How to Teach a Bird to Step Up.

Umbrella Cockatoo
Umbrella cockatoo Bobo begging for an up.

How to teach your parrot to step up:

If you need to teach your bird to step up – and many do need to be taught – this is straightforward enough. First, ignore the people who tell you to force it. The advice that suggests moving your hand rapidly towards a bird’s lower belly can be severely harmful to your relationship.

A step up is an act of trust between you both. The bird has to understand that you will not hurt him, and indeed, might take him fun places, or give him a nice reward; you have to feel confident that he won’t bite.

Wait until your parrot trusts you – or is starting to – in order to start these lessons. You should have his favourite treats on hand, and lots of soft praise for him.

There are multiple legitimate methods. To teach our un-tame cockatiel to step up, however, we would start by putting one hand in the cage and letting her get used to it. Lots of treats and praise. When she was comfortable with this, we’d get closer. Eventually we would push our fingers into her lower belly – but not fast. This let her see what was coming. We had to make sure she associated our fingers with good things. Hands are naturally threatening to birds, possibly because they look like very large spiders.

It took persistence and hard work, but our cockatiel eventually clambered onto our hand.

One can also present a wrist, arm, perch, or even a pillow for a step up. For aggressive birds, especially large ones, a perch or pillow can be ideal. You don’t need to clip wings to teach a bird to step up – and doing so can actually hinder the process. Clipping takes away the ‘flight’ of fight-or-flight, leaving your bird with what it feels is only the option to bite. If you’re working with a parrot who doesn’t yet step up, it will likely feel very threatened, and thereby far more likely to chomp down.

Just remember that stepping up is not a behaviour that comes built-in with any bird. It can be easy to forget that it’s got to be reinforced even after it’s learnt!

To finish up, here are four tips for reinforcing a step up:

Giving our umbrella cockatoo what he most wanted as his reward for doing it nicely.

Method #1. A good, old-fashioned scratch. Many birds, like cockatoos, crave physical touch. Keep it PG-rated (aka feet and head only), but try rewarding a step up or down with a nice cuddle. For example, in the post linked below, Lara Joseph shows how she asks cockatoo Rico to do the full behaviour – step away and turn – before rewarding him with what he considers a valuable reward. She adds that this makes ‘it clear to him that the delivery of the reinforcer is contingent on two feet on the perch.’

**Remember, a reward is only that if the bird considers it worthwhile.

Method #2. Take them where they want to go more often than not. If you’re the thing that’s constantly removing them from what they want to do, they’re not going to be very happy the next time you want them to step up. Try carrying them to something just out of reach that they want to investigate, or bringing them to a favourite room.

Ptak particularly likes going into the utility room, where he isn’t usually allowed to go.

Method #3. Food. Food is nearly always a good reinforcer. Start with your bird’s known favourites, like shards of a nut, or a very small piece of cheese – whatever he likes, slip him a piece when he politely steps up.

Method #4. Toys. Rewarding him with a treasured toy is another way to teach your parrot that stepping up has benefits for him. If you keep specific toys reserved for this behaviour, it becomes a particularly potent reinforcer.

What are your favourite ideas for step-up reinforcers?





3 thoughts on “How to Teach a Bird to Step Up.

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  1. My lovebird is a rescue and something in her past made her terrified of hands. Step-up was a word she didn’t respond to. It took her several months to get acclimated – she had been in several homes, a foster home, and a shelter. Offering a hand or arm scared her and a finger would get attacked. I couldn’t blame her for thinking we were just another stop along the way.

    I started off slowly by offering a shoulder. Every time I’d open her door I’d say step-up. Her reward was an emphatic “good girl” and kisses, plus she got to fly around for a while. After a few months she started stepping onto my arm and a few weeks ago finally jumped on my hand.


    1. Hmm, good thoughts! It’s great that you found that way to connect. Congratulations on getting her onto your hand! It’s such an exciting moment, and a huge leap forward. 😀 She’s a lucky birdie.


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