Teaching a Parrot to Step-Up: Recommended Steps

As a first-time bird owner, I found many online parrot training guides to be… rather vague. It was hard to figure out how to create a tangible training process for my parrots out of abstract ideas.

Fortunately, I had a ton of guidance from the bird rescue where I used to volunteer, and now several years of the hands-on experience of rescuing five different parrots from varying walks of life.

Thus, I’ve created a list of suggested milestones for training parrots who are hand-shy to step up. Links on this page refer to stories from training Vi so you have some point of reference from a real-life story. 

This timeline assumes you spend several hours of ambient quality time with your bird every day (time spent around your parrot where you go about your business and speak frequently to your bird–generally large amounts of time in the same room, not necessarily one-on-one) and that you work with your parrot a minimum of twice a day for 10/15 minutes at a time.

Note that training sessions are best done in short bursts (no more than fifteen to twenty minutes) several times a day rather than all at once in one big chunk; this prevents you and your parrot from getting tired, irritable, or impatient! 

Step-Up Training Milestones: Usually in order, but not always!

Milestone #1: Getting comfortable around you and your family.

Expected Timeline: One Day to Two Weeks

The first lesson your parrot needs to learn is that you are its flock; you will provide for it, keep it company, keep its living area clean, and that you will talk with it and interact. You’re a friend–especially with abused birds, this one is enormously important.

Hanging out, singing to your parrot, whistling, reading the newspaper aloud to him or her, or generally just being around and friendly will help build this initial bond. Feeding favored treats here and there helps as well! 

Milestone #2: Finding treats he or she really likes.

Expected Timeline: One Day to Several Weeks (especially if the bird hasn’t been exposed to lots of different foods–teaching them to try new things can be a challenge.)

Take the time to try different foods with your parrot to discover what he or she likes. Keep a running list of likes, loves, mediocres, and hates. This will help with basic training later, and help build a solid foundation as your parrot learns that you are the source of tasty nom-noms.


Milestone #3: Choosing to come out of her cage on her own.

Expected Timeline: One day to several weeks.

Make sure all dogs, cats, and other creatures that can cause harm are out of the room, and leave the cage door open for at least one hour (more if you can swing it).

If your bird is brave (like Vi was), he may come out on day two – if not, this can take a few weeks. Eventually your bird will grow curious (especially if there is a treat or two [and no more] on top of their cage or a fascinating toy to explore.)

Caveat on Milestone #3 – You parrot also needs to learn to go back INTO their cage, so make sure you have a plan for how to help them return to the cage BEFORE you let them come out. Your options for this are to 1. wait until they choose to do so on their own (so make sure you actually have all day–really) – it helps to keep food/water only in their cage for this, or 2. finding a specific treat they absolutely LOVE and tend to do pretty much anything for.

I also recommend teaching your parrot a command word to help them learn this (Vi’s is “Cage Up!”) – if you say this any time they choose to go back in their cage and reward them with a treat when they do, they’ll catch on relatively quickly. Make sure to reward them with a treat any time you say the command and they go in, even if they’re already on their way!

Milestone # 3 Rule: Do NOT chase your bird back into their cage. Fear is the opposite of what you want.

Milestone #4: Teaching your bird you will respect his or her body language.

Expected Timeline: One to two months. More if you experience setbacks, like a bite or fear response.

Rule # 1 – If the new parrot backs away from your hand, let her! Show her you’ll pay attention to her body language. If she wants you to leave her alone, learn to read those signs and do so. Think partnership over dictatorship and save the forced ‘step-ups’ for when it’s actually necessary.

Rule # 2 – If your parrot postures to bite you as you try to teach it to step up, freeze. Wait until he backs away, then remove your hand. 

I find that most parrots bite because they want you to stop doing something. Your job is to learn your parrots other subtle indicators that mean “Stop” and respect them. 

A Note: Your parrot needs to learn that biting will not get them what they want. They need to learn that something else will make the change they need. Pay attention to what that “something else” might be (Vi, for example, will shuffle away if she doesn’t want to be picked up, and we honor that most of the time).

