I hate getting bit. In fact I hate it so much that I make sure that I don't. I have approached countless birds – that aren't mine – at stores, rescues, and other people's homes and I rarely if ever get bit. This is because I don't put myself in harm's way. I adjust to the bird and let the bird adjust to me. I read the bird and act in a predictable way to help the bird read me. This article is about offering food to a parrot from your hand that you don't know or think will bite.
If you don't personally know a bird (and by personally I mean where it has stepped up for you before; just cause it has stepped up for others doesn't mean you know that it will do the same for you), the safest approach to keeping your blood inside your skin is to take caution as though the bird could bite. On the other hand, if you already got bit by the bird offering food in the past or know that others have, then you especially need to follow these steps. Even if your bird doesn't bite you, you will still want to familiarize yourself with these steps in case you encounter someone else's parrot or someone else needs to encounter your parrot!
Being able to read and understand body language is important but sometimes you just don't know. If it's your own parrot that you have a long experience with, you may be able to read the body language and avoid a bite on yourself or someone else. But if you are visiting a bird or just acquired a new one, until you see body language in context, you just may not know.
Offering food from your hand is the first essential step to being able to apply positive reinforcement training to teach the bird to step up, accept head scratches, and more. Until you can get within touching range of the parrot, inevitably you will end up relying on negative reinforcement and positive/negative punishment. So to have greater success with the parrot and to get it to like you, it is important to get to the point of being able to safely offer food as soon as possible. There are safe ways of offering food and then there are ways to get bit instead.
I really came to realize the importance of this procedure when my friend Ginger, from Ginger's Parrots Rescue, got bit by Santina. Here is someone who deals with many birds and surely knows what to do but still mistakenly put herself in harms way. A few weeks prior, my little sister got bit while offering food to Santina as well. On the flip side, I watched my brother use my same approach and was able to handle the large macaw with no trouble.
One of the problems I have is that Santina is super sweet to me and never bites me (since I brought her home from the rescue) so I don't really know her aggressive body language. It kind of has to do with dancing around and being fluffy but then again she looks much the same way when she wants a head scratch from me. Since she has experienced so few other people, inevitably the first few end up being test dummies to see if she will bite and what kind of postures she displays at that time.
First, you are going to need to find out what the parrot actually likes as a treat. Offering something the bird doesn't like won't protect you from a bite. On the other hand offering something the parrot would like can quite likely become a sufficient distraction from biting. Finding out the bird's favorite treats was already covered in this article. But if you're approaching a bird without knowing what it likes, some go to treats include millet spray for budgies/cockatiels, sunflower seeds for small parrots, almonds for medium parrots, and Brazil nuts for large ones. Not only are these treats favored by most parrots but they are also large (relative to the size of the bird's beak). This will improve the likelihood that the bird's entire beak will be occupied by the treat and not leave room for a bite. Also, the treat is so big that you can protect yourself behind the extended treat as I will explain.
The first step is to leave the bird alone! All too often people get too excited about wanting to handle a bird that they overwhelm it. Instead, give the bird some time to get comfortable with your presence. If you have a visitor apply the same procedures to guide their interaction with your bird. At first, ignore the bird completely. Don't even look at it. With a little more time, from a distance begin to interact with it remotely. Make slow but deliberate steps toward the bird with the special treat in hand. If at any point the bird begins to flip out (jumping off perch, flying away, snap biting toward you in the air, etc), you've got a lot more of an issue than just offering food without getting bit. That type of situation is beyond the scope of this article, please refer to my book instead. But if all you are dealing with is slightly aggressive posture, eye pinning, or other agitation that is not extreme, continue slowly moving closer. Maintain a pace that evokes the least of this type of reaction until you can get into range.
Never put yourself closer to the parrot than the distance it would take for the bird to bite you. Except in some extreme cases, most flighted parrots will not fly to attack you. If they get too scared they will just fly away. If in a cage or clipped, the parrot is left with no choice but to bite if it feels trapped. This is why we are going to work on the careful no-bite food exchange to show the bird that first of all absolutely nothing bad will happen (negative reinforcement) and that in fact something good will happen (treat, positive reinforcement). At first the negative reinforcement element actually plays a more substantial role in early training but if the treats are desirable, positive reinforcement will quickly take over.
