One of the most common behavioral problems in pet parrots is biting. There are many potential causes of biting behavior in parrots, but rarely is it because the parrot is ‘mean’, ‘mad at you’ or ‘getting even’. Parrot owners must work with their avian veterinarian and behaviorist to define the problem, determine the underlying triggers, and modify the behavior. This requires patience, consistency, and dedication – there is no quick fix for most behavioral problems.
Why Does My Bird Bite?
Most parrots are not intrinsically aggressive. Most biting and aggressive behavior is situational. Something in the environment or the handling of the bird has changed and leads to a single bite. If not addressed appropriately, the single bite can become patterned into a behavior. Biting may be triggered by overload behavior, hormonal or seasonal influences (including defense over a territory or mate), defense of a food item, fear of a ‘threatening’ situation, confusion, or an injury or health problem. Unfortunately, sometimes biting is a learned form of communication for the bird.
In the wild, parrots are prey animals and are rarely offensively aggressive. Yet, I hear many pet owners report that their bird ‘attacks them for no reason at all’. Most likely, your bird has a reason for the attack, but we just don’t understand it. We need to try to put ourselves in our parrot’s ‘feet’ to identify the trigger for biting. Keeping a log of the behavior and the situation surrounding the behavior can be a useful exercise. When does your bird bite? Is there someone else in the room? Are you in a hurry because you’re late for work? Does it occur after you’ve had a manicure? Does it only occur after your bird has been chasing his favorite ball? Is it only a problem during the spring? Are you wearing a new hat or have you recently shaved your moustache? You may need to make entries into your log for up to a year to truly define your bird’s triggers, especially if there is a seasonal component. Once we can identify the trigger for the biting behavior, we can begin to reshape your bird’s response to it.
Understanding the Basics of Bird Behavior
Behavior is a response to a situation in the environment. It is our job as parrot owners to guide the parrot to respond appropriately to the situations that they encounter. Basic bird training focuses on giving our bird the tools to respond appropriately to the unnatural environment of living in captivity. We must always be aware of how our actions and responses shape our bird’s behavior. Often, we reinforce behavior that we do not want our bird to exhibit. For example, if you respond to a bite with drama, it will become reinforced, especially if that’s the only focused attention your bird has received recently.
Positive reinforcement is the cornerstone to teaching your parrot the appropriate behavior. Punishment or aggressive behavior (i.e. hitting, abandonment, yelling) will often promote further negative behavior from your bird. Instead, our goal with any pet bird is to foster a relationship of trust and guidance. Sally Blanchard emphasizes a concept called Nurturing Guidance in her book The Companion Parrot Handbook – it is an excellent concept and I would encourage all parrot caregivers to practice Nurturing Guidance with their own birds.
One of the most important things to remember when you are working with a parrot in any capacity, whether it is during a basic training session, while trying to get him or her out of the cage, or when trying to modify an existing behavior problem is that birds are very empathetic. They mirror our emotions. It is essential to take a deep breath and approach your bird in a calm, confident manner. If you are anxious, rushed, afraid, or angry, you will not likely be successful. Calm down and allow your bird to match your energy.
If you are a new parrot owner, one of the first steps is to learn how to read your bird’s body language. Each species is slightly different, and even within a species, each individual bird can be different. However, these behaviors are usually consistent across various species of birds.
- Relaxed bird: The feathers are relaxed and slightly fluffed. The bird is resting comfortably on the perch. A full body shake or tail shake and preening are typically signs of relaxation.
- Aggressive or excited bird: The feathers are generally erect, but unlike a relaxed, ‘fluffed’ bird, these feathers are erect in groups, generally around the crest, nape, or the colorful portions of the body. These birds tend to try to act ‘big’ by standing tall, spreading their wings, and swaying back and forth on the perch. An open beak and leaning forward with their head, sometimes even to a horizontal position, is common in excited or aggressive birds. Eye pinning (contraction and dilation of the pupil) also indicates excitement or aggression.
- Stress or fear: These birds tend to stand stiff and try to make themselves thin by flattening their feathers against the body. Their wings may quiver slightly and be held slightly away from the body in preparation for flight. Fearful or stressed birds may raise a foot or shift their weight back and forth on the perch.
