Tips for Taming a Difficult Cockatiel

When I was in college, I rescued a cockatiel from a pet store.  At the time, I had two other cockatiels at home and had learned quite a bit about how to properly care for them.  It was clear to me that someone at the pet store was abusing the cockatiel I rescued.  My best guess was that the bird was getting hit on the top of his head every time he sang too loudly for the clerk working the desk at the pet store.

Most cockatiels enjoy having their owners pet their heads, especially if you pet their rosy cheeks.  This bird, however, would hiss and bite if you tried that. He would make every attempt to fly away from me, and would sometimes even attack the other cockatiels. I named him Pepper, and worked with him every day for a long time. Today, Pepper is a delightful bird. He is social with both people and other cockatiels, happy, and occasionally will even sing. Here is what I did to help tame my difficult cockatiel.

Clip those wings
I strongly suggest taking your difficult cockatiel in to see the vet, and asking the vet to clip the wings for you. The procedure is painless for the bird (similar to a human getting a haircut) but most birds simply don’t like it. A difficult cockatiel will squirm, yell, and even bite because he or she is afraid. It makes for an unpleasant experience.

Having a vet clip your bird’s wings for you will do two things. One, you can be sure that it is done correctly, with no harm or undue stress done to your difficult bird. Two, the bird will relate this unpleasant experience as something your vet does, and not something you are going to do to it. This will make things easier when you try to work with this bird.

Why clip the wings? Cockatiels with clipped wings cannot fly away from you. They will try, at least once or twice, right after getting their wings clipped, but will soon find it hard to get the lift required to get somewhere high. If the bird can’t get away, it will be easier for you to work with him. Some clipped birds feel more inclined to just go along with what you are trying to do, realizing they are somewhat dependent on you now that they can’t fly away. It is helpful. The feathers will grow back, and the bird will be able to fly normally again. You can choose at that point if you want to have the wings re-clipped.

An interesting thing I have found is that some cockatiels, very few, are actually strong enough to fly fairly well with both wings clipped. If that is the case with your bird, then I suggest having the vet clip just one wing.

Climb those stairs
This is a trust exercise, as well as a way for you and your difficult cockatiel to get to know each other. Start with two perches. These can be purchased from any pet store. All that is required is that these perches are the same, and small enough for you to hold up easily with one hand.

First, get your cockatiel to stand on one perch. It will take a few tries for the bird to figure out what you want, and then to agree to go along with it. I have found that if you lean the perch against the birds tummy, right above the legs, the bird will naturally want to step up onto the perch. Use the same procedure to get the bird to step up to the second perch.

Say “step up” every time you want the bird to step up onto the perch.  Eventually, the cockatiel will learn what “step up” means and will comply.  Teaching your bird to “step up” will come in handy later on if your bird falls behind a piece of furniture and becomes “stuck”.  He will know what to do when you reach for him and say “step up”.

Repeat the stair climbing few times, going slowly at first. Doing a little of this daily is a way to for your bird to begin to build up trust in you. When your bird is a master at this, you can trade the perches for your fingers. Extend the “pointer finger” on each hand into a straight line, similar to the perch, and then repeat the same procedure.

Don’t overdo it. At some point, your bird will get tired. Then it’s time to stop for a while.

Quiet time
Pepper used to sit on my shoulder as we both looked out a window at the world outside. We did this every day at first. Most cockatiels will find it interesting to look out the window. (Be careful not to let the bird fly into the window. It takes most of them a while to figure out they can’t fly through the glass. Birds can be temporarily stunned or even injured from crashing into a window). Some birds might want to sit on you as you watch something quiet on television. Its not what you are watching that is important.  It is the calm time spent just sitting with the bird that seems to help the difficult cockatiel gain trust in you. You need a balance of quiet time and working time.

Don’t overreact to biting
Most cockatiels don’t really want to hurt their owners. Most will avoid biting you, or will bite much more gently than they are actually capable of doing. Difficult birds, especially ones who had been abused, will bite. It is because they are scared.

The worst thing you can do if bitten is yell really loud while making fast gestures, (the exact thing you will be naturally inclined to do). Instead, when your bird bites, tell it “no” in a stern (but not loud) voice. If the bird bites you while doing the stair climbing exercise, you can gently nudge it off balance while saying “no”. (Do not knock it off the perch, just unbalance the bird a bit). The bird will figure out after a while that you do not want it to bite you. It will also eventually associate biting you with feeling off balance, and will resist biting.

Patience is a virtue
Taming a difficult cockatiel  is going to take time and dedicated effort. Take things slow. Use a calm, soft, voice when working with your difficult bird. Do a little work every day, but not so much work that your bird gets too tired from it. Realize that this taming process will take as much time as this particular bird needs, and will not necessarily fit your timescale. There will be backsliding at times. Keep going. Don’t give up. Don’t let days go by without working with your difficult cockatiel, or else the bird may progress even more slowly.

There are a few other general things that I found useful. It helped that at first, I was the only one working with Pepper. It helped to keep Pepper separate from my other birds at first. Once Pepper was calmer, he was able to join the other birds, but for limited amounts of time, and always monitored by me. He now is as happy as the rest of my cockatiels, and doesn’t bite anymore. With luck and patience, you too, can tame a difficult cockatiel.