How to build a positive relationship with a pet bird
It's not as difficult as you might think.
When I started my pet sitting business "back in the day", I only wanted to sit for birds. I love birds! I think they are fascinating, brilliant, funny, beautiful, and spending time with them has always been total bliss for me!
I had a few parakeets and a cockatiel during my life so far, and have pet sat for various parrots. When I lived in San Diego I would visit the parrot sanctuary and spend time with the bigger birds. Loved every minute of it and wanted to take them all home with me!
I have always been a "bird person" and never had a problem connecting with any bird - including the ones that weren't mine that I knew through pet sitting.
This blog is for those who have never had a bird and know nothing about how to make bonds with him/her, or perhaps you do, and you just want to hear my take on it.
The info in this post will help pet sitters who are not so familiar with caring for birds, so please take note and use the information with your feathery clients.
I hope you will find my words of some help with your avian friend!
For starters, I'm assuming that you have, or plan to have, a parakeet, cockatiel, love bird, African Gray, Cockatoo, or another of the parrot family. You have a large cage, plenty of food, toys, and found a great spot in your house that is perfect for your feathery friend to live. Now what?
Well, now comes the relationship-building part of bird ownership.
I will share with you how I built relationships with my birds and also with the pets I cared for while I was pet sitting. Both are similar except with your own bird, you have more time and the bond is usually more intense.
The initial setup:
Firstly, dear readers, give your new bird a day or two to acclimate to their new home and to seeing you in the room. Be aware of the bird's immediate environment and adjust it so it is right for your new bird. With the right environment, your bird will be happy and calm and that sets the stage for bonding.
What do I mean when I say a "suitable environment"? I mean that you must make sure the temperature is sufficient. Birds don't do well in cool areas so keep away from drafty windows in the winter and too much direct sun coming in during the hotter months. Sun is fine, but make sure there is always a shady area of the cage so the bird can get out of the sun if they want. Some people mistakenly think that because they see birds outside all year, they are fine in any temperature. That is not so. Pet birds are usually exotics whose ancestry and makeup are more conducive to warmer climates, so please take note and leave birds away from cold temps and drafty areas.
Make sure the cage is as large as can be. Have a good cage cover for night times or a bird room that can be made sufficiently quiet and dark for overnights. Think of this: birds in the wild fly free and far, so why put this beautiful winged creature in a small cage? They need room to feel free and happy. The larger the cage is worth the investment.
Also, be aware of the sounds and smells in the area of the cage. Birds have sensitive ears and many, if not all, parrots tend to be as loud as their flock is in the wild. So if your house is active with lots of kids running around, and dogs barking, then you can count on your bird being loud as well. They want to be included as part of the flock (family). Make sure your bird can get away from loud sounds as well. How do you know if a bird is uncomfortable in its spot? Watch their behavior and make changes accordingly.
Once the cage is in the right place, the temperature is good, you have all the supplies the bird needs, and the bird seems settled, calm, and happy, then you can begin serious work on bonding.
Tips for bonding with a bird:
Like with all relationships, time spent together is important. I believe this is more important especially if it is a single bird and has no other bird to interact with. In that case, they are capable of tight bonds with their owners. Multiple birds in one cage will take time because they will probably be more interested in each other than a human.
Sit quietly next to the cage, but not too close. Let the bird realize you are there and give him/her time to observe you.
Talk quietly to the bird in a reassuring voice. Birds are brilliant and many have the intelligence of a human toddler so they can understand you, and in time, many birds will learn some speech. This is great fun when it comes to the stage of bonding when they start picking up speech!
Don't make sudden movements that will scare the bird. Always move slowly around the cage area.
After a few days of spending lots of time talking softly and letting your bird observe you, he/she will also become acclimated to you slowly putting your hands into the cage to give food, water, treats, etc...
Once the bird seems calm around you and you sense that they are fine with your working around them, cleaning the cage, etc... which will vary depending on the bird, the time you've spent with him/her, and if there are other humans in the area as well, then you can move to the next step.
In a household with more than one person, I'd recommend that only one person spend time close to the cage at a time, and then increase the number. Children should be watched carefully around the cage and taught to move slowly and speak softly. Any movements, voices, or sounds that scare the bird can slow down the bonding process because it can create fear and anxiety in the bird.
The next step in bonding, from my experience, is to introduce your hand into the cage when it isn't feeding or cage cleaning times. Here, you will want to let the bird touch your hand with its beak and/or feet - whatever he/she chooses, or maybe take a food treat from the palm of your hand. Continue with slow movements. If you move your hand close to the bird and it moves away, stop. Retract your hand a little until the bird looks calm. It can really be an inch-by-inch process. You have to be very observant and go at the pace the bird seems comfortable.
Taking your cues from the bird, this initial process could take a brief or much longer time, but it shouldn't be rushed. In the first few weeks that the bird is in his/her new home, I would suggest that you not leave the bird alone for hours on end. When you do have to be out for more than 2 hours, I'd suggest putting on a classical radio station or talk radio station on very quietly (emphasis on very) so the bird doesn't feel lonely and has some stimulation.
