How to Stop Cockatiels from Biting
How to Tame and Teach All Birds the Step Up Command
By Eleanor McCaffrey,
Copyright©, No portion of this text may be used, copied,
printed or reproduced
for redistribution without site owner's  permission.

Much of a bird's behavior when interacting with people depends on the bird's past experiences with people. Birds that were not hand fed, hand tamed or socialized as babies and birds that were neglected or abused will not trust people. It's not unusual for cockatiels with these types of backgrounds to bite and trying to tame a cockatiel that bites can be a frustrating and discouraging experience. Some birds respond quickly to the gentle, loving care of a new owner while other birds can take weeks, months or even years to respond. Young birds are the easiest to tame but older bird that bite can be tamed too. When taming a bird, it's important to remember that biting is always a response to a situation that a bird perceives to be threatening. Biting is always provoked and it's a bird's last response when he thinks there is no way to escape danger or defend territory. Birds simply lack the physical abilities to be fighters, like massive body weight, teeth, fangs and claws. When birds feel threatened, their instinct is to take flight not to fight. There are no quick fixes or miracle techniques to tame or re-tame a bird that bites. It takes time and patience and what works for one bird may not work for another one.

Identifying the cause of biting and learning how to read a bird's body language are the first steps in discouraging a cockatiel from biting. To read about the causes of biting, CLICK HERE. Once you have identified the cause of biting,  there are  several things that you can do to stop it.  First: Learn to identify the meaning of your bird's body language. Cockatiels will always give you a warning sign before biting: hissing, tail fanning, eye pinning, backing into a corner, swaying from side to side, moving away from you or turning their back on you, lifting 1 foot, moving wings away from body, puffing out and lunging towards you with an open beak, like Mama is doing in the left picture above. Lunging is a bird's way of saying back off. Stop whatever it is that you are doing provoke your bird and give her time to calm down. Don't force the issue until your bird is more relaxed. If you continue to provoke your bird and create a confrontational situation, your bird's aggression will escalate. Wait until your bird is calm. Second: Reinforce desirable behavior with praise, rewards and treats. Ignore negative behavior and try not to physically react to biting by pulling your hand away, hollering ouch or wobbling your arm so your bird loses his balance. A firm but quiet verbal command of "no" may teach a bird that biting is not an acceptable behavior.

Third: gently nurture your bird's personality by spending as much time with him as possible.  Talk to him in a gentle voice. Birds respond to our voice tones and  energy levels. If you tend to be an energetic person with a very high energy level, lowering your energy level and speaking to your bird in a slow, calm and quiet voice. This can help a great deal. If talking is upsetting your bird, lower your voice, whisper or stop talking. (Signs of a frightened bird include: Bird turning his back or head away from you, moving away from you, trembling, hiding in a corner on the bottom of the cage, running and flapping wings in a frenzy). Talk to him in a gentle voice.  Sit next to the cage quietly and read a book or magazine the first few days instead. If being too close to the cage is upsetting your bird, move further back until you find your bird's comfort zone, a proximity where your bird's body language tells you that he is calm and relaxed.  Fourth, don't allow a cockatiel that bites to perch on your shoulder. This makes your bird feel more dominant than you. Keep your bird on your arm or hand at chest level or on your knee and maintain eye contact. Fifth, keep your bird's wings clipped. This will make him feel more dependant on you and you won't have to chase your bird all over the room if he tries flying away. .Sixth, teach your bird the Step Up Cue. Note: Cockatiels, will use their beaks as a third foot to help balance when stepping onto your hand. This is not biting.

Gaining Your Bird's Trust Trust is not part of the package when you adopt a bird. Trust has to be earned and it can only be earned if your bird learns that you are not a threat, that you are not going to hurt him and that being with you is an enjoyable activity. Don't ever stick your hand inside of the cage and grab or towel your bird to get him out of the cage. This will cause him to bite and lose trust in you. You want your bird to come to you willingly, not by force. Spend as much time as you can sitting  near your bird's cage. Read a book or magazine. Do a crossword puzzle. Eat your meals and snacks next to the cage. Talk to your bird in a gentle, slow and loving voice. Cockatiels are sociable, flocking birds and they need interaction with humans. Sooner or later your bird is going to show an interest in your voice and he will move over to the cage bars nearest to wear you are sitting. Offer him some treats through the cage bars. Once he has become comfortable with accepting treats from your hand, if his wings are clipped, open the cage door when he's sitting on the front perch and offer him some loose seeds from the palm of your hand.  Munching on popcorn, often entices a reluctant bird to come near you. Food is a powerful motivator when working with birds. 

The Step Up Command Once you bird has learned how to eat out of your hand, he may step onto your hand without you having to doing anything else. Even if your bird does this, it's time to teach him/her the Step Up Cue. For birds that bite, move your finger or the palm of your hand in a steady, rather quick upward motion forward towards your bird's lower body, right above its legs. Try to imagine that his upper legs are invisible and you are going to move your hand right through thin air. The motion is exactly like the way you move your hand through a lit candle flame. Don't pull your hand back or stop, giving the bird a chance to bite. The idea is that your hand should be quicker than the bird's eye. As soon as he/she steps up, reward him/her with a favorite treat and verbal praise. If your bird is not responding to this technique and is getting even aggressive, stop and try again the next day. If you continue you will make this a confrontational issue, causing your bird to bite.

