The most common problem for a pet bird owner is a bird that bites. Birds bite for many reasons, and there are as many different solutions as there are causes. Let’s take a look at common causes of biting in a pet bird and how to correct them. No article contains all the information needed to modify your bird’s behavior. However, I recommend reading Guide To a Well Behaved Parrot, by Mattie Sue Athan, and consulting an avian behaviorist for an issue you can’t solve on your own.
Exploratory or grasping bite is not an aggressive action. Birds have no hands and so use their beaks to grasp and hold objects. A parrot that is grabbing at your shiny jewelry or the freckle that looks to them like a little bug is using their beak in an exploratory manner. The other commonly misunderstood grasping bite is when a parrot slips and tries to use its beak to catch itself. This may hurt the human being used as a tree branch, but is also not an aggressive behavior.
Warning or nipping bite is a precursor to true aggression. A bird that wants you to stop what you are doing may give a nipping bite. The classic example is when the bird does not want to be petted. First the bird tries to move away from the hand. It may duck or wiggle. Then the bird may push the hand away with a closed beak. Finally, when the human has ignored all of these signs a parrot will nip. The nipping bite will hurt, but rarely breaks skin. The best way to prevent these bites is to respect your bird’s wishes, and learn to read its body language. If you listen to its polite request to stop, it will not be forced to nip.
True bite is an aggressive action. Even a small bird is likely to break skin, and a larger bird can cause serious wounds. Very few birds truly bite, and those that do always have a reason. Finding the cause is very important.
What are some common causes for a true bite?
- Physical illness must be ruled out first. Birds are prey animals. In the wild if a bird appears ill, a predator will quickly pick them out and eat them. For this reason, birds hide signs of sickness until they are unable to mask them. By the time a bird appears sick, it is desperately ill. A sick bird may begin to bite, as they know they are vulnerable to attack at this time. It is imperative that the first thing that must be done with a biting bird, especially one who has begun biting suddenly, is to take it to a certified avian vet for a full workup. Just because a vet who treats cats and dogs is willing to see your bird does not mean they are certified to treat them or experienced enough to find the problem. A bird that bites due to illness will become friendly again as soon as the illness is cured.
- Fear is the next most common cause of biting. An older bird may have been captured in the wild. Virtually all parrots born before 1992 are wild caught. Wild caught birds see humans as dangerous predators. Some may be tamed, but many will never lose that fear. A younger bird was most likely raised around humans, but can come to fear them through abuse or neglect. NEVER punish a bird by yelling, hitting, flicking its beak, throwing or any other physical means. Most companion birds are as intelligent as a 4- to 5-year-old human child. It only takes one incident to make a formerly trusting companion fear human hands for life. Neglect can cause fear of humans in a different way. If a pet bird is left covered or caged for long hours every day, boredom quickly sets in. Birds with no outlet for their beaks and minds quickly become neurotic. The best of them simply scream or pluck their feathers out. The worst become convinced that humans, perceived as their jailors, are to be mistrusted. Cage placement and other pets may contribute to fear as well. Being near the ground is not safe in the wild, so a cage on the floor makes your bird constantly feel exposed and vulnerable. A cat stalking them all the time triggers a similar fear.
- Dominance is often misunderstood in pet birds. Just like in a pack of wolves, there is a hierarchy to a flock. It is important that your bird perceives you as the leader. A bird that is dominating its humans is a terror. These birds often bite to demand attention or a treat. This bird is like a toddler and wants what it wants, and will throw a tantrum to get it. When a human gives in, it reinforces the bird’s idea of its place in the pecking order. Possibly the most misunderstood thing about dominance in pet birds is its relation to height. In the wild, the bird on the highest branch is the safest from predators. This means that in your home, the tallest one is the boss. Many birds with dominance issues improve dramatically when caged in a long, wide and low cage that allows the human to be taller. Special care should be taken that your bird is never allowed out on top of its cage. Playtime out of the cage should be on a play stand that is below your eye level. This is also the first of two major reasons that no large bird should ever be permitted on your shoulder. When a parrot sits on your shoulder it is taller than you, so it is the boss. The classic example is the bird that only bites when on top of her cage, but is sweet away from it.
- Hormonal behaviors are most commonly seen in male Amazon parrots, especially the so-called “hot three”: double yellow heads, yellow napes, and blue fronts. When these boys reach sexual maturity at around age 5, they often become extremely aggressive during mating seasons—normally spring. This is the bird that “was so sweet as a baby and then turned mean.” Due to hormone surges, these guys literally cannot control themselves for a couple months out of the year. These bites occur when the bird is in breeding mode and either has a mate or a mate substitute. The substitute may be a human or a favored toy. In Amazons, hormonal aggression cannot be prevented, but as long as you are educated about the signs and prepared for special handling during those times, they can still be acceptable pets. Be aware: A hormonal hot three male can and will break bones, and shred flesh. Other bird species and female Amazons show a much less extreme form of hormonal aggression. They will become possessive of their favored person or toy at breeding time, and may bite to “protect” it from intruders. This is often made much worse by unknowingly petting the bird incorrectly. Petting anywhere on the body or under the wings is sexually stimulating to a bird. Especially during breeding season, petting should be restricted to the head and neck.
