Thursday, October 8, 2009

How to teach your bird not to bite

There's been more traffic to my site lately by people wondering how to get their birds to stop biting. This is probably due to this post, but I thought it might be helpful for me to go into a little more detail, instead of just talking about one specific kind of bite, as I did in that post.

I live with two parrots that were trained by their prior circumstances to bite and attack. Rocky (severe macaw) spent the six years prior to being released to the rescue locked in a tiny cage because his owners were terrified of getting bit again. Beeps (black-headed caique) sent his previous owner to the emergency room with his bites. As punishment, she was in the process of sending him to certain death by releasing him outside in winter, before he was saved.

Despite the backgrounds of those birds, we are very rarely bit. And when we are, it's almost always our own fault.

A rare sight in our house:
One of the most important keys to having a successful parrot-human relationship, in my opinion, is to realize that parrots are wild animals. They are not little humans, and therefore don't always act in a way that seems rational to us. After all, would you bite, scream, and generally irritate the people who provided you with food, shelter, and love? I certainly wouldn't, yet parrots do that every day.

When we were in Costa Rica earlier this year, I spoke with the biologist about parrot aggression. She said that they've seen very little aggression in the wild scarlet macaws they study. With the exception of one male who'd instigated quite a few fights (and almost lost an eye on two separate occasions), everyone else lived pretty peacefully.

Believe it or not, most parrots don't want to bite. In general, their experiences with humans are what lead them to start biting.

In my experience, the biggest reason that parrots begin biting is because we humans don't listen to their body language. Eventually, frustrated by their lack of ability to effectively communicate their desires to us, they find a method that works: biting.

In this picture, Rocky is very agitated. His feathers are fluffed up, and he's extended his wings as a warning to me of how scary he is. If Thomas, the love of his life, tried to pick him up right now, Rocky would bite him.
Contrast that to calm, happy Rocky. There is pretty much no chance of getting bit when he's like this:
Here's Beeps, agitated. His feathers are fluffed up, his eye is reddening, and though you can't see it in this picture, he was snaking his head back and forth. He's warning me he's upset about something. If I ignore that and try to pick him up anyway, then I deserve the bite I'd surely receive:This macaw was happily perched on Thomas's lap -- until I got too close. She's warning me away, and if I don't heed her, there's a good chance that either Thomas or I could get bit.
If you are living with a biting parrot, I'd recommend keeping a parrot bite journal. Write down your observations about your parrot's body language. Are there signs your parrot makes before biting? They may be subtle -- look for pinning eyes, raised feathers, a fanned tail. I've mentioned before that if I offer food to Rocky, he'll take it nicely from my hand if his tongue is sticking out. If his beak is open and his tongue is not sticking out, he's trying to trick me. At the last second, he moves his beak to the side and bites my hand, ignoring the food.

One great way to learn your parrot's body language is to clicker train. Here is a link to a free yahoo group. I learned how to clicker train my parrots by joining this group and reading the excellent files. There is even a case study on how one of the group owners trained a very aggressive macaw. Buying a clicker was the best $1 I ever spent when it comes to the relationship I have with my birds.

In this picture, you can see that Max (on the right) is leaning away from Stella (on the left). Max is clearly communicating that she doesn't want Stella to be so close. My parrots will often lean away from things they don't like. If the human persists and tries to make them go near that object anyway, a bite may result.
One example of this is a few years ago, I was in a big hurry and needed to get all of the parrots in their cages. Both of the caiques were out. I grabbed Beeps and tried to put him in Calypso's cage, a case of mistaken identity. He was leaning away from the cage, but I wasn't paying attention. Finally, he reached down and gently nipped me. This was very strange, so I finally paid attention and realized that I had the wrong caique! He tried to tell me this by moving away from the cage. That was too subtle for me. If I had ignored his gentle nip, there's a good chance he could have escalated to a more painful bite -- and I could not blame him for doing so.

In the parrot bite journal, I'd recommend not only writing down the body language of the parrot, but also the circumstances surrounding what was happening before the bite took place. If you can find patterns, then you can arrange the environment so that bites take place less frequently.

I've frequently talked about the large number of items that will cause Beeps to fly over and attack us. We keep a mental list and make sure that he is safely locked in his cage before we use any of the items. For whatever reason, known only to him, the sight of human nail clippers makes Beeps attack viciously. Instead of wasting my time trying to teach him not to bite when I have nail clippers, I either go into a different room and close the door, or make sure that Beeps is locked in his cage, before I take the clippers out.

Rocky will attack Thomas when he wears a certain blue shirt. At first Thomas tried to get Rocky to accept the shirt ("I will not have a macaw dictate my wardrobe!" is a direct quote.) I finally convinced him to just donate the shirt to Goodwill.

