While I was writing this article, two things struck me: First, bird bites can be dangerous. Those beaks can cause scarring, infection, blood loss and disfigurement. Treatment ranges from bandages to plastic surgery, antibiotics and tetanus shots. Secondly, no one I interviewed had given up the birds that had bitten him or her because of the biting incident.
People who don’t share their lives with pet birds would likely ask, “Why on earth would you keep a pet that bites you?” The simple answer is because we love them, and we can often find ways to conquer biting issues.
Barbara Landsperg adopted Charlie, an African grey parrot, nearly 10 years ago when the bird was about 3 and 1/2 years old. “When I first got her,” related Landsperg, “I didn’t realize she didn’t like me to be on the phone, so when I picked up the phone, she bit me. She was on my hand ... not the hand I used to pick up the phone. She seemed very angry. I can’t figure out why. I just had to remember not to pick up the phone while Charlie was with me. The bite was pretty bad – she drew blood. I put her down inside her cage and didn’t say a word. I remained outwardly calm, left the room and ministered to my wounds. I didn’t go to a doctor, but, in retrospect, I should have; it probably should have been stitched.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Chaps, another of Landsperg’s adopted African grey parrots is phone-phobic as well. “The lesson I learned from Chaps is that I cannot go near her when I’m on the phone,” says Landsperg. “She bites hard, but doesn’t draw blood. It’s not worth it to risk a bite from this otherwise sweet bird.”
Landsperg has an interesting theory about African grey parrots and biting. “When they put their heads down and want to be scratched, they’ll either close their eyes or look down. If they’re going to sucker-punch you and bite, they’ll put their heads down and look at you!”
Amy, Landsperg’s blue-fronted Amazon parrot, has never bitten her. Her blue-front, Georgette, on the other hand, had a tendency to get overstimulated and that meant a bite! “I took Georgette over to the window to show her a raging snowstorm. I was holding her close to my face, and she grabbed my cheek. It wasn’t a serious bite, but it could have been. I realized she got too excited at the snowstorm and learned that she was easily excited and not to hold her close to my face.
When an Amazon parrot is in excitement overload, you risk a bite. Learn to read that body language! Pinning eyes, flared tail, raised nape feathers and spread wings can all indicate a bite is imminent. Amazon parrots also seem to get bitey when they’re hormonal.”
Landsperg works at a bird store and has been grooming birds professionally for 18-plus years. Gloves are not used at the store so most grooming is done bare-handed. According to Landsperg, holding the birds properly is the key to avoiding bites. “We sometimes use a towel with especially aggressive birds. We let them chew on the towel instead of our hands. Grooming larger birds is often a two-person job. This type of biting is mostly fear biting. The birds are in a strange environment and don’t want to be handled by a stranger. It’s better now than years ago when we had wild-caught birds – we used to get bitten just by handling them.”
A Bird Kiss She’ll Remember
BIRD TALK reader Betty Roth’s 4-year-old adopted African grey parrot, Smokey, had been easily handled and very sweet during the first two years she lived with Roth. “You could turn her upside down in your hand,” she remembered. “One day she was in a little hissy-fit mood because I was leaving for work, so I went over to console her and said ‘Give Mommy a kiss good-bye,’ like she was a child.
“I went over to the cage to give her a kiss through the bars, and she came over and instantly bit my lip. I ran into the bathroom, but I didn’t have the nerve to look at it. It didn’t even hurt because she had apparently damaged a nerve. It felt like a huge gap in my skin. I held wet paper towels on the wound and applied direct pressure to stop the bleeding. I ran outside and told my husband he had to bring me to the hospital.
“We went to the emergency room and I said ‘My parrot bit me very badly, I need to see a doctor.’ The admitting nurse said ‘Let me see.’ When she didn’t say ‘It doesn’t look so bad, you’ll be OK,’ I knew it was really bad.
“I was very lucky that a plastic surgeon was there when I arrived. He had been making rounds but stopped into emergency. He said ‘Stay right here, I’ll get the room ready and come back for you.’ I felt better when he did say, ‘You’ll be OK.’”