When you can reach the distance within a few feet from the bird, it is time to slow down and exercise greater caution. Show the treat in very plain sight. Maybe even pretend to eat it and make a big deal about how nice it is. So while up till this point the goal was to move closer to the bird without freaking it out too much, from this point the goal is to move the treat toward the bird without getting bit. Realize that the bird has different ranges of reach. It can bite what is right at its beak, it can reach forward and bite and it can make a lunge snap bite that can reach furthest. What I do is walk up to a point where I can reach the bird with my arms without moving my feet any more. I reach the treat at a slow but constant rate toward the bird. I keep going closer and watch for the bird to teach to take it. I put the treat just far enough that the bird can stretch its maximum range to try to get it from me. If the bird is looking at and reaching for the treat, I am strongly assured that the bird wants the treat and shouldn't bite. I don't let my guard down completely yet. While holding the treat at the furthest point, I continue to reach it closer toward the bird until it is just close enough to take the treat but not close enough to bite yet. I hold the treat loosely and make it easy for the bird to take it out from between my fingers. As soon as the bird grasps the treat I take my hand back out of bite range but I don't go away. I stand around while the bird eats the treat to build more trust. If the bird avoids eating because I am imposing too much, I might take a step or two back but I still try to stay close while it eats. Then I recede to get another treat and try again.
After several treats, the parrot should start to become more at ease because it knows that all you want to do is provide a treat. On the other hand you should be able to get more confident that the bird isn't trying to bite. Depending on how aggressive/scared the bird is, the rate of your continued progress will vary. Maybe you have now gained the trust of an already tame bird and it will let you scratch its head and step up. Or maybe this is just the beginning of a long taming process. But either way, with the power to apply positive reinforcement in your training, things have the potential for major improvement from this point further.
Try to make the first approach happen within the span of about 30 seconds from when you begin to approach the bird to when the treat is in the beak. With success, keep trying to cut that time in half. You don't want to take too long any more than you want to rush. A rush can scare the bird into biting. But drawing the process out too long can lose the parrot's interest in the treat and hinder your chances at success.
If the parrot drops the treat but doesn't bite, try finding a more desired treat. Look for greater interest from the parrot's gaze. If the parrot bites, end the session and focus more on finding very desired treats and practice your approach to be able to bring in a treat without giving the parrot enough reach to bite. If done properly, you should not end up receiving a bite using this approach. The more times the parrot can take food without biting, the less likely the bird will consider biting as something to do in similar circumstances in the future.
This approach helps you have a more confident approach because it protects you from being bit but also is more comfortable for the parrot (thereby reducing the desire to bite just the same). The parrot will learn just to get treats for nothing and success will come with practice. For more information about taming and training parrots, please refer to my complete approach presented in my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. Here is a video in real time of me teaching Ginger to approach Santina in a way that gets her to take the treats rather than bite.
I haven't given much thought to what Kili & Truman prefer as treats in a long time. The initial process for discovering a bird's favorite treats involves offering variety and watching what order they eat things in. But it's been years since I've done that with these two and with time I've began to notice that it doesn't make much difference what I give them. They are always content with what they get.
During a lot of my training I use Roudybush pellets as rewards for flight recall and training because that's what my parrots normally consume and it's healthier for them than eating other stuff. By teaching them to work for pellets it has made their performance a lot more reliable. There is much less of the "well I would come to you for a sunflower seed but I think I'd rather pass if you've only got a safflower..." attitude when they know what they'll get but yet prefer it.
So now I put it to the test, after years of healthy eating habits with uncolored Roudybush Maintenance pellets as the staple of their diet, what do Kili & Truman prefer when given the choice?
10 for 10 Kili picked Roudybush pellets over sunflower seeds. Truman was 8 for 10 on this trial run but anecdotally prefers pellets even more than Kili. I later discovered he was trying to outsmart me by grabbing the seed so he could get the pellet too so I don't really think it counts! Anecdotally I would say that I've noticed a 9/10 typical preference for the birds to take pellets over seeds. Once in a while they just like something different for fun or variety and that's perfectly normal. If pellets make up the dominant portion of their diet, this is absolutely considered to be more healthy by avian veterinarians.
if you think about it, the same holds true for people. People who are used to healthy eating can enjoy healthy food more and don't feel forced to eat right. I know when I am out and about and active a lot, I will sooner go for a healthy meal than junk food and it's the same with my birds. They exercise a lot and work hard and at the end of the day, they want what will sustain their bodies and not just some momentary pleasure at the expense of their long term health.