Removing these kinds of triggers has made ours a happier home. By journaling them, you can find patterns and greatly reduce and possibly eliminate biting.

Rocky loves it when Thomas scratches his head. However, he sometimes gets a little too excited and nips Thomas. In the wild, he'd nip his partner and get a beak full of feathers. In our living room, he nips his partner and draws blood. How does Thomas handle this? By controlling Rocky's head when he scratches him:
You can see the absolute ecstasy on Rocky's face. The fact that Thomas is taking precautions for his own safety has not diminished Rocky's enjoyment.

One reason parrots might bite is if you surprise them when they're trying to do something else. If I try to separate a caique from his fruit, I might as well just have a band-aid ready! Stella is very engrossed in preening herself here. So much so that I can't even see her head. If I interrupted and grabbed her foot without giving her proper notice, she'd be justified in biting me -- as a warning that she wanted to be left alone while preening.
Another set of circumstances that can lead to biting is hormonal behavior. While some parrots are happily interrupted from their nest building/seeking/other hormonal behavior and will readily step up, that's not the case for everyone.

Could I really blame Stella for biting me if I tried to remove her from nest seeking?
Thomas uses a stick much more frequently during Rocky's hormonal periods. Normally, the act of stepping on the stick is enough to get Rocky to snap out of it and he will then happily step up from the stick onto Thomas's hand. Once again, watching body language is key.

In fact, I think that teaching a parrot to readily step up on a stick is a great idea, just in case. That way, other people may feel more comfortable handling your parrot should the need arise.

Watching and reacting to body language, in addition to being a way to avoid getting bit, is also a great way to reinforce the bond with your parrot.

For example, when Max starts scratching her own head, that means she wants me to come over and give her head scratches:And when she puts her foot out like this, it means she wants to step up:
I try to accommodate her as often as possible; to show her that her actions produce consequences.

This is already getting very long, but I wanted to address the issue of one-person birds as it relates to biting. My experience has led me to believe that the vast majority of parrots are not truly one-person birds. I will address this in more detail in a future post.

Biting can be very frustrating, for owners and parrots, and often results in neglected parrots, as they spend more and more time in their cages. By the time they make it to rescue, some parrots have learned that their subtle hints don't work and resort straight to biting. By using acute observation skills, it's possible to teach the parrot more acceptable behavior.


Elizabeth said...

Wow, excellent post! The pictures are extremely helpful for beginners.

Hard to imagine Beeps causing that much harm. Thank goodness he wasn't tossed outside.

For larger parrots, I look at the eyes. When my mom's macaw is pinning (his pupils are tiny dots), I know he's excited and therefore unpredictable. I think this is always in conjunction with the fluffed feathers that you mentioned, but I always notice the eyes.

Mary said...


I'm going to try to get some macaw eye pinning pics because you are so right!

I was at the rescue last night (without my camera, sadly) and there is one macaw that absolutely hates me. She was in her cage, and when I walked by she pinned her eyes so much I could barely see any black. Would love to post that here -- it was amazing!

I am thankful every day that Beeps was saved from that fate. He is such an amazing guy! I correspond still with the woman who saved him, and she can't believe the transformation he's made!

Shannon said...

Thank you for this most excellent post, Mary. Really helpful. With very few exceptions, I'm never surprised when I get bitten - I asked for it! I didn't catch the normal cues. With the cockatiels, it's mostly hormonal situations. With Sam, it's to do with food and what he thinks is his (territory and his dragon/hoarding tendencies; or, if I stupidly surprise any of them without adequate forewarning.

Beloved Parrot said...

Congratulations! You've just condensed the best wisdom of several excellent parrot behavior books and lectures by leaders in the field into a few hundred words!

Pay attention to your parrot -- they will tell you plainly what they want or don't want -- unless you've ignored them for so long they know you won't listen.

The only time I've been bitten without "cause" was when I was rearranging some things in Sugar Franklin's cage during one of her hospitalizations. Charli flew across the room and bit me -- I can only assume she objected to me interfering with Sugar's "territory."

When you really study and know your parrot's behavior and body language it's amazing how clear they are about what they want or don't want. Of course, it's better when they tell you in English. ;-)

WendyKnits said...

This post is a great example of why I love reading your blog. Even though I don't have (and never have had) parrots, the information here is always wonderful. Everything you've said in this post makes perfect sense and can be applied to our relationships with other animals. It's so important to read our pets' body language to ascertain their moods, wants, and needs.

And of course I'm here for the great videos and cut pix of your birds!

Anonymous said...

Rather cool place you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Sincerely yours

parrot cages said...

