For many years, long time bird owners have stated that learning to properly towel a bird (a method used for restraint by wrapping it in a towel) is a skill you should learn as a bird owner. Many people argue that if your bird is properly trained and socialized, toweling becomes archaic and unnecessary.
Both sides of the debate have merit…I take a very strong stand – right in the middle.
While it is always preferable that your bird readily accepts handling by a vet, and willingly agrees to take its medicine, you cannot count on this ALWAYS being the case. The unexpected needs to be factored in when we are dealing with real life situations.
Injured birds sometimes require toweling to be transported safely to the vet so no further injury occurs, and unfamiliarity with the toweling procedure might add dangerous amounts of stress to their already critical ordeal.
I stand with the opinion that we should have toweling as a back-up plan to training and socialization for when circumstances are unusual enough to cause your bird to behave unpredictably.
This is a training website, so it will come as no surprise to you that we favor the idea of using positive reinforcement for behavior modification – for example, rewarding your bird for relaxed interaction with strangers. The more comfortable your bird is with strangers, the less stressful it will be when the vet has his hands virtually everywhere on its body during an examination. There is a lot of value in this practice.
Syringe training is merely an adaptation of touch training that greatly increases your chances of getting bad tasting medicines into your bird at a time when it needs them. There is also a lot of value here.
Ideally, you don’t want to have to restrain your bird for any reason. Restraint means forcibly restricting escape. It is stressful and certainly doesn’t do your relationship with your bird any good. But there are circumstances when there is no other alternative, especially if a bird has become aggressive or needs medication to survive an illness. Therefore, knowing how to towel a bird has value too.
Unfortunately, the process of toweling is usually hindered by the fact that most birds are terrified at the sight of an open towel – even birds who have never been restrained by them in the past.
Of course, no one can know what the exact psychology behind this fear might be, but I suspect it is related to birds being prey animals -a dangling, open towel may be reminiscent of the wingspan of a large bird of prey.
For the bird who has experienced forcible toweling, it is easier to understand their fears. Birds are typically attacked by predators from above and behind – the same direction from which we usually towel a bird that is running away!
So it makes sense to always introduce a towel from below. Whether you are desensitizing a bird to the towel or actually toweling them, it should start with the towel lying flat on a table and never appear to be swooping down from above.
Desensitizing is very much like socializing a bird with an inanimate object. It is slow and stress-free introduction that begins with getting your bird to be comfortable with the presence of a towel to the point where the bird will go over and stand on it without reservation.
From there, games like peek-a-boo or where’s-the-birdy increase comfortable levels with the towel, as one or the other of you hide behind or beneath it. Don’t forget to reinforce their comfort with lots of praise.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.