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:

Bobo

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.

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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?

 

 

 

 

Parrots Bring Laughter to Your Home.

The video is Bobo doing his strut for the camera yesterday. I was re-watching it today, and it made me laugh a little when I heard his feet go clickety-clack on our wood floor. You just can’t watch it without smiling at least a bit!

Well, my laugh cued the birds’ laughter. Ever since that moment, Bobo and Mavi have been setting each other off into fits of giggles.

Mavi mutters something, Bobo laughs, Mavi giggles, which makes Bobo laugh some more. Ptak chuckles belated from the other room, setting off Mishka’s evil cackle, and then I join in, which sets them all off again. I’m attempting to catch this hilarity on video as we speak. Unfortunately, the phone comes out and they either promptly stop (picture time is serious business, eh?) or make camera shutter noises. Sigh.

In the immortal words of my parrotlet, ‘You SILLY birds!’

Harness Training My Senegal Parrot: Begun.

I needn’t have worried about working with Mavi’s wings! After three sessions of training – about 10 minutes each, max – I am now able to put my fingers under his wings, either hand on either side, and lift them up. We’re not quite there yet, but he has made enormous progress. I started by setting my hand over his back, fingers on the edge of one wing. Normally that’s a sexual touch to a bird, and one to avoid, but I made sure to watch that he wasn’t over-stimulated. He was focussed on treats, though. No issues. I clicked and treated for every handful of seconds he went while staying relaxed.

Once he was completely comfortable, I put my fingers under his wingtip and held for a count of three. Click, treat. Fingers back under while the beak is busy with treasured hemp seeds, a little farther towards the joint this time, and lifting a little higher. Count to three, click, treat. Eventually, once I’d got to where I was as far up as I needed to go, I started holding the wing for longer and longer counts.

I ended on a good note.

That was session one. Session two, I started lifting much higher, but for slightly shorter times. Session three, I started really extending the length of time I held the wing for. If he yanked his wing away, or went to nip, no treat.

Personally, when I’m training, I always ask myself, ‘If I treat or respond to him now, what am I reinforcing?’ If you offer a reward when the bird yanks away, or when he goes to bite, you’re actually reinforcing those behaviours. Good timing takes practise, but it’s so important.

I had thought that Mavi might actually bite me at one point, as he did twist his head all the way round, but he knew what I wanted. That bird was focussed on his treats. So he just looked, and I held until he turned back round. Click, treat.

I think something that really helped speed the process along was simply letting him know if I was going to touch his wings. I’d just say, ‘Wings,’ so he wouldn’t be surprised. If he looked really uncomfortable, we’d stop that and work briefly on ‘Stand tall,’ instead. I never pushed him if he really didn’t want it – but most of the time, he was happy to let it happen because it meant treats were forthcoming.

We also worked a tiny bit with the harness itself. Through every session, it was on the couch beside us in plain sight. At the end of the third session this morning, I brought it towards him, let him look at it. Click and treat once he was relaxed. I practised brushing the clicker over his head and back. Click, treat (away from his ears!). When he was okay with that, I took the harness, and brushed it over him. He got treats for every few strokes. This is just building an association of good things with the harness.

One final exercise we did was me making an O shape of my forefinger and thumb and slipping it round Mavi’s neck – a bit like the neckpiece of the harness. Hold, click, treat.

Anyway, so far, so good! Hopefully training continues to go smoothly.

 

Training, and Choosing the Right Reinforcer For Your Bird.

I had an interesting search from Google show up under my stats today. I thought I should talk about it…

‘Can you just praise your parrot during clicker training if treats from hands are difficult?’

Assuming that the bird bites or is unwilling to take food (not the owner having an issue juggling both clicker and treats), I can relate to that particular search. We have had similar issues with O. being able to treat Mavi, and Mishka was formerly unwilling to take anything from us. Been there.

