THAT SHARP BEAK

Biting is one of the most common, complained about parrot behaviours. It is so common that many people say that if you own a bird you are going to eventually get bit as if to imply that it’s just their nature to bite Another camp says “biting is a learned behaviour”. This isn’t entirely true either. They have a beak, they need to eat, they need to chew, they need to take bites of food….no, they come with a form of biting already in their repertoire. It’s much more a matter of how they use that biting ability.
 
Let’s see if we can make sense out of the two above statements and where they might fit in with our pets. Let’s take a closer look at what biting may mean from the birds point of view and how biting may become a problem behaviour.

As noted, birds have beaks and the ability to bite down on anything that enters those beaks. For a bird to bite down, the number one thing to consider is that there must be proximity. If whatever is being bitten can’t enter the beak (even the tip) it would be impossible for the bird to bite it. So we start with one fact-proximity/nearness is a must!

Birds don’t have hands. Their sense of exploratory touch is via beak, tongue and feet. It is common for young birds to explore new things with their beak and tongues. This, in itself, does not a biter make. It is our job at this stage to reinforce gentle exploration and to divert that exploration to appropriate items. Birds ultimately chew! Give them acceptable things to chew!

So what could the purpose of a bite be? In human terms it could be an attempt to say no to a request. For example, if someone approaches us and they tell us to do something, we have vocal skills to say no. If our no is ignored, we may repeat it and perhaps turn away. If they persist we may push them away. A bird doesn’t necessarily have the human vocal skills to say no although there is no doubt they have BIRD signals to convey the same message.

In addition, with many of our pet birds being kept clipped, if/when they find themselves in a fear situation, what options do they have for self defence? They can’t flee very easily so the other option available to them is to bite, in hopes of getting rid of the feared object. That bite would again be a means of saying no, although with a slightly different meaning; self preservation. In this situation it would be similar to a human being attacked and doing whatever was necessary to stop and evade their attacker.

In both cases, the bite is a NO/STOP response to some sort of stimuli. Is this all there is to a bite? Actually, it isn’t but if we take it one step farther, we may find the crux of biting. If a bird bites to tell you no, it doesn’t want to partake in something, or no you must keep away from me, what does that bite actually garner? What could have set up the necessity of the bite? Could it be that we ignored all the bird signals that were saying no? If that is the case, the bite was a final way for the bird to get us to pay attention to what it was telling us, much like a human stomping their foot to add emphasis! Imagine it as a loud NO! The problem now is it’s too late, the bite has already occurred! The consequence in the bird’s eye will now vary depending on what happened after the bite. Did you finally understand the ‘no’? Did you back away holding a sore piece of skin, screaming in pain? Did you teach the bird that for it to say no to you it needed to bite?This is where the statement “biting is a learned behaviour” gets its foundation. We teach the bird that to get us to heed, it should bite us. Once biting is solid in the birds behavioural bank, it may become generalized to get us to pay notice for different things, not just as a means to say no. It draws our attention when we are ignoring the bird, it draws our attention when it wants something, it gets us to notice when it doesn’t want something, it gets our regard when it’s scared.

What we need to look at is the necessity of the bite. Why should a bird have to bite us to tell us something? What would it do to another bird in the same situation? It is true that birds do nip at each other, but seldom with the ferocity shown to some humans and not generally as a first reaction.

In a bird to bird confrontation, two things initially occur at about the same time. Feathers will lift slightly, posture will become more upright to appear larger and eyes will pin (constrict). If neither bird backs down at this point it is common to hear a slight squawk and to see feathers raise more. (Actually some species may slick their feathers tight in this situation) At this stage birds with crests will have them fully upright and tail feathers will also generally be flared. Most often, with these signs, one of the birds will back down or move away. The posturing is all that is required. It should be the same with us. All we should require from the bird is its body language.

Do we fail to pay heed to the signs? Do we fail to notice those initial slight feather position changes, the pinning of the eyes? Do we continue to force our will when the feathers raised more? Do we insist on standing our ground? What other option did we actually give our birds when we failed to notice these changes? By ignoring these overt body language displays, we left the bird no other choice but to bite us to get his point across.
An important point to consider, birds learn, as do all living things. If our responses teach them that we never pay any heed to the subtle signs that generally precede a bite, they may learn that those signs are an unnecessary and wasteful use of energy. They will simply quit showing them as an individual step and instead show them at the same time as the bite is occurring. We teach them to cut to the chase.

So back to our first paragraph, is biting a learned behaviour or is it a natural behaviour? The correct answer is that it’s a combination of both. They have a beak for a reason and it’s only natural for them to use it when life necessitates that, but we certainly teach them to use it far more than it would ever be used in the wild.

So where does that bring us to?

Maybe you’ve already been able to identify what needs to be changed when dealing with your bird. What is the purpose of your birds biting? Is it to remove you in some way? Is it to gain your attention? Is it just to voice a no response? Quite likely, it’s all of the above at different times. Biting can become multi-functional because it IS something us human caretakers notice. Different antecedents (situations) may result in a bite. Perhaps the way you approached or the activity level, or maybe it is fear mediated but regardless of the reason, the bird is trying to tell us something.
So how do you proceed? Remember, one of the first facts about biting was the need for proximity. Keep that in mind for your interactions. If your bird can’t reach your skin, he can’t bite you.
No! This isn’t forever. Of course you want a relationship with your bird that allows closeness, but as a temporary measure you may have to limit this.
 