Understanding your bird’s body language and situation before asking for compliance is important. If your bird is in overload or is being food possessive over a special walnut, you may need to wait to ask the bird to respond to a cue. A bite is more likely to occur in these situations. If waiting is not possible, distractions can be used to bring a bird back into focusing on you and your requests. The goal is to create a trusting relationship between you and your bird, not to ‘be the boss’ of your bird.
Finally, it is essential to have realistic expectations about your bird. Each bird has their own personality and their own limitations. Some birds are hormonal for 1-2 months of every spring. You may not be able to interact with that bird in the same way during those times of the year. You may have a rescue bird with phobias that could take years to resolve – these behaviors cannot be fixed in 3 weeks. Unrealistic expectations will lead to failure.
Maintaining hand control of your bird is essential for maintaining a positive relationship with your bird. A bird that is unwilling or afraid of stepping on to a human hand often becomes confined to the cage. All birds, regardless of age, should be able to perform the patterned behavior of stepping up – preferably onto the hand. Once patterned, the ‘Up’ command can be used consistently to move your bird, to redirect your bird, or to interact with your bird.
Your bird must be given clear guidance in order to establish hand control. Birds communicate verbally and respond well to consistent verbal cues. Use the cue ‘Up’ to step up and ‘Down’ to step down. These cues must be delivered in a confident, clear, and decisive manner. Saying ‘Up??’, ‘Uuuupppppp’, or ‘Up Up Up Up’ is confusing and does not give your bird guidance. As you give the ‘Up’ cue, present a firm hand, palm facing you, with rigid fingers. This allows the bird to step onto a firm perch. Bring your hand up near your bird’s belly, maintain eye contact with your bird, and follow through as your bird steps up on your hand.
A left-footed parrot will often be more comfortable stepping onto your right hand, while a right-footed parrot will be more comfortable stepping onto your left hand. Most parrots step up from the front, but if you are consistently having difficulty with the ‘Up’ command, try asking your parrot to step backwards on to your hand. Occasionally, these birds are more comfortable with that technique.
Remember that birds are more comfortable with humans who are comfortable with them. Whether you honestly feel it or not, you must approach your bird calmly and confidently. If you are nervous, agitated, or upset, take a few moments before giving the command, close your eyes, and imagine your bird stepping up. You could try humming quietly or just breathing deeply to slow your energy. Teaching yourself to relax is an important step in being successful with your bird. If you give your cues in a calm and confident manner, your bird will step up. If you are nervous, have an unsteady hand, wiggle your fingers, or pull back, it creates confusion for your bird and success is less likely.
Once your bird is willing to step up on to your hand, laddering can be used to practice the patterning of the ‘Up’ command. Go slow and start with just a few commands – ‘Up’ (left hand), ‘Up’ (right hand), then ‘Down’ to return to the perch. Make sure to offer praise or a special treat after the completion of the exercise. Laddering should never be used as a punishment.
In most cases, it is best to prevent your bird from traveling to your shoulder. First, birds are curious. Your bird will always find interest in your ear, hair, glasses, or earrings. Saying “No” is an excellent drama reward in these situations, and if there is enough drama, your bird will go into overload behavior and a serious bite to the face or ear can occur. Secondly, most birds enjoy being on the shoulder of their preferred caregiver – in other words, the bird’s perceived ‘mate’. If another individual enters the room or the dog comes around the corner, your bird’s instinct may be to drive you away from danger. This usually translates into a bite to your face. To prevent your bird from running to your shoulders, place your other hand across your arm in front of him or her, and give the ‘Up’ command. It is likely that he or she will just try to run up your other arm, so you may have to alternate hands several times. In fact, it may take months of repeated ‘Up’ commands in this situation until your bird understands that he or she is no longer allowed to run up your arm to the shoulder perch. With persistence and dedication, your bird will learn these basic rules.
