Why The Bite? Resolving Behavioral Problems

Training your Parrot … Resolving Behavioral Problems … Foraging

No bird is innately mean. They don’t like to bite, but will do so in order to protect themselves or to stop behavior they are not comfortable with.
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!”
For some reason, once we pay out “good money” for a pet bird, we expect immediate trust and love in return. This isn’t how it works. We took beautiful creatures from their natural habitat and converted them into companion pets for us. They don’t OWE us anything, in fact, we owe THEM! They deserve to be taken care of, as we have taken away from them their ability to take care of themselves; and they also deserve our respect.
Just like us, birds have a comfort zone. As pet owners we have to learn what their comfort zones are and don’t break through those. Some birds will quickly become trusting and allow you to be as physical as you like; but others take longer to learn to trust you and some others are just not “into that stuff.” It’s basically similar to human personalities. Some people are affectionate; while others are not – although some can be very loving once a strong bond has been established – it just takes longer with them.

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 (like the “pick-me-up” 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.

Don’t try touching a bird that isn’t bonded with you. Pet birds are prey animals and their only defense are their beaks. So if they feel scared they will bite.

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.”
o 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 pick-me-up 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.

Below is more information on how to address the problem of biting.

Why the 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.

Reasons for Biting & Solutions:
-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.
-Are you invading his cage space when he seems territorial?
-Respect your parrot’s personal space. If necessary, provide a cage that can be serviced from the outside (food and water can be provided through a special door)
-Are you trying to pet your parrot when he does not wish to be petted?
-We humans have the right to refuse unwanted attention. If “Polly” doesn’t feel like it, respect it.. Work on building a bond with your parrot – but understand that even a bonded parrot has times when they are not “in the mood.”
-Are you trying to put your parrot back in his cage when he doesn’t want to?
-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.
-Jealousy

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.

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.

The following information has been provided by Dr. Jill M. Patt, DVM practicing in Mesa, Arizona. She has been keeping and raising exotic birds for years, providing her a unique knowledge and understanding that goes beyond that of a regular vet who does not have the benefit of daily interaction with birds / parrots.

Biting can be due to a variety of reasons but a few of the more common reasons are:
-Gaining independence: Many young birds will go through a stage in which they are learning how much force to use with their beaks and also attempting to gain some independence. At this time owners will often get a few bites. I recommend that when the bird bites too hard tell the bird no and place back in the cage. Often this is all you need to do to teach the bird not to bite from the get go. Remember that we are not trying to stop the bird from using its beak – they will often use the beak to grasp your hand while stepping up and to preen us. We are only trying to teach the bird how much force it can use.

-Hormonal: This is a tough one and something I commonly see in Amazons, which reach maturity, but it can occur in all types of birds. Often you will see a loving young bird suddenly turn on the individual who has raised it and “pick” another family member as their favorite. This is similar to a wild bird leaving its parents and choosing a mate.

The best way of dealing with this is to:

1) Understand that this is a natural behavior and

2) Have the family member the bird has picked limit their interaction with your bird, spend time with the bird when that family member is absent, and ensure that only you are the one to provide all favorite treats and activities.

The environment can also be altered somewhat to attempt to reduce breeding behavior. Limiting the daylight hours to mimic a winter sun will often help.

-Territorial: This can often be linked to hormonal behavior but typically is the bird that is over protective of its cage and will bite any introduced hand. Firstly, your bird should be taught the “up” command for the start. In this way the bird is trained to always step onto your hand with this command. Often only letting the bird out of the cage by first having it step up and onto your hand will limit the development of aggression. Some people advocate teaching the bird to step up onto a perch. This can be used but only if the bird is unafraid of the offered perch. Once this bird steps up I recommend taking the bird away from the cage for any further interaction – choosing a neutral territory. Another expression of territoriality can occur as a form of jealousy in which the bird is aggressive to others and sometimes to the owner in the other family member’s presence. This behavior can be improved by encouraging the bird to interact with the other family member(s) for treats and special attention out of the owner’s presence (basically the reverse of a hormonal bird).

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 behaviors. 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 behavior”. 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 behavior.

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 defense? 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 behavior” gets its foundation. We teach the bird that to get us to heed, it should bite us. Once biting is solid in the birds behavioral 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 ferocity shown 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.

I’M SCARED

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 behavior from your bird? Is it a behavior the bird can easily do? Is it a behavior 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 behavior (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.”

 

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.

Should you get bitten, bird owners praise the use of Arnica to reduce swelling and pain- the holistic way.

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