Help - My Bird Bites
 
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Help - My Bird Bites

Published on Tuesday, 19th August 2014

Yes, they can bite. One of Casper Grey’s party tricks is opening a can of Coke. Artha my other Grey is 15. She’s never bitten anyone. I believe this is part nature and part nurture.
 
Artha’s mother, an ex-pet, was an exceedingly gentle bird. Artha came from Barrett Watson, who breeds for the pet market and for breeders.

Birds destined for pet market are hand raised after a few weeks with their parents.
 
Some breeders feed the babies and put them away. Not Barrett.

Each baby is handled.  “Basic training,” Barrett says, “is instilling trust in people and learning how to step up.” Barrett says you should never buy an unweaned baby. He’ll even put harnesses on them during the weaning experience.

Once a baby bird has learned to trust a human they won’t pull away when approached.  A young bird from a conscientious breeder like Barrett will come into a new home fully weaned, flighted, knowing step-up.
 
Artha and Casper came from Barrett displaying a quality that they retain to this day, a basic trust in people.  Anyone can handle them. And indeed Artha has helped a couple of my bird phobic friends overcome fear of birds.
 
Because I have a large aviary and take in rescue and rehomes, I came into contact with birds that didn’t have such an ideal start in life. I’ve experienced both success and failure in teaching birds that there are better ways to communicate than taking a chunk out of soft yielding flesh.
 
I believe that given space and possibilities of choice like where to perch, where to forage and no approach by human hands until the bird regains some confidence, the biting behaviour will diminish and gradually become extinct.



 

Mirt and other Timnehs
Mirt, a wild caught Timneh, age impossible to guess, was one of my first rescues. Plucked and flightless, she’d been kept in a cardboard box for 8 months. She crawled away or bit if you got too close.
 
My aim was to get Mirt to gain trust in people. Also I need a bird that will step up so that I can move it round the aviary or put it in a crate for a vet visit. Once Mirt lived free in the aviary she regained her flight muscles within two weeks. 

It took two years before Mirt trusted me enough to fly to my hand. That time spent with her was justified when, for the first time, she perched upon a friend’s outstretched palm and took a nut. The biting had ceased months before this.  Through a sad error, I lost Mirt after 5 years. We still miss her.
 
Her friend Sid was another elderly, wild caught Timneh. Sid had been caged alone for 12 years. At any brusque approach, he lunged and bit. The solution was elegant and simple. Positive reinforcement for something Sid craved. I held out a sunflower seed on the other side of a stick so that Sid had to reach across.
 

Within two weeks Sid was stepping up and could be carried from one spot to another. Sadly, he never regained more than minimal flight skills. He flew to me one morning and died in my arms.  The autopsy showed the enlarged liver due to a poor diet for so many years.
 
Watch body language
A frequent biting situation occurs because we don’t watch the body language of our birds attentively enough.  They try to warn us with slicked down feathers, ‘evil’ eye or shuffling away from us. Some bite because they simply cannot get away.
           
Cockatoos are difficult
I took a second-hand hen bird as a companion for Perdy my Lesser Sulphur Crested cockatoo.  Sadly, they never became friends.  Lily had been relinquished to a sanctuary because she screamed for attention, plucked and bit.

Although not clipped, she couldn’t fly. It took several months to encourage her to fly. To stop her screaming, we never went to her until she was quiet. This method does work but you have to be consistent (or wear ear-muffs) .She bonded to me.

To stop her biting completely wasn’t possible because when she saw my husband Walter she felt she must try to bite him or to bite me to warn me away from her rival.  This biting behaviour was sporadic.
 
However, following the principles of behaviour science, we alter the environment.  When Wal wanted to watch a programme, Lily had to stay in the conservatory where the 4 pet birds sleep.
 
