A bird in the hand...would be really good.
August 20, 2006 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Gentle bird-folk of metafilter, help me get ahold of my birdie. I want to be able to gently pick him up and pop him back inside his cage. There's plenty [More Inside]

My boy budgerigar is tame and will eat out of my hand, hop on my shoulder, nibble my ear, and perch on my finger. But... on his own terms. Which is fine except for getting him to return to his cage.

The only way I can reliably get him back into his cage is to take away his seed, let him fly around for a couple of hours, and then lure him back inside with more seed. It takes houuuuurs before he's hungry enough for this to work.

I don't have hours every day. If I could get him to let me pick him up and put him back he could rack up daily frequent flyer points.

So far I've tried…
The hunger/lure thing. Works about 98 percent of the time, but takes aaaages.

Leaving my hand in the cage and talking to him gently while I change his food and water so he learns (hopefully) not to fear the fingers. Nibbling ensues which sometimes escalates to nipping.

Practicing gently pressing my finger into his tummy and saying 'up'. He goes up on my finger, but won't stay up. And I can't actually put my hand *around* him.

Using a small cloth or my hands to grab him. Does not work at all. Can't sneak up behind him or corner him. He's off before I have a chance to grab him and he's plenty quicker than me.

Birdie background briefing
He's an escapee--or refugee?--who appeared in my parents' garden about two months ago. He hopped onto my dad's arm, then his head, and let dad carry him into the house.

His cage is longer than it is wide and big enough for him to fly in, a bit. He has lots (but not too much) of stuff to play with in there, gum twigs to perch on, plenty of seed, water, cuttlefish and fresh greens. He has a mirror-friend he talks to constantly. He also has doting visitors (my folks) who coo and whistle and talk to him regularly. If no-one's home we leave the radio on to keep him company. I clean the cage every morning and change his water and food twice a day. As far as caged birds go, I think he's got it pretty good.

The only health problems he's shown were mites, treated successfully with Avispot. No beak or claw problems. He seems pretty happy and full of pep.

I'm guessing the secret(s) is/are consistency, rewarding him every time he lets me touch him and working gradually up to putting my hand around him.

The mechanics of actually doing this are a complete mystery to me.

How the hell do I go about it?
posted by t0astie to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hm... I've always seen this done with a towel. How large have you tried? Using a "small cloth or my hands" makes it sound like you'd have to get in really close. Take a beach towel, open it wide, extending your arms side to side, and slowly bur surely corner him somewhere, then droop it onto him. Use something light and a gentle touch.

Sorry in the case that this is repetitive with what you've already tried but it's a technique I've seen work a lot.
posted by scarabic at 5:26 PM on August 20, 2006

I've netted a stubborn cockatiel with a towel. You just toss it gently on top of him. He sure didn't like it, though, and I felt pretty bad afterwards.
posted by furiousthought at 5:38 PM on August 20, 2006

You say that you can't pick him up because he's quicker than you. Is he flying away or hopping? If he's flying, then you might consider having his wings trimmed (if they're not already). We had a cockatiel when I was growing up and had to have its wings trimmed occasionally so it couldn't fly away when we had it out of the cage. Once we neglected to do that, he escaped... and probably found someone like you.

If he can't fly, you should have an easier time cornering him. Try wearing a leather gardening glove if you need to guard against nipping, but just pick him up and put him back in the cage.
posted by Jeff Howard at 5:41 PM on August 20, 2006

Get him used to you actually grabbing him. Practice when he's already climbing on you so you don't have to chase him down. Basically, just put your fingers under his chest and your thumb around the base of his neck. Be gentle, and try to keep his wings from flapping. Use both hands at the earliest opportunity (this will help keep his wings in check).

Provide him with treats whenever he lets you do this. This is going to be important down the road, as if you ever need to inspect him for injuries or even just clip his nails it, it will be vastly easier if he is already used to being held. A towel will help a lot at first, but eventually you should get it to the point where you can do it with your bare hands.

Some birds really like it too, it becomes another form of affection. The key is repetition, get him used to it.
posted by quin at 5:47 PM on August 20, 2006

Growing up we always put the budgie back when we were eating- and it was a real chore sometimes. We would put him near the door, reach inside the cage through one of the food doors with some seed (or sometimes just a finger) and hope it worked to get him in.

