Biting and excessive screaming are the most prevalent complaints parrot behavior consultants hear about – especially in the spring – so the author will address these issues in depth.
Oddly enough, the term biting first needs to be clarified. Contrary to the belief of some inexperienced owners, biting does not include a human just being touched by a bird's beak. A good rule of thumb for estimating the true severity of a bite is encompassed questions such as, "Did you bleed?" Either bleeding or bruising characterizes a real bite, and “nipping” would be defined as pinching, sometimes with minor bleeding.
Biting Isn't "Natural”??
Apparently, wild parrots rarely use their beaks as weapons against other parrots. The beak is used as a defense against predation, but not against other flock members. In their natural environments, competition and/or conflict between parrots rarely appears to escalate to physical violence – instead, they vocalize or use body language by strutting, posturing, eye flashing or pinning (rapid voluntary dilation and contraction of the iris) and fluffing feathers to make themselves look bigger. (This appears to be the psittacine equivalent to the popular street phrase, “Yo’ mama.”) True, beaks are used to grab at other birds with much shrieking and screaming, but apparently, no injuries occur.
Consequently, beaks are used for climbing, eating, playing and preening. In a dangerous situation, flight is the first choice of prey animals such as parrots – not combat. However, for the captive parrot, flight is curtailed by either wing clipping or caging; therefore, biting becomes the primary solution if a bird finds itself in close proximity with something it perceives as a threat.
This means that biting for communication may not be an instinctive behavior, so it is often not a difficult problem to resolve. Biting is probably a displacement behavior. Natural behaviors designed for survival in the rain forest are not generally possible in the average living room, so others take their place – and these are displacement behaviors. These improvised responses are not all negative, incidentally. A positive example of displacement behavior would be a parrot's ability to bond to a human in the absence of other psittacines, and to accept the humans with whom it lives as members of its flock.
Why Is The Bird Biting?
The first question to ask when dealing with a biting parrot is why – under what circumstance is this happening? The author believes that biting behaviors fall into either of two categories: survival or control. The category of survival would include a parrot biting when it is terrified (i.e., when a smoke detector goes off and a shouldered parrot freaks out and bites off a chunk of a person’s ear) or when it is hurt. (Veterinary hospital personnel have learned from experience that the old saying that “Animals can sense if you’re trying to help them” is not a truism.) Other behaviors that would fall under the category of survival would include reproductive hormonal behavior, cage territoriality, and veterinary appointments. Under the category of control would include, for example, biting the owner when the bird is being returned to its cage. Survival and control will be discussed in detail in subsequent paragraphs.
Reproductive Hormone-Mediated Behavior
Reproductive hormone-mediated behavior (i.e. “spring behavior” or “nesting behavior”) is related to procreation, so aggressive behavior during nesting season is easily categorized under survival. An increase in aggression is common with many life forms when sexual hormone levels are raging – human teenagers being a good example. However, if controls are established before puberty's onset, the frequency and severity of aggressive incidents are greatly reduced.
Learning a bird's body language will go a long way toward preventing problems during this time and the advice is simple: when a parrot is in full sexual display, the owner should not reach for it. Instead, it should be left alone until it settles down. Reproductive hormonal behavior is one of many reasons why experienced behavior consultants strongly recommend parrot owners perch train their birds, in addition to hand training them. This eliminates the handling dangers if a bird becomes seasonally aggressive.
Survival Situations – The Veterinary Hospital
A prime survival situation, as far as a parrot is concerned, is encountered in the office the avian veterinarian. Many practitioners are extremely short on time, so they may neglect to introduce themselves to the psittacine patient. The veterinarian or veterinary technician exacerbates this negative situation by swooping down from behind with a towel to capture the unwary parrot (a.k.a., the Harpy Eagle Catch).
As a veterinary technician specialized in birds who trained veterinary and technician students twenty years ago, this author admits to personal guilt in this area, since she taught countless students how to capture in exactly this manner. Indeed, with wild-caught or untamed parrots, this is still the capture technique of choice to protect both the bird and the handler.
