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.

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Posted by Jen (1106 Posts)

Jen is a cofounder of No Market. She is podcaster and a professional freelance writer living in San Luis Obispo, CA. She contributes to many of the channels here at No Market. She also co-hosts the Shattred Soulstone podcasts.


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27 comments to Tips for Taming a Difficult Cockatiel

  • Sarah  says:

    I have a really difficult male cockatiel, I got him from pet supermarket about 3 months ago so he’s roughly 7-8 month old, he constantly hisses when he’s in his cage, he bites me and won’t let me pet him but let’s me hold him and kiss him and vise verse with my boyfriend except the holding he lets everyone hold him on their finger, the only time he doesn’t bite me or squawk at me is when he’s close to my face and neck, I’ve tried everything I can and it’s getting worse even though I’m showing him that IAMBOSS. I’ve been reading up on it and it may be hormones but that still doesn’t explain why he’s biting ME he sees me everyday and I show him affection for at least 2 hours a day like I’m supposed to. And so far, everyone I’ve asked gives me pointers but they don’t work

    • Jen  says:

      Sarah,

      A hissing cockatiel is a frightened cockatiel. Don’t take it personally. Cockatiels that are easy going will get hissy when scared. This is simply how cockatiels express fear.

      In general, cockatiels don’t like changes. Your bird has only been with you for a few months, and everything is new to him now. You’re new to him – your home is new to him – his cage isn’t the one he was in at the pet store.

      The best advice I can give you (other than what is in the blog) is to keep working with your cockatiel. My bird, Pepper, was a hissy, bitey, frightened mess when I got him – and little had changed three months later. Over time, with a lot of work, and a ton of patience, Pepper became a happier bird. I got Pepper in 1992, and I cannot remember exactly how long it took before he chilled out. But, I’m pretty certain it was around a year or so.

      What you are trying to do – tame a difficult cockatiel – is hard work. The results are worth it, though.

      I would recommend taking your bird to see a vet. Find a vet that understands birds. Sometimes, vets that works with “exotic animals” will be good with birds. A cockatiel who is sick, or in pain, can be bitey. A vet will be able to let you know if your bird is healthy, and can advise on how to help a bird that is sick or injured. Not all pet stores treat their birds well. There’s no telling what he has been through. The vet can give you advice about bird hormones and biting, too.

      Another thing you can do is to keep going with the trust exercises – but also give him time to just sit on you by your neck and face. He might need to “snuggle”. In some pet stores, staff take birds out of their cage to clean it, and let the bird sit on them while that happens. He might be trying to sit on you to get the comfort he felt when a staff at the pet store let him sit on them. He got used to that routine, and as I said, cockatiels don’t like change.

      One good thing about letting him sit on you is that, over time, it will give him a chance to preen your hair. Birds preen other birds to bond with them and show affection. One of the best things I did with Pepper was to let him sit on me as we looked out a window for about ten minutes or so every day. Something about that worked for him. Today, if I’m sitting out the couch when he is out of the cage, he will sometimes come over and preen my hair.

      I highly recommend continuing to do trust exercises with your bird. Stair climbing is a good way to do that. If your bird is too bitey now, try using a couple of perches instead of your fingers. At first, Pepper would not let me take him out of the cage without throwing a fit. He would bite and draw blood. But, if I reached into the cage with a small perch, he eventually figured out that he should get on it.

      I had him do stair climbing on perches and slowly transitioned to fingers (when he was ready). I always said “step up” when I did stairs climbing with him, and continue to say it when I want him to get on a perch or my finger. The phrase, always said in the same way with the same tone, helps cockatiels understand what is going on.

      I’m going to tell you something else that you may not want to hear. Pepper has never let me pet him. He doesn’t let anyone else pet him either. The majority of cockatiels who let people pet them are ones that had been hand tamed from the moment they were hatched. They were fed by humans. They were cuddled from a young age. Typically, these birds come from dedicated breeders who want to raise healthy, happy, cockatiels and who are picky about who they will sell their birds to. Those birds have only positive experiences with humans. Pet store birds don’t have that experience – and some never let humans pet them.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that difficult cockatiels can do well for a while, and then regress a bit if something scary happens. Pepper sometimes still bites me when he is scared. The difference is that he doesn’t draw blood (like he used to when I first got him). He mostly nibbles now. Sometimes, he feels bad for biting me and will try and kiss my finger where he bit.

