Biting and feather plucking in parrots

No one wants to be bitten by a cherished pet. Parrots that bite get re-homed, sold on and, in one awful case I know of, euthanised. 

What is biting? | Reasons for biting | Nesting parrots and biting | Ways to reduce risk | Other reasons for biting | Help! I got bitten | Training | Beaking | Strategies to prevent biting | Feather plucking

What is biting?

Biting is not an insoluble problem. It is not natural behaviour for parrots. In most cases, it arises because of misunderstanding between parrot and caregiver – not innate bad behaviour from the parrot.

Watch clips of wild parrots or if you live near a flock of semi feral Ring Necks watch them. You will see plenty of vigorous activity in the flock or between two individuals. You might even get to see a fight over a nest site. 

What you won't see is one parrot latching onto another one and inflicting a painful bite: the about-to-be-bitten bird flies off.

My own single serious bite in nearly twenty years was exactly that. I looked into a nest box thinking the parents were farther off in the aviary. The Timneh male latched onto the bridge of nose and held on. Completely my fault. 

Wild parrots understand one another through a variety of calls and body language. 
Their captive bred cousins cannot imitate this behaviour with most of their non-flighted carers, or even birds of another species that in the wild would never have met. 

If your parrot has begun to bite, don’t blame him. You need to analyse the possible causes; there may be more than one. Once you are establishing credible reasons, you can start looking for solutions.

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Reasons for biting

Here are some common ones:

  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Mating behaviour
  • Over-bonding
  • Territorial behaviour
  • Phobic behaviour
  • Over-stimulation through too vigorous playing or too much body stroking.

Parrots are hard-wired to fly away from anything that alarms them. There still remains controversy that wing clipping aids taming and training. Anti-clipping ideas are gaining ground however. Even in USA where clipping was the norm, the practice is lessening though still widely used. 

I believe that wing-clipping makes the environment a far more fearful place for a bird that is prevented from using her instinct to flee from perceived danger and thus learns to bite at it.

Here’s a case study of a parrot biting through fear:

An African Grey was consistently biting the woman who had taken him over from a miserable existence (seven years in a cage left in a corridor). 

I was asked to visit and help. Bingo, a handsome non-plucked Grey, was in a large cage in the sitting room. The woman opened the door stretched out her hand towards him. Bingo shuffled away along the perch.
The hand followed.  Bingo had nowhere else to go; he lunged.  The woman withdrew her hand, slammed shut the door and said crossly. ‘You see how unfriendly he is. I can’t even take him out of the cage.’

She was not interested in my suggestion that instead of trying to force Bingo to accept her, she could follow the signals he was giving her with his body language which were, ‘Leave me alone.’ He was showing her as well as he could.

She gave Bingo to me, convinced that he was a ‘bad bird.’ I let him free in my bird room; I did not put him in a cage. Although unclipped, after the seven caged years of his previous life he could not fly. 

I ignored him totally apart from cheerful greetings. After some weeks watching my Greys, Artha and Casper and Perdy cockatoo fly down to my hand and get a treat, he began to copy them, perching just above my head and stretching down to take a nut.

I trained him to step up onto a stick because he seemed afraid of hands. 

Within five months, he had fitted into our flock, stepping into a crate to go into the aviary and flying about with increasing agility. He even learned to play with Artha.



Nesting parrots and biting

Captive birds who become over bonded to one family member have a hard time in captivity. In the wild the mated pair would be living with the flock but separating from them in season, finding a nest hole, laying eggs, bringing the chicks up to fledgling and then rejoining flock life before starting over again next season. 

The finest writing I’ve ever read on a captive birds’ mating behaviour is in Joanna Burger’s book, The Parrot Who Owns Me. She describes how Tiko, the red lored captive bred Amazon joined her and her husband at the mature age of twenty five and lived amiably with them except in the mating season when he‘d try to entice Joanna into the nest spaces he had discovered under furniture and would attack her husband if he approached. 

The Burgers understood the reasons for Tiko’s behaviour. And while he was in this hormonal state, Michael would avoid him. Once the mating season was over, Tiko and Michael were close friends again.

How to reduce the mating behaviour of your parrot (and thus reduce the potential for biting)

There are some precautions to take to lessen the mating behaviour of a bird living in a human flock.

These are:

  1. Avoid too rich a diet
  2. Give the bird less hours of daylight
  3. And most the successful is instituting a training programme that gives the bird something to think about.
Here are some tragi-comic reasons why a parrot might bite you. I’m afraid each one as happened to someone I know. Or me.

Reasons for parrots biting

  1. You changed your hair style
  2. You wore a hat I have not seen
  3. You touched my cage without permission
  4. You tried to fill the food bowl
  5. You moved too fast – only monsters move fast
  6. You have a chin hair that needs taking off
  7. You asked for a step up with the wrong hand
  8. You told me to go to bed
  9. You kissed that horrible person while I was on your shoulder

Help – I got bit by my parrot!

A vicious circle can arise. The parrot bites. The caregiver draws back in alarm and shows fear. Parrots are prey not predators. Sensitive as they are to both the moods of other birds and of other animals like us, if they sense that you’re afraid, they can also become afraid. 

