Biting: The Sharp Beak
Reasons why birds bite ...
- Could it be YOU? Our pet birds very much react to how we FEEL when we approach them. They pick up on it - if we are stressed, nervous or unhappy. The worst we can do is approach them when we are nervous / stressed. They will sense it and this will result in fear and apprehension. Birds don't have much time to THINK and will mostly likely respond with a quick bite.
Another way we can CAUSE parrots to turn into biters, is if we use our hands for punishment, to shoo them away or - even worse - to toss objects towards or at them (for example, in order to "shut them up" or stop a bad behavior). Next time we want to handle them after that, they don't know whether our hands approach them in a friendly manner or to punish them or to drive them away.
Also, if you ONLY pick them up with your hands / arm to put them back into the cage, they will learn to dislike your hands / arms pretty quickly. I have my pet bird step up on a perch instead. This being said, in order to prevent them from disliking the perch, I also use this perch for fun things, like walking around the house and talking to them BEFORE putting them back into the cage. This way they will not associate the perch with something bad. The same purpose would be served, if you pick them up with your hand or arm, and walk around the house and do some fun things before placing them back into the cage.
The most important thing is to teach your pet that they have nothing to fear of your hands.
- In many cases (particularly in cases of poorly socialized or abused birds), it is self-defense. They may have learned that hands are something to be scared of -- because people might have punched at them (or actually hit them) in the past, waved their hands in a threatening manner at them, used their hands to toss things towards them ... Once that happens, birds will associate hands with something bad. We use our hands for self-defense. Birds don't have hands -- they use their beaks.
- As mentioned above - the trick is to teach them that hands are something good -- only to be used for preening them, holding them, giving them treats. Never ever use your hands in a negative context. Once that happens, whenever your hand approaches your pet, he or she will have to make a quick decision as to whether the purpose of this is "good" or "bad" ... In most cases, birds will instinctively bite ... Always be aware of how your hands are perceived by your pet. Always approach your pet with your hands slowly, in a non-threatening manner. The more your pet learns to trust you AND your hands, the less likely he or she will be apt to bite. As their trust level grows, their bite also becomes less forceful.
- The more scared OR startled they are -- the harder they will bite. Fast movements near your pet in particular is likely to result in painful bites. Birds are prey animals and have learned that predators can approach them at any time -- sometimes they may not realize that it is their "mate" (bonded bird or human) that is approaching them quickly, and they will bite to fend off a potential predator.
- They don't like what you are doing. Even bonded birds will bite -- but mostly only to let you know they don't like what you are doing and their bites are generally gentle and don't hurt. However, if you ignore this "gentle" warning, her or his bites will progressively become more forceful and painful.
Some time ago, I overheard someone ask a vet this simple question: "When I poke my parrot with my finger, he bites. How can I stop that?" The vet answered just as simply: "Don't poke your bird!"
- The solution is simple: Heed the warning and respect your pet's personal comfort level and space.
- Are you trying to put your parrot back in his cage when he doesn't want to?
- That is one common situation that results in biting ... You are doing something that may be necessary, but is not to your bird's liking.
- Turn the act of putting your bird back into his cage into something "nice" by providing his favorite foods in the cage. Make sure your parrot sees it. Have a little treat in your hand as you pick your parrot up to place him back into his cage.
- Don't be predictable. For example, using a stick to pick a bird up and then immediately placing him or her back into the cage will cause your pet to stop stepping up on the stick, as he or she will associate with being locked up. Instead, pick your pet up with the stick (or your hand), have some fun playtime with him or her for a few minutes, you may want to walk around for a few minutes, and, finally, show him or her a treat and give it to him or her while placing your pet into the cage.
- Last - but not least - don't EVER punish your pet by placing him back into his cage. A cage should be a place he or she WANTS to be in; with toys for entertainment and good food and clean water. Once your pet views the cage as a place of punishment, it will naturally fight you whenever you want him or her back in his cage.
- Innocent playtime and exercise: Birds use their beaks for climbing and holding on to things as they move about. These bites are usually not painful, although as you try to free your finger from his beak, it may become painful.
- Gently holding your pet up with your other hand will usually relieve the pressure of your pet's beak on your finger as he is not solely relying on his beak to hold himself in position. Provide a toy or stick for your pet to hold on to.
- Territorial behavior: Birds are usually protective of their personal space. The basis for that is that in the wild they are protecting their nestsite and young from pedators.
