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.

Molts and Pinfeathers: A New Year for You and Your Bird

The start of a new year: time to make promises to yourself for positive changes in your life. As you sign up for a gym membership or purge Facebook friends, don’t forget your bird. What resolutions can you make to improve your bird’s life in the coming months?

Don’t get overwhelmed. Start small with an achievable goal for the first few months of the new year. Expand your parrot’s  world with new activities and enrichment items in January. Improve your parrot’s diet in February. March is the month to tackle a behavior problem.

January, when your family is stuck inside, is a great time to make a bunch of simple toys. Begin by re-purposing all of those (safe!) boxes that your holiday gifts came in as foraging toys for your bird, then continue toy making throughout the month. Toys are simple and cheap to make, and Kris Porter’s Parrot Enrichment Activity Book available from  is an excellent free resource. The Facebook group The Parrot’s Workshop provides an almost endless supply of simple toys that are easy to make, often with instructions.

Though toys can be based on items you have in the house, you can also purchase bird toy parts online (a recommended site is Recruit your kids and their friends or other bird lovers in your area to have a toy making party. Focus on variety for maximum interest. Experiment with different textures, materials, and colors in the same toy. Toys don’t have to look pretty, they just have to be fun!

By increasing the number and variety of enrichment items, whether these be toys, a new play stand, a wicker basket to perch on, or branches made of safe wood, you offer your bird more choices and more opportunities for learning. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination (and what’s safe for your parrot!).

In February, focus on nutrition. Resolve to introduce a new healthy food item to your parrot each week. This could be food packaged  in a new way. Stuff kale leaves into a cored apple and hang it on a skewer, for example. Try serving fruit or vegetables before they are fully ripe. Split a papaya or cantaloupe in half and let your bird pick out the seeds. Use a food processor to finely chop new foods, then mix them in with a little healthy seed. Another option: slice fruit or vegetables thinly, cut a hole in the middle, and string on a toy.

Offer healthy food prepared in different ways. Your bird may prefer cooked, steamed or raw. See the Phoenix Landing cookbook Nourish to Flourish for a wealth of ideas, methods and information.

During this month, note the foods that your bird will fly through hoops for.

Use your parrot’s coveted treats during the month of March when you focus on behavior. Identify one behavior to train. It could be something as simple as training your parrot to target to a stick or teaching your bird to forage. Training is not difficult, so give it a try.  See the Phoenix Landing Press book Project Parrot for detailed information about training and behavior.

Instead of training a behavior, you could focus on resolving a behavior problem. Biting is a common one.

See the book Biting Matters for tools and techniques to reduce or eliminate bites.

Resolving behavior issues is so often about changing our expectations of our wild companions. An excellent resource for understanding how birds perceive the world is Leigh Ann Hartsfield’s book Birds Beyond Words. Once you understand a bird’s nature, it can be easier to resolve an issue by developing realistic solutions. Rosemary Low’s book, Understanding Parrots: Cues from Nature provides wonderful insight from her travels around the globe over decades to observe species in the wild.

These attainable monthly goals can greatly affect your bird’s quality of life, and the relationship between your bird and his flock, which is your family, in the first few months of the new year. Then, why not repeat this three-month cycle throughout the year?

Use the comments field to share your birdie resolutions!

A Dwindling Kingdom: Presley, the Last Male Spix’s Macaw in Brazil, Dies

The parrot community has been saddened to learn of the death at the age of 38 of one of the world’s most well–known birds, Presley, one of the few remaining Spix’s macaws. On recent trips to Brazil sponsored by Phoenix Landing, members of the tour group were fortunate enough to spend some time with him. His story was the inspiration for the recent movie Rio. In person, Presley was a lot less animated, a mellow old fellow, and the oldest recorded individual of the species. He spent his final years at the Lymington Foundation, in the Atlantic forest about 45 miles from Sao Paulo, under the care of Bill and Linda Wittkoff.

PresleybyFrankRutowski(Photo by Frank Rutowski, D.V.M.)

