Examples of the colors I produce.
All images are Copyright © 2019 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be used without permission.
Examples of the colors I produce.
All images are Copyright © 2019 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be used without permission.
What is enrichment?
Enrichment is an animal welfare principle that aims to increase a captive animal’s quality of life by going above and beyond the bare necessities (food, water, shelter). In particular, it strives to address the mental health of the animal as much as the physical.
Some common methods of enrichment:
Techniques are going to vary depending on what species you are working with, and why the animal is being kept. You would not enrich a parrot’s life the same way you would an elephant or a snake. Some methods of enrichment can satisfy multiple drives for an animal, such as this vinyl ball for a giraffe. It encourages the giraffe to stretch its neck and simulates wild foraging behavior. It also provides something novel to explore.
In pet birds, enrichment often takes the form of toys.
Foraging has gained popularity in recent years, and not just with birds. The concept of foraging is that it makes the animal work to get its food, as it would have to do in nature. One of my veterinarian professors fed his dogs out of a tool box filled with rocks. They had to shift rocks around and to get every bit of kibble, rather than wolfing everything down in seconds.
Many foraging toys are available on the market. The options below are designed for repeated use, but it’s important to have destructible toys as this better mimics how parrots forage in nature.
Most psittacines have a desire to chew. Their beaks are specially designed to eat fruit/seeds in their green state. This gives them a competitive edge against other species that have to wait for food to ripen. Offering destructible items, be they wood or paper or food, can fulfill this need to chew.
With the wide variety of toys available to pet owners, it can be easy to associate enrichment with toys alone. This narrow view of enrichment has resulted in many laypeople criticizing breeding enclosures based on their distinct lack of toys. There are several problems with this.
Toys are dangerous.
Safety is a huge problem with toys. Although things have gotten much better in recent years, the fact remains that birds, like children, are great at finding ways to injure themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen birds hung up on toys, either by their band or a toe or a foot. Yes, they can get hung up without a band. Leave the band alone and check the cage and toys for hazards instead.
This is especially dangerous for breeder birds, who are generally not tame and may panic if approached, injuring themselves further.
As fun as toys may be for pet birds, they are still an unnatural element designed by humans and there are risks of injury, toxicity, and death. I’m not saying toys are bad, I’m saying breeders often employ safer enrichment options.
Nesting birds often ignore toys.
Pairs that are actively nesting are generally too preoccupied with the business of raising the next generation to be bothered with toys. An incubating hen isn’t going to be playing with toys, but what about the male? Males will usually sit on guard duty outside the nestbox when they are not feeding. Play is not a concern for them at that time- safety and security of the nest site is. As soon as chicks are pulled for handfeeding, pairs will go back to playing with toys.
Safer, Alternative Methods of Enrichment
Tony Silva gives several ideas here. I’m a big fan of food enrichment. Psittacines are naturally destructive and offering whole food items is a great substitute for manufactured toys.
This is a Brussels sprout stalk. I tie a rope around it and hang it in the cage. The right image is what it looks like after my ringnecks have been at it for a week. They LOVE edible toys.
For smaller species, leafy greens work well. Skewers are also a favorite. I can throw several whole carrots in with my ringnecks and they will have great fun destroying them. It’s safer and gets birds to try a wide variety of foods. Chop is nice, but my birds have much more fun with whole items.
Planted aviaries are very difficult to do with psittacines. I tried putting a ficus tree with my kakarikis once and it didn’t go well for the tree. Tree clippings are a more realistic option. We have numerous citrus trees around our property and they give us plenty of fresh branches for play. Just make sure your clippings are from nontoxic species and haven’t been sprayed or collected next to a road (exhaust builds up on the plants).
Flocking is another method of enrichment. Pet birds are often kept isolated in small cages. Their owner may be their only source of social interaction. If the species is naturally very gregarious, this can lead to stress if, like most humans, their owner has a job away from home. This is why I recommend having at least two birds.
Many parrot species live together in large groups and break off into pairs for breeding. This can be mimicked by housing birds in smaller cages for breeding and then flocking them together during the off season. It gives them a chance to socialize, but also exercise.
Which brings me to another source of enrichment…
My first batch of show cockatiels came from a breeder whose husband developed Bird Keeper’s Lung. She already sold most of her stock by the time I got to her, and was considering taking the leftovers to a bird mart. But then she lamented that pet owners might buy them and keep them in tiny cages. After living the good life in an aviary, fully flighted with an actual flock, being stuck indoors in a pet cage seems a cruel fate.
I want to be clear–there’s nothing wrong with keeping birds indoors, in pet cages, or clipping wings. My own personal pets are kept that way. BUT, nothing beats an aviary for enrichment. Nothing. They can fly–not in a house, where there are lots of hidden dangers–but in a space designed for birds. They can feel the sunshine and fresh air. They can feel the seasons change (yes, even winter). It’s a whole different level of care, and if you have the ability to build an aviary, even just for nice summer days, I highly recommend it.
