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Why I Love My Bird – Even Though He’s a Velociraptor
I love my monk parakeet, Francis – so why do I need to stop parrot biting? Well, my life isn’t perfect. My animals aren’t either. (That’s partially why I offer online training services so I can help more people!)
He’s a little emerald firecracker with bright blue wing tips and an alert, intelligent gaze. I acquired him in 2014 as part of a research project on parrot communication. He was my first pet since leaving home, and his presence is a constant in my home. He’s been through two boyfriends, a college graduation, five houses (all with me), and far more house parties than should be allowed for pets. He’s even been camping in the Grand Tetons with me! He loves company and charms people with his mimicry of giggles and coughs. I adore this bird.
But some days, his eyes go hard and flat. He bows his head and flares his wings around his shoulders, opening his mouth in a hissing gape. When I approach further, he lunges. If I persist, he’ll bite. If I’m really stupid about ignoring body language, he’ll hang on and really dig into my flesh with his incredibly sharp beak. Some days, my beloved little velociraptor erupts with earsplitting screeches and then lunges against the cage bars when I draw close. On these days, it’s impossible to remove him from the cage to feed him, clean the cage, or move him to his sleeping perch.
Usually, those days are few and far between. His 106 grams of fury is often directed at someone other than me. That person probably wronged Francis somehow by not sharing their food or putting a sheet over his cage while they talked on the phone. And it’s fine, really. He’s not their bird. He’s mine. So what if he’s not a big fan of them? It’s not like they feed him, anyway.
Like many things in life, that sentiment runs true until it doesn’t. Several months ago, Francis started to scream more. He was reluctant to step up onto my finger and often lunged if I moved too quickly. Some nights, he wouldn’t step up for me to put him to bed. He drew blood on me three times in a week when he bit down hard. I was at my wit’s end.
There are lots of ways not to stop parrot biting. Thoughts of finding him a new home ran through my mind. Curses flew from my lips when he’d scream, lunge at me, and then scream again. I came up with a variety of creative and morbid threats to hurl at him in quiet tones when I was frustrated (my favorite involved boiling him and feeding him to the dog). Ignoring him did nothing. I put towels over his cage when he screamed. I left the apartment. Nothing helped, and I knew that I was nearing a breaking point with him.
Then I sat down one day and stared at him. He cocked his head, his head feathers fluffed up in the cutest way. I spoke quietly to him and he murmured gibberish back. I extended a finger, and his pupils pinned. He lunged at the bars, screaming, and retreated to the furthest corner of his cage. I took a deep breath and withdrew my hand. Yelling or throwing a fit would either reinforce his behavior (many parrots love noise) or scare him and just reinforce his belief that I’m something to be kept away from him.
I took a few more deep breaths and tried to take a mental step back. I needed to stop feeling like a victim of my parrot. Loving him wasn’t enough. Ignoring him wasn’t working. Threatening him obviously did nothing. I needed to put my psychology hat on and think through this like a real animal trainer. That’s how to stop parrot biting.
How I Stop Parrot Biting
Training my parrot not to bite doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor. Francis and I have just a few quick steps to stop parrot biting.
- Classical Counter-conditioning. Every time I approach Francis’s cage, I hand him a treat. I usually use safflower seeds, but anything that your bird loves will do. Yes, I do this even if he’s lunging and screaming and trying to bite. The goal is to teach your bird that people = food. Eventually, he’ll start being excited to see you again because you mean seeds!
- If you’re worried about rewarding your bird for being an ***, think of it like this. There’s a bully in your high school. Let’s call him Brutus. He walks around scowling and shoves people in the hallway. Sometimes he’s an OK guy, making jokes in class. He’s actually pretty smart. Just mean in the hallways.
- You decide that you’re sick of being shoved around. So everytime you see Brutus, you smile and offer him some gum. You do this even if he just shoved someone else or is scowling threateningly at you. The first few times he calls you names or even shoves you. But as time goes on, Brutus will probably decide you’re an OK person, too. He’ll stop shoving you and instead be excited to see “the kid with the gum.” That’s classical counter-conditioning!