- This is innate behavior and no efforts should be taken to change that - but accommodate your pet's desire to be "the master" of his personal space. This could mean choosing a cage that allows you to change food and water from the outside. Instead of reaching into the cage to get your pet out, either use a stick to help him or her out of the cage or simply wait for your pet to come out of the cage by him or herself.
- Hormonal birds: Now that is a chapter by itself. If your pet is attacking those that he or she perceives to be a rival for your affection.
Reacting to a bite ...
- Correct Behavior:
- Blow into your pet's face to hopefully distract him or her from biting.
- If your pet is sitting on your hand while biting, drop your hands a few inches - this will force your pet to focus on finding back his balance and he or she will usually release his grip on your finger.
- Place your pet on the floor, where they usually feel less secure and less aggressive.
- The worst thing you can do when your parrot bites (or is trying to bite) is to shriek, yell and/or pull away. Such reactions will only reinforce this behavior.
Instead, you should find ways to prevent being bitten. For example, instead of having your pet step up on your arm, provide a perch for stepping up on. If your bird manages to bite you, gently push your hand toward your bird. They will release your hand as they are not expecting this reaction and because this is not the reaction they were hoping for. Tricks like “step up” are an excellent way to avoid being bitten. Additionally, take the time to learn your bird’s behavior. Do they pin their eyes before they bite? Most birds have a common signal to tell you they’re getting angry. Learn this signal and the two of you will be able to come to a harmonious solution much faster.
Preventing a bite ...
- Read the signs: A bite is usually preceded by physical signs that your bird will bite if his wish is ignored. Physical signs may include pinning eyes, flexed wings, fanned tail feathers, fluffing up their feathers (to make themselves look bigger) and crested parrots such as cockatoos will put up their crest for the same purpose. Some parrots, such as eclectuses are likely to growl, fluff up their feathers and adopt a head-down posture before striking.
The best way to stop our birds from biting is for us to remove the need for them to bite. Learn to read his body language and be responsive to it.
- Have you not gained your parrots trust and affection yet?
- You will have to spend some time taming your bird. It often is helpful to clip your bird during the taming process. Whisper when you talk to your bird. Talk to him calmly. Understand that your parrot may become aggressive as long as he or she doesn't know / trust you; and even afterwards if you ignore his or her body language. However, once bonded the bite tends to be on the gentle side -- more likely to be a "I-don't-like-this" warning, rather than your pet actually biting hard causing injury.
A successful relationship can be established ...
- Gain their trust: Spend lots of time making friends with your new pet in a non-threatening manner. Don't approach them with your finger or your hand until a strong bond has been established - and even then, only when they are okay with that (more info on that topic below). In fact, don't force physical contact at all. Gain their trust by talking and spending time interacting with your new pet in a manner that doesn't put any stress or demands on him or her.
- Until they are okay with physical contact, only use a simple wooden stick or perch to pick them up and move them around.
- Offering treats also helps gain their goodwill - but the goal is to have the bird come to YOU to get the treat, rather than you breaking through the comfort zone barrier to get the treat to him or her, which may result in a bite.
- Learn how to tame a bird
- Understanding parrots and their behavior ...
- Learn to understand your pet bird: When you watch bonded pairs in the wild, you will see them squabble and "bite" each other when the mate is doing something they don't like. It's their way of saying: "Cut it out!" The more the mate ignores their request, the harder and more painful the next bite will be. So the answer appears to be pretty simple: "Don't do something that they don't like."
- Okay, life isn't that simple, you are probably thinking. What if I have to put him back into his cage? He obviously doesn't like that, but it has to be done -- so do I have to get bitten every time I have to put him back? The answer is to make a return to the cage more attractive by offering a treat or -- what I do - is refill his food dish just before I put him back (making sure he sees that). That way putting him back into the cage is not an issue. In fact, he usually goes back into the cage on his own (which is the ideal scenario).
With stubborn birds a perch or a simple wooden stick can be helpful in preventing painful bites. However, do keep in mind -- if you are using a perch / stick only to put your pet back into a cage, he or she will soon learn to hate the perch and will refuse to step up on it. One has to teach a parrot that something good will result from being picked up with a perch (like he is getting some personal attention by his owner or a tasty treat).
- Even when bird are bonded, they may have their moments when they don't "feel" like cuddling and your attempt to force affection on them when they are simply not in the mood, is also likely to result in a bite. Although, once they are bonded with their owners, their bites will usually be no more than a pinch - a mere warning so-to-speak.
