Instead of saying "step up!" you can say "foot" instead. That way, your bird learns what foot means.
The other day I was speaking with a friend about her new baby sun conure, and giving her a few tips on how to teach "step up.” The phrase should prompt a bird to lift a foot with the expectancy of being picked up with a hand or stick. Except I’ve rarely used the phrase "step up” for this. I simply use the word "foot.” This word is easy to understand, and can lead to the teaching of other behaviors involving the foot, such as "wave.”
I started thinking about how people teach their human babies to understand parts of the body or how to identify useful objects in the environment. People can do this with parrots, as well. I’m calling this post "Foot, Water, Food” because these are easy fundamentals that many parrots can learn with some patience, consistency, and repetition.
Whether your parrot is a baby, adolescent or adult, he can learn how to step up using the word "foot.” If your bird already knows "step up,” you can start saying the word "foot” every time he steps onto your finger, hand, or onto a stick. Consistency is key in teaching your bird to understand that you are identifying his feet, not just asking for a step up.
Birds typically don’t like having their feet stroked or tickled, so teaching your bird about his feet is a delicate task. After your bird steps up (after you’ve said "foot” and positioned your hand properly), gently touch your bird’s foot for a fraction of a second and say "foot.” The more intellectually gifted of the parrots will catch on and come to understand that their feet are what you are calling "foot.” If you have a talking bird, he might look at you from across the room, pick up his foot and hang it in the air or wave, and say "foot!” This means he wants you to hold him, not necessarily that he understands that his foot is the word "foot.”
For me, "foot” and "step up” have always been synonymous. The fact is, the gesture of your bird picking up a foot and saying "foot,” or picking up a foot when you say "foot” from across the room, is a nifty trick to show your friends and neighbors, one that you can turn into a wave, which is even more clever—and, the more time you spend with your bird, the more bonded you can become and the better you can communicate, which is what "training” is all about. Your bird doesn’t really need to know that his foot is a foot, unless you’re going to put shoes on him—and I hope you’re not!
Teaching your bird "water” is amusing and can even be useful. Some of the more intellectually advanced parrots will come to understand "water” as a substance in a variety of forms — in the bowl, as rain, in the shower and in the sink. It’s amazing to catch a glimpse into the mind of your bird and know that he’s using your own language to communicate with you.
Every time you serve your bird water, show him the water dish and say, very excitedly, "water!” Use your best acting skills to convince your bird that water is the best thing ever.
Show him the water running in the kitchen sink and in the shower. Smart birds with the capacity to talk and the patience to learn will start saying "water” when you service their bowls. Your bird may even alert you to a dirty or empty water bowl, or tell you when it’s raining outside.
Food is another great opportunity to communicate with your parrot. Every time you serve a different kind of food (one that you serve often), hold it up and tell your bird what it is. Grape, carrot, apple — a talking bird will eventually clue you in to his favorites so you’ll know what he wants to be served that day.
Consistency is key to getting your parrot to identify foods, so don’t miss a teaching opportunity. It’s important, when trying to teach your bird anything, that you keep your expectations in check and that you don’t get frustrated. Allow your bird to learn in his own time and you may be amazed at the results.
Want more tips on how to train your bird?
Bird Training Tips
Train Your Parrot To Touch A Target