- Part 2

The Unnatural Life Is Natural For A Captive Parrot

 August 7th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
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Taking your parrot for a walk is great for him and you.

 

Let me put it right out there: Owning parrots isn’t natural. What else are we supposed to do with parrots who could never survive in the wild, other than place them in loving homes that strive to meet their unique needs? That’s the best place for these amazing animals.

We owners put a lot of time into caring for our babies, and sometimes this involves making choices that would be unnatural for a wild parrot.

A captive-bred parrot is the exception to the rule. Harness-training and trick-training, for example, are highly unnatural behaviours to teach. So is caged-living – but that’s a necessity for most parrot owners.

The benefits outweigh the negatives of these things. Ask yourself:

  • Does this enrich my bird’s life in a positive way?
  • Will it hurt my bird if I do it?

If something makes you uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to stand by what you think. Make sure you understand the full extent of it, however, because many things have hidden benefits. Trick-training, for instance, is sometimes viewed as silly. Why would I want to teach my bird parlour tricks?

Well, I trick train because it is an awesome source of enrichment. A parrot in the wild doesn’t just get a bowl of food every morning. Nor do mine – they forage and work for their treats, one part of which happens to be during training sessions. This is an exercise for the brain. They love it!

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Harness training? Look at it this way: Unless highly flight-trained, it is not safe to take an unrestrained parrot outside even if it is clipped. (Clipped birds can still fly!) There are HUGE benefits to getting your parrot enough sunlight, and for those of us who can’t afford an aviary at this point in our lives, it comes down to two safe options: A full-body harness (not jesses or other leg restraints), or a carrier.

Either one is a good option, but a harnessed bird can more easily go places than one in a carrier. The benefits of sunlight include brighter, more vibrant feathers, a reduced chance of biting, screaming, and plucking and other anxiety-based behaviours, and an overall healthier bird with a stronger immune system. And it’s enriching for birds to meet new people and experience new places.

So you can see, it’s well worth the ‘unnaturalness’ of wearing a harness. It’s not demeaning to the parrots – they love it! Would you sacrifice a good activity just because it’s unnatural?

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Cages, toys, and even some perches aren’t natural, but each serves an important purpose in captive life.

 

What about feeding pellets? Sure, it’s not something they’d eat in the wild – but nor would they be eating that kale, broccoli, or berry medley. Pellets have added health benefits when used in conjunction with a fresh food diet. Do you need to feed pellets? No (and I personally am experimenting with NOT feeding them for now), but for many species they present a great, simple way of filling in the gaps nutritionally, and absolutely ensuring your bird gets what it needs.

It’s good to try and provide your parrots with a life that is as close as possible to nature – say, with aviaries, sunlight, diet, and flight – but many times, for the good of the animal, ‘unnatural’ comes into it.

Should Parrots Be Classroom Pets?

 July 25th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull

 

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I feel that even small parrots – such as budgies and parrotlets – should be left out of the classroom.

Best and Worst Pets for Kids in the Classroom

Reminiscing on the classroom pets of my past, I’ve come to realise that perhaps some were not suited to the hectic learning environments of a school. As an adult, I’m able to think about what creatures I can to expose kids to without stressing out the animal. One of my biggest goals in opening a parrot sanctuary here in the U.S. is to focus on education.

With a rare few exceptions, parrots are not suited for a classroom. They need some pretty intensive care, an environment in which they feel safe, proper diet, and one-on-one time with training; they also have the potential to bite pretty hard, even when very small. That’s why I would like to start an educational programme in schools: take the parrots to the kids. This would provide students with a learning experience tailored to their needs, and allow the birds socialisation within their limits.

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Small parrot bites. They might not look bad, but they hurt!

I believe that all kids should be exposed to animals. Helping to care for a pet will nurture many wonderful traits, including responsibility and empathy for another living being. The caveat is that I feel that no child should be left solely responsible for their pet, as they are still young and growing themselves!

That’s why a class pet can be so beneficial. In school, every kid can benefit. The real work will fall on the teacher, however, to ensure the animal’s health and happiness. Know that not all animals are suited to a classroom.

