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How Height Plays a Role in Avian Aggression

Updated on January 30, 2017
Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn has shared her life with four parrots, written articles for avian publications, and helped owners address troubling parrot behaviors.

Is Your Parrot a Biting Bully?

In a contest between an appendage and a beak, the beak will win. Owner beware.
In a contest between an appendage and a beak, the beak will win. Owner beware.

Height and Aggressive Tendencies in the Companion Parrot

Height is a key element in a parrot's environment--one that can contribute to aggressive tendencies in the companion parrot.

Many parrots spend much of their time viewing the world around them from a dominant position. This can lead to aggressive behavior, such as lunging and/or biting.

The height at which a parrot interacts with those around it will influence how the bird responds to adults, children and other pets in the household.

Parrots seek to establish pecking order, even when part of their human "flock" and height plays a key role in how they will interact with those they come into contact with.

At times, owners unwittingly contribute to avian aggression by constructing stands or tree perches with perching spots high up. While it is ideal to give a parrot lots of room and multiple branches to climb on, care should be taken so that any stand or perch does not allow the bird to be in a position that is higher than its humans.

A Parrot That is Perched Above You is in a Dominant Position

Photo: Double Yellow-Headed Amazon Parrot
Photo: Double Yellow-Headed Amazon Parrot | Source

Did You Know?

Smaller beaks can be sharper on the ends, so bites can be very painful, even if the bite is over a smaller area. A bite from a larger beak can be very dangerous because of the sheer crushing power of a large beak. Bones can be broken and areas severed.

Cage Height and Avian Aggression

If the parrot is large it may be housed in an equally large and roomy cage that, by its very design, may contribute to aggressive behavior. The perches inside the cage may be placed at the mid-to-upper level or the cage may include an external perch on its very top.

Unfortunately, from these high positions, the bird may reinforce its perceived dominance over lower "creatures" in its environment, biting at those who come up to the cage or who walk by it. The parrot may reach down and bite at an outstretched hand from someone in a subordinate position. Bites from both smaller and larger parrots can be incredibly painful and in some cases can do serious damage.

Fortunately, most modern larger parrot cages are designed so that they can be shortened. This can be facilitated by lowering the legs or actually removing them.

Homemade cages also present problems because most owners try to make these as large as possible. While it is important to give a parrot plenty of room, careful consideration should be given to the actual height of the perches placed inside the cage.

In sum: provide a roomy environment but one that fosters peaceful coexistence.

Perches Positioned High Up Are a No-No if You Want a Well-Behaved Parrot

Photo: Macaw in Large Cage
Photo: Macaw in Large Cage | Source

Walter's Story

Walter was a beautiful large macaw that had been with his owner for 25 years. The owner lovingly built Walter a huge outdoor cage. When Walter became increasingly aggressive, I was called in to do a consult to see if we could pinpoint the trouble.

I recommended that the perches inside the cage be immediately lowered so that Walter would no longer be positioned above his owner's head. I strongly suggested that Walter be positioned to look up to his humans. The owner did not listen and dismissed my advice, in spite of his partner urging him to do so.

Some months later, when I stopped in to see Walter, he was nowhere in sight. We had gone down to the basement to look at some paintings. I backed up and the next thing I knew, I had a hole bitten clean through the skin between my thumb and forefinger! Walter had been placed on a chair. Because it was dark and I didn't know he was down there, I had invaded his space and he'd reacted to protect himself! Imagine how Walter felt with a huge shape backing into him in the dark. I wasn't mad at poor Walter, I was upset that the owners would place him into solitary confinement because of not knowing how to deal with him.

After we went back upstairs, I was told why Walter had been confined to the basement. The owners had placed a smaller indoor cage in a hallway close to the entrance door, which Walter manned and guarded, again perched on the top above the humans who passed by him. He had taken a chunk out of the wife's arm as she walked by his cage.

The story ended just as I had suspected it would. I heard that Walter became so unmanageable that the owner gave him away. I felt saddened. This could have been avoided had the owner had been willing to make adjustments and place Walter in a lower position, and had he taken other steps to reduce Walter's undesirable behaviors.

A Bite Can be Avoided by Positioning Yourself Higher

The Proof is in the Pudding

While some may doubt the veracity of this advice. Try asking a parrot to step onto your hand when you are in a lower position, as compared to when you are in a higher position. More times than not, if you are in a lower position, your bird will lunge and threaten or even bite you.

My Parrot, Muggles, Eagerly Steps up onto a Hand

Human is above parrot.
Human is above parrot. | Source

Step-Ups and Parrot Height

Height factors are also relevant in relation to step-ups.

Bites can be avoided by paying attention to body position before requesting that a parrot steps onto a hand.

  • Owners should ensure that they are in a higher position before telling the parrot to step up. Never reach up from below a psitticine and direct it to step up. If you have to, stand up first before instructing it to step onto your hand.
  • This same methodology should be implemented when passing a parrot to another family member.

Displaced Aggression

I knew a fellow who owned a big macaw. He allowed the bird to sit on his shoulder, without incident... until, one day, his parrot reached over and bit off part of his ear!

As he was telling me about this, and saying he couldn't understand why his bird had done this to him, the first thing I asked was, "Did someone approach or come up close to you, while the bird was still perched on your shoulder?" He looked surprised and said, "Yes, as a matter of fact."

On the Bad Side of a Beak

An accident waiting for a happening through overt or displaced aggression.
An accident waiting for a happening through overt or displaced aggression.

Shoulder Time and Overt or Displaced Aggression

Most parrots will try to creep up an arm and gain a spot on a shoulder or even on top of a head.

Many owners know this is not ideal but "cheat" a little. This is easy to do because of the bonds that are forged between human and bird.