African Grey parrots, especially, are temperamental and if you find that your parrot is moody, leave it alone. Just like humans, there are times when it needs to be by itself and not be forced to learn new tricks. Be sensitive to your bird and the biting can be stopped.

Anonymous said...

My parrotlet asks to come out but when I stick my hand in his cage Sammie snaps at me so I flinch but when I try again he gets on just fine I think its because I give him fruit for playing with me what do I do?

Dolphinaid said...

This was all very interesting information. Thank you for the photos to help me understand some of the things to look for in a bird who may bite. I think I will try clicker-training with my little guy, as he has a couple of very dangerous (for him!) behaviors, and I want to keep him around for many more years!

Do you have experience with parakeets (I have a Rosy Bourke)?

Thanks again, great job! :)

Anonymous said...

Great Post! It was really helpful. Sometimes I just want to play with my conure when I want too. I didn't even think why sometimes he is hesitate to step up. Now I know and I will respect him more. The times he is hesitate and steps up are the times when he bites me. And there are times he doesn't want to listen to me. Now i know i will watch his body movement. He can be uptight at times. lol But i still love him so much. I know he forgives me.

Anonymous said...

Great info! I am sure everyone here appreciates it :) I have two conures that draw blood frequently, and have become rather scared of thier unpredictable behavior. They dont like the typing noise of computers, shadows, the color pink, towels, and the list goes on and on. If my husband and I are successful in rehabilitating them it would be a miracle! We let them fly free, but were recently thinking maybe it would be helpful to clip thier wings just while we are training them... any thoughts on that?

Anonymous said...

I loved the article. I knew most of it already. I have gotten birds that bit me when we first met (or for the first few times we met if I didn't buy them right away)however, they don't bite me again once we get home. I'm not sure why this is. The birds I've gotten become sweet once home. Today I bought my first Grey. She was once someones pet, then sold and they attempted to breed her. Now I have her and she's biting the crap out of me. Drawn blood 3 times. I have no idea how to handle this! She lets me feed her- she's gentle at taking food. She lets me pet her head- sometimes- and she's following me around the house and watching me. But when I try to put my hand near her she bites me HARD. I'm being patient and just sitting with her. I put my hand down near the ground and she will come over and because I'm unsure what she's going to do I'll either pull away or just sit there- in which case she bites me. If anyone can give me an insight on what's going on I'd apreciate it. :*( I want her to love me! She seems interested.... doesn't she?

Amanda said...

I have an Eclectus that is almost 5 yrs. old. I have had him since he was 4 months old. He has only bitten me 1 time but was my fault cause I startled him but it was a very gentlevbite almost like he knew it was me. He has never taken to my daughter who is 16. If she even walks to close to his cage he will scream oww, which is what he says just before he bites. She has never done anything mean to him, she has always tried to make him like her. Its almost like it is a game to him to bite her. She puts treats through the cage into his bowl and he will run over to try and bite her before she can get her fingers back, and he can't be out of the cage if she is home cause he will go straight for her. Do you have any suggestions? I can't give her to goodwill lol.

Ann C. said...

Hi, thanks for the post. I'm actually having a problem with my little green cheek conure. I got him from a pet store about 2 months ago and he's about 9 months now (according to the hatch certificate the pet store gave me). I do do what you recommend and watch their body language to avoid being bit and that usually works fine with my other birds but this little one is a bit troublesome! He always wants to climb on me and come to me so I have him step up and put him on my shoulders like I do with all my other birds but once he's there he will start to nibble (just like the others) except it quickly turns to bites! I'm not sure if he even knows the difference between nibbling and biting right now and I don't know what to do! I want to play with him and I can clearly see he wants to come to me and play too (cuz sometimes he'll whine a bit by chirping at me if I don't come over to him)but he just bites so hard! Any suggestions or recommendations on how to train him not to bite me so hard? Appreciate it! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Excellent and very good And Detailed discription. And also Pictures too. But, are these tricks acclicable for my parrot '' Mithoo '' who is with me from 13 years and I've not paid attention towards him. Whenever I talk to him and try to Train him, he Bites. Its intresting, I am 14 Years old my Parrot is 13 and my sister is 12 years old... So, can I train a parrot who is grown up ?
Plz, reply...
regards : Mansab Shah

Marty said...

I have a Macaw He was loving a friendly to us Until We took him to the Vet since he was not acting himself...They did some tests on him and put him to sleep for an internal..He came home and ever since hes Really bad...WE cannot touch him.
He bites and doesnt go potty in his cage. He comes out on his door...poops and goes back in....I want my baby back...What can I do? It is about 3 weeks now

Carrie Hobgood said...