If you’re a teacher seeking a great classroom pet you can safely keep around kids, try asking these questions:

1. Can I afford a pet’s care in terms of time and money?

2. Are my students of an age where they’ll need of constant supervision while handling a pet?

3. What kind of a commitment am I looking for? Can I handle a lot of after-school care?

4. Will being around kids and their energy affect the animal negatively (if so, will it bite if stressed)?

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Size does not make a good pet. After all, this screech owl is very small (just 5″ tall!) but you wouldn’t want HIM as a pet.

Without further ado:

Best pets for kids in the classroom:

1. Syrian Hamster: Syrians are known for their calm, gentle demeanour, unlike some dwarf breeds that are quite nippy. Hamsters are small, soft, and cuddly, and are a medium-level commitment (they need love and care just the same). It’s easy to kit one out for its lifetime, but do keep them singly, please. Gerbils, rats, and Degu pairs are another fun alternative.

2. Fish: a fish tank is wonderful addition to any classroom. There are many beautiful varieties of inexpensive underwater life that need just a clean tank, food, and a little enrichment in there. The educational opportunities are endless. I loved watching the fish as a child, and found it very soothing. Maintaining a healthy fresh water tank requires a low level of commitment.

3. Sea monkeys: the sea monkey colony provides all the same benefits that a fish tank does, with even less work. A sea monkey kit is easily purchased, and with one, you can raise your little fellows right from the eggs, teaching the cycle of life. Perfect for classrooms with allergy cases, or kids who may be wary of an animal, these are an ultra-low level of commitment.

4. A butterfly house: raising a butterfly through all the stages of its life before releasing it provides a wonderful and environmentally friendly way of teaching kids about biology. Low commitment; high education potential.

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Photo credit: Brittany Donaldson. Snakes make good pets, but aren’t ideal for the classroom due to their potential to carry deadly salmonella.

Worst pets for kids in the classroom:

1. Parrots: parrots aren’t a great classroom pet due to the fact that they are an ultra-high commitment level. These needy, noisy animals are expensive to keep and feed, plus they do bite. Even a budgie (sometimes called a parakeet) depends on having its flock and quiet one-on-one time, so if a teacher isn’t able to commit to multiple hours of weekend and holiday care, this is a pet best left out of the classroom. To maintain its health, any parrot will need to see an avian vet once a year. Birds who are stressed or unhealthy may bite, scream, or pluck their feathers. Finches might be a slightly better alternative to a parrot; however, they can also be quite loud, and tend not to like to be handled.

2. Rabbits: bunnies are like birds. They are very intelligent creatures who have some pretty specialised needs. A rabbit requires more than just some hay in its cage. They need to see a vet, they live a long time, and represent a very high level of commitment that doesn’t typically mesh well with a teacher’s busy schedule.

3. Guinea Pig: the adorable guinea pig is a gentle pet that needs a lot of interaction to stay healthy and happy. They are social creatures, so are best for children over ten years of age who are ready for the responsibility of such a dependent pet. A guinea pig really needs time to play and explore even on weekends – because of this, they have a high level of commitment. Teachers who are set on having one in the classroom need to provide quality aspen bedding and a good diet.

4. Reptiles: snakes, lizards, turtles, and more have the potential to carry salmonella, so unless a teacher is able to guarantee the careful hand washing of each and every pupil, this is somewhat of a risk. With snakes, you also will need to feed mice or rats, depending on the size – and any reptile requires a specific set up, which can get pricey. If prepared for all this, however, turtles and lizards are popular pets with a low bite risk, and are a medium level of commitment.

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Photo credit: Brittany Donaldson. Snake bite.

What were your favourite classroom pets growing up?

 

Taming a Pet Shop Bird

 July 10th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
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Cockatiel sitting out of reach on a curtain rod.

 

Purchasing our cockatiel brought a number of immediate challenges that we – as new owners – were not prepared for! I want to share some of the things we did to earn our parrot’s trust. Mishka was phobic as well as shy in personality.

  1. Time. A lot of people don’t like this answer. I didn’t either, to be perfectly honest! But it’s true. Time. Let your bird see that you aren’t scary, aren’t a threat. Read by the cage. Talk quietly to him while avoiding eye contact. Offer treats.
  2. If you bird won’t take treats from you, let him watch you put them in a bowl.
  3. Don’t get too close. Watch the body language.
  4. Don’t force anything. Do NOT try to step up a too-shy bird, or attempt to pet it. Remember tip #1, time. Building a bond of trust is a laborious feat, and may take many months or more, possibly years. Be soft and gentle. You just need to show your pet that he’s safe now.
  5. Be patient and compassionate, too. Try to remember that whatever is in your bird’s past is in the past – but he can’t rationalise it that way. Let your parrot be himself and heal in his own way. In the end, it’ll be worth it!

