I hear a lot of people ask what to do when a parrot bites, and the best solution to ‘how to discipline a parrot’ is to ignore.
Even if your bird is the best-behaved, sweetest companion on the planet, chances are, you’ll get bitten at least once – so this is important information to know.
Ignoring your parrot is as simple as it sounds.
There is a lot of advice out there, and the Internet will tell you a lot of different things. I can tell you what doesn’t work: yelling or punishing. Hitting, shouting, spraying with water, and grabbing its beak are all out. They do not work. This is because avians do not see dominant figures, as dogs do, and have no concept of right and wrong. Punishment simply can be severely damaging to your bond with your bird.
If you hit a bird, it will fear you and never want to interact with you again. Why would it, if it thinks you might strike out at it again? Besides this, parrots will meet violence with violence, and be more likely to bite afterwards (not to mention they are very fragile, being hollow-boned).
Ideally, if your bird does bite, do not pull away, and do not react.
If you are able to bear the pain, push into the bite gently but firmly. If you yank your body from your parrot’s beak, or leave the room, you’ll only teach him that biting makes you go away. Shouting will also act as a reward.
If your bird is very large, of course, or even if you’re just taken by surprise, you will flinch. That’s a given. Instead, try to make the experience as unrewarding and unexciting as possible. If you can, don’t say anything, just turn your back – staying in place – and ignore him.
Don’t say no, shout, or reprimand – or make it anymore dramatic than you can help. Even a quiet, firm ‘no,’ can become a reward.
When my back is turned to a parrot, I literally choose not to face the bird in question, and summon feelings of strong disappointment. If I can, I put my parrot down, otherwise, I hold my arm away from me and don’t make eye-contact. (Inwardly, I tend to actually think, ‘I’m very disappointed that [my bird] has bitten me.’) This is closest to how avian flock members would react to an errant bite.
Remember to summon those facial expressions. Birds read them extremely well, and simply glaring at him could possibly change his mind.
Ptak and Mishka both want my attention very badly, and so ignoring them is an effective way of saying that I find their behaviour unacceptable. They’re also very intuitive, and can sense the moods of their humans. After the period of ‘discipline’ is up, I distract the birds with a completely new activity that involves treats, so that they can have a positive experience with me.
The best way to avoid any bite is prevention. You have to look at why the bird was biting you in the first place, because this is one of the few ways your bird knows how to tell you something. Once you’ve done that, take steps to change the pattern of behaviour.
Why is my bird biting me?
Step away from your pet and ask yourself, what exactly you were doing when he bit you.
Was your bird overexcited, and you simply happened to ‘push’ him/her too far? (Over-stimulation is common in white cockatoos, but can happen to any bird.) Did you misread his body language, and he was, in fact, signalling his discomfort, fear, or anger the entire time? Is your parrot hormonal? Too tired? Does he not like the colour of the shirt you’re wearing? Is he possessive over one person in the house, and driving people away from a perceived mate? Was he reluctant to do what you were asking? Or was he just bored and looking for a little excitement and drama?
There’s also territoriality (often linked with hormones), over-bonding to a human, or the simple fact that some birds think humans only listen to force.
Whatever the cause, it’s important to discover it and try to eliminate it. Of course, that’s easier said done…
Tips for helping prevent a bird’s bite:
- The best way to prevent a bite is to see it in your bird’s body language. So if, for example, your bird was on your shoulder and you couldn’t see this, make a rule that says he can only be there if you’ve put him there – and if he comes down nicely.
- Try taking some photos of your bird at play, while he’s in his cage, and while he’s with you.
- Examine your bird’s feathers and his posture – this was the best way for me to see some of the more subtle things I was missing with my flock. Maybe your bird pins his eyes, or ruffles the feathers at the back of his neck. Every bird is different.
- Reward step-ups with a treat and verbal praise. If you’re clicker training your bird, bridge the step-up with a click and a treat.
- Make sure you teach your bird that he has choice. If he says no, and you respect it, he won’t bite. Watch his body language closely to see when you need to back off. This way, he’ll realise that he doesn’t need force to get his point across.
- Eye contact prior to a step-up can help. Hold out your hand and give the verbal cue to step up without looking away – many birds will hold your eye rather than bite. (Know your bird, and know when this won’t work!)
- Hormones will take over after your baby reaches adulthood, running rampant in his system. This could be a cause of an errant bite – and if so, the answer is to ignore, yet again. Learn the triggers of parrot hormones: Reduce warm spray showers, feed an appropriate diet, and don’t pet outside the head/neck and feet areas of your pet. In a flock, everyone preens heads and necks; only a mate preens the rest of the body.
- Remove potential nesting materials (like shredded paper, fluffy bits of cloth, etc.) and don’t let your bird into enclosed spaces so that it’s completely surrounded – sleeping tents and parrot beds are a culprit here, as are boxes, closets, the spaces behind or under furniture, and even just shadowy nooks. Parrots who are hormonal are also often territorial, which will cause them to bite. Warm, high-fat, or mushy foods are out when your bird is feeling this way.
- Make sure your parrots gets 12-13 hours’ of undisturbed sleep in complete darkness.
- Swap up cage and room contents regularly, which prevents him from getting too territorial.
- If your bird bites in a specific place (like his cage), don’t try to step him up there! It’s inevitable that sometimes, our birds will get somewhere they’re not supposed to. Teach your bird to step up onto a perch, pillow, or something else, so that you don’t get bitten.
- Remove mirrors. These can frustrate a bird, as the ‘mate in the mirror’ never responds to their approaches. (Or the reflection could be seen as a competitor that never leaves.)
- Feed a good, rounded diet to prevent malnutrition. It’s a bit like if humans are malnourished – it wears on your body and makes you very grumpy. Cut back on fatty, sugary foods – including fruits and pellets – as these signal to a parrot that food is plentiful, and it’s time to breed. Vegetables are a must.
- Overexcited? Stop the game, or leave the room. This is especially important if your bird is sexually stimulated by you… Ignore the behaviour. If you encourage it, even accidentally, you could lead to a biting problem purely out of frustration.
- Overly energetic? Encourage flight and start working on flight recall – perhaps even consider flight-harness training.
- Bored avians should be provided with an activity that they view as engaging… This could be playing with you, a toy, or maybe foraging. Distract!
- Frightened birds: find and remove the cause of fear. Once again, that is much easier said than done – but put your bird on your finger and go around the room. He will slim his feathers down and lean away from things he does not like. Conversely, the things he wants to visit, he’ll lean his body towards. If he’s afraid of you, stop handling him and let him get used to you. You can try hands-off training like touch training, and drop treats into a bowl.
- Some birds bluff, too, because they feel small or threatened. Remember to encourage your pet by rewarding activities you like to see (I reward ‘peekaboo’ with attention, and playing nicely in the cage with treats!), and ignore bites to the best of your ability.
- Babies explore with their beaks. Ignore this behaviour and – once again – distract with something else, appropriate for chewing.
Body language of a bird potentially about to bite:
- Splaying tail feathers
- Crouching as if to pounce
- Bowing down
- Flattened/sleek feathers (and crest, if it has one)
- OR fluffed body feathers
- Opened beak
- Talking or mumbling (it doesn’t always mean happy)
- Beak hammering or opened wings
- Eye pinning
In summary, reward the behaviours you like and want to repeat – especially step up! – ignore bites (and the culprit) if possible, or else turn your back – and try to find out what happened so you can avoid and prevent it next time.