To Bite Or Not To Bite - That Is The Question

by Jane Hallander

This article is reprinted from The Pet Bird Report, with permission from the author.

Why do birds bite?

Many parrots start biting as juveniles, when they start asserting themselves to see who in your family will be the flock leader. Of course, the parrot hopes it is itself. Parrots start using their beaks to refuse a command, such as the ‘up’ command. If the owner pulls their hand or finger away the parrot takes that gesture as a sign of submission.

Some bite during mating season as a sign of increased hormone activity. While certain Amazon species have the worst reputation for this, other species, such as cockatoos and African Greys may also become hormonal biters during their breeding seasons. Males may become excited while displaying for their human ‘mates’ and grab your finger. Hens often become territorial about guarding their cages, as if the cage were a nest.

Then there are the birds that I call ‘recreational biters’. They bite for fun as part of their game playing behavior. Some of the poicephalus species, red bellies and myers for instance, are recreational biters. Caiques are often the same. Recreational biters usually bite playfully someone they like and more seriously someone they feel they can dominate. They even treat domination biting as fun, often chasing and biting someone as part of a game.

Some parrots bite as a result of emotional ‘overload’. In other words they get excited during mating display or game playing and do what they would in the wild -- bite to express themselves.

 Do's and Don'ts

Here are some behavioral dos and don'ts for birds that have shown a tendency to bite.

Don't give them access to your face, via shoulder, chest or arm. If the bird is on your finger and lunges, make sure you hold it at chest level and far enough away from your face that it cannot reach you. Only the most trusted birds should be allowed near the face, and even then, should be watched for seasonal or territorial mood changes that might make them bite. For instance, I trust Jing, however one day she saw her own reflection in a hand mirror I was using to see the back of my hair. It appeared to her that another bird sat on my shoulder. Had she access to me, she would have bitten me viciously, simply because she switched to a territorial attack mode. Knowing that, I stayed away from her until she calmed down.

Do teach them limits. Teach them that you and any other primary care giver are allowed to reach inside the bird's cage without being challenged. Teach them by assuming flock leadership. This is done by allowing a troublesome bird to be no higher than chest level, including the perches in a big cage and playpen on top. Many times short people aren't aware that height alone has a lot to do with a parrot's authority complex. For instance, a short woman’s husband may be much taller and have no problem with the bird, simply because the bird assumes the taller person is a more dominant creature than the bird itself. Perch height in a big cage is also a factor here for birds that bite. Perches should be no higher than chest level of the shortest human care giver.

Teach birds limits by teaching them to step up to a finger, hand, arm or wooden dowel when an 'up' command is given and to step down when a 'down' command is given. While parrots may not always need these commands, they do need to know that the command means 'no more nonsense now'.

Don't take bites personally. Of course, they are personal for the bird that intends to dominate you, however they are not to be feared as if they are the end of the world. Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean that a bite on the face isn't serious. It is and is to be avoided at all costs. However, the bird usually starts with fingers and hands. That is the time to stop the biting behavior from a bird trying to be flock leader. If you don't know how to 'jiggle' a bird on your hand -- making it think it's losing its balance and therefore stop biting to get balance back -- push your finger up against its chest to make it step up, even though it's biting your finger. It will soon stop biting when it knows that it has to give in to you.

Do understand that recreational biters will sometimes grab a finger or experiment with the web of your hand, even though they have been conditioned not to bite. Expect this behavior and treat it accordingly, with a slight hand jiggle or a stern ‘no’ while looking directly into the bird’s eyes. Do not, however, get into a habit of pulling your finger or hand away from a recreational biter or any bird who attempts a bite.

One of the best ways to reinforce biting behavior is to jerk your finger or hand away from the striking beak. Most birds start biting with a tentative attempt at dominance -- striking without trying to grab hard. When the owner pulls away from the bird and shows fear, the bird sees it as a submissive reaction to it and bites harder the next time, until you have a bird that's out of control and goes for the most vulnerable part of you -- your face. Birds often start biting because they haven't been taught that the human is the flock leader. In flocks they try their power out on other birds by biting. If it works they are the boss of that other bird. If not, they're not the boss.

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