Building the trust of a frightened bird or animal takes patience. Sometimes it can take days or even weeks of incremental steps.
Sometimes, however, all a bird needs is one day of positive experiences to decide you’re worth her trust, and we’re all here for these one-day miracles.
Although it’s important not to rush the bonding process, a positive first day with your bird can make all the difference in the long run. By paying close attention to her body language, gently directing her attention, and being consistently gentle and unthreatening, you can earn the trust of a scared bird in as little as a day.
The first step to taming a scared bird is setting yourself and the bird up for success. Try to remove any elements that may be especially frightening or distracting.
Choose a quiet, neutral location for your first interactions, and know ahead of time what type of behavior or objects are likely to be detrimental to your taming efforts.
Know Your Bird
Is your scared bird a pet store budgie whose sole experience with humans up to this point has been being snatched from one cage and moved into another? Is he an adopted Amazon with a long history of less-than-the-best homes?
Is he shy because he’s had little contact with strangers or because he was abused sometime in the past?
Try to find out as much about your bird as possible. This will help you avoid triggers and start off your taming sessions on the right foot.
Paying attention to background information may also help you identify the source of any issues that arise while you’re interacting with your bird and adjust accordingly.
Start Immediately, Move Slowly
If you have just brought your bird home, he will have a lot of adjusting to do. His surroundings are different, his schedule is different, and you are a stranger.
Some sources recommend waiting a few days to let your bird adjust before starting the taming process. Other experts, however, make the point that holding back from interacting with your bird will only increase the length of the adjustment period and may lead to a bird that is afraid to leave his cage because that’s the only place he feels safe.
It’s certainly important for your scared bird to have an area to which he can retreat during the initial adjustment process. You do want him to feel safe.
However, your gentle, nonthreatening interaction should begin on day one. You want to be included in that sphere of safety as soon as possible.
The First Few Hours
Unless your scared bird is in need of emergency medical care or must be moved to a new cage immediately for some reason, avoid any activities that will further frighten her or give her a negative first impression. Wing or nail trimming, etc. can wait a little longer.
Don’t grab or chase her and hold off on introducing her to your entire friend group until you have established some rapport.
For the first couple hours, just hang out in the scared bird’s general vicinity. Keep your activities as unalarming as possible.
Carry on with your everyday tasks. Talk to her, sing to her. Fill her food dish and then eat a snack while sitting nearby.
Eating together is a natural flock activity that can hasten your bird’s ability to feel comfortable around you.
A crucial step to gaining your bird’s trust is understanding his body language. A bird will let you know when he’s feeling pressured, stressed, frightened, or upset.
You can also look for signs that your bird is feeling more comfortable and is interested in interacting with you further.
Learning a bird’s body language doesn’t happen all in one day, but a few general principles apply to most birds.
Moving Away vs. Moving Toward
A frightened bird will move away from you, while one that is feeling more comfortable will move toward you. If a bird moves away from your hand, don’t continue reaching for her.
Back off and allow her the amount of space she feels comfortable with.
The treats and training discussed in the next two sections will help you motivate your bird to overcome her fear and move forward. This is always the goal—the bird coming to you, not you coming at the bird.
How Birds Say “Stay Away”
A bird that continues to feel threatened or has gotten his way by biting people before may act more aggressively. This does not mean he is a bad bird—it is simply his way of dealing with his fright and keeping people he doesn’t trust at a distance.
Most birds will give you plenty of warning that they are going to bite. Aggressive back-and-forth head movements, hissing or growling sounds, a fluffed up “mane” of feathers, and pinned eyes can all be warnings that a bird is about to take matters into his own beak and MAKE you give him the space he needs.
If your bird is telling you to stay away, do so. Give him some time to calm down and slowly work to close the space he feels comfortable with.
Dealing with Miscommunication
If you miss or ignore your bird’s warning signs and get bitten, handle it as undramatically as possible. Gently pushing into the bird until he lets go, rather than jerking away, will minimize your injury.
Never hit your bird, spray him with water, or react emotionally. This will only make matters worse and increase his mistrust.
Firmly tell him “no” and slow down in your efforts to get close. Respect his boundaries even as you try to change them.
Signs that Your Bird is Becoming More Comfortable
Birds will often give a little feather fluff and shake when they are dismissing their concern about something and “moving on.” If you see this, your bird has likely become comfortable with her present circumstances and you can continue to move forward in gaining her trust.
Any initiative to move toward you or offer to step up can also be seen as signs your bird trust you and wants to continue interacting.
Most birds are very food motivated, and treats are a great way to gain their interest and make friends. Spray millet, nuts, sunflower seeds, and fruit are favorites for many birds.
You may have to experiment with several different options before finding one your bird recognizes and loves.
Of course, your bird should have a dish of nutritious food where he can easily reach it without discomfort, but it’s best to save the treats for your interactions with him. Reward any positive improvement.
If your bird is frightened to even be near you, place a treat on a surface that requires him to take a few steps in your direction. If you think he can be coaxed to eat out of your hand, use the treats to go for it.
Treats will continue to be important as you move into target training your bird, which is a great exercise for building trust.
Once your bird is comfortable with you being nearby, you can begin target training. Target training forms the basis of almost any further training you will do with your bird and can be done with almost any bird, no matter how frightened or aggressive he started out.
Target training involves getting your bird to touch the end of a stick—a wooden chopstick works well for this. Simply hold the stick near enough to your bird that he can easily reach it but not so close that he is intimidated.
Birds are naturally curious and almost all will eventually reach to touch the stick. As soon as your bird does so, praise him (or use a clicker if you prefer) and offer a treat.
If the bird is too frightened to take it from your hand, you can place it on a surface nearby or drop it into a dish.
Once your bird has figured out what you are asking, you’ll be able to use targeting to get him to move from one place to another, step up on a perch, or even climb in or out of a cage. If you are so inclined, you can also use targeting to start teaching simple tricks.
Most birds love the challenge of learning tricks, and it’s a good way to spend time together and increase your bond.
Do keep target training sessions short – around five minutes. Like toddlers, birds have short attention spans, and if they lose interest, it defeats the purpose.
You can always come back later and do another short five-minute session.
Continuing To Build Trust
Once your bird views you as a friend, your relationship will continue to grow stronger, but it will always require work and patience. Eventually the bird will be willing to step onto your hand in order to be nearer to you or to get something he wants. Some birds may come to trust you enough to allow gentle head petting.
Whether you’re sharing snacks, offering a gentle mist bath, listening to music together, training, or just hanging out, every moment spent with your bird is a chance to increase his trust and strengthen your bond.