In the New Home
Moving to a new home is a scary experience for our feathered friends. They are leaving everything that's familiar (including the perceived safety of their old flock) to go to a place where everything is strange and new. If possible, have the cage set up and ready before you bring your new bird home so you can put him in it with a minimum of delay and disruption. For the trip home it's best to use a small, covered cage or carrier or a small, secure box with airholes punched in it. Your bird will feel safer riding in a space that doesn't let him see scary new things passing by and doesn't have a lot of space for flapping around in a panic.
Some birds will adapt quickly to a new home but most will take days, weeks, even months to really settle in and start feeling comfortable. After you get home the bird should be gently placed in the cage without too much delay, although you can handle her a little bit first if she's not too nervous about it. At all times, do your best to make her feel secure. Remember, birds are prey animals in the wild so they're always on the lookout for danger. If your bird seems very nervous, covering the cage on three sides will leave her with only one side that she has to watch. Avoid loud noises, sudden movements, or anything else that might frighten your bird. Other pets running through the room, curtains blowing in the wind, pictures of predators on the walls, and ominous shadows are examples of things that might be scary to a small prey animal.
Many new birds are too nervous to eat in a new home, and some will hold out for as long as three days. This is hard on the human and even harder on the bird, so you need to work on getting him to eat as soon as possible. Hanging up food like millet spray can be very useful, since the bird can nibble on it and watch for danger at the same time. He can't eat from a cup unless he lets his guard down for a moment to put his head down and grab a bite, and some birds are too scared to take that risk. For ground-foraging birds, putting food on the bottom of the cage can also be helpful since this works with their natural instincts. Some birds may not understand at first what their new, unfamiliar food cups are for.
Actually recognizing that something is food can be a problem too. If possible, find out what kind of food your bird is used to before you bring the bird home, and give her that same food. Do this even if you think it's a terrible diet and you want her to eat something else. Diet conversions can come later. Right now you want her to start eating as quickly as possible because going hungry isn't good for her health.
Some birds won't eat in front of their new humans but will eat when no one is around. If you don't see your bird eating, give him plenty of private time and check later for signs that he has eaten. Hanging up greens or fruit will provide a source of moisture if you're worried that the bird isn't drinking anything. However some birds (like cockatiels) generally aren't fruit-eaters, and some individuals may not have been previously introduced to vegetables.
Newly weaned babies can be a special problem, because they may regress and want handfeeding again. Some chicks may actually need to be fed baby-style with a syringe; ask the breeder or store to take the bird back temporarily for feeding if you're not experienced. Other chicks will be comforted by eating food that you're holding in your hand. Offering food to a handfed baby like this is an excellent practice anyway, since it helps them quickly learn to trust and love you.
Your new bird will probably be afraid of you at first, and you will have to work to gain her trust. Don't push too hard, and work on showing the bird that you're safe and friendly. Spend time just sitting in the room without paying any particular attention to her. When you're near the cage, speak gently to the bird and don't stare steadily at her - that's what predators do just before they pounce. Do a lot of slow blinking or turn your head to the side a little and look out of the corner of your eye. Stay relaxed. Keep your movements slow and nonthreatening, especially when your hand is in the cage. Let the bird get used to seeing your hand in the cage before you start moving the hand in the bird's direction. Food bribery is an excellent way to make friends, so gently tempt the bird to take a treat from your hand (make sure the treat is something that she's already familiar with). Don't expect the bird to step up for you right away - this is something that usually takes gradual work and small increments of progress.
Head-scritching privileges will take even longer, because it takes a LOT of trust for a small bird to let a great big human touch him this way. So be patient and keep showing him that you're worthy of his trust.
When should you start taking the bird out of his cage? Some sources say right away, others say you should leave him in there for a few days to settle down. A better answer is that it depends on the bird. A bird that's very nervous is better off staying in the cage while he gets used to his new situation, but a bird that's fairly relaxed can be taken out sooner. You need to have a way to put him back in the cage without too much drama, which means not taking him out until he's reasonably willing to step up for you, either on your finger or on a hand-held perch.
Basically, you can take the bird out when it's safe to do so and you expect her to not be very frightened about it. Birds spend most of their time in the cage so that quickly becomes the place where they feel safest. You want to teach them that the world outside the cage is also a safe and entertaining place.
Whether or not to clip the wing feathers is a controversial issue. But even people who think it's generally wrong may make an exception for a new bird in a new home. A full flighted bird in a strange place is likely to get spooked and fly around wildly, crashing into everything and putting himself at serious risk for injury or even death. So be sure to cover up windows, large mirrors and other hazards. It can also be a serious challenge to get a frightened full flighted bird back in the cage, and you need to think ahead about how you're going to do it before you take him out. Don't count on any cooperation, especially if the bird hasn't learned to trust you yet.
A new bird with clipped wings is much safer and easier to manage, and can learn her way around the new home with a lot less drama. You can always let the wing feathers grow out later after she has settled in.
Make the out of cage time as pleasant and non-scary as you can so your bird will want to repeat the experience. If she is reluctant to leave the security of the cage, try luring her out with a treat and then keep her near the cage until she becomes more comfortable with being out. The top of the cage is an excellent place to play.
Going back in the cage
Here's a dilemma that new bird owners often face even with a clipped bird. The bird was on your finger or some other safe perch but got scared, flew off, and landed on the floor, and now he keeps running away from you. How do you get him back in the cage?
First of all, keep your pursuit low-speed and casual. If you're obviously chasing him you will look like a predator. If you can, keep yourself low to the ground so you don't look so big and scary, but try not to crawl on all fours - that's the predator look again. If space allows, sitting on the floor and scooting after the bird is fairly nonthreatening. Slowly herd him toward a corner. A bird that already knows step-ups is likely to start cooperating again when he no longer has room to run away. If you simply can't convince him to step up, the space limitations of a corner will make it easier to gently catch him. You can also put the cage down next to him and hope that he goes in.