© 2020 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.
Step 1: Quarantine
ALWAYS QUARANTINE FIRST!
New birds can potentially bring disease into your flock. Diseases can range from mild an annoying to very expensive and possible deadly. Quarantine is your first line of defense. How does one quarantine? You need to keep the new bird(s) isolated in an area away from your other birds for at LEAST 30 days. Sixty days is better. During this time, new birds should be tested for diseases and observed for signs of illness. I recommend testing because many of the nastiest diseases, like PBFD and Avian Bornavirus, can go for years without any clinical signs. Quarantine birds should be fed last. Generally you also want to wear different shoes while in this area, or go through a foot bath of disinfectant when exiting. Disease testing kits can be ordered here. More detailed quarantine procedures can be found here. Once quarantine is over you can safely move your new birds into the main bird area.
Step 2: Introductions
How you do introductions depends both on your set up and what species you keep. If you are a pet owner, your birds are likely housed in (relatively) small cages where each bird or birds has an established territory. If this is the case, side-by-side introductions are best. The new bird is placed in a separate cage within sight and sound of the current birds. There will likely be some curiosity or even aggression through the bars of the cage. Over time, bickering should diminish. At this point, birds can enjoy SUPERVISED time out together. Accidents can happen in an instant so be on alert, especially if the two birds are not friendly toward one another. Try not to let birds crawl onto each other’s cages, as even a mellow bird can defend its home turf. If you hope to eventually house the birds together, they should be placed in a new, neutral cage at the same time only after they’ve shown an interest in one another for awhile.
If you have large cages (I mean LARGE, like full flights or walk-in aviaries) with many different birds, adding new birds can be done immediately after quarantine, providing you keep species that are NOT super aggressive.
If you’re introducing many new birds at one time, it is usually safe so long as the cage is neutral. A lone bird coming into established territory is at far greater risk.
In the above picture, we have a single new bird being introduced. The cage on the right contains six ringnecks, which came from three different sources. They were all introduced at relatively the same time to this cage, which means there was no fighting. However, this grey male is a late arrival. These birds have already been in this cage for a few months- more than enough time to become territorial. Ringnecks can be very aggressive, so he must be introduced slowly.
Some birds are independently aggressive, and you won’t know who until you put birds together. I recently tried pairing a green cheek hen with a male in a neutral cage. She immediately began to attack him. This was a large cage. I scooped her up and removed her, and tried a different hen. No issues. However, the first hen continued to do aggressive displays towards the introduced male, who was now in a neighboring cage with a friend of hers (the other hen). I had to place barriers at the back to help neutralize the aggression.
Barriers are definitely something to consider if there is excessive aggression. When a bird feels threatened it will make aggressive displays. This is stressful to the birds, and should be curtailed if possible. When I introduced Lando to my Goffin, Loki, she was very agitated and yelling constantly. I kept cardboard between their two cages for a few days until she settled down. He was an invader of her space and it took time for her to get over that. Introductions are fine, but you don’t want the birds to be overly stressed.
© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.
If you want to know whether your bird is a male or female, there are a few different ways to go about sexing. Considering that hormonal behaviors can cause issues it can be important to know how your bird will react to certain stimuli.
The first thing to determine is if your bird is dimorphic- in which males and females do not look the same. The above Eclectus parrots are probably the most striking example of sexual dimorphism. In most species it isn’t quite so pronounced. Budgie males have a blue cere, while females’ can range from white to tan to crusty brown. In cockatiels the male has a yellow head and the female does not. Indian ringneck males have a ring around their neck. Kakariki males are about 15 grams heavier than hens, have a stockier body, and wider beak. Even if a bird is dimorphic, if it is not the wild type color then sexing may be difficult. For instance, in cockatiels you can rarely sex lutino, albino, or pied birds visually. Lutino ringnecks can still be sexed, but pieds cannot. You need to know not only the species but the color mutation in order to accurately sex your bird.
If a bird cannot be visually sexed, or if it is too young (most need to molt into adult coloration before sexing can be done), then you need to use one of the methods below.
DNA sexing is easy and non-intrusive. Avian Biotech is the company I use. You can go on their website and ask for a testing kit. There are a few different methods: blood, eggshell, and feather. I prefer blood collection, as you can easily do it while grooming and it doesn’t involve plucking (yes, plucking!) 5-7 feathers.
All you need to do is restrain your bird as you would for grooming (see instructions here). Make sure you have Kwik Stop or flour on hand to stop the bleeding! When you clip a toenail, clip it a little further up than normal. You’re intentionally trying to clip the quick. When it starts to bleed, touch the nail to the circle on the blood card. You don’t need much. Mail it out, along with payment (currently about $25) and you’ll get your results back within a day or two after they receive the sample.
