Training Birds


Taming a bird is a considerable undertaking. Since birds make wonderful companions, it is worth the effort. Canaries and finches can be tamed to ride on your hand by patient hand feeding in the cage. However, these birds may be too small to be tamed outside the cage without risking injury. Wild hookbills or parrots that have not been handled for some time require patience and understanding to become trusting of people. The taming process can take a few months. During these months keep the bird’s flight feathers trimmed.

To accustom a bird to handling, you actually have to handle the bird. Once or twice each day, remove your parrot from his cage with a soft towel so that he cannot bite you and he does not crash around the cage. At first, this may be difficult but it is important that you become skilled at toweling your bird so that it is not traumatic and so that you can do so in an emergency. You may choose to keep your bird in a smaller cage during the taming process so it will be easier to catch him gently. If you wear gloves to handle your bird, be sure you are not squeezing him. Birds breathe using the muscles on the outside of the chest. If they are held tightly around the chest, they cannot breathe.

Take the bird to another room away from the cage. It is important that you work in a room without other animals and without much furniture. It will undermine your bird’s trust in you if you chase him around objects in order to handle him.

Place your bird on a secure perch and have some special treats your bird does not usually receive, such as sunflower seeds or grapes (bird favorites). You want your bird to look forward to his time away from the cage and to see you as a source of good things. The first day, offer the treats in a dish and sit in the room and read. Return your bird to his cage. The second day, offer treats from your hand. Your bird may take the food but immediately drop it. Persevere. During the taming process, never deprive your bird of his regular food by making him get all his food from your hand. Be sure he has access to a healthy variety of food at all times. Just save a few favorites for your time together.

Once your bird begins eating food from your hand, offer him your arm or a stick firmly against his lower chest. The perch you offer must be slightly higher and in front of the one on which he stands. Birds will seldom step down for any reason other than escape. If your bird escapes onto the floor, offer the perch again. A bird is likely to accept a ride from the floor. Remember to associate the action of stepping up with a command you can use later. Many bird owners use "Up" or "Step Up". In fact, many birds say "Up" themselves. When he steps up, transfer him back to his safe perch and repeat.

A bird may want to test the perch with his beak before he steps onto it. This may look like an attempt to bite so be sure not to chicken out and move the perch while he is testing it out.

When your bird readily steps on the perch, offer a treat as he steps up to encourage him to stay on the new perch. Begin moving your free hand close to his tail and then his feet. If he grabs at your hand to bite, wiggle his perch slightly and say “no”. If he stops, reassure him with your voice. He wants security for perching and will learn that biting is risky. He will associate “no” with something he dislikes -- the unstable perch -- which will serve you in many instances. NEVER cause your bird to fall from his perch. His growing acceptance of handling is based on his hope that you can be trusted.

Eventually, rest the perch in your lap and accustom your bird to being touched and fed by you. Birds enjoy having the feathers on their neck gently ruffled and especially enjoy gentle circular massage near their ears.

If you are able to work with your bird for 5 minutes twice each day, the entire taming process will take a few months. Patience is truly a virtue when working with birds and the friendship of a bird is truly a gift. There are several good books on Parrot training that you and your family may enjoy. I recommend books by Mattie Sue Athan or The Pleasure of Their Company and My Parrot My Friend.


Birds mimic human voices because they enjoy communicating with their social group. Pet birds consider people part of their group. Even birds that are not tame have the ability to mimic sounds and talk. Crows do it, Jays do it, even Starlings. Some species are better mimics than others. The best known talking pet birds are Minahs and Hookbills, or parrots.

MYTH: If you have more than one bird, the birds will not learn to talk.
If birds have bird companions, they may not need social attention from people. Birds learn to talk because they like the attention it generates or because they mimic the social activity of people--talking. In some cases, birds learn to talk from other birds. Birds mimic because sound interests them. If they are interested in human sounds or in gaining human attention they learn to talk, even if other birds are around.

MYTH: If you teach your bird to whistle, he won't learn to talk.
It doesn't seem to matter whether birds whistle in their eventual ability to talk but since whistling is easier, birds that don't talk often whistle very well. If a bird enjoys attention, and talking gets more attention than whistling, the bird will talk more and whistle less.

MYTH: Tame or hand raised babies learn to talk better than adult birds. Tame birds are sometimes more interested in people but this is not a guarantee that your bird will talk. Frightened birds may not learn to talk because they are under too much stress to learn much of anything. They also may avoid human sounds out of fear, making them less likely to talk. But hand raising or acquiring young birds does not guarantee talking ability.

Some birds never learn to talk. Even hand raised African Greys who live with no other birds and are not taught to whistle. If talking is important to you, you may want to buy an older bird that already talks.

TEACHING BIRDS TO TALK Pet birds that are part of the family learn to talk much as a child does. They babble first and develop better enunciation later. The more language to which they are exposed, the more appropriately and adeptly they use it. Often birds first mimic the sounds that occur during important events such as the sound of the microwave or a familiar person saying "Hello". Birds copy high frequency sounds and voices readily. A bird's first word is usually one spoken with excitement, calling the dog or laughing, so birds don't always learn what you want them to. They are less likely to repeat something that is boring or has little meaning to the bird.

To teach a particular phrase, you may purchase commercial recordings that repeat phrases over and over. These run the risk of not interesting your bird. Recordings are available in human voices or bird voices. You can buy an answering machine tape and record what you want your bird to mimic in your own voice. If you would like to teach your bird a long phrase, start with the last word first. You could teach a bird to recite your address or phone number.

If you use certain words at certain times your bird will use them at the same times. For example, many birds say “hello” whenever the phone rings or “good-bye” when they hear keys jingle. You can teach your bird to say “apple” for a slice of apple and “toy” for a chew toy. When your bird discovers that words have meanings there is no limit to what they might imitate. Some trainers think you should cover the cage and repeat a phrase over and over so the bird will not be distracted by other sights in the room. The bird may not respond during the lesson but will remember the words later. Birds are unlikely to talk when they have your full attention since they can better use talking to GET your attention.

Recent research into the intelligence of birds has shown that birds also learn by observation. Because of their social nature, competition for attention motivates them to perform. Dr. Irene Pepperberg has done some incredible speech training with parrots. Her most famous student, Alex, is able to name several colors and shapes, food items and often asks to go back to his cage to get out of performing repetitive exercises. You can use Dr. Pepperberg's method to teach your bird a new phrase. Have a friend, within sight of your bird, repeat a phrase after you. Reward your friend with a peanut or something that your bird would like. Reverse rolls. Reward your bird for any attempt to join in. Gradually restrict rewards to your bird for the most clear approximations of words.

Beware: once your bird understands how to “talk” he may become quite demanding!