Other Methods Instead of moving your hand quickly, slowly move your finger or the palm of your hand towards the top of your bird's legs right below the abdomen. Apply gentle pressure to the top of the legs in a slightly upward motion towards his body. This should get him to step up onto your hand. Reward him immediately with a favorite treat and verbal praise. Some Biters and Non-Biters, may respond better by learning to step up onto a perch or ladder instead of your hand. You would move a perch or ladder the same way as you would move your hand. This is called Stick Taming or Training. This may help with birds who are afraid of hands. If your bird is cage bound, get his wings trimmed and leave the cage door open. Keep a toy box and a fresh dish of pellets on top of the cage. Eventually your bird will come out of the cage all by himself. When he does, praise and reward him with seeds or a favorite treat. You can start teaching him the step up command from the top of his cage. After a few days of practice, take him into a different room away from his cage and practice stepping up as described below. Reward your bird with a treat and verbal praise consistently, each time he/she steps up for you. 

Use a Cue Word: such as "Step Up, Hop or Jump"  when moving your hand towards your bird for stepping up. Cockatiels can learn to associate words with an action or object and your cue word will tell your bird exactly why your hand is moving towards him and that a treat and verbal praise will be available for him immediately after he/she steps up. If your cockatiel starts biting while teaching him to step up try to ignore it but if the biting becomes very aggressive, then stop and don't force the matter creating a confrontational situation. Tell him that you love him and that you'll try again tomorrow. If you do succeed in getting your cockatiel out of the cage and onto you hand, praise him and offer him a treat as a reward. Your bird will need to practice stepping up for a few days. It's usually easier to practice in neutral territory, in a room away from the cage and from the back of a kitchen chair or a bird play gym. Have your bird step up from the back of a kitchen chair, onto your hand, then back to the chair.  Keep taming sessions short, about 5 minutes, but have several sessions throughout the day. Too much repetition in a single session can cause your bird to lose interest in what you are trying to teach him. Coming out of the cage several times a day to practice will give your bird more frequent opportunities to practice and be successful for stepping up to be reinforced. Giving your bird attention of the cage several times a day also helps to break up boredom and prevents both you and your bird from becoming frustrated.

Practice Makes Perfect: For stepping up practice, have your bird walk up a "Hand Ladder", by slowly moving one hand slightly higher then the other, in a series of steps. Also encourage him to hop from the palm of you hand to the palm of the other hand as well. Use your cue word for each step up or hop and always reward your bird with a treat and verbal praise when he succeeds in performing the behavior. If your bird doesn't want to step up (remember body language above),  wait until he is more relaxed and receptive. For some birds, repetitive actions  can be upsetting, so watch your bird's body language for warning signals of biting. Your bird will also need to practice going in and out of the cage by stepping up onto you hand and stepping off of your hand for a few days as well.  Use the back of a kitchen chair or a play gym to practice stepping on and off of your hand so your bird doesn't receive mixed signals and become confused by going in and out of the cage during a practice session. Always reward your bird with a treat and praise him for desirable behavior in a cheerful and lively voice tone, the same as you would a toddler taking those first steps. After all, isn't that what you are trying to get your cockatiel to do, take his first steps onto your hand?

  Returning to the Cage

Return your bird to his cage while he is still in a good mood and before he gets over tired. A bird's last experience out of the cage should always be a positive one. To return your bird  to his cage, keep him perched on your hand so he's facing you and keep your hand very close to your waist or lower chest. This will block your bird's view of an escape route  Once your reach the cage, put your hand near the front perch and let your cockatiel step back inside by himself.  Use a cue word like "Home". Eventually your cockatiel will associate the word "Home" with returning to the cage and a treat.  Always praise your bird and have a special treat ready for him when he goes back into the cage If your bird keeps flying away, get his wings trimmed so this does not become an issue. Don't grab your bird or throw a towel over him to put him back inside of the cage. This will just frighten him. Forcing your bird to do something that he doesn't want to do will usually provoke a bite. There's a big difference between teaching your bird do something and forcing your bird to do something.

When a cockatiel wants you to pet him, she will bend her head submissively, like Cookie is doing in the picture to the right. Although it can be mighty tempting to start petting the back of a bird's soft, fluffy neck immediately, take it slowly. Choose a word, such as kisses, scritches or loving, as the word you want your bird to associate with affection and add a soft kissing sound after the word. (If your bird is vocal he may learn to mimic the sound back). Slowly approach your bird from the front and don't ever sneak up on him from the back. This will startle your bird and his immediate reaction will be to bite you hard. Slowly move your index finger forward, with your other fingers curled around your thumb. Gently scratch the feathers right above the cere, like in the picture of Mama to the left. You can also gently stroke your bird's head from the beak to the tips of the  crest feathers.  Some cockatiels also enjoy having the tips of their crest feathers gently twirled between the thumb and pointer finger as well.  If your bird nips you, ignore it. If the biting is escalating, try again later when your he's more receptive. Some cockatiels prefer to have their heads and necks stroked with the tip of the chin. This can be a very enjoyable way of interacting with your bird too.  When you bird learns that you will not hurt him and that good things happen when he is with you, he will enjoy having you pet him and cuddle with him.



Graphics Courtesy of Sandy's Graphic Workshop
Cursor Script Courtesy of Dynamic Drive

Page Contents, Layout and Design Copyright© Eleanor McCaffrey, Cockatiel Cottage,
All Graphics Copyrighted by Credited Artists and are Not Public Domain