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There are a couple of reasons why your bird may decline to step onto your hand. Generally, when a bird ignores or even bites an offered hand, she is indicating that she doesn’t want to stop whatever she is doing at that time to do what you are asking. For example, if your bird is eating or playing with a toy, she may not want to have anything to do with you at that moment.
Another reason your bird may refuse to step up is because she is fearful of human hands. If your bird has had a bad experience with hands in the past, such as falling off the hand of a nervous human, she may not want to attempt that again. When you offer your hand tentatively or pull it away as the bird steps on it, you run the risk of making your bird nervous about stepping onto your hand in the future.
The first step to teaching your bird to step onto your hand is to offer your hand confidently and hold it still (after all, no one wants to step onto a moving platform). As you hold your hand out, say “step up” clearly. Be sure to make stepping onto your hand more rewarding than whatever activity the bird is engaged in inside her cage at that moment. To do this, you need to pair stepping onto your hand with some physical reward, such as a novel food treat that is not offered at any time other than during the step up behavior. Your bird will eventually come to associate the treat with stepping up on your hand and will be more likely to do so willingly.
Initially, your bird may only lean toward your hand, without actually putting any weight on it. She should be rewarded with the treat immediately after leaning, even if she does not actually step up onto your hand. When your bird begins to lean consistently in response to a step up command, the treat should be withheld until she actually puts weight on your hand, even if it is only one foot. Once your bird has mastered this step, withhold the reward again until she puts both feet on your hand. The performance bar is raised a step at a time until the bird actually stands on your hand.
The key to this process is not to rush and to allow your bird not to step up every once in a while if she doesn’t want to. Be sure, as well, that whatever reward you give your bird for successfully completing the desired behavior comes immediately after the behavior, so that your bird clearly makes the connection between stepping up and getting a treat.
Read more articles by Dr. Laurie Hess about birds and other exotic pets.
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