Presley was one of 78 individuals (as of 2011) of this rare species, and the future does not look good for them.  Of the captive population, many of the birds are old, their genetic pool is limited, and their health has been compromised from being smuggled from the wild. The population is also geographically isolated from each other, kept in private collections and zoos around the world. The challenges of maintaining the Spix’s macaw population are perhaps overwhelming, which made spending time in this bird’s gentle presence a true honor.  It also proved a bittersweet lesson: humans are responsible for the decline of this and many species, and our last-minute efforts to save them may not be enough. We should support the organizations that are on the forefront of conservation efforts, and educate people about the loss of fantastic creatures like the Spix’s before it’s too late.

Presley by Mary
(Photo by Mary Ault)

Presley was comfortable in the presence of strangers, the result of many years spent as a pet in the United States. He was brought to Lymington in 2007, but breeding attempts with him were not successful. This fragile creature, from a species that is no longer found in the wild, lived out his remaining days in comfort, in an aviary in the sunshine. His cage mate of many years, a golden conure, died in 2013. A Vinaceous Amazon was his companion during his final months.

Presley by Kevin
(Photo by Kevin Blaylock)

Sadly, Presley spent much of his life as many birds in captivity do, looking out from behind the bars of a cage because the world they belong in is no longer safe for them. They are refugees from their homelands. I hope Presley has somehow returned to freedom, the freedom that all parrots deserve.

Phoenix Landing sponsors conservation efforts every year, and the Lymington Foundation was the recipient of our 2013 grant of $2,000, based on the great work the Wittkoffs are doing with other endangered parrot species, such as the golden conures, the Lears macaw, and the Vinaceous Amazon.

Dr. Susan Orosz on Filoplumes: Essential Feathers for Mental Health

Hearing Dr. Orosz lecture is like eating a huge, delicious meal. It takes a while to digest. She served up another mental feast at the Wellness Retreat, held in Ashevile NC, October 21-22. Here is one tasty nugget I learned from her.

A filoplume is a type of feather that grows in clumps at the base of flight feathers. It’s small and has a long shaft. Here’s an excellent description. This feather, unlike other feather types, has no associated muscles, so a bird cannot move a filoplume independently. Instead, a filoplume is a sensory receptor attached to a nerve bundle, which provides information to the bird about the position of the feathers surrounding it, and by extension, the bird’s own position in space.

Think of a filoplume like a cat’s whisker. Around each flight feather are many of these whiskers, which give their owner a lot of information about where she is, how to navigate, and what to do next to continue flying or to land. When a bird flaps, those filoplumes go to work, sending her brain tons of information that she must process, and making her think and react in ways that challenge her.

Why is this important? Because a bird denied flight in our homes does not receive much of the filoplume’s message: She does not get to think about and figure out how to fly, perhaps the most essential part of what a bird is. She was meant to be challenged by the constant decisions that flight requires and without them she may be bored or crazy or both. Of course we can never know what our birds are thinking, but we can imagine how we might feel about the world if our legs were tied together from the time we were born. What would it feel like to crawl everywhere? What if you could only get somewhere when someone else took you there? And what if you could only interact with what someone else decided you might like?

How do we address this problem in our homes? Give your bird many opportunities to exercise. If she is not allowed to fly, give her a hanging gym or a boing to encourage swinging and play. Provide her with a cage that is wide enough for her to move around in – and give her plenty of out of cage time. Most importantly, remember how essential sensory stimulation and the opportunities for choice are for your bird’s mental health.

Have I Created a Monster? The Tale of a Horny Pionus

Pea, my blue headed pionus, has been with me about a year. As soon as she got here, she started bumping and grinding on her cage door.

I have always ignored this behavior, but it has persisted. Initially, it was almost constant, but it has decreased now to short sessions, one or two times a day.

But throughout this past year, I’ve seen changes in her behavior that tell me that she is over bonding to me, such as flying at, and chasing off, my other birds when they come near me, and shredding the newspapers that cover the grate at the bottom of the cage. She would also run under the bed in my office, seeking a cavity to nest in.