Roth’s gashed lip required three layers of sutures to close the wound. The edges had to be cleaned up surgically before the doctor could even begin to repair the damage. A year later, Roth’s lip is still numb. “It’s like having permanent Novocaine,” she says. Luckily the surgeon’s expertise left Roth with minimal scarring, but it has changed her relationship with Smokey. The bird only gets air kisses now.
Roth learned from her experience. “I felt like an idiot because I knew the signs and persisted in making Smokey kiss me goodbye when she was in a bad mood. The signs were there, and I chose to ignore them. She was tapping on her dish, putting her head down and looking at me sideways.
Roth’s experience lends more credence to Landsperg’s comments. “Greys are subtler than Amazons, but the signs are still there,” Roth said. “If you choose to ignore them, you can’t blame the bird. Four years of age is probably sexual maturity in a domestic grey, and it was just before Christmas. African birds tend to be winter breeders, so she may have been hormonal. I’ve had parrots for years, and I should know better.”
“My friends couldn’t understand why I would keep a bird like that after she bit me. I told them it was my fault. She got up on the wrong side of the perch, and I tried to mold her to my mood instead of leaving her alone until later.”
Rule Of Thumb
Joan Napolitano’s umbrella cockatoo’s, Loki, recent sexual maturity caused a screaming episode that resulted in a bite. “Loki screamed for about an hour nonstop,” related Napolitano. “I put him in a dark room, then put him in his carrier to try and quiet him, but to no avail. Finally, I grabbed him, and he bit the upper part of my thumb, right below the nail. The area between the nail and knuckle was numb for about a year.
“I didn’t seek medical attention. It bled profusely, but I was able to stop the bleeding. I called my doctor and was told that the nerve was probably compressed.”
Napolitano was emotionally devastated by the incident. “It was the first time he ever bit me, and I’d had him for six years. I got him when he was a year old. Immediately after the bite, I locked the cage and left the room. He stopped screaming after he bit me. I ignored him for the rest of the day, but later on I took him out and hugged him. In retrospect, I feel that my frustration at not being able to make him stop screaming was probably transmitted to him. He’s very intuitive. He reads my body language. If I cry, he’ll climb up and put his head under my chin or lick my tears.”
That incident taught Napolitano not to get so excited when Loki’s excited. “I stay calm, no matter what. Now 13 years old, Loki seems to have outgrown the adolescent screaming and has settled down. He has moments when he lets out a roar but is basically stable, except when he sees someone wearing eyeglasses! I usually take my glasses off when I get up from a chair, but left them on once and Loki lunged at me. Eyeglasses on a table are fine, but the minute I put them on my head he goes wild. It’s a no-brainer: I don’t wear glasses near Loki.”
Loki occasionally accompanies Napolitano on educational programs for her bird club, but those days may be over. “He went for one of the members who was wearing glasses. This wing-clipped bird propelled himself across the room and lunged at her glasses. He threw them on the floor and tried to bite her under the eye. It was just a scratch, but under different circumstances it could have been serious, so Loki won’t attend any more outreach events unless he’s in a cage,” promised Napolitano.
[Bird clubs take note: Be sure your liability insurance policy is up to date before taking birds to public events!]
Charlie, an African grey parrot sent Napolitano to the hospital. “He bit through the outside of my nostril. I was putting him into his cage at night, and he was leaning over to me like he didn’t want to go. He leaned over far enough and latched onto my nose. The more I tried to pull him off, the harder he bit down. The blood gushed out, and I put him in the cage and called my sister to take me to the hospital. The doctors had a good laugh about it. They gave me a tetanus shot but didn’t stitch it. They put a ‘butterfly’ bandage on instead, and it healed nicely. After that I didn’t put him anywhere near my face.
“Charlie is very unpredictable. He’s 8 years old, and I’ve had him since he was a baby. He’s high strung, but a great talker. This experience made me more wary and taught me to keep my face away from him. I probably couldn’t see it at the time, but he may have been giving signs, like pinning his eyes.