- Listen to your bird. The next step is to start really listening to your parrot. I paid closer attention to his body language. If he bowed his head and opened his beak, I backed off. I might try to ask him to “target” his beak to my hand instead (see #3), or I might just respect his wishes to be left alone.
- Teach him how to behave instead. I taught Francis to “touch” his beak to my fingers. When I want to interact with him I start and end our time together with some target training. This gives us a way to interact without any stress at all. Targeting has never been associated with anything bad for Francis, unlike a “step up.” There have been times where his “step up” led to nail trims, a trip to the vet, or a beak trim. That’s why we introduced a new skill for him instead!
- Back to basics. Every time my parrot steps up onto my hand, he gets a treat. We gradually phase out the treats as he gets better about this. The goal is to continue rewarding him for good behavior. We’re rebuilding his trust. This is really important.
These four steps should stop (or at least reduce) parrot biting. This is also a good time to revisit a blog on frustration’s role in punishment. It can be really frustrating to have a screaming and biting parrot in your home. While this blog talks about dog training, it applies to parrots as well. Remember that trying to punish your parrot for screaming and biting will only stress him out more. Counter-conditioning should always be a first step!
Why Does My Bird Want To Bite Me?
Remember, your bird likely is trying to bite you for a reason. He’s not just being a bully. In Francis’s case, it likely was a combination of several factors:
- He was molting. This can be uncomfortable and cause some mood swings. Some also promote the idea of hormone changes causing mood swings. This makes sense.
- My new schedule with the dog meant he was spending far more time alone and bored.
- His screaming increased (not sure why), and we started putting a blanket over the cage when he screamed. He learned that us approaching the cage was BAD, VERY BAD, so he started to scream and bite to keep us away! This obviously made the problem worse.
- Having the dog in the home probably stressed Francis out.
Those are the methods I used to stop parrot biting. What did you do that worked in your home? I want to know!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
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My concue bird will let others pet him but when I approach him he will try to come at me from cage, I’m the one that feeds him and he still won’t let me pet him I have never done anything to him or approach him wrong,, please help me
Hi Tracey! Aggression around the cage is pretty common, but can be fixable. We’ll have to teach your bird that you coming near the cage is awesome and teach him what to do instead of biting. If you’d like help, I am happy to offer behavior consulting for you or refer you to a parrot behavior expert near you!
My bare eyed too gets very moody and bitey in early summer. Like clockwork. Perhaps he knows he’s in a cage by himself and not mating/flying/caring for a nest. These are intelligent birds and can see other birds out a window. They know they have hormones and it’s usually june. My bird can get mad if I go outside and dont take him. He will get resentful and bite.
I have to make sure his wings are clipped in spring. It’s like taking an obnoxious teen and knocking him down a peg. He usually gets more loving after wings are trimmed. Most of the time I dont trim them. But an obnoxious bird needs a trim pronto!
Another thing I have to really watch is being upset or in a bad mood. It has nothing to do with the bird. Usually I was upset or annoyed at something else a half hour/hour before interacting with my birdie. He definitely picks up on it as being directed at him. This one is THE MOST important thing to watch out for. Your mood. Birds pick up on that immediately. Get completely calm before taking bird from cage.
If he bites, he’s caged immediately. He is allowed out again when he calms down. Probably within a half hour 45 mins max. If he bites really hard that’s it for that day. Hes done.
After a bite, I think what precipitated the bite? What did I do wrong? It’s usually my fault. I just didnt see it at the time. Usually doing more than 1 thing at a time. Was I not giving him all my attention? Did I have a bad mood prior to interacting with him? Was he overly hungry and didnt want what I offered? Was I looking at my phone not paying him attention? So its usually my fault in some way. His biting is a wake up call to me to stop doing that. Or wait to interact with him when he gets my undecided calm attention.