This method is usually requested by breeders who want to know the actual health of the gonads and other organs. The bird is briefly anesthetized, a small incision is made and a scope is inserted into the body to allow a veterinarian to observe the internal organs. After the bird is sexed, a tattoo is placed on the wing corresponding with the sex. Males are tattooed on the right and females on the left.
Sexing by behavior is not always accurate, especially if you are a pet owner with two birds of the same sex, in which case one may potentially exhibit more opposite sex characteristics. That said, I’ve found it very useful in sexing my own birds. Cockatiels and Indian ringnecks can usually be sexed long before they molt into their adult coloration. This is the Indian ringneck mating display. Both sexes demonstrate very specific body language and behaviors (in both videos the hen happens to be yellow). This is male cockatiel behavior. It takes experience though as you need to know what to look for in a particular species.
Hormones can be the cause of many behavior problems in birds. As a breeder it is very easy for me to identify mating behaviors for what they are. However, most pet owners do not breed and are therefore unfamiliar with typical mating behaviors and their common triggers. Instead they anthropomorphize such behaviors and let things escalate too far. It is essential that you learn everything you can about the particular species that you own- including how they breed. Even if you never plan to breed, those behaviors are embedded in your pet’s DNA. You need to understand what’s going on in order to prevent unwanted hormonal behaviors.
What happens when mating behaviors are triggered in pet birds?
Behaviors like the above often lead to rehomed pets. Back when I first got into birds, you could flip to any pet classified section and see ad after ad for birds around 2-4 years of age. Depending on the species, this is when puberty hits. After years of receiving mixed messages, the birds were finally ready to mate. The problem was that they wanted to mate with their favorite person and started lashing out when their owners weren’t responding predictably.
Plucking, while not usually dangerous, can easily become a habit that is very difficult to break.
Excessively egg laying can be dangerous, particularly if the hen isn’t on a proper breeding diet (most pets are not, nor should they be). When an egg becomes trapped inside the body there is a risk it will rupture, causing a life-threatening infection. Preventing hormonal behaviors in pets is especially important for hens. If your bird is already laying excessively, please see my article on egg laying in pets.
The following are some common ways that breeding can be inadvertently stimulated. Please keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Every species is different and it is important to understand how your birds would normally nest.
Dark, Enclosed Spaces
Most parrots are cavity breeders- they nest in tree trunks. Pairs will seek out a good cavity, clean it out, and possibly enlarge it. In the modern home any dark, enclosed space will be viewed as a potential nest site. This could be under the couch (see below) or dresser, inside a Happy Hut or tent, a shipping box offered for chewing, or under a blanket. It is important never to offer any item, particularly inside the cage, which could be viewed as a nest site. Troublesome areas (like under the couch) should be blocked off or made off-limits.
Above: (Left) A gap in a couch is a tempting nest site, and potentially dangerous as this couch reclines. (Right) Moving/shipping boxes may offer chewing fun, but they are also seen as nest sites. Loki kept attempting to enter this one.
Cleaning the nest cavity is a normal part of nest preparation. Some breeders have even found that introducing large chunks of wood into a nest box will help stimulate their pairs. In pets, stredding can be a prelude to nesting. Lovebirds in particular use nesting material. Leaves are tucked into the rump feathers and transported back to their nest site. Quakers build huge communal nests with sticks.
Birds should never have access to the substrate in their cage, but nevertheless may try to shred everything they get their beaks on. Shredding is fine and destructible toys are good, but during the breeding season you may want to offer alternatives if your bird is prone to nesty behavior.
Longer days simulate springtime. Many owners keep their birds up after dark, making long days even longer. Birds need at least 10 hours of sleep and I would extend that to 12-14 if they are getting hormonal. Cover your bird’s cage or give them a separate sleep cage in a quiet area to ensure they’re getting enough darkness.
Feeding Soft, Warm Foods by Hand
Bonded pairs regurgitate to one another. Offering treats by hand when training is fine, but try to avoid hand feeding warm, mushy foods. Feed them in a dish. If your bird regurgitates don’t encourage it.
Too Much Protein
Chicks require a lot of protein to grow, and providing birds with too much protein signals that it’s a great time to raise a family. If you have a hen that is already laying eggs you do want to continue offering protein and calcium (especially calcium) so that she is less likely to deplete her own reserves. If your pet is not laying eggs then continue to feed a good diet but do not make a habit of offering a lot of protein. Calcium in the form of pellets, cuttlebone, or mineral block should be offered year-round, especially to hens.
Providing Sexual Stimulation
Mating usually involves the male doing some sort of display- head bobbing, pinpointing eyes, flaring tail or wings. When the female is ready to mate she droops her wings and raises her rump. The male typically mounts her (some species will mate side by side) and they rub their cloacas together. The cloaca is the opening underneath the base of the tail. It is used for passing feces, uric acid (bird equivalent of pee), eggs, and for transferring/receiving sperm.