For most training sessions, and especially if you and your bird are uncomfortable with basic ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ cues, it is best to work on these exercises in a neutral room with a T-stand. A neutral territory is an area of the house that is new to your bird. It should be comfortable – not intimidating or threatening. Your bird’s cage or play gym should not be visible from the neutral area. If your bird is bonded to a single individual in the house and a different family member is trying to accomplish hand control, the favored person should not be visible or audible during training sessions in the neutral room. In a neutral territory, the human becomes the most familiar thing in the room and your bird will be more likely to interact positively with that individual. Everyone in the family should be involved with practicing hand control. Allowing your bird to form a bond with only one individual in the household may lead to problems with aggression towards others in the future.
Prior to beginning a training session, plan ahead by having the T stand, towel, stick, and treats all accessible. When you are working with your bird, you want to be able to focus on him or her wholeheartedly. Any distraction can lead to a bite. Maintaining eye contact and focusing at all times is important, especially with a bird who has had a history of biting. In addition, recognize the environment that you are in. Is someone yelling? Is the television on too loud? Are you wearing something scary? Are you moving too fast? Are you focused on something other than your bird? Each training session should be planned to minimize environmental distractions and allow the focus to be entirely on your bird.
My Bird Won’t Step Up
What if you are afraid or nervous about your bird’s beak? Have you been bitten before and you’re not sure how to get started again? Has your bird been confined to the cage for the last 6 months because you can’t get him out safely? While this is more challenging, we can overcome these hurdles with some patience and dedication.
If you are able to get your bird to come out of the cage, begin working on the ‘Up’ command by using a perch or stick. It is best to begin working on these techniques in a neutral environment – a spare bedroom works well. Use a wooden dowel or a strong wood or rope perch. Initially, you will need to allow your bird to become familiar with the perch, especially if this is a completely new object in your bird’s life. Lay the perch on the bed and allow your bird to walk around wherever he chooses. As soon as he steps a foot on the stick, reward him with a treat or praise. Once he seems comfortable with the perch, add the ‘Up’ command – as he steps on the stick, say ‘Up’, then reward him with a treat. Once he’s mastered that step, you can begin to lift the stick a few inches. Always reward each new accomplishment with positive reinforcement such as praise or a special treat. Go slow – it may take weeks to get him stepping onto the perch consistently in response to the ‘Up’ command.
Sometimes birds have become so patterned that your bird may just refuse to step up to come out of the cage. If you are unable to get him out of the cage, then you won’t be able to work on any of these exercises. In this situation, you need to use a distraction to allow you to be successful. You can distract your bird with your other hand while you approach with your “Step Up” hand. This is the good hand / bad hand approach. Bring the distraction hand up and slightly behind him or use a potholder or paper plate in that hand to distract him, while the other hand gently moves into the ‘Up’ position, just below the abdomen. Most birds will be focused on the distraction hand and will immediately step up when your hand is in the correct position. Once your bird is on your hand, praise him profusely and offer a treat.
If this technique is unsuccessful, you may need to take even smaller steps. You can place a T-stand in the room with the cage – it should initially be located across the room from the cage. As your bird becomes accustomed to its presence, gradually move it closer to the cage in small increments. Once you can have the T-stand touching the cage, you can begin offering your bird the opportunity to come out of the cage. Affix a small cup to the middle of the T-stand perch. Place several treat items in the cup and leave the door open. You may have to leave the room if your presence in combination with the perch is frightening. As your bird learns that the T-stand is accompanied by good rewards, you can start offering this opportunity with you in the room and eventually with you relatively close to the cage. Once this has been mastered, move the cup to the far end of the perch so your bird has to come all the way out of the cage to get the treats. Next, leave the cup empty – when your bird reaches the end to look in the cup, offer the treat from your hand. At that point, you can either work on step up to your hand from that location or move the entire T-stand (with your bird) to the neutral room to practice the ‘Up’ exercises.
If My Bird Bites, How Should I Respond?
Bird bites can be very painful – both physically and emotionally. If you do receive a bite from your bird, the immediate response from most humans is to feel sad, angry, and scared. If the bite leads to you punishing the bird or neglecting the bird, it destroys the trust and bond that you’ve built in your relationship. It is important to respond appropriately to a bite in order to maintain (or gain) a good relationship with your bird.
