Many bird owners find that their birds – who were previously sweet, cuddly, and loving – undergo a change in personality. These changes happen slowly – an occasional small bite or lunge – but suddenly escalate to the point that you can’t handle your bird without serious risk of bloodshed. What happened? What changed? What can you do to fix it?
Pet birds, like all animals, will repeat a behavior if it ends in a desired result. That desired result may be that you stop getting close to it with something it doesn’t like. It may be that you essentially look the other way while your bird bonds with someone else.
What was happening with your bird or your bird’s environment when the behavior began? Once you determine the underlying cause, you can correct the behavior and prevent it from happening again. A good relationship with your bird is built on confidence, trust and positive communication (verbal and non-verbal). If you’re unable to pinpoint the original starting point of your bird’s aggression, understand that there was a root cause, and observe the recurrence of the aggression – your action, the environment, and the bird’s behavior. Most often, these behaviors are taught and unconsciously reinforced by you; your bird learned that this behavior brought about the desired results. Fortunately, the behavior can also be extinguished. Your bird can learn that there are better ways to accomplish its end goal; a bird who knows that a less overt action will accomplish his goal does not need to be aggressive to obtain the same result.
Restarting Your Relationship With Your Bird
A good relationship is built on trust and positive interaction. A bite from a parrot should be a rare occurrence. If you’re not sure how the aggression started, understand that there was a trigger so 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?
Reacquaint Yourself to Your Parrot What are your goals? Do you want to redevelop a close relationship with your bird, or would you be happy if you could only handle your bird without bloodshed? Discuss the issue with others in your household and come to a consensus on the goal. Then begin as if you have just brought a new bird into your home – as if you and your bird are both new to the home. If your bird has fixated on someone else in the home, be sure that the bird and the object of its affection are not spending time together.
Begin by putting the bird’s favorite treat into its dish, as long as the bird is sitting calmly and not lunging or biting – giving the treat in the face of these negative behaviors will reinforce them. By doing this, you are teaching your bird that you bring positive things, then immediately back away from your bird’s space. If the person with whom your bird has bonded is in the room, don’t interact with the bird, in order to avoid likely aggression toward you. You will know that your bird has come to regard you as the source of all positive things when your bird comes closer to you as you approach – she/he is anticipating the good things you bring. Once your bird recognizes you as the source of positive things, you can move to the next stage of reestablishing your relationship with your bird.
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.
TIP: For larger birds train them to step up BACKWARDS by putting your arm behind them... why? They are less likely to bite.
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
Remember that your parrot is a wild animal, with behavior based on reactions that would help it survive in the wilderness. It is not domesticated 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.