BirdTricks is all about training to promote a bond, and most parrots thrive on this. When working with any animal from a less-than-stellar background, however, they can find training to be too confrontational at first. It sometimes depends on your bird.

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This was what she did all day, every day: Sit.

 

For us, this was true. While for most parrots it is a fantastic way to start a relationship right, Mishka the cockatiel was actually phobic of everything to do with it, from the chopstick to our hands. Until the point where we could teach her that the chopstick wasn’t evil (and nor were we), we needed to step back and let her get comfortable at her own pace. This did take a full year.

Some other things we did to win the trust of our phobic pet shop parrot in the meantime:

  • Thinking differently: We placed strategic perches along the outside of her cage, including one right at the entrance. Mishka would typically only sit on the front perch, but eventually gained the confidence to move to her cage top. From the cage top, she learned to fly.
  • Flight: Once she learned to do this, she finally began to interact with us, because she now felt she could safely get away. Flight also took the edge off her energy. Keeping her flighted was the key.
  • Diet: The proper nutrition also helped her copious energy. Besides improving her behaviour, adjusting her diet provided enrichment. She’d get really excited about a new food – and that was critical, because our poor cockatiel had never been excited about anything before.
  • Freedom: For any captive parrot, I advocate choice. It makes a big difference for them. And for Mishka the cockatiel, this was one of the major things that changed her mind about us. We never, ever forced her to do anything. She slept out on a perch in the bedroom, and was able to fly in there when she wanted to sleep. She trailed us from room to room, always watching. She even bathed and showered with us, or chose to sit (watching!) on the shower rod. Sure, we sacrificed a lot of our own freedom doing this, but it was something our bird needed.
  • Toys and foraging: We had to teach our girl how to play, but once we did, it was like something clicked in her head. You would sometimes hear her making a furious screeching sound at a toy as she battered it around. A minute later, and she’d waddle over happily to interact, her frustrations vented. Foraging gave her distraction.
  • Bribery: Because Mishka was never forced to do anything, we had to get creative. Millet was her utmost favourite, followed by sugar snap peas and hemp seed. We were always on the lookout for her doing something relaxed or happy. If she did something she wanted, we were fast to reward her. To get her to go into the cage, we’d serve her meals inside it and in she’d go.
  • A friend: I’m not advocating getting another parrot unless you’re fully prepared, have done your research, and truly feel it is the right thing for you. But for us, a second parrot was in our future, and when we finally brought our parrotlet ‘Ptak’ home, Mishka suddenly had someone she could relate to! He taught her many things.
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She came to me when I stopped trying to win her over.

 

They weren’t best friends, but Mishka enjoyed having another bird around – and it came to the point where they could safely be out together, always supervised. Where we weren’t able to give her company that she felt safe accepting, Ptak could. They would sing together, fly together, preen my hair together.

I will never forget the first time our cockatiel flew to my extended hand – without our parrotlet’s guidance. I knew I was her flock now. This trust that this tiny creature gave me was worth every bite, scream, and moment of frustration.

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I did actually manage to photograph it, if not very well!

 

It is okay to have a bird who is independent and aloof, and who doesn’t like being petted – IF they are happy and healthy otherwise. After all – this may be personality rather than anything else! Mishka trusted us, but was always a little wild. For many parrots with abuse or neglect in their pasts, however, this is not true. Parrots are incredibly resilient creatures. With a loving owner, they can heal.
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Determining Where to Start with Rescued and Re-Homed Pet Birds

 June 26th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
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Rescuing or re-homing a parrot comes with unique challenges.

 

When we first bring home a rescued or re-homed parrot, we need to be aware that it isn’t like bringing a fresh new baby bird in. Every one of these beautiful animals – even a young one – can be expected to be unsettled and nervous upon reaching a new environment, but an adopted pet is more likely to suffer from depression, potential aggression, and fear issues, including anxiety. There may also be health issues, so you should be extra cautious with quarantine and any existing flock members you have.

