How to Train Your Macaw
So you finally got that big, beautiful parrot we call a macaw. She is weaned, her hand-feeding is over, and she's just beginning to become accustomed to the cage and regular perching.
Well, it's time to train your love to help her become the best thing since sliced bread.
Basic Training Rules for a Macaw
- Never hit your bird. If you do so, you might as well just take the bird back to the store and get a new one, because you broke the trust.
- Always use positive reinforcement. If your macaw doesn't do what he or she was asked to do, simply say nothing and don't offer a treat.
- Make sure all your movements are slow and deliberate. Never sneak up on your bird. By making your movements slow, your macaw will be able to follow and learn quicker.
- Keep sessions short. 15–20 minutes of training is plenty. Feel free to do two sessions a day; just make sure you spread them out.
- Try not to take a day off. Trick-training relies on consistent training every day
- Your reward treat should be easy to eat. If your reward treat is a huge walnut, the time you must wait for your feathery friend to break it and eat is wasted. Use something that does not have to be cracked and is easily broken into small pieces.
- Make eye contact. Seems silly, but it works. This doesn't mean have a staring contest, but your bird will try harder to impress you by doing the trick if he or she sees your eyes.
- Train on a perch or table in a room with no windows and, if possible, very few decorations on the wall. Basically, keep the distractions down to a minimum. Don't blast music. Turn the TV off. If you don't have a windowless room, at least roll the shades down on the windows. The training will happen more easily if your bird is 100% focused on you.
- Give praise for effort, and praise + treat for success. Training guides say to hold your tongue when the macaw doesn't do the trick. I disagree. In my experience, giving a little "atta boy!" is a well-needed pick-me-up. Remember to really make a huge deal when your feathery friend finally does the trick; make it well-known he or she did it!
- Only work on one trick at a time. Your feathery friend is smart, but not that smart.
Where Do I Start?
I'm glad you asked. The first "lesson" I teach all my parrots, including my greys, macaws, cockatoos, etc., is socialization with the human flock, as I call it. With five people living in my house, it is important to create a well-rounded, family-type bird. This is easily achieved by a little cooperation from the family. Most macaws do not have a problem stepping up and do not need to be trained to do so. Simply having each family person hold the bird for a couple minutes a day and offer a treat creates a family-friendly bird. Most do not cling to just mommy or daddy, in my experience. In a matter of weeks, she will not be afraid to step up on anyone's arm.
Remember also that a macaw, or any bird for that matter, will always "test" the arm before stepping up. This involves the bird lunging at your arm and checking it out before making its final decision. Don't panic, it's not trying to bite you!
When all else fails and the bird is a little shy, do not hesitate to use the "push up" technique. Simply push up on its stomach with your arm, forcing your feathery friend to step up. Most birds won't mind.
Teaching Your Macaw to Speak
Macaws have the ability to learn dozens of words and short phrases in their lifetimes. What most people do not know about these wonderful animals is how they learn. Most parrots who can speak pick up both sound and pitch by listening. Which means if you say "hello" in a high-pitched voice, the bird associates the word with its tone. Next day, if you say "hello" in a deep, rumbling voice, you haven't made any progress at all, since your macaw expects to hear "hello" in a high tone.
Stick to one word at a time in the latter days of your training. Once your macaw learns one or two words, it becomes much easier to learn more. It should take just a week (or even less) per word.
Repetition Is Key
Teaching your bird to speak is so simple. Every time you walk by the cage or come in contact with her, simply look in her eyes and say the word. At first, she will stare back at you as though you were a Medusa. Soon, her pupils will become small; that's a good sign. Dilated pupils are normal, but when a macaw talks, the pupils become tiny and her head will bob a bit. It is obvious on a young bird, but an adult has naturally small pupils, so it is less noticeable.
One day, you will walk by and blurt your usual "hello" and walk away. The next thing you know, a cute little "hello" shouts back! That's it, folks. Until you proceed to word number two, everything that comes out of that little bird's beak will be "hello."
Two quick tips:
- Choose words carefully. Your bird will remember them her entire life.