Many of the ways you touch your bird could be interpreted sexually. Mutual preening (head scratching) can be done by flockmates but it is more common in bonded pairs. Petting your hen on the back can be stimulating, as she feels like you are trying to mount her for mating. Touching the cloaca should definitely be avoided. Some birds get excited when pet under the wings.
Always be aware of your bird’s body language while petting them. If they are exhibiting postures like those in the picture above, stop petting them as they are getting sexually stimulated. Males will usually pinpoint their eyes, dip their head, and raise their wings at the shoulder a bit. Hens will raise their rump, drop their wings and coo or shiver. Give them a period to calm down before petting again.
It is entirely possible that your bird will try masturbating on you. This may involve mounting your hand and rubbing the cloaca (in males) or backing up against you and rubbing the cloaca (in females). Masturbation should neither be encouraged nor discouraged directly. If your bird is trying to mate with you, simply move it to another location or place it back into the cage for a while.
Sometimes the object of affection is a toy. Never offer your pet a mirror or fake bird. Birds can become very attached to these items and defend them aggressively. If, however, a bird is masturbating on a wide variety of objects/toys I would be less concerned.
My Goffin is actually trying to self-stimulate as I write this. Observe:
This may seem innocuous to you- most pet owners would probably think so- but pay attention to her body language. Her eyes are half-closed, beak half-open, and she has a blissful expression. Where is her back? It’s pressed up against the underside of my desk. She’s using the desk to simulate a male mounting her. It’s more obvious from this angle:
It’s not full on masturbation, but she’s definitely aroused. Were she to start making clucking or cooing noises I would remove her from my leg and place here elsewhere.
Everything I do is stimulatiing!
It’s not as bad as that. I once read an article that basically said touching your pet bird in any way ever was going to stimulate them, and while that’s semi-true, if you’re careful about stopping petting when your bird is getting aroused, and limiting other factors then you should be okay. I’ve had my Goffin for over a decade and she’s never laid a single egg. Nor has any other pet hen I’ve had since I became a breeder. Part of being a breeder is knowing how to shut your birds down effectively, especially when you handle species designed to bred any time adequate food is available.
My goal in writing this is not to scare you, but to make you aware of how many different things might be stimulating your bird. Again, the key is to educate yourself on their natural lifecycle and body language. Much of this comes down to your ability to correctly interpret body language and provide healthy distractions (toys! exercise! training!) when they’re becoming too aroused.
Some birds get very hormonal every spring and no matter what their owners do, they can’t seem to get things under control. If this is the case and none of the above has worked, I recommend visiting a competent avian veterinarian about hormone therapy. There are certain injections they can do these days that will help limit the surge of seasonal hormones.
© 2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.
What kind of brooder do you use?
Unless you are raising chicks from the egg, you don’t need a fancy brooder. Very young chicks need strict temperature control. Older chicks in pinfeathers do not. My preferred brooder is a small fish tank or Kritter Keeper on top of a heating pad. This set up is cheap and very easy to transport. If you’re a hobby breeder this allows you to take chicks to your day job (if they allow such things).
I set the heating pad to Low. Medium can sometimes be alright if the bottom of the container it sufficiently padded. Always test with your hand to make sure the chicks won’t be burned. Chicks can be kept directly in the container or further divided into margarine tubs or baskets. If chicks are kept directly in the container then the pad should only be under 1/3 to 1/2 of it. This allows the chicks some movement from warm and cooler areas, though most don’t figure this out.
For bedding I use a paper towel and then a layer of shavings on top.
Which is best: syringe, spoon, or tube/gavage?
The syringe is my own tool of choice. It allows quick feeding and minimal mess. The spoon is much slower and messier. I don’t care for it because it may involve dipping back into the formula (contamination risk) and because it allows the formula to cool, but mainly because it’s tedious. Many people like the spoon because they think it gives them more of a chance to bond with their chicks. However, bonding can be achieved more freely outside the feeding time.
Tube or gavage feeding is frowned upon by many aviculurists. This is because it is often used by large breeding operations to quickly feed chicks in an assembly-line fashion. The problem is not with the method itself (though this instrument can be deadly in the hands of an amateur), but with the people who tend to use it. Often they won’t properly socialize their chicks at all. It also bypasses the chick’s normal feeding/swallowing and shoots food directly into the crop. I don’t recommend it for day-to-day feeding. Nevertheless, every breeder should own at least one tube. It is invaluable for feeding stubborn/ill chicks who may have no feeding response, and for administering medicine to an uncooperative chick.
How much do I feed?
You want to fill the crop but not stretch it out so much that it won’t drain properly. I suggest looking at parent-raised chicks for reference. My cockatiels are certainly more daring to swell chicks’ crops than I am. By the way, some chicks continue to beg even if they’re ready to burst so begging cannot be used as a reference. This is a good guide on crop health.
How often do I feed?