The different places to begin addressing this problem are as varied as the reasons for the bite. Each person will have to look at their own individual situation and decide where that starting place is. I’ve given just a few ideas of possible starting places for the most common types of bites but again I must stress, you must look at what function the bite has for your bird. What is your bird getting out of the bite? It’s only once you have an understanding of this that you can address the biting in the correct manner.

I’M SCARED

With fear biting the first thing to identify is the subject of the fear. Is it an overall fear of everything or a more refined fear? With any type of fear biting it is important to slowly desensitize the bird from the feared item by shaping proximity.

If it’s fear of a person, I would suggest that for the first few days the person just quietly walk by the cage and drop a favourite treat in. Try to do this several times a day. No requests on the bird, no lingering at the cage, just drop and move on. Try to notice as you are doing this, at what distance the body language changes. If after a few days of dropping in the treat, the bird is now looking towards the person when they enter, you can proceed with the following. Begin with the person at the closest distance that the bird is still comfortable with. This is where having watched that previous body language will help you. At what distance when you were just walking up, did that language change to one of slight unease? Start just back from that spot. Watch that body language to ensure there is comfort. If the bird is still moving around its cage, paying attention to things like its toys and food, the bird is still in its comfort zone. Remain in the same position for a few moments. When it’s time to move away, walk by the cage and drop a favourite treat in with no other demands. Do not try to push closer. Mark a line where you began by putting a piece of tape on the floor. Repeat this distance several times with the bird receiving a treat after each short session
 
Advance closer, but just slightly. I can’t stress enough that these advances may be very tiny increments, which is why I suggest the marker on the floor. Repeat the procedure above doing several sessions at that distance.
 
While you are slowly advancing closer to the bird and desensitizing it, the bird is also learning that good things are coming from you.
 
I SAID NO!
 
Are you asking or demanding a behaviour from your bird? Is it a behaviour the bird can easily do? Is it a behaviour the bird NEEDS to do at this particular moment? The secret in the cases of a bite for a ‘no’ response, is to train the bird to not want to say no. In other words, to train the bird to say yes!
The most common request that results in a bite is the step up request. There are many variables to be considered if a bird seems apprehensive about stepping up.
 
What have the past consequences taught it about stepping up? How are you requesting the step up? Where is your hand and how is it placed? Are there more distractions in the room than normal, perhaps confusing the bird?
 
Birds want to step UP. By this I mean your hand should be held higher than foot level of the bird. Your hand should also be held perfectly still until both feet are firmly on your hand and the bird has regained its balance. Too often we are already moving with the bird, before that second foot is even on our hand. We basically boost the bird off its perching area. It’s best to stay in the same spot long enough to also give the bird the option of stepping back down.
 
Remember that word proximity? The best way to teach your bird to step up and allow it full choice is to stay back while you make the request. You only move your hand in for the bird to step onto, once it has shown the desire/willingness to actually step up. This is generally by the bird lifting one foot into the air. If for any reason the bird decides it doesn’t want to step up, your hand is not close enough to be bit.
 
So how do you teach your bird to desire to step up at anytime? You can accomplish this by using positive reinforcement training. Don’t just work on stepping the bird up when it’s necessary, do step ups from many different locations throughout the day, always reinforcing with something desired. This can be as simple as allowing the bird to step back down where it was. Every step up doesn’t need to be a move to a new location.
 
Soon, because of all the reinforcement given, your bird will be willingly stepping up whenever you request it. Just remember to keep it reinforcing.
 
If your bird appears to say no when you are shaping a behaviour (such as stepping up) you need to take a closer look and make sure you aren’t requesting too big of a increment or more than the bird understands at that time. You may need to slow down a little or move back a step in your shaping plan. It isn’t so much saying no as it is saying “I don’t understand and I’m getting frustrated.”
 
HEY! DO YOU SEE ME?
 
In our fast paced world these days, almost everyone is running into time constraints. We often find ourselves juggling several jobs at a time. Sometimes (unintentionally) our birds become part of this juggling. It’s during our rush of life or a result of, that we can sometimes teach our birds to bite to get our attention in a positive way. Perhaps you are busy watching a show or reading emails with your bird closeby and your bird wants some direct attention. Sometimes in this scene your bird will give you a little nip. What too often happens in this case is that the owner will reach out and pet their bird without even giving thought to what message might be conveyed to the bird. If this is repeated a few times the bird learns that if you are distracted, a small nip will bring your attention back to it.
 
If this type of bite occurs, very quietly set the bird off you. In a few moments you can then turn back to the bird and bring him back to you and give it the attention. If it wants to be on you while you are doing other things just remember to give it that scritch or attention every so often.

TO WRAP UP

So is biting a learned behavior? There is little doubt after reviewing the reasons for continual biting that we have reinforced the behavior.Biting is a behavior that simply by virtue of its nature on our human skin, is very difficult not to reinforce (give the bird a desired outcome). We can’t help but notice a bite. We can’t help but pay heed.
 
Or is it natural? We know they certainly have a beak and the knowledge of how to use it, but it is generally us humans that prompt its use on human skin.

The solution is to pay heed to our birds and be observant to what they are trying to tell us. Rather than correct a biting problem once it has developed, a far better solution would be to never teach them the need to bite. Always keep in mind that there just may be some things your bird doesn't like, or some situations that make it uneasy. Respect that rather than push them into biting.