One of the most common problems seen in companion birds is biting. Parrots are wild animals, and they have instinctual traits that have not been bred out of them. Biting is a natural behavior for birds, and we as their caretakers must work at understanding why they bite so that we can try to avoid getting bitten. We must remember that birds who bite are not “bad”, they are just birds.
There are a few common reasons why exotic birds will bite. If we know what to look out for, we can better protect ourselves. We also must accept that punishment does not work for birds, and usually ends up creating more problems in the long run. This article is merely an overview; biting is often a complex problem and a complete explanation is not within the scope of this article.
A common reason for biting is fear and/or distrust of humans. As babies, birds love everyone and rarely bite hard. Babies may “teethe” by lightly chewing on your fingers. This is not biting and should never be punished. When a bird gets a little older, she comes to recognize certain members of her family as her “flock” and these are safe people. Anyone she doesn’t recognize or trust she may bite. It’s also possible that your bird may not like certain family members, including you! One way to try to win a bird over is to reserve special treats (a favorite food for instance) to the un-favored person. It’s best not to let children and guests handle your bird without your direct supervision. Do not allow unfamiliar people to approach your bird with the intention of picking her up. That’s just asking for a bite. Be especially careful when children are around. A large bird’s beak can exert almost as much pressure as a dog’s bite and can cause bleeding and broken bones. A trip to the vet’s office will usually result in some bites aimed at the vet. Even if your bird has never bitten you, the stress that a vet visit brings may cause her to nip you a little. Fear biting can be controlled a bit if you work on socializing your bird to new people. This must be done at the bird’s pace and without punishment.
Many birds may bite when they are feeling playful and are over-stimulated. Amazons and Cockatoos are especially prone to “overload” behavior. Know your bird’s body language and avoid trying to handle a bird that is obviously excited. Most birds who are about to bite will have fluffed feathers and “pinning” eyes (when eyes dilate and constrict rapidly). Body language will change from bird to bird, and between various situations. You should observe your bird carefully to learn her particular signs of an impending bite.
A bird may bite when she is tired, stressed, injured, or otherwise ill. Birds need approximately 12 hours of quiet, undisturbed darkness to be fully rested. A tired bird is uncomfortable and may be “cranky.” An injured bird will bite, so take care when handling a bird that is hurt. Your best plan will be to gently wrap the bird in a towel to avoid being bitten. This way, you can safely transport her to a carrier and get her to the vet’s office if needed. If your bird is usually not nippy, and then suddenly nips consistently with no obvious reason, a vet’s checkup may be in order. Birds instinctively hide signs of illness, so any change in personality including becoming nippy may indicate illness.
Many birds can be territorial of their cage, playstand, or even their favorite person. If your bird has become territorial of her cage and tries to bite whenever you attempt to take her off, you may have to dedicate some time to training. The bird will usually respond much better after some time spent in an unfamiliar room without her cage or play area where you can work with her. If your bird has become territorial of you, she will show that by attempting to bite either you or a rival for your attention. In this case it is best to not allow your bird on your shoulder. A bird with a history of biting shouldn’t be allowed on the shoulder at all. Birds can quickly bite through ear lobes, and cause permanent damage to the face, neck and head. A territorial bird will need someone with a lot of patience to work with her.
A final common reason for biting and general aggressiveness is hormones brought on by the breeding season. Amazons and Cockatoos tend to be affected by hormonal changes the most. There isn’t much we can do to stop hormonal biting, so your best defense is to avoid handling a bird in this stage. A vet or a breeder will be able to identify signs of hormonal behavior for you.
Now that we know some reasons that birds may bite, we can take actions to avoid being bitten. Leaving hormonal, over-stimulated, stressed, ill, or fearful birds alone will help greatly. When birds become habitual biters, then we have a real problem. Habitual biters and birds who have been previously mistreated and abused will need intensive work and lots of patience from the caretaker. You may need to enlist the help of an avian behavioral consultant or your vet to remedy this problem. Just keep in mind that patience is key. Never punish a bird who bites. Birds remember mistreatment, and they hold grudges. Birds are not like dogs; they do not recognize an “alpha bird”, and there is no need to try to “control” your bird. Birds operate out of mutual respect, and if you attempt to overpower your bird, she will lose trust in you. You shouldn’t attempt to force your bird to do anything. Any interaction you have with your bird should be trust-building.
Just remember that birds generally tell you when they’re about to bite with their body language. Be sure you don’t teach your bird to bite by rewarding her with drama, or being returned to the cage for “time out.” With a consistent amount of patience, love, and understanding, you should be able to provide a lifelong home to your bird.