When I had the idea for this article, I really didn’t expect to be so long winded. I apologize for having to break this topic down into subsets. Regaining trust from your feathered companions can be tricky, though, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t rush anything or skip essential information. So, without further adieu:
- Aggressive birds can be more difficult to work with because, obviously, they’re not afraid to bite… and parrot bites hurt! For the sake of safety, never question your gut. If you’ve got a bad feeling, leave him alone. There may be better times to work with him, or times when he’s more agreeable. Try to learn his routine and his habits, it’ll help! Signs of aggression in birds: If the feathers on his neck are fluffed up, if his eyes are pining/dilating, if his beak is open, if he’s growling/barking, or if his tail feathers are spread.
- For those who just got the bird, skim through the steps I’ve outline for Type A parrots and see if there’s anything you can apply. Sometimes, patience and familiarity can go a long way. Let your bird settle in for a good amount of time and get used to the household routine before you try to work with him. After he’s settled in, try dropping a treat into your bird’s food bowl every time you walk past his cage). Eventually, he will look forward to seeing you. You become the sign that he gets a treat. You’re something positive that he looks forward to. Do not give him a treat if he displays signs of aggression, however. Do what you must to not get that reaction from him, even if it means slipping the treat through the food bars.
- After a while, he might see you and start to approach the bars, waiting for his treat. Again, watch for signs of aggression and if he displays any, then don’t reward him. If it looks like he just wants the treat, however, try to open his cage door and hand feed the reward. Do not put yourself in danger. Move slowly so he’s not frightened, and try to hold on to the smallest part of the treat so he has plenty of room to grab it without nabbing your fingers in the process. If you’re using sunflower seeds, for example, this can be tricky (and sunflower seeds can be dangerous for your bird). But a longer stem of millet would make the process easy. Alternately, you can put something he enjoys (that you’ve gotten him acquainted with) onto a spoon and delicately approach him that way. Most of my birds enjoy organic almond butter. It’s like crack to them and it’s not as potentially harmful as peanut butter. I would get a little bit on my spoon and use that.
- Gradually you can work your hand closer and closer. For millet, try shorter stems so your finger is within their range (it’s daunting, I know, but the goal is to get them comfortable with your fingers). For almond butter, hold the spoon closer and closer to the actual spoon part. Eventually, you can even try putting a dab of almond butter on your finger and forgo the spoon entirely. If you get bit at any time, do not blame the bird. He’s only defending himself from a perceived threat. It’s not his fault. You can exclaim loudly (like another bird might do) and then remove the reward altogether to teach him that by biting, the treat is removed. Take it back a few steps and try to work up your trust with him again slowly.
- When your bird is taking treats from your hand, you can try holding out your finger with your other hand holding the treat just beyond the finger. This way, the bird has to cross your finger to get the treat. Again, it’s imperative to watch for signs of aggression. If he looks intimidating, you can move your hands (as a pair) further away (so he has to walk to you and is less threatened by you approaching him), or you can try again later. With any success, he’ll reach over your finger to get the treat, or he’ll actually step onto or across your finger for the treat. Do this several times over a period of days to get him comfortable with the presence of that finger.
- Finally, things are going well. He’s reaching or stepping across to get his reward. He’s ignoring your finger as a threat and has learned that hands can be good things because they bring good food. When you reach this step, coax him onto your finger. You can hold your finger close to him and the treat just out reach. Do not attempt to force him because this could make him lose trust in you. Wait for him to move onto your finger. Keep in mind that birds use their beaks as a way to steady themselves. It might be unsettling if he reaches for you with his beak, but if he isn’t showing any sign of aggression, he’s probably just going to grip your finger as a way to steady himself. Be patient.Be forgiving. Try not to be afraid. If he makes a few attempts to get your finger but never causes pain, consider it a good day and give him the reward. You might have to stretch this out over a few days before he actually climbs aboard, but that’s okay. He’s making progress!
- When he does climb onto your finger, reward him immediately. You might even give him lots of treats for this. He’ll realize he’s hit the jackpot when he steps up and treat your finger like the ultimate food button. It can help some birds to learn a known command, so that they know what to expect. It can be anything you like, but commonly, people will say “Step up.” With enough practice, the bird will come to know that “step up” means to step onto your finger. He’ll know exactly what you expect him do and that will lessen his fear of the unknown (because it won’t be so unknown). The first few times he steps up successfully, let him step off immediately. Practice this with him a few times everyday. Eventually, you can move your hand (with him on it) farther from his perch. Don’t take him out of his cage until he seems to feel comfortable on you and even when he’s comfortable, don’t keep him out for long. Remember, this needs to be a “baby steps” process so he can build up trust.
- Some additional notes: hold him below eye level. I don’t really believe in “establishing dominance” with a bird… however, if he’s sitting higher than you he might perceive himself to be the one in charge and that makes him feel like he has the right to bite you. Learn his body language. If he leans away from you at any time, obey his wishes and leave him alone. This is good because it builds trust (he learns that he has the right to not be held when he doesn’t want to) and it also tells him he can object to being held without resorting to aggression.
- Some birds may not adjust quickly. It might take years of working with them. They may have suffered severe abuse, or perhaps they’re just stubborn. Don’t lose hope. Keep trying. If you don’t feel safe to use your hands, try training them with gloves on. Don’t frighten the bird. As usual, go slow and get them accustomed to the gloves. You can be confident with the gloves on and the bird is going to pick up on that confidence. The pair that I use are these: from Amazon. I can feel a really hard bite but none of my birds have ever broken the skin with these on.
- Clicker training can be a great tool for aggressive birds.
- Target training can also be great. I don’t use clicker or target training because I’m not afraid of bites (most of my birds are small, though, I might change my mind if I ever find myself working with a macaw!), but I’ve heard the testimonies from people who use these and they swear by each training method.