Ah the infamous “Step-up!” is among one of the most useful and one of the most important basic training for any parrot species. It not only inspires confidence in the owner to tame his or her bird, but it also is one of the first building blocks to establish and create a working and functional relationship between you and your bird.
Although other species of birds can be tamed and trained (such as canaries, pigeons and quail) most people use methods of training birds strictly for parrots, these techniques that will be described herein can easily be adapted to any bird really but for the sake of this article we are focusing on parrots.
We will be describing two popular methods to train your bird, and also explain some of the importances of both techniques and why you should train your bird in both these techniques.
Although it is possible to train a bird that is flighted, it is harder to tame a bird that is. For this sake, we highly recommend that you get your bird’s wings clipped–now don’t panic! We know the debates about letting birds fly, and maybe in the future you will let your bird fly, but there are just as many pros and cons to allowing your bird fly then letting your bird not fly. One of the reasons we don’t necessarily want our birds to fly is because it is harder to tame a bird that can simply fly away, it is harder to make that connection, but also because allowing a bird to fly in your home can be potentially hazardous; birds can easily fly into walls and kill themselves or seriously injure themselves.
Getting wings clipped is not as bad as it sounds, it liking to us getting a hair cut. The feathers will grow back.
THE FINGER METHOD
It is everyone’s dream who own a bird to have their bird step-up onto their hands or fingers. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world when finally that small budgie, or even African Grey, steps-up unto your hand or finger. To see it standing there so majestic.
Finger training or hand training a bird to step-up is beneficial because it will inspire great confidence in the owner, it is the essential building block of developing a good working relationship. By knowing the basic step-up you will be able to set boundaries for your bird, and in turn the bird will learn to trust you, and you will begin to trust it. Trust is a big thing between a working partnership with a bird and a its owner.
Many bird owners use what is known as positive reinforcement, this is because birds have a different way of thinking. Although you should never hit or yell at your bird, a bird is able to read your body language you can say “no!” but in general and reinforcement (negative like yelling, or positive like praising) is still a form of reinforcement and a bird will feed off of this reinforcement.
The easiest way to use positive reinforcement is to use treats, depending on the bird you want to use different things, and many people do this. However, not every owner of a bird agrees to this form of positive reinforcement, others use what is known as praising and enthusiasm to encourage their birds to succeed, when the bird does something right you may get all happy, and in a squeaky baby voice say “GOOD BIRDIE!” birds LOVE drama and energy, if you are a boring person you will have a little difficulties keeping the attention of your bird.
Here is a simple method to training your bird to step-up unto your finger:
1. Most likely when you take a bird home it won’t want to leave its cage. There are exceptions, but in general not all pet stores hand train their birds. In this case, the first stage, and probably the most important, is to get to know your bird. Understand what it likes and doesn’t like. This might sound easy, but the truth is it isn’t, let the bird get adjusted to a schedule, and allow the bird to adjust to the fact it will have hands in its cage. Slowly offer food to the bird, and eventually it will eat from it, once it started to get use to your hands it is time to teach your bird!
2. Sometimes when you go to a pet store the birds are already adjusted to people using their hands, and most often these stores already taught the birds to step-up. This makes it much easier for you as the new owner to work with the bird. Chances are you will simply need to say step-up, but sometimes when a bird is new to their surroundings they get spooked and avoid you. Most new birds will turn their back (if they are larger birds for example), or if they are smaller they tend to run along the bars. This is normal, you should never trap your bird in a corner, but you should gently prod the belly of the bird to get it to step-up on your hand, this may take a while. You want to establish a key word here, a key word is a word (or sometimes a gesture) a bird will be able to recognize with an action, in this case as you are trying to get the bird to step-up unto your hand or finger you are simply saying STEP-UP or UP-UP!
3. Once the bird is on your hand, you want to wait. This allows the bird to adjust to your hand, often times it will jump off within a matter of seconds, however, if you keep this up eventually the bird will simply sit on your hand. It is at this time you want to offer positive reinforcement.
4. Eventually the bird will be very comfortable on your hand, the next stage, is obviously to slowly take the bird out of the cage. You should never, under any circumstances unless it is an emergency and you know your bird, force your bird to anything it isn’t willing to do. This will damage your relationship and birds can hold grudges. Most likely, the bird will want to go back to a perch or go within the cage, this is fine, let bird do so. Just keep trying until eventually you are able to get the bird out of the cage without to much difficulty. Don’t forget to praise the bird when it does exactly what you ask it to!