When a bird bites you stop doing whatever it was they did not like. Repeating the action encourages them to bite again. Shouting hitting, squirting with water, covering the cage won’t stop biting. 

Indeed it may encourage it. If a parrot wants your hand out of the cage – take it out – the conclusion is obvious.

Another mistake is to make a lot of noise shouting swearing exclaiming. That’s drama and birds like drama. Easier said than done. Those beaks are painful. If you can’t detach yourself from the beak quietly you are encouraging a repetition.

The neatest way to stop a parrot biting is to avoid the situations where a bite occurs. Now this can have a sad outcome. The carer is afraid of being bitten, so leaves the parrot for too long in his cage. This can become so traumatic for the parrot that she may develop other unwanted behaviours such as plucking and screaming.

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Training your parrot to stop it from biting

Punishment is not the best solution Understanding what a parrot wants helps. Training works best when the parrot is eager for food. Not starving but interested in your treats. 

A few minutes of step up training, recall training or trick training before the bird’s breakfast or in the evening if you have removed the food bowls can work wonders.

If you cannot get to any workshops to see good training in practice, Barbara Heidenreich’s DVDs show her using positive reinforcement techniques with ordinary pet parrots. Notice her calm demeanour and how the birds respond to her.

Beaking - when your parrot nips

Avian beaks are far more sensitive than we often realize. Watch how a Macaw will feed her tiny chick, using her enormous beak to gently place chewed up food down the baby’s throat. Once the baby fledges she will use her own beak as an extension of her sensitive claws. This can become a problem if misunderstood.

When baby parrots first start to step up, they’ll often use their beak to help balance. Sometimes the person may think that they are trying to nip and hastily pulls back the hand. This unbalances the bird and can be confusing. And can be a cause of real nipping.

The same thing occurs with young birds. They can become far too over excited. Think of tired toddlers throwing tantrums. And remember a feathered toddler has a can opener fixed to the front of its face. In the case of Amazons species, you’ll see the eyes pin and the tail feathers flare out. When you see that, it’s time to rapidly cool the play session down.

Benni my blue and gold Macaw started to play at five months. He began to nip quite hard once the game was underway. My solution was as soon as he saw his beak opening too wide, I stuffed one of his soft toys into the gap and he nipped that.

Now that he is older I can say ‘Be gentle,’ and he understands.

Strategies to prevent biting

Some parrots’ cage or aviary are too bare. They encourage biting behaviour. All birds need to chew to a greater or lesser extent. Yet far too many birds – especially in breeding establishments – have too little wood, cardboard or safely destructible items to prevent boredom and frustration.  Northern Parrots offer a great range of toys for your parrot.

Since breeding birds are rarely much handled, that they aren’t tame is less of a drawback than with parrots in the home.

Preventing birds from biting each other

An obvious way to prevent your birds from biting each other is to keep only one bird. I think that gives the bird a less enviable lifestyle since birds are flock animals. 

That said a single bird who is well adjusted within its human flock can have a rewarding life. There are no hard and fast rules as to which bird will get on with another. 

Gracie, my friend’s Grey adored her partner Chip’s budgie. The two would perch together with the Grey’s wing sheltering the small blue bird.

My Benni’s younger brother Kovu free flies with a female Amazon. He can be seen holding a protective wing over his smaller friend. But Ryan the owner had to rehome his Grey because Kovu started to harass him.

And remember that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Nor does one bite produce a biter.

Feather plucking in parrots

Like biting, feather plucking is a problem of captivity. If a bird begins plucking or snapping off the tops of feathers you will see bald patches or stumps. 

In a normal moult feathers are shed two by two over a time and you won’t notice any missing unless you look for the new ones encased in their keratin sheath gradually appearing. 

A tame bird will often allow its human friend to preen the keratin off the growing feathers.

Causes of feather plucking

The first thing to do if feather plucking occurs is to eliminate any physical cause. These can include: 

  • Disease
  • Parasites
  • Allergies
  • Skin infections, etc.
If nothing shows up from blood tests and physical examinations at the avian vet, you have to look for environmental causes. 

Plucking can become like nail biting in humans – a self-comforting bad habit that becomes habitual. 
At its worst, a plucked bird resembles an oven-ready chicken. If plucking persists too long the follicles are damaged and the feathers cannot regrow.

An avian vet should be able to help you discover what has changed within the environment to make the bird pluck itself. 

Boredom and frustration can be possible causes. Being left alone all day is difficult for a bird as social as a parrot. Yet individual birds are different. 

Two birds who board here regularly are Andy Umbrella cockatoo and Max Grey. They are sole parrots who spend time alone. Neither pluck scream nor bite. I put that down to the fact that they are integrated, beloved members of their human flock.

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Resources
Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behaviour Problems in Companion Parrots – Barbara Heidenreich,
The Parrot Problem Solver  - Barbara Heidenreich
The Parrot Who Owns Me - Joanna Burger
Breaking Bad habits – Greg Glendell  ISBN 978-1-84286-165-3 (UK only £11.50. Phone Greg on 0844 826 8456 or email mail@greg-parrots.co.uk. Greg is also a parrot behaviourist who gives consultations.)