What can our birds’ physical appearance teach us about their pasts?

With a parrot whose history may be unknown, the physical appearance of the bird can show you a lot. For instance, your first trip should be to a certified avian vet to get a complete exam. This can tell you a great deal about a bird’s condition.

X-rays can reveal the health of the internal organs: Are they swollen, such as from the impact of a poor diet? Are there past or fresh breaks, revealing bad falls or physical abuse?

Similarly, blood work will reveal even more about a parrot’s health. Does your new bird have an illness?

Having this knowledge tells you how to proceed. Obviously some may need medications. Others may need special considerations. For instance, if there are multiple severe breaks in the bones, and the bird seems ultra wary of hands or people in general, you could reasonably hazard a guess that he or she had once been subjected to physical abuse, or perhaps falls from a bad clip. You’ll need to proceed differently, and perhaps let your bird take more time getting to know you than you first expected.

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Our cockatiel came from a pet shop, which can also require unique consideration in your approach.

Here are the parts owners can look at in order to assess a bird’s history:

Feet, legs, wings – Bobo, our umbrella cockatoo who went to live at a Sanctuary, came from a greenhouse, where he’d been abandoned. Our cockatoo is missing pieces of all but two of his toes. Several of them are far from pretty and are worn down almost to the bone. These are long healed over, but they still look terrible. The owner of the sanctuary thinks that besides being an ex-breeder bird, he was possibly attacked in the nest, or else by a mate. His wings were fine, but not able to support him in flight because of muscle atrophy (indicating that he’d been cage-bound).

Keel bone – the weight is a critical part of assessing a bird’s health. Our cockatoo was still ever-so-slightly underweight at the point when he reached me, but clearly someone had been feeding him something at the greenhouse before he was rescued. Some birds may be overweight from too many sunflower seeds and peanuts, some birds underweight. Many rescue birds will require special attention to diet conversion. A gram scale will help you monitor your flock.

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Here you can sort of see our cockatoo’s feet. Those are his only two toes, but he adapted remarkably well.

Feathers – by some miracle, Bobo was in full feather. His behaviour told us a lot more than his feathers could. Instead of plucking to combat his boredom and anxiety, he transformed fear to aggression, and began a weird little walking dance where he would kind of…flip… his head – like a fish. This quirk revealed his frustration. His feather quality wasn’t great – kind of rough-looking, especially around the wings and tail.

Face and beak – Bobo also had a small break on his beak that had healed over. The tip had snapped off and re-grown. This may have been a result of a fight, or of poor diet, again. He had no visible scars, but these are something else you can use to piece together a bird’s past history.

Behaviour – our parrots reveal a lot with their behaviour, as these are typically habits formed over time. For instance, the honeymoon period with parrots is usually around 3-6 weeks. During this time, new owners will see very little biting, screaming, or other undesirable behaviours. The bird is basically assessing its situation by being cautious.

  • Skipping the honeymoon period: Like many of his kind, Bobo used to go straight from flight to fight, and never stopped. Disguising his fear, he would attack first and think about it later. For him, it was survival. His immediate aggression told us that he was used to people running from him.
  • Talking: Wild-caught parrots do not generally mimic human speech. Our cockatoo, however, did – and beautifully, too, indicating that he was almost certainly hand-raised. What they actually say can be a clue: Bobo says his name, ‘hello,’ and ‘darling,’ amongst other short phrases.
  • Trying to mate with you, or treating you as its mate: This is an indication that your bird is both an adult, and probably hand-raised. Again, wild-caught parrots typically want little to do with people.
  • ‘People skills’: If your bird knows how to step up, go into a travel cage, play with toys, eat vegetables, do tricks, or more, he may once have been a much-loved pet. A lot of birds’ personalities change upon reaching maturity, though, costing them their homes. For many birds – probably even Bobo – this is the case.

If I had to guess Bobo’s past, I’d say that he lost his home to typical cockatoo hormones, possibly passed around for many years, and was eventually bought or maybe taken for free by someone looking for a cheap breeder bird; he then probably did as many male cockatoos do and attacked his mates, causing him to be abandoned until he was rescued once more.

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Re-homed parrot Maverick came from a wonderful family, where he apparently learnt how to free himself and all his flock mates!