Until your bird is willing/able to take treats nicely from your fingers, I found two things that really helped: either dropping the treat close to the bird, but not so close that it feels nervous; or else simply putting the treat into a bowl. Someone also commented that a popsicle stick, tongue depressor, or even spoon can be used to safely relay a treat to the bird. (You may need to desensitise them to the object, first, though.) A T-stand with stainless steel cups attached is good for the above methods, or else something like a coop cup bolted to the outside of a cage. These tips are particularly good during touch training for biting birds – no need to involve sensitive digits.

When working with any animal, the reinforcer (treat) must of be of true value. Vocal praising should accompany a reinforcer, but praise alone generally isn’t enough.

So what’s the best reward? For many animals, food is often the best, yet sometimes parrots just aren’t food motivated. In this case, a favourite toy or a head-scratch can work. You can even be clever about motivation, and reward a behaviour with something the bird wants to do.

For example: Letting your out of his cage, immediately, every time he poops, whilst making a big deal of it. Suddenly, he makes the connection that relieving himself means out-of-cage time and attention. If you start timing the length of time between poops and watching for his body language, you can learn when he is about to go and pair the action with a command, e.g. ‘Poop!’ Soon, you have it on cue. (Yes, toilet-training for us has been as easy as that.)

Or you could try rewarding a bird’s talking or pleasant noises with your attention. Just make a fuss, and suddenly the bird will be more willing to make these ‘sanctioned’ noises for your attention, rather than screaming. Even if he’s only just starting to talk and is shy, responding is the best thing you can do to encourage more. He may stop, temporarily, but he’ll have already made the connection that speaking brings attention.

Stepping up can, and probably should, be followed by doing what the bird wants to do! A treat is good, too, but this is an easy way to persuade him that your hands aren’t a bad thing. He actually could decide that, if you are constantly taking him away from what he wants to see. Instead, by bringing him where he wants to go, he learns that you’re a mode of transportation – and are therefore of use to him. Choice in a companion bird’s life is a thing that should be instigated as often as possible for a healthy pet.

As to what rewards your bird prefers, that’s simply down to you getting to know him a bit. You can figure out what your his most valued treats are quite easily by putting common favourites (shelled sunflower seeds, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, cashews, etc., banana chips, fruit pieces, hemp, millet, or even very small amounts of cheese or whole-wheat bread – not ideal) into a bowl. Hold it up to him, or let him go to it, and watch carefully to see what he picks out first. He’ll almost always go for his favourites.

If your pet gets excited about a food, chances are it could make a good motivator. Remove these treats from the animal’s regular diet and reserve them as a training tool.

Note that a food reinforcer must be able to be eaten quickly, so that the bird doesn’t forget how and why it earned it. Keeping up the momentum, so to speak. Thus, things that can be chopped or broken into small bits are ideal. Things that need to be chewed a long time, or shelled, aren’t good reinforcers.

Most importantly, the bird has to be willing to work for it. A ‘treat’ that doesn’t excite the bird is no treat at all – and birds are individuals. Ptak loves millet, Mishka will do anything for a bit of a chip or crisp, and Mavi adores hemp seed. Pip will even stand on our fingers for a piece of broccoli. Offering your bird the right reinforcer can make all the difference. (What are your birds’ favourites?)

I’m actually off now to start some harness training with Maverick… going to start by doing some of the exercises on the little leaflet, then introducing him to the harness. Today I probably won’t do much more than offer him treats whilst it’s in his presence. Honestly, though, I’m most nervous at approaching his wings, as I have tried to work with him about lifting them before, and got a sharp nip for my troubles. Clicker training for that, too!

Wish me luck.

Learning About my Pet Parrots.

I learn something new about the birds each week, if not each day. For instance, this past week, I’ve learnt a number of things about each:

Mishka likes to stare out the bedroom window. She’ll do it for hours on end, singing at anyone who walks past.

Maverick LOVES pistachios. He also has a Yoshi noise?!

Ptak will eat anything if I hold it in the corner of my mouth (no spit!).

