Teaching Parrots to Be Touched All Over

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Senegal Parrot

People instinctively crave touch, as to us, it means empathy, love, and affection. To a parrot, however, touching outside of the head, neck, and feet means that you are initiating sex, very simply. A parrot can be perfectly happy without touch, though many love it.

We should not be touching our parrots outside of the head, neck, and feet, as it brings such frustration to our birds. If continued, human touch can actually spur hormonal attacks in our feathered pets. There are a lot of things that parrots love – for instance, unhealthy food – but it’s our job to limit it for their own health and overall well-being. Yet despite the fact that we should not generally be cuddling our birds, there are many instances when it is actually appropriate to touch a pet parrot in an otherwise ‘inappropriate’ way: for instance, in training.

Harness training immediately comes to mind, or preparing your bird for the inevitable vet visits in his life. During harness training, owners need to prepare the bird by lifting wings, touching a bird’s sides, and more.

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Harness training enriches a bird’s life in numerous ways.

Birds should be comfortable with being touched all over if possible. A baby bird is easiest to teach this to, but lots of us obtain birds that are fully grown. What do you if you want to train an adult parrot that touch is okay?

Assuming yours is okay with being petted, just watch very carefully for hormonal behaviours. I’ve found that it is possible to instigate a training session prior, so that the bird is focused on treats. Maverick, our Senegal, can be completely distracted by the prospect of food if we begin a session with some harness training exercises, like wing lifts. You need to watch carefully, though, and only reward at the end.

Stop everything immediately if your bird:

  • Bobs his head to regurgitate
  • Begins to quiver or shake
  • Vocalizes with a mating noise such as clucking
  • Raises her tail or wings for you to touch beneath
  • Tries to mount your hand, or anything else nearby, to masturbate (if male)
  • Drops wings
  • Pants
  • The featherless areas of the face flush like sunburn (common in macaws)

These behaviours mean a bird is sexually stimulated, and you need to stop and not reward them. They may be done singly, or in any combination. Remember, rewarding those things tells your bird, ‘Okay, I’ll be your mate.’ He just can’t understand why you will never follow through! Long-term, this could bring screaming, maybe plucking, and attacks on the humans in your household – even you.

Try not to pull on the tail, rub under the wings for extended periods of time, or touch a bird’s vent (butt). These are all major triggers for hormonal behaviour.

What do I do if my bird isn’t comfortable being touched or petted – at all?

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This is the only touch our cockatiel would accept… her beloved bell.

This is okay, too. From a vet’s perspective, it isn’t ideal, but our cockatiel, for instance, was never comfortable with touch. Never once in her life did we pet her.

To get her comfortable with the kind of handling she’d receive at a vet’s office, we toweled her numerous times, so that it was not a new or scary thing. Toweling equaled millet – her favourite. And toweling was mostly okay.

It did take us a little while to accept that Mishka the cockatiel would never accept scratches. But in the end, that was who she was.

So long as your bird is healthy and seems happy, we owners can let our birds be themselves. There’s nothing wrong with working to teach your bird to accept human touch, but you shouldn’t feel the need to if the bird is happy.

If you really want to teach a super-shy bird to love scratches, you can try using the ‘time out’ method, or negative reinforcement (negative meaning to remove something from an environment – in this case, you!).

Sarah Stull is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a photographer, violist, and violinist who has plans of opening her own avian sanctuary on the east coast of America.

10 comments

Tina Medina

We have a Harlequin Macaw, a Blue and Gold Macaw and a African Gray. The Harlequin we have had since he was 4 months old he is the oldest, he will let you touch his head and neck but will bit at you if you touch for to long. The Blue and Gold is 7 raised from the egg with it’s brothers and sister (we use to be bird breeders for many many years). She will only touch you with her tongue and will bit at herself if you try to touch her, she just does not like to be touched, so we leave her be, she sings, she talks, she seems content with this so we leave her to it. Now The African Grey she is another story all together, I have had her since she was 4 months old she is turning 14 years old this month April 2014. She get’s her self hot and bothered every year around this time with out any outside help, I have taking her toys I have mist her nothing stops her she will lay at least 2 eggs every year around this time just like the birds outside the house. Mind you I only touch her head and I stay away from any part of her lower body I take her out and let her roam around or sit on my shoulder. So I guess it doesn’t matter whether I touch her or not she is going to lay those eggs from her own touch.

Tina Medina
natasha

I wonder. If our bird thinks we are his mate, and he is happy, and not ill, is that a bad thing?

natasha
Casey

Good article, my cockatiel also isn’t very fond of being touched, I can scratch his head but that’s about it . . . He’s not scared, he just hates it. I tried for awhile to train him to get used to it, but it just wasn’t getting anywhere. In the end I just scratch his head while watching tv (he’ll let me do this for hours) and he seems perfectly happy with that being enough.

Casey
Marcy Conner

Often time just going into feed my bird in the morning he will start regurgitating and making noises what do I do about that?

Marcy Conner
Tamara

I only scratch my Cherry headed conure’s head and neck. She does bob her head (but does not seem to be regurgitating) and rubs her beak on my fingers and clucks sometimes. She has never shown any other signs of hormones or mating behaviors. Is this mating behavior or is she just expressing satisfaction?

Tamara
Ally

Hmmm, my sun conure doesn’t let touch him at all. But just he can see me, he starts to bob his head and really behave like he is in fire :/ Husband makes lough about it, says he has to compete the bird. But I feel very sorry for Richard (our parrot). And it became even worse after we got injured baby black bird. Sun conure jealous. Started to beat me when i feed him or clean cage. But keeps bobbing his had, moves from side to side, wings are a bit down and even clicking something quietly :(

Ally
Bob

My Senegal is a feather picker. My wife&I work all day & don’t return until late evening. Those long hours might be the cause of his behaviour . His best friend a cockatiel is in a cage next to him. They both have plenty of toys, a window, and sports talk radio, and they are 17 years old. The cockatiel is not a feather picker. They have a variety of toys and a special light that simulates the sun. Any ideas are appreciated. joandrive888@yahoo.com. Thank You all

Bob
Nell Matthews

I tried really hard to get my sun conure to accept a harness, but he panics and fights anything over his head. I guess I waited too long. He was about 1 year old when I began trying. Previously, his clipped wings meant no flight and then limited flight until the day he took off and flew over the neighbor’s house. Once ‘safe’ in a tree, he did not know how to get down. After a lot of time coaxing him unsuccessfully, and then climbing an extension ladder to retrieve him, we got him back. So that is why I tried to teach him to accept the harness. But no, he will have nothing to do with it. Once, while I was sewing, he got a piece of thread wrapped around his foot. He panicked and would not be calmed enough for me to remove it. I was trying to be careful and not pull the thread or cause him to take off from his cage top where he was struggling. He managed to work his way free, with a bit of help from me. However, he will accept and be absolutely calm when I envelop him with my hand, holding his wings to his side. Go figure.

Nell Matthews
mery

My bird shakes and bobs his head. Hes a cockateil is he doing normal stuff or not.

mery
Gabriala

Oh my goodness both my daughter and I have been “involved” with our sun conure in the wrong way for years! My daughter is surely the birds choice for a mate, but Birdie is so desperate some times, she will take me as a second. And we always try to make her feel good when we take her out of the cage by rubbing underneath her wings and playing with her tail because we noticed that she liked it. Hey, we wanted our bird to be happy! Lol, I can’t believe we were stimulating her all this time. She heads for my daughters shirt and crawls in immediately and cuddles, that is all our Birdie wants to do is cuddle. Maybe we should get her a boyfriend. :-)

Gabriala

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