In her five years here, she never made friends with any other bird. Her story has a happy ending.  Geoff Serplus lost his Cockatoo companion after twenty-five years. He and Lily bonded at first meeting and she’s spent the last few years with him happy in a single bird environment. Poor Lily - one of those dysfunctional cockatoos that’s been over-bonded to humans.

Failure with Eric
My friend Ian rescues birds. One of them was a Lesser Sulphur Crested cock bird of the same age as Lily.  Eric had lived in a windowless, rat-infested shed for 8 months. Ian had had him over a year but he was a confirmed biter.

Pride comes before a fall, doesn’t it? After several successes I’d had with the biting Timnehs, Conures and Greys, I offered to foster Eric for a couple of months confident that I’d channel his biting into other directions.

I put a new bird or any bird that cannot fly yet into a 3-metre flight attached to the end of the aviary. The bird can see the other occupants.

I filled this space with branches, swings and lots of chewable wood. Eric’s previous cage had been without any enrichment, my idea being that an enriched environment would occupy him.

Within a day, he thoroughly explored and used everything. The space was about thirty times larger than his previous cage. Eric would call out in that sweet voice that Cockatoos use, “Hello, Eric, hello Eric.”

 

I put a new bird or any bird that cannot fly yet into a 3-metre flight attached to the end of the aviary. The bird can see the other occupants.  I filled this space with branches, swings and lots of chewable wood. Eric’s previous cage had been without any enrichment, my idea being that an enriched environment would occupy him.
 
Within a day, he thoroughly explored and used everything. The space was about thirty times larger than his previous cage. Eric would call out in that sweet voice that Cockatoos use, “Hello, Eric, hello Eric.”
 
My previous experience had been that if you don’t approach a bird’s space it won’t bite. Not so Eric. He flew at my face on the 2nd day.  The flight had no swing feeders so whatever happened I had to enter daily at least once.  Ian had handled Eric by throwing a towel over him. I did the same to clean and refresh food and water bowls.
 
 I believe birds show recognizable emotions like fear, love, jealousy and so on. Eric acted like an angry bird!  Or maybe he was defending a territory. We cannot know for sure.
 
I decided not to use a towel, nor keep Eric caged but enter the flight wearing sunglasses, boots, hood, coat and gloves.  Did it work? Yes and no. It made the family laugh to see me. Eric never flew at my face again.
 
A breakthrough occurred. I discovered that he loved scrambled eggs. I began to feed him from a spoon; he quickly learned to step up onto a stick and eat his eggs.  Yet pleasure at this progress was woefully premature. On the third occasion, he was eating nicely from the spoon then with no warning sign or body language that I perceived scooted down the stick, grabbed my sweater and bit through to my arm.
 
I would have persisted with training had another problem not occurred - Perdy’s reaction to a young male of the same species. Now almost 6 years old, she decided that she wanted Eric for her friend (or possibly mate?) I don't know which.
 
Her hormones had kicked in a big way. She’d perch outside his flight, peering in.  Her body language - crouched forward, feathers slicked and an ‘evil’ eye said clearly, ‘Come closer and I’ll bite.’ I did and she did.  Eric would have to go.  I’d failed. With Eric gone, Perdy regained her more usual behaviour.

And finally...
Observers of wild Parrots say that Parrots rarely inflict harm via a bite because Parrots interpret the subtle preceding signals from their rivals.

Parrots read body language better than we do.  We make mistakes because we neither understand nor  respect their subtle communication.  The Parrot backs away when you put your hand in her cage - instead of withdrawing it you go on. She’s left with no alternative. What’s left to do but bite? 

Do clipped or caged birds bite more readily than birds that can fly away from a perceived threat? Anecdotal evidence suggests so, though it’s not proven.  But it’s a strong argument against clipping or caging in so small a space that the bird loses flight ability.

Is the bird biting through fear, anger, jealousy or protectiveness? Is he guarding his territory? If you can find the most precise cause, you can alter the environment either to avoid the biting situation arising or to allow the bird enough space to avoid you.
 
 

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