Target Training Birds: The Complete Beginners Guide

Published by Joseph Calabrese on

Target training is one of those essential behaviours all pet birds should learn.

In fact, it should be one of the first things you teach.

Because once your bird masters target training, you can guide them from one point to another, even inside the cage when needed.

Not to mention how easy this behaviour is to teach!

We’ll first discuss exactly what target training is, and then we’ll dive deep into the best way to start target training your bird…

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What Exactly Is Target Training?

Target training is teaching a bird to touch a target on command.

It’s often referred to as “touch training” or “stick training” and is considered an essential lesson for birds.

Your bird could potentially learn the basics of target training within the very first session.

That’s how simple it is for birds to learn!

Clicker training is often integrated with target training.

Although clicker training can make training progress faster, it’s not necessary and you can teach target training without clicks.

I personally use clicker training for target training and for teaching any new behaviours.

Read the full guide on clicker training birds here.

With or without clicker training, all birds can learn target training:

  • Cockatiels
  • Budgies
  • Lovebirds
  • Cockatoos
  • Macaws
  • African Greys

These are all birds that can learn this behaviour.

The ultimate goal with target training is eventually being able to guide your bird around the room with the target.

You’re teaching them to touch the target in exchange for a tasty treat.

Once your bird knows this, they’ll actively follow the target to get the treat.

So, let’s discuss exactly how to target train your birds.

How To Easily Start Target Training Your Bird

How to target train birds
(Image Credit: Pixabay)

Before you begin anything, you’ll need to set yourself up for the training session.

Here are the two things you need:

  • A target for the bird to touch
  • Some treats to give when they touch it
  • Clicker (optional)

Selecting The Target

Choosing a target for your bird to touch is pretty simple.

The target can be pretty much anything as long as it’s bird safe.

Some examples of good targets include:

  • Wooden skewers
  • Chopsticks
  • Wooden pegs
  • Long strips of paper

Ideally, the target should be long so you have more flexibility while training your bird.

You shouldn’t use anything your bird has regular contact with such as perches as this will cause confusion.

Make sure the target you select is used only for target training.

If your bird is in regular contact with the target, they’ll keep trying to touch it outside of training sessions in hopes of earning a treat.

Having the target near them will simply be confusing and could delay the training progress.

Here’s the target training set-up I use to train my cockatiel:

target training birds

It’s just a plain old wooden skewer, nothing special.

I’ve also got a pen clicker because I’ve integrated clicker training with target training.

There is seriously no need to buy target sticks online for 10$ when there are plenty of free options likely sitting around your house.

If you can’t find anything, purchase a packet of wooden skewers from your local shop.

Or maybe a packet of chopsticks.

You can probably find something suitable for less than 2$.

Next, Choose Some Rewards

You need to choose some rewards to positively reinforce the desired behaviour (touching the target).

Training rewards include:

  • Treats
  • Head scratches
  • Vocal praise

These are all valid rewards, but for the most effective training, you should just use treats.

A bit of vocal praise while giving the treat is also received well by some birds.

Primarily using treats will simply make the training more effective.

So, what types of treats should you use?

Well, it depends on what species of bird you have.

Most smaller birds such as cockatiels, lovebirds, and budgies will often prefer millet spray and sunflower seeds.

Larger birds such as macaws and cockatoos will prefer walnuts, almonds, and other large nuts.

cockatoo training
(Image Credit: Pixabay)

Some birds might even prefer healthy treats such as fruits or vegetables.

Experiment with different treats on your bird to see what they work for the most and use those for training only.

Rewards are more valued if they’re only given during training sessions.

A bird won’t be motivated to work for something they regularly get in their food bowl.

Once you have a target and some rewards, you’re ready to start your first target training session…

Starting The First Target Training Session

As established, you’re teaching your bird to touch a target on command.

During the first training session, you’ll need to choose a command phrase.

A command phrase is your vocal indicator that tells your bird you want them to do a certain behaviour.

Every single training program will have a different command phrase.

Some possible command phrases for target training include:

  • “Touch”
  • “Target”
  • “Here”

Command phrases can be anything that they wouldn’t hear outside of training sessions.

Short phrases are ideal.

Here’s an example of a terrible command phrase:

“Hey bird, come touch this target stick”

That is waaaay too long of a command phrase and your bird likely won’t remember it.

Once you have a command phrase, you can raise the target stick near the bird and give the command phrase.

During the first session, you should bring the target right near their beak.

Once they touch the target, give them a treat and a bit of vocal praise.

(Video Credit: TheParrotTeacher)

If you’re using clicker training, you need to *click* the moment they touch the target as that tells them the exact moment they did the right thing.

When it comes to clicker training, timing is crucial.

Read more about clicker training here.