“It hurt, but I knew why he did it. He was latching on because he didn’t want to go to bed. He was trying to grab onto something to keep from going in the cage. I didn’t feel it was a personal attack.”
A Quick Bite
When New York City resident Greg LaMorte first got his Timneh African grey parrot, Kes, 6 years ago, she had the tendency to bite him, drawing blood, when he walked her around his apartment.
“I couldn’t figure out why at first and became frustrated and afraid to carry her around,” remembered LaMorte. “After much investigation, I finally figured out that she did not like her feet held by my thumb ... so I stopped doing it. I then began to play games with her, encouraging her to flap her wings to get her used to me grasping her feet. It took several weeks, but she finally got over it.
“About a year ago, she unexpectedly bit me while I was carrying her from the living room to the bedroom. She bit very hard, around my entire finger, so that the blood gushed out. I didn’t go to the doctor though. Again, I became fearful and scared, not knowing if and when it would happen again. I still don’t know why she did it. It happened several times.”
LaMorte was unsuccessful in determining the cause of this episode, but took parrot behavior consultant Sally Blanchard’s advice: "I began carrying Kes from place to place on the stick and, after two weeks, my fear subsided so I put away the stick and began carrying her on my hand at eye level and staring at her when we walked around. She hasn’t bitten me since. Every now and again when I carry her, as a reminder, I look her in the eyes just to be sure. Whenever I am unsure of either bird’s emotions I carry them on the stick for safety’s sake.”
Tuvok, the Congo African grey parrot suddenly began inexplicably biting LaMorte’s finger when he offered him treats on his play stand. The bite drew blood, and then LaMorte was bitten again on the same wound. “I was hesitant to feed him by hand because I never knew whether he would take the treat or bite me. It hurt!”
LaMorte decided he needed to break this behavior before it became a bigger problem. “I also needed my wound to heal and to get over the fear, so I began feeding him his treats out of a small bowl. I did this for about three weeks. By then my fear had subsided and I began feeding him by hand again. He hasn’t bitten me in that situation since.”
A Not-So-Fond Homecoming
“I want to know who hasn’t been bitten by a bird at least once!” says conure connoisseur Roberta Fabiano.
“My first bird, a nanday conure, was a biter,” she recalled. Fabiano, who is the lead vocalist and guitarist for the Peter Duchin Orchestra, travels frequently. PeeWee, the nanday conure, seemed to resent her overnight absences and would always get in one big hard bite after she returned home.
“As soon as I’d put my finger in the cage to get him, he’d give me what I affectionately called the ‘wing,’ spreading both wings, extending his neck and opening his mouth with the tongue protruding. At that point, PeeWee would clamp down on my finger. I had to get used to it. In the beginning I’d feel hurt, then it became a ritual. I’d get my hard bite, he’d release his anger and then we’d be best buds again.”
PeeWee’s biting may have been territorial. Letting a bird come out of the cage on its own may help discourage territorial biting. Fabiano’s friends called PeeWee a ‘gangster bird’ because he’d go after them too. “After he bonded with me, he’d go after other people, which may have been protective behavior,” said Fabiano. Another time a friend approached PeeWee and was immediately bitten when she put her hand inside the cage. It was at night, and he’d been awakened from sleep. Lesson learned: Let sleeping parrots roost!
Ratchet, Fabiano’s mitred conure, can be nippy as well. “She always gives me that first bite after I’ve been away. She’ll nip me on the ear when she wants my attention. Body armor helps. If you’re going to hold a nippy bird close to your body, be sure to wear a padded bra,” advised Fabiano. “Ratchet is basically gentle and fun loving, but holds a short grudge if I’ve been away. Giving up my career is not an option and neither is bringing Ratchet ‘on tour.’ When she rings her bell in the morning, she wants me to come in and get her. She doesn’t mind when I put my hand in the cage then .... only when I return after a trip!”
A Tongue Lashing
BIRD TALK reader, Monte Goldberg was bitten by his adopted Meyer’s parrot. “I was kissing him, and stuck out my tongue, and the bird bit it!” Lesson learned: Never stick your tongue out at a parrot. Germs aside, it could be dangerous!
