Biting and Dominance

how one causes the other

"Don't react if your bird bites you."

"If a bird bites you, yell 'No!' and grab their beak and shake it."

"Parrots bite you because they want to be the boss."

"You need to establish dominance and make sure they know they're lower in the pecking order than you."

"My parrot is vicious and bites me for no reason."

Have you heard these statements before? Odds are, if you've read a parrot book or been involved with other parrot people, you have. Countless people have suffered from parrot bites and struggled with trying to understand how their seemingly nice parrot sometimes seems to lose his mind. Many people cling to the idea of dominance as a way to explain otherwise inexplicable behavior, despite the very bad side effects of that theory. Others get more and more frustrated and more and more beaten up as time goes on until the relationship with the parrot is no longer a pleasure but a torture. Biting is one of the most frustrating habits that parrots have.

But wait. EVERYONE who is anyone in the parrot world talks about dominance. Some water down the wording but still believe in the concept of a flock leader. Others don't bother watering down anything and state firmly that you have to be the boss. It's one of the biggest debates in the parrot universe. I believe that the concept of dominance in parrots is detrimental to our relationships with them.

Think about it this way. What happens in your head when your parrot bites you? First, there's pain because these beasts are capable of doing a decent amount of damage. You might be bleeding or bruised, and the shock of adrenaline that comes with it puts you a little off balance. You're a lot quicker to act, a lot quicker to shift from a neutral method to fighting. And you've been told your entire parrot owning life that parrots bite because they want to be boss. You're already in a fighting mindset, and all the parrot people out there say that you have to be boss! So you yell or hit the cage or force the parrot to do something because otherwise, they might think you are weak.

The theory of dominance makes our relationships with our parrots confrontational. It becomes a 'me against them' situation, and no one wins there. Even if you ignore the fact that many researchers, ornithologists and ethologists do not believe that parrots (and most flocking birds) have a hierarchical relationship, the fact is that most people don't want to be seen as weaker, and will go into any dominance match raring for a fight. When you're dealing with a predatory species that innately understands hierarchies and dominance posturing (like dogs), that sort of situation can be acceptable, can even work out well sometimes.

With a prey species whose usual reaction to conflict is to flee, who does not have hierarchies, and who are usually afraid of new things and prone to phobias? The big human ape beating his or her chest to show who's boss can have disastrous results.

The other major problem with dominance is that it makes biting the parrot's fault. They become 'vicious' or 'mean', they bite because they're bossy. There's never any thought that the human being might be at fault, after all, we're the top of the food chain and without flaw. Parrots bite because they don't understand that. Not because we did something wrong. Right? The problem is that the only thing a person is truly capable of changing is their own behavior. If the problem is the parrot's fault... then the parrot is the only one who can fix themselves. We have no control over the situation and that's another mental trap that puts most people into a bad place.

What if this happened instead? Your parrot bites you, and you remove the parrot from your sensitive flesh and leave them in a safe place. You go away and nurse your wounds and you think, "What is it that I did to make the parrot bite me? What can I do next time to stop the parrot from biting me? How can we work together so that no one bleeds and we live happily ever after?" Suddenly, the situation is under your control. You can change your behavior. You can fix the problem. It's your fault and you can change that!

Throw away the confrontation. It doesn't matter who is or is not boss. It matters that you and your parrots live peacefully together. And letting go of our natural desire to fight back when we're hurt is the first step on that path.

If parrots don't bite to be the boss, why do they bite?

The first step in fixing a biting issue is shedding some light on some of the reasons that parrots bite. Behavior is a lot easier to deal with when there's some kind of explanation behind it and different biting problems require different solutions.

There are probably other reasons that parrots bite, but these are by far the most common in my experience.

How do you determine which is the problem with your parrot? Unfortunately, there's no magic answer. You'll need to look at your environment, your parrot, and the situation where you're being bitten. Sometimes, things are really obvious. Other times, it's a lot more difficult to really figure out. Keeping a journal of exactly what happened when you were bitten can often give hints to what the pattern is. Asking other people to watch you interact with your parrot or asking a group of parrot owners can also get you a lot of good suggestions, just keep in mind that this is your parrot and that no one else out there knows him or her as well as you do. If the answer sounds wrong for you, it probably is. Run things through your common sense filter and make sure they come out reasonable.

My parrot bites me! How do I fix it?

Start with the basics. How is his diet? Does he seem bored? Does he play with toys? Is he getting enough exercise? Enough sleep? Cut back on his hormone triggers, if you aren't already.

If I was selling this on an infomercial, this would be the amazing secret of the entire essay. As it is, you're rewarded by coming this far by the magic answer on biting. Ready?

The best way to teach a parrot not to bite you is not to get bitten. Shocking, I know. Biting, for a lot of parrots, is a reward in itself. Particularly when we freak out as we so often do. It also starts to become a habit in short order. Rather than 'taking the bite' as we're frequently told to do, work on not being bitten.

How do you do that?

