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by Sally Blanchard

A Grey Who Bit His Owner

Talking with people about their parrots usually helps me clarify my own theories about parrot behavior. A long-term Companion Parrot subscriber called me with a question about her African Grey. For the most part, her grey (who was almost 2 years old) had been a well-behaved, contented parrot causing his caregiver few behavioral concerns. Her worry was that occasionally, for reasons she was not always sure about, the parrot would bite her. These infrequent bites were rarely hard and seemed more like petulant warnings than mean-spirited aggression. A few of the times she was aware of the fact that he was actually grabbing her finger with his beak to direct her hand elsewhere because he wanted her to be doing something else. For example, if she was petting him and wasn’t paying attention, he would reach over and grab her finger to tell her to pet him more carefully. The bite was more of a clamp and a lot of African greys like to reach out and put their beaks around their caregiver’s fingers. It is not a bite it is just a pressure clamp.

If he bit too hard, she dealt with the behavior immediately by giving him a quick (not more than a couple of seconds) disapproving look (the evil eye) and saying a firm (but not aggressive or overly dramatic) “NO.” Usually the grey would settle down immediately. In some cases, if he seemed overstimulated, she would place him, without further admonishments or drama, away from her, either on the arm of the chair, his playgym, or back in his cage — not as a punishment but a time-out to let him calm down. She also knew that it would help her parrots’ behavior if she stayed as calm as possible.

The reader wanted to make sure these incidents would not become an aggressive biting pattern. Clearly at the young grey’s age, the rare biting behaviors were isolated incidents, not part of a habituated pattern. This was most likely true because his owner had dealt with them in a manner that neither rewarded him with drama nor punished him with aggression. My only advice was to try to figure out if there might be some sort of pattern to the biting incidents, keep dealing with the occasional obstreperousness in the same manner, and enjoy her delightful companion.

Many human beings (not excluding parrot owners) seem to jump to the conclusion that when one bad thing happens, it is an omen of a future full of disaster. (Been there, done that!) Following these prophecies of doom, many a parrot owner goes off the deep end the first time his parrot bites him. Often the first reaction, which is totally illogical, is “my parrot doesn’t love me anymore!” The grey’s caregiver had saved her relationship with him by accepting his occasional forays into misbehavior as what they were — simply a part of his independence process or a slightly inappropriate communication. She did not erroneously jump to any conclusion that he didn’t love her anymore or that an occasional bite was the beginning of the end. Therefore, she was able to deal with the behaviors in a rational way.

I often write about parrots being “addicted to drama.” Certainly many of their behaviors (both wild and domestic) can seem quite flashy. However, it is also important to realize we are dealing with a prey animal (one who can become another animal’s lunch at the slightest misstep) who also clearly exhibits the importance of being hidden and unnoticed. There are certainly times when a parrot should be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

I would like to make the equally accurate observation that we humans also tend to be drama addicts. And our parrots thoroughly enjoy this aspect of our behavior. In fact, our dramatic responses to their behaviors are likely to turn an incidental act into a habituated pattern. Our parrots love our drama whether we are attempting to be positive or negative. Providing them with a dramatic response reinforces the behavior we are responding to, and this is often the very behavior we would rather not have repeated.

So, in actuality, we are the ones who so often turn our parrot’s initial misbehaviors into habituated patterns because we do not deal with them correctly. It is doubtful to me that the grey in this story will ever become a biting bird because at the rare times he does bite only that particular incident is dealt with. He is not rewarded with drama, nor is the single bite responded to as if the African Grey had suddenly turned into a blood-lusting vampire. The incidents will not become a habit.

It appears to me there are actually people who seem to have an investment in their parrot’s misbehavior. Perhaps they also love the drama it brings into their lives. Others seem unable, no matter how important it is, to set rules and provide guidance for their parrots. These parrots usually end up with some serious behavioral problems. Unfortunately, most of them end up losing their homes.

Does breeding behavior last forever? No. Once a parrot reaches sexual maturity, the bird is not in a permanent, perpetual state of sexual arousal, agitation, and aggression. People often dread this time because they have heard so many stories, most of which are based on bad behavioral information. Although some parrots slide through the initial stages of sexual maturity without their owners even noticing, others go through periods of time during the year when they do exhibit serious behavioral problems. Of course, the only reason these behaviors become a problem for the parrots is because they are a problem for the caregivers. Does this mean a parrot who becomes unpredictable and aggressive during certain seasons of the year no longer makes a good pet? Of course not! Again, the one key is starting out by providing rules and guidance and maintaining it throughout the bird’s life. The other key is accepting the fact that parrots will naturally go through some periods in their lives when they might not be what we humans think of as the ideal pet. If people have realistic expectations and provide instructional interaction, the negative behaviors will not last forever — live with them, love them, and work with them to get past the seasonal behaviors.

“Oh, don’t worry. It is just as stage he is going through. He’ll be fine when he gets through it.” While biting, screaming, and other negative behaviors may be part of a stage a parrot is going through and he will indeed get through this stage, it is important to realize that we will be the ones who determine whether or not he gets through it with his pet potential intact. While some people have an overwhelming and inappropriate response to one or two bites, the opposite also occurs. Too many people wait to work with their parrot’s behavior until the problems become entrenched. The longer the person waits to get the right information to change his parrot’s aggressive biting, excessive screaming, and/or behavioral feather picking, the more difficult it is to change the behaviors.

I strongly advise parrot caregivers to take each behavioral misadventure as an event by itself and not go off the deep end about them. Far too often people take a bit personally and they respond with aggressive anger or ignore the parrot. One well-known avian veterinarian actually wrote in his book that if a parrot bites, he should be placed in his cage and ignored for as long as six weeks. This type of horrible advice and the fact that people won’t accept their responsibility for the bite is is usually the end of the parrot’s happy home. However, it is also important to know how to deal with these incidents so they won’t become repetitive patterned behaviors. If the one or two bites do turn into a patterned behavior with the problem escalating, it is best to get and use good, trust-building information as soon as possible. The parrot will not change his behavior by himself. It is essential for the owner to start interacting with the parrot in a positive way to change the negative behaviors.  Sometime an increase in calm focused attention for 10 or 15 minutes a day in a neutral room away from the parrot’s cage is all it takes to return your parrot’s trust and sense of security with you.