Ken Globus

The Bird Whisperer




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Hands On Techniques


By Ken Globus



For years I've used the term, "hands-on," to describe my  approach to bird taming.   It's a pro-active approach used to  desensitize birds to the things they are avoiding.  On the other side of the coin are the ďpatienceĒ people, who believe that you must wait for a bird to do everything on its own terms, and "come around" in its own time.  What if "in its own time" turns out to be never?  Sometimes waiting, being too sensitive and passive can make your bird more fragile and actually increase its sensitivity.  When patience is getting you nowhere it's time to take action with a hands-on approach. 

Keep in mind that this method is not aimed at teaching "tricks" to birds that are already tame.  Or taming birds that are only slightly wild.  The birds I'm talking about are biting, fleeing and avoiding contact.    In other words, theyíre living in constant fear of humans. And their owners have been unable to make progress with them with all the  "patience" in the world. 

In some cases the birds had never been tamed.  In others, they were once hand-fed babies that, because of improper handling and the owner's lack of techniques, pulled away from their human companions and gradually became more fearful and aggressive.  This unfortunate pattern repeats many, many times. 

Every time I do a program around the country I ask the audience for a show of hands of who had a tame bird that they now can't handle.  The majority of them raise their hands, which illustrates how common this problem is. 


Progressive Desensitization

In order to tame a bird, you first have to get it out of the cage.  The Patience People are against taking even this step, which renders the owners helpless.  I do this by gently maneuvering the bird out even if it doesnít want to come out.  This enables me to expose it to the situations it is avoiding (coming out of its cage, perching on my hand, doing step-ups, being touched, etc.) long enough to realize that those situations are not dangerous.  In other words, through a process of progressive, systematic desensitization you can help birds become comfortable with the very things they have been avoiding.  The birdís afraid of hands?  I gently expose it to my touch and very quickly it discovers that my hands wonít hurt it.   Aside from being direct, the approach has to be gentle and calm.  Never get excited, move quickly or raise your voice no matter how wild, aggressive or noisy a bird gets.   



"Seeing is Believing"

Here's a good example of how progressive desensitization works.  Ken helps this Macaw move from biting and hand-shy to calmly enjoying touch  in just a few minutes.  Photos by David Howell from a Tri-State Avian Society workshop in Tallahassee, FL  You can read David's article, "Seeing Is Believing"   Read Article




Downward Spiral

Donít forget that birds occasionally bite.  If it happens to you, donít be insulted; itís nothing personal.  And don't feel like a failure.  Even tame birds occasionally bite.  We frequently see birds nip at each other.  Thatís how they communicate things like, ďThis is my perch," or "Let's get outa here!"

So, hereís the all too familiar chain of events where normal bird behavior develops into problem behavior and the relationship between bird and owner spirals downward.  At a given moment for a reason not always obvious, your bird bites you. Ouch.  This makes you wary.  You now move your hands more tentatively.  Trying to avoid your birdís beak, you might offer your finger (or hand) a bit lower down for the bird to step-up on, perhaps near its feet.  The bird doesn't feel secure stepping onto that lower perch.  Birds donít like to step down.  Or, it feels that your finger is attacking its feet.  So, it ďbeaksĒ your finger either to test it as a perch before stepping up, or stop it and push it away.  Or it outright bites.  But now you're afraid of the bite, so your finger wavers, or jerks away, making an even more precarious perch, which causes the bird to trust it/you less.  So, the bird tests that weak perch even more emphatically by biting harder. Now you jerk your hand away.  Normal human reflex.  And youíre even more nervous.  Your hand movements become more erratic, which, to the bird, appears very threatening.  So, you offer your hand even lower and more hesitantly.   Or youíre afraid to offer it at all.  And so on.  And so on. 

This is how the fear level between bird and owner typically escalates.  It turns what was once a warm and friendly relationship into one of mutual fear and mistrust.  Your bird is now on its  way to becoming hand-shy and aggressive and youíre on your way to becoming bird-shy. 