If your parrot goes AFTER you to bite you aggressively (rather than when you reach out to try and get them to step up), that’s a whole different can of worms that needs different responses.

Rule # 3 – If your parrot *does* manage to bite you, do. not. react. Wait until they are done–yes, even if you’re bleeding and they’re grinding down hard. Stay stone-faced, make no sound. Don’t flinch, don’t pull your hand away. Just. Wait. Then slowly pull your hand away once the parrot releases its grip. 

Parrots who learn that they can do something other than biting to get what they need (you to stop trying to get them to step up, in this case) generally stop biting eventually. Respect must come before stepping up.

Milestone #5: Find the holy grail of treats; the one thing your parrot will risk pretty much everything for. (Vi’s is pizza crust; Louie’s is peanuts.)

Expected Timeline: Day one to someday.

This is training GOLD. Find it, use it to the best of your advantage. You can move on to step six if you’ve just reached milestones 1-4, but this one will significantly speed up the training process.

Milestone #6: Choosing to get close to you to take a treat.

Expected Timeline: A day to one or two weeks after achieving Milestone #5. If you’ve only hit Milestone #4, it can take a few weeks to a few months depending on how food-driven (or not) your parrot is.

This is best done when the bird is outside of the cage already rather than inside it (to prevent cage-aggression – some birds are territorial of their space. Having them outside the cage can help avoid a painful bite.)

Practice two or three times a day for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, no more. Hold the treat just above your wrist; every time they take a new treat, move the next one infinitesimally slowly, a quarter of an inch at a time, until they get to the point where they are comfortable reaching over your wrist to take a treat.

Milestone #7: Toe/Wrist Contact for a Bribe

Expected Timeline: A day to a week after Milestone #6.

This milestone is not necessarily stepping up (do NOT force it at this point).

Hold your hand out with a treat on the other side so your bird has to slightly step on you in order to reach the treat. If they make any kind of contact, no matter how brief it is, praise and reward with a treat. Repeat. Eventually, they will get comfortable touching you more and more until…

Milestone #8: Full Foot/Wrist Contact

Follow the directions in Milestone #7 until they put their entire foot on your wrist to take their favored treat.

If your bird chooses to tentatively put one claw on you in order to reach a favorite treat, that is HUGE progress. DO NOT PUSH IT FURTHER YET. They need to consistently feel comfortable stepping briefly onto your hand (give it at least two days) before you try to push it further.

Expected Timeline: A day to several days after Milestone # 7.

Milestone # 9: Full Step-Up for a Treat

Expected Timeline: A day to a week after Milestone #8.

The bird will step all the way up to reach their preferred treat. They will likely immediately step right back down. That’s okay! Reward and praise. Do not try to keep them on your hand, especially not the first day or so they will step up. Let the bird choose how long they want to stand on you.

Once they feel comfortable on you, you can move your wrist slightly away from the cage. If the parrot indicates

Mommy and Vi, snuggling.

Milestone # 10: Stepping up because they want to. 

Expected Timeline: Several weeks to several months after Milestone #9.

If a bird steps up and just hangs out on your wrist, this. is. huge.

Note that I’ve now had Vi going on two years; sometimes, she regresses and won’t step up at all, sometimes she needs a bribe, and sometimes she’s happy to do whatever. Recently, she’s been really consistent in trusting me enough to always step up, even out of her cage. I pay attention to her body language and what she wants (so she’ll step up if I notice she wants up higher somewhere or down off something) and make sure I honor what she wants as much as possible. If I have to put her down somewhere she isn’t a fan, I make sure she always has treats. Every experience a positive one takes time and patience, but it pays off!

Training Set-Backs:

1. Getting Bitten

If a bird bites you, that is 100% your fault. Sorry, but it’s true; it’s your job to appropriately react to, anticipate, and respect a parrot’s body language. A parrot is a companion; they should only be expected to be subservient to you when absolutely necessary (like, say, if there’s a fire).

2. Scaring your bird.

Every experience needs to be a positive one.