I made some changes to her environment as a result of this. I trimmed her wing feathers – which was not an easy choice. I believe that allowing a bird to fly is important for their physical and mental well-being, but in this case the risk of injury to my other birds outweighs the benefits to Pea. I will let her feathers grow out (it’ll probably take 3 months) and allow her to fly again, if we can get this horniness under control.

I also taped cardboard all around the bottom of the bed, so she could no longer get under there.

I always only petted her on the head, and only when she put her head down to ask for it, and I’ve been limiting that a lot lately too (believe me, that’s a tough one!)

These solutions seemed to work for a little while, but then she discovered the space under my computer desk. Even with trimmed wing feathers, Pea can get down to the ground, and she consistently flies down and runs underneath the desk. Pionus can huff and puff when excited which is normal for the species (it sounds a bit like an asthma attack), and this is just what she did when under the desk. I would remove her, put her elsewhere and give her something to do, but the problem continued.

But then it got even worse.

She now runs under the desk and attacks my feet, dangerous for both her and me. Again, I pick her up and put her in her cage the minute she goes under the desk, but sometimes I am not fast enough.

Needing more help to solve this troubling problem, I did research, and emailed Pam
Clark for her thoughts. As always, Pam is a wealth of information, and here is some of what she shared with me:

“It seems from my observations that parrots actually become incrementally more hormonal as they get older, no matter what we do. . . .Once they start this behavior, it is extremely difficult to get them to stop. One answer might be to make sure that her wings are clipped really well and then to hang a boing from the ceiling that she might not be tempted to fly down from.

“I’ve been giving a lot of thought to diet recently, both because of this almost universal problem with hormonal parrots and because of the pulmonary hypertension and athlerosclerosis we’re seeing in older parrots. I’m now changing the way I feed and have become much stricter. It is carbohydrates (especially simple ones) and fats that are the primary culprits in increasing hormone production. You’ll read that increased protein is a problem too, but I don’t believe that. Protein is used for replacing tissues, etc, and is not used much for energy production. Carbs and fats are used for energy production and this triggers an increase in hormone production.

“As to how I’ve changed things: [my parrots] have their Harrison’s available all the time, but I do measure it so that I’m providing an amount consistent with the recommendations on the back of the bag. If they finish that during the day, they don’t get any more. (I do agree with Dr. Fern Van Sant that the overall amount of food can be a problem also.)

“In the morning, they get their salad, but fruit is limited. Every other evening, they get a few Nutriberries and Nutri-An cakes, and on the evenings in between they get Quinoa Pilaf or a combo of cooked whole grains and roasted veggies. I am also, though, limiting amounts more than ever before. I’ve also decreased the size of the nuts and things I put into foraging toys.”

Pam also recommended: “As you know, it’s imperative to keep her out of any ‘small, dark places,’ i.e. under the desk. Access to such places can cause very swift hormone spikes. If I were you, I would quit giving her any physical attention at all.”

I had been recently offering Pea a small chicken bone, a coveted treat of my Moluccan cockatoo and African grey, but this too is a no-no.

“Absolutely stop the chicken bones and evaluate her consumption of pellets. This is the best ‘barometer’ I know for figuring out if a parrot is getting too many carbs and fats in the diet. If she’s not eating many pellets, then it’s time to reduce any other food sources for carbs and fats – the categories of foods that will increase hormone production.

“You might try a very structured training approach. Teach her to station. Work with a perch that is as hard to get down from as possible. Reward her frequently for staying put with a small, but highly valued treat. As soon as she gets down – no conversation. Up she goes back on the perch. 2nd time, same thing. 3rd time, back in the cage she goes.”

I also used cashews as a reward when Pea did something special, like poop on command. Since cashews are among the highest in fat of all nuts, I’ll have to find something else that she will work for.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, and please share any ideas you may have about this common problem with all of us.

Thanks as always, to Pam. Her excellent advice can be found at