Bites Be Gone! Solutions for a Common and Painful Problem

By Jenny Drummey

Bites are complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to say what’s more painful about a bite from your parrot: the physical pain, or the emotional upheaval and the trust it destroys. The scars that bites leave behind are certainly physical, but they’re psychological and emotional too.

Bite-BitsThe bite has power, its force often shocking. If they’re so unpleasant, and they may eventually cause us to stop interacting with a parrot at all, why do they persist? How can we remove this behavior from our bird’s repertoire? It’s vital that you solve this problem, as it is impossible to build a trusting relationship with your bird if you fear he will bite you.

Start by realizing that bites matter, they have meaning, and they are communication. The question is: Are we listening?

If biting is common in your home, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Biting is a behavior, and like all behavior, it has a function, a reason for happening. The biting behavior persists because it allows the bird access to something he wants or allows him to avoid something he doesn’t want. Bites serve Biting Edinburghnews 2013a purpose to the parrot. Examine what that purpose is, and make changes based on that.

Don’t take bites personally. It’s easier to say than do. But when a bird bites you, think of it as communication only. A bite is like the exclamation mark at the end of the parrot’s sentence “I am uncomfortable with this situation!” Employ methods that remove the possibility of the bite happening in the first place.

Change the way you think about why the bite happens. Have you ever heard that a bird bites because he is “jealous” or “grumpy” or “hormonal”? Have you ever attributed a bite to something that happened last week, or longer (“He bit me because we went on vacation last month”)?

This kind of thinking doesn’t solve the problem, but instead attributes the bite to an unverifiable source, because we can never know what an animal is thinking. To change behavior, don’t focus on what the parrot is feeling, but on what the parrot is doing.

Biting LovebirdsRespect your parrot’s personal space. Let your bird choose to come to you. Present food or a toy at least 6 inches away and let your parrot come to it. If stepping up, allow the bird space to come to you, instead of forcing the behavior by, for example, pressing your hand into the bird’s stomach.

Be flexible. The simplest all-purpose solution when a bird’s body language indicates a chomp is imminent: Walk away and come back again in five minutes.

Learn to recognize common bite triggers:
• An object, person, or situation that causes the bird to exhibit body language that we associate with fear or aggression
• Territoriality around the cage or another location such as a play gym
• Caregiver distraction, which can result in inattention to a bird’s body language
• Unwanted attention (or too much attention)
• Caregiver’s body language

Biting Senegal

Use the Trust Test. A simple and effective tool to evaluate any answer to the problem is to see if it passes the Trust Test. Will the proposed biting solution build or destroy trust?

If it will build trust, the solution is worth a try. If it will destroy trust, forget about it. You know if a solution builds trust if the bird can choose to participate (and is allowed to make that choice!). If the bird is forced to comply with the solution or if you ignore the bird’s reaction, it will likely destroy trust between you.

Offer objects, food or situations that motivate your bird. A bird’s ability to choose the behavior you want her to perform is directly related to your ability to motivate her. The key is knowing what your bird really wants to work for. Offer the bird something of value to her at that moment, and she will choose to perform what you want to get that reward.

In most cases, when you want to change a behavior, you ignore the problem behavior, and reinforce an alternative behavior (using the motivator) instead. You teach the parrot what to do in place of the problem behavior.

Bite-Bits2Keep a biting notebook. Collect the data and evidence you’ll need to understand the problem and to change it. Each time you are bitten, record the details. What can you do differently? The most important thing to do when you get bitten is something other than what you were doing when you got the bite.

Parrots do not crave the same kinds of interactions that dogs and cats do. Petting generally isn’t something parrots desire – or if they do, it’s usually because it is sexually stimulating. We are so hard wired to the pleasures of touch that we have a hard time seeing past this basic fact. Sometimes as we continually offer affection the bird can show frustration and eventually bite.

