I’ve decided to start a series called “Parrot MythBusters”, wherein common and pervasive myths about parrots will be addressed and discussed. While the idea has been percolating for several months now, the impetus to actually start with this first one today came from one version of a meme that gets circulated every few weeks or so.
Anyone with a parrot and internet access has probably seen this meme, or one of the many like it:
Memes like this one exist for a reason. Many people get bitten by their bird and take it as a personal attack. They label their bird as “mean” or “unhandleable” or “wild” or “dominant”. They assume their bird does not like them. None of these things are true. Birds bite because in the past they have learned that biting works. Or, in some cases, they accidentally bite because they don’t understand that the mole is attached to your skin, or they have lost their balance and are merely trying to find some stabilization. These memes attempt to let people know that bird ownership opens you up to the possibility of getting bitten—-even accidentally, just as you might accidentally get scratched or bitten by any other companion animal.
That’s fine. That’s important. However, in some ways I feel it’s counterproductive. Why? Because, it sends the message that your bird is going to bite you, and that’s ok. So what’s wrong with that? Well, simply because most people don’t realize – but desperately need to realize – that it is not only possible, but preferable, to create a relationship with your bird where s/he doesn’t feel the need to bite you.
When people find out that I am a behavior consultant, one of the most frequent comments that I hear is, “Oh, I bet you get bitten a lot!” They are always surprised to learn that, actually, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been bitten.
The reason that most trainers and behavior consultants don’t get bitten very often is because the basis, the very foundation, of effective, humane animal training is the ability to listen to and respect what an animal is saying. Training – which includes “passive” training that happens every time you interact with your bird – requires that you first of all understand your bird’s body language, and secondly that you listen to it. To educate yourself about bird language, I highly recommend Barbara Heidenreich’s DVD “Understanding Parrot Body Language”, which can be found here. Avoiding a bite can be as simple as observing their body language and removing your hand or arm *before* the bite–when they are still as the stage of displaying warning body language.
Of course, it gets a lot more complicated than that in real life. Sometimes the bird is already on us when they bite. Sometimes the bird flies across the room and attacks when we aren’t looking at them. Sometimes the “bite” isn’t aggression at all, but as mentioned above, it’s merely stabilization or exploration. Sometimes, a bird’s warning body language has been punished, suppressed, or ignored for so long that they learn to just skip with the formalities of warning signs and go straight to the bite. In these birds, people say their birds just “‘bite out of nowhere, without warning.” Whatever the situation, there is always a way to train that bird to not perform those highly undesirable behaviors.
It starts, however, with paying attention to their body language, knowing their habits, and figuring out how to avoid putting them in a situation where they have the opportunity to bite in the first place. If they’re obsessing over something on your body, remove it or cover it up before you handle them. If they bite you every time you put your hand in their cage, train them to voluntarily come out of their cage before asking them to step up. If they start to display aggressive body language when you offer your hand or arm, remove your hand/arm, wait for them to display calmer body language, then reinforce them for the calm body language. If they are like my high energy Red Bellied Parrot and will cathartically nibble just to get rid of excess energy, have them fly a few laps around the room before asking them to step up, or otherwise provide exercise before expecting them to behave calmly. A tired bird is a good bird. 🙂 These are all just very basic examples of the ways to avoid and prevent biting, but the goal here is not to solve everyone’s individual biting bird problems in one fell swoop, but rather to raise awareness to the fact that it IS possible to teach a bird that biting is really ineffective and there are so many other options that produce more desirable results. The one thing to remember, though, is that the less frequently a bird bites, the less it will choose biting as its first option in the future. So, the best way to teach your bird not to bite is to avoid situations where the bird has the opportunity to bite. You know the old adage: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
This is food for thought, but to some extent it requires training, skill, and experience to troubleshoot some individual issues. For this reason, I highly recommend that if you have a biting issue that you can’t figure out how to solve on your own, seek professional help from an avian behavior consultant. You can find a list of consultants at www.iaate.org and www.iaabc.org. You can also get good, free, but somewhat limited advice from professionals at the Facebook group “Training birds” here. You can also get free one-on-one help as well as mini lessons about behavior at Dr. Susan Friedman’s yahoo group here. And I do offer behavior consults as well, although if at all possible it’s best to get help in person from someone who come meet you in your home and work with you and your bird in the flesh.
In summary: yes, it’s highly likely that you will get bitten by your bird at some point in your relationship with them. But your (very attainable) goal should be to get to a point with your bird where they never want or need to bite you at all. It CAN be done. It is done every day, with every species of animal in captivity, from every background—even with animals who have a history of severe aggression. Your bird is not beyond help or hope or rehabilitation. You *can* live a life with your bird where you are rarely, or even never, bitten again.