As you are working to get the bird comfortable with your hand in the cage, continue with a mix of silence and soft talking. In time you will see the bird's body language appear more comfortable and relaxed with you. But then one day it will happen - the bird will step up onto your finger or hand or wrist and you will feel such elation! You might want to yell YAHOO or BINGO, but don't! Ha ha ha. Keep it quiet. Let the bird just sit there and get on and off of you as much as they want. If they seem frustrated with your hand in the cage, remove your hand, and give the bird a break.
Soon you will see that your bird will get excited when he/she sees you, the vocalizations will increase, he/she will run back and forth on the perch and will want you near. At this point, they can trust that you are bringing them daily food, water, treats, toys, cleaning the cage, and are calm when in their presence.
Again, if the bird is being acclimated to more than one person, it may take some extra time or you may find that the bird is connecting quicker to one person over another. The most important point here is that all people in the home should engage in this process because birds can become attached and a bird that doesn't attach to a family member (roommate, etc...) can have increased anxiety around the person who doesn't take time to bond. Sometimes you can have a bird who will not bond or will not like somebody and that is an added challenge. For instance, my cockatiel Puffy, did not like men, except for one friend who would visit. For all other males, she would open her wings as if threatened and would sway back and forth as a warning to the person not to come closer. Never force your bird to interact with any friends that come into the house if they don't want to. If the person wants to work on bonding with the bird, then he/she should expect to spend some time with the bird to bond, just like you did. But a bird may never adjust to an occasional repeat visitor.
Once the bird is comfortable jumping on your finger/arm and you feel that you are doing well bonding, then you are ready for the next step.
The next step is bonding with the bird outside of the cage. You may choose to never let the bird out of its cage for one reason or another (not safe to do so due to lots of windows in the house that he/she may crash into if not wing clipped, lots of small children or other pets around that may cause problems for the bird, etc...). If that is the case it is important to have as big of a cage as you can afford. (Imagine being a glorious bird that can fly and being stuck in a small cage for your entire life - it's enough to make a bird go mad!!)
I have always taught my pet birds to be comfortable in and out of the cage when I was home. They'd usually hang out on top of their cage, or sit on my shoulder and walk around the house with me. I always supervised them lest they find their way into trouble.
The next level:
For this next phase of bonding, if the room the cage is in can be closed off by a door, that would be good. If not, for these practice sessions of being out of the cage you might have to move the cage to a smaller room - even as small as a bathroom. In any room you are teaching the bird to be out of its cage, make sure you cover up mirrors and close curtains so the bird who doesn't have clipped wings, will not fly into mirrors and windows and become injured.
The best place to start this practice though, in my opinion, is the bathroom because it is small. To be extra cautious, take the bird and its cage into the bathroom and place it on a closed toilet seat. Close the door. Let the bird sit there a bit to check out the room because it will be a new space for him/her. You may even just want to do this part for a few days without taking the bird out of the cage so he/she can get used to the new room. Once you are ready, and the bird seems ready, open the cage door and step back. Let the bird, in its own time, make its way to the opened door and climb up on the top of the cage. This will be new territory!
Talk quietly and encouragingly. Observe the behavior. Slowly see if your bird will step up on your finger/hand from the top of the cage. By this point, your bird should have no trouble doing so. Once he/she is on your hand, move it up slowly towards your chest area, and hold your arm close to you. At this point, the bird might crawl up onto your chest or shoulder, or just sit there. Follow the comfort cues of the bird with what you do next.
After about fifteen minutes or so, place the bird back in front of its opened door and it should jump back inside. If not, you'll just have to take your time. Don't rush the bird going back into the cage or you may cause the bird to show anxiety. Common sense would say that this process will take less time with a bird that is wing-clipped than a bird with full wings and the power to take itself to the top of the shower curtain rod.
Do this with the bird in the small room for several days. When the bird comes out and goes back into its cage with ease, then you've mastered this phase. I would recommend then going to the next largest room in the house and doing the same process so the bird slowly becomes acclimated to the entire house. If you are just keeping the bird in one dedicated room, then just go from the bathroom practice site to the room he/she will be living in full time.
Challenging rooms are in homes with tall seasons with ceiling fans or other places a bird can fly and perch, so consider this carefully when deciding in what areas of a home the bird will be allowed out of its cage.
Once all this is accomplished, and the bird is back in its cage spot/room where he/she will spend most of its days, then you can open the cage when you are in that room and closely monitor the bird's activities for the next few weeks. Staying in the room with the bird is important at this phase.
This bonding process will create a nice friendship that will last for years. Soon you'll be able to open the cage and your bird will hop on your hand, run up your arm, and sit on your shoulder. Try to avoid letting the bird get comfortable sitting on top of your head or tall bookcase, etc... because it is my understanding that if a bird perches higher than you, it means they are in charge of you (much like an alpha dog in a pack), so have the bird sit on your shoulder, lap, an arm of the chair, and places like that.
Once you and your bird are bonded, it is best to supervise and be aware of the bird's whereabouts at all times so it doesn't get itself in trouble.
Special note to pet sitters: As mentioned at the beginning, these tips are for pet owners. If you want to make a special bond with a bird in your care, talk to the owner about it first and decide together what is the best way to go about it. You will have much less time than you do with your own bird, unless you are house sitting and pet sitting at the same time. But the concept is the same for both:
Take your time.
Move slowly around the bird and cage.
Once you are bonded then you can spend time training and that is really fun!