird. Don’t move your arm; just let it lie there. Do this a few times until the bird is familiar with your arm being in his space.
  2. Next, offer his very favorite treat with your other hand in a way that requires him to lean over your reclining arm. Gradually move the treat farther away until the bird must step up onto your arm to retrieve it. Give him lots of praise and treats for doing this.
  3. Practice this lesson several times before adding the cue “step up.”
  4. Once the bird is totally comfortable standing on your arm, raise it a few inches. Continue with this exercise until he is stepping up on cue.

It’s important to take your time as you work through these steps with your bird. Never rush these steps, as it will damage the trust you are building.

Bird body language

How do you know if your pet bird wants to be picked up or handled? As is true for people, vocalizations account for only a small percentage of a parrot’s communication with other members of her flock. The rest of that communication is done through body language.

Body language can be related to species (for example, tail flaring and eye dilation in Amazons or crest expression in cockatoos), but it is also important to remember that each parrot is an individual and may communicate in his or her own way. Looking at a combination of body language cues can help humans determine whether a bird is having a positive or negative reaction to a situation.

For example, rapid dilation and contraction of the pupils and flared tail feathers could mean excitement about the bird’s favorite person, but paired with an open beak and lunging, it could mean the bird wants a person to stay away. Fluffed feathers could mean a content and comfortable bird, but could also mean the bird is trying to look large and threatening. A bird holding her foot up could signal an unwanted approach or could mean she’s ready to step up.

Biting is often the last body language cue that animals resort to in order to communicate distress to others, so it's important to learn how to read other cues to avoid injuries and excessive stress. Research, experience and time spent with your bird will help you learn his or her specific communication cues.

Empowering your bird by allowing him to make choices will result in a stronger relationship between the two of you. Also, when you reward desired behaviors with positive reinforcement (e.g., treats, praise, play), you will most likely find that your bird wants to interact with you.

Restraining a bird

At Best Friends, we do not support forcing parrots to comply. Unless something is medically necessary, we request the cooperation of a bird; we do not demand it. However, there are times when it is necessary to restrain your bird to take him to the veterinarian, or to get him out of immediate danger. So, you’ll want to learn how to restrain a bird correctly to avoid injuring him. Avian Welfare Coalition has some tips on how to do this.

You’ll also want to familiarize your bird with a towel well in advance of having to restrain him, since you can traumatize a bird who doesn't understand why you are suddenly acting aggressively. You can use the towel to play some great games, including peekaboo, tug and swing the birdie (in which the bird holds onto the end of the towel while you gently swing it back and forth). The parrot should view the towel as a positive thing, so that when you need to use one for restraint, it is one less stressor in a stressful situation.

Kids and birds

You may be aware that birds can be easily injured if they are squeezed or handled roughly, but children often don’t realize how fragile birds are. So, if you have children in your home or who come to visit, you’ll need to teach them how to pet and handle your bird properly. Keep in mind that this is not only for the bird’s safety, but for the kids’ safety as well. Parrots have strong beaks that can inflict painful bites. Encourage children to interact respectfully with your bird, and always supervise any interaction between kids and birds.