- Inadvertent training is a very common way birds learn to bite. You may find it difficult to believe that anyone would teach their pet to bite them. Well, not on purpose, but people do it all the time. The two most common ways of training a biter are as follows:
- Giving attention to a biting bird. Birds love laughter. They often seek out this response and will repeat any behavior that gets a laugh. Sure, your baby bird chasing your spouse around and nipping at them is funny. But, if you laugh, or give any attention at all, they will continue to nip, and eventually bite. To a bird, negative attention like yelling at them is still attention, and reinforces the biting behavior.
- Rewarding biting indirectly. For example, the human reaches out for the bird and the bird bites. The human then very quickly removes their hand. The bird has learned that biting makes the hand go away, and will quickly begin to bite whenever it does not want the human near.
- Displaced aggression is another thing that is confusing to new bird owners. Displaced aggression is also the second reason a bird should never be on a human’s shoulder. Basically, displaced aggression means that if the bird can’t reach whatever it is upset by, it will bite whatever it can reach. Your bird, which loves you and would never normally hurt you, can suddenly turn and bite you badly if a disliked human walks into the room, or a scary car passes by.
- Mental illness is not common in pet birds, but it does occur. Birds can have OCD, depression and anxiety just like humans. Of the three, anxiety is most likely to result in biting. A severely anxious bird will not only bite a human, but also often injure itself. This goes far beyond feather plucking to actual mutilation of flesh. The only help for these birds is an avian vet, who can prescribe medications to help.
Now, hopefully we know why the bird bites, so what do we do about it?
While the bite is happening:
- Stay as calm as possible. Panicking will only make the bird more upset.
- Employ the earthquake correction. If the bird is on your body, gently shake that body part. You do not want the bird to be thrown off, but in suddenly losing his balance, he will let go with his beak while he corrects. At the same time, move into the bite; do not pull away. This is hard to do, but will greatly reduce any damage the bird might do.
- Once the bird lets go, put him back in his cage calmly and ignore him. Walk away and tend to your wound. This “time out” period lets both you and the bird calm down before trying to figure out the problem.
After the bite, how do we prevent future biting? First, you have to identify that your pet bird was truly being aggressive. If he was being aggressive, then the type of aggression will determine your next step in helping your pet bird.
Identified aggression and the next step:
- Physical illness, injury and mental illness – Before attempting any behavior modification, have the bird thoroughly checked out by an avian vet. If there is a physical reason, fixing it solves the problem.
- Fear – Work slowly to gain the bird’s trust. Be sure it is in a cage with corners to retreat to. It is often helpful to cover one half of the cage with a towel to allow the bird to “hide.” Keep other pets out of the bird’s room, and place the cage up off the floor. Sit near its cage and talk to it, offering treats. Do not try to handle the bird until it comes to you. Avoid direct eye contact, and keep your hands hidden at your sides. It takes much patience, but a fearful bird will come to trust humans again.
- Dominance – Lower the bird’s cage to below eye level. Do not allow the bird on top of the cage or on shoulders. If the bird becomes very pushy, put it in time out and ignore it for a short time. Especially difficult birds may respond to being placed on the floor when they act dominant.
- Hormonal behaviors – Discontinue all sexually stimulating petting. Remove any favored toy that the bird shows courting behaviors to. Reduce the length of light each day. Reducing the bird to 10 hours of daylight and 14 hours of darkness will often reduce their breeding urges. Do not handle a very hormonal bird, especially a male Amazon. Consider stick training your bird when it is not in breeding season, so you can easily move it without handling. Be patient, as breeding-related aggression lasts only for a few weeks each year.
- Inadvertent training – Be very careful to ignore bad behavior, and use time outs rather than punishments that reward. Always move into a bite, not away.
- Displaced aggression – Do not encourage the bird to have a favored human. Make sure that the best things in the bird’s life (favorite treats and so on) only come from the least favored human. Do not allow the bird on shoulders. Keep an active lookout for things that may startle the bird and try to avoid them.
With some help from a good avian vet, and some patience and commitment on your part, biting problems can be solved. Your pet bird has the potential to be your loyal friend and companion for the rest of your life. Taking the time to teach him now will give you the opportunity to make it a wonderful, lasting friendship.