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How to stop a bird from wandering

I have an African grey and the darling has decided to truck around the house. He's 2 years old, messy, and eats anything that's wood. We won't allow this; is there any way to change this habit and keep him on top of his cage?

-- Grandmabee, Garden Grove, Calif.,

Although I generally avoid comparing birds to children, this may be an appropriate time to make that comparison. Parrots are similar to children in that both have insatiable natural urges to explore their environment. Like toddlers, parrots are driven to touch, investigate, and chew on almost anything they can get a hold of. Also like kids, they shouldn't be left alone in situations where they can get themselves into trouble.

You might want to ask yourself, "Why should my bird stay on top of his cage?" In his mind, there is no reason to, not when there is a whole world of new chewable objects available to him once he makes it to the floor. Some people will say that punishment will cure the bird's desire to wander the house. However, punishment is a poor training strategy for birds or any other animal (including humans).

If you want to teach your bird to stay anywhere, you have to make the behavior valuable to him. What would be worth staying on top of the cage? Treats? Attention? A scratch on the head?

Some people may say "my bird doesn't like treats." By definition, a treat is something your bird likes; you may have to experiment to find out what it is. The answer for most birds is an edible goodie, which you should keep separate from the daily fare so you can use it as a reward.

Once you identify a treat or two, leave the room for a couple of minutes. If the bird is still on top of his cage when you return, bring back a treat to reward him for staying put. Then leave the room for a few more minutes, come back and reward him again.

Gradually increase the time you are out of the room before returning. If your bird leaves the cage, simply pick him up and put him directly back on top, being careful not to reinforce his wandering behavior with too much attention or companionship.

Repeat the process of leaving the room and rewarding your bird with treats and praise for staying on top of the cage. He’ll soon begin to understand that staying put means something tasty to eat.

Training your bird to "stay" will take some patience and a little time, but the rewards should be worth the extra effort. Just keep in mind he’ll probably backslide occasionally and wander again. Roaming the house and chewing on furniture are strong natural inclinations for companion parrots. It is very difficult to change this hard-wired behavior, even with the positive reinforcement, the most effective behavior modification tool. I suggest you monitor him anytime he's out of his cage, just in case.

Steve Martin World-renowned animal trainer Steve Martin established one of the first free-flight bird shows in the country at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. His international consulting company, Natural Encounters, Inc., now helps zoos all over the world train all types of animals using positive reinforcement. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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