3. TEACHING YOUR BIRD TO 'STEP-UP' (FOR BIRDS THAT BITE)

I received a lovely email from a family having trouble training their Green Cheek Conure to "Step-up". They had followed my previous training guides and were doing really well! However, when it came to teaching the "step-up" command, their little man Benjie would bite instead of stepping up. The family wrote to me with a great description of what Benjie was doing, so I thought I would share their story and my reply, in case some of you are encountering the same problem.

Benjie's family have followed my training guide and are now able to:

  1. approach Benjie's cage
  2. give Benjie treats
  3. play with Benjie a little and even give him scratches on his forehead

However, when it came to the "step-up and step-down" routine, Benjie would bite. Here's how his family described his behaviour:

He will put his foot on my finger and then bite. It’s like he’s trying to get a hold of my finger not to step up but so he can bite it....I immediately stop what im doing and calmly say “no Benjie” when he bites it seems like he gets even more riled up. When he’s in that state I noticed that he breathes heavier, his feathers are fluffed up and looks like he wants to kill me. I usually just walk away and come back later...is his behaviour normal?

In my opinion, the step-up is the basis for all training. Is Benjie's behaviour normal?....well, yes and no. Yes his behaviour is normal for a bird who doesn't want to step up and no because that's not what we want our birds to do when we ask them to "step-up". Having said that, I LOVE that Benjie's family are reading all his body signs. When they open their beaks a little (breath heavier), fluff their feathers quickly and pin their eyes - these are all signs they are not happy and are trying to get you stop. You may even observe this in a wild flock of parrots. Think of it as a warning system,

 

  1. eye pinning means "I don't want to do that. I will bite if you don't move away"

  2. feather raising (especially on the head and neck) means is like they're saying "I mean it, I really will bite you if you don't move your hand away"

  3. The 'I'm going to kill you' is the equivalent of them screaming "I DONT WANT TO! I DONT WANT TO! STOP IT RIGHT NOW OR ELSE..."

  4. finally - the BITE!

Why are eye pinning and raised feathers important?
If we ignore these signs continually, our birds will learn that we do not listen to their warnings and that biting is the only way to communicate to us "hey! I DONT WANT TO!" Eventually, they won't even give the warning signs any more, they will just go straight to bite mode. This is what we want to avoid.


It's important to remember that we cannot force a bird to do ANYTHING, and therefore we should respect their body language. If they don't want to step up that is okay....we can leave them alone and avoid getting bitten. The trick is to make them WANT to step-up, because they know it will be fun and they will enjoy it.

This is what positive reinforcement is all about. We make the RIGHT choice more FUN and DESIRABLE for your bird. And Benjie's family are actually already doing this - when Benjie shows aggression they walk away and come back later - that's PERFECT! When he step's up nicely he will get a treat and get to come out of the cage or play with his favourite toy or get praise and commendation (whatever he likes the most). When he show's aggression, he will get left alone until a later time, no treats, no rewards - after all, that is what he is saying with his aggressive behaviour - he just want's to be left alone.


But before I go any further I just want to clarify one thing. Sometimes people mistake a bird using its beak to balance as it wanting to bite. When we train the step-up command, it is very important to keep your hand still - let the bird step up and step down without moving your hand away first. If they see your hand as an unstable perch, they will use their beak to grip on before they step up. Judging from the behaviour Benjie's family described though, I think Benjie is being aggressive rather than this. So let's continue with how I suggest his family proceeds....


HOW TO TEACH THE "STEP-UP" TO A BIRD THAT BITES:
Quite simply, this is the same as my original guide on "how to teach a bird to step-up". However, this time we are going to replace your hand with a perch. Why? Well, it sometimes parrots like Benjie lose focus on what you are asking them to do (and they treat they will receive once they do it) because they get distracted by their hand. By getting your bird to step-up onto a perch first, before stepping up onto your hand, it shows them that it is the action of stepping up that they are getting rewarded for. Once they realise that, we can remove the perch and they should happily step up onto a hand.

[NOTE: in some cases, another training method called "targeting" may be needed in addition to this method....but we will see how Benjie progresses first and I will write a "targeting" guide if needed] 
 

STEP 1
Go up to your bird’s cage and extend a treat through the bars. Make it a delicious treat, something the bird doesn’t normally get to eat (ie. a piece of cashew or almond). It is important that you hold the treat through the bars and don’t move - you don’t want to scare the bird but you want it to come to the treat and take it in its own time. If your bird doesn’t come up to the treat from your hand within a reasonable amount of time, you could try again at a time when your bird is hungrier, perhaps first thing in the morning before you have refilled its food containers.

STEP 2
Once your bird is happily coming up and taking treats from your hand through the bars, you can start to open the cage door and put your hand inside. Again, use the same technique here - keep pushing your hand forward inside the cage (with the treat clearly visible in your fingers) until your bird shows signs of discomfort. Stop and keep your hand there, wait for the bird to calm down, then take your hand out. Again, it is very important to stop moving BEFORE your bird moves away from you. Try again later and you will find you can get your hand a little closer to the perch, wait for your bird to calm down, then take your hand out. Eventually your bird will come up to your hand inside the cage and take the treat out of your hand.

