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: