People instinctively crave touch, as to us, it means empathy, love, and affection. To a parrot, however, touching outside of the head, neck, and feet means that you are initiating sex, very simply. A parrot can be perfectly happy without touch, though many love it.
We should not be touching our parrots outside of the head, neck, and feet, as it brings such frustration to our birds. If continued, human touch can actually spur hormonal attacks in our feathered pets. There are a lot of things that parrots love – for instance, unhealthy food – but it’s our job to limit it for their own health and overall well-being. Yet despite the fact that we should not generally be cuddling our birds, there are many instances when it is actually appropriate to touch a pet parrot in an otherwise ‘inappropriate’ way: for instance, in training.
Harness training immediately comes to mind, or preparing your bird for the inevitable vet visits in his life. During harness training, owners need to prepare the bird by lifting wings, touching a bird’s sides, and more.
Birds should be comfortable with being touched all over if possible. A baby bird is easiest to teach this to, but lots of us obtain birds that are fully grown. What do you if you want to train an adult parrot that touch is okay?
Assuming yours is okay with being petted, just watch very carefully for hormonal behaviours. I’ve found that it is possible to instigate a training session prior, so that the bird is focused on treats. Maverick, our Senegal, can be completely distracted by the prospect of food if we begin a session with some harness training exercises, like wing lifts. You need to watch carefully, though, and only reward at the end.
Stop everything immediately if your bird:
- Bobs his head to regurgitate
- Begins to quiver or shake
- Vocalizes with a mating noise such as clucking
- Raises her tail or wings for you to touch beneath
- Tries to mount your hand, or anything else nearby, to masturbate (if male)
- Drops wings
- The featherless areas of the face flush like sunburn (common in macaws)
These behaviours mean a bird is sexually stimulated, and you need to stop and not reward them. They may be done singly, or in any combination. Remember, rewarding those things tells your bird, ‘Okay, I’ll be your mate.’ He just can’t understand why you will never follow through! Long-term, this could bring screaming, maybe plucking, and attacks on the humans in your household – even you.
Try not to pull on the tail, rub under the wings for extended periods of time, or touch a bird’s vent (butt). These are all major triggers for hormonal behaviour.
What do I do if my bird isn’t comfortable being touched or petted – at all?
This is okay, too. From a vet’s perspective, it isn’t ideal, but our cockatiel, for instance, was never comfortable with touch. Never once in her life did we pet her.
To get her comfortable with the kind of handling she’d receive at a vet’s office, we toweled her numerous times, so that it was not a new or scary thing. Toweling equaled millet – her favourite. And toweling was mostly okay.
It did take us a little while to accept that Mishka the cockatiel would never accept scratches. But in the end, that was who she was.
So long as your bird is healthy and seems happy, we owners can let our birds be themselves. There’s nothing wrong with working to teach your bird to accept human touch, but you shouldn’t feel the need to if the bird is happy.
If you really want to teach a super-shy bird to love scratches, you can try using the ‘time out’ method, or negative reinforcement (negative meaning to remove something from an environment – in this case, you!).
Sarah Stull is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a photographer, violist, and violinist who has plans of opening her own avian sanctuary on the east coast of America.