      Keep doing what you are doing. I didn’t see any changes with Pepper in the first three months. Cockatiels need a lot of time and effort in order to build trust with humans. Keep taking him out of the cage, even if he hates it. Keep doing stairs with him. Limit the time you do stairs to about five minutes. (Cockatiels have short attention spans). Offer him treats (like millet) from time to time. Talk nicely to him in happy tones. All of this together will, eventually, calm down your difficult cockatiel.

      I hope this helps you.
      -Jen

  • wendy  says:

    Hi please help I’ve a cockateil he keeps attacking me as im leaving what advise could u give me he’s about 7yrs old . Getting me frustrated and upsetting me . Bites me and attacks my hair .at the end of my wits .

    • Jen  says:

      Wendy,

      I would recommend taking the cocktail to the vet and having the vet clip the bird’s wings. It won’t harm the bird (and the feathers will grow out again later). This will prevent the cockatiel from being able to fly at you and attack your hair while you are leaving.

      The vet could also figure out if your cockatiel is acting this way because he is sick or injured. Birds tend to hide that from their owners, but a vet will be able to find out. Sometimes, birds that are in pain lash out at their owners.

      It sounds to me like you have only one cockatiel. Maybe he is trying to tell you that he gets lonely when you leave? Try playing soft music, or a soft-spoken podcast for your cockatiel while you are out. My birds like to listen to tech shows. This might help your cockatiel feel less alone when you are out. Play the podcast (or music) for your bird every time you leave your home. Eventually, your cockatiel will learn that when you leave there is still someone “there”. He might start to feel less lonely when you are gone, and stop attacking when you are ready to leave.

      I hope this helps,
      Jen

  • Paulo  says:

    Hi,
    We got our cockatiel about two months ago, he is about 6 months old (we assume it’s a he), he seems extremely happy, sings pretty much all day, spends most of the day in and out of the cage on the branches I attached outside of his cage… We manage to attract him with treats and he gets really close to our hand on this occasions, however as soon as he realises there’s a hand there he hisses and runs away to the slightest movements. No matter what he allows no proximity.

    We are trying to let his feathers to grow again since the guys from the pet shop all but stripped his right wing to nothing (so he is very ‘out of balance’ even for gliding down)

    1. Should we keep “pressing” the taming?
    and 2. is it a bad idea to first let his wings grow fully then consider proper clipping or not (he is eventually crashing when trying to fly)?

  • Jen  says:

    Paulo,

    It is normal for young cockatiels to be hissy when they are being trained. Its also normal for young cockatiels to hiss and run when they get close to people’s hands. This is especially true for cockatiels who come from pet stores and who haven’t been handled by people very much. Right now, your young cockatiel isn’t sure that it is ok for humans to touch him. In general, cockatiels that are young, and who go through training, are more likely to allow their owners to touch them and pet them… eventually.

    It is up to you whether or not you want to continue the training. Your bird may not like it much now, but it can be good for him overall. There will come a time when you have to pick him up (example: he falls behind something and cannot get out on his own) (another example: if you ever need to give him medicine). Handling him now, and letting him hiss, will make things easier on him later on when he must be picked up and held.

    It is best to train cockatiels when they are young. Older birds tend to be less interested in being trained.

    Now, onto your second question about clipping. It is normal for (most) cockatiels to crash land when they have one of their wings clipped. This is true for birds who got very clipped at the pet store – and is also true for birds that were carefully clipped by a vet. I would let the feathers grow back on their own – and then have a vet clip the cockatiel’s wing properly later on if you are not yet finished with training.

    Some cockatiels are strong enough to fly with both wings clipped. Clipping one wing and not the other throws them off balance (for lack of a better explanation). After your cockatiel’s wing feathers grow back, a vet might choose to clip just one wing and not the other. The main purpose of wing clipping is to make it harder for your cockatiel to fly away from you when you are trying to train him.

    One technique that people use to help hissy cockatiels to get more comfortable with being handled is to use a towel. Wrap the bird in a towel with his head sticking out of it, hold him close to you, and talk softly to him. Pet his head with one finger (if possible). Try and pet his back without letting him out of the towel. Give him a treat afterwards. This shows the cockatiel that you aren’t going to hurt him. Over time, you might be able to hold him without a towel.

