I’d like a parrot who doesn’t bite!
There’s no such thing as a parrot who doesn’t bite. All birds will bite.
I hear the first request from would-be bird owners who are exploring adopting their first parrot. They think that buying a baby bird from a breeder will help them avoid getting bitten. Conversely, they think “rescuing” an adult parrot will surely mean dealing with aggression issues.
The second sentence is a reflexive response by experienced parrot owners. I’m sure I’ve uttered it more than a few times. The thinking is that if you warn people ahead of time that they will be bitten, you set proper expectations.
I think both of those sentiments are a little bit misguided.
It’s totally reasonable to want a pet who doesn’t draw blood, but it’s a bit of a shortcut in terms of thinking about a relationship with a companion bird.
On the flip side, insisting that all birds bite (all the time) is also problematic. That type of absolute statement can lead potential adopters straight into the arms of breeders who will tell their buyers “Don’t worry, my babies are hand-reared and won’t bite!” If the goal is to provide education, then you don’t want to make biting seem inevitable. Yes, all birds may bite. But bites are avoidable!
Two anecdotes from my own life:
Story 1: Long ago, I had hired a new bird sitter to watch Stewie and Mika. I gave her a run-down on their behavior and what to expect. She posted a cute photo of Stewie and captioned it something like “This little sun conure used to be aggressive and then one day he just stopped. Now he no longer bites! What a sweetheart.”
I read that with some amusement. Oh no! That’s definitely not what I said. What I had said was that for a few months after I adopted him, he bit me all the time. Then I learned about positive reinforcement training principles and now I no longer get bitten.
Can you see the difference? The passive tense is important here. The onus was on me to avoid putting myself in situations where I would be on the receiving end of a bite. Whether that’s because I removed the opportunity for him to bite or taught him that biting wasn’t necessary is secondary to the lesson that it was up to me to avoid being bitten. I was the one who changed my behavior! (Full disclosure: occasional bites may still happen, though it’s been many years.)
Story 2: I used to bird sit for another cute little conure. She was a friendly bird who really enjoyed shoulder time. I, however, didn’t enjoy shoulder time with her. Because she bit me! She’d fly to my shoulder and then bite, bite, bite. It was hard for me to apply my lesson from my first story because it was hard to avoid the bite when the bite sought me out.
When her owner came to pick her up, I gave a report that she ate well, was active, seemed to have a good time, but bit me a lot. My friend was perplexed. With his little one perched on his shoulder, he insisted, “Oh no, she never bites! You must’ve been doing something to bother her because she’s never bitten me.” The whole time I’m thinking, “What are you talking about?? She’s biting you RIGHT NOW. That’s her. On your shoulder. Biting you. As we speak.”
Indeed, she was perched on his shoulder pecking his cheek, nibbling on his fingers, expressing affection while he played with her, petting and wrestling her with his hand. To him, those pecks weren’t painful. To me they definitely were.
This conure wasn’t “biting” in the sense that she was communicating “hey, stop it!” This was just a normal, semi-affectionate way they normally interacted.
Not all “bites” are equal and they don’t mean the same thing. If your bird nibbles a bit too hard for your own liking, you’ll need to work on teaching her to “be gentle”. My birds both definitely know what kind of pressure means “hello” and what kind of pressure means “back off!”
So, why do birds bite?
A bite is one way that our birds have to communicate with us. It may be a way to say “hey, knock that off!” It’s also a way to say, “I’m scared” or (quite counterintuitively) “I’m warning you of danger and I think we should both flee!”
Biting is something that all birds are capable of.
But not something that is inevitable.
It is our job to avoid being bitten by:
- Not doing things that cause a bird to bite
- Learning our bird’s body language so we back off before our bird feels the need or has the opportunity to bite
- Teaching our bird that there are other, much better, ways to communicate with us
- Reassuring our birds through consistent action that we will listen to what they are telling us before they bite, so they don’t have resort to biting.
And if your bird is nibbling just a bit too hard, we should teach them to be more gentle. Do it for the birdsitter!