Anyone who thinks owning a bird is like owning a fish is fooling themselves. There is more spark and personality in a bird than in any floppy old fish.
Side note: I am so sorry to any fish owners I am currently offending.
I got my cockatiel, Froley, because I wanted a pet that I could show affection to and who would show that affection back. And by golly, that’s what ended up happening. I have never had a pet who I love more than Froley. He is the cutest widdle bird in the whole wide world, and he’s more affectionate than I had originally hoped for.
However, getting to that point in your relationship with your pet bird can be difficult. It’s a long process, and it’s easy to feel disheartened about it. You don’t buy birds that automatically love you, especially if you’re buying it from a pet store.
Side note: Most bird help books recommend you purchase your new pet bird from a breeder, but given where you live, that isn’t always feasible. It sure wasn’t for me.
Despite that, it is possible to develop a close bond with your bird, and here are a few tips to get you started.
Side note: I have only ever owned one pet bird, and it is a cockatiel. Am I an authority? Kinda, maybe, sorta, not really.
Set up the cage before bringing them home.
It can be tempting to go on a spending splurge the day you get your new bird, buying them a cage, toys, food containers, cuttle bones etc., but you should definitely buy those things and set them up before you actually buy the bird. Your new pet is going to be super stressed as it is, arriving in this alien house that it isn’t used to. It doesn’t need to see or hear the clanging and banging of its cage being constructed. That’s like the opposite of a welcome mat.
Give your bird its space.
This was a tough one for me. As soon as I got Froley, I immediately wanted to start working on interacting with him. But you’ve got to give your birdie time to acclimate to its new surroundings. Let him or her have some space in those early days. It’s a simple piece of advice that can really help with getting your bird comfortable.
Make sure they watch you bringing food.
Birds are not dumb creatures, and they are really good at picking up visual and audio cues. As such, if you consistently bring them food in a certain manner at a certain time of day, they will learn to associate you with their yummy-yum time. And you want them to associate you with something they like. For a long time, that’s the only reason Froley really liked me. I brought him his pellets. He now knows the sound of the bag when I open it and the exact location of the tub I keep it in.
Hang out by their cage.
While you don’t want to immediately pressure your bird when you get it, you don’t want to just ignore it. If you just ignore it, it will become accustomed to being left alone. If you ever find yourself with some down time, whether you’re reading, chilling on your phone, or watching some Netflix, do it by your bird’s cage. Let them see you doing a quiet activity nearby. I used to read to Froley from my Cockatiels for Dummies book all the time. I don’t know if he appreciated it, but he did eventually learn to not be afraid of books.
Only buy a single bird.
If your bird has the option to turn to another bird for company, it will usually pick the bird over you. That’s why some pet owners purposefully purchase two birds. They want their birds to have each other for company. However, if your end objective is to share an incredibly close bond with your bird, it helps if you’re the only one they can turn to for a cuddle. I hate to sound like a cruel monster that kept Froley from other bird companions, but I know for a fact that he and I are only so close because I was the one creature who spent any amount of time with him.
Try using a treat for your first moment of physical contact.
When both you and your birdie are ready for the next step in closeness, have one of their favorite treats nearby to facilitate the contact. Froley and I started becoming closer when I tried hand-feeding him his seeds. He really seemed to like that, and it built up trust levels like you wouldn’t believe. Eventually, I used treats to coax him up onto my finger, and after that, the real treat became just hanging out with me.
Attempt to pet your bird shortly after it has molted.
When birds molt, their new feathers come out in these thin, white sheaths. These sheaths then crumble into dust revealing the new feather lying within. Normally, a bird can nibble away at their own sheaths in order to free them. However, they have a hard time reaching the ones on their head. That’s where other birds come in. Bird buddies will preen the sheaths off of their fellows’ heads for them. Without a bird buddy, that job is left undone. These sheaths are incredibly itchy for your bird, so if you want to ingratiate yourself to him or her while simultaneously worming your way into his or her affection, giving your bird scritches during this time period is ideal.
This is the most important bit of advice I can give. I’m not gonna lie, I sometimes cried at the thought that Froley didn’t seem to care much for me in those first few weeks. I had read so much about bird affection before getting him that I felt really let down when things didn’t immediately turn out that way for me. But see, birds aren’t like cats or dogs. Both cats and dogs are predator animals, bred to work alongside humans as partners. Birds are prey animals, and fearfulness keeps them alive in the wild. Trust has to be earned with them so that they can learn to rely on you for their safety.
So give your bird the time required to build that trust. It took me over a month to get close to Froley. But the wait is well worth it. When you’re cuddling with a bird, and you can actually feel its tiny skull underneath your fingertips as you give it some little scritches, there is no other feeling like it in the world. It is a tiny life form that has entirely entrusted its well-being in the palm of your hand. It’s not even a tenth of your size, but it will hop onto your shoulder without a care once you have established that bond.
Side note: I feel incredibly lucky to have Froley in my life every day, and not a morning goes by where I don’t appreciate the magnitude of how implicitly he trusts me.