3. Even one instance of not respecting their body language.

4. Yelling at your bird.


Excelsior: Things That Help Milestones Along

Getting Groomed: Rescue that birdy! If you take your bird to get their wings trimmed or anything else, make sure you’re not around when this happens; usually, a vet or groomer will towel your bird. As soon as they finish, be ready to ‘rescue’ your bird and give him or her all kinds of love. This helps a TON!

Rescuing your Bird: your bird is scared by somethingIf and sees you as a source of safety and comfort, being able to carefully and lovingly rescue your parrot comes hugely in handy!

Boarding: Your bird will be suuuuuper happy to see you again. This can cause setbacks in Milestones 7-10 for some birds, but for others, they will be so thrilled you’re back that they will happily step up for you.

There you have it! Step-up training in bite-sized chunks. 🙂

Airplane Travel with Parrots, Part One: In-Cabin Pet

Once upon a time, a crazy parrot lady (me) thought it’d be a good idea to take her parrots a-traveling with her on an airplane. One would fly with her in the cabin, and one would fly via United’s Former Pet Safe Program (recently no longer accepts parrots), or as I’ll refer to it, in “steerage”.

Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 6.03.53 PM
United’s PetSafe program is not exactly the steerage scene from Titanic, but close enough. Minus the sinking ship. 😀

Because it was just me, myself, and I (traveling alone), I was only allowed to bring one bird into the cabin with me; if I’d had a friend, we could have brought both and stuck them both under the seats in front of us, provided other animals weren’t already taking up the limited amount of animal space on the flight. Since I couldn’t fit them both under my seat in one cage, I had to pick which one would fly with me, and which bird would fly “steerage.”

My Ekkie, Louie, is a little more sensitive than Vi the Amazon–I once boarded him and had him groomed in the same few days, and once we took him home, he vomited from stress all night long.

Thus, Louie was the lucky bird I took with me in the cabin of the actual airplane.


Before You Go: Carriers/Preparation
The carrier pictured above is the Kaytee Come Along Carrier, Medium, Assorted Colors. Note that it’s a little smaller than the size United allowsbut Louie the Eclectus (roughly 280 grams) fit just fine and relatively comfortably. In retrospect, I’d probably go for the large size, or another carrier of similar size.

Note that it absolutely MUST fit under the seat in front of you; they’re technically supposed to stay under your seat the entire flight.

For this reason, I recommend soft-sided carriers – they’re allowed to be a lot bigger (“18 inches long x 11 inches wide x 11 inches high” and are allowed to exceed these dimensions slightly since, “they are collapsible and able to conform to under-seat space without blocking the aisle”). Meanwhile, hard-sided carriers are allowed to be only “17.5 inches long x 12 inches wide x 7.5 inches high” (source). Note that other airlines might have different size requirements, so definitely ask when you call to book your birdy’s flight!

The Day Of: What To Bring in your Carry-On for the Cabin

-Extra paper towels. You don’t need the whole roll, but you’ll probably want to clean your bird (and his carrier) up before and after the flight. (You’re not allowed to take them out during the actual flight.)
-A Packet of Wet Wipes
-Baggie full of their favorite dry treats.
-Baggie full of Pellets/regular diet.
-Water-rich foods to feed intermittently, such as grapes, carrots, celery and apple slices. (I took mine in a plastic baggie through security).
-A few small food bowls (two or three is fine) if you want to change out food and water during the flight.
-DON’T bring a bottle of water for your birdy; you’ll have to throw it away when you go through security.

Check In – Arrive Early.

  1. Everyone is going to want to see what kind of “dog” you have. Pets on planes are kind of rare–it takes even longer when they realize you have an unexpected birdy companion! People will stop you and ask you about your bird constantly, so add an extra half hour to an hour to accommodate for this.
  2. Plan on going to the ticket counter, not a kiosk. Your pet will need their own boarding pass, which only the people behind the counter can print for you.


