The Indecisive Pick Up
This scenario usually happens when inexperienced owners are not clear in their signals to their parrots. For example, when offering a hand for the bird to step on, novice owners often aren’t quite sure of themselves so their hand motion is uncertain. A young parrot is generally eager to climb on, but like a worker unsure of the stability of a ladder, it will reach with its mouth to steady the human perch, using its beak as a hand. Humans, who are afraid of the beak, then pull their hands away. Confused but still eager for interaction, the baby will probably grab the hand with its beak the next time it is offered. Once again, the bird has now taken the first step in learning to bite a human for control.
Fear = Lost Control
When people pull away when parrots reach with their beaks, the birds begin to learn the use of lunging and biting as an effective technique with which to control the humans, and the parrots will remain in control for as long as the humans remain afraid. Parrots can sense when someone is frightened and are capable of taking advantage of the situation. If people cannot get over their fear response, then they will probably never gain control of their parrots.
There is a lot of outdated and incorrect advice being given about biting parrots. People are often told to grab the bird's beak and shake it and yell NO!! This is ineffective because ornithologists have now realized that grabbing a parrot's beak [a.k.a., "Beak Wrestling"] is considered a play behavior between parrots. So once again, in the human effort to give negative feedback to parrots, they have only succeeded in reinforcing them.
It also doesn't usually work to punish by putting a parrot in its cage. By the time the cage door is closed, it has probably completely forgotten the connection between biting someone and being locked up. Obviously, the bird can't bite anyone again because it has been removed from human proximity, but it hasn’t learned anything about not biting. In addition, since parrots often spend prolonged periods in their cages while owners work, it is not logical to use the cage as punishment.
Obviously, the ancient, aggressive advice to throw or drop a biting bird on the floor is totally unacceptable.
In actuality, it is quite simple to discourage a parrot from biting. If the owner has already established a relationship of nurturing guidance with their bird, then the bird already perceives the person as head of the flock and it is already trained to step onto a hand when told to. To reprimand the bird, the owner should immediately show displeasure by briefly giving the bird a dirty look (“The Evil Eye”). Parrots watch facial expressions closely, and will understand the owner’s displeasure if the owner frowns.
If the bite was particularly vicious or the bird is extremely aggressive, the owner can step the bird from one hand to the other 2-3 times while saying “Up” in a very firm and negative but quiet voice. The author considers this a non-abusive technique to give a parrot negative feedback. This technique is called laddering and it is an exercise in control – reminding the bird that such behavior will not be tolerated.
If the owner is firm and consistent, this will put the psittacine back under control. Without the positive feedback that it inadvertently received before, biting should be curtailed. As always, reprimands are only effective if done the second the bird bites. The owner should not take the bird into a neutral room to perform this exercise – the time lag will negate the effectiveness, since the bird is unlikely to make the proper association.
It is important to understand that the human’s reaction to aggression needs to be adapted to the sensitivity of the specific bird. Consequently, reprimands need to be tailored to the individual. One cannot respond to a skittish parrot’s nip the same way one might respond to the chomp of a secure, self-possessed bird.
Exception : If a biting bird is awash in reproductive hormones, it will not appreciate being laddered, and owners may get bitten badly if they attempt this technique. Extremely hormonal parrots should be quietly returned to their cages until they settle down, with no reprimand.
When dealing with a youngster in the Teething Stage, it is also quite simple. When a baby bites too hard, the owner should say No in a firm but quiet voice and give the baby a brief frown. The young parrot will understand that the human is unhappy and will try very hard not to do it again. Under NO circumstances should the owner show any aggression at all, since aggression begets aggression and facilitates a lack of trust. When humans are interacting with baby parrots, it is also often useful to have a favorite small toy within reach. If the bird starts getting too excited and overly rough, the owner can introduce the toy as a distraction, thereby preventing a bite from happening.
THE BEST APPROACH TO AGGRESSION: Avoidance
By far the best technique to dealing with aggression is to avoid the situation entirely. Parrots communicate volumes of information with their body language, and an experienced owner will recognize the threat of aggression if they are paying attention. At that point, it is easy to step around the problem, deflecting the hostility prior to injury. However, body language is less obvious to beginning owners and experience is the only real teacher. With approximately 345 species of psittacine on this planet and a couple of hundred seen as companion animals, body language varies from species to species and individual to individual. This author only knows of one source currently on the market that focuses on body language, and that is a start. Titled “Can You Speak Parrot?,” these are two volumes which are available from the author Joanie Doss. These books can be ordered online through www.parrothouse.com.