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.