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When a Parrot Refuses to Step Up

Athlyn has shared her life with four parrots, written articles for avian publications, and helped owners address troubling parrot behaviors.

Your parrot will happily perch on any object but not your proffered hand.

Your parrot will happily perch on any object but not your proffered hand.

Step Up Difficulties?

Under normal circumstances, teaching a parrot to step up is relatively easy, but what happens when a reluctant parrot refuses to do so or displays avoidance behaviors, threatening behaviors, or resorts to aggression? How does an owner deal with this?

It goes without saying that a well-trained bird that is willing to step up is a bird that is easier to live with and manage. There are times when you need for your bird to step readily to hand and ideally, you should be able to get your parrot to do this with relative ease and without a battle of wills ensuing.

This article details four scenarios in which an owner has trouble getting a parrot to step up or stay to hand and discusses techniques to counter challenging avian behavior. By the time you've finished reading, you will have information you can use to foster a peaceful relationship with your companion parrot, wherein it listens to you and does as it's instructed instead of acting like a disobedient, defiant child.

When a Parrot Refuses to Step Up

In the first scenario, a truculent parrot refuses to step up. This might occur during initial training sessions.

  • Parrots, like humans, have good days and bad. If a parrot fails to respond to initial attempts to get it to step up, it may be best to try again when the bird is in a better mood and more receptive.
  • It may be best to start off when family members are absent, avoiding auditory and visual distractions.
  • If the parrot resists climbing onto a hand, step-up training should be tried in a room where the cage is out of view. At times, a parrot will try to return to its play stand or cage, over learning to trust a human and stepping onto a hand.
  • If a parrot hesitates, an owner can gently nudge its abdomen to encourage it to step up.
  • Try not to react if the parrot bends over and puts its beak around a finger. This may not be a show of aggression; the parrot may be testing the perceived perch for stability before stepping up.

A Word About Hand Position

Inexperienced owners may position their hand in front of the bird instead of under its belly. This isn't ideal. Not only does your bird have to stretch out from its perch, but parrots also have relatively short legs and may feel vulnerable at having to do so. However, this also means your hand movement can be tracked and is closer to its beak. Depending on the bird, this might mean "closer to a bite" if the bird decides it doesn't want to step up.

The Double-Handed Swoop

If a parrot still refuses to step up, an effective trick is to use the double-handed swoop. An owner brings both hands in simultaneously under the bird's abdomen. This technique works because a parrot sees in more than one direction at a time. The parrot tries to track the movement on either side of its head and obediently steps up.

It is amazing how effective this is, and it's the opposite of a bird that sees a hand coming at it from one direction, can track its movement, and is in a better position to either latch on painfully or bite that hand.

Parrot Uses Avoidance Behavior

Parrot Uses Avoidance Behavior

Avoidance Behavior

In a second scenario, a parrot has been trained to climb onto a finger or hand and knows full well what "step up" means when it hears it, but later refuses to step up and engages in avoidance behavior so that it doesn't have to do as requested.

It may do this because the person making the request isn't the parrot's preferred person or it may be testing limits and trying to gain dominance over a person.

You say, "Step up," and you hold out your hand. Your parrot:

  • backs away on its perch or tree stand, ignoring your request.
  • runs away and often seems to almost enjoy doing so.
  • flies away determined to dodge the proffered hand.

If you know your bird isn't having an off day and is resisting, remain calm and use the double-handed swoop to assist the bird in stepping up.

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Your parrot may fly away and decide on its own perch.

Your parrot may fly away and decide on its own perch.

Parrot Latches Onto a Finger to Avoid Stepping Up

In a third scenario, the parrot uses threatening behavior to avoid stepping up.

A bit of a tug-of-war can develop if you have been kind but firm and have previously gotten your bird to step up when it tried to avoid doing so. Depending on the parrot's temperament, it may come up with new behaviors to avoid stepping up. Like a truculent child, parrots have their own minds and will often try to dominate the human they feel is weakest or gentlest in their immediate environment.

A parrot may reach down and latch onto a finger rather than step up. While, as mentioned, this can be simply testing the stability of its perch, in other scenarios, it does this and latches down hard, letting its human know that it will hang on for dear life to the finger rather than step up onto it.

It should never be allowed to do this to avoid doing as it is told. The double-handed swoop effectively curbs this type of behavior because while it is busy deciding where to latch on, its owner already has hands positioned under the parrot's belly and out of view.

Parrot testing boundaries.

Parrot testing boundaries.

After Stepping Up, a Disgruntled Parrot Bites

In a fourth scenario, a naughty parrot retaliates. You gained the upper hand and made him do as requested, and he stepped up reluctantly, but then he reaches down and bites you. You outsmarted him, and he now expresses his displeasure. Once again, he tries to gain the upper hand.

As we've discussed, the double-handed swoop is very effective at getting a resistant parrot to step up, but what to do if the bird bites after it steps up?

The Wobble Correction

If your bird bites you, utilize the wobble correction, a downward movement of the hand that teaches the bird that each time it bites, its perch becomes unstable.

Take care when using the wobble. You do not want to use it to punish or frighten your parrot, i.e, a rapid and huge drop of the hand. A short downward motion is all that is needed to convey that biting means the perch becomes less stable.

Your parrot may inch up your arm and sit on your shoulder instead.

Your parrot may inch up your arm and sit on your shoulder instead.

A Parrot Inches up an Arm Instead of Staying on a Hand

In a final scenario, the parrot's instinctive wish to climb up results in its failure to stay on your hand.

Once a parrot has stepped onto a hand, it is important to teach it to stay there. A parrot may try to inch up the nearest arm to gain a footing on your shoulder or head. This is a dominant position that should not be permitted and one that can foster aggression.

A good strategy is to make sure that the hand is the highest point and the elbow is pointed downwards in a V position. But if a determined parrot still tries to climb your arm and move up to your shoulder, raise your arm, so that now, your shoulder is well below it.

Height can make a huge difference in how your parrot responds, so your hand position in relation to your bird is important.

Your body position is also important. While there are conflicting views about height and avian aggression, I've found, from living with four parrots, that this was and is an important piece of the puzzle. Even in relation to getting your parrot to step you, your body position in relation to your bird's can make a difference.

Trained to Hand Means You Keep the Upper Hand

A parrot is an assertive creature and can be incredibly inventive in trying to gain control of its environment and in testing limits. When a parrot refuses to step up or stay to hand, it is important to correct these behaviors as they arise, rather than allowing them to become entrenched. Doing so will ensure you end with a well-trained bird and can enjoy a peaceful coexistence with your companion parrot.

This perch isn't so bad after all.

This perch isn't so bad after all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Athlyn Green

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