Friday, December 7, 2012

Respecting the Bite

I am a wuss. I admit it. Oddly enough I think it has worked in my favor when it comes to working with animals. I don’t “take the bite” whether it is from a mosquito, a parrot or a lion. In fact I do everything in power to avoid a situation in which I might get bit. With mosquitoes sadly it usually means very little camping for me and when outdoors I am bathed in massive doses of repellent. With zoo animals such as lions, it usually means training through barriers and offering reinforcers via utensils, and avoiding creating aggressive behavior. With parrots……believe it or not I actually take an approach similar to what I do with lions! Not because I think parrots pose a particular lethal threat to my person, but because I respect a parrot as much as I respect a lion. Let me repeat that “I respect a parrot as much as I respect a lion.”

To understand this better perhaps I should elaborate on what I mean by “respect”. I interpret this as showing consideration for what an animal is telling me with its body language. For example if my close proximity to an animal is creating the slightest fear response or hint of aggressive behavior I recognize it and acknowledge it. I then do whatever I can, which may include backing away, to put that animal at ease.

Sometimes humans have an inclination to suggest that whatever activity they are doing is “no big deal” or should not be bothersome to their parrot and forge ahead, regardless of what their bird’s body language is saying. There are countless times I have heard someone say “Oh, he doesn’t really mind. Go ahead.” or “He is just being stubborn. Make him step up.” or “It’s just a bluff. He isn’t really aggressive.”  Ouch. Those are painful words to a positive reinforcement trainers ears. There is an implication in those statements that I should ignore what the bird’s body language is telling me. Even if that body language is saying “No! Stop it. I don’t like what you are doing.”

Why should a parrot owner care about respecting their bird’s body language? Because it is a critical element in successfully addressing biting behavior.  I would surmise that most people do not want to get bit by a parrot. I am certainly one who falls into that category. This is when being a wimp works to my advantage. I am not willing to get too close to a bird until it gives me body language that indicates comfort. Certainly this is step one in avoiding a bite. My next goal is usually to associate something of value with my presence. This may mean offering food treats from my hand, a spoon or a bowl. It may also include offering toys or enrichment, head scratches or praise. It all depends on what the parrot shows a preference for. By pairing a preferred item or experience with my presence, hopefully I will gain some value to the parrot. If I am successful I usually start to see a parrot whose body language indicates he is anticipating more “good stuff” coming from me. Woohoo! At this point not only does the parrot seem to be engaged, but I am usually also beginning to feel more confident and trusting of the bird.

The process described above usually happens before a request for the behavior of “step up” is even considered. This is mainly because I am not comfortable placing my hand in front of a bird with whom I have not had the chance to build up some trust. (See the article “Training your New Parrot. Where to Begin?” in Good Bird Magazine Vol 2 Issue 4 for more suggestions on interacting with a parrot for the first time)

Sadly in the companion parrot community I see so many parrots that show fear responses or aggressive behavior towards hands. Because of this when I do bring my hand to a bird for the step up behavior it is done slowly and carefully. All the while I am paying close attention to the bird’s body language and looking for a bird who is at ease before proceeding. All these intricacies help me avoid creating a situation in which a parrot may want to bite.

When Birds Bite

Shoot. I messed up. Either I misread the bird’s body language or I asked for too much, or maybe I simply don’t know what happened just yet. But I got bit. Now what? This is a question that is often posed to me. “What do you do when the bird bites?” If unfortunately a caregiver does get bit, the first immediate response in my opinion is to detach the bird from the person. If the bird is holding on, usually a thumb and forefinger can be placed on the top part of the beak to pry the parrot off of whatever is in their mouth. Other strategies can include redirecting the parrots attention, and simply putting the bird down in the nearest available safe location (perch, cage, couch, table, playstand, etc.)

A bite can be very painful and by all means I do not recommend holding steady while a bird chomps away. This is the erroneous idea that by taking the bite the caregiver will teach the bird that biting has no effect. In truth there can be other reinforcers that maintain that behavior over which we have no control. For example grinding away on flesh may provide a stimulating tactile sensation to the bird. The only way to remove that reinforcer is for the bird to not have human flesh in its beak. 