  • Paulo  says:

    Thanks a lot for the reply Jen it was very reassuring 🙂
    We started trying the step up technique yesterday after reading your comments and can already see progres – we’ll keep up with the training “slowly but surely”

    The crashes scare us because he hurt himself more than once (blood droplets on the wall or Windows even) but I believe letting it grow then taking to a vet is for the best

    Tks again for your help

  • Sreejith  says:

    My tiels accept treats from my hands inside the cage and steps up to on my finger but but eventually it steps out of the cage becomes scared and flies away their wings are not trimmed yet . I have to chase them to get them inside cage and they become frightened and bites . How can I tame them let them free inside my room

    • Jen  says:

      Sreejith,
      I would recommend that you take your cockatiel to a vet who can clip one of the bird’s wings. Cockatiels who have one clipped wing cannot fly very well, and this makes it easier to tame them. They won’t be able to fly away like they want to, and most of them quickly figure that out after flying and crashing a few times.

      Young cockatiels that have a clipped wing are going to be more accepting of training – because they can’t really get away from you. The cockatiel might hiss, which shows that he or she is scared. That’s ok. In general cockatiels don’t like new things – and training is a new thing. Work through that with your cockatiel.

      One of my birds used to bite me. When he did, I would loudly say “NO!”. The tone of my voice taught him that I didn’t want him to bite me. Once in a while, he still bites me if he is scared all these years later. But, he’s a lot more gentle about that than he used to be.

      A good way to build trust with a cockatiel you are training is to do “stairs” with him. Get him to sit on your finger (like a perch). Next, put a finger from your other hand in front of his belly, say “step up”, and gently nudge him a tiny bit off balance. Your bird will step up. He will get better at it over time. Be patient, and try these things, and you might see a change in your cockatiel eventually.

  • Sreejith  says:

    Thanks a lot Jen .let me ask one more question . Can I taught them step up ladder technique using fingers inside their cage without taking them out of the cage as there is no avian vet or an wing trimming expert nearby . And i am afraid carrying out wing clip my self will be a disaster . May I hope after training them ladders inside cage and take them out will not result in frightening and flying ? If so I will try wing clipping my self and again if wing clipping is done how can I get them back when they were on the floor eating without grabbing them

    • Jen  says:

      Sreejith,

      I do not recommend that you clip your cockatiel’s wings yourself. Take the bird to a vet, who knows how to do it correctly, and let the vet do that for you.

      It is possible to do the “step up ladder” technique inside the cage if the cage has enough room for you to put both of your hands into – and room left for the cockatiel to sit on your finger and do steps. There is no harm in giving that a try. Usually, good training with the “step up ladder” technique results in having your cockatiel trust you more than they originally did. Be prepared for your cockatiel to try and avoid your hands when you reach into the cage. My tamed cockatiels do that – for no real reason. It’s a cockatiel thing.

      One good way to get a trained cockatiel back when they are on the floor eating, without grabbing them, is to use the “step up” command while offering your finger to the bird like a perch (just like you do for the “step up ladder” training). The bird may resist at first. Try again, and a trained cockatiel will eventually do what you want him to.

      All cockatiels will want to fly when they are let out of the cage. That’s just something they do. You can always expect your bird to try and fly when he or she is out of the cage. Having a vet clip the bird’s wing can minimize how far the bird can fly. Good training is what helps an owner get the bird back into the cage later on.

  • Sreejith  says:

    Jen , how can I prevent cockatiel night frights?

    • Jen  says:

      Sreejith,
      To prevent night frights, keep a light on at night in the room where the cockatiel’s cage is. It doesn’t have to be a super bright light. A somewhat dim one may work. Cockatiels with night fright will still fall of their perches at night. But, having a light makes them calm down again more quickly than if they didn’t have a light. The light helps the cocktail that has night fright to see where he is, and he should climb back up to the perch on his own. Check your bird the next morning to make sure he didn’t injure himself in the fall. Look for spots of blood on the bird or in the cage. Most of the time, night fright cockatiels fall and do not harm themselves – especially if they have a light.

  • Sreejith  says:

    My tiels don’t eat fruit s vegetables , leaves or pellets.how can I make them eat those?