Be aware that your bird may see you as a predator. Sometimes it’s hard to see how intimidating we are to our birds, but recognize that it is a distinct possibility that you are approaching your bird in a manner that could set up the bite. Don’t interact when you are stressed or hurried. Approach a parrot with slow, confident movements. Talk quietly to the bird.

CHANGE YOUR EXPECTATIONSParrots aren’t children, dogs, cats, or soul mates. Parrots are fascinating, intelligent, wild individuals who we try our best to live with every day. Parrots have evolved to be social creatures, and we are part of their flock. But sometimes we expect our birds to fulfill roles that they cannot, or to behave in ways that are not possible. Having realistic expectations can help you to reduce or eliminate biting, because you won’t be asking your bird to do things that don’t make sense. Consider a bird’s true nature, what he enjoys from interacting with you, and what’s healthy between you.

For more information on biting, see Biting Matters, published by the Phoenix Landing Press.

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5 thoughts on “Bites Be Gone! Solutions for a Common and Painful Problem

  1. So what do I do with a parrot that comes at me aggressively? I am afraid to offer a treat because the bird runs across the cage to bite me, ignoring the treat. S/he’ll even fly to my shoulder to bite me.

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    • Hi Denise,
      What does aggression look like?
      I recommend trying a functional assessment to come up with things to change in your interactions or in the environment to reduce the chance that this aggression will happen.
      What is the very first observable behavior that leads towards “aggression” (a label)?Lowers head to start to rush? Eye pin? Feathers around neck rise? What can you change in the environment or in your behavior to prevent that first step down the aggression path being taken in the first place?

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      • In the cage, she climbs towards me with an open beak as I approach, even coming out of the cage to get to me if the door is open. It doesn’t seem to matter if I make eye contact, or not, am talking or not. No eye pinning that I can see, no neck feathers fluffing, just the open beak. Out of the cage, she’ll come to the back of my chair after a while, as if she wants to be companionably close. If I let her, she’ll climb down to the arm of the chair, then randomly take a chunk out of my hand if I’m not looking, especially if I pay attention to the other conure.

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  2. I have an African Grey that I purchased when I lived out of town by myself. He loved me I could do anything with him. I could pretend shoot him and he would fall over, I could carry him on his back. He would give me kisses. Fly to me to give me kisses etc. Then it all came to an abrupt end when he met my husband. He totally forgot about me and now loves him. He tries to attack me through the cage and is only nice to me if my husband goes out of town at least 2 days or longer. I think then he is afraid that he may need to depend on me for food and water. As soon as my husband returns home the love is gone once again. So with that said and this is only my opinion as a bird owner.The pick who they like. If they choose not to like you you will never convince them otherwise. I started with a great relationship. never changed anything we did together and ten the match between my husband and him was made and will not be broken or changed. He imprinted him and that is is mate.

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    • Hi Debbie, What you describe is not unusual. In fact , it’s what happens in my home. My grey’s favorite person is my husband, even though I am the one who cleans, feeds, makes toys, and is generally at her beck and call. It can be frustrating.

      My guess is that your husband engages in a lot of mating behavior with her too (petting, continuing to engage with here despite her being “horny”)- maybe unbeknownst to him, which can further exacerbate the problem. This is where changing expectations about what a bird can be in our homes is crucial.
      Ask your husband to consider what he would do if you had a dog that attempted to constantly hump his leg.
      He wouldn’t encourage it, would he?
      I recommend engaging her in activities that do not result in one on one bonding time, (and to limit that time greatly.) Instead, figure out other things that all of you can do together. Clicker train. Dance. Play a game. Make her tons of foraging toys. Take her on a short car trip.
      Make your interactions with her of high value.
      Her favorite treats? You are the only one to ever give them to her.

      Once she starts getting sexy with your husband? Have him put her down or return her to her cage.
      I don’t know if your bird reached sexual maturity about the time your husband came into the picture, but this could also contribute.

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