I have heard several people asking about how to get a bird out of the cage initially just to get to the point of target training and trick training. I do realize that this is a major issue for a first time bird owner. I had gone through this myself when I got my first bird and it must have been a week or two since owning it till I took it out for the first time. This article is for all those people at the very early stages of bird ownership that want to know how to get the bird out of the cage for the first time so they can begin to interact with it and train it.
Now before I get further into this, I want to say that this is merely my personal opinion based on personal experience. Some may disagree with me and suggest other ways and that is just fine. I just want you to know that this technique proved successful for me with 3 separate birds to get them to be willing to come out onto my hand within one month or less. However, this experience was with 3 different baby birds from a store. If you are working with a rescue, rehomed, or older bird these techniques may or may not apply and use at your own discretion. If anyone has had success or failure with similar technique on birds of any of those categories, please feel free to leave a comment detailing how it went.
Basically there are 3 things that the bird could do if you reach your hand into its cage:
1) Run away (flapping, crashing into cage walls, running, etc)
2) Bite (ouch, blood, pain)
Naturally we all want the third outcome but if you have never opened your birds cage and tried you will never know which of these 3 cases your bird is. And if you don’t know which of these your bird is, you cannot know how to proceed. There is a good chance that the bird already knows how to step up or is tame enough to be grabbed that you don’t really have to do much to get it out of the cage. Seriously!
I’ve been going back to the birdstore where I bought my 2 recent birds and check out the birds they have. I go around to the different tanks/cages they keep the birds in and reach my hand in to see what their reaction is and see if they will step up. Many birds have been taught to step up and tamed to hands/humans by their breeder and just the site of your finger will trigger them to step up. Sometimes I get bit, sometimes the bird runs away, sometimes it steps up. Often times it seems to be species specific. Every Senegal I’ve ever tried to pick up at that store stepped up for me no problem (that is probably the same reason I bought Kili from there) but on the other hand the sun conures always bite me. I don’t know if its a certain vibe I have with certain kinds of birds (perhaps they step up for other kinds of people) but I do know that there is an approach to grasping every kind of bird. If you haven’t tried picking up your bird yet, I highly recommend you just give it a try. If you don’t get lucky and have a step up off the bat, at least you’ll know what kind of bird you are dealing with. And don’t just assume that it won’t step up or want to come to you if you’ve never done it, you must try first.
If bird is a stepper, just proceed with taming and training.
If bird is a biter, and you are genuinely afraid of handling the bird, refer to my biting article series. But if you have a baby bird or are not afraid of the bite it might give you (particularly if it’s a baby or small bird like a budgie) you may use a combination of flooding with positive reinforcement. This is actually the technique I used on all my birds. What I discovered at the store was that the bird handlers at stores are pretty rough with the birds so they are pretty used to being grabbed and handled. They may test you with a bite to see if it scares you or not but may not persist if you don’t give up. So if you just reach in and grab your bird despite biting efforts and overpower it to get it out of the cage, you will be showing it that whether it puts up a fight or not, you will get it out eventually so give up biting. This of course can be detrimental to your relationship with the bird so I like to outweigh the negative association with positive immediately. I give the bird its favorite treats immediately. Take it out, play with it, train it target and other tricks. I make being out of the cage a really good experience. Of course if you do this so rough, you may traumatize your bird and it will be forever afraid of you. It is important to understand balance. However, the worst thing you could possibly do is to make an attempt to get it out of its cage and prolong for a long duration of time and ultimately fail at getting it out. If you take a minute, 5 minutes trying to get the bird out of the cage and it is biting and you are pulling your hands away and trying over again, you will only reinforce biting behavior and create a nightmare for yourself. If you are going to reach in and grab the bird, just do it. After doing this just a few times with my birds and the positive training outside the cage, within a few days there were stepping up to come out and within weeks were always eager to be taken out.
If your bird is terrified of you (and I’m not saying a little shy, I’m talking running scared like there’s no tomorrow), you can apply a similar approach to above but with some modification. You definitely have to give such a bird time to relax and get to know that you are safe. This could be a matter of minutes or a matter of weeks depending on the bird. While I think an aggressive bird could gain a respect for some toughness on the part of the owner, a scared bird will only get more scared. So it is important to give it more time to get used to you and realize that you will not cause harm. Even if it is not stepping up yet, if it calms down and perhaps takes treats through the bars from you, you are ready to apply techniques similar to a biting bird.
One last note. I do not recommend ever letting your bird out of its cage on its own. I know there are many people who just open the cage and let the bird climb out by itself and eventually go in by itself. If you want to have a tame bird, never do this. In my household, the only way a bird ever gets to come out of its cage is by stepping onto my hand. No step up, no out. Climbing out by itself, mean going back to cage and staying there. Thus my birds are conditioned to station on a perch and wait between when I open the door and reach my hand in and not jump/fly out. In fact I don’t even let the birds cling to the cage door to be let out. This discipline ensures that you maintain some control over the bird but also associates the positive association to you for being allowed to come out rather than just the door miraculously popping open!
Of course once you get your bird out of the cage for the first time, you will also have to get it back into the cage at some point. In my next article I will talk about how to get a new bird back into the cage.