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Tips for socializing birds

How to socialize birds

Most pet birds are social creatures that enjoy spending time with you and your family—after all, they’re used to being part of a flock. Socializing simply means interacting with your pet bird in a way that makes them feel like a member of your family. Spending quality time is vital to your bird’s overall health and well-being, helps develop mutual trust and strengthens your bond.

If your bird has had limited human interaction, it may take time for them to learn how to socialize with you. Birds that were hand-fed or were well-socialized as babies may be able to interact more easily and quickly with their pet parents. Either way, there are a number of steps you can take to help them feel safe and relaxed in their new home and to make socialization an enjoyable experience for both of you.

How to socialize your pet bird

“Socializing birds is not completely unlike socializing other pets, but it’s important to take note of some key differences and to focus on specific things that will make an individual bird’s transition to their forever home smooth,” says Dr. Whitney Miller, director of veterinary medicine at Petco. 

How to socialize birds

It’s not uncommon for birds in new situations to become a little timid, so the first step in acclimating your bird to their new home is getting them used to your presence and care. To do this, Dr. Miller suggests keeping movements slow and steady when performing maintenance and checking in on your bird, as quick movements and loud noises could startle them. Minimize your interactions at first and talk softly and directly to your bird to build their confidence in you. Signs that your bird is happy and gaining assurance include singing, talking or whistling. Try keeping your interactions to a minimum for a couple of days to let them acclimate and start to feel safe in their new home. Even well-socialized birds should not be taken out of their habitat the first few days in their new home.

Once your bird seems comfortable in their new home and surroundings, you can begin to work on contact and direct interaction. “It’s important to have different people involved in socializing the bird,” said Dr. Miller. “Many bird species can get very attached to one person, which is called pair-bonding,” so while it’s common that your bird may take to one family member as their particular favorite, the more interactions they have with as many family members as possible, the more likely they are to be able to comfortably interact with different people. As your bird starts to vocalize and show more signs of comfort, be sure that they are also seeing more familiar faces in your home and getting used to their smells, voices and general demeanors.
When introducing your bird to friends and visitors, remember that your bird is comfortable around you because you’ve established a bond with them. Depending on the species, birds that weren’t hand-fed as babies and lacked human interaction may be less likely to realize that other humans can be friendly, so it’s up to you to act as the go-between. The best way to get your bird to socialize well with other people is to expose them to various people. In some cases, your bird may trust you but still remain distrustful of others.

Let others know that your bird doesn’t like loud, startling noises or quick movements. Allow your bird to observe new visitors at first. Let them come closer to talk to your bird only when your bird seems relaxed with the situation, and only when you are nearby to comfort them.

Whether your bird will be comfortable socializing with other birds depends on several factors, including the species, whether they were hand-fed as babies and whether they were introduced to other birds when they were young.

Some birds greatly enjoy the company of others from the same species. Finches, for example, prefer to be housed with at least one other finch. Others, such as parakeets and cockatiels, can be kept alone to bond with their pet parent or in pairs to bond with each other. Different species of birds should never be housed together. However, some birds do enjoy interacting with each other outside of their habitats.

If you have dogs, cats, snakes or ferrets in your home, remember that they are naturally predatory animals. Because of this nature, in most cases, your bird should be kept separate from any pets that share your home. Any time you take your bird out of their habitat, or even open the door, other pets should first be removed from the room to avoid any situations that may frighten your bird, including:

  • Jumping on or pawing your bird’s habitat
  • Eating your bird’s food
  • Seeing your bird as a toy
  • Barking or meowing, which may cause stress to your bird

Over time, the key to helping your bird recognize that a dog or cat is just a normal part of their environment is to make sure they feel safe and not threatened in any way.

After your bird has been in their new home for a week, is used to their new habitat, has been introduced to all family members and seems eager and willing to interact with you more, you can start introducing some essential training techniques. For example, one of the most important cues for a bird to learn is the “step up” move. While many birds may have been taught this through handling at the location from where they came, it’s important to continue their training at home.

To teach this move, rest your hand near the opening to the habitat, then slowly and quietly move your hand into your bird’s habitat. If your bird isn’t used to that type of interaction yet, start the training by getting them used to just having your hand in the habitat. 

To teach “step up”, try following the tips below:

  • Move your hand close to the bird at the level of their lower abdomen
    • It's important to remember that birds cannot step down so if your hand is too low, this will not work
  • If your bird does not immediately step up, gently touch their lower abdomen while saying, “step up” 
  • Once your bird steps onto your hand and you have them outside of their habitat, continue to alternate hands in a ladder like fashion, gently touching the bird's lower abdomen while saying, “step up” 
  • If your bird refuses to step onto your hand, you can also use a perch to teach them to step up while continuing to work on getting them used to your hands

Keep sessions short — 20 minutes or less — and be sure to minimize other distractions while working with your bird. Once your bird gets used to your hand in their space, you can use each session to move your hand closer to your bird until, finally, they become comfortable enough to step up on it. Dr. Miller suggests holding some food or fruit treats in your hand to entice interaction. “Once a bird feels comfortable perching on a hand or finger, that is a bird well on their way to positive human relationships,” she said.

You can continue to work on training with your bird by talking to them so that they learn some words to mimic, and by gently petting the back of their head or along their back to help with their continued socialization and getting them used to being handled. Always use positive reinforcement when you are working on socializing or other training by praising your bird for a job well done with a few seeds, pellets, fruits or veggies.
To create ongoing socialization opportunities, consider exploring some of the following activities with your bird:

  • Communicate with your bird as much as possible
  • Interact with your bird using their favorite toys
  • Play fun games such as peek-a-boo or fetch
  • Watch TV or listen to music together
  • Train your bird to talk or take cues
  • Offer your bird portions of your daily meals that are safe for birds to eat, varying their diet will not only help improve their health, but they will learn to love mealtime almost as much as you do

Socializing your bird is a process that might involve some regression, so it’s important to be aware of any potential signs of backsliding. For example, concerning behaviors that may mean your bird needs some additional socialization include rushing the front of the habitat when a person is close, aggressive biting, spreading wings and vocalizing loudly. Feather-picking is often a sign of stress or behavior issues, as well. If your bird is exhibiting any of these signs after you’ve attempted to socialization, consult with your veterinarian to rule out any health issues and to determine the best way to move forward with training.
Just as with any other pet learning something new, some frustration is normal, but remember that the outcome is worth it for the happiness of both you and your bird. “Behavior modification, socialization and setting birds up for success of the human-animal bond with their pet parent will take time, commitment and continual reinforcement,” said Dr. Miller. 

Socializing your birds is an ongoing process that should continue throughout their lifetimes. With a little patience and perseverance, you and your pet bird can enjoy a meaningful relationship. Once you’ve done your preliminary research and you’re ready to pick the perfect pet, Petco can help you determine how to choose the right pet bird for you, as well as set you up with all the bird supplies you’ll need in order to keep your pet happy in their new home.