I have a severe macaw and she is supposedly less than 2 years old. She is very young but I think she may be a little younger. I have never had a bird this young before mine were older when I got them so I'm not sure about their behavior at this age. For instance she seems to have issues climbing from branch to branch on her play stand. You can tell it's more uncertainty about how to do this compared to my other birds who swing and dangle from limb to limb like monkeys. Also she is not great at holding on to fingers and stuff. She is kinda "shakey". Anyway she is very young I'm just not sure if this is normal for a bird almost 2. Her biting issues I'm having is not in an aggressive manner always. She will bite when mad but she wants to bite people all the time. It's not always hard sometimes it starts off soft then gets harder. She bites when happy too. She will bite kinda hard then dance and laugh. (She likes to laugh lol) I think she may be more testing people and seeing what she can get away with. She loves everyone that is around and wants everyone to hold her when they come over. Problem is they don't want to hold her obviously because she bites. I don't want her to become a one or two person bird. She is nothing like my African grey who had only bonded with me. He is out to kill everyone that comes near him but me. He would bite down trying to remove a finger. She's not like that but it's still to hard and needs to stop. What should I do with this type of biting?

Anonymous said...

I found a male Moluccan cockatoo for $200 on Craigslist. That bird was around 30 - 40 years old when I bought him a few months ago. I asked a bird store owner for his opinion and he said that bird was caught in the wild in the 1970s or 1980s and brought to the USA based on the ring on his foot. Later, I realized why he only cost $200. He is scared/hates hands, people, and loves to bite as hard as he can for defense if you bring your hand too close to him. He also likes to chase my very tame/friendly/loving other moluccans around for fun. My other birds are very scared of him and don't seem as happy now that I have him around them in the aviary. I have to put my other birds in small cages in the aviary at night because one morning I woke up to find that my $200 bird has been bitten in the head by one of my very tame/friendly/loving birds that never bite anybody. I think he tried to rape my female cockatoo, but didn't have a camera setup at the time to record the behavior that caused him to get bit.

I'm sure he was abused by people's hands in the past. I was able to hand feed him without him biting my hand. When he takes the food, he 'strikes' at it and pulls it from my hand as if I was going to abuse him if he is not quick enough. After a month or so of trying to get closer to him by singing to him and petting my other Moluccan's in front of him regularly, I decided to try to pet him. I wore 'cut resistant' gloves under my gardening gloves. That scared bird tried to eat my fingers through the gloves out of fear. His beak did make it through both gloves into my skin and bloodied up my fingers, but I figured this is going to happen when you try to pet a bird who thinks you are there to hurt him. I also figured that after many attempts of trying to slowly approach the bird with my hands and slowly pet him that he would eventually trust my fingers to not abuse him but interact with him in a non-abusive way. However, of the three attempts I've made to pet him, he seems to want to bite me harder each time and he loves to go for my pinky finger since he can get his beak into it easier. When he tries to bite me, I yell 'no!' and take these actions: 1. grab his beak with my other hand and pull it out from biting my other glove. 2. hold his beak and say, "don't bite!" 3. if he continues, I hold his head while I calmly pet him using my other hand and tell him, "it's ok, there's nothing to be scared of'. However, he just gets more scared and defensive each time I try to pet him. I also found out he is blind in his right eye as I can approach him from his right side and he doesn't try to bite until he is startled. This makes it slightly more difficult to pet him because he runs into the corner and as he faces the corner and turns around, he is startled because he sees my hand right next to him. After he gives up trying to bite me as I persist in trying to gently pet him (not right next to his head) regardless of his fears, I reward him with some fruit. I am trying to build his trust but also keep him from feeling it's ok to bite my fingers when I try to pet him.

Anonymous said...

Of course, you can say, "don't bother petting a bird like that because he is uncomfortable with your hands and sees you as somebody trying to hurt him", but I need to continue to attempt to break his bad behaviors of biting out of fear as well as being afraid of being pet in the first place. The bird is too old to change his behavior overnight if ever. But if I don't try, there is no chance of him changing.

I'm hoping that two things will happen with my patience in trying to domesticate him by spending time once a week to try to pet him even with him being 100% fearful of my hands getting close to him. First, I want the bird to not bite my hand when I go to pet him because he knows biting is bad behavior. He first runs into the corner then bites so he is not aggressively biting but defensively biting. Second, I would like the bird to not feel like I'm going to kill him when I try to gently pet him because after several attempts of petting him, he learns to trust that hands/fingers are not his food (attempting a joke here) but that they are there to comfort and share love. My other birds close their eyes when I pet them and love to cuddle. This bird was clearly never around people growing up or was around abusive people and learned how to fear people and especially hands for over 30 years. So I think this process to teach him not to bite and how to 'enjoy' being pet by hands could take months or even years or even a lifetime.

What do you think?