Pinching and Biting - - - by Liz Davies (aka "Mom")


I remember my cousin "Matty" as a three year old.  Matty was a cute little guy, but he did develop one really obnoxious habit.  He started biting people.  At first it was just a little nip, and everybody laughed it off.  But it escalated into full-fledged chomping - and it HURT!  Matty's mom tried everything she could think of to stop him; scolding, "time outs", soap in the mouth, and so on.  She finally did get the upper hand and Matty quit it - but oh, my, what a miserable couple of months she had with him!  Looking back, Matty's mom knew she should have taken it more seriously at the beginning, but no-one really understood at the beginning that it would evolve into such a problem.

I think of cousin Matty now and then when I see a young parrot begin to experiment with pinching, nipping, and biting.  It seems like they all go through a stage of trying out their beaks.  Some species seem more prone to it than others and, of course, the larger the bird, the more worrisome it is.

I've read many an expert who claim that birds don't bite in the wild.  To them, I say "oh, really?"

I have to disagree.  They do bite.  These days my home is in Australia, where we have wild parrots that show up at our home every day.  They snap, snarl and nip at each other all the time.  Sometimes it looks like rough play, sometimes it's a warning, but occasionally there will be an out-and-out knock-down drag-out war!

The difference is that when one bird takes a "swipe" at another in the wild, they have a lot of room to maneuver, and it doesn't necessarily come to blood-letting.  They feint, they strike, they "beak", they nip at each other, and when they have to, they cut loose and chomp.  It's not always aggression; sometimes it's just playful jousting.  As youngsters in the flock, they experiment and learn how much pressure to apply, where to strike, and when.  They also learn that there is a consequence to aggression (the other bird will bite back).

Aggression and Self Defense

If you corner a frightened bird, you are going to be bitten.  Period.  Being "prey animals" (as opposed to predators), birds naturally prefer to flee instead of fight - but if you force them, you'll find out they can fight back.

Some birds are very territorial when it comes to their cages, their play areas, and their humans.  Even species that live in large flocks and normally get along pretty well can become aggressive over nesting sites (the cage, play areas, your sofa, your cupboards) or mates (you).

Bubba (Black Capped Conure) is as cuddly as you could ever hope for a parrot to be.  But don't put your hand in his cage and touch his food dishes!  If you do, he'll put on a feathers-pushed-out and strut-like-an-eagle display of rage that will surprise you.  And if you don't heed the warning quickly enough - CHOMP! It's very comical to see, but before you laugh to hard, remember that to Bubba this is VERY serious business - and he's ready to fight to the death to defend what is "his".
Pakshi (Hahn's Macaw) was insanely jealous of Jesse (Catalina Macaw) in the beginning. 

The very first picture I have of Jesse in our home has a green blur over my shoulder.  Pakshi has been sitting on his cage top and when he saw me pick up Jesse, he went into a very uncharacteristic attack mode - to drive her away from me (or me away from her).

The green blur to the left is Pakshi flying at my shoulder.

These kinds of biting can be - and should be avoided as much as possible.  The more a bird bites, the more likely he is to bite again. 

Avoiding aggression and self-defense battles is a species-specific issue. 

You need to become familiar with the mating cycle of your birds so that you are prepared for (and can recognize) the hormonally-driven periods when "all bets are off".  For many species, it's important to understand that full-body petting is often misinterpreted as sexual by the parrot.  For those birds, petting needs to be confined to scritches around the head and neck (and not touching the body or wings).  Continuing to pet a parrot outside of the "safety zone" encourages the bird to think of you as his/her mate, and when mating season rolls around, you could be in for a very bad time with biting (when you fail to live up to what the bird thinks you have been promising).

You also need to learn about the territorial behavior (which goes beyond courting and mating season) for the species you are keeping.  Quaker parrots, for example, are notorious for being territorial about their cages.  People who keep them quickly learn to remove the bird before attempting to clean or fill food dishes.

Part of Learning to Be in a Flock

All of our birds have gone through a "nippy" stage when they were young.  It seems to start about the same time as they begin wanting to chew on things (a natural and healthy behavior).  There's nothing wrong with the chewing, per se, but when you are the "chewee", it can be a little uncomfortable.  The bigger the bird, of course, the bigger the problem, but they all seem to do it.

They need to learn a few things about acceptable flock behavior at this stage, and we (humans) are the ones in charge of the lesson plan because we are "the flock".  The lessons we try to focus on teaching them during this time are:

  • you (the parrot) can learn to control the amount of pressure you use

  • you don't have to bite hard to be respected

  • biting can earn you a "time out"

These lessons are taught by telling the bird to "Beeeeee Gentle!" when he puts his beak on your finger, and then praising him ("That's right!  That's a gentle bird!") when he is careful.  We also try to respect the bird's needs and desires (we don't force our birds to do things they don't want to unless safety is an issue) and pay attention to body language and other cues that the bird gives - so that they don't have to bite in order to get our attention.  And on those occasions when the parrot is just plain "cranked up" and is biting, he gets a 10-minute timeout in the cage (with the cover pulled down).