  1. You may have to go through a separate gate for security. At DIA, they frequently have drug and pet-sniffing dogs on duty; the scent of your parrot can throw the dogs off, so make sure you chat with whoever is directing traffic at the security line before you actually get in line. Alert them to the fact you have a birdy friend with you to make sure this is the right security checkpoint to go through.
  2. You have two options for going through security:
    A. Take your bird out and walk him or her through a metal detector, or
    B. Ask for a private screening.

If your parrot is super well-behaved, you have the option to take him or her out in the middle of the security line and just walk through a metal detector. They swabbed my hands for illegal substances, so you’ll have to pass your bird from one hand to another, but that’s all they did for me. No one took Louie from my hands (I held him the whole time) or touched him, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t for you. 

If your parrot isn’t the best behaved or is easily stressed out, ask for a private screening. You’ll be escorted to a room where you will be asked to take your parrot out of his or her carrier.

I recommend the private screening, especially if your bird is super nervous; Louie is not as long as he is with me, so I walked him through the metal detector. If you do this, it may be a good idea to harness train your bird before flying if you opt for just the metal detector, as the last thing you want is your bird loose and flying around in the airport.

After Security

-Go buy a bottle of water to keep your friend hydrated through the flight.

Tips and Tricks for In-Cabin Travel

Arrive EARLY (Allow 3.5 hours instead of the standard 2 hours before-hand): If you want to take your feathered friend with you in the airplane cabin, I’d call ahead as early as possible, as only four pets are allowed in the cabin on any one flight. It’s not super common, but it’s important to consider. Additionally, some airplanes don’t have the appropriate legroom, so you’ll want to check what kind of plane you’ll be on ahead of time–the easiest way is to just call your airline when you book your parrot’s ticket.

Contortionist: You will need to be a rather flexible person to do this, or get an aisle seat; it’s not a comfortable ride since your feathered friend will take up a ton of leg room.

Small bird owners, you can carry two small birds in the same carrier with you; if I’d taken two cockatiels, for example, I’d have them share a carrier on my flight.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 12.29.20 PM
Not gonna lie, cockatoos scare me a little.

Cockatoo owners, I have bad news: your cockatoo isn’t allowed in the cabin. I’m sure this doesn’t exactly surprise you, since the soft fabric you need to fit under the seat won’t stand a chance.

A Happy Ending

Overall, Louie had no problems during the entire flight. I had him at my feet for take-off, fed him treats and gave me some water-rich foods he loves during the flight to make sure he was eating and hydrated. He didn’t make a sound; at one point, I was a little concerned so I opened his door a crack to check on him, and he tried to crawl right out (the guy next to me was not amused).


There you have it! Airplane travel in a nutshell.

A note: These tips all apply to flying United with a parrot. If you fly Delta, for example, you’ll need to call to get the right size recommendation for their flights. Delta also allows you to ship your parrot – read more about that on this page.

My Littlest Budgie has a Liver Infection

Beau today: beat-up, a little worse for the wear, but alive. He’s a fighter!

A little more than two weeks ago, little Beau lost 2 grams of weight; he’s really tiny (originally weighing in at 28 grams) to begin with, so any drop was concerning. It didn’t come back over the next two or three days.

On day three, he seemed a touch unsteady, was rather sleepy, and lost interest in his toys.

We weren’t sure what was going on, but ultimately decided not to take a chance and brought him into the vet.

He’s been fighting for his life ever since.

Little Beau has a liver infection combined with an avian yeast infestation—that’s likely why he was so tiny to begin with. Our English budgie (Winston) loves tiny little blue budgies, so we picked the tiniest one of all; he was full of energy, had a bright yellow beak, and seemed healthy as can be.

Turns out that bright yellow beak was a sign of jaundice. He’s had this liver infection for awhile, probably as long as we’ve had him. The vet says that the avian yeast is present in many nests, and that normally it just results in some skinnier budgies. It’s only when other infections weaken their immune systems that it can spread and lead to massive malnourishment, which is our current concern.

Jaundice Budgie Beak
Beau and Winston in November.

Every day since, we’ve pumped him full of three different medicines (baytril for the liver infection, nystatin for the yeast, milk thistle to help his liver heal) twice a day and prayed he’d survive the night.

