Training with positive reinforcement early and often in a parrot’s life is key to raising a happy and well-behaved bird.
If a customer is looking for an intelligent, playful and fun pet, parrots are the best way to go. From small parakeets to large macaws to the many species in between, parrots can be true companions. But because these birds are so smart and outgoing, their owners need to work with them and understand their behaviors to end up with a wonderful pet.
Generally speaking, the larger the species, the smarter the parrot is and the more attention it needs to stay mentally healthy. For customers who work away from home all day, a smaller bird like a parakeet or cockatiel would be the best choice. Larger conures, Senegals and other medium-sized species can be left alone for around three to four hours, while large parrots like African greys, Amazons, cockatoos and macaws should not be left alone for too long or too often.
No matter the size, all parrots can be trained using positive reinforcement. It’s best to start the training while the bird is young, and it should always include lots of praise and even small treats, especially early on. The first command to teach is to step up, which instructs the bird to put one foot up to step onto a finger or hand.
To train this command, lightly press a finger, or a hand for larger parrots, against the belly area and say, “step up.” A small treat can be held in the other hand in front of the bird so they have to step up to get it. Be sure to give lots of praise in a happy voice when the bird follows the direction. After a moment, repeat the step up command and get the bird to go to the other hand. If the bird is acting a bit aggressive, start by using perches instead of a hand.
This command can be repeated a few times a day and should be used every time a bird gets onto a hand. Be sure to pause in between having the bird step up from one hand to another, and praise and reward with treats as needed. If this is done with young birds, they will soon be reaching up with a foot as soon as they hear the command. This training is especially important when a parrot reaches their adolescent stage, as they may start to test the owner, such as by not coming out of the cage. That will not be as much of an issue if a bird is trained to step up on command.
Spare the Rod
Punishment should never be used with parrots during training or to stop bad behavior. For example, yelling at a screaming parrot will only cause them to yell louder and longer—the bird thinks the owner is yelling with them, not at them. Parrots are naturally noisy creatures, and the larger the bird, the louder they can get. They generally will call out after sunrise or once their cage cover is taken off in the morning and just before sunset.
It’s always important to ignore a loud parrot from the start. If a parrot is being extremely loud or the yelling lasts longer than a few minutes, the bird may have been inadvertently “rewarded” at some point for screaming, and the effect of that will have to be undone. When the bird is being quiet, give lots of attention, praise and perhaps a treat. If it gets loud, leave the room and ignore it until it is quieter again.
Sometimes training a bird to talk by repeating a word or short phrase over and over for a couple of minutes a few times a day can help with yelling. When the bird talks, give it lots of attention and praise and it will soon understand that yelling gets it ignored, but being quiet or talking will get it the attention it wants.
A parrot would also consider it a reward if the owner reacts strongly and yells after it has bitten the owner’s finger. Often a young parrot will nip hard when the owner is distracted and the bird is being ignored. Intelligent parrots can get bored easily, and owners actually may be rewarding the bird for biting by giving their attention, even if it’s considered negative. It’s better to say “no” in a calm but angry tone, put the parrot down right away and ignore the bird for a few moments before picking it up again. If it bites again, repeat the action immediately until it stops.
Never punish a parrot by tapping on the beak or body, banging on the bird’s cage or covering the cage, as that may cause the bird to fear its owner. A fearful parrot may become aggressive and bite, scream, try to run away and/or not want to interact with anyone, including the owner. Along with their long life spans, parrots have very long memories. Once they become scared of their owner, they may never get over it.
Larger parrot species are considered to have the intelligence of a two- to three-year-old child. Of course, they never go beyond this point, which can make them both fascinating and frustrating for bird owners. Training through positive reinforcement provides the attention and mental stimulation these super intelligent birds need to thrive.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.