The use of a harness on pet Parrots to take them out of doors is still unusual. Is the training difficult? That’s a question like how long is a piece of string. Any bird from Cockatiels to Macaws can be harness trained...
But what are the benefits?
Your Parrot enjoys a change of environments in safety.
Your Parrot provides excellent company on outings.
Your Parrot will actively enjoy meeting new people.
Your Parrot will get fresh air which adds increased oxygen output to their body.
Are there any drawbacks?
Be aware that someone may cut the harness for a practical joke or attempt to steal your bird. You and the bird may attract unwanted/ unpleasant attention (people who suffer from bird phobia or animal liberationists)
People want to buy a bird as tame as yours without fully understanding the implications
When shopping you cannot carry as many bags
You have to concentrate all the time you are outside and be aware of your bird
Danger of bird flying off if you drop the end of the leash
Is there a fool proof method?
Nothing to do with Parrots is foolproof - they’re too clever! But the following method is pretty foolproof – train them as babies. A baby bird that is being hand fed once it has most of its feathers but before it has fledged is more amenable than an adult.
If the hand feeder puts on a harness just before the feeding and does that once or twice a day and takes it off after feeding, the young bird quickly associates a harness with a worthwhile reward. That association remains when the bird grows up.
At a recent show Think Parrots in Surrey, many visitors admired Artha on her Aviator harness. ‘Is it easy?’ several asked. ‘Of course,’ I replied in an offhand manner; Artha is well known for her compliant nature. I must admit though that after I’d taken off and put on the harness four times, she was growling to indicate displeasure - very quietly so that only I could hear it.
Both Artha and her companion Casper will put their heads through the loop in the harness when I show it to them.
But I cannot claim the credit. Both of them were harness trained as unweaned chicks by their breeder, Barrett Watson.
They were handfed from 2 week old. Baby birds once use to the handler accept any strange maneuvers.
Incidentally, if you give the bird food from a syringe it will then make medicine far more readily acceptable when she is fully fledged. I trained two Rock Pebbler chicks at 6 weeks old to wear a harness using this method.
Owners often complain that they tried with an older bird who resisted and either couldn’t be made to wear a harness or would not accept it.
How about the older bird?
I think the bird can be acclimatized to the harness- provided that you have confidence, patience and a positive attitude. You also need to have a bird that allows you to touch its body and under its wings.
You need a bird that’s been trained to sit quietly on your hand or arm (or shoulder if you allow that). Without these pre-conditions you could end up with the result of a bird that develops additional fears.
One Method of harness training
First – accustom the bird to the sight of a harness. I overdid this leaving the harness in Perdy Cockatoo’s view in the aviary and leaving her alone; ten minutes later, she’d reduced it to shreds!
Arrange training sessions before feeding time. Keep them short and always end on a positive note. Choose a harness in a shade that echoes feather colour. It helps if your bird is already clicker trained.
You may like to start with using a couple of strips of ribbon - the same colour as the harness. Lay them across the bird’s back and if she accepts, use your clicker or bridge word like “good” or “well done” and offer a treat.
Don’t be in a hurry; allow the bird to set the pace. Once she accepts the ribbon on her back for two seconds before tossing it off, click and treats her.
With a non clicker trained bird, you use your bridge word “Good” or “Good Bird” or whatever it is and deliver the treat. Gradually she’ll allow the ribbon to remain for longer.
Then put two pieces of ribbon laid across her back. This habituation can take anything from a few days to a few weeks. Just don’t hurry.
Keep it fun for the bird. Watch her body language – is she interested and eager or are her feathers fluffing and is she leaning back to avoid you?
If the bird shows stress, it doesn’t mean harness training will automatically fail, it just means that on this occasion you must stop and do something else with the bird that is fun.
When she has accepted the ribbons, slowly get her used to the harness. Let her see it and beak it perhaps and be given a treat. The more eager your bird is to “work” for the treat, the easier it will be to get her used to wearing a harness.
If you have taught your bird to touch a target stick, you can hold the stick outside the neck loop opened as far as possible and encourage the bird to put her head through the enlarged loop to touch the stick. Don’t rush. And never insist! And if the bird doesn’t respond - either return to an earlier stage or start again another day. Never use any force. Your aim is to get the bird feeling comfortable with something around its body.
Once the bird takes a treat through the enlarged head loop, decrease the loop size and then place the harness on her back. Timing matters here. Too fast won’t work but neither will too slow. Should the bird resist, leave off training and return to it some days later.
It can be helpful training older birds to set an example. Before I put a harness on Perdy, Lesser Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo, I let her watch Artha being harnessed and unharnessed. It is said to be easier to harness train Cockatoos than Greys because they enjoy being touched so much.
Once you have the harness laid onto the body, give a treat. You have to be sensitive in judging the right moment to snap and close the clips if that is the model or slide them tighter if you are using the Aviator.
Never attempt to force the harness onto the bird and shove treats at it. You’ll lose the battle! The bird will become increasingly anxious and may even panic. What was meant to be a sharing, fun experience turns into one of fright for the bird and dismay for you.
Pitfalls to avoid (easier said than done) are the bird getting into a panic and taking off with the harness half on and half off.
If something does go wrong, keep calm, remove the harness, give no treats and work on something else the bird likes to do with you.
She will gradually learn working with the harness means lots of treats be they food or scratches if she cooperates!
With snaps closed or harness tightened, you can start walking round the house for a few minutes with the bird wearing the harness. Or you can rush straight outside.
Unless your bird is used to the immediate outside environment through going out into an aviary or a cage, I wouldn’t take her straight outside on the first occasion although others recommend it.
The advantage of going straight outside with a not-too-nervous bird is that the excitement of the new surroundings outweighs the sensation of being enclosed around her body which birds dislike; they merely learn to tolerate it.
There are risks for you and the bird once you venture outside. Always keep that leash looped on to your wrist! Birds will spook and fly off at the strangest things, a car backfires or a plastic bag blows in the wind. I was at a Garden Centre with Artha and Casper on either shoulder. A particular rose startled them and both flew to the end of the leash in alarm.
If you don't have the leash securely attached to your wrist or belt, you’ll have a loose bird stuck in harness probably up a tree. That happened to the well-known Grey Tinkerbelle. Her owner, Shan Lung, lost her for several weeks in the forests of Taiwan. She was eventually retrieved safely.
Failure happens because most people give up too soon and don't train in small enough stages. The whole process involves a spending a lot of time; three months of daily work would be quite average for a Macaw. Ask yourself - have I got enough time? Birds learn at different rates; some take longer than others.
Of the harness users I’ve spoken to, Cockatoo owners report a quicker and easier acceptance of harness than Greys and other birds. When I wanted to take Lily, Rescue Lesser Sulphur Cockatoo outside in a harness, I simply asked her to lift her wings and then I tightened the Aviator.
Once she was outside, I reckoned she did not enjoy it, she quivered and did not relax and so I desisted. Artha and Casper, on the other hand, whoop when they meet people and will often cheep Goodbye after the person is out of sight.
Using the harness for flight exercise
Some owners attach a long leash (up to a hundred metres) to the harness up and let the bird fly like a hawk on a creance. Shan Lung used to do that with Tinkerbelle.
I don’t follow this practice, preferring the harness to be used for outings rather than exercise. The method works successfully so long as you avoid the long leash becoming tangled in trees.
Good luck with training and enjoy many happy outings.