The question of knowing whether you’ve progressed at all can be surprisingly difficult to tell! With our neurotic pet-shop cockatiel, for instance, we had to decide what was her personality, and what was emotional ‘damage’ from her past. Progress for her came in very tiny steps. It took time for me to get that a super-quiet bird may be that way because it is warily assessing the environment, or it may simply be a quiet bird. A couch-potato may be, ahem, energy-efficient… or it could be learned helplessness that needs to be worked on more urgently.
When assessing a bird whose past is largely unknown, I like to start with a goal of diet conversion. Training for me comes after that, as a bird demonstrates that it is comfortable.
Here are the goals I set for training our cockatiel:
- Convert her to a good diet
- Teach her to play with toys
- Convince her to fly
- Desensitise her to one object a day
- Give her ‘happy time’ where she wasn’t experiencing fear
- (Optional) Train her to step up
We chose goals for her in the order of what I deemed most urgent. Her happiness was critical, and factored in immediately. For the first several months of her life with us, however, I viewed stepping up as I view petting a bird: Optional. This took a back seat while I worked on more serious issues with her. To make life with her easier, we worked out a system where Mishka the cockatiel could fly everywhere. She’d get a reward for doing so, and thus we neatly side-stepped having to pick her up – and, bonus, she burned off some energy. There are many ways around having a parrot who won’t step up, but with patience, she did eventually learn.
This was part of the secret to taming this neurotic bird with a rough past. Our cockatiel knew that we would not force her to do what she didn’t want to. That relieved part of her fear.
Teaching her to be happy was a difficult process. Mishka lived in fear of everything. In fact, she wouldn’t sleep – which made her much more grumpy and prone to biting. To get her to sleep, we had to get her to calm down.
One part of setting any goal is knowing how to reach it. From my research online, I had a game plan.
First and foremost, we gave our parrot choice: Mishka the cockatiel spent as much time as possible out of her cage, and was able to choose which room she wanted to be in. At night, she slept at the foot of the bed on a tall java-perch contraption that my partner rigged up. She literally got to choose when she wanted to go to bed.
We also taught her to eat vegetables. For her, this was critical. I will never forget the moment she flew to me because I had some sugar snap peas in my hand. She twirled in excited circles around my head, and I knew in that moment that we had made a breakthrough.
This was the key to taming her: Associating ourselves with that lone source of happiness. Food.
If you have a phobic or depressed bird, you need to identify what makes it happy (and also what makes it afraid, so that you can remove that source of fear if possible) and make yourself part of that happiness. Toys? Food? Nap time in the bedroom? Walks in the travel cage? Your bird’s favourite thing could be anything.
Bobo, our umbrella cockatoo, always loved going outside. It didn’t matter if we wheeled his cage into the garden, or popped him in his carrier. His ultimate reward was a walk.
How can I know if my bird is happy?
Figuring out whether our cockatiel was happy or not was actually a challenge. We had to look closely at her behaviour. Less screaming, but still lots of flapping around madly? Yes, that’s an improvement. She was still very wild, but as I got to know her more and more, I got the impression that she wasn’t unhappy anymore. Part of your bird’s behaviour may come down to personality. For Mishka, she was just a slightly neurotic wild-child with a stubborn streak.
When you’re looking at your own parrot, you have to decide what you want to accomplish. I like to encourage people to think about how the bird feels. How can you better its life?
Then make that a goal.
Working with rescued and re-homed parrots takes time, and whatever goal you set yourself, know that. It’s okay to have setbacks – lord knows we had those! It’s okay to feel like you’re not accomplishing much – we had that too. It can take years to fully gain a bird’s trust.
So perhaps your goal will be teaching your parrot to step up politely, so it can spend more time with you. Maybe it’s teaching it to eat well, so it will live a longer, better life. Or maybe it’s just to have a bird who doesn’t live a life of constant terror.
All it takes to achieve these things is your own perseverance and empathy.