My house hasn’t been the calmest, quietest place lately. I’ve been catching up on a lot of jobs that have needed to be done, many of which are outside of my abilities and have required the assistance of some handy workmen. This has meant my birds have seen more strangers than usual. It’s always interesting to see what happens when a stranger is around.
I have nine parrots in my flock. The endless cages, aviaries and a house full of bird accessories tend to get noticed by visitors. There is nothing discreet about my birds either. A galah excitedly squealing “PIGGY!” at any oncoming stranger might also have something to do with that. (Handy hint: don’t make fun of the way your bird eats, it’s likely to get repeated.)
Naturally, the largest bird draws the eye first, usually with an awed: “Wow look at the size of that beak – I wouldn’t want to get bitten by that!” In contrast, the smaller ones get called “Cute”.
I have absolutely no trouble whatsoever with convincing people not to stick their fingers in the macaw’s cage uninvited. I have a lot more difficulty stopping people from doing it to the smaller birds. The irony of that stands out to me.
Of my nine parrots, only one has ever inflicted an injury that has inflicted permanent scarring and required a doctor. That award goes to my smallest and least intimidating bird – Otto my musk lorikeet. The amount of blood that bird has drawn in his short life convinces me that he wants to be a vampire. He was re-homed with me after doing some serious damage to his previous owner’s face. He is a difficult bird to read at the best of times and I would say easily the most dangerous bird in my flock.
In contrast, I have two birds in my flock that have never drawn blood. That award goes to the largest bird, Fid my Blue and Gold macaw and my least tame galah, Nemo. Fid gives a good strong pinching nip or bone-squishing crunch when he wants to – but he hasn’t drawn blood. Nemo on the other hand avoids any contact with most people, but will gingerly mouth someone she knows as a warning (it tickles). Her bite is so gentle; that I used to worry it meant she had no strength in her beak. Her splintered perches suggest otherwise.
It does seem odd that my smallest parrot is the one I’m most wary of, but there is possibly a good reason why he is the most likely to bite. It may well be that because people tend to be less afraid of smaller beaks; people tend to be less concerned about biting warning signs and try to touch a smaller bird more than they might try with a larger bird. It is possible that my musk lorikeet Otto has learned that he has to really react to maintain his personal space, whereas my macaw can achieve that same result with a simple intimidating look.
My idea of a dangerous bird is not primarily based on the size of a bird’s beak. I’m more concerned with how easy a bird’s body language is to read, how quickly the bird moves, how quickly a bird’s mood tends to change and how controllable the bird is when it snaps.
When Otto goes off, he goes in to full attack mode, lunging and biting continuously and there is no off-switch to that behaviour. When he bites, there is no warning bite and he will be continuously biting and scratching until he dies or until his victim does. He will go for a person’s face and try to scratch their eyes out. It is most definitely NOT something you want to be on the receiving end of. The only way I have found to stop it is to throw a towel over him and drop him back in his cage (with towel). He is extremely fast moving and very difficult to catch in this situation, so that is easier said than done. It’s this particular behaviour that was the reason why he was re-homed with me in the first place.
I have come to realise that while there is no warning bite with Otto, he displays very quick subtle color changes as a warning when he is upset by something. In particular the red feathers around his eyes almost start to glow and pulse when he’s becoming agitated. (Birds use light to communicate, changing the angle of their feathers reflects different amounts of light.) It’s enough of a sign to allow me to prevent him attacking and there hasn’t been an incident with him for over a year. However, the colour change in his feathers is so subtle and so fast that I’d absolutely never trust him with children or inexperienced bird handlers. This is despite the fact that Otto is actually a very friendly bird – he absolutely loves meeting new people. He whistles songs and sucks up to strangers like you would not believe in an effort to get them to pick him up. The problem is, his mood can change in a split second. People who can read and respond to that split second are really the only ones who can safely handle Otto.
The safest bird in my flock is the second largest bird here, my male eclectus Pepi. He has a truly hideous bite. There is a sharp edge to his beak that slices through skin really easily and it’s a bite with a lot of strength to it. I can see him inflicting a wound that could require medical intervention. He has a tendency to be a little grumpy and he has a very real temper but is generally a pretty friendly bird. The reason he is my safest bird is because he is by far the easiest bird to read. I can hand him over to a complete stranger and confidently say that if his head turns bright green and his body gets darker then something is annoying him and a bite is pending.
I have plenty of time to react if that happens because he then goes through a whole range of other very clear signals. He’ll even show me the red under his wings as though holding up a stop sign. His signals end with an unmistakable ferocious growl and only then will he bite. The signals are so clear, that it makes him very easy to handle.
I have to say even if you think you know your birds well, sometimes you can be surprised. As I type I’m actually nursing a slightly bruised nose. My galah Merlin got me this morning. I was hanging a toy in his cage when he suddenly lunged forward and grabbed my nose. He squeezed it and then released it and yelled: HONK!!!! I was very unimpressed by this trick (it hurt) and I have absolutely no idea where he learned that? I can only assume that his previous owner taught it to him years ago and I must have done something to inadvertently cue it. I hope I never accidentally cue it again and the little rotter had better not teach it to the others! My nose is most definitely not made for honking.
In short, I try very hard not to judge birds by their beak size or by the bite they might inflict. I’m more inclined to look at the whole package. Even within a species, body language can vary between birds. Any bird can bite. Any bird can be dangerous. Even the smallest parrot can do serious damage. The trick is to learn the body language of your bird and learn to respect their signals. You can then manage your interactions and that personalised knowledge definitely comes through training and working regularly with your birds.
Meanwhile what warning signals do your birds give you? Let us know in the comments field below.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.