Once Bitten… Twice Shy

A parrot’s beak is made of keratin, just like human fingernails. It has two basic parts: the upper and lower mandible. The mandibles are hinged to a parrot’s skull which gives the upper and lower mandible separate vertical movement. Their beaks grow continuously so parrots need constant sources for chewing to help wear down their beaks and keep them in good condition. Parrots can produce a lot of pressure when pressing the upper and lower mandible together. Cracking nuts is as easy as pie.

Birds communicate using vocal skills and body language. Beaks are used to explore their surroundings and environment. Some parrot species use their beaks as a third foot to grasp, to climb, to step up, and to hold nuts or toys.

Biting is one of the behavioral problems bird owners fear the most. Anyone who has ever been bitten by a large parrot can certainly understand the fear of being bitten.

One of the most common reasons birds bite is out of fear. A bird’s body language can give you clues to behavior. When parrots feel threatened they will react in a variety of ways, including running away, screaming, flailing their wings, hissing, growling, posturing, and biting.

Some of the things that can make parrots feel threatened or nervous are: invading their territory, strangers (lack of trust), changes in their environment, disturbing them when attention is not wanted, unexpected noises, sudden movements, jealousy, negative reinforcement (which has become a habit), abuse, or neglect.

Another common reason that causes birds to bite is protecting their mate. If your bird has chosen you for a mate and your bird perceives impending danger, he/she may bite you to try and chase you away from what he/she perceives as a dangerous situation. Your bird may feel that unfamiliar people, new birds, or new pets pose a threat to your safety. In these situations it is best to slowly introduce your bird to the new person, pet, or object, giving your pet enough time to accept and adjust to the change.

Birds may also bite out of frustration from lack of attention. Pet birds who are ignored and left in their cages for extended periods of time may take their frustration out on their owners by biting. Giving the bird attention and time out of the cage may curb the biting.

Hormone changes can trigger some aggressiveness and cause biting. Birds who are molting or going through hormonal changes during the breeding season may become tense, moody, and irritable which may lead to biting and other negative behaviors. During these periods watch your birds body language and leave your bird alone when attention is not desired. Be patient and wait for the cycle to run it’s course.

To prevent your bird from biting you need to learn and understand your birds personality and moods. Learning when they want attention and when they need privacy will help prevent from getting bitten in the first place. Exposing birds to change on a regular basis will teach birds to be more trusting of new objects, new people and unfamiliar sounds.

Most young birds go through a stage where they are exploring their surroundings and learning about their environment. During this stage birds are learning how to use their beaks and don’t realize the strength they possess. It is important to teach birds not to bite during this time. During this time do not allow your bird to nibble on your fingers, ears, or other body parts. Juvenile birds who were handfed may still think “fingers” are food. Newly weaned birds may be gentle when nibbling on your finger but can bite considerably harder as they grow up. Be consistent, otherwise your bird will be confused when he/she is suddenly not allowed to nibble on you anymore.

When birds try to nibble on you give them an acceptable alternative to chew on and in a firm voice tell them no. Offer them a carrot, apple slice, foot held toy, block of wood, piece of leather, etc. to chew on instead of your fingers. If the toy or food doesn’t distract them from your fingers, gently blow in their face and say NO. Some birds learn really quickly not to bite while others may take a few weeks.

Try not to disturb your bird when his body language is saying “leave me alone”. If your bird is napping, fluffs up his feathers, or lunges at you he/she is saying I am busy right now. If you try and play with him/her anyway, your bird may bite you to communicate that he/she doesn’t want any attention at the moment.

If your bird bites you really hard, try not to negatively reinforce the biting by giving the bird a reaction. Sometimes shouting OUCH, screaming, or yelling can be so appealing to the bird that he will bite you again to get the same reaction out of you.

If blowing in your bird’s face and, firmly saying NO, doesn’t stop your bird from biting within a few weeks, then you can try “time out periods”. Immediately after being bitten, firmly tell your bird NO, and put your bird in his/her cage or other designated area of the home, carrier, cage, or playstand for a “time out”. Completely ignore your bird during the entire duration of the designated time out period. Do not interact with your bird verbally or visually. After the time out is over, begin to interact with your bird and reward your bird for desired behavior with praise, head scratches, or a favorite treat.

You can also try covering your bird’s cage during the time out period. This may help calm down an aggitated, aggressive or frightened bird.

NEVER hit your bird or drop him/her to the floor. This is abuse and can physically and emotionally harm your bird. The “earthquake” and “wobble” methods are described as gently shaking or wobbling your arm to throw the bird off balance, thus preventing your bird from being able to bite. It is my opinion that both of these methods are detrimental to a birds emotional health. These methods may teach your bird that your arm is NOT a safe place to perch and may break the trust that your pet has in you.

Birds who are bonded to one person and bite others can be taught to accept other family members and friends. One method called ‘pass the bird” is used by Sally Blanchard. People sit in a circle on the floor. Each person is taught how to hold, pet and speak to the bird. Then he is passed from person to person. Before holding the bird, the person should speak to him in a soothing pleasant voice and then softly but firmly give the up command to obtain the bird. The bird should then be petted, reassured and praised, making it a positive experience. Over time the bird should become socialized and friendlier to people.

Learning what your bird’s body language is communicating to you will lead to a greater understanding of your pet and his/her needs. This will also help to strengthen the bond and build a trusting relationship between you and your pet parrot.

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