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Parrot Tricks and Training – Understanding Your Pet’s Nature and Needs

Cuban Amazon ParrotIn the coming weeks, I’d like to devote some time to parrot tricks.  My work with intelligent, social creatures such as parrots, elephants and marine mammals, has convinced me that the true value of training does not lie in the amusement value of the tricks (undeniable as that is!).  Rather, it is that a properly trained captive is much more likely to fit easily into the unnatural world it inhabits.

I’ll start here with some thoughts on the essential nature of our feathered pets, and how we might approach parrot training in a way that is both effective and enjoyable (for parrot and owner!).

The Parrot Dilemma

Thrusting complex, social animals into an unfamiliar world is a recipe for disaster.  Such creatures are interesting to be around, yet they have learning abilities, instincts and social needs that are largely impossible to fill in captivity.

It is no coincidence that sea lions, parrots, primates and elephants have long been at once both the most sought after and highly frustrating of captives.  Observe great apes in the wild and you will quickly realize that today’s multi-million dollar exhibits cannot begin to meet their needs.  With parrots, however, we can do better – if we take the time to observe and learn.

Understanding Parrots

The essential key to a stress-free relationship between yourself and your parrot is a clear understanding of exactly what a parrot is, and how evolution has shaped it to survive.  However well-intentioned, viewing any animal as a “fur or feather clad person” will ultimately confuse and frustrate both pet and pet owner.

A bird which is not trained in a way that respects its unique characteristics, which have evolved over millions of years, will in almost all cases lead a stressful existence – unaware of where its limits lie and, bright as it may be, completely in the dark as to why we act as we do.

Predator-Prey Considerations

Wild parrots are preyed upon by a wide variety of animals, from ocelots in Panama to amethystine pythons in Australia.  Their instincts and impressive learning abilities are directed towards escaping capture, not making friends with huge, strange beings.  Add to this the fact that confinement cuts down the instinctive flight distance (the point to which the parrot will allow a threat to approach before fleeing) dramatically, and you can begin to see the problem.

Of course, with care, we can modify instinct, but the bird’s essential nature will remain…please keep this point in mind.  We cannot approach a parrot as we would a dog.  Dogs are predators, and their way of “viewing the world” differs radically from that of a prey species.

Pet or Domesticated Species?

Dogs have been living in association with people for over 15,000 years, and are fully domesticated (despite this, most mammalogists consider them to be subspecies of the gray wolf, not a distinct species).  Although parrots have been kept sporadically since the times of ancient Rome, serious interest is a new development…even those bred for hundreds of generations (i.e. budgies, cockatiels) are not domesticated in the true sense of the word.

Further Reading

Understanding of your parrot’s needs is the first step in creating a good relationship.  Please check out our comprehensive line of Parrot Care Books http://www.thatpetplace.com/pet/cat/info/22314/category.web.

You can learn how instinctual parrot behaviors often lead to misunderstandings between bird and owner at http://www.silvio-co.com/cps/articles/1997/1997blanchard1.htm.


Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part 2

See Part 1 of this article: Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I


Last time we discussed some finch training basics…getting your pet to calm down when near people and out of its cage. Please see Part I of this article for further details.

CanaryReturning to the Cage

As mentioned in Part I of this article, canaries and other finches are much easier to train when outside their cages. If your bird is to become truly tame, it is essential that it return to the cage on its own, and not be chased there. This may take a great deal of time, and will require you to be very patient.

Use treats to lure the bird inside. Canaries and finches often relish egg food, and may respond quickly when it is offered. Many finches cannot resist small insects. A convenient way to keep these handy is to utilize canned insects most silkworms are nearly always a big hit.

Your pet may also respond to fruit treats – freeze dried mango, coconut, papaya, blueberries and others work well for many species.

If you must net the bird, darken the room and try to be as quick and careful as possible.

Calling your Bird to Hand

The treats mentioned above may also be used to induce your pet to fly to your hand. If you call the bird each time food is presented, it may eventually fly to you when called, even if it does not see food in your hand. Continue to provide a treat each time it responds, but, as time goes on, hide the treat until your pet actually alights upon your hand (or head, as the case may be!).

Again, canaries are most apt to respond to this type of training, but I have also run across surprisingly responsive spice finches, Java rice birds, zebra finches, fire finches and others.

Further Reading

Although canaries are perceived to be natural songsters, a good deal of learning is involved…and you can help (no, you needn’t be a good whistler!). Learn more about improving your canary’s singing abilities in my article Teaching Your Canary to Sing.


Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I


When we think of tame birds, it is most often the parrots and mynas that come to mind. Canaries and other finches, on the other hand, are largely thought of as pets to enjoy for their bright colors, active ways and cheerful songs. To a great extent, these perceptions hold true…but not entirely. Just as there are parrots that would frustrate the patience of famed animal trainer Gunther-Gable Williams himself, there are finches that become wonderfully tame and trusting.

Good Candidates

Most who have tried to tame finches agree that canaries and the closely-related green singing finches make the best candidates. Their calm demeanors, modified by thousands of generations in captivity, are a great asset to the first time bird-trainer.

A friend once showed me a number of photos of 2 incredibly tame zebra finches owned by her father in Taiwan. The birds slept in his pocket, responded to several commands, and seemed to solicit petting and other attention. She assured me that trained finches were quite common in her father’s community, and in other places on the island as well. In any event, zebra finches have long captive histories, and some individuals seem unusually calm even without much close contact.

How Nature Affects Training

When attempting to tame your pet finch, it is important to keep its nature and natural history in mind. Finches are smaller than the majority of the predators in their habitats….even spiders and frogs make meals of them on occasion. Most are, consequently, alert, high-strung and quick to take flight.

It is important to avoid sudden movements and noises around your finches …move slowly and speak in low tones. Keeping your birds at eye level is a good idea, as most become stressed by movements above their heads. In the beginning, avoid direct eye contact, which birds may associate with danger. I first read of this tip in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder (Martin, 1963)…the advice was later echoed by experienced co-workers at import facilities and the Bronx Zoo, and has proven very useful to me.

Make the same low sound or whistle each time you enter the room, and spend as much time as possible in the area…sitting quietly, in the main, for the first few days. Watch your birds for clues as to when it is time to move on with the process. Once they stop flitting about and begin feeding, bathing and preening in your presence, you can begin to try some closer contact.

Moving to Free Flight Training

It is nearly impossible to tame finches in their cage…your hand within their territory will be too threatening. The best technique is to allow them liberty in a bird-safe (cover windows, mirrors, etc.) room. Do this only after your pets have accepted their cage as a safe haven and regard it as their territory. The time period involved will vary, but 4-6 weeks is a good starting point.

When first releasing your finches, slowly insert an 18 inch perch through the bars near the cage door, and then open the door. This will allow the birds to exit slowly…many birds (and most animals for that matter), are reluctant to just burst into unfamiliar territory. Finches will prefer to hop out onto the perch for a look around, and may take a surprisingly long time to leave their cage completely.

Never attempt to chase your bird from its cage, as even one bad experience, especially with species other than canaries, can easily ruin your chances of gaining your pet’s trust.

Be sure to have a comfortable perch (i.e. another cage top, potted tree or well-secured natural branch) set up some distance from the cage as well, so that the finch will have somewhere to alight.

Returning to the Cage

Now that the finch is flitting about the room, how does one get it to go back home? Please check Part II of this article next week for tips on hand-taming and returning your bird to its cage.

For a different perspective on bird training, please see my article, Hand Taming Wild Birds.


Check out Part II of this article for additional information.

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