STEP 3
Once your bird is happily coming up to your hand inside the cage and taking the treat, the next step is to get your bird to step onto a perch in your hand (see image below). To do this, place a small branch (ie. a perch) in your hand so that your bird has to lean over the branch to reach the treat in your other hand. Eventually, you will move the treat in your hand further along the perch so your bird has to place a foot onto the perch to reach it. It is absolutely vital that you DO NOT MOVE the perch! This is a huge trust point for your bird and if the perch is unstable in your hand it will be very unlikely to step onto it again with confidence. You will probably find that your bird steps on and off the perch very quickly at first. But eventually it will stay a little longer on the perch each time.

42b2c6d4-7cbc-47b6-9711-115ea101dd87.jpg

STEP 4
Eventually, you will move the treat further away along the perch, so your bird has to step onto the perch and then onto your hand (the one holding the perch) to get the treat. When you get to this point, try and flatten your hand so that your fingers look like an extension of the perch (like in the picture below).  Again, let your bird step onto your hand and step off again BEFORE you move your hand. Eventually, your bird will happily sit on your hand without being in a rush to get off again. At this point, you might want to use your other hand to give them more treats, to reward them for staying on your hand. Once they realise staying on your hand means more treats, they will stay on your hand while you move it out of the cage. Start by moving it towards the cage door just a little bit, then put it back towards the perch and let the bird step off. They gradually increase the distance until your bird is on your hand and out of the cage. Then reward, reward, reward! But don’t go straight into playing with your bird now. Put your bird back into its cage - it’s overcome some huge fears today so let it have the time to think about what it has just learnt - that hands aren’t so scary after all…in fact….they are actually a good thing!

stop parrot biting

Hopefully this information helps Benjie and his family to form a beautiful bond and a bite-free "step-up"! I will keep you updated on how he progresses. 

2. TEACHING YOUR BIRD TO 'STEP-UP'

Here are my 4 steps to teaching your bird to 'step up':

TEACHING YOUR BIRD TO 'STEP-UP'

By this stage you should be able to approach your bird in its cage and drop a treat into its bowl without it moving away or showing any signs of fear (if this is still happening, go back to the previous steps. If you have performed this step enough times, your bird should start to actually come towards you when you approach the cage as it is expecting a delicious treat! The next step is to get your bird to accept taking a treat from your hand.

[Note: if your bird is aggressive and bites - then you would use a different technique called “targeting”. I will write about that method next week]

STEP 1
Go up to your bird’s cage and extend a treat through the bars. Make it a delicious treat, something the bird doesn’t normally get to eat (ie. a piece of cashew or almond). It is important that you hold the treat through the bars and don’t move - you don’t want to scare the bird but you want it to come to the treat and take it in its own time. If your bird doesn’t come up to the treat from your hand within a reasonable amount of time, you could try again at a time when your bird is hungrier, perhaps first thing in the morning before you have refilled its food containers.

STEP 2
Once your bird is happily coming up and taking treats from your hand through the bars, you can start to open the cage door and put your hand inside. Again, use the same technique here - keep pushing your hand forward inside the cage (with the treat clearly visible in your fingers) until your bird shows signs of discomfort. Stop and keep your hand there, wait for the bird to calm down, then take your hand out. Again, it is very important to stop moving BEFORE your bird moves away from you. Try again later and you will find you can get your hand a little closer to the perch, wait for your bird to calm down, then take your hand out. Eventually your bird will come up to your hand inside the cage and take the treat out of your hand.

STEP 3
Once your bird is happily coming up to your hand inside the cage and taking the treat, the next step is to get your bird to step onto your hand. To do this, place the treat further up on your hand, so that your bird has to lean over your fingers to reach the treat (if your bird bites your hand, use the “targeting method” instead - I will write about it next week). Eventually, you will place the treat up near your wrist so that the bird has to place a foot onto your hand to reach it. It is absolutely vital that you DO NOT MOVE your hand. This is a huge trust point for your bird and if your hand is unstable it will be very unlikely to step onto it again with confidence. You will probably find that your bird steps on and off you hand very quickly at first. But eventually it will stay a little longer on your hand each time.
 

teaching a bird to step up

STEP 4
Eventually, you will place the treat far enough up your arm that the bird will step both legs onto your hand to get it. Let your bird step onto your hand and step off again before you move your hand. Eventually, your bird will happily sit on your hand without being in a rush to get off again. At this point, you might want to use your other hand to give them more treats, to reward them for staying on your hand. Once they realise staying on your hand means more treats, they will stay on your hand while you move it out of the cage. Start by moving it towards the cage door just a little bit, then put it back towards the perch and let the bird step off. They gradually increase the distance until your bird is on your hand and out of the cage. Then reward, reward, reward! But don’t go straight into playing with your bird now. Put your bird back into its cage - it’s overcome some huge fears today so let it have the time to think about what it has just learnt - that hands aren’t so scary after all…in fact….they are actually a good thing!