Nowadays with the birds we only put them back in the cage at night, and they are tired enough not to put up a fight. If we need to take them somewhere in the cage we usually try a couple different methods:

The food method, trying to lead them into the cage...

The "catch" method- this usually only works because we have small silver reflective pails (kind of like this without the handle) that the birds like to climb into and play with- they LOVE them. When they climb in, we cover the top and release them in the cage.

The other thing that sometimes works is to put a mirror in front of them, hope they don't realize what you're trying to do, and lead them into the cage.

Another suggestion is to take off the roof of the cage (if you can) and try to get them in that way.

Good luck.
posted by starman at 5:52 PM on August 20, 2006

DO NOT use a glove! Horrible idea. You want to be his friend. You want him to be more tame. Then he will be more inclined to do as you ask.

The standard thing in this situation is wing clipping. I don't clip, but if any of my birds were refusing to go back in, they would be clipped in a hurry. They can still fly with clipped wings, they are just less inclined to. You probably will want your vet or groomer to do it until you learn how to do it yourself.
posted by free pie at 5:55 PM on August 20, 2006

A word of warning though, budgies can land awkwardly and off-balance with clipped wings, increasing the chance they could get hurt.
posted by starman at 6:49 PM on August 20, 2006

I would clip his wings. Whenever our cockatiel gets uppity, we trim his wings and once he learns he can't fly anymore, he becomes much more well behaved.
posted by trbrts at 7:03 PM on August 20, 2006

Thank you everyone... sorry, I should've been clearer. I want to train him to let me hold him, gently, in my hands.

Quin, thanks... that's exactly what I want to do! I've been giving him seed treats or fresh broccolini whenever he hops on my finger, or shoulder. Good boy! But when I try and put a hand *around* him, he goes mental. I just can't get my hand over his back, or around him from underneath without him flitting off. I've tried when he's been climbing on my chest, when he's been on my shoulder, on my finger, on the cage....

Is there some intermediate stage I could try? Should I spend longer letting him get used to my hand near him? Or some trick for distracting him so I can get my hand(s) on him?

I've seen folk at markets wandering holding budgies in their hands, or snuggled up to their chest with one hand over them so it must be do-able...

And, heh, I sort of love the idea of the towel for the comedy potential (I was thinking about a butterfly net the other day...) as I chase him round our laundry with a huge beach sheet. But I'm pretty sure it would be unpleasant and he'd really fear me, ultimately making it harder to get hold of him.

The lure methods (sigh, I've tried the mirror too) just take too long and for various reasons, sadly, he just can't be left out of the cage all day.

I'm not keen on wing clipping at all, so I think I'll hold it in reserve as an absolute last resort if all efforts at training fail.
posted by t0astie at 7:09 PM on August 20, 2006

I would try having him sit in your palm and pet him with your other hand (like you would pet a cat or a dog.) While you are doing this you may want to try scratching the back of his neck. Birds like this. Kinda get him used to the idea of hands being around him is a good thing.

My wife has a lot more experience with small birds so I'll see if I can get her to post some more expert ideas in a bit.
posted by quin at 7:25 PM on August 20, 2006

Quin has really said it all, its just a matter of getting him used to it. I also wouldn't confuse trying to get him in the cage with affection at this point. Otherwise he'll aways be suspicous that you're going to grab, not give love. Which means, most likely, practicing when you have time to let him go into his cage on his own.

Wing clipping isn't that bad, really. When I had budgies years ago, that was how I tamed them. Once they got used to how to behave with clipped wings, they were better behaved once they grew back in. Taming can be done without wing clipping, but it will make your life a whole lot easier.

I also preferred to clip both wings rather than one. Even though they had less to fly with, they were more stable.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 7:35 PM on August 20, 2006

Quin, scratch 'n' pet -- brilliant! Will stock up on treats and try this when I take him out this afternoon.