5. Turn your back to the cage, you don’t want the bird to see its cage, it will want to go back to it. It is ideal for you to leave the room completely and go to another one. Here is where the real training begins.
6a. Do some “ladder training,” ladder training is simply getting the bird to step unto your finger over and over again, from one hand to the next. Make sure you repeat the key word here, in this case it could be UP-UP or STEP-UP! Eventually it will seem like you are making a ladder, praise the bird. This is not only fun for you, but birds of all sizes seem to enjoy it. However, larger birds tend to get bored with this exercise very quickly.
6b. Another method that is gaining speed is placing the bird on a perch, a birdie gym, a counter, the back of a chair or even the floor. Essentially what you will be doing is getting the bird to step-up unto your hand from that spot, and than returning the bird to that location (this is known as step-down, which is another useful skill to teach your bird).
6c. To get your whole family involved, do hot potato! From one person to the next, you get the bird to step-up unto each family member until you make a full circle, and you keep doing this. This is among one of the most beneficial of the step-up training, because you are establishing good bonds between the whole family and not just one member and this can reduce aggression found in birds who only bond to one person.
There you go, this is the basics of step-up training unto your finger or hand!
THE DOWEL METHOD
Not all birds come tamed and ready to go, as you can imagine from the above statements. These birds can sometimes be potential bitters, and bites hurt! With some of the larger species of parrots these can be potentially scarring, the problem here is that all birds will bite. It is just like saying your child will never throw a tantrum, it will happen, and no matter how well behaved your child is when she/he pulls a tantrum you are stunned, it is the same when a bird bites. Sometimes you will be able to tell and other times it just happens. Thankfully, birds once properly trained are not big bitters towards their owners and if properly socialized towards any other living being.
This is where the dowel method comes in, a dowel is essentially a long wooden rod that resembles a perch (and often is).
Dowel training is perfect for those who are afraid of their medium to large parrots, it is a slow steady process to eventually getting the bird unto your hand or finger. However, we recommend that all parrots be trained with dowel as well as hand tamed, this is because in obvious cases you won’t always be able to reach your bird, and if a bird isn’t dowel trained or trained to step unto a perch they are less likely to do so, and will most likely be scared of the dowel and try their best to get away from it.
Dowel training is just like the finger step-up training, but this time you want them to get use to the dowel been pressed up to them, to get them to simply come up unto the dowel you may use a treat to lure them unto such dowel by revealing the treat just out of reach of the dowel, forcing them to step up.
This is a great method to get territorial birds out of their cages, such as quakers and Indian Ringneck parakeets, and some larger species much prefer this method than the hand. As an owner of the bird we like to think that the bird needs to conform to our ways, but the truth is we do more sacrifice of ourselves for the bird than the bird does for us, compromises need to be made; on both sides.
WHAT IF MY BIRD BITES ME!?
Birds, especially large ones, can be scary when they bite. Especially when they are well behaved and you aren’t expecting it. Even small birds like budgies and lovebirds have a wicked bite, sometimes they draw blood. It happens. The truth is, you won’t always be able to avoid been bit, you need to understand that the beak of a bird is its hands, it is the way it explores its world and it is how it rewards and punishes.
The trick, and it isn’t always easy, is to not be afraid of been bit and not to be afraid of the beak. You don’t necessarily need to be on edge every moment you own a bird, when or how you will be bit, just understand that it will happen. It isn’t a matter of could, it is a matter of when and what circumstances provoked the bite.
As you grow as a bird owner you will be able to better predict when, why and how your bird bites. You will be able to read the body language of your bird, but even this experience can’t guarantee that you won’t be bit, anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.
When dealing with a bird that bites, it is best not to react.
You can push into the bite, to make it uncomfortable for the bird, but you should never pry the mouth open. You shouldn’t hit your bird, another method to make a bird understand that biting is wrong is simply pinching the beck and in a firm voice say NO! or NO BITE!
By reacting to the bite you are encouraging the bite. Don’t react, act normal, and return the bird to its cage and ignore it for about 15 minutes, think of it as a time out, and by the time you come back to see your bird he should be in a better mood.
If you stick to these simple rules, the risk of a bite is minimum and both you and the bird will be happy.