Liz Wilson tells us how to stop your Parrot from biting.
One of the most common complaints we Parrot behaviour consultants hear are complaints about problem aggression and biting.
Generally speaking, aggression is a response to fear.
Perhaps your Parrot fears being locked up alone in his cage, so he lunges at you when you reach for him.
For advice on training and behaviour please click here.
Perhaps a Parrot has had a bad experience with human hands, so it acts aggressive when you reach for it. Sometimes we forget that, formidable as beaks can seem, the largest species of captive Parrot weighs less than 2 kilos – or less than a small house cat.
Aggressive posturing is the primary method a Parrot uses to warn something (or someone) to back off. In the wild, Parrot-to-Parrot injuries are extremely rare because one Parrot rarely needs to actually hurt another. A Parrot postures aggressively, the other one flies away. Simple.
Only when this body language is ignored does a Parrot need to resort to biting. So it makes sense that it is important for us humans to notice and understand aggressive body language. Aggressive posturing can include a combination of one or more of the following:
– Puffing up its feathers to double the bird’s size (“getting big”)
– Strutting back and forth; swaying back and forth
– Leaning away
– Wings held flexed and slightly away from the body
– Rapid dilation and contraction of the pupils of the eyes (eye pinning or flashing – a sign of excitement that can also signal aggression)
– Raising the nape feathers (“raising its hackles”)
– Raising the crest (if there is one)
When I lecture, I love to ask “How many people in this audience have ever been bitten by a dog that was growling and showing its teeth?” Sometimes a few participants will raise their hands. I follow this with, “And how many of you have ever been bitten a SECOND time by a dog that was growling and showing its teeth?” So far, no one has admitted to repeating that mistake! After all, a dog showing such signs is clearly warning the human what will happen if he/she does not back off.
I then show a series of photographs of Parrots displaying aggressive body language as previously described, and explain that these postures are the psittacine equivalent of a dog growling and baring its teeth. The bird is CLEARLY warning the human away. So if the human is then bitten by that bird, whose fault is that?
Here’s another example. Say my husband comes home and finds me in the kitchen, my back to him, loudly slamming cabinet doors. Should he be so unwise as to choose that moment for a discussion of, say, family finances, he is likely to get exactly what he deserves, and it won’t be a reasonable discussion! And whose fault is that?
A bite is a bite is a …?
Oddly enough, when I discuss the issue of biting, I often find I must first define the term. This issue was brought home to me by a young couple I met who had a baby Cockatiel, barely out of pin feathers. They were very worried because as they said, “Our baby bird bites us all the time and we don’t know why.”
Our brief conversation made clear that that every time the baby touched one of them with its beak, they thought it was biting! Needless to say, the way they defined a Parrot bite is very different from the way we Parrot behaviour consultants would define one.
When owners complain about biting, I now ask, “Were you bruised or bleeding?” If not, then as far as I am concerned, they weren’t bitten. I explain that a Parrot’s beak functions like a “hand”, and is used it to hold onto things, to help it climb (a third claw), and for a sense of touch. For instance, Parrots, like human babies, are apt to put a new toy in their beak, to explore and figure out what it is. (We call this beaking.)
So when a Parrot reaches or touches you with its beak, it does not automatically mean the bird plans to hurt you. That would be like assuming every time someone touches you that you have been slapped. Sometimes the bird might gently rest its beak around your knuckle, say, as an affectionate touch, almost as if saying, “I trust you, and you can trust me not to use my beak to hurt you.” If they are unsure of your hand’s solidity when you offer it, they might reach with their beak to stabilize it, just as you would steady a wobbly ladder.
The following chart (first published in Bird Talk Magazine) attempts to explain the various ways Parrots interact with us via their beaks, and what these contacts might mean:
ACTION PHYSICAL REACTION ON HUMAN ANATOMY PARROT’S PROBABLE INTENT
Touching / “Tasting” Maybe a tiny bit of redness on the skin, maybe a plucked hair or removal of a scab Parrot is exploring and NO damages is intended, even if it is a little uncomfortable.
Nipping / Pinching Redness, maybe a mark from the beak Parrot is exploring, testing, or is nervous about something and is trying to express this…
Bite Bruise, maybe a small amount of bleeding Parrot is frightened by something (like falling) and grabs on to human; or Parrot is upset about something
Chomp Deep bruise, or deep cut with lots of bleeding Parrot is extremely afraid, hormonal, or angry
So okay, you were bitten. What now?
When I started lecturing about Parrot behaviour twenty years ago, I had a simple response. When asked about a biting bird, and I would cheerfully rattle off the proper way an owner should respond. I would tell them to give the bird a VERY dirty look, ladder it a couple of times from one hand to the other, put the bird down and forget about the incident. As far as my knowledge went, life was uncomplicated back then.
Knowing more about the complexities of bird behaviour now, it’s not so easy for me to blithely offer a cookbook response to a query about biting. Instead, I respond by asking the owner a series of questions to help me understand the situation… and the most important question is, “WHY?”
The Analysis of Why
“Why” is crucial, because the answer can give us an idea as to the bird’s motivation for the aggressive behaviour. Without knowing the reason, a Parrot behaviour consultant is like a marriage counsellor hired to help a fighting couple – without knowing why they are fighting or even what the fight is about.
If an owner can offer no idea as to why the bird is biting, then there is little we can do, except to teach the owner how to answer that question themselves. Behaviours happen for a reason and you need to understand the reason your Parrot is acting aggressive before you can eliminate the problem. More information needs to be collected, and you can do that by observation and journaling.
To read PART 2 of this article where I explain more about collecting information and how to use it to work out how or when a behaviour is happening click here.