Bird Handling Techniques: How to Hold a Bird

Person practicing bird handling, trying to get a parrot to step up using a towel

You should spend quality time with your bird every day, but that doesn't necessarily mean lots of bird handling. 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. So you need to become familiar with your bird to offer the amount of handling that they're comfortable with.

When you 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.

Here are some bird handling tips, including how to pet a bird and how to teach a bird to step up.

Bird body language

How do you know whether your pet bird wants to be picked up or handled? Vocalizations account for only a small percentage of a bird's communication; the rest is done through body language.

Bird 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 bird is an individual who communicates in their 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 they could also mean the bird is trying to look large and threatening. A bird holding up a foot could signal an unwanted approach, or it could mean the bird is ready to step up.

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

How to teach a bird to step up

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 them learn what it is you're asking them to do. You want the bird 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 your bird doesn’t trust you yet, you are violating their personal space by inserting your hands into the cage.

Here’s how to teach a bird to step 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 their space.
  2. Next, offer the bird's very favorite treat with your other hand in a way that requires the bird 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 them 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 the bird is stepping up on cue.

Some birds are frightened by human hands. If that’s the case, you can teach your bird to step up on a towel or even a washcloth. 

It's important to take your time as you work through these bird training steps. Never rush, as it will damage the trust you are building. Empowering your bird by allowing them to make choices will result in a stronger relationship between the two of you. And 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.

How to pet a bird correctly

To help your bird build a healthy bond with both you and other people, keep petting limited to the bird's head and 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. 

On the flip side, besides the bird's head, it's fine to handle your bird's feet. In fact, this is a good idea because if your bird is used to you handling their toes, it will be easier for you to clip the bird's 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.

Birds perching on a shoulder 

At Best Friends' Parrot Garden, 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 or upset, they might fly off your shoulder toward something dangerous or react with a bite. But if the bird is perched on your arm, you can immediately see that they're agitated and take steps to make them more comfortable.

It is also difficult to get a bird to step up from a shoulder if they don't want to. The bird can move around to the middle of your back, where you can’t reach them. 

Restraining a bird

At Best Friends, we do not support forcing birds 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 birds to take them to the veterinarian or to get them out of immediate danger. So you’ll want to learn how to restrain a bird correctly to avoid injury. 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 them because 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 bird 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.

Bird handling caution

Birds can be easily injured if they are squeezed or handled roughly. Some people — especially children — 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.

Another caution when handling birds: Parrots love bright and shiny things. If you wear jewelry, expect them to try to 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 them if you know they're not interested in grabbing at it. Likewise, warn others who are around your bird about their jewelry, so you all can have a safe and positive bird-handling experience.