PLAYFUL BEAKINESS IS NOT THE SAME AS
AGGRESSIVE BITING AND WILL NEVER BECOME THE SAME
By Sally Blanchard
Not Just a Weapon!
I once read that you should never allow a parrot to touch your skin with its beak or the bird will turn into a biter. I was stunned by this statement because it portrays the parrot’s beak only as a weapon. The parrot beak is actually an all-purpose tool and biting is rather insignificant compared to its other uses. Far too many people think of it as a tool for aggression. It certainly can be a weapon but, mostly, a parrot uses its beak for benign activities such as eating and the same way we use our hands. If you have ever watched one of the large macaws feed its babies, you will understand that the beak can be used for an incredibly delicate task. The beak and tongue contain encapsulated nerve endings that are called Herbst’s corpuscles and are very sensitive. “Beaking” and “tonguing” is the tactile way that a parrot explores its world. It is also a way that parrots communicate with us in a friendly and even loving manner.
Real biting is also a communication but it usually means that the parrot doesn’t trust a person or doesn’t trust what they are doing. It is often a clear message to leave them alone. Parrots will usually respond aggressively if they perceive that someone is being aggressive with them; aggression is usually met with aggression. It is the parrot’s perception that matters whether the person approaching it is aggressive or not. One of the few absolute in regards to parrot behavior is that parrots are more comfortable with people who are comfortable with them. If a fearful person approaches a parrot, it is unlikely that the parrot will want to be handled by that person. Real biting is done with aggressive intent but even though it is aggressive, some biting is also a symptom of trauma or fear. I think the fear of a person or situation is a major reason for aggressive behavior.
Even the tamest parrot can bite in the defense or protection of a perceived mate, nesting territory, and/or food source. While it may not seem logical to us, the parrot may bite his favored person when another person enters the area. I think that tame parrot's bond to our facial features so if a parrot is used to sitting on its caregiver’s shoulder, it probably perceives that the person’s body is the perch. If it is threatened by another person entering the area, it might actually bite its best friend. Why? Perhaps it is because the perceived mate is not joining in the defense of the territory and the facial jab might be communication to fly away.
Unless a parrot is extremely tame, it won’t be comfortable if a stranger reaches into his cage. Most parrots are more threatened by anything different around their cages. If you have friends or relatives who want to get to know your parrot, it is best to introduce them in a “neutral room” away from the cage. A neutral room is an area where the parrot can’t see its cage, has no perceived territory and is much less likely to be aggressive Another cause for real biting behavior has to do with food. My caique, Spike, wouldn't tolerate being approached by anyone, even me if he was eating. He was certainly not into sharing. This is especially true when he had a pistachio nut. I have to respect this unless he had gotten into something that could be dangerous to him.
Overload behavior can also cause biting but it is quite different from parrot aggression. I believe that this is a matter of brain chemistry with hormones and other neurotransmitters putting the bird into a “super” mode. A Yellow-nape I knew years ago showed a classic example of overload during play with his caregivers. They were playing with the Amazon on the floor rolling a ball back and forth between them. The nape would run back and forth between them chasing the ball. Eventually, he became overexcited by the play and grabbed a hand instead of the ball. This type of play would have been fine if the women playing the game had watched the bird’s body language. At some point in the game, his eyes started pinning and he seemed far more intense. If they stopped then, the one woman would not have received such a bad bite. Once the Amazon went into overload, they couldn’t pick him up without experiencing more aggression. They needed to let him calm down first.
I think that aggressive biting is one of the easiest problems to solve. Real biting is often the result of a parrot’s confusion because of mixed messages and/or inconsistent behavior from the people in its life. It is up to us to take responsibility for figuring out what happened to cause the bite. Most often, it is the way that we relate to our parrots that causes them to bite. Punishment and “quick fixes” such as squirting a bird in the face with water are trust-destroying and never solve biting problems.
The first real bite from a tame parrot should be thought of as a single incident rather than the start of a pattern. When people become afraid that their parrot will bite them again, it changes the dynamics between the parrot and the person who has become afraid. The parrot picks up the change in the person’s energy and its energy changes towards the person. This can create a downward spiral that can end in a loss of mutual trust. When a parrot really bites, the first step is to identify and understand the situations that caused the aggression. Many times it is a lack of focus on the parrot that causes aggression. People need to pay attention to what the parrot is doing when they approach it. The bird may not be in the mood to be handled. If he is bashing his toys around, this is not a good time to ask him to step on your hand. If you are “scatter-focused” or upset about something, your parrot will match your mood. Being too aggressive or pushy with a parrot may also cause an aggressive reaction. I have found that the best way to get a positive reaction from a parrot is to approach it with a calm energy. Since parrots are so empathic, they will generally lower their energy in response. When I worked with wild-caught parrots, I learned that if I really slowed down my energy, I could make tremendous progress in winning their trust in a short period of time. I believe that mutual trust is the key to having a positive relationship with a companion parrot. If parrots trust the people in their lives, they don’t bite them. If people trust their parrots, they realize that the beak is not a weapon.
