Reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk reminds me of my experiences of training parrots. The process is very different from the one that Macdonald describes, since parrots are more intelligent and more social than hawks. However, it requires the same patience and is as much about training you as the bird.
These days, the importing of parrots is banned for conservation reasons, so you rarely see wild birds. However, even handfed birds have to adjust to a new human, and many of the birds available today have been neglected or abused. As a result, the goal of parrot training remains the same as ever: to help the bird bond with you, and to teach them a few behaviors that can help keep them safe. Fortunately, you can usually accomplish both goals at once.
When you bring a new parrot home, place them in a cage where they can see what is going on around them. The cage should have a small tent or a corner covered with a cloth, where they can sit and peer out – most birds’ favorite position.
Before training, give the bird some time to adjust. Talk to them, and feed them by hand, let them come out of the cage if they want, but avoid the temptation to rush into training. Coming to a new place is enough of an adjustment without adding anything else. You can tell when a bird is ready for training, because their feathers will be relaxed and they may even make happy chuckling sounds.
When you start training, carry the bird to a small quiet room. I prefer to sit on the floor, in the hopes of looming less. Let the bird come out of the cage, and practice having the bird come up on a perch, both with and without command. This is a relatively non-threatening behavior to begin with, and can be useful for fetching the bird out of the small corners it may hide in if scared or alarmed. It is also useful for getting a bird down from a high place where you cannot easily reach.
When the bird steps up on the perch, praise them verbally, and offer a treat such as a nut or a piece of fruit. Keep each training sessions no longer than fifteen minutes, and in between sessions, continue talking and feeding the bird.
Once the bird steps consistently up on the perch, repeat the process with your hand, working up gradually to having the bird step up a ladder of hands. The exact training time depends on the bird, but ordinarily takes 3-10 days. Abused birds will take longer.
After this basic training is complete, start carrying the bird around their new home, both on your hand and on your shoulder. Show them where the windows are, and let them inspect the glass with their beak, so they know where it is and can avoid it. Feed them from your hand as much as possible, doing yur best not to flinch when you see the beak coming for your fingers. You will soon learn the difference between a friendly approach and a hostile one.
At this point, the praise, the food, the company and the training should be beginning to teach the bird that you are a friend. From there, it is simply a matter of time before you feel a stubby tongue reach out for the nearest part of you to preen you in friendship. An abused or neglected bird may take several years to start preening you, but may still enjoy your company in other ways.
However, whether the first preen arrives in a week or three years, there is no feeling quite like it. It means that you have learned to befriend a creature with the intelligence of a two to four year old human, and that they have learned to befriend you as well. Across the barriers of species and domestication, you have had your first contact with an alien intelligence.