Are You Teaching Your Parrot to Bite?

Hmm ... What Kind of Perch is This?

Photo: Macaw Biting a Finger
Photo: Macaw Biting a Finger | Source

Human Actions That Teach Parrots to Bite

Each year, many parrots are given away because they bite the humans they spend time with. Why do parrots develop the biting habit and what steps can be taken to prevent development of avian aggression?

A hard truth is that parrot biting can be triggered by the behavior of the humans the parrot spends time with. While this may not be something that parrot owners want to hear, how a human interacts with the parrot he/she spends time with plays a role in how the bird responds and ultimately whether it will develop undesirable and potentially dangerous biting behavior.

Just as children will respond to whomever they spend the most time with, so too, companion parrots.

While avian biting may be triggered by height factors or over-bonding to the cage or lack of multiple territories or boredom or fear, or for some other reason, we will take a look at human behavior and how it impacts on parrots. Owners may be unwittingly contributing the their bird's biting behavior.

A Parrot Uses its Beak for a Multitude of Activities

Photo: A Parrot's Beak is a Tool it Uses for Daily Tasks
Photo: A Parrot's Beak is a Tool it Uses for Daily Tasks | Source

Is this Perch Steady?

Photo: Parrot Uses Beach to Test Perch.
Photo: Parrot Uses Beach to Test Perch. | Source

Macaw Bites Hole Through the Webbing Between My Thumb and Forefinger

I once received a nasty bite from a Macaw named Walter. I had been called in by the owners because their bird had developed biting behaviors.

The bird had been placed in a doorway, high up on a perch, and had started to guard its perceived territory by lunging and biting at any who passed under it. Wrong decision by owners.

I went outside, where it was kept in a large well-appointed cage with perches set high up, which meant the bird was in a dominant position. Wrong position for perches.

The man confided that he was afraid that, if the bird became more aggressive, he would have to find a new home for it. He'd had the bird for many years and seemed to love it but ... the man had the problem, not the bird. His pride got in the way of accepting recommendations that would have helped curb the bird's behavior. I suggested he lower his bird's perches and remove the Macaw from its watch in the doorway. I told the man that if he failed to heed my advice, his Macaw would only become more aggressive.

Months passed and wondering how Walter was doing, I stopped by one day. The bird was nowhere in sight and the woman told me that they were keeping it by itself in a different room in the house. I felt sorry for Walter, that he now spent his days in isolation. I tried to tell the woman that parrots are social creatures who need to be with their human "flock."

She took me to the basement to show me some paintings but did not tell me that the room we were going into was also the room where the poor bird spent its days alone in the darkness. I stepped back, without seeing Walter perched on the back of a chair, and the next thing I knew, I had a hole in my hand.

I did not blame the poor frustrated bird, I blamed the owners.

Misreading Signals--How Innocent Actions Can be Misinterpreted and Trigger Biting

Beak Behavior Misinterpreted by Humans--A parrot uses its beak as an extension of itself, for any number of tasks. This includes preening, foraging, chewing, etc. For example, in the wild, a bird would grab onto a branch with its beak, prior to stepping onto it.

Think about this for a moment: if you were a parrot and you were used to navigating by means of branches that you had learned by experience, often moved and swayed, what would be the first thing you would do prior to stepping onto them? You would ensure that the branches you were about to step onto were stable, wouldn't you?

Now, normally, prior to stepping onto a perch, a parrot may secure it first with its beak, then step up onto it. If the bird knows a perch is stable from previous use, it may feel more confident about stepping onto it, with no prior testing.

If a human presents a finger and tells the bird to step up, the parrot may respond by testing this "perch" first via beak to hand. At this stage, the parrot is not interested in biting, it is merely doing what it would do in nature, as anyone human or animal with a lick of sense would do, ensuring the safety of wherever it is about to place its weight.

Now, if the human is afraid of receiving a bite and jerks the hand away, this reaction may actually trigger biting on the part of the parrot.

Understandably so. The bird may have been testing the finger prior to obediently stepping up, as instructed. The parrot has now been shown that the perch is unstable. The next time a finger is offered, the parrot may be cautious and use stronger measures to test/secure it, prior to stepping up onto it.

How would you react if you were instructed to step up on something, then the moment you checked to see it was safe and tried to secure it, it was yanked away from you? You would question why someone would instruct you to take an action and then sabotage that same action. You would have a hard time trusting that person the next time, wouldn't you?

If someone did this repeatedly, this might trigger aggressive behavior. A parrot might be conveying: you've told me to step up but each time I do, you yank my perch away. This upsets me and now I'm reacting in kind.

"In Your Face" Behavior--Another behavior that can trigger parrot biting is the human who approaches a parrot and waves a finger in front of the bird's beak. This is asking for trouble because the parrot interprets this as threatening behavior. Wouldn't you?