1. HOW TO TAME A SCARED BIRD:

Below is my method for taming a frightened bird. However, before we begin it is important to answer a few common questions:


I bought a hand-tamed bird, so why is it scared of me?

Buying a “hand-tamed” bird does not necessarily mean that your bird is ok with being handled. Just because it doesn’t bite doesn’t mean that is LIKES being touched. As with any animal, we need to look at the body language of the animal. Sure you may be able to grab your bird out of the cage, but does it cower and duck away from your hand? Is it shivering the whole time it is held? If your bird is not completely okay with you handling it, every time you handle it you will be reinforcing a negative experience. Once your bird realizes it can bite it will soon realize that it can stop the ‘negative experience’ by biting.
If I just handle my bird regularly, will it become tame?

No! If someone punched and tackled you to the ground, would you like them more because they kept doing it? No! Forcing a bird to get used to something (termed “flooding”) will never work unless you are highly in tune with reading your bird’s body language.

Being held and confined is the MOST terrifying position for a bird to be in because they can’t use their primary defence mechanism - flight! When we forcefully handle our birds and restrict their movement – they become afraid and see humans as a negative experience. That’s the opposite of what we want! We want to reassure our birds that any experience with us is a positive one – that they are safe and are still able to choose their own decisions. We want them to CHOOSE to stay with us because they know they will have a great time with us.

TAMING A FRIGHTENED BIRD

This is the method I used to re-train an aviary bird that was terrified of humans. It works but it is ESSENTIAL that you exercise patience. DO NOT rush it or it simply won’t work. It took me about 2 weeks from stage 1 where the bird would fly to the other side of the cage if I came within two meters of the cage, to stage 2 where the bird would happily step onto my hand from the cage. (If you have already been forcing your bird out of its cage while it is scared, it may take you a little longer to regain that trust and replace those negative experiences.)

For this technique to work you need to determine your bird’s flight distance. All animals have a flight distance (think fight or flight) – a point at which you come too close they will run (or fly) away. So to determine your bird’s flight distance you must look to see how close it will let you get to it’s cage before it moves away

STEP 1

Approach the cage calmly and slowly. Don’t make any sudden noises movements with your arms etc. Avoid eye contact. It may make you appear like a predator. (At this stage it is a good idea to keep the cage in an area that you do not walk past regularly so that you only approach the cage for training and feeding). As soon as you see your bird show signs of DISCOMFORT, immediately stop where you are. What are the signs of discomfort? Your bird may lean back on its perch, crouch down ready to run or fly, step a foot out to the side, suck its feathers in close to its body etc. It’s the movements and signs your bird shows just BEFORE it moves away. Once you see these you must STOP where you are immediately and DO NOT approach any further.

The most important thing is that you must STOP BEFORE YOUR BIRD MOVES AWAY FROM YOU. Otherwise you are just teaching it that moving away from you it will get its reward (ie. by moving away from you it makes you move away also). That is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve – that when the bird calms down it will get the reward of the pressure being released (ie. you move away from the bird).

how to tame a bird

STEP 2.

Stay where you are until your parrot calms down and shows signs of comfort. What are these? Your bird may go back to its normal posture, it might fluff its feathers a little, it may even its weight distribution on its legs so that it is no longer ready to run or fly away.

STEP 3.

Once you see that your bird has calmed down while you are still standing there, turn around and walk away from the cage. You have just taught the parrot to decrease the size of its flight distance.

Let me explain why…Let’s say that your parrot let you get to about one meter from the cage. Your parrots ‘flight distance’ is one meter. That means that it feels that it is safe until you get any closer than 1m from its cage. But now it is starting to realize that you were at 1m from the cage and nothing bad happened. It hasn’t been touched, harassed or forced to do something it is scared of. It actually made you go away by calming itself down.  It had a choice (to stay or to move away) and it chose the right decision (to stay and calm down) and was rewarded for it (the thing it was scared of moved away = pressure released).

STEP 4.

Repeat, repeat, repeat! Gradually the bird’s flight distance will decrease. You will be able to get within 0.9m of the cage, 0.8m of the cage, 0.5m of the cage etc. But it will take time and many repetitions. But at no point let your bird move away before you stop or you will have to start all over from the beginning again. Even I did that a few times when I retrained the aviary bird. But eventually you will become more adept at reading your birds body language.

STEP 5.

Once you can reach the cage without the bird flying away, start the same technique but this time with just your hand approaching the cage. (ie. first lift your hand until the bird calms down, then put your hand back down and walk away. Then lift your hand a little higher towards the cage, wait for your bird to be calm, then put your hand down and walk away etc). Once your bird is happy for you to stand next to the cage and put your hand up to the cage, drop a treat into its food bowl and walk away. Now this is like positive reinforcement on steroids. Not only does your bird feel calm when you approach, it now gets a treat too!

For now, that should give you enough to go by. Once you reach that stage, sign up to Vonnegut's mailing list below and I'll send you the next steps for taming your scared bird, starting with getting it to accept treats from your hand and 'step up' onto your hand. Feel free to leave any comments or questions and please share this link with any bird-owning friends. I’d love to know that I’ve made a difference by improving the lives of birds and their owners!