Often, the loss of hand control is the primary reason birds begin to lose their potential as pets. Inconsistent handling leads to confusion in the parrot, the parrot bites the human, the human becomes afraid and decreases their interaction with the bird, the bird becomes more confused and more likely to bite, and so on. It is essential that this vicious cycle of fear and confusion doesn’t take over the relationship that you have with your bird. You must find a way to get comfortable with your bird again after a bite. If you can think of the situation positively, you will more likely be successful. Our behavior must be consistent and predictable…and calm (even if you don’t feel calm!)
If your bird bites you, think about these points:
- Was the bite truly directed at you or was there an underlying cause like overload behavior? Analyze why the bite occurred so future episodes may be prevented.
- Don’t blame the bird – we must be responsible for making our bird successful in our environment.
- Don’t take it personally. Your bird was not getting even for you for being gone for the weekend. He was not being spiteful because you had a friend visit the house. He was not angry that you’ve been working more recently. These are human explanations that aren’t useful in solving the problem.
- If a bite occurs, you must react without excitement or aggression. Often, caregivers reinforce the behavior without intending to. If your react with drama, parrots often become more stimulated, making a bite in the future more likely. Generally, the best approach is to firmly and calmly say “No”, give a brief look of disapproval, and calmly return him to the stand or perch. This must be paired immediately with the unwanted behavior. Parrots are very reactive and a vicious cycle can start quite quickly. If the caregiver reacts inappropriately and doesn’t provide guidance, then the bird becomes more agitated, confused, and unsure of handling. More bites occur, making the caregiver more apprehensive – and so on until the owner considers giving up the bird.
- Do not punish your bird – punishment can often escalate the aggression. Birds, like two-year-old children, do not have the ability to understand a complex cause-and-effect relationship. While older children and adults can reason that if something bad is done, there may be a consequence, birds and small children do not have that reasoning ability. The bird does not understand that if he does something wrong, he will be punished in the cage. Placing your bird in the cage and removing his toys as a punishment for biting simply does not work – your bird does not understand the correlation. Punishment only serves to destroy the trust between you and your bird. Never squirt your bird with water, hit the beak, lock him in the closet, deprive him of food, drop him on the floor, scream, pull out a feather, or shake your bird as a form of punishment. These techniques may stop that bite, but you will destroy your bird’s trust leading to more aggression in the future. In addition, sometimes the drama of these actions actually reinforces the bird’s behavior. It can be pretty exciting to watch you turn red and scream!
Addressing The Specific Cause
Is your bird truly biting you? Birds use their beaks for many functions. The beak is a sensitive structure that allows a bird to feel and explore the environment – it is similar to the human hand. When a bird uses his beak on you, it is not necessarily a bite. Often, a bird will reach forward to touch your hand with his beak prior to stepping up. If you pull away, it’s confusing and can even be perceived as a fun game. It is important to allow your bird to use his beak to explore the environment – that may be your hand or fingers. If this beak exploration becomes painful, calmly say “Gentle” (or any similar verbal cue that your bird can pair with the idea of gentle beak behavior). If that is not sufficient, have foot toys or a rope nearby that can be used to redirect the chewing behavior away from your body. Never play games with your bird using your fingers and toes – your bird may perceive these as toys and bites may occur in the future.
If you are unable to redirect your bird to a more acceptable activity, you may need to allow your bird to have a quiet time-out in his or her cage or on the play gym. Once calm, you can initiate interaction again. The time-out should not be used as a punishment technique. When you return your bird to the cage, there should be no drama – it is simply a time out in his room to allow him to calm down.
Many birds enjoy playing games – either by themselves or with their caregivers. Unfortunately, many parrots reach a level of intense excitement called overload. Physiologic changes occur in the parrot’s body, behavior becomes frenzied, and the parrot appears to be out of control. Any interaction during these times will most likely result in a bite. In these situations, it is best to give your parrot time to calm down before interacting with him or her. If it is necessary to return the bird to his or her cage, gently use a towel to cover him, wrap him up, and return him to his cage.
