Step-Up Isn’t Always the First Trick to Teach a Parrot

August 11, 2008

When I first got Stewie I tried training him to step up because conventional wisdom has that this should be the first thing a bird learns. All Stewie learned was that if he bit me hard enough I’d eventually go away. 😦

Then I found the Bird Click group on Yahoo and took the advice to start with target training. I stopped presenting my finger to him because he bit and he bit hard, and the first rule of clicker training birds is “avoid the bite.”

Mika Stepping Up

Mika Stepping Up

We started with targeting and moved on to a few other prop behaviors. After he learned several tricks, he started stepping up on my arm even without my having “trained” him to do it.

He did it because he had started to trust me and knew that I was a convenient method of transportation (at that time he wasn’t flighted). After a couple more tricks, Stewie now even steps up on a finger (although he still prefers arms) … again, without any explicit training on my part.

A common attitude is that there’s no point to teaching “stupid parlor tricks” like basketball, crawling through a tunnel, etc. if you’re not planning on putting on shows. And there are certainly more important tricks to teach than how to manipulate props — the most important, of course, being stepping up.

So what do you do if your bird refuses to step up? Do you keep forcing it, pushing your bird because it’s something she is supposed to know? And if yes, what do you do when your bird eventually starts biting, harder and harder and harder?

In my experience, it’s absolutely true that teaching “stupid parlor tricks” first helps get a bird more comfortable with handling and stepping up later on. If you have a distrustful bird — it seems common for parrots to be afraid of hands — teach him that hands are the source of wonderful treats, not instruments of brute force that bully him into doing things he is scared or unwilling to do.

There’s no reason you need to force a trick they don’t like; and if you come back to it later, you’ll probably find a much more willing student. And if your bird eagerly targets, getting him to step onto your finger eventually will be a cinch.


Bonus: Mika admiring a photo of a pretty Pionus stepping up:



  1. I recently (finally) bought the Clicker for Birds kit, and finished the book today. I was surprised at how many of Rigel’s normal everyday behaviors are listed as behaviors for training. I feel pretty lucky that it has been so easy for me so far, by comparison. I can also clearly see areas of Clicker training that will fix some mistakes I have made so far. I’m looking forward to starting tomorrow.

    Also, I want to scritch Mika’s cute little legs. I’m guessing she wouldn’t go for that, though. 😀

  2. Yay! Good to “see” you again TJ.

    As you know, I’m a huge clicker training evangelist… although not necessarily a very good practitioner. I just really, really think this positive reinforcement thing is the only way to go.

    So yeah, I really like how clicker training uses behaviors that our birds offer up anyway, but reinforces them and then puts them on cue. Not only is it cool to get them to do stuff, but I suspect they actually get a kick out of manipulating *us*. (“Wait, I do this and she gives me a treat? Every time? Awesome!”)

    Even if you never actually teach any tricks, I think the book lays out a good philosophy for how to interact with our little beasties.

    Plus, I just finished reading Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” which is often hailed as the bible of positive reinforcement training. And you know… turns out it’s not actually about dogs or dog training at all. Clicker training (minus the clicker) is supposed to work well on roommates, employees, kids, etc. We’ll see how my coworkers react when I give them a sunflower seed. 🙂

  3. Threio and I agree Step Up training is a necessary evil. 🙂

    I had extreme difficulty training Riddler, my parrotlet to Step Up.

    Threio my IRN on the otherhand has been pretty accepting of training. Riddler would only grab my arm.

    Different bird, different likes.

    Both I waited two weeks before starting the training.

  4. Glad that Mika is progressing and enjoying herself in the training.

  5. i am training my green indian ringneck with a clicker and he knows how to shake my hand and to touch the target stick.
    but every time igive him my hand and say ” step up”,
    he trying to bite my hand.

  6. It’s funny that’s there’s a blog linking to this page that basically implies I taught Mika to step up using their method, when 1) this post isn’t about Mika at all, and 2) I said pretty explicitly in my post that I didn’t train Stewie to step up using a target. (So they got it wrong on two counts.)

    While I don’t think the method they discuss is necessarily a bad one, it’s kind of silly that they clearly didn’t even read this post but just tried to make it sound like Stewie & Mika are a case study supporting their advice.

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