Q: I have a female lutino cockatiel that is losing what little training she had. I bought her from a pet shop three years ago. The man who sold her to me said she was a baby, but my vet thinks she may be older. In any case, she seems to not need my attention as much as she used to. She also takes off as soon as she’s on my finger. I keep her wing feathers trimmed, but she tries to fly. She enjoys her playpen with toasted oats, but that seems to be her only interest. She wasn’t trainable when I got her. Whenever I tried to do anything with her she would just turn her back to me. She never bites. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Well, for starters you can be very thankful you have a bird that never bites! At least you won’t be afraid to work with her. At 3 years old, your cockatiel will probably be with you for many more years (possibly 20-plus years, in fact!), so it’s worth spending some time to work with her. I don’t know from your question how much time you have spent trying to gain your cockatiel’s trust. Did she fly off your hand once, or on one day, or for a week? I have found that it can take daily work over a period of at least four months to win the trust of an older cockatiel. With your bird, keep her wing feathers trimmed while you are training her. Here are some additional steps:
Reconnect With Your Cockatiel
It sounds like you’re already doing what I think of as a first step. Get your cockatiel out and sitting on a stand so that she’s with you. Don’t start off by asking her for lots of interaction. The idea is that she gets used to being around you and your family, seeing what you do and how you move about. Can you include her in more activities? For example, can she be in the bathroom when you shower and brush your teeth? Be near you at dinner, or help you watch TV or study? Can she go out in a safe carrier on car rides with you when the weather is appropriate? In these situations, she doesn’t have much choice but to pay attention to you. When a bird becomes less tame, we need to take responsibility as bird owners for the lower amounts of time we’re putting into the relationship.
Because your cockatiel enjoys toasted oat cereal, instead of letting her eat on her own, hand-feed her some of these favorites every once in a while when she’s out on the stand. If she flies off the stand, calmly have step onto your hand and return her to her stand. This is a good chance to practice “Step-up” with your bird so that you establish some communication between the two pf you. Cockatiels often want to be up off the floor and back on a high perch when they’ve landed on the floor. With one hand guiding your bird from the back, gently push your index finger (or a perch or stick for a potentially aggressive or fearful bird) into the cockatiel’s chest above her feet. Say “Step up,” or whatever command you intend to use, and slightly knock her off balance with your finger while guiding her from the rear with your other hand, so her only choice is to step onto your finger or the perch. Do it again, getting her higher and higher till she is at chest or playgym level. Start over if she flies off. Remember to praise your bird for stepping up successfully! Now start doing that over and over.
An alternative behavior to work on with your bird is to teach her to climb up a ladder to get back to her playstand or cage. Some people have cockatiels that aren’t easily handled but can still learn behaviors that make living with them easier. Start by asking your bird to step onto a ladder when she’s flown to the floor. Then deliver her to her playstand or cage. Do that for a week or so. Then, start guiding the bird toward the ladder and using a command such as “Up the ladder.” Cockatiels want to return to safety and usually learn quickly that a ladder leads to their favorite places. Before long, your bird will seek out a ladder when you say “Up the ladder.”
Work on petting her next. When your bird is out, slowly get closer and closer to her until she seems comfortable with you being nearby. The next time she is molting, blow softly on the area behind her crest. Over time, replace your breath with the soft touch of your finger. Cockatiels generally love to be petted behind their crest, and a single cockatiel can’t preen that area so will appreciate your help in grooming her when she’s molting. Help her remove the keratin sheaths from her new head feathers, and stroke her feathers against the grain, ruffling them up. She’s itchy when molting, and that will feel good.
Whether your efforts to tame your cockatiel are successful or not, enjoy her for the many qualities she already has. There are many ways to enjoy bird companionship. Learn to make toys for your bird and change them often; she’ll appreciate that effort. Learn to grow vegetables for her. Join a bird club or online chat about cockatiels to associate with other bird owners. Take photographs of your cockatiel, try a cockatiel needlepoint or start drawing or painting her to refresh your interest. Read books about cockatiels to learn more about their behavior or read bird behavior books to get clues about how to interact with her.
Without physically interacting with your cockatiel, you can talk to her, spoil her, treat her really well and make her life interesting. In return, you can appreciate her beauty and her appreciation of your attention. Many times, it is only our expectations that keep us from enjoying the bird we have. Rather than insisting that your cockatiel measure up to your idea of her behavior, work on enjoying what you have.