Rebecca K. O'Connor
Posted: May 1, 2013, 12:00 p.m. PDT
It is the one thing pet bird owners dread happening. The sweet parrot that used to spend hours cuddling in your lap has turned into a piranha. This has been coming on slowly with a nip here and a lunge there. Then one day you cannot get near your parrot at all without bloodshed. What happened, and what can you do to fix it?
The first thing to figure out is how this happened. There was likely a progression of events that led up to this point and a reason for your pet bird’s behavior. Behavior repeats itself because a parrot gets something it wants from it, whether that is getting you to leave it alone to bond with someone else or to get you to stop approaching it with something it does not like. Think back to when the aggression might have started. At first there would have been less obvious moments of aggression, a nip when you weren’t expecting it, and the behavior would have escalated from there. What is at the center of this aggression? If you understand where the aggression stemmed from, you can take care not to let it escalate again.
A good relationship is built on trust and positive interaction. A bite from a parrot should be a rare occurence.
If you’re not sure how the aggression started, understand that there was a trigger, and be on the lookout for it. As much as it might seem like your parrot has been possessed by an evil spirit, the fact is that this behavior is learned. Worse, it was you who taught your bird that aggression was the most effective means to achieve whatever it is after.
The good news is that if a behavior is learned, it can be reprogrammed. You just need to communicate to your parrot that there is a better way to get you out of its space. A parrot that knows that a more subtle sign will do has no need to resort to aggression. So how do you hit the reset button and start over?
Reintroduce Yourself To Your Parrot
What sort of a relationship do you want? Are you hoping to be best friends again, or would you be fine with just being able to handle your bird without being bitten? Decide what you are working toward and, if there are others in the household, agree together on what the end result will be. Then pretend like you have never met your parrot before.
Start as if you are a newcomer. If the parrot is infatuated with someone else, the two of them should spend some time apart. You should be the one who brings all good things: treats, toys, even a bath if your pet bird likes them. Don’t interact with your pet bird when the favorite person is in the room. Avoid putting yourself in a situation where aggression is likely to occur.
Start by dropping your parrot’s favorite treat in its bowl and move on. Make sure that your pet bird is sitting calmly and not lunging or biting at you, otherwise you might reward behavior you do not appreciate. Your actions say, "I bring you things you like and then I get out of your space.” You are working to redefine your title as the "bringer of good things.” You will know that you’ve achieved this title when your parrot moves to the front of the cage when it sees you coming, looking forward to whatever it is you bring. Once you have achieved this new status, it is time to work on building your new relationship.
Never Force Interaction With Your Parrot
The basis of every strong relationship is a history of positive interactions. It is never too late to begin building this type of relationship, and your efforts will pay off with the type of bond you hope to have for a lifetime. Use positive reinforcement with every interaction. Always ask and always make sure that the result of doing what you ask is something positive that the parrot wants, like a treat or a head scratch. (The only exception is an emergency. If life or death is involved, do what you have to do to save your bird.)
Use positive methods, and begin training from scratch. Training allows you to spend focused time that is guaranteed to be positive, rather than just hoping that your presence becomes a welcome part of your parrot’s life. Train something outside of the cage, but where your bird is not flying about and you do not have to pick it up. This way, you don’t have to be fearful about getting attacked, and your bird won’t have to attack to get you to leave.
Decide what kind of relationship you want with your pet bird before you start working with her again.
Target training your parrot to touch a chopstick or a pen barrel with his beak is an easy thing to train without having to handle him. After making sure he is not scared of the chopstick, slip it through the cage bars and when he touches it with his beak say, "Good” to mark the event, and give him a treat. You can drop the treat in his bowl rather than hold it out if you want to be completely hands off. When he understands he gets a treat for touching the stick, hold it farther away so that he has to move to touch it.
As you both gain confidence, train the "Step up” as if your bird has never learned it before. Use positive reinforcement, and take it slow. This also lets you read your parrot’s body language.
Read Your Pet Bird’s Body Language
Chances are that difficulty reading your bird’s body language is what got your relationship in trouble in the first place. Parrots give a variety of subtle signs to let people know if they are crossing the line. Pinning eyes, eye shape, raised feathers and a variety of other subtle body language cues signal pending aggression.
We often miss these signs, which leads to a parrot having to bite to get its point across. Once it has bitten, which likely worked when all other subtle signs failed, the bird will go straight for the bite next time. Why bother with subtleties when a straightforward bite will do?
Learn what your bird does when it is frustrated with your training session and when it no longer seems interested in the exercise. Look for the less subtle behavior, too, such as when it is not interested in interaction and when it is getting overly excited, which can lead to aggression. If you have learned that your bird is going to aggressively bite at the target instead of touching it when it holds its feathers just so, back off. Your bird will learn that you understand its body language and that it does not have to resort to biting.
You might have set backs, but don’t be too hard on yourself. The work involved in forging great communication is half the fun. So reset that relationship and get back on track for the new year!
Forgive & Forget
Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, January 2010 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC To purchase digital back issues of BIRD TALK Magazine, click here.
Remember that your parrot is a wild animal, with behavior based on reactions that would help it survive in the wilderness. It is not domestic like a dog or cat, with thousands of years of breeding for temperament. When a parrot bites or screams, it is reacting to his environment in a way that reflects cause and reaction. Don’t blame your parrot for its aggression and don’t take it personally. Forgive your bird and forgive yourself, then start working on resetting your relationship.