However, a majority of the parrots seen in the US are domestically raised and do not perceive most humans as predators. Hence, the Harpy Eagle Catch is not only unnecessary – it is seriously detrimental. I have found that the stress of handling and restraint is greatly assuaged by what the author calls the Frontal Towel Approach. This technique is not only friendlier, but it is also more realistic. Prey animals like parrots have their eyes on the sides of their heads, so their peripheral vision warns them of a forthcoming predatory attack; the Harpy Eagle Catch serves only to throw a parrot into a full fight or flight response as it is captured in the towel. Once this visceral response is initiated, the resulting adrenaline rush causes the bird to fight the restraint frantically. Once initiated, an autonomic nervous system response is not easily shut down.
The Frontal Towel Approach
In contrast, the Frontal Towel Approach does not elicit this kind of fight or flight response. Using the Frontal Towel Approach, the handler steps the parrot onto his/her hand, and talks to the bird (not the owner) in a quiet and friendly manner for a couple of minutes. Care is taken to talk directly to the psittacine patient, not over its head as adults often do with small children.
Then, explaining to the bird what is about to happen (i.e., “I’m going to wrap you in the towel, and groom your wings and nails. You won’t like it, but you will be all right and it will be over very quickly.”), he/she should firmly but gently pin the bird’s feet with the thumb. Catching a corner of the towel in between the fingers of the hand on which the bird is perched, the towel (kept low) is offered to the bird to touch or bite if it wishes. Continuing to talk calmly with a friendly facial expression, the handler then uses the other hand to slowly and smoothly bring the other end of the towel up and around the bird, therefore covering it. The patient can then be placed under restraint.
This technique can also be used with a parrot that is terrified of towels. Wary but not terrified when the towel is caught between the fingers, this parrot will generally panic and flip backwards when the rest of the towel approaches to wrap it. If so, the handler can simply enclose the inverted parrot with the towel, lower the wrapped bird to the exam table and place it under restraint per usual.
Using this approach, the author is rarely bitten, even with parrots that panic at the sight of a towel. Apparently the parrot is too worried about the towel’s approach to concern itself with the fingers that are pinning its feet.
Some individuals (especially the smaller species) will flip backwards and twist, and if so, these birds must be released rather than allow damage to the feet and legs.
As one might assume, this technique is not successful with every psittacine, but this author has found it to be unsuccessful with only a very small percentage of the birds she handles. What matters more is the extremely large percentage of parrots that respond positively to this method. As a result, these birds are significantly less stressed by this technique than they were by the aggressive and predatory technique formerly used.
As with any restraint method, the frontal towel approach requires practice before it can be accomplished with ease and self-assurance. This author was delighted to have the opportunity to demonstrate this non-aggressive toweling method at the 1998 annual conference of the Association of Avian Veterinarians [AAV]. Since then, she has received numerous messages from veterinarians worldwide who have successfully utilized this technique. Avian practitioners have been pleased at the decreased levels of stress incurred not only by the parrot patients, but also their owners. Feedback has been astoundingly positive.
How To Turn A Nice Parrot Into A Biter
If biting in parrots is a displacement, not an instinctive behavior, it is logical to assume that the behavior must be reinforced in some way or it would not continue. In other words, if it did not accomplish something positive in the parrot's experience, then the parrot would not continue to do it. It is vital to understand that companion parrots are actually rewarded for biting – by humans who simply do not understand how differently parrots can perceive things. The following are classic examples.
“The Teething Stage"
Young parrots often have no idea what their beaks can do, especially if they were raised isolated from other baby parrots. During "The Teething Stage", the baby parrot is learning to eat and explore with its beak, and an unfortunate scenario is often acted out. The youngster, in the process of investigating with its beak, encounters those fascinating things called fingers. If the human makes the mistake of using these extremities as toys in the baby's mouth, sooner or later the baby will bite down harder than the owner of the fingers might like. If the human responds to this accidental nip by yelling (as in, "Ow, NO BITE!!!"), then they have inadvertently taken the first step towards actually teaching their baby parrot to bite.
Contrary to human beliefs, parrots seem to enjoy it when humans shout at them. Parrots often scream simply for the fun of it, so it is a fallacy to think they perceive that yelling is a reprimand. On the contrary, they often appear to interpret it as positive feedback, since it is a drama reward. The groundwork has now been laid for the parrot (baby or adult) to bite again, because the behavior was inadvertently rewarded.