Santina has converted to Roudybush Pellets readily and predominantly gets pellets for training as well! I'm not certain she would qualify as well as Kili/Truman in a similar test but I can tell you she runs down her perch and jumps on my arm to get a pellet so we're definitely on the right track.
Interestingly the same results continued for pellets vs nuts as long as the nut wasn't bigger than the pellet. However, the birds will often go for a small piece of pellet over an average piece of nut or seed. Moral of the story is that parrots that are cared for using my method, choose healthy eating. If they are choosing healthy eating then we can be assured that they are content with the healthy food we are feeding them. Happiness and healthiness go hand in hand and are the basis of my approach. Learn how to give your parrot the Wizard's treatment from my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots.
What treats are you giving your parrot for tricks is the question I am asked time and time again. I'm not sure why people are so fascinated by this. Perhaps they think I have invented some special magic treat that has the power to make my parrots succumb to my commands. I am always a bit reluctant to answer this because the treats I use may not be successful or even healthy for other parrots. People assume that if they would use the same treat that I use, they might achieve better success training their parrot but this may not be the case. So really this question should be split into two distinct questions:
What treats do you use to train Kili & Truman?
What treats should I use to train my parrot or parakeet?
Before I answer the first one, I'm going to explain the answer to the second instead. I don't want people to fixate too much on what treats I use because they may not work for a different parrot. So instead I'm going to teach you how to choose treats for your parrot instead. I will start by categorizing parrots into two categories:
A) Small parrots and parakeets (Budgerigar, Cockatiel, Green Cheeked Conure, Parrotlet, Lovebird, etc). B) Most other parrots (Senegal Parrot, Sun Conure, African Grey, Cockatoo, Amazon, Macaw)
I'm leaving out parrots with specialty diets (Lorikeets, Eclectus, and others) because what they consume as a treat may be more species specific and really up to the research of the owner to understand their diets. So for most parakeets and small parrots selecting a treat is actually really easy: millet spray. Budgies, Cockatiels, and other tiny parrots just go bonkers for that stuff. The seeds are nice and small but so are their beaks so its a match made in heaven. These birds have rapid metabolisms so it's not much time until they are ready to have some more. Most of the time withholding their normal in the cage food for 3 hours should lead to sufficient motivation for training for millet spray.
Millet Spray is a very effective trick training treat for Cockatiels, Budgies, and other parakeets
Millet spray has its pros and cons as a treat. A really good aspect is that the individual seeds are very small and not that filling unless eaten in large number. You can vary the value of the reward by the amount of time you give the parrot the opportunity to nibble on the millet seeds. A very good job could be rewarded for 5 seconds of nibbling on millet while a normal reward may be just a bite of a seed or two to maintain hunger for more training. Another benefit that is great for beginner trainers or new birds is that you can vary the length of the stick of millet you use. Normally millet spray is sold in long strands. Use a scissor to cut off anywhere from 1-6 inches from the end. In the beginning a longer stick may give enough buffer between trainer and parakeet to give both the confidence they need to interact (parakeet that it won't get harmed and trainer that he won't get bit). When you are really proficient at training, breaking off a single ball of millet will work to your advantage because you can hide it from sight when the bird needs to focus on the task at hand rather than the lure.
You can hold a stick of Millet Spray to maintain adequate distance from your parakeet
The main downside of millet spray is that it is very messy. Little seeds and husks will shed like the falls of Niagra. This is bad twice over. Not only will it make a mess requiring cleanup but it will also distract the parrot while it tries to pickup seeds off the surface rather than train. Keeping a handheld battery powered vacuum and using it frequently is a must if your parrot is not sitting on a tall training perch away from the surface. Always make sure that the millet spray you are using is fresh because it does spoil if sitting too long. Lastly, if it isn't already obvious, don't put millet spray into the parrots cage so that you can maintain it as a trick training treat. If it eats it in abundance in the cage, it won't work as hard to earn it in training. Virtually all parakeets are introduced to millet spray from the store/breeder but if yours really has no clue what it is, then leave it in the cage initially until it is eating it with confidence. But once it is familiar, only use it as a treat. There may be some other treats you can use for small parrots and parakeets so consider some of the following advice for larger parrots as well.
Now onto treats for most other parrots. The thing is, parrots come in so many different species and are such complex creatures that no single treat is universal. This is why I suggest a method for establishing treats for each individual parrot rather than suggesting a specific food. First off, it is important to realize that many parrots have not tasted all possible foods that could be treats. So if the breeder, store, or past owner had never offered a certain food to a parrot, it won't know that it wants it. Don't be surprised that offering an almond or sunflower seed to a new parrot brings no response. People think that by giving their parrot the same things I give mine they will earn its trust but it is completely possible that the parrot doesn't even know what that food is!
