PLEASE NOTE: When you pick up your handfed “tame” ringneck, the bird should step up easily and be eager to interact with you. Do not believe sellers who claim the bird is tame but “just nervous” if the bird is clearly afraid to be handled. That is how you end up needing to know how to tame a completely wild ringneck.
I get a lot of questions on how to build trust with a fearful ringneck, and I want to address some specific points for people starting this process. There is a lot of conflicting advice online and hopefully we can sort through some of that and help you get a good start with your new companion.
First Things First
All birds are individuals, and IRNs are one of the most difficult species to tame once they wean. Can it be done? Yes, but not every bird will become a great pet no matter how hard you work. If you find yourself with a wild ringneck you need to seriously ask yourself, “Can I love this bird and meet his needs forever even if he remains afraid of me for the rest of his life?” If the answer is no, then as you proceed with taming you should be formulating a back up plan to send your bird to a home that CAN love him if he is not within your ability to tame. If you ARE willing to love the bird no matter what, CONGRATS! Now start formulating a plan for how to keep him healthy and happy even if he is never tamed. Are you able to build an aviary? Maybe just an extra large cage with a good view of the yard? Extra foraging toys, shredables, etc to keep his mind busy if he cannot come out of his cage to interact and explore. I even know of people who let their wild birds out and have managed to train them to return to their cages for bribes even though the birds don’t trust the humans to handle them.
Setting the Stage
Imagine you find yourself trapped in a cage underwater (congrats on learning to breath underwater!) and sharks are circling you. They are circling and thrashing, and they keep opening the door to your cage and trying to get close to you! You cannot read their body language, you don’t know why you are here, you just know that they have awfully big teeth! This is as close as we can come to imagining what it is like for a wild bird to arrive in our living room. Sure, we have all HEARD that sharks aren’t blood thirsty, but up close the animal terror and the bone deep knowledge that they are predators and you are in their territory is overwhelming. For the entire time you are taming your bird I want you to keep this image in your mind. When things don’t progress as fast as you want them to, when you feel you are taking “two steps forward, one step back,” and when you don’t understand why the bird seems to hate you even though you feed, water, and adore him; you are a predator, he is prey. BE PATIENT!
In all your dealings with your bird you need to be as smooth, calm, and relaxed as possible. Move in a relaxed manner, slowly, and predictably. When your bird begins to panic, back off just a little and wait until they calm down. Allow them to get used to you at that proximity. Some birds will be content for you to come all the way up to the cage before they get nervous, others will feel threatened as soon as you enter the room. Meet your bird where they are, be patient.
Again, all birds are different. Some birds will be willing to take treats from your hands right away and that’s great! But most wild IRNs will not. For those who are too shy to take treats from the hand I suggest installing a metal dish specially for treats in a location that is easy for you to access without invading the cage more than necessary. I suggest metal because it makes a loud and unique noise when you drop in a peanut or almond, or whatever treat your bird loves the most. Each time you pass by the cage during the day, simply drop a treat into that bowl and continue on your way without even looking at your bird and especially without hanging around to watch him. The point is to get him to associate you coming around with getting his favorite treat. Eventually he will likely wait at the bowl for you instead of at the back of the cage, and from there it is a small step to taking treats from your hand.
A note on diet: If your bird is eating an all seed diet, bribes will become less effective. If your bird is already being overfed, your bribes will be less effective. This is one of the reasons we suggest meals rather than free-feeding. Feed your bird as much food as they will eat 2-3 times a day but don’t leave seeds in the cage for boredom munching. Feed a varied diet of fresh and whole foods, and the seeds and nuts you offer as treats will be much more “special.” Feeding healthy meals also helps motivate your bird to work on foraging toys, but that’s another topic.
Consider Target Training
I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining a concept that is best demonstrated in a video, but I recommend spending time on youtube watching videos on target training your parrot. This is one great way to get food-driven birds to learn to step up, etc.
Read to Your Bird
You don’t actually have to read to them, but spending a LOT of time sitting next to the cage not looking at your bird, but being very relaxed and speaking in a calm tone just letting the bird adjust to you. Sit as close as you can to the cage without the bird acting nervous. Eventually you should be able to sit next to the cage even if you can’t at the beginning. Once they are comfy with that you can start to let your hand rest inside the cage as you read or watch tv, gradually moving closer. This slow and steady desensitization is not always necessary especially if your bird responds easily to target training but it might be. You may spend weeks or months inching your hand closer and closer to your bird before you touch them for the first time. Do not rush or force; if your bird is afraid then you have moved too close, too fast. Back off just a little and wait. Be patient.
Keep Your Fingers Tucked
As mentioned elsewhere, ringnecks tend to have an oddly specific fear of human fingers. When working with your bird keep your fingers together in the form of a plank or a fist even when feeding and watering. Once your bird is comfortable stepping onto your closed hand you can start using your fingers individually.
Consider the Consequences of Clipping
There is a really silly notion floating around the internet that somehow cutting a bird’s wings helps them trust you. It does not promote trust, it simply limits mobility and makes the bird easier to control. This has both pros and cons. Indian Ringnecks and other Asiatic Parakeets tend to react poorly to being clipped and it can encourage defensive biting and lunging by making the bird feel trapped and unable to escape. On the other hand, chasing a bird that is flying around the room does a lot of damage to any trust you have been building up. In general you want to avoid forcing/trapping/traumatizing your bird as much as possible. For that reason I suggest having wings trimmed immediately after adoption at the initial well-bird vet visit (which should be done within the first day or two you have the bird anyway) if you are going to have it done at all. If you can get all the trauma of the vet visit, clipping, etc out of the way right away then you won’t have to deal with setbacks in trust due to these things later on during the process. It is entirely possible and in my mind preferable to leave the bird flighted, but it can be intimidating for the new family and in some cases a trim may be the best option.
Prepare for Setbacks
You will have setbacks. They will be discouraging and frustrating, but you just have to press on. The relationship you will have with your bird is worth the effort! Just keep reminding yourself that you are teaching your bird to trust you, chipping away at the fear, and building trust. These things take time in all relationships, human or animal. Just keep pressing forward and when things go poorly, return to the image of you with the sharks and ask yourself how you would respond if a shark tried what you are trying with your bird.
Special thanks to Mel Bayles who has taught me so much, but especially the intricacies of the ringneck mind and how to work with them.