- It is important to be able to read your parrot's body language. When you see he is uncomfortable with something you are doing, either stop doing it or find another way to achieve that you are trying to do. Please visit this webpage for information on how to understand your parrot's body language.
- Last, but not least - the pet owner should accept a pet on his or her own merits. The pet that you have may not be the cuddly, snuggly pet you anticipated. However, every parrot will have some personality traits that we really enjoy; whether it is singing, talking, or just being a buddy who likes to sit on our shoulder while we are watching tv. Enjoy them for what they are - in the end, you may be surprised about how strong a bond you both have forged.
Training and Behavioral Guidance:
- Pet parrots generally present challenges, such as excessive chewing - especially at certain stages in their life. They do discover their beaks as method of "disciplining us" once they are out of the "baby stage" and they can generally be somewhat naughty, and it really is important to learn to understand them and to guide their behavior before an undesirable behavior has been established. Undisciplined parrots will chew on electric wiring potentially causing house fires. They regard anything in your home as a "toy" that can be explored and chewed on; destroying items that you may hold dear or are simply valuable. Even a young bird that has not been neglected and abused requires proper guidance; this becomes even more challenging when it involves a rescued bird that may require rehabilitation.
- Web Resources: I put together web resources for you to help you understand your pet bird and properly direct him. Please visit the following website to learn more about parrot behavior and training.
I would recommend reading both Dr. Patt's and Ms. Noeth's articles - linked below. They both provide different, but equally valuable information pertaining to biting. You will find them easy to read and understand.
After reading these two articles, I would also recommend viewing the relevant video, also linked below. All three resources combined will provide you with the know-how to control this undesirable behavior.
Understanding Why Birds Bite and Taking Steps to Resolve It by Gay Noeth
The following information has been provided by Gay Noeth from Saskatchewan, Canada. Gay is a breeder of African parrots (including African Grey Parrots, Senegals and other Poicephalus Parrots) and she is highly respected for her expertise on parrot behavior and environmental enrichment. She is active on the ParrotBAS list (a list for helping people solve behavioral problems with their birds).Her website is well worth a visit: http://www.onafricanwings.com .
THAT SHARP BEAK
Biting is one of the most common, complained about parrot behaviours. It is so common that many people say that if you own a bird you are going to eventually get bit as if to imply that it’s just their nature to bite Another camp says “biting is a learned behaviour”. This isn’t entirely true either. They have a beak, they need to eat, they need to chew, they need to take bites of food….no, they come with a form of biting already in their repertoire. It’s much more a matter of how they use that biting ability.
Let’s see if we can make sense out of the two above statements and where they might fit in with our pets. Let’s take a closer look at what biting may mean from the birds point of view and how biting may become a problem behaviour.
As noted, birds have beaks and the ability to bite down on anything that enters those beaks. For a bird to bite down, the number one thing to consider is that there must be proximity. If whatever is being bitten can’t enter the beak (even the tip) it would be impossible for the bird to bite it. So we start with one fact-proximity/nearness is a must!
Birds don’t have hands. Their sense of exploratory touch is via beak, tongue and feet. It is common for young birds to explore new things with their beak and tongues. This, in itself, does not a biter make. It is our job at this stage to reinforce gentle exploration and to divert that exploration to appropriate items. Birds ultimately chew! Give them acceptable things to chew!
So what could the purpose of a bite be? In human terms it could be an attempt to say no to a request. For example, if someone approaches us and they tell us to do something, we have vocal skills to say no. If our no is ignored, we may repeat it and perhaps turn away. If they persist we may push them away. A bird doesn’t necessarily have the human vocal skills to say no although there is no doubt they have BIRD signals to convey the same message.
In addition, with many of our pet birds being kept clipped, if/when they find themselves in a fear situation, what options do they have for self defence? They can’t flee very easily so the other option available to them is to bite, in hopes of getting rid of the feared object. That bite would again be a means of saying no, although with a slightly different meaning; self preservation. In this situation it would be similar to a human being attacked and doing whatever was necessary to stop and evade their attacker.
