The first day or two after bringing Toby home we were full of conflicting emotions – excitement about finally having a bird and crushing guilt because she was clearly terrified. But we knew that we must set on a course of taming a parakeet!
She came home from a large chain pet store at about 11am on a Saturday, moved into her new cage, and sat in the same place without moving for about 8 hours straight before finally exploring enough to find food and water.
Part of the challenge of buying a parakeet that hasn’t been hand fed is that not only does your new parakeet simply not like you; he actually thinks that you are a predator, just because your eyes happen to be on the front of your head (instead of on the sides, where they should be, obviously). In our experience, she is also only accustomed to listening to soft pop, and will have some serious anxiety about television noises for at least a couple of weeks.
So, the first goal is to convince your parakeet that you do not intend to kill and eat him. The way to do this is get a nice comfy chair and sit next to your parakeet’s cage for about 30 minutes, as many times as day as you can. Talk to your parakeet so he gets used to the sound of your voice, or sing if you’re so inclined.
You’ll know your parakeet is comfortable with your presence near the cage by his body language and behavior. He will be relaxed and will go about his business preening himself, eating, playing etc.
The next stage is to show your parakeet your hand, don’t put it in the cage yet, put it near the cage and let him think about it, you may have to do this over a period of several days before your hand stops being alarming.
I read a theory somewhere that a parakeet ends up thinking that a human’s face is a bird, and the hands are two additional birds, and that the body is some fantastic moving perch. If you think about it that way, it’s easy to see why the hands would have to be accepted and deemed non-threatening separately from the face and body.
Once your parakeet is more comfortable seeing your face and hands you can start putting your hand in the cage.
Don’t try to touch your parakeet, put your hand somewhere neutral in the cage and allow him to get used to it, he will eventually get curious enough to explore on his own. Of course I would advise that you speak encouragingly to him throughout the whole process.
You should also use these occasions to give Millet to your parakeet, or offer him a handful of bird seed, parakeets are intelligent and he will quickly come to associate you and your hand with treats and fun.
One of the best random traits of the parakeet is that if you press your finger lengthwise against his lower tummy he will automatically step up onto your finger. With the parakeet still in his cage, start practicing stepping up to get him used to the mechanics, and he will learn to regard your finger as an safe place to perch. Say “step up” each time you practice, and soon you won’t have to touch him to achieve the desired result, just offer your finger a short hop away and give the verbal command.
We worked with Toby inside her cage for about 4 weeks before we felt comfortable trying to take her out and trusted that because she knew who we were, and wasn’t scared of us, we would be able to get her back in the cage on our hands, or bribe her back with millet. This was compounded because unlike a lot of birds available for purchase, it turned out Toby’s wings had never been clipped, and she came home to us fully flighted.
If you bring home a bird whose wings have been clipped I would recommend a different approach that involves taking the bird out of the cage after a few days and encouraging him to get used to being gently and respectfully handled (with a lot of treats also).
For the first few weeks of living with Toby, every time I came home it was clear she did not recognize me immediately and would react with fear. I would go about my business, chatting with her all along about my day, and then gradually she would realize who I was and become excited to see me. Now, of course, it’s a totally different story, as soon as I get home Toby rushes to greet me and tap her beak against my finger through the cage bars, and then demands to be let out for play.
Final note, if you’re attuned to your parakeet’s body language you’ll know when he’s ready to advance to the next step, and soon you’ll be able to take him out of the cage and let him stretch his wings, but be sure to go at his pace, even if it sometimes seems he will always be scared of you, he won’t.
Next up: Taming a Parakeet: Part 2