If a bird starts being nippy, we also try and assess whether or not he/she is getting enough rest.  Pakshi (Hahns Macaw) taught me early on that he needs a good 10-12 hours of quiet and dark every night, and without it, he gets cranky.  We went through a very tough few weeks when he was about 18 months old - with him leaving me bleeding nearly every day.  Once I started enforcing an 8pm bedtime (and got him a sleep cage) the biting stopped.

Prevention is the Best Policy

The best medicine, of course, is prevention.  Once a bird develops the habit of biting, it's very hard to stop it.  We pay close attention when our birds bite - and we work at making sure that we avoid the situations that cause it. 

For example, Aussie gets nippy after he's had a session of admiring himself in a reflective surface.  At those times, I wouldn't try to pick him up with my hands - instead I'd have him step up to a spare perch.  The same goes for Pakshi, who tends to get a little wound up if he spends a lot of time on his play gym (he just seems to work up quite a head of steam sometimes).  So I never picked Pakshi up from his play gym with my hands; again, a spare perch did the job.

Aussie in particular had a spell where he developed a very un-cockatiel-like aggression habit.  After ruling out illness, I took drastic steps to get him to settle back down.  This included relocating his cage, moving his "furniture" (perches, toys, food/water cups) around and getting his wings clipped.  It worked - and I only had to do that once (thankfully!).

Forte (Sun Conure) would be terrifically loving with anyone who'd care to handler her.  But she'd bite viciously if you tried to take her off my husband Stephen.  She was bonded very closely to him - and he became her "preferred human".  If anyone reached for her when she was sitting on him, they were asking for trouble.  But Stephen could hand her to you, and she'd accept that peacefully (he was demonstrating his permission for the person to interact with her).  With Forte we just paid attention and respected her feelings of possession.

Sometimes it's just over-zealous preening

Not all bites are "bites".  All of our birds feel obligated to preen us occasionally.  This is actually "good bird manners" from their point of view - and denying them this activity doesn't seem right.  But it can get out of hand.

I have a couple of freckles on my arms and neck - and my parrots seem very interested in removing them for me.  They don't understand that it's just normal skin coloring - they really seem to think it's a parasite that needs to be extracted.

They also seem to be mystified by our ears - and will "beak them over" a while, but if left to it, they eventually decide to go a little harder.  Same for fingernails - each one of my birds would be happy to remove those nasty nails for me if I'd only cooperate.

Sometimes it's just "rough play"

Macaws, in particular, have some favorite "rough play" games.

They seem to like playing "Beaky-Beak".  It's a kind of high-energy jousting, not meant to be hurtful.  If you approach a bird who is inviting you to play Beaky-Beak, you are indicating (to the bird) your agreement to be in the game.  And let me assure you, you will lose!  

They also love "wrassling".  They charge up at you, roll their heads down (sometimes flipping over to their backs) and grab at you with their beaks.  Wrassling is fun!  But you have to be very careful with it, as the bird can become over stimulated and start chewing on you harder and harder.  I know that some bird behavior specialists say that it's not a good idea to allow or encourage wrassling.  So far we've not had a lot of trouble with it, but we are careful, and when it gets too rough, we stop and encourage the bird to do something else (like chew up some cardboard or go for a quick fly around the room) to work off the pent-up energy.

Then There's Pinching...

Our Catalina Macaw taught us a whole new dimension of the nipping problem.  The large macaws seem to like to pinch you lightly as a "playful gesture".  There's not much you can do about it, and it isn't really a big problem, since the "play pinch" isn't really all that hard, and Jesse did learn to do that very gently.  There is also an unconscious pinch - one that she would do when she was climbing on us.  She didn't seem to even be aware that she'd done it - and since it's very light, it isn't a bother. 

More problematic are her "bratty pinches".  These are clearly deliberate (she watches you as she's doing it) and they hurt quite a bit.  The "bratty pinch" seems to pop up when she's being especially energetic/rambunctious - and when she's unhappy because she's being denied something she wants.  For example, one evening we had a battle going because I was having a glass of wine and I wouldn't let her have some.  I moved the glass away from her, she made a little moaning/sigh sound and then PINCH!

At one stage the pinching was a bit of a problem.  I found that the most effective response was to say "Jesse, don't pinch!", lift her beak up (and off of me) as I said that, and finishing with a light tap on the beak for emphasis.  If she continued, she got a "timeout" (that means being put in the cage and ignored for at least 10 minutes).

Laka, at 20 months old, is just starting to experiment with pinching.  My game plan is to do the same with her as I did with Jesse. 

  1. First: a warning. 

  2. Second time: I push her away from me or set her down. 

  3. Third time: timeout. 

So far, Laka doesn't push me the third time, but she does Stephen.