Another question often presented to me is “How do you let the parrot know what he did was wrong?” I must admit this question makes me cringe a bit. This is because I see it as a request for approval to use aversives to punish a bird for biting. In reality in most cases aversive punishment would not be the strategy of choice to address biting. The primary goal would have been to avoid creating the situation in which the parrot would be inclined to bite in the first place. This may mean teaching the bird what to do instead of what not to do. It may also mean making antecedent changes to facilitate success for the parrot. There are many pathways that can lead to a non biting outcome had they been considered. All of which do not involve an unpleasant experience to teach the bird to do something other than bite.

For me if a parrot bites I do nothing than more than make sure the bird is no longer on me. This gives me time to pause and think about what I could have done differently to avoid the situation. It also forces me to make a mental note of what circumstances created the aggressive response. It also gives me time to deal with any emotional fall out I may experience from being bit. Sometimes our feelings are hurt when an animal we love responds with aggressive behavior.  If I am to focus on building trust with a parrot, the last thing I want to do is to react in a manner that the bird would find unpleasant. This means I do not try to punish the parrot by shaking or dropping my hand, yelling “no”, waving a finger in his face, or flicking his beak. All of these would very likely damage my efforts to build a successful relationship with the parrot.

At a recent conference I overheard a conversation in which it was whispered “I bet she never gets bit.” In truth I can’t say it never happens, but it is extremely rare. It is certainly not from a lack of interacting with parrots. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to meet 100’s of new animals each year. However with each animal I am careful to read body language and to do my best to build a relationship based on trust. I take advantage of any positive reinforcers the animal likes and use these to help increase my worth to my training subject. I am happy to report it is not magic, nor does it take any super powers, or “whispering” techniques. Anyone can have a successful bite free relationship with a parrot when they give their parrot the same respect they would give a lion.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc. First appeared in Good Bird Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

To learn more about products and services to help you train your parrot visit


Anonymous said...

Great article! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What about when bites are reinforced and rewarded with laughter and giggling? I realize the obvious first step of Not laughing or giggling; But what to do next, to break a habit that's already set?

And Thank you, Barbara, for all your valuable, experienced based advice!

Anonymous said...

My Yellow nape likes to "chew" on me like a puppy and it can be quite painful. I'm at a loss what to do.

Anonymous said...

I have found, too, that when my Meyers Parrot bites, if there is screaming and yelling, it makes his response worse. If I respond with, "Shhh. It's okay", in a calm, quiet voice, he is a lot more likely to let go and calm down.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Once the bird has bit you ....basically your moment has past. I personally would get my hand out of the birds mouth as quickly and as gently as possible and think about what I could differently to not get to that point. Taking the bite wont get you the results you want. As the article mentions there are other things about biting that are reinforcing that you have no control over. You are always better off to avoid the bite than deal with it after the fact.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Chewing out of curiosity or for enrichment can be painful so yes you do want to be prepared for how to address that. My suggestions is to use a time out....i.e remove your hands from the play activity for a few seconds when play gets too rough. Resume as long as play is gentle. I also recommend having acceptable items on hand for chewing during playtime. More about this in my book The Parrot Problem Solver. It is all about biting and anything we might consider aggressive behavior.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes there is no recognizable body language and I feel I have been "psyched". My 10 year old B&G will reach down to take a treat from my hand but then suddenly bite me instead. This is very infrequent behavior but I always walk away wondering why. She, with 4 other parrots spend their day in an enclosed 300 sq ft aviary and all are fully flighted. I interact with them numerous times through out the day and they are accustomed to being handled...if they want to be. Reading body language is so important but even after 10 years I sometimes do not see it.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Depending on a bird's past history they can learn to abandon the subtle signals and go straight for the bite. One thing that helps is being very careful every time you are in a sitatuation in which the bird has bitten in the past. Since you have described a scenario in which it has occurred more than once, I would think about other ways to offer a treat or modify how you offer the treat to prevent biting. My DVD the Basics of Parrot Training demonstrates a way to do this.

clicknparrot said...