Pip can manage to have a bath in her ‘anti-bathing’ water dispenser. Charlie used to do that, too.

I also think I’ve got Mavi at least partially toilet-trained.  If I give the command, well… he does. Clean clothes, yes, please! He’s also been trained to climb out of his cage on his own and go whilst standing on the top.

Oh, lord. It’s happened. I am officially yet another bird blogger who’s written about bird poop.

I’m sorry.

I’ll make up for it by telling you the tale of how Mavi fished for my parrotlet. What, you say? Yes. Ptak was in his round sleeping cage, and Mavi was on top of it whilst I got ready for bed.

Maverick has lately had a fascination with watching the other birds in their cages. I mean, he just hangs off the tops and stares in, captivated. Doesn’t do anything… just watches. Anyway, he became distracted at some point and began to chew on the round cage’s cover, which happens to be an old jumper of mine. Of course, he immediately discovered the hood’s strings. The end of one dangled down along the outside bars of Ptak’s cage as Mavi chewed it.

I have no doubt that it started as a coincidence, but Ptak, whose current favourite toy is just those strings, flew over and began to try and catch it from the safety of his cosy hut. Mavi noticed, and suddenly, he was making the string swing left and right, with Ptak trying desperately to sink his beak in. It may still have been a coincidence, but it looked intentional to me. Mavi was watching every move!

I tried to take a photo, but they both stopped as soon as I got out the phone.

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A Game to Help Tame Your Bird.

Or an experiment to try if your bird is already tame! It’s a positive, basic, hands-off interaction based on body-language. You can do it through the bars of the cage, or even while your bird is out on his play stand. It can be a good way to introduce yourself to a new or timid bird.

The game:

Assuming that your bird is in his cage on a perch, adjust your body so that it is just lower than he is. If you need to, you can hide your hands in your pockets. Angle your body and head away from him, hunching your torso over so you’re bent at an angle – almost, but not quite, in two. At the same time, look at him with just one of your eyes.

Blink.

A well-socialised parrot will hunch over and blink back. You know he’s comfortable around you when he responds in kind.

But if he’s not ready to meet your gaze, open your mouth and wiggle the tip of your tongue at him: it’s the same posture all parrots use to indicate interest in something. He should be intrigued and look over; you’re telling him that you’re interested in him, too, in a way that he understands.

Try the ‘game’ with your birds and let me know how it went! My birds will instantly mimic my posture. You might look a bit silly, but I think they like it. Or maybe they’re amused at our faltering attempts to communicate?

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Amused.

Talking Parrot: A Video.

We had another glorious day of sun today, and the birds spent it basking on the couch by the window. The smallest one was particularly enamoured, as you can see in the video. Sunlight is rather flattering to his blues.

Ptak has also, just by the by, mastered Mishka’s song. It’s quite adorable, as he’ll sing along (a couple octaves up) when Mishka starts – but she doesn’t like this, so she stops.

He’ll just keep singing, and Mishka is basically left waiting for a quiet moment to jump in and sing her own song. If Ptak does relent, she will pick up at exactly the same point. It’s like a weird duet.

I find it quite amusing.

Speaking of Mishka, she has decided that she is, er, in love with Pip, and spends most of the day following her around as closely as possible. Cockatiel in love with canary? At least she knows she’s a bird, I suppose. She also adored Charlie, and would spend all day trailing in his footsteps – she was very upset when he died. Maybe it’s displacement or something? Whatever the case, Pip is terribly displeased with all this, and stares at me in horror as Mishka tries to sidle closer.

We humans were inclined to ignore the behaviour at first, but we don’t want it to progress any farther for poor Pip’s sake – she is a he, after all, and a canary at that. Mishka quickly became extremely aggressive and territorial over her perceived ‘friend.’ (The ensuing chase as we try to remove her does at least encourage our fat little canary to fly around a little more.)

Yeah… There’s a new rule in place that Pip and Mishka aren’t allowed out at the same time.

Pip approves.