Parrots are easily able to manipulate their owners with the use of their beak. This is done in a number of ways, most of which are referred to as a “bite”, but technically are not. It’s important to consider the type of bite you have have received, so that you know what your next move will be. Sometimes they are caused by the owners misactions, sometimes they are just a form of communication. In any case, it is not acceptable, and your bird needs to be taught to get his points across in a way that doesn’t harm or intimidate you.
The True Bite:
When you’ve truly been bitten, you will know it. I’m talking about the bite that comes from a bird that is holding no punches and has bitten you with the intention of causing injury. THAT is a bite. You will bleed. Chunks of flesh may be missing. You will cry and possibly visit the ER. I have received some terrible bites from Linus, my umbrella cockatoo, both when he first came to live with me, and a couple of years later when he was in the throes of a particularly hormonal hissy.
Just so you know, small birds can inflict a lot of hurt. The worst bite I have ever received came from a sun conure with a fear of hands. His beak came away with a piece of my thumb in it. A friend of mine, who works with large birds in a sanctuary in Texas, said that the worst bite she’s ever received was from a cockatiel who managed to get it’s beak inside the nail bed of her finger.
When a bird is so angry or frightened that it resorts to this type of bite, put it back in its cage where both of you will be safe from harm. A healthy bird that is well kept and well treated will rarely, if ever, resort to these measures in dealing with its owners.
The Warning Bite:
The warning bite is exactly that: a warning to you that your bird is considering the real deal. While a warning bite may not even break the skin, it needs to be taken seriously, because the real bite is the only recourse when warnings are ignored. When your bird is showing you the consideration of holding back by first issuing a warning, you have done a good job in teaching it manners, but you are doing something that is making him uneasy at this time.
Take the time to evaluate what has upset your bird, and choose to either not do this around your bird or find a better way to do it. For example, it you have gotten a warning shot because you are cleaning inside her cage, it’s not hard to figure out that your bird is territorial and would prefer that you not be inside her cage. That’s fair. She’s defending her nest.
Since you have to clean in there, you will opt to find a solution to the problem. Before you’re ready to clean, put her in a carrier in another room or in a play spot with another member of the household. That way, you can clean, and she doesn’t feel invaded. Even though you might reach a point where your bird will tolerate you being inside of her cage, she will never feel comfortable with it because her instinct tells her otherwise. This is a confrontation to avoid because there is no point to trying to train out instinctive behaviors, they will always resurface down the road.
I am going to add The Lunge to the warning category even though the bird might not even make contact with you to bite. Often, and especially with macaws, the lunge is a test to see how easily intimidated you are. It helps them decide whether a bite might be necessary. Just as often it is a game because it is just so darn much fun to watch a human shrink away in terror.
Birds communicate with each other using their beaks. One bird will tell another that he is in the way with a quick nip, just as a human might use an elbow to nudge someone into paying attention. While not terribly polite, it’s effective. The problem is that where a bird might grab a beakful of feathers nipping another bird, they are making contact with our skin and sometimes it hurts. I don’t believe this to be intentional, and do not consider this to be a bite.
One example of the nip is one day that I had Linus on the couch with me. Like so many birds, Linus tends to misbehave on the couch, so he is only allowed there when he is actually on me. This one day, he was in a comfortably predictable mood, so I let him adventure to the other side of the couch. At some point he decided that I needed to move because I was blocking the way to the dark, nesty spot in the corner of the couch, and he nipped me on my side hard enough to leave a welt. In those crucial first few seconds that follow, where you not only have to figure out what happened, but what to do about it before an opportunity is lost, I realized I was being asked to move in bird language. Of course, I couldn’t just move out of the way because it would send a message that this is an acceptable way to communicate what he wants. Instead, I moved him to a play stand.
Many times, when people have come to me because their bad bird bites them, it is not at all a “biting problem”. It’s usually an “owner doesn’t understand what the bird is trying to say problem”. Sometimes it might feel unnatural to try to have a meeting of the minds between you and your bird, two species that think and communicate in very different ways. Know that it feels just as unnatural and complicated to them. They take the time and effort to learn our language, the least we can do is try to learn theirs.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.