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The Surprising Benefits of Training Your Bird to Step Up

By Diane Burroughs

Revised 6/22/2022

Table of Contents

Why does my bird not want to step up?

There are several reasons why a bird might not want to step up.

First, maybe a baby bird was harshly picked up for hand-feeding before you brought it home.

Second, the bird may not feel safe stepping up because your finger feels different than on a hard wooden perch.

Third, sometimes when they actually do step up we quickly move our arm  or start walking which can throw them off balance. 

And, lastly, a bird might have weak feet muscles, especially if they are young, were caged or older with arthritis-stricken feet.

Do any of these sound familiar?

These are all simple fixes. Trust me, you can do it. Just take it slow, and reward your bird with every small gain.

Birds can be challenging pets to own, but training them simple manners like stepping up or coming when called can save their lives.

Stepping up and stepping back down are the most fundamental skills you can teach your bird. These are one of the most basic commands that any bird should know.

This may sound like an easy trick at first, but many birds require a few weeks of work and plenty of treats to master this skill! With the help of some pointers, though, you’ll be able to train your bird how to step up within just days! 

Step-Up Training - Why Does My Bird Need It?

Let's dive deeper into the step up command.

In general, birds will only do what they're taught, but teaching your bird to step up when you ask is one of the most important things you can teach your bird. If your bird ever finds itself in a dangerous situation, it is important that it trusts you enough to step up onto your hand so that you can get it to safety.

If you have a companion parrot or another type of bird, it’s very likely that you'll use the "step-up" command every day. Think of it like teaching a dog to sit. It's the foundation of all subsequent training.

When your bird steps up on your hand and again, steps off of your hand to return to its cage or carrier both of you will feel more secure and safe. Stepping up actually helps you and your bird bond better.

In some situations, you may need to pick up your bird and rush him to a vet. Perhaps your parrot has a broken bone or is bleeding profusely. Say that you have to evacuate.

No matter what it is, in these life-threatening situations it's vital that you are able to gently put your bird in his carrier. Teach him step up so he can get into his carrier easily if there's ever an emergency situation where time is of essence.

Bird Training

How do I get my bird to step up?

Prepare Your Bird Training Setting

Choose a quiet place to train your bird: Reduce distractions by choosing a quiet place to train your bird. Choose a place where your bird can't see its cage.

Choose easy to administer bird training treats: The treats should be your birds favorite treat chopped up into tiny, bite sized pieces. Check out this blog post to learn how to find which particular treat really motivates your bird.

Proven bird training research shows that Clicker Training for Birds strategies work best. Why? Because it focuses solely on positive reinforcement. That means that you

  1. Cue the behavior that you want to see, for example, say, "step up!" or "step down!"

  2. Position your hand to promote your bird to lift its foot. But, don't force it.

  3. With clicker in hand IMMEDIATELY deliver a bird treat that is appropriate for the birds size the second that your bird lifts its foot.

  4. Then encourage your bird to place its foot onto your finger or forearm.

  5. Next, encourage your bird to place both feet on your finger. 

Keep training sessions short and sweet: Training sessions must be short and sweet to keep your bird engaged. Training is most effective when it's also entertaining. Expect that your bird has the same attention span as a 2-year-old child - up to 45 seconds. But, if your bird is expecting a delicious treat delivered soon in return for desired behavior, he or she will do his or her best to figure out what you want.

Any negativity will quickly destroy your bird's enthusiasm. Whenever training, be sure to stop on a positive note and before your bird reaches mental fatigue.

Clicker training for birds

Step Up Training Steps

What goes up must come down. But, your bird may not want to go down where you want it to! Young birds don't want to go down for the night anymore than an active toddler. They might be afraid of stepping down into a bird carrier. Or, stepping down onto a bird scale.

  1. Remember that your birds bone structure is designed to step up or down onto a surface that it can see. You'll have to reposition your hand so that your bird can see what you're asking it to step onto.

  2. Teach a young, confident, friendly bird to step down onto a perch in a familiar enclosure.

  3. The ultimate goal is that when your bird enters the enclosure, it doesn't freak out and try to fly off. Instead, it trusts you to place it near a perch to step down onto.

  4. Walk your bird to a familiar enclosure, like its cage.

  5. Stay focused that you're only rewarding your bird placing one and then two feet on the enclosures perch. Work on this skill over and over again until your bird does steps down spontaneously. Or, if you're training your bird to stay on the bird scale perch, click and treat for staying put for just a few seconds and work the time up from there.

Congrats! Your bird has learned to step down, which is a vital step in training them, and you're making major progress in that way.

How do you train a stubborn parrot?

Sometimes, people misunderstand fear or distrust for ‘stubbornness.’ Both of these emotions result in the bird either flying away or biting. When you know what is causing the behavior, it is easy to work backwards from the root of the issue.

So, now that you know what these flighty, bitey behaviors mean, what's your next move?

Okay, so now that you know what your bird is trying to tell you with these "flighty, bitey" behaviors, what's your next move to help your bird learn to trust you?

What if you were to start off simply offering your bird its favorite treat every time you walk past the cage? You might have to start passing a treat through the cage bars. Once your bird realizes that you are safe, offer it the treat from the palm of your hand. Next, have it step up on to a hand-saver style perch.

 

Notice how we are rewarding “basic approximations” of the end behavior and “bridging” the skill levels together? You're literally breaking the behavior down into its most basic form, then building on that to build your bird’s trust and self-confidence.

When you slow down and work at your birds pace, you'll see faster progress.

What else can we do with the step-up cue?

bird scae

This cue can be used in many different contexts. Many people train their birds to step up on a table top bird stand. In your own home, you can train your bird to go from room to room with you—and then use it as an exercise tool! Step up and we'll dance together!

Consistently monitoring your birds weight is an important part of parrot wellness. Now, you can do weekly weight checks.

Imagine teaching your bird to step down so that you can put it to bed. Our very social birds would like to stay up with us when we watch Jimmy Kimmel, but it is not healthy. Walk your bird back to the cage so that it can get 10-12 hours of sleep a night.

Have you ever wanted to put your bird in a bird harness or take a safe walk around the neighborhood? Knowing how to step up onto a training perch and enjoy handling opens a whole new set of enrichment opportunities for your bird.

In Conclusion...

Whether you are seeking tips on training your bird or you have trained birds in the past, the step-up technique is a great addition to any basic conditioning. It teaches your bird how to listen and understand when commands are given and builds trust between you and your pet. With all these benefits, how could someone say no to their parrot or other exotic birds learning how to step up?

Related Posts:

How To Choose A Bird Training Treat

Teaching Your Bird To Stay Put

How Aggressive Bird Training Methods Backfire With Worse Behavior

Choosing Bird Training Supplies For Best Results

References:

Johnson, M. Getting Started Clicker Training for Birds. (2004). Karen Pryor Clicker Training.


Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.

Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.

TAGS: #BirdStress #BirdSelfMutilation

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