By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Pet birds — especially parrots — are incredibly smart and can actually learn words and basic commands to communicate with their owners. Birds benefit from this communication not only by helping them bond to their caretakers, but also by enabling their caretakers to take better care of them and to keep them safe.
While some parrots, such as Alex the famous African gray parrot owned by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, have been taught to respond to dozens of commands and have learned hundreds of words, most birds will grasp a few basic commands that all bird owners should be able to teach them with time and patience. Here are the four basic commands that all pet birds should be taught.
All bird owners would love to be able to open the door to their bird’s cage and have their bird come right out, onto their hands. While some birds will do this naturally, many birds need to overcome the fear associated with stepping on to an often unsteady human hand and be taught the value of going directly to their owners.
Birds who are involved in an activity in the cage, such as eating or resting or playing with toys, may not want to be interrupted and asked to leave the cage. For some birds, the cage is a safe place and a domain over which they feel they should have full control. Furthermore, birds, like people, have moods, and sometimes they just don’t feel like doing what their owners want them to. To get a bird to come to you, you have to make stepping on to your hand more valuable than whatever the bird is doing in the cage. The way to do that is to initially pair the bird’s sight of your hand and hearing “Step up” with receiving a special treat (such as a small piece of a favorite food) that he gets at no other time other than when he sees your hand at the open cage door.
The open palm of your non-treat bearing hand should be placed between the bird standing at the cage door and the hand holding the treat. Initially, the bird is given the treat for simply coming to the cage door when you open it and hearing the words “Step up.” You should also praise your bird verbally by saying either “Good bird” or his name when he comes to the cage door.
After the bird masters coming to the door of the cage reliably, the stakes are raised and he only gets the treat and the verbal praise when he responds to “Step up” by leaning his weight with one foot on the open palm of your non-treat bearing hand. Next, once the bird has grasped that concept reliably, you raise the bar once again and give him the treat and the verbal praise after you say “Step up” only when he actually stands with both feet on the non-treat bearing palm between the cage door and the treat hand.
Finally, once he understands that step, you then give him the treat and the praise only after you say “Step up” and he not only steps with both feet onto the open palm of your non-treat bearing hand, but also allows you to move your hand, with him on it, away from the cage. As soon as he does that, he gets several pieces of treat and lots of verbal praise (plus a scratch on the head, if he likes that) immediately after you move your hand with him on it away from the cage, so that he anticipates stepping on to your hand and moving away from the cage with the payoff of several treats.
The key to teaching this step-up command is to practice every day for just a few minutes — only when the bird seems receptive — and to use the same tone of voice when saying “Step up.” If your bird is distracted or tired, don’t push it; and be patient. Teaching this command can take several weeks. Also, be sure to use a treat that the bird gets at no other time either from you or from anyone else.
Ultimately, your bird will learn to anticipate the sight of your hand and your request for him to “Step up” simply with verbal praise and a head scratch, so that you can phase out the treat. This process of teaching a new behavior in several small steps is called shaping the behavior.
This command is taught the same way as the step-up command, except to teach the bird to go either back into his cage or onto another stable perch. The steps involved in teaching this command are the same as in teaching “Step up”: using a special favorite treat that is not available at other times other than during training, plus verbal praise.
In teaching this command, say “Step down” and reward the bird with a treat and verbal praise for making contact initially with just one foot, and then ultimately with both feet, on the desired location (either inside the cage or at a perch outside the cage). If he steps on the desired location with both feet, he should receive the big bonus of several pieces of treat, plus verbal praise and a head scratch. The key again is to practice this command just a few minutes a day and only when the bird seems interested and receptive to treats.
If you’re teaching “Step up” and “Step down” to a bird during different training sessions over the same period of days to weeks, ideally you should use one type of treat to train “Step up” and another to train “Step down” so that the bird learns to anticipate different rewards for different requests. Eventually, you will be able to phase out the treat when he steps down, as he comes to anticipate stepping down with verbal praise and a head scratch.
Most people don’t realize the value in teaching their birds this command, but teaching a bird to accept having his feet touched is critical if you want to be able to trim his nails.
The process involved in teaching this command is again the same as in teaching the bird to step up: you pair the command “Touch foot” and the sight of the nail trimmer (or Dremel drill, or whatever tool you use to trim nails) with receiving a special, favored treat not available at any time. Then you only give the bird the treat, as well as verbal praise, when you say, “Touch foot,” and you touch the nail trimmer briefly to his foot. Next, you raise the bar, only rewarding him with treats and verbal praise if he allows you initially to hold the trimmer next to his foot for just a few seconds and then ultimately to touch his nails directly with the trimmer. You keep raising the bar gradually, increasing contact between his nails and the trimmer, until you only give him treats and verbal praise when he allows you to actually trim a nail. Then he gets the big payoff of several treats, verbal praise, plus a head scratch.
You may only be able to get your bird to allow one nail to be trimmed at a time, but eventually, with enough practice and continuous small treats and praise after each nail is cut, you will get through all the nails on both feet.
This command is a request that most bird owners never think of to train their birds but that can be tremendously valuable if your bird ever has to take medications. The idea is to get the bird to accept drinking a small amount of liquid from the tip of a plastic syringe without biting the syringe or your hand. The steps to shaping this behavior are the same as with the other behaviors described: rewarding each step in the training process with a special food treat and verbal praise.
Initially, the bird is given a small treat and verbal praise simply for looking at the syringe when you say “Touch syringe.” Then, you fill the syringe with a very small amount of a sweet-tasting liquid, such as apple or cranberry juice, and reward the bird with a treat and verbal praise after saying “Touch syringe” and touching the tip of the syringe to his beak. After he masters that step, reward him with treats and praise only for allowing you to initially hold the syringe tip to his beak for a few seconds and then eventually for tasting a drop of the sweet liquid from the syringe. Ultimately, if he takes the full amount of liquid from the syringe tip, give him the big payoff of several treats, verbal praise, plus a head scratch.
If your bird masters this command, you should be able to medicate him with liquid medications (compounded with sweet flavoring) if you need to. This is an invaluable command that can be life-saving if the bird needs medical treatment.
These commands involve teaching a few simple behaviors that nearly all birds should be able to learn. The key for any bird owner teaching these commands is to be patient. Birds may be receptive to training on some days and not others, just as people are. Teaching a new behavior takes time but can be tremendously satisfying to both owner and bird once the bird gets it.