He’s not out of the woods yet, but we think his liver infection is clearing and he’s on new, stronger meds for his yeast (and so is his girlfriend, since it’s contagious).

Moral of the story? Weigh your bird daily—if he suddenly stops maintaining his weight, take him into the vet. It may save his life.

Beau is still fighting and is far from healthy. We’re going to give him the best shot we can at life; though he is little, he is so loved by us and his lady-friend.

He originally cost $15 to bring home from a local bird shop; his current vet bill is hovering around $600 with his numerous meds, the frequent checkups, the myriad tests. Though he is little, he is worth it. 

Budiges at Hospital
Praying he pulls through; the vet says he’s stronger today, his droppings look more normal (no more green color that indicates his liver isn’t working right), and he’s able to perch more steadily.

Update: Beau held on as long as he could and seemed to be getting better, but he succumbed to his illness two months after being diagnosed. :/ Still, he had a wonderful life and his girlfriend loved him dearly.

Broken Blood Feathers: What To Do

If your parrot is bleeding, that’s a bit of an emergency.

Yes, even if it’s just from a tiny little feather.

Think about how tiny a parakeet is; now think about how much blood a single droplet is in relation to how big that bird is, and how much that would equal if it were the same size as you.

Yeah, that’s a lot of blood.

macawBirds are not super good coagulators; what this means is that, once they start bleeding, it takes a very long time for them to stop. Especially in our littlest friends like parakeets and cockatiels, it’s really important to stop that bleeding before they lose too much.

Tools Needed:

Tweezers (in some cases), gauze pad, styptic powder (if you don’t have this on hand and your bird is bleeding right now, corn starch will work in a pinch), and courage (sold separately).

Step One:

Before handling your little bird, it’s super important to wash your hands. 

Step Two:

Take a minute to meditate and think of the giant glass of wine you owe yourself after this. This will not be fun.

Step Three:

Figure out where the bleeding is coming from. Blood feathers on the wings should be treated differently than ones on the tail or body.

If the broken blood feather is on the tail or body…

A. Snag a towel and gently wrap your feathered friend up in it.

B. Note which direction the feather is facing–using tweezers, firmly and quickly pull the feather. Do this as straight as possible, the direction the feather grows,

C. If bleeding continues from where the feather was pulled, use the gauze to press firmly but gently on the wound. This is sometimes enough to stop the bleeding. If not, pack the follicle with Styptic powder, and continue pressure until the bleeding stops.

If the broken blood feather is on the wing…

Wing feathers are tricky. Pulling them is a risk and can sometimes do more harm than good.

A. Identify which feather is bleeding.

If it’s the first wing feather at the tip of their wing, just use pressure to stop the bleeding. Do not use styptic powder/corn starch and under no circumstances should you pull that feather.

The first feather of a bird’s wings are connected directly to a bone in their wings. Using styptic powder can stunt future growth of that feather, and pulling it can cause serious damage to your birdy friend. 

If it’s any other feather, use styptic powder to pack the wound, apply pressure with gauze for at least a minute or until the bleeding stops.

If you decide you need to pull the broken wing feather…

A. Make sure it’s not the first wing feather. Again, do NOT pull the first feather on a bird’s wing under any circumstances.

B. Get a partner to gently wrap the bird in a towel and hold him or her still for you.

C. Use one hand to extend the wing, and use the tweezers to get a solid grip on the feather. You only want to have to tug on this once, and it’s going to be the worst sound you’ve ever heard your bird make.

D. Tug, fast and firmly, in the direction the feather grows.

E. Immediately use your gauze to apply pressure to the feather follicle. Hold for at least a minute.

F. If bleeding doesn’t stop after a minute, use Styptic powder.

If a blood feather continues bleeding for more than fifteen minutes, bring your bird to an avian vet ASAP. That’s an emergency.

Source: Emergency First Aid Guide for Birds Quick Reference by Jennifer L. Warshaw


“OMG, I want a parrot!”

Do you? Do you really?

Let’s face it; most birds, were they dogs, would be put down.