First, teach the skill that all parrots need to know -- how to step up onto something that isn't a human hand. The usual thing that's used is a dowel perch, but you can also use a bowl (with smaller parrots), a shoe, a kleenex box, a plate, a book, anything that you can think of that a parrot can step onto. You want the ability to move your parrot without being bitten. This alone can fix a lot of issues with cage territorality and overexcitement. My cage territorial green cheeks come out of their cage on a dowel perch without any fuss. The easiest way to teach a parrot to step up onto a weird perch is the same way you teach them to step up onto a hand. Take them into a neutral room and practice. Have the parrot step from hand to perch, perch to hand, perch to perch, and any other combination you can think of. Once they've got it down in a neutral room, try it in other places around the house, slowly increasing the difficulty until you're doing it inside their cage.

Learn your parrot's body language. This takes time and you will definitely misjudge sometimes. It's part of life, and it isn't a tragedy. But, when you think that maybe your parrot might be a little overexcited, or maybe they haven't gotten enough exercise of late and seem a little stir crazy, or maybe it's just hot... don't put your hand in danger. Use a perch instead.

Don't get confrontational, use different methods to get the same results. Although I'd like to pretend that I've never made a mistake or done something confrontational or obnoxious, I've screwed up enough times to pepper this essay with examples. We brought into the house a one year old double yellow head Amazon hen who was afraid of hands and wary of leaving her cage. She was much more comfortable with my partner, but she refused to step up for me in her cage. And I immediately jumped to 'I must force her out of her cage!' and started chasing her around her cage. She freaked out and attempted to bite me. And I realized that this was really not working.

So I backed off and considered my options. I knew that the right way to get out of this situation wasn't to force her to do what she didn't want to do, but instead make what I wanted her to do worth her while. I needed her to want to do what I wanted.

As she's an Amazon, I knew the official Amazon pig sense would come in handy. Using a handful of shelled sunflower seeds, I began slowly luring her to the perch on the door. At first, it'd take me ten solid minutes to even get her to move very far. After a day or two, she quickly understood that if she went to certain places in her cage, she got sunflower seeds. She'd make her way down to the perch on the inside of the door of her cage, and I'd open it and continue feeding her sunflower seeds. The first time she stepped up onto my hand, she got all the sunflower seeds she could eat. Now, any time she goes onto that perch, she's allowed to come out of her cage or given a sunflower seed. I still 'pay' her three sunflower seeds for her to come out for me, but it takes less than thirty seconds to get her out.

This is an example of a pair of behavioral concept called luring and shaping. Luring is using a reward, be it food or something else, to coax an animal into a specific position by moving the reward. Shaping is rewarding approximations of a behavior. In this case, I lured Ky to specific areas of her cage with a sunflower seed, and I shaped the end result of the behavior (she stands on the perch) by rewarding approximations towards that end goal. It worked wonderfully and everyone was happy.

And last, but not least, teach parrots to use their beaks appropriately. Parrots use their beaks as a third hand. Every time beak touches flesh it does not mean that you are going to be bitten. It could mean that they're gently preening you, that they're attempting to balance before stepping up, that they're exploring the texture of your fingers. Unfortunately, parrots do not come knowing exactly how much pressure they can put on human skin and exactly where it starts to hurt. If you never, ever interact with a parrot's beak except when they bite you, how will they learn that? In quiet times, maybe just before bed, take your parrot out of their cage and encourage them to touch you with their beaks. Gently rub their beak with your fingers, maybe remove a few pinfeather sheaths while they preen the hair on your arm. If the parrot gets a little harder than you'd like, say 'gentle' quietly and redirect them to play with a foot toy for a few minutes.

Once parrots really understand how hard they can bite, it opens up an entire new world of communication. For example, mid-way through writing this, I got up to take Ky out of her cage. I offered her a sunflower seed as usual, but she was way too hyped up from the obnoxious heat and the fact that she'd been playing a lot, and she wasn't capable of being calm. She grabbed my finger instead of the sunflower seed and held it. I told her, quietly, "Gentle", and she backed off and I changed my method of getting her out to involve luring but less treats from my hands. Everyone wins.

Another problem with people who never interact with beaks is that we tend to assume that parrots will do the same. I managed, in the span of about a week, to teach my baby sun conure to bite the living crap out of me instead of stepping up. I was afraid of his beak, and he'd reach out when I offered my finger. He was trying to balance for stepping up, but I'd jerk my finger away. So he bit down harder and harder. Teaching him to be gentle with his beak and learning that beaks can do wonderful things like delicately preen skin or make tangles in hair, not just hurt, helped both of us immensely.

What happens if he bites me anyways?

You've completely misjudged the level of excitement of your parrot, or you just weren't thinking and did something you know he or she doesn't like, or you're in a bad mood and it rubs off. Either way, you're there, being bitten by a parrot. What do you do?

Parrots are amazing creatures. They can frustrate us worse than almost anything (except possibly children or spouses), delight us with their play and their affection, give us joy and pain. They are intelligent to the point that it's scary, and utterly alien in their thinking. But, if you work towards partnership and compromise rather than confrontation, learn how to read your parrot, and be creative in dealing with their desires, you too can buy fewer band-aids.

Additional Reading on Parrots and Dominance

The Struggle for Dominance by Dr. Susan Friedman (pdf)

Height Dominance by Steve Martin (pdf)

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