How to React to a Biting Parrot.

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.

Island Parrot Sanctuary 095

Only two birds in this picture are interested in me, and the rest are telling me they want me to go away – by turning their backs.

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.

IMG_3984

This was the only way to teach our umbrella cockatoo with 20-some-years of ingrained habit that biting is unacceptable.

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.

IMG_3447

Know when your parrot is going to bite you, and avoid those situations entirely!

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…

IMG_3484

Proper diet is the number one way to prevent errant bites.

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.
IMG_3080

This Senegal Parrot may look friendly, but he is looking for an opportunity to bite my boyfriend.

  • 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.
Catalina mini macaw (blue and gold and scarlet macaw hybrid).

Catalina Macaw showing mating behaviour.

  • 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.)
IMG_0078

Fife canary Charlie with his mirror (and travel cage).

  • 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.
IMG_1779

Learning the right rewards is critical – our parrotlet, Ptak, loves millet wrapped in paper.

Body language of a bird potentially about to bite:

  • Lunging
  • Hissing
  • 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.

Sources:

http://littlefeatheredbuddies.com/info/taming-biting.html

Cockatiel Cottage

Image

I think this bird may bite.

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7 thoughts on “How to React to a Biting Parrot.

  1. Another couple of things to add re:warning signs…

    Splaying of tail feathers; crouching (as if ready to pounce); and sometimes…raising of the crest or ruffling the head feathers when they are afraid.

    Unfortunately, while I agree that you should not react to a bird bite, it is virtually impossible when you have a bigger bird. It is more than painful..sometimes permanent nerve damage that results and only someone with the highest level of pain tolerance can avoid reacting.

    • I’ll have to add those in! I know what you mean about the bites. To be honest, even a cockatiel’s beak – while physically so much smaller – can deal pretty good damage. Do you have any advice for big bird owners dealing with bites? Thanks for writing!

      • Advice for bigger bird owners on how to deal with bites… not really. The best advice is to learn your own bird’s behaviors so that you can anticipate what he/she will do as you have already advised. Don’t be complacent. Even though your baby has been good for a while, always be leary of getting your nose, finger or other appendage in the vicinity of his/her beak when they are near their cage, overly excited or are displaying certain behaviours.. NO MATTER WHAT!

        Some types of birds, will bite no matter what because they are bonded to once individual or prefer one gender over the other; others can bite without warning.

        Remember though, don’t hit your bird. Usually, biting is usually the human’s failure to head warnings – birds are not domesticated like dogs — they can be trained but are still less removed from the wild than our canine friends.

        Oh yeah, another thing to add…. try to make sure that your eye level is higher than your bird’s. Sometimes tough with the large cages but if they are higher than you, they tend to feel dominant.

        • Wonderful advice! Cannot agree more that it is the human’s failure – nearly always, anyway – if we’re bitten. I’m not sure about the theory about height and dominance, since I’ve read a fair bit going both ways. My flock don’t personally get ‘high and mighty,’ though I’m first to admit that another bird certainly might. Cheers!

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