Prevent the Bite
bonnie dater jay
The parrot beak. Formidable. Gentle. Powerful. Dangerous. And it hurts like crazy when it pierces our skin. Just why do parrots bite? In the words of Susan Friedman, Ph.D, “Most biting, regardless of situation, is to remove intruding hands that cannot be removed any other way. Birds learn to bite to communicate NO because we don’t listen to lesser communications of NO. I try to explain to people that every animal has a right to say ‘no’, so, if you don’t want them saying ‘no’ with a bite, what behavior are you willing to take?”
What we want to learn in this article is how to prevent a bite, any bite, but first we need to know what an impending bite might look like.
I offer Photo 1.
Here we have a fluffed up, aggressively postured creature who will bite any fingers that come within striking distance, even by accident. This is a shot in the morning at the door of Chiahna’s sleeping cage. Neither you nor I want to indulge this birds’ readiness to bite so we will not force any fingers or hands upon him until those feathers go down, and then we will be very careful what we choose to do next. To avoid any possible bite, we will want to use something that he will grab with that beak of his and will make biting impossible since his beak is otherwise occupied. In behavior analysis work this is called DRI. Differential Reinforcement with an Incompatible Behavior.
This amazon is NOT approachable… don’t even think about it. The eyes are pinned, wings up a little, forehead feathers up, the tail is fanned and the feet are in a wide stance. For the most part amazons let you know when they are willing to bite.
Here’s photo 2A and 2B
We can never know what a bird is thinking even though we think we do and we describe their thoughts with labels that are likely to have nothing to do with what they are actually thinking. And we will never know of course. But I’m going to take a guess here and say that this moluccan cockatoo is very surprised and a bit fearful, though not too much. Feathers are up and away from the body, crest is slightly elevated and wings and mouth are being held open. I’m basing this on a lot of life experience with birds so I reckon it’s a pretty good guess.
This is a bird that we don’t want to try to pick up at this time. He/she is in a focused moment and may be feeling defensive, but I don’t want to find out. I just want to keep my fingers to myself and so do you until things calm down… by the perceived threat being removed from close proximity. If this expression is the result of introducing a new toy, then introduce it more slowly and from farther away and keep your hands to yourself until the birds’ body language says it’s ready for touch.
Here, with our beautiful hawkhead parrot we can see the same sort of thing. Feathers up, crest up, tail fanned, wings held away from the body, feet far apart in a stable stance. This is a common reaction in almost all birds… and when you see it...keep your body parts to yourself and don’t get too close.
There are other forms of fear biting, one being displacement biting. That’s when a bird bites something (like the person holding it) because he/she cannot bite the object it would really rather bite. Trust me, if the object that is objected to is near enough, the bitor will leap with glee onto the bitee whenever possible and bite the nearest flesh… hard. If you see signs of puffed feathers and pinned eyes while holding a bird, turn away from the offending object or person promptly. Also, unless you really, really know your bird, NEVER hand off YOUR bird to another person, because it’s a good way for YOU to get bitten. Most birds do not appreciate being handed off to just anyone, even if they ‘look’ like they want to step off. Some birds are just fine with it, so once again learn about your bird’s body language. By the way, pinned eyes can also mean excitement or joy. They aren’t a given for a bite, but YOU, the caregiver, need to know the difference.
Photo 3 Displacement Biting
Alas, I have no photo for displacement biting. I found no person willing to get bitten. Just imagine this instead: Person A, bird on arm, person B, no bird any where to be seen. Person A tries to get bird to step onto person B, bird doesn’t want to step onto person B, might actually want to eat the face off of person B but can’t reach him, and bites the arm he’s standing on instead. Ouch!
This is called Exploratory Biting. The bird takes a chomp of whatever it is, often a finger, to feel it and test it for biteability perhaps. It’s different from nibbling. Nibbling feels good and is soft and gentle. A bite is a bite is a bite and does not feel good, especially if it pierces our tender flesh and bleeds like a running river as we curse under our breath while making haste toward the bathroom for the bandages. Nibbling isn’t like that at all. It’s lovely.
Photo 5A 5B
Mattie Moonbeam, my tiny moluccan is very territorial as are many birds, especially large cockatoos. I do not actually have an image of her biting because it’s not the sort of thing I plan for and I don’t have any volunteers. I’m sure you understand. But there is territorial biting and it generally means that the bird is protecting it’s perceived territory from you the perceived intruder. I suspect that Mattie is saying something like, “Hi, this is my floor and you’re feet are on it and your big toe is so tempting. I’m in charge here, in fact the whole place is mine and I make all the rules, so just in case you’re inclined to forget, here is a painful bite on that tempting toe just to prove it. Now watch me run back to a safe place where I can shout and scream about how I “gotcha!” It’s my imagination of course, but I bet it’s darn close. Of course I cannot know what she’s thinking, but I know her body language and it tells me volumes.
I also know that when Mattie tilts her head to the side and looks at her victim with that twinkle in her eye (Can you see the twinkle above?), she is also waiting for just the right moment to bite the victim’s ankle if they are outside the apt., or their toes if they are inside. No shoes allowed in here. Her timing is impeccable and that look of innocence is never to be trusted in these circumstances because it’s only a lure for the victim to relax. She does it by being all cute, sweet and alluring… and harmless looking, then bam! she bites the arm or whatever is near and shrieks in joy on the hysterical run back to her cage, only to climb it with her feathers and crest all raised, and rock side to side in sheer happiness. I think. It sure looks like happy to me. Trust me, I have experience with this girl. These days she is not allowed to be out of her cage when there is a visitor, even if Mattie is good friends with the individual. This way the person can be a visitor instead of a victim. Have I used labels here, yes, I have, and after 18 years with her I pretty much know what this girl is up to. Mattie does not bite outside of this building… ever. She will go to everyone and gently cuddle with them. It’s just in here the problem presented itself. Remember, you want to design the environment for success… ALWAYS! Now there are no bites, no blood and no shrieking.
To avoid this type of bite, keep your feet off the floor and your fingers to yourself. Really, just make sure your host or hostess has their bird (that is known to be a territorial biter), in a cage before you walk into the bird’s territory.
Here’s another quote from Dr. Friedman: “To prevent biting 1) give the bird an acceptable alternative way to communicate NO by backing away when the bird does that behavior, and 2) teach the bird that approaching you results in great outcomes for the bird so it chooses to draw you in. Shaping birds to step onto hands by reinforcing small approximations works great because done well, it results in a high rate of reinforcement.
Respect and honor your birds, love them to bits, feed them the best organic food you can, give them huge amounts of time out of the cage and learn their body language. Take that last one very seriously. You need to watch all the time and learn what each little movement means. A tilt here a leg up there.
Doing these things will give you the greatest chance to prevent being bitten, and have a healthy, happy, cherished bird.