(based on the smaller species)
For the first few days chicks will take formula every 1 1/2 to 2 hours around the clock. Over the next week you can probably up this to every three hours, still around the clock. By the time the pinfeathers start coming in they should be up to every four hours, with only one night feeding (or none at all if you stay up really late and wake up really early). If I’m home I let the chicks decide- when they cry I feed them.
When do I pull the chicks for feeding?
Some breeders believe that in order to be tame chicks need to be hatched from Day 1 so that the first thing they see is people. This is utter nonsense. Tameness is directly related to how much time you spend with the chicks and what you do. Socialization during and directly after weaning is key. Leaving the chicks with their parents for a while is generally much healthier for the babies. I pull my chicks when they have pinfeathers, but well before the feathers start opening. For something like cockatiels this would be about two weeks. For larger species it will be later. Go by developmental stage.
What temperature do you feed the formula?
I go by Parrots: Handfeeding and Nursery Management with all my measurements. I begin sucking formula into syringes at 110 degrees. It cools quickly. Birds will often refuse formula if it is too cold. Too hot and it will burn them. You can keep formula warm by floating your formula cup within a larger dish of hot water.
What disinfectant do you use?
There are many on the market- each killing it’s own type of pathogens. I use bleach. It’s like duct tape- works for everything. Add one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water. The only problem with bleach is that it tends to corrode your stuff over time.
What formula do you use? Do you add anything to it?
I use Kaytee Exact formula. Commercial formulas are designed to have all the nutrition a bird needs and you’re not supposed to add anything to them (it will upset the balance). Still, I add Spirulina because I hear it’s good for the immune system and sometimes peanut butter during weaning (the babies eat less so I want to make what they do eat more fatty).
How do I wean babies?
Weaning is probably the most stressful part of a bird’s life and the most agonizing for the feeder. Weaning starts when your babies start refusing food. They’ll beg to be fed just as usual and then as soon as you point the syringe at their mouth they’ll clamp their beak shut. Even before the bird begins refusing formula you should be adding solid foods to the cage. Try softer things, or things that are easy to pick up. I start with bananas, Cheerios and parsley. Check the chick’s crop a couple times a day (just move those feathers aside) to see if it’s eaten anything. Once they actually start eating the food I offer a wider selection, starting with softer foods and then working up to harder. Expose them to as many different textures and foods as possible.
The chicks should naturally cut back on formula on their own, though many will beg for formula as a comfort thing. In the wild parents may continue to feed their chicks well past the point when they can fend for themselves. I’ve heard that macaws have been witnessed feeding their offspring for up to two years. My own Goffin cockatoo enjoyed comfort feeding until she was a year old. I can’t say when to stop formula completely- whenever the bird is eating completely fine on it’s own. You may still want to offer formula on occasion just in case.
Weaning is not something to be pushed. Birds will wean at their own pace. Forcing them to wean faster than this will result in poorly-socialized chicks with attachment issues.
Slow, Sour and Yeasty Crop Remedies– Great read that goes into more detail about handfeeding.
Handfeeding Birds from Conure to Macaw
Handfeeding Cockatiel Babies (video)
Ah, spring…sunshine, showers, flowers, and egg laying in pet birds.
Not all female pets will lay eggs. My Goffin is 18 and has yet to lay a single egg. Others, often cockatiels, will habitually lay every year. So what do you do?
Remove anything that could be interpreted as a nest site– Happy Huts, boxes, enclosed toys/dishes, tents, etc. Also, do not pet your bird on the back or under the tail, as it simulates a male mounting. Head scratches are fine.
Provide lots of calcium and protein. Excess laying will deplete a hen’s calcium reserves, which can lead to soft shelled eggs (more likely to fracture internally) and brittle bones. Offer cuttlebone and/or mineral block, and cooked scrambled eggs with the shell. If this has been going on a long time, you may need to see a veterinarian for a quicker form of supplementation.
STOP REMOVING EGGS. Birds can count and usually have a specific clutch size that they are trying to reach. Removing eggs means that they never finish their clutch so they just keep laying more. Removing broken eggs is fine.
Once her clutch is complete she may try to incubate the eggs. Incubation lasts three to four weeks for most species. Eventually she should realize that her eggs are duds and abandon them. At this point they can be safely removed. Some hens will lay again, others will not. If she does lay again you can try leaving the eggs in longer. At the very least, leaving eggs in will space out the time in between clutches.
Pad the clutch. Don’t toss out the infertile eggs-save them for next year. If she lays again, add an extra egg in every few days. She should stop laying faster this way. You don’t need to buy fake eggs. Infertile eggs from the previous year work fine.
Decrease daylight hours (note–this does not work on all species). Most species are springtime breeders. Even birds that can lay year-round usually become more hormonal during the spring. You can try to shorten their breeding season by fudging their daylight hours. Covering the cage early at night may help.
Rearrange the cage, or move to a different cage. Disrupting the home environment can sometimes break the cycle.
If all else fails, you have two options: see a vet or give her a box.