I totally agree (as usual)with your opinion.

Body language and feather positioning is a powerful (and underrated) way of comunication among birds (indeed is also a powerful arm between us humans).

My only bites (at leats only those I can remember)have always been my fault, and I have learned from all of them that parrots rarely (I´d say never) bite without first having told you to go away... the problem is that we need to observe and learn to read them.

It´s funny that you conclude that we should approach parrots like we´d do a lion... in my blog my comparition was with a tiger, but it is really important to always remember that parrots are WILD animals, so we should approach them as such, with respect and the body language lesson well learned.

Hannah said...

I have a 5 month old green cheek conure who is extremely affectionate and loves to cuddle but cuddle time always seems to turn into biting time. She starts pulling on my fingers or ears and chomping down.

I am trying to watch her body language but unfortunately I'm new to birds so I think I'm learning as much as she is. But from what I can gather she doesn't seem to be being aggressive and is usually most content at the times she starts chewing. I would liken it more to a puppy's teething or her trying to preen me but whatever her intentions she hurts. I've been trying the 'time out' method but whenever I set her on a perch or chair she just flies/climbs right back to me. I don't want to discourage her from coming to me but it seem to be making our training time pretty ineffective. How to I teach her not to bite without her thinking she has to stay away from me all the time?

Also one of my housemates has a quacker parrot a little older than my Alice. They live on different floors but see each other for at least 30 minutes most days in the common areas of the house. However when they are together both birds are obsessed with preening each other. They can hardly be within 10 feet of each other without being glued to each other and preening non stop. The start preening very friendly but often they then preen each other too hard and work their way from feathers to nipping at toes which results in a lot squabbles and squawks. We try and separate them to calm things down but as soon as we aren't actively engaging our respective birds they are pairing up again. It's seems a lot like the situation between me and her. Do you think this lends to her nibbly behavior with humans as well? If so is being around another bird being a bad influence? or should we let them work it out amongst themselves so they understand that biting to hard isn't good? My housemate and I are on opposite side of the fence on this.

I read you're article about screaming over and over religiously and started working with her on it the day I got her. I'm proud to say she's much better with her vocal manners and I'm really happy with the rest of her behavior. I can even take some of the biting myself but it's not good when other people come over and see her chewing on me and then they don't want to give her a chance and right her off as a 'biting bird' even though she's small and doesn't do too much damage.

Hannah said...

I have a 5 month old green cheek conure. She is very affectionate and cuddly but cuddle time quickly turns into biting time when she starts grabbing my fingers or chomping on my ears. I am trying to watch for her body language but I am pretty new to birds so I think I am learning as much as she is. I do not think she is being aggressive though; it seems much more like a puppy teething and happens when she seems most content.
I have been trying the 'time out' approach but every time I back away or set her down on something she simply flies/climbs back to me and we don't seem to be making any progress. I don't want her to think that she is supposed to stay away from me all the time so how to I deal with her biting without discouraging her from coming to me?

Also my housemate has a quacker parrot slight older and bigger than my Alice. They live on different floors but see each other for periods of time most days in the common areas. When they are in the same room though they both become obsessed with each other. They seek each other out and preen each other constantly. However often times the grooming starts friendly and then turns too rough and they move from pulling at feathers to grabbing at toes. When this happens there are lots of squabbles and squawks and we try and separate them quickly. As soon as we aren't directly engaging our respective birds though they are glued to each others sides again and the cycle repeats. This seems to reflect a lot her behavior with me. Do you think her preening of the other bird could be setting a bad example or reinforcing her human nibbling habits? If they are going to continue seeing each other should we continue to separate them or should we let them work it out with themselves in bird ways so they learn when they are being too rough?

Other than the biting I have had a lot of success working with her and thanks to you're article on screaming which I read religiously over and over she has much better vocal manners.