Before you can even discover what treats will be effective for your parrot, you have to begin by giving it a chance to taste each one and evaluate what it likes. The easiest way of doing this is to offer lots of different foods in the parrots cage for a few days/weeks. You don't want to overload it with treats to sample or it won't eat anything healthy so a good way of doing this is to feed it a normal healthy diet and only when it finished eating to put in a few treats to try (and offer different ones each day). At the end of this article I will mention what treats I use for my parrots so you can use those as a starting point of things to try. But short of chocolate (including chocolate chip cookies and anything containing it), avocado, coffee, alcohol, and anything toxic to humans, most foods can be tested as treats. You may be surprised at what they like. Just bare in mind that the unhealthier the food, the less often you should offer it as a treat no matter how much the parrot likes it. If you're looking for advice on getting an already tame parrot to taste new foods that it may not want to try (but you think it would like), take a look at how I taught my parrots to eat pineapple.
Nuts and Seeds are a good starting point as treats for training parrots
In the beginning a parrot may not eaten certain foods but don't automatically assume it doesn't like them. It may just be scared of them. Only if it rejects them consistently while favoring other foods is it a good indicator that this is not a suitable treat. Don't rule out trying these foods again some time down the line if you think they are good treats because sometimes a parrot will start to like something it didn't before. Once the introduction of various foods is complete (or at least under way), you can begin to observe which foods are the favorite when offered together with others. Let's say you want to see whether your parrot likes banana, sunflower seeds, or almonds the best. Put a few little pieces of banana, couple sunflower seeds, and couple pieces of almond in the same bowl. Put this in the parrots cage (or offer from your hand if it is already tame) to see which ones it eats first. If there is an evident pattern (for example eats all banana pieces first, then sunflower seeds, and leaves all almonds), then it is likely that is the order of preference the parrot likes those treats. If it eats them randomly, then either it likes them all about evenly or hasn't developed stronger preferences yet. If there is a pecking order of preference for treats, keep it in mind and use the most favorite treats more sparingly as a super reward for break throughs in training.
There are two ways to use variety of treats to your advantage. Either use a complete variety in each training session starting from the least preferred treats in the beginning to the most preferred treats at the end or use the same treat the entire training session but change treats between training sessions. There is an advantage to each of these methods. By using a variety of treats in a single training session, you can maintain motivation longer by improving treats as the parrot becomes less hungry, more tired, and hopefully improving behavior. On the other hand by using a different treat each day you can save on effort/waste (cutting up 10 different fruits could be costly and ineffective for every training session). Since it may be a week or more since the parrot got to have that kind of treat, it will be motivated to train for that taste/nutrient even if it isn't as hungry or the best treat. I have definitely noticed with my parrots that by bringing out a treat that hasn't been used in a long time, that they will work harder for it even if they weren't made as hungry by food management.
Establishing treats for parrots depends as much on what you don't give as what you do as part of the normal diet. By not serving things perceived as treats in the cage as part of meals, you improve the desirability of treats for training sessions. However, since treats only account for 5-20% of the parrot's daily meals, the blander cage food should still remain desirable. Besides the health benefits of getting a parrot off of a seed and onto a pellet diet, training is another great reason to do this. If a parrot is eating seeds in the cage all day, good luck trying to get it motivated to train for seeds. If there is no way you can get that parrot onto a pellet diet, the least you can do is to go through its daily rations and pick out every single favorite seed and put them aside for training and only feed secondary seeds in the cage. Ideally though, a healthy pellet diet will both balance the less healthy treats you give and make them that much more desirable. I limit cage food to pellets and vegetables only. Everything else I use as treats both for nutritional balance and training reinforcement. This works very well because it ensures the parrots don't get too much of what they don't need and I get all the credit for the pleasure of those foods.