I remember telling new guests to my home to never do this but as they approached my parrot, they would start waving their finger in front of his face, seemingly forgetting my warnings. To my bird's great credit, he would give a warning lunge, so that those tall humans threatening him, backed off. Imagine having a stranger towering over you and exhibiting body language that your instincts tell you is threatening? Wouldn't you go into red alert?

Any quick movement such as poking, pointing a finger or waving may be perceived by the bird as an invitation to fight. Often, as my bird did, a parrot will lunge in warning, and if this warning is ignored, will bite the offending finger, hand or arm. This, in fact, is how many humans, including owners, get nasty bites. They forget they are near the parrot and may be gesturing or waving too close for comfort for the poor parrot who is not a mind reader and will interpret human body language the best way it can.

The parrot knows that it cannot win a contest for size, so when it feels threatened, it will use what is has at its disposal (its beak) to protect itself, just as it would do in the wild.

Remember, humans take parrots out of their natural environments and then expect them to adapt to unnatural environments. Understanding that your behavior may be interpreted differently can go a long way in fostering peaceful cohabitation with your parrot.

Ouch! That's Hurts!

Photo: Parrot Biting Man's Nose
Photo: Parrot Biting Man's Nose | Source

Does your Parrot Bite?

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When a Parrot Bites--Unintentional Reinforcement

A parrot bites. How humans respond will play a large part as to whether this is occasional behavior or behavior that becomes entrenched.

Laughter--Surprisingly, laughter can reinforce avian biting. Laughing when a baby parrot bites someone or attacks an object, unwittingly reinforces biting. The bird may enjoy the musical sound of laughter and view this as a reward. It will be motivated to seek this reward again. It may enjoy the response its behavior has evoked. What will happen when the bird is fully mature, with a strong beak and capable of truly injuring someone?

Yelling--The person who yells when receiving a bite may also reinforce undesirable avian behavior. A parrot may enjoy the reaction a bite provokes, enjoying the sheer drama that has ensued. Because a parrot is a dominant creature, this response teaches the bird that biting is an effective measure and can be used to control a "flock member."

Retaliation--A human might retaliate to a bite by thumping the parrot on its beak. This is never a good response. The initial bite may have been unintentional or an instinctive behavior on the bird's part. Striking back at the bird models aggressive behavior. Parrots have incredible retentive faculties and the action will be remembered and may trigger a bite when least expected. Like elephants, parrots rarely forget a wrong and the piper will be paid sometime down the road.

Do Not Disturb!

Photo: Parrot Sleeping
Photo: Parrot Sleeping | Source

How Would You Feel?

  • If you were fast asleep, how would you feel if you were dragged out of bed and expected to be sociable to guests?
  • If you were busy bathing, how would you feel if someone turned off the water and moved you to another room before you were finished?
  • If you were eating and enjoying a meal, how would you feel if you were expected to forego your meal and interact with others, possibly strangers?
  • If you were feeling stressed or overwhelmed and sought out a quiet corner, how would you feel if you were pushed into the limelight?

Teaching a Parrot to Bite--Ignoring Clear Signals

Perceptive ownership means being attuned to the signals a parrot gives. Respecting a parrot's boundaries facilitates peaceful interaction.

Alone Time--Just like their human counterparts, parrots have times they would rather be left alone: they may be busy eating or preening; they may be sleepy or feel stressed. Respect for a companion parrot includes being sensitive to the signals it gives.

Humans should never force a bird to act sociable when the bird demonstrates it does not wish to do so. Pushing the issue could end up being a painful experience for the human who does not respect its bird's boundaries and clear signals it needs down time.

While parrots are sociable creatures, they, just like their human counterparts need time to relax and recharge.

Parrots are incredibly intelligent so they are far more capable of experiencing a range of emotions. Just as you appreciate when someone show consideration for your feelings, so too, the parrot who shares his time with you.

Humans who do not understand the message their body language sends to their parrots
How humans react when their parrot bites them
Humans who do not act when biting first starts
Humans who do not understand their parrot's body language
How humans react when bird bites others
Humans who create stress for the bird by punishing biting with socially inadequate environments
Humans who stress their bird by ignoring clear signals it does not want interraction
Humans who do not know how to read avian body language for signals parrot is about to bite
Humans whose pride prevents them from addressing issues that trigger biting
As touched on earlier, many factors contribute to biting in parrots, but this discussion focuses on how humans contribute and to and aggravate the problem.

Nipping Biting in the Bud

Living with a companion parrot can be a wonderful experience but owners do well to guard against unintentional reinforcement of avian biting. Remember, you are living with an intelligent creature who will react emotionally to whatever it perceives is going on in close proximity to it. Parrot biting should be nipped in the bud to ensure peaceful and safe coexistence.

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