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. 🙂

Teaching a Bird NOT to Scream: Reality

Screaming is one way birds get attention (positive, negative, it doesn’t matter!) Now, I can’t definitively say whether or not this was the case for Miss Viola Waddlesworth at her former home, however, her friend Sam, the African Grey who went to a neighbor’s house, frequently shouts, “Shut up, Waddles!”

…So yeah, we likely have a few years’ worth of bad habits to break with her.

One major purpose of this blog is to go beyond text and describe/show what bird training *really* looks like. Thus, a five minute vlog post was born.

May I present: What Teaching a Bird Not to Scream Really Looks Like: A Work in Progress

TL;DW/Oh my Gawd, I can’t take the screaming anymore – Skip to 4:05

Teaching a bird not to scream = massive, massive amounts of patience. It looks like a lot of:

  • Standing around out of sight of your bird and waiting for silence/a sound you don’t hate before you make your presence known again.
  • Making no movements that might indicate you might be coming within sight of your bird while he or she is screaming.
  • Responding to a sound you like with a happy call back/movement towards the birds–birds who are alone in a different room will “contact call“, which is natural and can’t really be turned off, so pick a sound you like/don’t hate and reinforce that.
  • Turning around/leaving the bird’s sight if they start screaming when you try to enter the room. They’re screaming for attention. Don’t give it to them!
  • Your spouse’s unwilling participation in the lack of movement/shouting at bird (shouting just reinforces the bad behavior and makes it continue longer. Spouses: Ignore it with every fiber of your being. Don’t even look at the bird.)

 

An Aside/Soap Box:

I feel like this video demonstrates why cockatoos (not Vi’s species–Vi is an Amazon) are only for the bravest, most tolerant of people. According to MyToos.com, Moluccan Cockatoos (and Umbrellas get close to this, too!) “Moluccans hold the record as the loudest bird on earth at 135 [decibels of sound]…A 747 Jumbo Jet produces as much as 140 decibels of noise.

My first-hand experience? Yes, they really are that loud. It is un.be.lievable.

Oh, and P.S.–A lot of the stuff you read at MyToos.com is NOT hyperbole regarding many, many, many Moluccan (and some Umbrella) cockatoos. We lived it. Not true of all cockatoos, but oh man… It was bad.

Step-Up Progress: Stepping Up for Bread!

…Because I have been busier than any person has a right to be, but we made more progress with Vi!

  1. She stepped up for Fletcher last night for a tasty piece of bread. She also let him pet her–exciting, because we were expecting her to be a one-person bird and merely tolerate him. Not so!
  2. She stepped up today from her cage to go upstairs. Granted, still bribing her with bread, but she really, really enjoys being upstairs. =)

Still reminding myself not to rush. Slow and steady, man. Slow and steady.

Day by day, we put her broken pieces back together. What a sweetheart!

And thus, Vi begins her singing career…

Twenty-four years young. XD

Somehow, Vi’s former owners taught her to say ‘Goodbye!’ or ‘Buh-bye!’ and shake her head whenever you wave at her.

suspect the way they did this was, whenever she said ‘Buh-Bye!’ they would wave at her, then rewarded her with LOTS of verbal praise, maybe some head-scritches, and possibly some treats. In this way, they trained her to associate them waving with the phrase ‘Buh-Bye!’

Here is the result:

Go Slow to Go Fast in Step Up Training: No Negative Experiences

In the “a stitch in time saves nine” quotes category, there’s a popular saying in education:

“Go slow to go fast.”

Essentially, if you don’t want to re-teach a skill multiple times over, it’s worth teaching it well  and thoroughly the first time. Which takes patience.

So, so much patience.

Shockingly, this is also true for bird training! Vi and I have been going agonizingly slowly in our developing relationship… But here we are–new successes!

Every day that I hang out in the basement, Vi now climbs down to come visit with me.

One week later, I’d guess this behavior is 60% food motivated rather than 95%. =) She’s starting to enjoy our company. Progress!

She still won’t step up from her cage (although she frequently says the phrase “Step up!” as if she wants to–contrary snot!) but we made another positive step forward today:

I brought her upstairs when she went after my flavored-bad-for-birdy popcorn, set her on our “big bird” stand as I made her some bird-safe popcorn, and she enjoyed herself in her new-found play area–so much so that she didn’t want to step up.

We were either going to break new ground in our training, or she was going to break skin (she postured to bite!)

I gently insisted she stepped up, promising her popcorn, which she didn’t actually want, anyway…

My hand remains intact. Up she went!

This is the longest I’ve gone without getting maimed by any parrot we’ve owned. =) Fingers crossed that I continue to have fingers to cross rather than losing a digit or two to her big, bad Amazon beak!

Just keep swimming, what do we do, we swim, swim, swim…

Step Up Training: Find a Treat They Love

Sometimes, just hanging out around your parrots and eating things will tell you all you need to know about what really matters to them.

“I got pizza love… (I got pizza love!) / I can’t stop / I just have to chew / when I see that cheesy goo-oo-oo / I can’t stop! And I think I’ll cry-aye-aye / if I find some onions on my pizza / pizza pie-aye-aye…”

Obnoxious fifth grade concert songs aside,  it looks like pizza crust is the key to Vi’s heart. And Louie’s, which is why he is my featured image–I hope to, through pizza, someday win Vi’s ultimate trust so I can do with her as I do with Lou. ❤

I decided to enjoy my dinner in the basement with Viola, and as I watched Nurse Jackie (our latest addiction), Vi crawled down from her perch, stared at me long and hard from the bottom of her cage for about ten minutes as I dined, then climbed down onto the floor, waddled over to me, and stepped up in order to eat her pizza crust.

She nommed it contentedly while sitting upon my hand, garbling in parrot-speak to me.

And here I thought we’d stopped making progress. So glad I didn’t push her!

I should take bets on how long it’ll be before she’ll step up without bribery and solely because she wants to be with me. I give it until Mid-July, personally.

If I’m right, I’m taking myself out to my favorite restaurant. =)

Step Up Training: One Full Step Up (The First Time!)

A leap of faith takes at LEAST the Holy Grail… of toast!

More progress today! …But at what cost?

viwithgianttoast
Behold: The Holy Grail of Toast

I think this is a mistake that a lot of novice bird trainers (i.e. me) make–we don’t provide a reluctant feathered friend with enough incentive to take a biiiiiig leap of faith. Sure, Wa-Wa-Waddles adores toast… but even Indiana Jones wouldn’t make that leap of faith for a measly sack full of gold.

It’s gotta be big. A relic of epic proportions. Something so tempting that it is worth the risk to closer her eyes, take a deep breath, and LEAP into the unknown with both talons forward.

Thus, I give you: Behemoth Toast.

It’s at least as big as her face. xD

After another five days of feeling like we’d hit a stall, I decided to up the pay-out.

Every day she wouldn’t dare lift a toe of her second foot, my toast offerings got bigger and bigger as I moved the toast farther and farther up my arm.

Finally, today, it proved too big a temptation. I WON!

Tomorrow, hopefully, it will require less, especially since some sound or another upstairs startled her and she took another flight around the basement. Once she’s off her cage, she’s more than happy to step onto more familiar ground–my wrist. She stepped right up for me, and I held her and cooed to her, making sure she wasn’t too nervous or uncomfortable.

Several beak-grinds later, and she’d had yet another positive experience with Mom. ❤

Every experience a positive one!

Achievement Unlocked: Full Step-Up