Louie’s grandfather (or at least great-grandfather) likely flew the canopies of the Solomon Islands. And Ozone’s father is probably still terrorizing some local somewhere in Africa.

At no point should you assume birds are domesticated; they are feathered dinosaurs.

They *will* bite you. End of story.

And our bites are mild in comparison to some species, like cockatoos…

A Parrot: The Forever Two-Year-Old

When you think about adopting a baby bird, consider this:

You are raising a child monster with permanently-affixed pliers, and that child is gonna be a two-year-old for fifty to one hundred years, depending on the species.

Every mistake you make in his or her formative years, every bad habit you instill, will be with you for the duration of that parrot’s life.

It’s so important to do your research. Any bird, big or small, requires a level of expertise in handling and training beyond that of a cat or dog. Negative reinforcement doesn’t work, and it takes a measure of patience that many many not expect.

Baby parrots never forget, and they rarely forgive–and only if you grovel. 😉

This is just one more reason why I strongly believe in adopting an older bird. If you spend enough time with an older bird, you know what their quirks and habits are BEFORE you bring him or her home, and if you make a few mistakes here or there, you will not be imprinting key memories in a bird that is as impressionable as a baby one.

How to (reliably) find the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


Oh, the famous Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill–cool enough to have their own Yelp Page, yet elusive enough that, in spite of having been in and out of San Francisco repeatedly, I’ve never seen them before. Even Mark Bitters, the man who made them famous through his book and documentary, isn’t quite sure how to consistently see them in spite of studying them for years.

Good news for bird watchers, though:

Follow this guide and I bet I can get you pretty darn close.

Naturally, my status of ‘crazy bird lady’ meant that I just had to find them on a recent impromptu trip to San Francisco. Knowing a thing or two about parrots helped; I spent the day looking for them, knowing all along certain things would help. Shockingly, if I’d paid attention to my own wisdom, I could’ve spent the majority of the day doing something else… fortunately, you get to learn from my mistakes. 😀

Locals suggested wandering up and down the steps between Greenwich Road, Levi’s Plaza, and Coit Tower, but “no guarantees”.

Parrots are pretty active during the day; they travel in flocks, moving frequently, meaning you’re way less likely to see them randomly when you’re not looking. When you are looking to bird watch, how do you find them?

How to Find the Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Guide in Videos and Pictures

  1. Time of day matters. 

2. Location, location, location!

Start at Levi’s Plaza and work your way up the steps to Coit Tower.

Or, you know, just drive and park at Coit Tower. I just think the hike up is lovely, and you’re more likely to catch the parrots if you walk.

Levi’s Plaza is a great place to start–the starting point is too low for the birds to consistently appear (in my opinion), but head up the stairs towards Coit tower, and you’re in for a gorgeous hike, and a great way to get oriented to the surrounding area!

Take the stairs you see here. Make your way up to Coit tower.

Once at Coit Tower, you’ll want to locate the side paths that are about fifteen-twenty feet off the main parking area; I started by heading toward Green Street and circling that pathway.

3. Follow your ears. Parrots are LOUD. You will hear them (and some crows and/or ravens) long before you see them.

4. Be patient and keep walking. If you follow your ears, you’ll eventually find them!

In a Nutshell:

-Make sure wander the paths around Coit Tower about an hour before sundown, or shortly after sunrise!

-Where there are ravens roosting, so too will you likely find parrots. Ravens are the kings and queens of Coit Tower, so they’ll be chilling in the trees around the center; the parrots will be flying the side paths ten to fifteen feet from the center.

-Be patient and be ready to walk. The parrots will only stay in the trees for a few minutes before darting away.

-Bring binoculars. They’re hard to see, especially if you’re blind like I am!

If all else fails, locals are correct about finding parrots at/around Embarcadero park; there seems to be a popular roost at sundown in a tree at the intersection at Clay & Davis, which I stumbled upon quite by happy accident as I wandered back to my hotel. Visit at sundown (after the sun has dipped below the horizon, but before it’s totally dark), and you will probably get lucky!

A cat wanted to be petted during my hike!
Check out the local wildlife.