Most of the literature that has been written on parrot behavior suggests that biting and aggression are easily solved by techniques that serve to show the companion parrot “who’s in charge”. This simplistic view strikes the novice owner as a great revelation because it is so intrinsically based on human behavior that we can make sense of it and accept it. However, this view is limited in that it is drawn directly from human behavior with a disregard for the perspective of the companion parrot.
Buddy cleaning his feet.
During one of my early encounters with parrots, I witnessed a customer enter a bird store to complain that her cockatiel bites too much. The response of the store employee and one that is often cited in most avian textbooks is that, “All birds bite”. At the time, I didn’t think much about what had happened. However, over the years that followed, my experience with training and keeping parrots has caused me to re-think this assumption. Today, when looking back at this with my own birds, I think the assumption that “All birds bite” is wholly inaccurate when used to describe companion parrots. I believe that a much more accurate assumption would be to say that all birds are capable of biting.
Parrots communicate greatly through their body language. Here, Buddy is shown enjoying a head scratch.
Parrots bite for numerous reasons but not all parrots will bite. Some parrots bite because they are territorial, hormonal, defensive, agitated, and some may nip their owners because biting is one way parrots communicate. In order to solve a biting problem, owners must first identify the underlying cause of the bird biting. Is it territorial, hormonal, or defensive biting? Each underlying cause is solved differently. It is impossible to solve all problem biting by using just one strategy because the causes are different. Yet, this is what most textbooks do when they suggest using “step up drills” or similar methods to try to solve all parrot biting problems. The purpose of this post is not to provide owners a manual for diagnosing and solving all parrot biting problems. Parrot behavior is so complex that no troubleshooting manual would ever be sufficient to accommodate for every single problem. Rather, the purpose of this post is to: (1) dispel the myths associated with parrot biting (2) examine the ineffectiveness of currently accepted methods of redirecting parrot aggression and (3) offer suggestions for redirecting parrot aggression by considering the perspective of the companion parrot.
Smokey, an African Grey Parrot
One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to parrots is this idea that parrots have a flock leader and that owners should emulate this flock leader mentality with their own birds to show them who’s boss. This is often used as a rationale in many books for enforcing horrible techniques to stop parrots from biting. Without going further, I would like to state it clearly that parrots do not have a flock leader. Biologists and ornithologists have never observed nor have they ever documented any evidence for the existence of a flock leader in a wild flock of parrots. Considering the fact that wild flocks of budgies, cockatoos, and amazon parrots can number up to hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds, it becomes hard to imagine that there can be one bird who can oversee, much less have authority over the other hundreds and thousands of birds in the flock. Parrots live in large social flocks; they do not have a flock leader.
Parrots are social animals that require daily interaction with their flock members. Buddy is shown here with his human flock.
The problem that arises when owners try to extrapolate the idea of a flock leader to companion parrot behavior is that they unintentionally create much more damage than was there in the first place. Parrots are prey animals. When they encounter a human being, their initial interaction with that person will tell them whether the person is someone to be trusted or if that person is a predator to be feared. Now, imagine a novice owner reaching his hand into a parrot’s cage to take him out and the parrot bites. What does every single bird book say to do? Undoubtedly, all the bird books and most behaviorists will tell you to accept that bite, show no reaction and continue to press forward to force the bird out. This is the currently accepted strategy for dealing with a parrot biting in this situation. The thought behind it is that if you show no reaction to the bird’s bite, he will learn that biting is ineffective from getting you to back off. Further, people believe that if we continue to press forward and force the bird out, then he will learn that we are the boss; we make the choices, he doesn’t. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! This is a great way to get bitten, it’s a great way to create a bird that fears hands, and this is a great way to create a bird that feels helpless in his environment – all of which are worthless qualities in a companion parrot. If we wish to create a much more trusting, mutual, and ultimately friendlier relationship with our avian companions, we must adopt a different strategy when dealing with a biting parrot.
Empowerment is giving our birds choices and allowing them to make their own decisions. Smokey is shown here, sparkling with curiosity.
So what should we do when a parrot bites? Show reaction, lots of it. Although biting is natural for parrots, it is not natural for parrots to bite their flock members to the point of drawing blood. So, what are we missing? In the wild, a baby parrot growing up would experiment different things with his beak. When he plays with his clutch mates and flock members, they will let him know when his beak delivers too much pressure. If we observe our parrots playing with one another, they will often screech very loudly and very distinguishably to communicate pain. This screech tells the other bird that he’s delivered too much pressure with his beak. If the wild parrots do not learn how to inhibit the force of their bite, they will soon find themselves without a flock. It is, therefore, essential to their survival to learn bite inhibition. So, whenever my birds bite, I scream “ouch”, pull my hand away, and ignore the bird. This short time-out lets the bird know that if he continues to bite, playtime will be over and his companion will disappear. Eventually, my bird will learn to inhibit his bite so that it becomes less and less damaging. However, even then, if my bird puts on even a tad bit of pressure, I would exaggerate and yell “ouch” even if it didn’t really hurt. This tells the bird that human skin is super sensitive and they must be extra gentle.
Smokey, the gentle giant.
Of course, the limitation with this approach is that it works very well with birds that are already bonded to their human counterparts and see humans as being their flock members. For these birds, biting means that owners leave, which is a bad thing since these birds adore human company. For birds that are unaccustomed to humans and human hands, however, this approach may not work so well because it will reinforce the bird for biting. Using this approach on a completely wild parrot, for example, will inadvertently teach the bird that biting is effective in getting humans to leave. So, for these birds, we are dealing with defensive biting. In this case, we must first earn the bird’s trust. We do that using target training.
Parrots are capable of forming very strong bonds with their human companions.