 

This is how I pieced together my bird’s history, purely for the purpose of helping him move forward. It helped me understand his behaviour more. What about you – if you are a proud rescue mum or dad, how did you puzzle out your bird’s past – or is that something you chose to leave behind?

To conclude a long post, it’s hard to work out the history of a rescue bird, and it does often boil down to guesswork. If you are looking to rescue or re-home a parrot, please know that not all are so difficult as our cockatoo. Often, parrots lose their homes to owners’ own difficulties, which just means that there are many wonderful pets out there in want of a home!

Look for an upcoming post on setting up obtainable goals for rescued parrots.

Twelve Vital Skills To Teach Our Birds

 June 12th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
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Celestial Parrotlet in his travelling carrier.

 

Baby birds are tabula rasa, blank slates, and therefore are such joys to train! But before I get into this, I feel that I have add a little side note: I personally believe that parrots aren’t meant to be pets, yet our captive birds need us. In light of this, I encourage rescue and re-homing where possible. Mine is sometimes a bit of a controversial opinion, but I do also whole-heartedly support people who buy baby birds. I know that not everyone has it in them to do rescues, or work with the emotional ‘baggage’ that comes with re-homing any parrot. And I don’t condemn anyone for their decisions.

I love that there are places like this where owners can obtain information, whether they chose to adopt or purchase a bird. Everyone should be able to start out their relationships right – no matter what. There are a number of things that it’s incredibly important to teach our birds. This is a place where you can find the best articles on these easy skills:

  1. How to eat well: This is my top-tip for any bird owner. If you don’t get the chance to teach anything else, make sure they know that fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods are safe to eat. A good and varied diet ensures that parrots feel their best, reduces the chance of biting or hormonal surges, and ultimately makes for a healthier pet. Parrots who eat well liver longer.
  2. How to step up and be handled: Stepping-up is a learnt skill, and the ultimate act of trust. Respect your parrot when he says no by backing off temporarily, and teach him that complying has big benefits for him. This can be as simple as verbal praise and a sliver of nut or fruit, or going somewhere interesting with him on your hand. Similarly, you can touch a baby bird all over, getting him used to this kind of handling before he reaches sexual maturity.
  3. How to be syringe-fed: I would rate this amongst the most important things any owner could teach a baby bird. At some point in your parrot’s long life, you may need to give it medicine, which often comes in syringe form. If you use a sweet juice and teach your pet that this is an okay thing to have happen, an emergency situation may go a lot more smoothly later. This tip saves lives!
  4. How to be towelled: Towelling is a vital skill for all owners, and this should be a soothing act, not a stressful one. There will be many times in his life where it is necessary, too, including the vet’s office. If you have an emergency, it will allow you to restrain a bird safely and calm him at the same time, and even if you just have an angry, hormonal parrot on your hands, well, towelling can save you from a wicked bite (just watch out that the bird doesn’t nest!).
  5. How to be flexible (in terms of schedule): Forge a balance between routine and freedom. Parrots naturally fall into a routine, but if you raise yours to go without, you won’t face what happens if you do, and you have to break it. Hint: It brings a lot more stress into your birds’ lives if you break a routine that they rely on. Being prey animals, however, a routine can introduce security into a parrot’s life, so it’s all about finding the perfect balance for your flock.
  6. How to play with toys and self-entertain: Our parrots tend to rely on us for everything, but we owners can’t always be around. Life happens, and if you teach your bird from the beginning that he can play with toys and function on his own, you will all be happier. This is as simple as showing your pet how by example: toss it, nose it, jingle it, and make a really big deal, or even just let him watch other birds at play. Irresistible.
  7. How to forage: Foraging is the best way to put your parrot’s amazing brain to work. Start simple, and work your way up. If you need inspiration for beginner’s foraging, try wrapping treats in paper to start.
  8. How to wear a harness: This is something many avians will never fully appreciate, but many more still will LOVE it. Do this from as early an age as possible, as young birds have less fear of the exercises that accompany harness training – such as lifting wings up, and slipping things over the head. I’m also planning a series for when my adult Senegal arrives from quarantine, documenting my experience with harness training him.
  9. How to go in a carrier: Carrier-training your bird is incredibly important. Even if you flight or harness train him, there are times when you simply won’t be able to have him out with you (for instance, in the car). Don’t skip this one!
  10. How to enjoy training: If you start them young, they learn quickly and easily – and have that ‘click’ moment much sooner, when they just get what you want when training. Did you know that if you have even one solid trick on cue, you can use it as a distraction to avoid a bite? For instance, my Senegal parrot knows ‘stand tall.’ If he is pinning his eyes and looking like he wants to bite me, I cue this. This provides a positive interaction that I can reward with a treat, and completely distracts him from his original intentions.
  11. How to interact with strangers: Socialising your bird serves multiple purposes. First, if something happens to you (long or short term), your pet will adapt far better to a new caretaker. Second, this counts as a form of enrichment. Many parrots love to meet new people, once they’ve been taught that good and interesting things come from strangers!
  12. How to fly: Flight being a key part of being a bird, I am among the ranks of those who don’t believe in clipping a bird’s wings. Flighted parrots are more confident, able to save themselves from bad falls, and generally healthier for their ability to burn off fat and energy. They also bite less, which is always a bonus. Teaching a bird this brings him joy and a feeling of safety.