Alexa said...

I have a 3 months old galah and sometimes she "bites" me when im giving her baby food in a syringe is that only because shes ungry or because im trying to clean the food from her bick?
She does the same thing when im playing with her and she lies on her back bitting her toes or my fingers. I thought maybe giving her foot toys she stops. Can you help me please i dont want to her growning up bitting.

Anonymous said...

All of this great but what about when it comes to say a Quaker that would once step up from the the cage and all of sudden stops and shows cage aggression?

Unknown said...

I have a nanday attack parrot, she makes it hard to do any of the reinforcement options or even get near her without her trying to eat you. She will chase you around the house and try to bite your face I don't know where to start since she is so aggressive both inside and out side her cage? Any suggestions on how to mend a supper aggressive bird ?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

I would definitely start in a place that is safe. Which might be with the bird in the cage and you outside. Check out the blog here to help get you started on finding a preferred food item to use. Then just work on dropping a treat in the bowl and walking away for a while to get your bird to start looking forward to your presence. Then work up to target training from outside the cage as your first behavior.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

In response to th can only start with what the bird will give you now and retrain the behavior. In other words it doesnt matter that he did it in the past. You start with what you have and build from there to get the behavior back on track. There a lots of reason a behavior can break down....a big one is that people stop reinforcing the behavior and just expect the bird to it. Keep in mind you want to reinforce any and all behaviors you want to maintain anytime you request the behavior to be presented by the animal. Also see my comment above.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have a young green cheek conure. He is very affectionate and loves to interact with us both. We try to be respectful of his body language and not force him to do anything he doesn't want to do. However, he will voluntarily reach out for a hand, step up, and then bite fingers. He bites at other times too, but we know conures are nippy and think he is trying to get attention so we will play with him. He can also be aggressive toward our cockatiel at times, for no reason that we can see. He doesn't seem frightened at all when interacting with us, actually he is always quite cheerful! We are trying to figure out how much of this behavior is because he is young, and if we are somehow unintentionally reinforcing it. Is this a dominance thing possibly?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

I wouldnt get hung up in words like dominance. Instead look at the circumstances in which the bird bites and see what you can do to avoid those situations If you cant avoid the situation then train the bird to do what you want in those situations. My book The Parrot Problem Solver is all about aggressive behavior. It is out of print but you can get digital or used copies on amazon. That would be a good comprehensive resource for you.

Heather in Toronto said...

I have seen conflicting opinions regarding whether allowing other kinds of "beaky" behaviour is likely to increase actual aggressive biting. I have a juvenile (9 month old) green cheek conure, a species well known for its nippy and beaky tendencies especially when young.

He rarely nails me or my roommate in earnest (and when he does we pretty much always know what we did wrong), but he does use his beak a lot even when he is not being bitey. In addition to nibbling while preening and using his beak as an extra hand to explore the world (including us) with, he loves to flop over on his back and finger wrestle, and while we stop the game if it gets too rough we wonder if it is teaching him aggression.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Barbara,
Could you please help me with advice - if a parrot runs to you to sit on your shoulder or head and then sometimes it can get a stong hold of your fingers or your face like warning or threatening and sometimes she bites. Firstly it was just trying to "warn" now it is biting but at the same time she runs towards me trying to get on my shoulder or head. The last time she bited me because I washed with lukewarm water as we did it before.Thanks to your article now I know how to solve her another pro screaming.Help me please to solve the most dangerous problem to be bited by a big bird like Eclectus.Thank you in advance.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

I hope you read the article and it again :) Trying to stop biting by meeting it with an aversive experience is just asking for more problems. My first DVD Parrot Behavior and Training has a nice sequence on how to train a parrot so that it chooses to stay on your hand and will eagerly step off of your shoulder. You can find it here

Barbara Heidenreich said...

If you are still dealing with aggressive behavior, I have put together a very comprehensive resource to help. I have a recording of one of my webinars on Addressing Biting and Aggressive Behavior. You can find it here