It’s not hard to train your bird to do simple commands, such as stepping onto your hand when asked, and it doesn’t take a lot of extra time or effort – just consistency, patience and a little understanding.
It is easiest and best to start training your bird at a young age, but older birds can still learn new tricks. Some birds are easier to teach than others, so don’t expect your cockatiel to learn how to do somersaults on command. Some of the other parrot species love learning new tricks and the more people watching, the better.
All pet birds should learn some basic commands, such as stepping up onto your hand or finger. This ‘step-up’ command is the most important thing to teach your bird, as you can pick him up in an instant if there’s an emergency. It also makes handling your bird so much easier.
The training area
When you start with training, take your cockatiel away from his familiar environment, such as his cage. This is to ensure that he doesn’t become territorial or aggressive. The area to be used for training should be safe for the bird, with a perch not higher than chest level (use a perch only if he is unafraid of it). A T-stand or perch is better than a flat surface like a table, as the bird cannot walk around and lose concentration. A perch is also safer, as he can’t jump off. Distractions and noise levels should be kept to a minimum to ensure proper concentration.
For a bird who is very fearful or aggressive, training may have to take place in or on top of the cage until he is confident enough to move to another area.
The next thing you will need is a reward that the bird will work for. This could be anything, but food normally works best. However, some birds are not very food-motivated, so even a scratch on the head could be very rewarding for them.
To find a food reward that the bird loves, put several choices down for him and take note of the ones he eats first. The food reward should be cut into small portions so that he can eat them quickly and in one bite. This allows you to work faster and longer without the bird getting full or wasting time eating. Aggressive birds should be fed with a spoon to avoid the person being bitten.
Teaching the step-up command
Once you are ready to start training, show your cockatiel the food treat and tease him with it. By teasing I mean showing it to him, but not letting him take it. You can also try to pretend to eat it yourself to make him more interested and motivated. He has to work for it by stepping up. Slowly offer your finger for the step-up and say ‘step up’ (or any other command you would like to use) in a happy, cheerful way. When he steps up, praise him immediately, make a fuss and give him the treat.
If he refuses to step up, you can try to press you finger softly just above his feet to unbalance him slightly and encourage him to step up. Another technique is to use your other hand to push him up from behind.
Laddering is a useful technique to teach the step-up quickly and reliably. Once on your finger, ask your cockatiel to step up onto your other finger and then again onto the first finger, so that he is climbing a ‘ladder’ of fingers. Stop after a few repetitions and praise him and give him a treat.
After you have trained your bird to step up and once the step-up is reliably in place, practise it in different locations and using different perches. For example, practise the step-up from your hand to an unfamiliar perch, from hand to hand, and from a familiar perch to a hand-held perch.
By varying the use of hands and perches, the bird will become more tolerant and used to the different ways of stepping up. Make sure that your bird is praised and rewarded after every step-up to ensure the enjoyment of the exercise.
Now he is ready to be moved around with a hand-held perch or on your hand. Once you have asked the bird to step up, slowly move him around and at the same time give him lots of rewards and affection.
- If at any time the bird seems stressed, stop the training and carry on when he is more relaxed.
- Make sure the reward is a great motivator and your bird will do ‘almost’ anything to get it.
- Have several small sessions a week.
- Persistence and repetition – focus on one particular lesson and reinforce with repetition and on a regular time schedule.
- Patience – don’t expect immediate results.
- Consistency – use simple, consistent commands.
- Have fun, pay attention to the bird’s body language and keep things simple.