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.
The 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 a 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.
Respect 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
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.
Keep 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 EXPECTATIONS. Parrots 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.