Why Do Pet Birds Bite?


(this is one of my past columns from Hyde Park Living)

Okay enough already. I have seen and heard enough of people telling me about mean, aggressive, grouchy, or dominant birds that bite.

I have heard too many anecdotes for ‘curing’ or ‘fixing’ the problem that are all about ‘fixing’ the bird by being the boss of it. About the only thing all these stories seem to have in common is that the fault always seems to rest on the bird. To that, I will emphatically say – wrong!

One such answer involved clipping wings so that the bird can’t escape. Ironically, letting my birds grow in all their flight feathers has given them so much more confidence because they CAN escape. It has also made me much more aware of how important it is for me to ensure the reinforcing value of their being somewhere because if I don’t, well, they can easily decide to be somewhere else.

In the wild, although vicious attacks occur when a nest site is involved, rarely does competition or conflict escalate into physical violence. Instead they vocalize and/or use body language (such as flapping their wings, posturing, fluffing feathers) until ultimately one will fly or move away.

Why then do birds bite humans? Well, for one humans who get bit generally aren’t very good listeners when it comes to watching their bird’s body language. They don’t allow their bird to nonagressively warn them to back off. Instead they push the limit and they have their body parts where they shouldn’t be (that’d be too close to a bird’s beak when the bird doesn’t want you there).  They teach their birds that nonaggressive body language just doesn’t work in communicating to aggressive, grouchy or dominant humans.

Remember – behavior is a function of its environment. It happens because it serves the animal a purpose. If a behavior reoccurs, it is because it is being reinforced. And, every time it reoccurs is practice until perfect.

If your bird is on his cage with his tail flailed out and his pupils dilated and you force your hand in his belly to make him step up, I can predict what will happen. You’ll get nailed, you’ll back off (probably yell a thing or two), and your bird will remain where he wants to be. That one occurrence has taught your bird that the only way to get you to leave him alone is to bite you because dilating his pupils, flailing his tail or standing erect is of no use.  The funny thing about this is that, when you do give your bird the power to choose whether or not to be with you (that is, assuming you are worthy of being with), he will be more likely to choose to be with you.

I can tell you the reason that I talk about Barnaby as a bird who doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his little body is because his entire life he has been with people who have allowed him to speak with his body language. He has never needed to resort to biting to make a human back off and as a result, he chooses to want to be around humans more. No matter what I do I always watch him to ‘tell’ me he wants me to do what I’m doing (either by his lifting his foot for a step up, running toward me, leaning into me, etc.).

Instead of keeping strangers from him I encourage them to interact with him; however, I always watch his body language to ensure he wants their interaction. If I notice any body language that says ‘stop, you’re too close’, I make sure those people back up.

Of course there may be times when I have to tilt the scale in my favor with his favorite food treats – like when I need him to go to sleep and he wants to stay up and watch tv instead.

Please, stop blaming your bird for just doing what works for him. Instead learn to pay close attention to his body language and what is going on in his environment. Learn to remove the need for your bird to bite in the first place.


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