In both cases, the bite is a NO/STOP response to some sort of stimuli. Is this all there is to a bite? Actually, it isn’t but if we take it one step farther, we may find the crux of biting. If a bird bites to tell you no, it doesn’t want to partake in something, or no you must keep away from me, what does that bite actually garner? What could have set up the necessity of the bite? Could it be that we ignored all the bird signals that were saying no? If that is the case, the bite was a final way for the bird to get us to pay attention to what it was telling us, much like a human stomping their foot to add emphasis! Imagine it as a loud NO! The problem now is it’s too late, the bite has already occurred! The consequence in the bird’s eye will now vary depending on what happened after the bite. Did you finally understand the ‘no’? Did you back away holding a sore piece of skin, screaming in pain? Did you teach the bird that for it to say no to you it needed to bite?This is where the statement “biting is a learned behaviour” gets its foundation. We teach the bird that to get us to heed, it should bite us. Once biting is solid in the birds behavioural bank, it may become generalized to get us to pay notice for different things, not just as a means to say no. It draws our attention when we are ignoring the bird, it draws our attention when it wants something, it gets us to notice when it doesn’t want something, it gets our regard when it’s scared.
What we need to look at is the necessity of the bite. Why should a bird have to bite us to tell us something? What would it do to another bird in the same situation? It is true that birds do nip at each other, but seldom with the ferocityshown to some humans and not generally as a first reaction.
In a bird to bird confrontation, two things initially occur at about the same time. Feathers will lift slightly, posture will become more upright to appear larger and eyes will pin (constrict). If neither bird backs down at this point it is common to hear a slight squawk and to see feathers raise more. (Actually some species may slick their feathers tight in this situation) At this stage birds with crests will have them fully upright and tail feathers will also generally be flared. Most often, with these signs, one of the birds will back down or move away. The posturing is all that is required. It should be the same with us. All we should require from the bird is its body language.
Do we fail to pay heed to the signs? Do we fail to notice those initial slight feather position changes, the pinning of the eyes? Do we continue to force our will when the feathers raised more? Do we insist on standing our ground? What other option did we actually give our birds when we failed to notice these changes? By ignoring these overt body language displays, we left the bird no other choice but to bite us to get his point across.
An important point to consider, birds learn, as do all living things. If our responses teach them that we never pay any heed to the subtle signs that generally precede a bite, they may learn that those signs are an unnecessary and wasteful use of energy. They will simply quit showing them as an individual step and instead show them at the same time as the bite is occurring. We teach them to cut to the chase.
So back to our first paragraph, is biting a learned behaviour or is it a natural behaviour? The correct answer is that it’s a combination of both. They have a beak for a reason and it’s only natural for them to use it when life necessitates that, but we certainly teach them to use it far more than it would ever be used in the wild.
So where does that bring us to?
Maybe you’ve already been able to identify what needs to be changed when dealing with your bird. What is the purpose of your birds biting? Is it to remove you in some way? Is it to gain your attention? Is it just to voice a no response? Quite likely, it’s all of the above at different times. Biting can become multi-functional because it IS something us human caretakers notice. Different antecedents (situations) may result in a bite. Perhaps the way you approached or the activity level, or maybe it is fear mediated but regardless of the reason, the bird is trying to tell us something.
So how do you proceed? Remember, one of the first facts about biting was the need for proximity. Keep that in mind for your interactions. If your bird can’t reach your skin, he can’t bite you.
No! This isn’t forever. Of course you want a relationship with your bird that allows closeness, but as a temporary measure you may have to limit this.
The different places to begin addressing this problem are as varied as the reasons for the bite. Each person will have to look at their own individual situation and decide where that starting place is. I’ve given just a few ideas of possible starting places for the most common types of bites but again I must stress, you must look at what function the bite has for your bird. What is your bird getting out of the bite? It’s only once you have an understanding of this that you can address the biting in the correct manner.
With fear biting the first thing to identify is the subject of the fear. Is it an overall fear of everything or a more refined fear? With any type of fear biting it is important to slowly desensitize the bird from the feared item by shaping proximity.
If it’s fear of a person, I would suggest that for the first few days the person just quietly walk by the cage and drop a favourite treat in. Try to do this several times a day. No requests on the bird, no lingering at the cage, just drop and move on. Try to notice as you are doing this, at what distance the body language changes. If after a few days of dropping in the treat, the bird is now looking towards the person when they enter, you can proceed with the following. Begin with the person at the closest distance that the bird is still comfortable with. This is where having watched that previous body language will help you. At what distance when you were just walking up, did that language change to one of slight unease? Start just back from that spot. Watch that body language to ensure there is comfort. If the bird is still moving around its cage, paying attention to things like its toys and food, the bird is still in its comfort zone. Remain in the same position for a few moments. When it’s time to move away, walk by the cage and drop a favourite treat in with no other demands. Do not try to push closer. Mark a line where you began by putting a piece of tape on the floor. Repeat this distance several times with the bird receiving a treat after each short session
Advance closer, but just slightly. I can’t stress enough that these advances may be very tiny increments, which is why I suggest the marker on the floor. Repeat the procedure above doing several sessions at that distance.
