The Parakeet, Budgerigar or “Budgie”, Melopsittacus undulatus, arrived on the European pet scene in 1840 and has since become one of the world’s most popular pets. However, perhaps because they are small and inexpensive, Budgies are sometimes not viewed as “real parrots” by their owners, and consequently are not given the chance to show off their many talents. In addition to being wonderful mimics, Budgies can learn a great variety of tricks…and seem to take pleasure in doing so!
Getting your pet to accept your presence, and then to be comfortable with your hand in its vicinity, is an essential first step in training. This is generally quite simple, as budgies are sociable by nature and rather miserable without human or avian company. Please see this article for more on basic care and creating trust.
Originally designed for use with captive marine mammals, target training is a concept that has been successful with a variety of birds, mammals and even reptiles. During my years working for the Bronx Zoo, target training lessened the stress (on me and my charges!) of working closely with animals ranging from elephants to eagles. Basically, a target-trained animal will position its head (or other body part) next to a target when it is presented.
Parakeets take readily to target training; once this is mastered it will be easier for them to learn more complicated tricks. While it is not essential to begin with target training, I definitely recommend doing so rather than trying to jump straight into more difficult lessons.
A perch, branch or chopstick will serve well as your bird’s target. First show your pet the target through the bars of the cage without approaching or forcing contact. Eventually begin to move the target towards the bird…most individuals will explore the new object with their beaks. Once contact is made with the target, reward your pet with a treat. Continue to do this until the Budgie moves quickly toward the target each time it is presented. Try placing the target some distance from the bird to see if she or he recognizes it in new locations, and continue with rewards.
Eventually you can situate the target so that the Budgie must walk over, and then onto, your finger in order to reach it. This is an important milestone, and signals that your pet is ready to learn new behaviors, such as twirling around or pushing a ball. I’ll cover such tricks in the future; until then, please write in for details.
When training any animal, it is important that you are familiar with its individual personality. Parakeets are easily stressed by overly-enthusiastic owners, and will refuse contact if this happens. Never push your bird to learn, and keep in mind that on some days it will just not respond to training at all.
The length of your training sessions should be tailored to the individual bird, but 5-15 minutes is a typical “attention span”. Repetition is important, but only when the bird is ready. Withholding treats or scolding of any kind is pointless where birds are concerned, and will set back any progress that has been made.
It is often useful to use sound to reinforce what your bird has learned. Simple clickers (please see photo) are employed in zoos and circuses to signal “job well done”.
To use this technique, simply press your clicker (be sure the bird is familiar with the sound beforehand) each time the Budgie touches its target or otherwise does as you wish, and then provide a treat. Eventually, the sound of the clicker may stimulate the bird to perform…be sure to reward your pet as well.