If your pet has had issues with calcium depletion or egg binding, definitely see a vet about hormone shots.
If your bird is just determined to lay every year regardless of what you do, give her a nestbox in the spring. The idea is to get her used to laying in the box and only the box. That way when you remove the box, it signals the end of the breeding season for her.
For more information: Discouraging Breeding Behavior in Pet Birds
©2016 by Karen Trinkaus May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission. Image submitted by reader.
Clip both the wings or have a professional do it for you prior to taming. Once you get the bird home give it about a day to adjust. Taming should be done in a small room without much furniture. Bathrooms, shower stalls, and hallways that can be blocked off work well. The bird should be transferred from the cage to the taming room with as little fuss as possible.
The cage should be completely out of the room. Frightened birds will head for the cage if it is in sight. If you have other birds, the training room should preferably be out of sight and sound of them as well. You basically want an area with you, the bird, the training tools and nothing else. Tools needed for taming include treats, a towel, two wooden dowels (perches) and a something nonthreatening for you do concentrate on (phone, book, tablet, crochet). Millet spray is a great treat for any bird; grapes, nuts and other fruits can be used for larger species.
Lesson 1: I am Not a Predator
The first lesson is designed to demonstrate that you are not some ravenous predator out to kill the bird. The procedure is simple: Place a towel on the floor a few feet away from you and place the treats on it. Place the bird on the floor, sit down, and do your nonthreatening activity while completely ignoring the bird. It will probably move as far away from you as it can. This is why the room must be small- you want the bird in fairly close proximity, not 10 feet away. Feel free to chirp on occasion, but avoid making eye contact. Eating healthy finger foods like carrots or popcorn while you read also helps. Eventually it may get the courage to taste some of the treats, move about, or preen. When the bird starts relaxing around you physically you can start the next lesson.
Lesson 2: Stick Training and the Up Command
The object is to get the bird to step up onto a wooden perch and then a finger. You’ll need two perches that are familiar to the bird. Don’t use anything strange or fancy that could frighten the bird. Wooden dowels from the bird’s cage work well.
Start by holding the perch at the very end and getting the bird to step up on the opposite end. This can take a while. Most birds step up willingly if correctly prompted. The perch should be offered above the feet, slightly lower than mid-chest. Too low or too high and the bird won’t step up. Gently push into the bird to move it off balance, and it should step up. Some birds heroically cling to their current perch, regardless of how off balance they are. You just have to be persistent.
Praise the bird once it steps up correctly, then try again. This time use a word to ask it to step up. “Up” is the standard word, but pick whatever you know you’ll use on a regular basis. I usually fall back on “come here.” Whatever you choose, use it consistently and have anyone else in the household use it as well. Remember to praise the bird profusely after EVERY correct step up.
Eventually the bird should begin stepping up easily when asked. This would be a good place to stop the session, depending on the bird. Some birds get bored with repeated step ups and will simply jump off and head elsewhere. You definitely want to stop before that happens.
Next you want to make the transition from perch to finger. Continue the step ups, but each time slide your hand along the perch a bit closer to the bird. If the bird freaks out move back and inch or two and try later. After a while you should be able to get your finger directly under the bird’s feet while still grasping the perch. At this point you can try switching completely to fingers. Make sure you hold your fingers straight. A crumpled finger isn’t very inviting.
Once the bird is finger trained in the taming room, try it again from the cage. Try to give it something fun to do when it is outside the cage, so it has a reason to come out. A playstand stocked with millet or other healthy treats should work well. If your bird can happily play by itself on a stand with you in the same room then you’ve accomplished a lot. Petting is something people tend to worry about, and it can’t really be trained. Not all birds enjoy being pet, and it’s not something you want to push them into. Cockatiels, cockatoos and conures usually like being pet; budgies don’t. Focus on building a good relationship with your bird. Earning their trust is key.
Unlike most species, budgies don’t usually come handfed. For this reason, budgies are best purchased one at a time. Single birds are much easier to tame than two at a time. Once your first budgie is tame you can buy a second. The first may actually help you tame down the second. Birds watch each other closely, and a frightened bird may relax a bit if it sees a tame bird interacting with you. If you make the mistake of buying two budgies at once they should be separated (sight AND sound) for taming sessions.
The Timid Handfed
No taming problems for you! You wanted a nice friendly bird so you bought a handfed. However, the bird just sits there, not making a sound and avoiding contact. What went wrong?
Chances are that you’ve been tip-toeing around your new bird with the intention of letting it settle in. This is a problem. Birds are prey animals. In the wild they tend to make some level of noise when they feel comfortable. If their environment suddenly becomes silent, it is usually a sign of danger. By avoiding your bird and being as quiet as possible, you are conveying the message that danger is near. There is little in the way of “settling in” that birds need to do. They will need to adjust to their new cage and your daily routine, but that’s about it. Birds are much more adaptable that we give them credit for.