New York resident Meredith Bain has bred and hand-raised Senegal parrots, lovebirds, cockatiels and Indian ring-necked parakeets. “They all seem to go through a biting stage,” she said. “They have a stage where they explore everything with their beaks. I make sure they have toys in their beaks instead of fingers.
“I’ve never had a ring neck bite me unless I’ve come home late and tried to get its attention ... but that’s a foolish thing to do, because the birds are tired and ready to sleep then. Read the warning signs. The eyes will dilate before a bite.”
Short A Digit
“My mother’s 7-year-old Senegal parrot, Percy, will lure you to the cage by putting his head down,” related Bain. “He took a chunk out of the tip of my finger. Don’t let yourself be sucker punched. Parrots have strong personalities and can be possessive, opinionated and territorial.
“Percy was hand-raised, but that doesn’t always matter. I am trying to stick train the bird. It’s very important and elementary. I’m also trying to stick train my 83-year-old mother! I worry about the bird sitting on her shoulder and possibly biting her in the face. I’d advise everyone to stick train their birds. So far, Percy has no respect for the stick; he attacks it, grabs it and rolls over on the floor with it!”
When Linda McGay was fostering a rescued Moluccan cockatoo, the first 4 months were peaceful. “The bird was very sweet until it reacted aversely to a person who resembled its former owner at a public event. He began to get aggressive after that, but finally calmed down enough to be out on a play-stand. One day he simply lunged at me, wings, out, crest up, with a scream of attack!”
McGay quickly wrapped the bird in a towel and put it back in the cage. It seemed to calm down, but one day she was walking through the house holding the bird, and it lunged and sliced right through her nose like a razor blade. She held the bird at arm’s length, checked her nose, walked the bird to its cage and put it inside. She went to the doctor and was given a tetanus shot, a ‘butterfly’ bandage and 10 days of antibiotics.
McGay had never intended to keep the bird. It eventually went to a new home with the adoptive owner’s full knowledge that the bird had attacked. (McGay had the people sign a waiver.) “It was a magnificent and very quiet bird. There was a female Moluccan in the new home, and this male screamed nonstop, 24-hours-a-day, so it went back to foster care for another four months. It was still aggressive, so arrangements were made for him to go to a sanctuary. At the last minute he was adopted and is finally doing well as an only bird.”
McGay is an experienced bird owner, but this experience taught her how unpredictable some individuals can be. “I find this especially true with cockatoos,” she says. “You have to be very careful. I can tell when a macaw is poised to bite, but, to me, cockatoos are more unpredictable. Never permit a bird to sit on your shoulder. When this bird bit me, it was just like a moment of insanity.”
Avoid The Bite
Although birds may talk, their biggest form of communication is body language, and they are more up front than many people give them credit for.
Most bites can be attributed to a bird warning someone to “Back off!” or “Not right now” when approached. The bird may be “protecting” its cage or playgym (being territorial), or it simply wants to be left alone.
According to Mattie Sue Athan, author of Guide To A Well-Behaved Companion, most parrots give at least three clues that they intend to bite:
First, the bird will look at what it is about to bite; then, it will open its beak, and finally, if it is a larger bird, it will spread its legs apart for a firmer grip on whatever it is perched on – or if it is a smaller bird, it will charge that which it is intending to bite.
You can reduce biting incidents in many ways. Remember that your bird is basically a wild animal that has been domestically bred and tamed. Learn to read your bird’s body language. Don’t force your attention on a bird that is eating, playing, nesting or resting. Be sure that your pet gets enough sleep at night (12 hours of darkness is optimal), and maintain a calm atmosphere in your home.
Learn from the experiences of the people who were interviewed for this column. If your bird seems especially aggressive, take it to an avian veterinarian to rule out medical conditions that may contribute to the behavior. Don’t overwhelm a new bird with attention and activity. Be patient. Yes, love hurts sometimes, but it also heals!