Gloster canary 'Pip.'

Gloster canary ‘Pip’ demonstrating an alternative to the towelling method of restraint. Note: no pressure on the sternum should be applied, or birds can’t breathe!

 

In the end, these are skills that are important to teach any pet parrot, young or old. You can train older birds just as much as the young ones; it just takes more patience and time. Persevere – the results are more than worth it!

 

Being Non-Confrontational with New Birds

 June 5th, 2014
Posted By:
Sarah Stull
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Umbrella Cockatoo’s first day out – see his posture, turning away from me? He is feeling uncomfortable.

One of the things we all love as owners is introducing a new bird to the flock. I love that feeling of knowing someone new is there, tucked safely away for now in a separate room. Quarantine serves an important role in health, but it has an added advantage of allowing your bird to hear the rest of the household without having the shock of having to see them all of a sudden, too.

With any pet, a new environment can stress them out and leave them feeling shy. There are five very easy steps you can take with a new member of your family to make yourself seem like less of a threat. You can use these to win the trust of any unfamiliar bird, be it yours or a friend’s:

  1. Make yourself physically smaller: Sit or lie down a short distance away so you don’t accidentally loom over your bird. Ignore them for the first few hours, but read aloud, talk to your family members, or simply exist nearby doing your own thing. Don’t reach for the bird, or get in his space yet.
  2. Be soft and gentle: Make everything about you – from your expression to your voice – soft. Try to keep the household noise down for now, as that can come later. By exuding calmness, you show your bird that everything is okay here. As time passes, start to talk to the bird, saying his name and telling him quiet stories.
  3. Don’t make direct eye contact: This is something predators do, and it can be very scary for a bird of any species.
  4. Try not to face the bird in question: This is a confrontational posture, and it’s best to angle your body away from a very shy or anxious parrot.
  5. Move slowly at first: No fast movements or flapping of hands. In fact, with birds who are wary of me, I often tuck my hands in my pockets.
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Learn their body language by watching them. For instance, is your cockatoo excited or upset when its crest goes up upon seeing you?

 

Once you’ve done all this for a day or two, gradually let your normal routine fall into place. Silence signals danger to a bird, so try putting on a radio during the day. As a bird shows more confidence, you can initiate training, feeding treats from your hands and gradually letting your bird out of his cage. I typically leave a new flock member in his/her new cage for 3 or so days, just letting them settle in and get used to the sounds of the house – but different people do it different ways. Re-homed or rescued birds will panic if let loose in a room too soon, I’ve found.

Let the bird guide you. Some birds warm up faster than others. Some will be shy for all their lives, some may need a few days or weeks – others, years in your company. If a parrot is turning its back on you, it wants you to back off. They have this ‘can’t see it; can’t hurt me’ mentality. Covering half of the cage can really help offer some much-needed privacy in those first few weeks.

I also have an exercise I love to do where I blink sloooowly at a bird. If he blinks back, he is showing trust and may be willing for me to move a little closer and be a little more direct. You can also open your mouth and stick your tongue out at a bird – a posture that in bird body language means politely, ‘I am interested in you/this.’ See if your bird returns it!