Many times people rely on using the label ‘height dominant’ for reasons why they cannot get their bird to come down from the tops of cages or other areas higher than their own head. From the years I have been working with behavior issues and training birds, I have seen birds not come down from over people’s head for sole reason of having no reason to want to do it. If you ask a bird to step up to put it in an area where the bird does not want to be, why would it continue to come to you?
We often cue (deliver signals) to our birds through the routines we do on a daily basis. For example, the bird has been in its cage all day. The person comes home from work and gets the bird out of its cage for its nightly ritual. Once the owner is done with dinner and done watching tv, they shut off the tv and ask their bird to step onto them from the top of their cage or play stand. This is a clear cue to the bird that it is likely going to be returned to its cage. If the bird does not want to be returned to its cage and it has learned in the past if it runs to the top of its cage and out of your reach, it doesn’t get put in the cage immediately, it has learned through previous instances to run out of your reach. We are still training whether we realize it or not. Just what are we training the bird to do? There is no height dominance here. What is here is a lack of reasons for the bird to want to come to you and/or go back to its cage.
My concern with using the label ‘height dominant’ is that it causes the owner to stop or refrain from training the bird to come down to you when asked because they think this is an ingrained behavior. This is a behavior that we can train the bird. Give certain reinforcers such as treats or attention to your bird when it steps up onto you from another area. If you do have to return it to its cage, make sure there is something of value given to the bird after it goes into its cage for your bird to want to continue to do this in the future.
Here at the center, our bird cages are nine feet tall. Most of the perches within the cage are over our heads and many of these perches we have to use a ladder to be able to reach up to the bird and ask it to step up. Our aviary is thirty feet tall with rafters for the birds to fly up to. We don’t have ladders this tall. When we need a bird to return to its cage, we make sure we have a reliable recall so the bird flies down to us when we call them.
Birds are prey animals and most find comfort and safety in height. We want them to feel comfortable and we provide that height to them. Through training and the trust we build with training, we also want them to continue to find comfort and safety in being with us.
Following is a video of an example of this training and trust built through training with Rocky, our moluccan cockatoo that came to us from a shelter. We love having this trusting relationship with him and through observation, he shows us that he seems to be enjoying it just as much as we do.