Some birds (like Mika) step up pretty much whenever you present your finger in the step-up position. Stewie thinks that’s for suckers.
Here are his rules for getting him to step up (from his perspective):
1) Bribes – A bribe is when I show him the treat (and let him watch me get the treat) before asking for a step up, rather than presenting the reward only after he has performed the queued behavior. Not preferred by me, but sometimes it needs to be done. Although he gets a treat for performing most tricks on cue, stepping up is such a basic command that it doesn’t usually get a food reward – so knowing that one will be coming is much more motivating for him. What I try not to do, however, is use the treat to “lure” him onto my hand (i.e., luring would be making him step up in order to reach the treat).
2) Playing on his fear of being left behind – This technique is most often used in the bathroom, where he enjoys hanging out on his perch attached to the mirror. I often take him in to the bathroom with me if both birds are out because I don’t trust him alone with Mika. Usually when I’m ready to leave again, he won’t step up. If I keep insisting he’ll nip at me. So I simply turn around and pretend I’m walking out the door. If I do that and then ask him to step up, he usually does.
3) Present a forearm instead of fingers – When I got Stewie he didn’t trust fingers, and presenting a finger often got you bitten. So we trained stepping up onto an arm. Even though he is much better about (my) fingers now, he still doesn’t care much for stepping up onto a finger. Often he just beaks or nibbles on my fingers as if to say, “yes, this thing you’re showing me is interesting, but what about it?” Arms and shoulders are much better prompts to get him to step up. If a bird is being cantankerous and bite-y, however, then presenting a finger will surely get you bitten; in that case I recommend using an arm (harder to get a beak around) or even just a hand-held perch (like a dowel or a ladder).
4) Approach from the south side of the cage – This is just a weird Stewie quirk. For some reason, if I approach him from the right side of the cage, he’s much more likely to step up than if I ask for a step up from the other side. It’s possible that he hasn’t generalized the “trick”, or it could be that he thinks we’re more likely to go to a fun place if I’m standing on one side versus the other. Obviously something that needs more positive reinforcement training to get him to step up from anywhere, but the point is that if you’re having trouble getting your bird to perform a trick, watch carefully for patterns and preferences – it might not be entirely random.
5) Be standing; don’t reach up – This point is similar to the one above. If I want Stewie to step up, then my whole arm needs to be at least at his level. If I’m sitting in my computer chair and reach for Stewie, he’s likely just to look at me, beak my hand or play with my sleeve; if I’m in the exact same position, but standing, he’ll step up on my outreached arm. I think it just feels more secure for him because parrots equate height with safety. Like most parrots, getting my birds to step up when they are on the floor is pretty much guaranteed because they do not want to be down there (the ground is where they are most vulnerable to predators in the wild). If you have a flighted bird who likes to land on curtain rods, you want to make sure that you train “step up” even if you’re reaching up from below. Also important in case you ever need to retrieve an escaped bird from a tree.
These examples are just some ways that Stewie is an odd duck (conure) about how he prefers to be asked to step up. Your bird probably has different quirks. It’s important to know your bird’s quirks before you can devise a strategy for overcoming or working around them.
If your bird hasn’t learned the step-up trick yet, or tends to bite when asked to step up, check out my earlier post on training other things first. Above all, make stepping up rewarding for the bird.