While you are slowly advancing closer to the bird and desensitizing it, the bird is also learning that good things are coming from you.
I SAID NO!
Are you asking or demanding a behaviour from your bird? Is it a behaviour the bird can easily do? Is it a behaviour the bird NEEDS to do at this particular moment? The secret in the cases of a bite for a ‘no’ response, is to train the bird to not want to say no. In other words, to train the bird to say yes!
The most common request that results in a bite is the step up request. There are many variables to be considered if a bird seems apprehensive about stepping up.
What have the past consequences taught it about stepping up? How are you requesting the step up? Where is your hand and how is it placed? Are there more distractions in the room than normal, perhaps confusing the bird?
Birds want to step UP. By this I mean your hand should be held higher than foot level of the bird. Your hand should also be held perfectly still until both feet are firmly on your hand and the bird has regained its balance. Too often we are already moving with the bird, before that second foot is even on our hand. We basically boost the bird off its perching area. It’s best to stay in the same spot long enough to also give the bird the option of stepping back down.
Remember that word proximity? The best way to teach your bird to step up and allow it full choice is to stay back while you make the request. You only move your hand in for the bird to step onto, once it has shown the desire/willingness to actually step up. This is generally by the bird lifting one foot into the air. If for any reason the bird decides it doesn’t want to step up, your hand is not close enough to be bit.
So how do you teach your bird to desire to step up at anytime? You can accomplish this by using positive reinforcement training. Don’t just work on stepping the bird up when it’s necessary, do step ups from many different locations throughout the day, always reinforcing with something desired. This can be as simple as allowing the bird to step back down where it was. Every step up doesn’t need to be a move to a new location.
Soon, because of all the reinforcement given, your bird will be willingly stepping up whenever you request it. Just remember to keep it reinforcing.
If your bird appears to say no when you are shaping a behaviour (such as stepping up) you need to take a closer look and make sure you aren’t requesting too big of a increment or more than the bird understands at that time. You may need to slow down a little or move back a step in your shaping plan. It isn’t so much saying no as it is saying “I don’t understand and I’m getting frustrated.”(Note: Please visit this webpage for illustrations)
HEY! DO YOU SEE ME?
In our fast paced world these days, almost everyone is running into time constraints. We often find ourselves juggling several jobs at a time. Sometimes (unintentionally) our birds become part of this juggling. It’s during our rush of life or a result of, that we can sometimes teach our birds to bite to get our attention in a positive way. Perhaps you are busy watching a show or reading emails with your bird closeby and your bird wants some direct attention. Sometimes in this scene your bird will give you a little nip. What too often happens in this case is that the owner will reach out and pet their bird without even giving thought to what message might be conveyed to the bird. If this is repeated a few times the bird learns that if you are distracted, a small nip will bring your attention back to it.
If this type of bite occurs, very quietly set the bird off you. In a few moments you can then turn back to the bird and bring him back to you and give it the attention. If it wants to be on you while you are doing other things just remember to give it that scritch or attention every so often.
TO WRAP UP
So is biting a learned behavior? There is little doubt after reviewing the reasons for continual biting that we have reinforced the behavior.Biting is a behavior that simply by virtue of its nature on our human skin, is very difficult not to reinforce (give the bird a desired outcome). We can’t help but notice a bite. We can’t help but pay heed.
Or is it natural? We know they certainly have a beak and the knowledge of how to use it, but it is generally us humans that prompt its use on human skin.
The solution is to pay heed to our birds and be observant to what they are trying to tell us. Rather than correct a biting problem once it has developed, a far better solution would be to never teach them the need to bite. Always keep in mind that there just may be some things your bird doesn't like, or some situations that make it uneasy. Respect that rather than push them into biting.
Article and photos courtesy of Gay Noeth / www.onafricanwings.com
Should you get bitten, bird owners praise the use of Arnica (Green and Healthy Website) to reduce swelling and pain- the holistic way.
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