The many visitors to Think Parrots this year who had their Parrots on a harness were frequently asked by other visitors. ‘How do you train that? Is it easy?’ The answer to that question is the same as the answer to this one – how long is a piece of string?
Let’s start with the easiest solution and go through to some options when it may become a little harder.
The easy solution
Baby Parrots are not opinionated. If they have been properly treated, they are easy-going, trustful souls. If they are hand reared after some time with their parents in the nestbox, they make ideal candidates for harness training.
Artha Grey is almost 20. While she was being hand reared by her breeder Barrett Watson who is kind, caring, conscientious, and knowledgeable, he used to put a harness on her before spoon feeding.
Thus - the association of harness followed by tasty spoon feed became established in her mind. I took her outside in her red harness within a few days of coming to live with us. So, by the time she was few months old, she was desensitised to traffic noises, strangers and many other frights and alarms.
Our pet birds are still only one or two generations away from their wild cousins so their innate instincts as a prey species are still intact.
Something alarming, like a black plastic bag flapping could cause Artha to fly off my hand and be brought short by the elastic leash.
On one occasion this did go wrong. We went for a woodland walk. A low flying crow startled Artha and she flew off my hand. Like the novice she and I both were, I had NOT secured the loop of the leash round my wrist.
Up she flew and took refuge a hundred foot up in an old oak. A Grey Parrot looks very small in the top of a massive oak tree. Nor had she had any experience in flying down form a height.
He managed to reach a lower tree about 30 feet up and to leash wrapped round the branch and the poor little sojl was swinging like a pendulum.
She was only 8 months old. To cut a nerve-wracking story short, the fire brigade arrived. A handsome fireman climbed into the lower tree
She fell into my arms. Cheers from the surrounding crowd of onlookers. And there was no lasting damage done - except to the tree branch.
But careless handlers are one of the criticisms professional trainers make. We are not always as cautious as we should be. Many harness trained birds are allowed to fly on a long leash rather like hawks and hunting birds. Again, a huge warning to make here. Take care that the end of the line falls well short of any trees, that it cannot reach into any branches and become tangled up. The rescue of the bird in those circumstances is difficult.
How do you train a bird if she has not been used to wearing a harness as an unweaned chick? There are various methods. And a few preconditions if you are using an Aviator harness. The Aviator is generally agreed to be the best harness because it has no closures and is enlarged or made smaller by a sliding buckle.
The bird must allow something to go over her head and to have her wings eased through the loops before it is tightened. Aviator provide a useful video when you buy their harness which is made in many sizes and colours.
Other harnesses have bulldog clips. These are MUCH easier to put on. My clever Artha soon realised that she could undo 3 bulldog clips in less than a minute. And so, the harness fell at my feet. It is a credit to her affectionate good sense that I never lost her out of doors.
With an Aviator she has no fittings to undo but like other birds is capable of chewing through the straps. If she does this she cannot get out of the harness before we arrive home and I repair it; her harnesses are all darned.
Fiddling with the harness is an individual preference. Artha has fiddled with her harness since she was a baby. Casper Grey never touches his. Nor do the two Macaws. Nor did my Cockatoos when I harnessed them. A clever friend made a harness using thin metal chain that no bird could get out of.
Preconditions for harnessing
Firstly, that the bird allows something to go over her head and round her neck
Secondly, that she will allow her wings to be handled.
Some attempts at harness training fail because the bird is unwilling to let you handle the wing. Birds are reluctant to have anything enclosing their body until they are habituated to this.
Problem: physical damage that might occur when putting on a harness.
Solution: do not attempt putting on the harness until either you have an experienced mentor with you OR are sure of your bird’s willingness to be touched.
An easy starting method to use with a target trained bird
First stage is to get the bird used to the sight of a ribbon or a harness. Arrange training sessions before feeding time. Keep them short and always end on a positive note. Make a big loop of ribbon the same colour as the harness you wish to use.
Hold it in front of the bird’s head and use the target stick to encourage her to lean forward, touch the stick and get the treat - an extra special treat. Most birds comply after a few attempts.
Once she puts her head through the circle of ribbon, lay it on her neck while she enjoys the treat. You might also lay another piece of ribbon across her back. Then you can try with the actual harness head loop. Don’t rush anything.
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. You need to have a bird that’s been trained to sit quietly on your hand or arm (or shoulder if you allow that).
Good advice for any newcomer to this technique is to practise putting a harness on and off on a stuffed Parrot toy or manufacture one by stuffing a sock and pinning on fabric wings. You don’t need a tail. Practice until you are adept before you start with a live bird.
Fumbling can cause the bird to become scared and regress. If this happens go back to an earlier stage. Yes, you can force a harness onto an unwilling bird and rush outside with her. But the results can be terrible.
You may have to cut the harness off a bird which is panicking. However, once you and the bird have mastered the technique it doesn’t take more than 30/40 seconds to put on or remove a harness.
The bird needs to become familiar with the new object and to trust you; you need patience and kindness.
The main point to remember is that nothing should be forced. The bird accepts; the process should be fun and rewarding.
And even owners who do use harness on their birds can point out some conditions you should consider
Not practical to carry too many other bags when taking your bird outside
Need care that harness leash doesn't get caught up in door handles, etc. when closing the door
Be aware that someone may cut the harness for a practical joke or attempt to steal your bird
You and the bird attract unwanted/ unpleasant\silly attention from all sorts – like people who suffer from bird phobia or animal liberationists
People want to buy a bird as tame as yours without fully understanding the implications
If you are still considering harness training your Parrot, after so many warnings, there are other more positive aspects to consider. Barbara Heidenreich, the American Parrot trainer writes:
Whether your bird is fully flighted or clipped, it's natural to want a safe way to expose him to sun and fresh air, not to mention new people and places. Harnesses give birds an opportunity to engage in many types of experiences while at the same time reducing the risk.
Failure to harness train a bird 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. That said I know of successes in a much shorter time.
Ask yourself - have I got enough time and patience? Birds learn at different rates; some take longer than others. Of the harness users I’ve spoken to, the Cockatoo owners report a quicker and easier acceptance of harness than Greys and other birds. But you can see from the photos what a wide variety of birds can wear a harness.
Here are some practical suggestions that harness users recommend.
Train bird to poop on command
Time distances between stops so you can ask bird to poop at 30- minute intervals somewhere suitable (not in the store)
Be prepared for (silly or annoying) questions or look resolutely ahead
Carry an old cane basket as birds like to chew and sit on the handle
I have had many enjoyable experiences taking Artha and Casper out on trips over the last few years. Friends who use harness agree. Although we all get a bit fed up when asked “Is it real?” or “does it talk?”
I wish you happy training and enjoyable expeditions.
Read more on harness training here.
Buy Aviator harnesses here.
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