Hormonal stimulation is often a trigger for aggression or aggressive behavior in birds. Often, this behavior centers on the perceived need to defend the territory (cage, play gym), food, or the perceived mate (toy, favorite human, mirrored reflection). While an occasional display of hormonal behavior is natural and not concerning, chronic hormonal behavior can lead to both behavioral issues as well as medical issues. Even a bird that is not actively laying eggs can have chronic reproductive issues leading to a variety of medical conditions including liver disease, high cholesterol/triglycerides, blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, egg binding, and egg yolk peritonitis.
The main treatment strategy involves attempting to decrease the reproductive hormones. We can do this with a combination of things:
1) Lupron: This is a hormone injection that down-regulates the reproductive cascade. It generally lasts 12-16 weeks. This is our quickest way to stop this process, but it must be coupled with some of the other management strategies below. If we choose to use Lupron, our goal is to start with this, but then to work on the other management strategies to allow your bird to become Lupron-independent.
2) Eliminate perceived mates: Birds in the wild only sit with or cuddle with those individuals who are mates. If allowed to cuddle, sit on our shoulders, or be petted or stroked, our pet birds begin to think of the humans in the household as ‘mates’. Other birds, mirrored reflections, and even toys can also serve as mates. The presence of a ‘mate’ causes some birds to have an increase in reproductive hormones. As difficult as it is, it is important to restructure how we handle our birds. Talking, teaching tricks, and playing flying or laddering games are much more healthy ways for us to interact with our birds than cuddling as we would do with other mammals. In addition, it is important to remove your bird’s access to toys or mirrors that may be stimulating.
3) Perceived nest boxes: If a bird perceives a nesting area or nesting cavity, this will cause the reproductive hormones to increase. This may include crawling under a towel, under your hands, into a corner of the cage, or even under a newspaper. Remove any huts or tents from your bird’s cage and make sure he or she is supervised when out of the cage.
4) Nesting material: Anything that your bird can chew obsessively will mimic nest-building. It is important to eliminate access to paper, chew toys, or anything else that your bird may obsessively chew on. For some birds, this is seasonal – certain toys need to be removed during the ‘breedy’ season, but are not a problem during other times of the year. Chewing activities are important for your bird’s well being, so it’s important to try to determine what is normal play activity and what constitutes a nest-building activity.
5) Certain foods can trigger reproductive hormones. Soft moist foods such as oatmeal, wet cereal, mashed potatoes, or baby food can be a reproductive trigger for many birds. It is best to avoid feeding your bird directly from your mouth or hand feeding soft, moist foods. Occasionally, we’ll have owners limit all fresh foods during the hormonal season if we are struggling to control hormones.
6) Light: Light plays an important role in regulating hormones. Unfortunately, it is difficult to sufficiently control light in our home environment. It may be beneficial to provide 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark to your bird. If you do not already have this arrangement, consider setting up a sleeping room for your bird. It should be located in a quiet part of the house, and the room should have a door and shades on the window so that it can be adequately darkened.
If your bird bites due to fear or anxiety, try to determine what is causing these emotions in your bird. Is it a new behavior? Is there a new picture on the wall or new piece of furniture near the cage? Did you have your hair colored? Are you wearing a new jacket? Is the smoke alarm beeping intermittently? If the cause can be addressed, that is the first step in alleviating the fear.
Practicing the step up and laddering exercises in a neutral environment will help your bird regain confidence. Use small steps to work towards desensitizing your bird to the trigger that is causing the fear. Positive reinforcement for accomplishing each step is necessary in overcoming the fear response. If your bird is fearful, discuss the triggers with your veterinarian for more specific advice.
Basic Avian Care
Birds require regular focused attention or at least ambient attention every day. Hand control and a positive relationship between you and your bird must be practiced. Set aside time each day to take your bird out of the cage and give him or her your undivided attention. In addition, provide your bird with adequate foraging opportunities, good nutrition, regular bathing, regular veterinary care, and adequate sleep each day. A deficiency in any of these basic needs may lead to behavioral problems. If a new behavioral problem develops, contact your veterinarian to rule out a medical abnormality before focusing on behavioral modification.