Handfeds need virtually no time to adjust. Don’t avoid them. Instead, immediately talking to them and wait no more than a day to start handling.
These birds usually come with problems. We humans have the tendency to teach our birds all kinds of annoying habits, and then give our pets up when they don’t meet our perception of The Perfect Bird™. I suggest consulting an avian behaviorist for truly troubled birds, as that is beyond the scope of this article. My goal here is to give you a jump start towards building a trusting, civil relationship.
Try to learn as much about your used bird as possible. What did it eat? Was it kept around children or pets? Physically abused? Exposed to toys? Other birds? The answer to each of these questions should influence how you treat your new bird. A bird with limited exposure to children, pets, toys and new foods may show fear at the introduction of any of these. Birds kept isolated from other birds for years probably have no flocking skills, particularly if they’ve been housed with a mirror (mirrors generally make birds antisocial or territorial). In this case you must use extreme caution when introducing it to other birds. A physically abused bird may be very fearful of humans.
Untame used birds are generally either fearful or hostile. A fearful bird will try as hard as it can to get away and will bite if cornered. A hostile bird holds its ground and bites if approached.
Given the choice, I’d rather work with a hostile bird. These guys tend to tame down quicker- it’s a simple matter of winning them over while at the same time displaying your authority. Basically you can treat these guys like new birds that just hit puberty and got an attitude. Reinforce the “up” and “down” commands, and give them praise and treats for good behavior. You can also modify the basic taming technique. For instance, a few years ago I adopted a mitred conure who neither liked nor hated people. Fry would grudgingly step up on an arm, but he would not voluntarily interact with humans. I placed him on the back of a chair at the kitchen table. I then read a book and ate a bird-friendly meal (eggs and toast) with my sun conure. My sun would pig out on the egg yolks and Fry would greedily eye the toast from his perch- he loved white bread. Eventually he’d throw caution to the wind, jump down, grab some toast and drag it to the other side of the table. The goal was to force him to interact briefly, while making it seem like his idea.
Fearful birds take much longer to tame down. If the bird is cage-bound you may want to keep it in the original cage, no matter how inadequate, to make it feel more secure. If you have to you can always cut a hole in the side of the original cage and physically attach it to a larger one. That way the bird can explore a new area if it feels comfortable. Covering one side of the cage can make the bird feel more secure as well.
In this case taming involves making the bird feel welcome, then gradually introducing hands in a nonthreatening manner. It is essential that you move at a pace the bird is comfortable with. Start out by just sitting near the cage doing a nonthreatening activity or talking to the bird. The object is to very slowly build trust, and this can take a very long time. Since these birds are so fearful of humans, grooming might be best if done by a professional so that you don’t shatter any limited trust you’ve built.
If you’ve only dealt with dogs and cats then bird mannerisms can seem very alien. Always keep in mind that birds are prey animals- often their first instinct when faced with something new is to fear it. Your attitude and approach will have the greatest impact on how birds respond to you.
Your attitude should be one of confidence and calm. Birds are very good at reading your emotions. If you are confident, the bird will be more likely to do what you ask. If you are calm and relaxed the bird should relax too. Many people are initially nervous about being bitten. These people tend to be overly timid, tense, and will jerk their hand back at the slightest provocation. You absolutely cannot act like this. The bird will sense your tension and become nervous as well. Practice with very tame birds first before approaching strange ones. Keep in mind that birds use their beaks like a hand. They will often reach out with it to steady themselves when stepping up, particularly if you are holding your hand too high or too far away.
The approach is simple. Walk towards the bird with your hands behind your back. Constantly talk to it in a sweet voice. Extend your hand with your fingers straight and your thumb down. Hold your hand up to the bird mid-belly. Do NOT press down on its feet. How is it supposed to raise its feet if you’re pressing down on them? Likewise, don’t hold your hand too high. Sticking your finger in its face is rude. Most handfeds are finger tame and should not have a problem stepping up so long as they are approached correctly. If the bird seems really nervous and tries to bolt, you will need to slow down your approach. Try moving your hand in from the side along the perch. Stop if the bird starts to move away, back up your hand and try again. Remember to keep talking to the bird in a sweet voice.
Birds seem to compartmentalize human bodies- arms, hands, head, face, torso – all can be viewed as separate objects. What your bird thinks of one body part may not apply to another. Many birds fear hands. Hands can grab, restrain, clip and even hit. If a bird runs away from hands, try offering your arm instead. You’d be amazed how many birds that bolt from hands will readily step onto an arm. The presentation of your various parts also makes a difference. As long as I sit or stand upright, my goffin sees my face as another bird. The moment I lie down my nose magically transforms into a chew toy.
Nonthreatening activities are an essential part of earning the trust of fearful birds. Remember- parrots are prey! Older birds in particular will be very frightened by new things and new people. UC Davis conducted a study that found that most parrots had a brief window in which they were open to new things. After that window had closed (usually two years for larger species) they became terrified at anything new in their environment. This is because when they are babies they are constantly learning about what is safe and what isn’t. Everything is new. However, once this learning period is complete anything new is assumed to be potentially dangerous. Better safe than sorry.