And thanks [clever], that's good advice about not making him link luuurve and treats with... the cage. Will make sure to schedule training for times when I can leave him to get hungry enough for hands-free re-entry.
posted by t0astie at 7:41 PM on August 20, 2006

I'm not sure if you can bear to do this (I couldn't for my budgie when she was with us), but try taking away the mirror. Birds like to bond with one individual. I never put a mirror in my budgie's cage when i had lots of time for her. She then bonded to ME and looked to me for all attention/preening/etc. The minute I put a mirror in her cage (i had a bit less time and I wanted to make sure she could occupy herself) she bonded to the mirror. She saw her reflection and decided it was her long lost love. She spent hours and hours pecking and preening that mirror. She also lost a lot of her ability to be handled at that point. It's just a suggestion! You'll still need to practice with the bird plenty of times and give her lots of attention. Not a magic bullet, but could induce her to become more interested in being near you.
posted by theantikitty at 7:46 PM on August 20, 2006

The mechanics of actually doing this are a complete mystery to me.

Just grab him! :)
Gently, of course. Get close to him and, without hesitation, wrap your bare hand around him and pick him up, his head poking out between your thumb and index finger. He'll squirm and carry on and protest (loudly!) at first, and probably even try to bite you, but it's a rare budgie that can even break the skin.

The key to catching him is to move quickly (albeit not abruptly), and with confidence. If you're uneasy about your ability to do this without hurting him (or him hurting you ;), ask a vet or more experienced bird handler.

A lot of birds, maybe even most, will become accustomed to being handled this way, and many actually enjoy being wrapped up in hands or blankets, especially if you coo softly and preen their heads at the same time. It might become an enjoyable bonding ritual for both of you.
posted by sgass at 7:57 PM on August 20, 2006

Theantkitty, I never thought of that! He does so love his mate in the mirror, too.

Still, he does come to me. In fact when he's out of the cage, and I try to leave the room, he chases me and perches on my shoulder .

(Altogether now, 'Aww.' )

Will file the mirror solution in my growing arsenal of birdie training tricks tho'.

And yes, sgass, the hesitation is a killer. I think he *knows*, the little devil. Maybe I need to get in some training myself.
posted by t0astie at 8:08 PM on August 20, 2006

sgass' approach is more or less what I did with a rather wildish cockatiel. I just grabbed him, held him still, and petted him and scratched his head for a long time. I don't remember how long it took anymore (I was a teenager at the time), but after a few sessions, he was tame. I was very gentle but very firm... basically, I was telling him with my hands, "Sorry, but you don't get a choice here, young fella." He squawked and cried for awhile, but eventuially figured out I wasn't hurting him. I _think_ what I would do is hold him until he completely relaxed, and then let him go, but I'm no longer certain of that, as it's been twenty years.

He became a bit wilder again over time, but really loved getting his head scratched. The eventual deal we worked out was that he'd get on my finger when I asked, and would go where I put him, and I'd scratch his head when he asked. We were good friends on that basis. :)
posted by Malor at 9:36 PM on August 20, 2006

We've had birds at my house all my life: parakeets, cockatiels, now an african grey (I don't mess with him). But most of all, pigeons. With pigeons it's as sgass says: confidence is the key. About the worst thing you can do is try to sneak up on them because the sudden, unexpected movement startles them into flight. The best way is to approach a bird with both hands already out in a normal (not too slow, not too fast) pace.

For a pigeon, there's also a proper way to hold them (doesn't translate as well to smaller birds though). Try to grab them so that their feet are firmly held between your second and third fingers. The thumb then goes over their back while your fingers firmly grip the tail. Or, if they're facing the other direction (towards you) then your fingers will be under their breast.

This leaves one hand free to do whatever it is you have to do. Good luck!
posted by sbutler at 9:45 PM on August 20, 2006

You mentioned that he knows how to step up onto your finger, that's a great start. Would he stay on your index finger long enough for you to lightly secure his feet in place with the thumb of the same hand?

If the basics are there, I'd work on that as a method of transporting him around the room. Work on it when he's in the cage, and reward him when he steps up. You can also practice having him step from one hand to the other. When carrying him to the cage, give him a treat when you place him back inside.

Granted, it's not an immediate solution, but you don't want to teach him that your hands are scary things, either(which is how he could react to being swooped down upon, remember, these guys are prey animals).
posted by Driph at 11:25 PM on August 20, 2006

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