Step Up/Step Down - - - by Liz Davies (aka "Mom")



Experienced bird owners know that if you can only have one command, this is the one to have.  Itís critical for any bird that will be permitted out of its cage, and it should be the first command taught.

Basic Training

To train a bird to step up, put your finger, hand, or a dowel (depending on the size and temperament of your bird) just below the birdís belly (above the feet) and give the command.  A bird that is tame, is relaxed and trusts you will usually step up with ease.  As soon as the bird has both feet on, praise him for being a "Good bird!Ē.

For young birds it can be useful to give the command and immediately move your finger/hand/dowel so that you are gently pushing into the birdís mid-chest and moving back and up.  This causes the bird to lose a bit of balance, and it will step on the thing you are offering just to regain balance.  Then you praise him.  After a very short while the bird will understand what you want him to do and youíll find he steps up quickly after hearing the command.

Some Tips

There are some things to think about that will help you and your bird learn more quickly:

  1. Training sessions should happen when the bird isn't busy with something else (eating, playing).  If the bird is clearly actively engaged in some other activity, don't force a training session. 
  2. Be sure the finger, hand, or dowel is steady (not waving around).  The bird needs to be confident that the surface will be safe and reliable to stand on.
  3. Hold your finger/hand/dowel straight and horizontal (not at a slant).  A confident and well-trained bird will step up on an uneven surface, but one that isnít confident will be uneasy and hesitant.
  4. Do display confidence yourself when you give the command.  The bird does want to understand what you want, and will do as you ask once he or she is clear about it.  If you are more confident, the bird will have more confidence in you! 
  5. Be consistent with the command.  Say the same word or phrase and say it in the same firm tone of voice.
  6. Be aware that many birds (especially younger ones) will try to reach for your finger with their beak.  Don't confuse this with an attempted bite; the bird just wants to feel your finger and satisfy itself that you are offering a steady and safe perching surface.
  7. Donít praise the bird for putting only one foot up.  Wait until heís completely stepped before sounding the victory bells.
  8. Don't push a bird that backs away from you or seems at all uneasy.  Be careful to watch body language.  The bird must trust you.  

For those who are new to birds, its helpful to experience having a mature (and obedient) bird step up for you before you try training your own bird.  It helps to know what it feels like to have a bird step on your finger or hand (the weight, the way they grasp, etc.).  The larger the bird, the more true this is.  Watching someone else pick up a bird just isnít the same as doing it yourself.  If you practice with an experienced bird a few times before you start training yours, youíll find it all that much more easy and natural.

About Step Down and Other Variations

There is a school of thought that says you should use the command "step" instead of "step up".  That's because some feel that if you tell the bird to step up or down, it will be confusing for the bird.

They may have a point, but I still use "step up" and "step down" - mostly because 30 years of habit is hard to overcome.  Sometimes I say "step" instead - and the resulting response seems pretty much the same.  My birds are probably responding more to my tone of voice, the situation (I'm holding them close to a perch or the floor) and the word "step" than anything else.  Although I do know that some of them are very intelligent, I don't have any reason to believe that they discern between the words "up" and "down".

I've noticed that my large macaws sometimes will hear the command and put one foot on my hand or arm but then stop.  This is an indicator that they don't really WANT to comply, but aren't going to make an issue if I insist.  When that happens, I say "both feet!" and invariably the bird gives me a "look" and then brings up the other foot.

Refusing the Command

A bird that hasn't been trained doesn't know what you want.  When he ignores or outright refuses, just be patient.  Press your finger or hand very gently to the chest and give the command again.  Then praise him liberally for being good.  Eventually they "get it."

For decades, I took the firm position that "step up" is a command, not a suggestion, and I would not allow a bird to ignore the command or refuse.  I've softened my viewpoint on that.

A bird that trusts you, that likes you, will normally want to come to you (actually, I have more trouble getting my birds to stay off me!).  If the bird hesitates, there may be a good reason.  If I reach for a trained bird and he backs away, I don't chase them or force them (unless it's absolutely necessary).  I try to respect the bird's decision to step or not.  Situations where I do insist on obedience include:

  • bedtime
  • preparing for a vet visit
  • when the bird is in danger (sitting on a territorial bird's cage, for example)
  • when the bird is in a "forbidden zone" (kitchen counter, dining room table, on top of the canary's cage)

I know that "drilling"  (3-4 step up commands in a row) has fallen out of favor with trainers.  I understand the reasons for this, but have to admit that for some birds, a short drill session from time to time does seem to help with "Pavlov's Dog" type compliance.