A larger hook-bill should never be allowed shoulder time, a position where significant injury could be inflicted to its owner or someone else who approaches. As the bird reaches maturity, the potential for shoulder aggression escalates.

  • Overt aggression may be directed to anyone who approaches.
  • Displaced aggression may directed toward the shoulder human.

Self-Protective Behavior

At other times, again dependent upon where a parrot is in relation to humans, it may act in an instinctual fashion because it is trying to protect itself. What may be perceived as aggression is its response to a situation it perceives as threatening. It has well been said that there are no bad birds, only "bad" humans. Owners who fail to understand their parrot's needs, their innate and instinctual behaviors, may unwittingly set the stage for undesired responses/outcomes.

Have you been bitten?

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Beautiful Bonds

A beautiful bond can be created when owners recognize and respect the beautiful creatures they live with and take every step to ensure the environment their parrot lives in accommodates its needs and is one that fosters peaceful coexistence.

A Beautiful Bond

Parrots That Lose Their Homes

Each year, many parrots are given away or relinquished to shelters because owners, while meaning well, do not invest the time to learn how to address instinctual and behavioral issues. The onus is on the owner to foster peaceful coexistence with a companion parrot by understanding the significance of height factors and how these may play a role in development of aggressive behaviors. With proper care and handling, a parrot can become a delightful member of the family for many years to come.

Aggression in Companion Parrots

Certainly, aggression in a companion parrot may have more than one cause and height may be only one of many factors contributing to undesirable behaviors that need to be addressed and dealt with.

Author's Note

Avian behaviorism is an evolving field and theories change as to the "why" behind certain types of psittacine behavior. In recent years, conflicting theories have emerged about height and whether it is a factor in aggression. Having lived/worked with different species of parrots and noticing a remarkable difference in behavior, dependent upon positioning, I stand by my recommendations about height and how it can play a role.

Sources:

  • Blanchard, Sally, The Beak Book: Understanding, Preventing, and Solving Aggression and Biting Behaviors in Companion Parrots, Companion Parrot Behavioral Solution Series: Volume I, PBIC Inc, 2002
  • Athan, Mattie Sue, Guide to a Well Behaved Parrot, Barron's Educational Series Inc. 1993

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© 2013 Athlyn Green

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    • Athlyn Green profile image
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      Athlyn Green 7 weeks ago from West Kootenays

      Laurella, if the person is reaching upward, we are still looking at a height factor--two actually, i.e. namely the height of the bird in relation to the height of the owner.

      Whether a parrot acts from an instinctual basis and tries to protect itself, it still may lash out with what could be termed aggressive behavior. Lunging, biting, or attacking, whether fueled by self-protective instincts or by an innate need to establish pecking order or dominate or as a means of avoidance--and each situation is different--still could be said to be aggressive if the person they lash out at is injured.

      You make a good point and I agree with you that in some cases, this is a self-protective instinct, say when a stranger approaches from below and expects a parrot to step up.

      But I have also seen parrots use aggression to avoid stepping up, even when their human is at the same height. They flex their will and their muscle by lunging or biting to avoid stepping up. Is this strictly self-protection or an intelligent creature trying to avoid doing something it doesn't want to do? When a child acts similarly, we perceive this as resistant behavior that is inappropriate because it injures and we seek to teach them less violent behaviors.

      I appreciate your feedback as self-protection is also a valid behavior, as in the case of poor Walter, when I backed into him in the dark. If someone did that to me, and I felt threatened, I might act in a similar fashion.

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      Laurella Desborough 7 weeks ago

      I believe that the article re height and aggression is based on a misunderstanding of the behavior of a parrot that is located on a high cage where the owner has to reach up to retrieve the bird. Here is the main point. It is not the HEIGHT of the bird that causes the bird not to want to step up (which is being labeled as "aggressive behavior"), but the fact that the person wanting to have the bird step up is REACHING UPWARD. Note that in the wild the majority of parrot species live in trees most of the time. Parrots are prey species. Being up high is a secure location most of the time. However, snakes and other predators may climb those trees and REACH UP for the bird. Thus, parrots that are in a nice high location are not so much aggressive towards a human hand reaching up as they are taking INSTINCTIVE measures to protect themselves. Note that when the owner stands on a stool and reaches over to the bird AT THE BIRD'S LEVEL, then the bird is not bitey or resistant to stepping up. Unfortunately, Sally Blanchard promoted this idea of aggression and from over 35 years of working with hundreds of parrots of several species, it is clear to me that it is not a matter of aggression so much as a matter of instinctive self protection for parrots to reject a hand reaching up from below.

    • Athlyn Green profile image
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      Athlyn Green 2 years ago from West Kootenays

      I see from your profile that you look after dogs. What are your credentials, as it relates to avian behavior? I have owned four parrots and rehabilitated two who had come from abusive backgrounds and had aggression problems. I've contributed articles to avian publications and have served in the capacity of an avian behavioral consultant.

    • Athlyn Green profile image
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      Athlyn Green 2 years ago from West Kootenays

      Hi DrMark, I find it interesting that you misread what I had written. Where do you feel that I advocated putting a parrot so low that it would become "aggressive and neurotic"? The point I was making, and that I'm sure most would have understood from this article, was to lower a parrot from a dominant position, which can help to reduce aggression and is a protection to owners.

      Huh! All of the avian behavioral consultants and specialists must be wrong about height and aggression, if your comments are to be taken with more than a grain of salt.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 2 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      This is certainly an interesting theory. One statement you made was "The height at which a parrot interacts with those around it will influence how the bird responds to adults, children and other pets in the household."

      Yes, that is true. The way to make a parrot aggressive and neurotic is to lower his cage so that he no longer is high enough to feel secure.

      Good thing all of those hundreds of parrots that visit me every week have not been able to read this article.

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