I have also put the bird in a cage in another room downstairs, not upstairs by himself. You want him to know your in the other room. They dont like that. 20 mins alone while everyone is in another room, usually gives them an attitude adjustment. No more than 20 mins to calm down. Dont leave the bird over a half hour alone. That’s cruel. The last one I’d reserve for a bird that you have tried everything else. I dont do that one. But if you look closely, you usually did something wrong to get a bite. That’s been my experience.
Recap: trim wings, 2. Watch your mood always 3. Is bird overly hungry? And dont multitask while with the bird. He should have your attention.
Thanks for your insight!
I just had to say thank you for depicting the reality of a bitey bird while also providing some concrete steps that dont involve punishment. I currently type with 1 finger less than usual due to my cockatiel biting down harder and longer than usual. I ignored his signals and turns out hes molting too. Looking forward to following your steps while imagining him served at a buffet.
I’m glad to help, and I’m sorry your finger is out of commission 🙁
Hello I have a problem my bird won’t stop attacking people I need some avice of what to do if my bird attacks other people
I have a Moluccan cockatoo that bites every time I try and take him home please any advice you can give me with this situation.
Hi Sandra, what have you tried so far? What context do the bites occur in? I can’t offer much advice without more detail.
Hi, I have a quaker and have had him for over a year. When I first got him I could pretty much do anything with him. As time went on, he started being very aggressive with me and anyone else who come around him. He has never been a fan of treats. When I offer a treat he aggressively grabs it from my fingers and flings it to the floor. He despises any toy or addition to his cage or play area and will completely avoid new things at all costs. He does love to interact with me and talks a lot. However, if I put my hands near him he hisses and lunges at me, and if given the chance will bite me. He understands step up and even says it while I attempt to have him step up. Its a daily fight to get him to bed at night unless he feels like going. He has even flown from his play area, to land on my arm as I drew the curtains, and bit me, drawing blood. He never likes anyone touching the curtains, which I can tolerate, but flying to attack me is a bit too much. I am at a loss with what to do with him. I love him, but he makes me feel bad. I don’t want to get rid of him, but I just don’t know what to do. I take very good care of him, and he talks and sings with me all of the time. He seems to want me near him only on his terms. I spend a lot of time in the same room with him and he clearly does not like it when I leave the room, so I feel like we have a some sort of a bond. He gets happy when I come home from work but will not allow me to touch him what so ever. Please help me! I am just about at the end of my rope and ready to give him up.
Hi, thanks so much for this article! I have a little Quaker/monk parrot, too. Her name is Maya and she’s absolutely gorgeous (most of the time.) Recently, she’s become very nippy. I read your ‘three times a week’ and thought ‘if only!’ Maya sometimes gets me three times in a day! My fingers are in shreds. She can become very aggressive when I move things around in her bird room (which is also my study) so if I try to take anything out of my stationary stand, that’s it for the next three hours. She becomes really protective over my face and will sit on my shoulder and lunge at anything that comes near it … including my hands. Yesterday, she bit me really hard right on the joint of one finger. I’m normally pretty good at staying calm and I managed to get her back in her cage, but it really upset me because I felt I’d tried everything. My partner suggested going for a walk to clear my head and I thought, Maya hasn’t been in her harness in a while, maybe it’d be a good idea to take her out. With a little persuasion, I got her in her harness and we went for a walk around the park. Maya shouted hello to a few people, squawked at a few dogs and yelled a greeting to a few pigeons. We got home and she was like a different bird, sweetness and light incarnate for the rest of the evening. I wonder if she sometimes just needs a change of environment to remind her she’s not completely in charge and who’s top bird. She didn’t bite for the rest of the evening. I’ve found targeting really helps, too, and it gives me a way to help transform her aggression into something more positive without getting my fingers in the way. My fingers are still feeling a bit sorry for themselves, but hopefully getting her outside once or twice a week, and some proper, dedicated training time will help. Your article gave me lots of ideas. Thank you!