Positive Beak Behaviors
Friendly “beaking” behavior is not aggressive although it can be a bit pinchy from time to time. Baby parrots love to chew on our fingers and hands and often this behavior continues, usually as a sign of affection and playfulness. Some parrots have very sharp beaks and allowing this behavior as the parrot matures can create problems. With a baby parrot, I recommend having a foot toy nearby and sticking it in the bird’s beak so it has something else to chew on besides your fingers. The best toys for this purpose are knots made of leather strips or cotton rope. Larger parrots might enjoy a wash rag tied into knots. Wiggling the toy around while your parrot chews on it is a positive form of interactive play. Using the word “gentle” when the young parrot exerts too much pressure with his beak can help teach him the acceptable use of his beak in play.
Mutual preening is one of the ways that parrots show affection towards each other. It is natural for a companion parrot to use its beak to be affectionate with the people in its life. During this preening behavior, the parrot often uses its beak to explore the “topography” of the person’s skin. Every mole, freckle, hangnail, and scab is explored with the beak. Sometimes a parrot will become a dermatologist and insist on removing the offending skin imperfection. When Spike is in preening mode, he is as gentle with me as I am with him when I give him head skritches. Parrots also love to preen hair, particularly facial hair. A friend of mine has a beard and his Blue-fronted Amazon becomes lost in his face carefully preening every hair.
In a survey I did of many parrot owners, the number one reason people gave for not keeping their parrots was aggression. Consequently, many adult parrots going into new homes are aggressive biters. Without realizing it, many of the previous owners have actually reinforced their parrots’ biting behaviors with their aggressive and/or confusing responses. Consistency, patience, and being calm with them, will make a major difference in stopping their aggressive behaviors.
When my African grey, Whodee, first came to live with me, he had lived in several different homes and had a reputation as being a “nasty biter.” When he arrived I let him climb directly from his carrier into his new cage. I let him settle in for a few hours. Then I approached the cage and slowed down my energy. I reached in and placed my fingers up to his belly and quiet said, “up.” He immediately clamped onto my hand with his beak. He didn’t apply much pressure and I just left my hand there. There was no doubt in my mind that he was testing me. If I had jerked my hand away because I was afraid he would bite, I would have failed the test. I am sure that he would have increased his beak pressure from a clamp to a bite. He kept his beak around my finger for at least 60 seconds and then very politely stepped on to my hand. He has certainly not shown a tendency for biting in the eight years he has lived with me. To this day, he often gently puts his beak around my finger when I ask him to step on my hand. I know to slow myself down before I put my hand in his cage. It relaxes him.
We always play a silly game when he first comes out. I ask him if he wants his air sacs cleaned. He lifts his right wing and I give him a raspberry on the side of his body. Then he raises his left wing and I give him another gentle raspberry. He looks forward to this game and if I forget, he will lift his wing to remind me. Sometimes when I walk by him when he is hanging out on the gyms in the office, he will raise one wing as an invitation for me to “clean his air sacs.” Of course, the game has nothing to do with his air sacs but it has become a fun ritual for us and helps maintain our mutual trust.
I bird sat an Umbrella cockatoo named Ginger. She was an absolute joy when she visited. Her exuberance was contagious and she loves to play. She used her beak in play and one of her favorite games is to thunk her beak repetitively on my hand or arm. She also likes to tug on my clothes as part of her play with me. At first, I was uncertain as to whether this beak “thunking” game was aggressive but after spending a lot of time with her, I know it is an affectionate game with her. Sometimes I will gently tap her on her shoulder with the same frequency and she likes that. I don’t think that this behavior is sexual for Ginger, but it may be in other Umbrella cockatoos – especially if it is accompanied by other sexual behaviors such as panting and posturing. Ginger can go into overload and become very excited if we play for too long, but all I have to do is lower my energy and she calms down.
An Invitation to Play
Many playful parrots play a game that I call “hit and run.” The classic game involves a parrot running across the couch, floor or bed and hitting a person with its beak and then running away. This is a favorite game for cockatoos, macaws, and Conures, but other parrots play it too. The bird may also pinch or grab at the person. The first time I identified this as an invitation to play was when I was visiting clients who were in the kitchen fixing us a snack. Their Severe macaw climbed down off of his cage and started running across the couch. If I looked at him, he would stop and look away. Eventually, he made it all the way across the couch and hit my arm with his beak. Then he ran back to his cage. He did this a few times before I realized he was playing with me. The next time he got to me, I put a throw pillow in his way and gently “chased” him away. This just encouraged him to continue the game and we had fun playing tag until I had to leave.
A Very Different Behavior
If a parrot uses his beak for play and affection, it doesn't mean that he will become an aggressive biter. It has always seemed logical to me that playful nipping and other “beakiness” is entirely different behavior than aggressive biting. In her fascinating book, Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin, states that “brain research shows that play and rage are separate emotions.” Playful nipping from a parrot will not turn into aggressive biting unless there is a break in the trust needed for positive play. If a person misinterprets the parrot’s play behaviors and becomes aggressive with the bird, it will most likely change to an aggressive response. Encourage your parrot’s sense of fun by accepting its invitations to play. If it becomes too bitey, use a toy or another distraction so its “beakiness” won’t hurt you. Most of all it is critical to realize that your parrot’s beak is not a weapon and whether it bites aggressively has more to do with you than it does with your parrot.