Training Birds

As described, birds are social creatures and usually crave interaction. The interactions between you and your bird establish mutual understanding—the owner's understanding of the bird, and the bird's understanding of the owner. We often think of the training task as a one-way learning process. However, you will find that there is much to be learned by you, too, from each bird you train. Anyone who has ever trained animals knows that patience, respect, love, time, consistency, and commitment are requisites to the task. Training birds is no different.

Although all birds will eventually respond to certain stimuli, members of the Parrot Family are the most trainable. Nonetheless, each bird is different, but there are generalizations that apply to bird training in a broad sense. Young birds are the easiest to train.

Most often, it takes three or four sessions to establish a behavior, and most birds will remember the behavior for weeks and sometimes months, even without repetition after this point.


Learn to read the bird's signals. Make your own communications consistent and in a simple direct way that the bird will come to recognize.

Working at the Bird's Pace

Practice about three times daily, and train in small steps. Extend the length of a practice time if the bird is doing well, but end the session on a positive note before it exhausts its attention span. Don't force the bird into training if it is not attentive. If the bird is disinterested in “treats” (rewards), or is not paying attention, it has had enough. Birds that act “hyper” or aggressive are insecure and do not respond to training. Only birds that are comfortable, healthy, and happy are trainable.

Cues and Rewards

The bird will come to associate certain cues with behaviors when they are repeated over and over again. Cues can be verbal or gestural, but they must be consistent.

Immediate positive reinforcement works best. Trainers first use a clicker, or the word good! Then they reward the bird with a scratch on the head and an edible treat to strengthen the message of approval. Use a food that is easy for the bird to eat. Reward quickly after the behavior so the bird does not forget to associate it with the action.

Disciplinary Measures

Don't spank your bird. Wild dogs discourage one another with displays of physical aggression. That is the reason that spanking pet dogs to discourage certain behaviors works. However, birds are rarely physically aggressive in nature. They vocalize their disapproval. Trainers have found that a verbal reprimand (no!) together with covering the cage, putting the bird on the floor, or gently squirting the bird with water (not in the face) disabuses it of bad behavior. Be consistent with whatever disciplinary measure you use, so your bird will get the message.

Favorite Teachable Behaviors

  • Sitting— This is the first and easiest step in all training. You can teach your bird to sit calmly on your hand by saying good! and giving seeds as a reward, then saying no! if it sidles up your arm.

  • Kissing— Place one seed between your lips and another in the hand not holding the bird. Coax the bird over to the seed in your lips, using the one in your hand as bait. Let it eat the one out of your lips. Speak, reward, and repeat until the bird understands.

  • Waving— The key to teaching this behavior is speed. Put the bird on a T-stand and hold out your finger so the bird can step onto it. When the bird raises its foot to step onto your hand, say good! Repeat this, only the second time say wave as you move your finger.

    Do this several times, then gradually move your hand farther away. The bird will eventually learn to respond to the raised finger and cue “wave,” even from a distance, by raising its foot.

  • Nodding Yes or No— Put a seed between your thumb and forefinger and move it back and forth a few inches away from the bird, either vertically for yes or sideways for no. When the bird follows these movements with its head, say good! and reward it with a seed.

  • Teaching birds to talk— Psitticines are wonderful mimics, but some learn to talk and some don't. African Greys and Yellownaped Amazons are favorite talking parrots. There is no way to force a bird to talk. The bird may naturally pick up words it hears or overhears, and you need to be ready with a word and a treat when this happens.

    Gradually, the bird will get the message and will repeat the word on cue. For instance, it will say hello when it hears the phone ring. Only reward the bird when you give the cue to talk; otherwise the bird may repeat the word over and over again every time it sees you.

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