    • Jen  says:

      Sreejith,

      My cockatiels refuse to eat fruits and vegetables. I have no first-hand advice on how to get your cockatiels to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I am not aware of any leaves that are safe for cockatiels to eat.

      It sounds like you might be feeding your cockatiel bird seed. Here is what I did to transition my cockatiels from bird seed to pellets. Put a little bit of pellets into the food dish along with the seed. Every day, reduce the amount of seed a little bit more – and add slightly more pellets. This gives the cockatiel time to adjust to having pellets in their food, and could encourage them to try it. Eventually, the cockatiel will find only pellets in their food dish. My birds complained about that for about a day – and then started eating the pellets with no complaints.

  • Paulo  says:

    Serenity, if I may add something:
    When or bird would freak out and fly out of the cage he would be in absolute panic when I tried to grab him even by moving very slowly, using a soothing voice and using a towel… He would bite to the point of drawing blood. The solution was very simple: I built a ramp for him to climb back to the cage on his own and now he happily do that whenever he finds himself stranded. A long branch will do nicely just so it’s in an easy angle, but he can even climb a vertical branch, providing it’s very close to the floor.

    I hope that helps 🙂

    • Paulo  says:

      Pardon my spell checking Sreejith

  • Sreejith  says:

    Thnks paulo

  • Sreejith  says:

    Hai Paulo, now one of my tiels steps up to my finger and accept the treat but if I take it outside perching on my finger eating treat s on my other hand after finishing the treat it tries to fly to the perch inside the cage . It don’t sits on my finger without treat . How can I solve ?

  • Sandeep malali  says:

    Hi jen read your article and sounds interesting. However, i would need a serious help here. I bought my coco (cockateil) last week. He is really very sweet but very bittey, hissy, all d things he would do to get me off when i try to put my fingure inside. I am sure he is lot more angry with me by now as i put him back to the cage as he accidentally came out when i was cleaning but i left him out for longer period of time before catching him with a towel. I know i did a mistake but he is lot more sacred of me and tries to bite as soon as he sees my fingure if its out of his cage or inside. So please suggest me what can i do. I am sure I have lost his trust but i want to gain it back. I am not sure how old he is but can around 7-8 months old or more than that. But i would like to say he enjoys his mist bath when spray on him. Can you please mail me on my email ID sandeep.malali93@gmail.com.. Please help me

    • Jen  says:

      Sandeep,
      It is good that your cockatiel likes the mist bath. That will help a lot because it means you won’t have to grab him to give him a bath.

      As far as regaining trust with your cockatiel, I’m not sure what to advise other than to keep trying and hope for the best.

      You might need to seek out an expert on cockatiels. I am only a blogger.

      • Sandeep malali  says:

        Thanks for your reply may b i will try just leave him on his own to be on his own for a while ..He is affraid of me but he doesn’t want me to go away..He gives a call when I say bye to him while leaving to the office and calls me when i go away to another room. Can you advice some one who can help me regaining the trust? I mean some email id or a wesbiste or anything you about?

        • Jen  says:

          Sandeep,
          The only thing I know to do with a cockatiel that will help build trust between the bird and the owner is the “stairs” technique that I described in the blog post. The bird will be hissy at first, but do the “stairs” anyway, every day, for a few minutes at at time. Give the bird a break after that.

          As I mentioned, I am only a blogger, not an expert. You might ask a veterinarian for more advice about what will work with your cockatiel specifically. Some pet stores have books that give some advice about training cockatiels.

          • Sandeep malali  says:

            Thanks for your reply …

  • Sreejith  says:

    Jen, thank you for your advise . I clipped those wings and it works. will definitely buy u a coffee.

  • Sreejith  says:

    Hai Jen , it’s me again. Now my tiels step up and do the ladders on my finger. Then I drop them on the cage top to play . Then the problem is they don’t step up onto my finger to drop them again into the cage . Any tips?

  • Sreejith  says:

    Hai Jen, now my tiels enjoy stepping on to my fingers playing on the top of the cage. I am going to fix some toys and food dish on the cage top . Now they want to play out side . But they are afraid of being on the floor or another room . Hope soon I can watch t v in another room with them playing on may table or exploring the room. Thank u

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