Acting nonchalant and using reverse psychology can help get around this somewhat. Here, Jennifer was having trouble getting Loki to play with a new toy. Instead of waving the toy in the bird’s face, she completely ignores the bird and concentrates on fiddling with the toy. Loki immediately comes over to see what’s up.
Copyright © 1997-2011 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.
In the Wild
Like budgies, cockatiels also hail from the deserts of Australia and breed very easily when given a constant supply of food. They are also extremely hardy, making them a perfect choice for beginners.
Tiels love to whistle, or at least the males do. Males are very cute when they’re whistling and showing off. They aren’t great talkers and anything they do say will be more of a whistled version. My male tiel Tootsie used to say “pretty bird” and another bird I knew named Jake could say “Jaker Bakers.” Tootsie actually picked this phrase up from him but would only say it once in a blue moon.
Tiels are dimorphic which makes sexing easy. Normal colored males have a yellow head. Hens look just like chicks- they are grey and retain the yellow bars on their wings and tail. Mutations often cannot be sexed visually but can easily be distinguished by behavior. Male cockatiels will sing and show off when presented with a mirror. Hens usually won’t show any interest in it at all. More help sexing various mutations, see Sexing Cockatiels Visually.
Cockatiels seem prone to giardia, a parasitic infection that causes itchy behavior and plucking. Other than this they are quite hardy.
Night Frights- Occasionally an owner will be woken up by the sound of their pet frantically thrashing about the cage. Odd noises, movement or lights may set off such a fright (like if you try to sneak past the bird’s cage at night without turning on the lights). Some frights have no apparent cause. Frights can be dangerous because the bird flaps about, refusing to calm down. Thrashing birds can easily break a wing, leg or bloodfeather. Use flour to clot the blood if a feather is bleeding.
If your tiel is prone to frights there are several things you can do. First, try to find out the cause and eliminate it. Is the bird next to a window? Could passing car headlights be the cause? Try covering the cage or leaving it uncovered. Try placing a night light in the room. If nothing seems to help, it would be beneficial to have a separate cage for the bird to sleep in, one without lots of toys and perches for it to knock into.
One thing you should consider for your own health is that cockatiels are very powdery birds. I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone who has asthma or another respiratory condition. If you still want a tiel but have allergies/asthma, invest in a good air filter.
Cockatiels aren’t as active as kaks or budgies so they don’t require as much room. Still, the cage should always be as large as possible. Pets will require a lot of time out with their owners. Pairs will breed in modest-sized cages.
See Breeding Cockatiels.
Regular psittacine diet. Veggies and leafy greens are favorites.
The cockatiel personality can be summed up in one word: sweet. The cool thing about cockatiels is you get a bird with all the good qualities of a cockatoo or larger parrot without all the vices. Cockatiels are very cuddly, but don’t get so attached to their owner that they develop bad habits like cockatoos.
A tiel’s favorite place to be is on its owner’s shoulder. Like most birds, they love spending time with the family and will call out if separated. Tiels have a very specific call for “Where did you go? Come back!” and will use it when you walk out of the room. Some owners find this call very irritating, and there are a few things you can do to prevent the bird from calling incessantly. First, keep the bird’s main cage in the living room or other actively-visited room. Second, keep the cage well-stocked with toys so that the bird has something to do when you leave. Third, put the bird on a schedule. Like most of us, birds like knowing what to expect. If you come home every day at around the same time, let the bird out, then put it away while you make dinner, the bird will learn that there are certain times it will be out and certain times it will be caged while people are still around. Multiple birds can also help keep each other company while you are otherwise engaged.
Aside from calling and the typical attitude that comes with puberty, cockatiels don’t have many behavior problems.
© 1997-2011 by Karen Trinkaus May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.
Chick doesn’t do much. It can’t hold it’s head up. Not a very strong feeding response. Down moist.
Has figured out where the food comes from. Stronger response. Can sit and hold head up fairly well. Down dry and fluffy.
Eyes may just begin to open.
Feather tracts should be getting more apparent. Chick begins to do defense display (hissing and swaying) when woken up or when the container is moved.
Band baby. Feather tracts beginning to bud with tiny pinfeathers
Week 2 (Days 8 – 14)
Pinfeathers grow in. Chicks get better balance, start stretching, standing up and flapping their wings.
Week 3 (Days 15 – 21)
Pinfeathers open, tail and primaries (flight feathers) first. Chicks flap their wings and preen a lot. They also begin picking at things around them (you may want to start providing food items to play with now).
Week 4 (Days 22 – 28)
Weaning is well on its way. Chicks will begin flying all over the place. It’s usually good to wait until they have fairly good control at flying before clipping the wings.
© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.