Petting Birds

Sun conure being pet
Getty Images/Sean Murphy

Getting your bird to accept being pet is more about being in tune with your bird and learning to work with their personality than it is training.

Bird Personalities

Birds vary greatly in how they like contact with people and some just like their personal space. If you have a bird that does not like to be touched, you will need to approach your bird very slowly in order to make them comfortable with contact.

Ultimately, you may just have to accept that your bird is not going to be a cuddly bird, since persisting in petting a bird that just doesn't like contact is going to erode your bird's trust in other areas. If you do have a cuddly bird that likes human contact, it probably won't take much effort at all to get your bird asking for cuddles or scratches by lowering its head to you.

Bird Body Language

When training your bird to accept petting, the first step is to read the cues your bird is giving you. Remember that reaching for your bird's head to pet it may be perceived as a threat by your bird, especially if you try to reach the back of the head. Does your bird assume a stiff posture and stare at you when you approach them? Do they run away, try to push you away, or even try to bite you? These are clear signs that your bird is not comfortable with what is happening.

If you ignore the body language of a stressed bird, prepare for a potential bite from them.

On the other hand, a bird that likes being pet is relaxed and will often turn their head a bit to the side, or even bow their head down, for scratches and petting. Some will bow their heads down and even close their eyes, a sign of a happy bird that fully trusts that petting is not a threat.

Teaching Your Bird to be Comfortable with Being Pet

You can do a little bit of training to get your bird more comfortable with the idea of being pet.

As with other forms of training, practice in short frequent sessions and stick to these small steps at first:

  • Choose a quiet time when your bird is relaxed.
  • Keep your hand in full view of your bird.
  • Speak to your bird before petting them and don't try to force them to like being pet.
  • Try lightly touching and petting your bird's beak at first.
  • If your bird lets you touch their beak, try gradually moving your fingers to the skin on their face just behind their beak.
  • Use a very gentle touch when petting your bird.
  • Work your way around the side of your bird's head if they are comfortable with you petting their beak and face.
  • Work with the natural orientation of the feathers. Petting the feathers the "wrong way" can be irritating. Pet in the direction the feathers naturally lay down, or gently scratch side to side between the feathers.
  • Eventually, as your bird relaxes, you can work your way around to the back of their head and neck.

Maintain Your Bird's Trust

Remember, just because your bird may have become comfortable with you petting them doesn't mean that just anyone can do the same. Don't expect your bird to accept being pet by strangers.

Also, while a good cuddle is nice for you and your bird, it is a good idea to avoid excessive petting and to avoid petting the back and body of your bird.

A mature bird may find petting in these areas stimulating which may result in a sexually frustrated bird and, in turn, may lead to behavior issues.

Make sure petting doesn't become the only way you interact with your bird. Ensure you are socializing with your bird in other ways (i.e. tricks, games, exploring, toys, talking, just being together).