Now, the main goal of the first target training session is to get your bird to associate touching the target with getting a treat.

Bringing the target right to their beak will heavily encourage them to touch it.

Birds naturally touch things that are in front of them.

This will get you that first repetition.

Eventually, you’ll be able to get them to move for the target.

But for the first session, you just need to bring the target to their beak and reward them for touching it.

After about 5 – 6 perfect reps, your bird should start to understand why they’re getting rewarded.

You’ll notice their understanding when they start anticipating a treat after touching the target.

This is your first foot in the target training door!

Increasing The Target Training Difficulty

After a few successful reps of touching the target near their beak, you can start to aim the target at a small distance away from them.

When they understand that they get a treat after every touch, they’ll be willing to move to touch the target and therefore earn a treat.

Start by getting your bird to move just one step to touch the target.

After a few more successful reps, you can slowly increase the distance so they need to take a few more steps to reach the target.

If you can get them to move for the target within the first few sessions, that is HUGE progress!

(Image Credit: Unsplash)

After each successful rep, have them move further and further to touch the target.

This is essentially increasing the difficulty.

See how far you can move them before they begin to ignore it.

However, don’t push them too far otherwise they may see this as a forceful interaction, which will discourage them from future training sessions.

What To Do When Your Bird Ignores The Target

A common problem people have when target training their birds is the target being ignored.

Ignoring the target is considered a failed rep.

There are plenty of reasons why the bird would ignore the target:

  • They haven’t practised enough
  • The target is too far away
  • They don’t feel like training anymore (birds have very short attention spans)

You need to let them fail in order for them to learn.

Failing the task will show them that they don’t get a reward unless they do the desired behaviour.

Definitely DO NOT make it easier for them if they fail.

If they do not go to the target within a few seconds, that is a failure and you need to let this fail happen.

DO NOT bring the target closer to your bird when they fail.

This is essentially telling them: “it’s ok to ignore the challenge because I’m going to make it easier for you”.

Birds don’t overcome challenges this way and it’ll lead to delays in the training process.

target training macaw
(Image Credit: Unsplash)

Here’s how you deal with a failed rep:

Simply walk away, come back after a minute or two, and try again.

If they ignore it again, it’s time to end the training session for the time being.

When you begin another training session, start back on easy mode and work your way back up to the challenge your bird previously failed.


If they successfully complete the challenge they previously ignored, it means they’ve learned from their failure.

This is good!

By allowing your bird to fail, you have actually improved their target training skills.

Target Training Birds Inside The Cage

All training programs are best done on T-stand perches or flat surfaces for efficiency.

T-stand perches give the trainer more flexibility and moveability around the bird.

They also allow the bird to focus solely on the training as they aren’t being distracted by cage toys and other objects.

It’s always best to do target training away from the cage.

However, if your bird is recently adopted and nervous, it might be good to start this training inside the cage.

budgie training inside cage
(Image Credit: Unsplash)

Target training inside the cage is not too different from training outside the cage.

The only major difference is that you’ll need to aim the target stick inside and around the cage.

Increasing the target distance inside the cage is simply getting your bird to move from one side of the cage to the other.

You also give the reward through the cage bars.

Although it can be good to start target training inside the cage, you should try to transition the training to outside the cage on a T-stand perch or tabletop.

Training outside the cage will improve your bird’s ability to learn.

In case you don’t have a T-stand perch…

Here’s a large natural wooden T-stand perch from Parrot Wizard.

(Image Credit: Parrot Wizard)

Benefits Of Teaching Target Training To Birds

Have you ever struggled to get your bird back into the cage when needed?

When it’s bedtime or you need to go run an errand, wouldn’t it be nice if the bird went to their cage with no problems?

Target training can help get your bird to go back into the cage voluntarily.

If you master target training, you’ll be able to guide your bird anywhere around the room using the target stick.

This includes guiding them back to the cage!

cockatiel inside cage
(Image Credit: Unsplash)

You can also guide your bird off of things they aren’t supposed to be on.

Most people don’t like their birds being on top of:

  • T.Vs
  • Microwaves
  • Fridges
  • Kitchen Tables
  • Beds

You might not mind your bird being on these things, but I know others who do.

Obviously, you can’t control everywhere they go, but you can heavily encourage them to stay away from restricted areas with target training.

Sometimes, your bird won’t want to step up to leave these areas.

But they’ll be willing to fly to where the target is if they know they’ll get a treat when they touch it.

Remember, you’ll only be able to do this after lots of target training practice.

Not only is this training good to get some control over your bird, but it’s also good for the bird’s brain…

Any training will provide mental stimulation to your bird which keeps them busy and happy.

In case you need further target training guidance…

I highly suggest reading: 7 Pro Tips For Target Training Parrots

Thank you for reading 🙂



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