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Last Post 24-02-2009 7:25 PM by  Rick
Part I: Touching and Handling Your Parrot
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24-02-2009 7:25 PM

    The internet is by now littered with pictures of Ndhlovu out-and-about on her harness, going places, meeting people and doing exciting things. She has a very full, rich life in that respect and simply loves going out everywhere with us! I believe that training your parrot to wear a harness provides the perfect compromise between the safety of clipping your bird's wings and the risk of free-flying.

    I know several people that have tried to get their birds to wear a harness and it has not gone as smoothly as they had hoped. So this has inspired me to putting down a few guidelines to introducing your parrot to the joys of wearing a harness. These methods hold true for all species of parrot – large or small!

    Please don't just grab your bird and force on a harness as this will completely traumatise her! You need to get her used to being touched all over and handled intimately before you can even think about putting a harness on her.

    Touching and handling your parrot

    Before you even consider going to the expense of buy a harness for your bird, you need to be able to touch and handle her. So Part I is all about getting her used to it.

    If you have a hand-reared youngster, then the battle is probably already half-won. Your baby will be used to close-contact with his human companion from being fed, but you will still need to get him used to being touched and handled in the ways described below.

    If you have a parent-reared, older or rescue bird that is nervous about being touched then you may well have a long road ahead of you. But do please persevere – the rewards are indescribable!

    Even if you don't want to use a harness on your parrot, getting her used to being touched and handled is important as, at some time during her lifetime, she will need to got to the avian vet, even if it's just to have her claws trimmed! If your bird is used to being handled, this will not be such a traunatic experience.

    Positive reinforcement
    Every step of this training needs to be encouraged with lots and lots of positive reinforcement!

    Never push your bird further than it is comfortable with and always be lavish in your praise of even the tiniest step forward – favourite treats too, be they a toy or food. If you use clicker training methods, then make sure you have it close at hand, but you will need both hands for what you are about to do.

    To get your parrot to accept a harness happily could take a very long time!

    People see us walking around with Ndhlovu or see pictures of her on this and other forums and think that they would like to do the same. Little do they realise that it took us 9 months to get her comfortable with using a harness and another 3 months to get her used to leaving the security of familar surroundings! But we started training her when she was already a sexually mature, adult bird.

    A hand-reared youngster should accept a harness far more readily and in a much shorter time. Nevertheless, patience is the key – and always be very gentle!

    Start these exercises away from your parrot's cage and playstand.

    Start the training in the place where you normally cuddle or tickle your bird – an armchair or a bed, for example. But it must happen outside her perceived territory, either in neutral territory or in yours.

    It is easiest to put a harness on your bird when she is sitting on the back of a chair. We actually put Ndhlovu on the mixer tap/faucet in the kitchen sink. She usually also takes the opportunity to poop so that she won't soil me in the car, although on longer journeys, that's not always possible. Not a problem, though, as we always have Poop-Off wipes with us as part of our Parrot Travel Kit.

    Start of with sessions that are just a couple of minutes long, gradually building up to longer and longer training sessions.

    This should be a pleasant experience, but your parrot may find the new sensations of your touching her disturbing at first until she gets used to it. Never push her further than she wants to go!

    I'm working on the assumption that your parrot will at least allow you to give her a scratch on the head. If you can't, then you should consider starting off with the Getting Used to Each Other article here, followed by the Feather on a Stick routine to get her used to physical contact with her human companion.

    Step 1 – Touching your parrot's back
    To be able to put a harness on your bird, you must be able to touch her back.

    Wait until you and your bird are relaxed and happy together and she puts her head down, fluffing up her head feathers, inviting you to scratch her head. Give her a good ol' scratch just as you normally would. After a while, move back down her neck and towards her shoulders.

    She will not have the feathers of her shoulder fluffed up inviting you to scratch her there, so you need a different technique. Using the tip of your index finger, make small circular clockwise motions on her shoulders. Not too hard, though, this is familiarisation, not massage! Just a couple of circles, then move slightly to the left or right and vary the position.

    Keep up at her shoulders, though, don't venture down her back yet. She may well give you a dirty look when she realises that this is something new, but keep at it. If she objects and pulls away, then go back to scratching her head again, which is what she invited you to do in the first place. Try again in a minute or two.

    Slowly and gradually, session after session, move down her back, always with a couple of small clockwise circular motions with the tip of an index finger before moving ever so slightly further back, almost as far back as her tail.

    Do not do this on your bird's spine, as it can be very painful for her and can damage her spine. Always do it on the muscle on either side of the spine itself.

    Step 2 – Touching under your parrot's wings
    To be able to put a harness on your bird, you will need to be able to touch her under her wings.

    Start off with the head scratch, then move on the the now-familiar small circular clockwise motions on her shoulders. Then stroke down the leading edge of her folded wing – essentially her 'wrist'. Just stroke gently down the edge of the wing, down about as far as her leg.

    Then go back to the head scratch, through the circular motions and stroke her other wing in the same way.

    When she's happy with this, try to insinuate the tip of your index finger under the edge of her wing, again at the 'wrist'. She'll probably lift her wing outwards slightly with a gentle but jerky motion as her reflexes tell her that something is caught under her wing that she needs to free herself from. Repeat it under the other wing.

    Gradually, you need to try to get more and more of your finger under her wing until you can put your whole finger under there. Cosy and warm, isn't it? Eventually you will want to be able to stroke her flanks gently.

    Be careful when you stroke her under the wings. She can't fluff up her feathers the way she can with her head feathers, so never stroke against the feathers.

    When shes comfortable with your fingers under her wings, you need to lift her wing and extend it. Put your thumb under her wing and, grasping it gently but firmly between thunb and index finger, extend her wing. Don't pull on the ends of the feathers, though, always try to grasp about half-way across the width of the wing.

    Step 3 – Pushing her off-balance
    When you put a harness on your parrot, she will need to be used to leaning over.

    Simple, this one. Using the back of your hand, gently push her off-balance from the side. You don't want to tip her over, just train her to resist by pushing back with her opposite leg.

    If you have a hand-reared youngster or your bird is well-socialised and amenable, you may already be able to do many of the exercise mentioned above. Step 4 below, though is probably one you haven't tried yet.

    Step 4 – Putting a loop over her head
    When you put a harness on your bird, you will need to put the yoke over her head.

    This is probably the most traumatic part of the whole process and the one, initially at least, to which your parrot will object most strongly!

    Touch the tips of your thumb and index finger together to form an 'O' shape and try to slip it over your bird's head and round her neck. Of course, parrots don't like things that come from above, so in the beginning at least, always approach from below so that she can clearly see it coming. A word of warning! When a parrot bites, she lookas at you straight on, using her binocular vision to gauge the strike. When your ringed fingers approach her from the front, she is in a perfect position to bite you, so a certain amount of trust is involved!

    Approach her with your hand from below and slip your fingers over her beak with a backhand motion, carry on, opening your fingers slightly, if necessary to get them over her head.

    She needs to get used to this and to learn to shut her eyes. Be careful the first few times that you do it that you don't touch her eyeballs!

    Eventually, you need to be able to do this from above too.

    A hand-reared youngster should breeze these exercises, but an older bird may need many weeks or months of training. Again I say, persevere – the rewards are fantastic!

    Now you have reached this stage, you can start to think about what kind of harness you want. Click here for a comparison of several popular kinds of harness.

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