- I don't suggest using a voice recorder. Have you ever seen what happens when the phone rings? My birds get nervous and yell. This is because it is a loud, obnoxious sound that they cannot locate. A macaw doesn't mind any sound, really, so long as they know where it's coming from. The general ring of a phone or doorbell spooks them. Unless you're willing to place the voice recorder directly in front of its face, don't bother. I also wouldn't recommend it because teaching your macaw to speak enhances your relationship. The recorder just gets in the way of this.
What does it mean when my macaw's pupils get small?
Eye pinning (also referred to as “eye flashing”) means the bird is excited. If something excites them, it has their attention. Small pupils indicate that the bird is in a perfect state of mind for learning.
Stick 'Em Up and the Wave
Two common tricks that are fairly easy are the "stick 'em up" and "the wave."
The stick 'em up is a trick where the human pretends to have a gun and says "stick 'em up" or "freeze," and the bird raises its wings like a human putting up their hands. It's a silly-looking trick and will give any observer a good chuckle. The wave is where it raises one wing, mimicking a human arm waving.
So firstly, teach her to stick 'em up, which will enable an easy wave. Every time she raises her wings to stretch out, simply put out your 'gun,' say "stick 'em up," and offer a treat. Once you have taught that, the wave will come naturally: Say "wave" and have her put down one of her wings. Praise and treat.
This is my favorite trick! It is also very challenging and time-consuming. In this trick, your feathery friend puts a wiffle ball in a little basketball hoop. Here are the steps to success:
- Gather materials: About a half-dozen whiffle balls (all the same color), a mini basketball hoop (google it, they're everywhere), a waist high training table, one of the food bowls, and lots of treats!
- Get your macaw accustomed to the wiffle ball. Throw a ball or two inside the cage. Most likely, by the next morning, the two balls will be in shreds. That's okay, you have more! If you have problems getting your macaw accustomed to the ball, trying sticking a treat inside of the ball.
- Next, teach the bird to play basketball with the food bowl. In your macaw's opinion, the food bowl is the most cherished object. Give the bird a wiffle ball and put one treat in an otherwise empty food bowl on the training table. Instincts kick in, and little Birdy trots over to the food bowl. If it drops the ball on the way to the bowl, move the food bowl to the other side of the table, give her back the ball, and do not praise. After a few unsuccessful tries, give the treat to Birdy (no need to be cruel). After week or so of twice-a-day training sessions, Birdy will finally put the ball inside the bowl and claim her treat the correct way. Once she does this once, it becomes engraved in her head, and the next step comes naturally.
- Now put the food bowl on top of the rim of the hoop. A standard-sized food bowl should fit quite snugly. The first time Birdy sees the hoop, she may run for the hills. Mine charged at it and knocked it over: This is perfectly normal, just give your macaw some time. I went to the extreme and put the hoop inside Gracie's cage. After only a couple hours, it became a toy! Once she isn't afraid of the hoop, she will gracefully and willingly put the ball in the food bowl. This step may take anywhere from a week to two weeks to learn.
- The final step is to remove the food bowl and complete the process. The key to this is the treat. If she misses or drops the ball, give her back the ball, and do not praise (but after a few tries give her a treat, so as not to be cruel). This step could take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.
Hopefully these steps will have her slam dunking!
Recall training is teaching your bird to fly on command. This is an advanced trick and should only be attempted by experienced owners. Do not attempt it outside. These steps worked for me in just three weeks:
- Get a perch about chest to shoulder high.
- Start small by placing your arm about a foot away from the perch. You macaw should be able to just hop on without jumping. Do this a couple of times.
- Next, grab a treat and hold it behind your arm. Move just out of range of the perch, forcing Birdy to literally jump. You might have to wait there for a few minutes, but eventually Birdy will make the daring leap. The encouragement, the treat, and your command will aid Birdy along the way. This step should be done for a few days to instill confidence.
- After she does the little leap with confidence, begin to slowly move back a foot at a time.
- Teach her to fly on command by saying "come [bird's name]" and then putting up the treat.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.