Winging It

My handling approach was developed through dealing with birds during the days when they were mostly wild-caught adults, and extremely aggressive.  These were birds that were terrified of humans.  If you got near their cage they would throw themselves on their backs, squawking, flapping, screaming, ready to fight for their lives.  I tried leaving them alone and found that that did nothing to calm them.  Every time you got close to them the pattern of fear would be repeated.  

Because my techniques were developed in a vacuum I had no preconceptions.  I had never seen anyone tame a bird.  But sometimes, ignorance can be the mother of invention. I was forced to be creative, to figure out on my own, a way to get these birds to calm down.  I glanced at some of the books on taming, but none of what they described seemed to make sense when working with the wild-caughts.   Patience just wasn't going to get anywhere.    And the only teachers I had were the birds themselves.  By observing how they reacted to the things I did, I learned what was effective.  And they let me know every step of the way. 


The Light Comes On

The biggest breakthrough came the first time I got three larger birds at the same time - three  wild-caught, adult Umbrella Cockatoos.  After I got them back from the quarantine station, I would take the first Cockatoo out to trim its nails and clip the wings.  During this grooming the bird would be fighting and screaming bloody murder. Remember, these birds are convinced that Iím out to destroy them.  After the grooming, I put the first bird back in the cage with its other, un-groomed pals.  Later, I noticed something very interesting: when I approached the cage the other birds were much more afraid of me than the one I had groomed.  Even though I had just subjected the bird to the rough handling of a grooming it was now less afraid of me than the ones I hadnít yet touched.  

So, what did I conclude from that?  That because the bird had been exposed to a vulnerable situation and survived it unharmed, it began to realize that I wasn't going to kill it as it had thought.  The others, which had not yet had that experience, were still much more afraid of me.  This was the key that began to unlock my thinking about assertive handling techniques:  expose the birds to what they're avoiding and they become less afraid of them. 

Easy Way Out

Many of the birds I deal with today are nowhere as difficult as those wild-caught adults.  It seems to me that most cases now have to do with a birdís normal tendency to seek what they perceive to be the "easy way out," and develop some bad habits that cause them to pull away from their owner.  Or, itís a case of miscommunication between owners and birds, with the result being a gradual pulling away and the increase in the mutual fear level.

Many people consider a hands-on approach to be controversial.  They believe that anything that exposes birds to an increased amount of stress should be rejected; no matter how little the stress and how short the duration.   My approach does expose birds to a temporary increase in their stress level, but so does a visit to the veterinarian or a grooming.  Yet we consider those things to be necessary evils, for which it is worth exposing birds to stress.  Why isnít helping a bird come out of its fearful state considered as important as a grooming?  I think it is.  In fact, I think it's vital. 

The short-term stress of this pro-active approach is much kinder than the long-term stress experienced by birds and owners who live together for years in mutual fear.  Imagine being in an environment where you live in constant fear that your captor, some 50 to 100 times your size, may at any moment kill you.  


Lifetime of Stress

In another article ("Taming Older Birds") I relate the story of Nigel, the 25 year-old (at least) Double Yellow headed Amazon that had lived his entire life in fear of his owners.   How stressful is that?  Nigel felt like a prisoner in his own house, always on the alert, always frightened, backing away, growling, threatening, biting, when anyone came near him.  In Nigelís mind he was certain that his demise could take place at any moment.  And this went on for 25 years!  Is this a way for a bird and human to live together?  I think itís cruel.  When I worked with Nigel, he went through a half hour of stress until he reached a point where he realized I wasnít really a threat.  It was as if a switch flipped in his brain and he suddenly became relaxed, trusting and wanting human contact.  The stress he had lived with all his life, more than 25 years, was gone and a new relationship had begun.  

If I had waited for Nigel to volunteer to come out of the cage in his own time, on his terms, another quarter century might have passed.  Yet, using progressive techniques of systematic desensitization, I exposed Nigel to the things he was terrified of, and now he's living without fear and aggression. 
































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