Foods you eat yourself can often be as motivating as treats specifically for parrots
Without getting too much into food management, I want to point out that if a parrot is hungry, even ordinary cage food can be rewarding for training. How hungry the bird is will play a large part in how hard it will work for certain foods. It is requisite that the parrot at least be slightly hungry to work for any kind of treats. Imagine having such a big meal that there's just no room for desert no matter how good it is. Well don't train your parrot in that kind of state. Once again, without getting into advanced food management, the very least you gotta do is train the parrot before it goes over to the food to eat. You can safely remove the food from the cage for 3-6 hours prior to training for any kind of parrot, do the training with treats, then put the parrot back into the cage to complete its meal. So my point is that if you can't come up with any treat that is better than what the parrot already eats as its staple diet, it can be used as a treat with sufficient hunger. On the other hand, no matter how good a treat is, it won't be effective for repetitious training if the parrot is not hungry at all.
Keep in mind that as your parrot discovers new foods, times change, and hormonal changes occur, effectiveness of treats may vary. For example going into winter and declining in home temperatures, more fatty treats may be most desired while going into summer sugary things may become preferred. Pay attention to this by checking the vigor with which the parrot eats certain treats or which treats it is willing to work for.
Lately I have been finding that for continued training (but not necessarily for initial training) just using a treat that hasn't been used in a while can be sufficient motivation instead of more aggressive food management. How much the parrot desires the taste of a specific treat vs how hungry it is for eating anything are important factors in training. I would suggest sticking to the favorite treat method (as long as parrot is hungry enough that it would like to eat) unless greater motivation is required for more advanced training behavior. Remember that motivation/hunger is only one side of training. Just because a parrot isn't learning a new trick does not necessarily indicate that it is not hungry or doesn't want the treat. The parrot may be distracted or just doesn't understand what you want. You can test motivation by cuing an already known trick to compare. If the parrot eagerly performs other tricks then motivation is not the issue.
As the parrot becomes more accustomed to the treats and the concept of training, try to use smaller and smaller treats. This increases the value of each treat and prolongs the amount of motivation you can get out of every training session. While at first you may be giving an entire almond or slice of apple, eventually you should be able to cut these into bite sized pieces. Not only will you save on time between tricks for eating, but you will be able to get more repetitions for the same amount of food. A good indicator of size is a treat that the parrot does not need to life its foot to chew. If it can swallow the treat in one piece, you are ready to continue immediately. Unfortunately seeds can't be broken down and the parrot will take more time to work on it.
Now onto the question that is on everybody's mind, what treats do I use for my parrots? I will break this down to 4 parrots (2 deceased) and ballpark order the treats based on effectiveness as motivators for training.
Kili - Female Senegal Parrot Sunflower Seeds Apple Banana Saflower Seeds Walnut pieces Peanut pieces Almond pieces Oatmeal Grape Pasta Popcorn Dried Corn Other Seeds Pellets
Truman - Male Cape Parrot Almonds (especially whole) Walnut Pecan Mango Grape Apple Pineapple Peach Banana Sunflower Seeds Corn Pasta Popcorn Pellets Other Seeds
There may be some other foods I did not mention but they do not play as major of a role in training as the above foods do. Sometimes the chance to taste a table food never tasted before can go a long way. I don't like using manufactured treats like newtriberries and other things. First of all they are way too big, the parrot will fill very quickly on one or two of these treats. Further they mix everything together. I can get a lot more effectiveness from dividing up the effective ingredients and offering them as treats individually. Don't forget that not all rewards must be food. Toys, scratches, attention, shoulder time, or getting to check out what you're doing can all be used as effective rewards for behaviors such as recall. For more basic information about how to begin taming and training a parrot, refer to my taming article.
Kili and Truman enjoy getting a whole nut for a job well done
As a trainer I really like to use nuts and seeds as treats. They are easy, don't spoil quickly, and highly motivating. The good thing about seeds is that you can easily buy a mix cheap and eating it as a complete experience for the parrot. I think they enjoy breaking them out of the shell as much as the taste. However, they may take a while to work on and leave a mess of husks. This is why my favorite treat to use for training is nuts. I'll crack an almond, walnut, or peanut and keep the nut between my fingers. Then I break off pieces prior to each reward depending on how much I want to give. I can freely walk around without having to return for more treats. The birds can eat it without dropping anything or making a mess. I break the pieces small enough that they usually swallow it in a single bite and are ready to continue training. However, by using a treat I'm normally too lazy to use (fruits or stuff I'm eating), I can sometimes get unbelievable boosts of motivation. Perhaps I won't get as many repetitions as a normal training session but I think it helps lock the behavior in as more memorable for the awesomeness of the treat it earned like a whole kernel of popcorn. But I never give my parrots food "just because." They need to know that getting special treats depends on their good behavior. So at the very least I recall them over or have them do a trick for the special food.