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