By Mattie Sue Athan
While written with children in mind, the training advice in this article can be used by anyone who would like to teach their parrot to step-up to a handheld perch. This is especially helpful for getting an aggressive bird away from its cage.
Question: How can I get a stick-shy Quaker Parrot to accept and respond dependably to hand-held perches so that my kids can handle the bird?
Whether a Quaker Parrot is either shy or aggressive with hands, we can maintain it’s cooperative socialization by practicing step-ups with hand-held perches. Additionally, if a bird is in a high place or a difficult to reach place, it may be retrieved with a very long hand held perch. Also, hand-held perches may be the only way for children to be able to handle the brassy little Quaker Parrot.
Like other parrots, Quakers, learn easily to step-up on to both hands and hand-held perches when they are young. Later attempts to introduce new behaviors can be met with aversion, at best, and a true flight-or-fight response, at worst. To avoid this, let’s look first at appropriate early socialization practice.
Step-up exercises are the primary means by which we condition Quaker Parrots to cooperate in human-directed ways. From its first days in the home, the baby Quaker Parrot should practice the step-up command in unfamiliar territory a couple of times most days. The routine need be no more than one or two minutes’ duration. A laundry room or hallway is usually perfect “unfamiliar territory”, as the bird will probably never spend much time in these types of areas. This patterning process works best when it includes:
- practice stepping the bird from hand to and from an unfamiliar stationary perch,
- practice stepping the bird from hand to hand,
- practice stepping the bird from a hand-held perch to and from an unfamiliar stationary perch,
- practice stepping the bird from a hand-held perch to a hand-held perch, and
- practice stepping the bird from a familiar stationary perch to and from both hands and to and from hand-held perches.
TECHNIQUE AND TERRITORY
Of course, its best always to hold the tip end of the hand or hand-held perch higher than the hand or wrist end so that the bird won’t be tempted to climb up the arm. Likewise, the elbow should be down, so that the forearm is more or less perpendicular to the floor. Be sure to approach the bird from below rather than from the front.
Although we may be able to begin step-up practice with a cooperative baby Quaker in familiar territory, unless a bird is cooperative enough and well patterned enough to step up from an unfamiliar stationary perch in unfamiliar territory, it may refuse to step up from the cage or other familiar perch. Unless a bird is cooperative enough to step up for any individual in unfamiliar territory, expecting the bird to step up for children in familiar territory will only lead to frustration and continuance of unwanted behavioral patterns.
Be sure to offer affection and praise after each completed step up. Always discontinue step-up practice only after a successful completion of the command. This is crucial to the formation of successful habits. If the command is not successful, we must alter technique, approach, or prompting mannerisms rather than continue with unsuccessful methods. We must be careful not to reinforce unsuccessful patterns. Even if the bird must be placed on the floor to achieve a successful step-up command, unless the bird is having a panic reaction, don’t return it to its territory until just after a successful cooperative interaction.
If the bird is not eagerly, or at least willingly, cooperating with step ups and step up practice, something is going wrong, and the owner should consider finding professional help immediately. Sometimes a “hired gun”, an outsider, can easily persuade Quaker Parrots to enjoy new interactions because they have no history of any particular behavioral interactions with the bird. If the bird is cooperating readily with all aspects of step-up practice with favorite humans, then children and other less favorite humans can gradually be trained and included in step-up practice in unfamiliar territory.
WHEN THE OLDER BIRD AVOIDS HAND-HELD PERCHES
If a Quaker Parrot was not socialized early to step-up on to hand-held perches, it may later avoid the perches or react fearfully when they are presented. This behavior should be replaced by cooperative step-ups on to hand-held perches. The bird and a favorite human must begin to try to achieve all types of step-up interactions as described previously. If the bird will step up from an unfamiliar stationary perch to a hand, then if the bird will do step-ups from hand to hand, then the bird can also be gradually induced to step up on to a hand-held perch.
CADENCE: While the bird is practicing stepping from one hand to the other, develop a slow, comfortable rhythm with exactly the same amount of time between each step up command. Of course, there must be time for appropriate verbal reinforcement between each command. As the rhythm is repeated and maintained, reach into a back pocket or other hidden place for a small perch about the size and length of the fingers being previously offered. If hands are approaching the bird from below and the response is automatic, and if the bird does not see that a perch has replaced the hand, then the bird will step on to the perch just as it stepped dependably on to the hand. Repeat and reinforce the exercise.
BACK STEPS: Sometimes, if a bird is hyper-vigilant or hyper-sensitive to the appearance of the stick, then it might first be taught to step back rather than step up to the front. If the prompt is presented to the back of the foot rather than the front, then the bird doesn’t as readily see that it is a perch rather than a hand approaching, and we can expect less aversion and a more dependable response.
CAMOUFLAGE: Sometimes, if the bird is sensitive to the appearance of a perch, then we might achieve success by changing the appearance of the perch or by “hiding” the hand-held perch. A finger-sized stick might be camouflaged with a hand towel, if the bird likes towels, or by putting it into the finger of a tight-fitting leather glove that we have previously worn for step up practice. A bird that won’t step on to a dowel might step on a little stick with bark. A bird that won’t step up on a little stick with bark might step on a fat pencil or a wooden spoon handle that it has seen you carry around and “play” with. Once the bird gets used to the feel of the perch in it’s feet, then we can gradually vary from the use of cadence, back-steps, or camouflage to get the bird on the perch.
It’s best for children to practice their hand-held perch technique with other well-patterned birds before trying a poorly patterned bird. Start practicing, of course in unfamiliar territory, possibly even from the floor. Children must be confident, calm, and careful not to wobble the perch or drop the bird. Sometimes children must be reminded to maintain eye contact with the bird rather than looking at their own hands. It is often helpful to have smaller children stand on a stool or wear a piece of adult clothing that is familiar to the bird.
WHERE TO FIND HELP
Again, stick training an older Quaker may be a place where professional intervention is necessary, but this is not brain surgery. You don’t necessarily need an out-of-town gunslinger for this kind of help because this particular process isn’t usually difficult. An aversion to hand-held perches can sometimes be overcome by merely taking the bird back to the breeder or pet store for a few minutes handling by a more experienced person. Then familiar humans can maintain and reinforce the newly-introduced behavior.
Cooperating with hand-held perch practice is a habit like any other. We can maintain tameness in an emotional Quaker Parrot by frequently reinforcing the habit. Any parrot will exhibit mood changes. Quaker Parrots are little feathered dragons, and sometimes they must be allowed to breathe a little “fire”, but daily step-up practice — even if it must be accomplished with hand-held perches in order to avoid accidentally patterning nips — will help to maintain peaceful, cooperative behavior throughout all areas of the Quaker’s behavior and throughout the Quaker Parrot’s lifetime.
Mattie Sue Athan has been a companion parrot behavior consultant since 1978. During that time she has averaged two to three new Quaker clients per week. Her first book, Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot, is an industry standard. Her second book, Guide to the Quaker Parrot, sold out the first printing in 5 months. She also wrote Guide to the Senegal Parrot and Its Family and Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior. Email: email@example.com