Taming a parrot was one of the most popular topics of discussion when I worked at Bird Talk, and the discussion continues today between avian behaviorists and their clients in bird club meetings, books and magazine articles, and on the Internet.
A good first step in taming your cockatiel is getting her to be comfortable around you. To do this, give your bird a bit of warning before you approach her cage. Don’t sneak up on her and try not to startle her. Call her name when you walk into the room. Try to be quiet and move slowly around your pet. Keep your hands behind you and reassure the bird that you aren’t there to harm her, that everything is all right, and that she’s a wonderful cockatiel.
After your bird is comfortable having you in the same room, try placing your hand in her cage as a first step toward taking her out. Just rest your hand in the cage, on the floor, or on a perch, and hold it there for a few seconds. Don’t be surprised if your bird flutters around and squawks at first at the “intruder.”
Do this several times each day, leaving your hand in the cage for slightly longer each day. Within a few days, your cockatiel won’t make a fuss about your hand being in her space, and she may come over to investigate this new perch.
Do not remove your hand from the birdcage the first time your cockatiel lands on it; just let her get used to perching on your hand. After your cockatiel has calmly perched on your hand for several days in a row, try to take your hand out of the cage slowly with your bird on it. Some cockatiels will take to this new adventure willingly, while others are reluctant to leave the safety and security of home. (Be sure your bird’s wings are clipped, and all doors and windows are secured before taking your bird out of her cage.)
If your bird doesn’t seem to like this at all, you can try an alternate taming method. Take the bird out of her cage and into a small room, such as a bathroom, that has been bird-proofed (the toilet lid is down, the shower door is closed, all windows are closed, and the bathroom hasn’t been recently cleaned with any cleansers that have strong chemical odors). Sit down on the floor, place your bird in front of you, and begin gently playing with her. Don’t be surprised if your bird tries to fly a few times. With clipped wings, however, she won’t get very far and will give up trying after a few failed attempts.
Breeder Charlene Beane has demonstrated her parakeet taming method for me several times, and its simplicity and effectiveness always amazes me. I’m sure the same process can be used to calm cockatiels, too. Charlene will hold a bird who isn’t quite tame close to her chest so the bird can hear her heartbeat, which seems to calm the bird. She then talks to the bird in a low, soothing tone and explains that the bird will make someone a wonderful pet. As she does this, she gently begins to stroke the cockatiel’s back, which helps the bird relax. She continues for about five minutes to explain the bird’s role as a perfect pet, stroking the bird as she talks. Pretty soon, the bird is calm and ready to be handled.
Step Up, Step Down
Once you’ve calmed your cockatiel using Charlene’s method, see if you can make perching on your hand a game for your pet. Once she masters perching on your hand, you can teach her to step up by gently pressing your finger up and into the bird’s belly. This will cause the bird to step up. As she does so, say “step up” or “up.” Before long, your bird will respond to this command without much prompting.
Along with the “up” command, you may want to teach your cockatiel the “down” command. When you put the bird down on her cage or playgym, simply say “down” as she steps off your hand. These two simple commands give you a great deal of control over your bird, because you can say “up” to put an unruly bird back in her cage and you can tell a parrot who needs to go to bed “down” as you put the bird in her cage at night.
After your bird has mastered the “up” and “down” commands, encourage her to climb a “ladder” by moving her from index finger to index finger (the “rungs”). Keep taming sessions short (about ten minutes is the maximum cockatiel attention span) and make them fun so taming is enjoyable for both of you.
After your bird has become comfortable sitting on your hand, try petting her. Birds seem to like to have their heads, backs, cheek patches, under wing areas, and eye areas (including the closed eyelids) scratched or petted lightly. Quite a few like to have a spot low on their back at the base of their tail (over their preen glands) rubbed. Many birds do not enjoy having their stomachs scratched, although yours may think this is heaven! You’ll have to experiment to see where your bird likes to be petted. You’ll know you’re successful if your bird clicks or grinds her beak, pins her eyes, or settles onto your hand or your lap with a completely relaxed, blissful expression on her face.
Some people may try to tell you that you need to wear gloves while taming your cockatiel to protect yourself from a bite. I recommend against this. A cockatiel generally doesn’t bite that hard, and wearing gloves will only make your hands appear scarier to your bird. If your pet is scared, taming her will take more time and patience on your part, which may make the process less enjoyable for you both.