It's your fault your parrot bit you and you deserved it too! This is an essential realization to make or you will never be able to solve biting problems. People who refuse to accept responsibility for soliciting biting from their parrot cannot learn to reduce biting. We have to first realize what we do that causes the parrot to bite in order to work on resolving it. Or at least, if we cannot determine the reason, we need to at least follow an approach that will prevent or reduce biting.
The fact that it's your fault when your parrot bites is actually great news as you will come to realize. If it is your fault and something you did that caused the bite, then that means it is also in your power not to cause the bite! If this weren't the case and if the parrot were to bite for truly no reason, you would have a very hard time trying to solve that situation. Keep in mind that even if you are unaware how it is your fault that your parrot bites, it is still present and can still be solved.
I am hard pressed to find good bite stories or videos to share because I hardly ever get bit by parrots. Kili & Truman haven't bit me, or anyone else for that matter, in years. Santina bit me a few times at the rescue but not once since I brought her home. Even when I meet birds at stores, rescues, and other people's homes during consultations, it is very rare that I get bit. This is because most parrots aren't naturally aggressive creatures.
Most parrot species, and birds for that matter, tend to avoid conflict by flying away. Clipping wings denies parrots of the ability to fly away so they are forced to resort to biting in self-defense. Since Kili & Truman can fly away if someone is bothering them, they do just that rather than bite. This has not only eliminated biting but it has also taught them to be more trusting around people. They don't start biting off the bat to avoid all interaction. Instead they tolerate as much interaction as they want or tolerate but if it becomes too much, they can fly to safety.
There are many reasons a parrot might bite specifically but for the most part it is because something is being done that the parrot does not want to happen! Most often this comes in the form of self-imposing on the parrot (such as forced step up or touching) but sometimes it can be less direct. It could be indirect such as imposing on the parrot's territory by touching its cage or by making it jealous. Regardless, these situations are created when a human disturbs the peace by imposing an undesired interaction.
The key to reducing biting is to teach the parrot to actually desire the things that would have normally caused it to bite. Teaching a parrot to want to step up, to allow head scratches, to want to go back into the cage, etc makes it such that the parrot would not even think of biting you. My parrots want me to scratch their heads, to take them places, to handle them, and to put them back in the cage. They'd be crazy to bite me because then they'd miss out on the things they actually want from me.
In the short term it's about reading body language and not sticking your hand in a bee's nest. In other words if the parrot doesn't want to be touched, then don't touch it, if the parrot doesn't want to step up for a guest, don't make it. However, this doesn't solve the problem because we as pet owners want friendly pet behavior from our parrots.
Even with unfamiliar parrots, I tend not to get bit. Sometimes it's because I recognize a viciously aggressive parrot that would take a lot of time to tame and keep my hands to myself. But most of the time it is because I take a moment to familiarize myself with the bird, look at its body language, learn what it likes, learn its comfort levels, and built instant trust by not violating existing comfort levels in the short term. One thing that has kept my hands very bite free with unfamiliar birds is that I go up to any parrot with the presumption that it is a biter and uncomfortable with my presence. Until I can determine otherwise, I don't put myself within biting range. I test the bird a little at a time while building trust and discovering its body language and comfort. With some birds things are quick enough that I have it on my hand cuddling in no time, with other birds I realize they are far from ready and avoid getting bit and making them upset.
I want to caution you against reverting to punishment or negative reinforcement as a means of dealing with biting because in most cases it won't help or worse yet encourage more biting. For example “nudging a parrot's belly to make it step up when it is biting” will likely cause it to bite more because it wants to avoid stepping up. This doesn't solve biting. Squirting a parrot with a bottle or using other forms of punishment will make the parrot fear you and parrots bite what they fear so again a counterproductive solution. Negative punishment may work as a solution for mostly well-behaved parrots that are trained and rarely bite (“if you bite me for attention, I just won't give it to you”) but for less tame parrots is useless. Rather true negative punishment would be effective but what one might think to be such is not. Threatening to ignore a bird that hates you is hardly upsetting and possibly even desirable to the bird! Putting a bird down or back into the cage as punishment for biting might make it bite even more because it doesn't want to go back. Thus it is best to prevent situations that lead to biting, keep your hands to yourself until you can make it such that the parrot wants your hands there, and ignore biting that you accidentally cause. Ignoring biting does not mean to let the bird bite all it wants. It simply means not to allow the fact that the parrot bit you affect what you do in regards to the parrot in any way. Don't give a toy, don't squirt the bird, don't put the bird away, don't talk to the bird, don't walk away. Just ignore the bite as though it didn't happen. When a bird bites the cage bars and nothing happens at all, the bird loses interest in continuing that sort of biting. This is why ignoring is the best way to avoid encouraging further biting but prevention is better still.
Goodbye nose! Just kidding, I didn't have enough pictures of real bites so I threw this one in of playing around
So the question isn't how to make a parrot not bite (there is nothing you can do directly except keeping yourself out of harm's way), it really should be how can you be such a pal that your parrot wouldn't want to bite you in the first place! To that, the answer is less simple. It's not complicated but the explanation is rather long and comprehensive. For this reason I suggest getting my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots. You will encounter my complete approach to establishing a well-behaved, non-biting parrot through an array of elements including proper housing, toys, sleep, food, weight, health, exercise, flight, socialization, training, and companionship.
PS A Cape Parrot was recently lost in Oakland California. Everyone please share this facebook post with information about the lost bird so that it can be reunited with its owner.
It's been nearly six months since I adopted Santina from Lazicki's. The progress since then has been monumental and this is an update to mention most of it. I have gone from a bird that wouldn't even step up for me to being able to take my entire flock out to Coney Island wearing harnesses.
Here's a list of the things Santina learned during this period: -Step up (inherited) -Touch her (inherited) -Head scratches (inherited) -Go in carrier -Target -Grab -Flip over -Take medication -Open wings -Getting along with other birds -Put on Harness -Socialization (don't bite others)
Santina was already known to be able to step up and cuddle with certain people, but this certainly wasn't the case with me on first encounter. So not only did I work on inheriting those qualities she already had, but I improved them to the maximum extent. I improved her step up reliability to 100%, got her comfortable being touched anywhere as necessary, and went on to do a lot more with her. I set lenient goals and always exceeded expectations. For example I was ready to have to take weeks to get her to step up but she was already doing so within a few days, I was ready to take a month to harness train her but did so in under a week, I hoped to be able to take her to Coney Island before the end of the summer and was already doing so a few weeks since harness training her. All in all, progress has been very efficient and she is doing stupendously.
Santina has been learning to get along with the other birds
I would estimate that I spent an average of 10 minutes twice a day training Santina. Some days sessions were as much as 30 minutes but other days I skipped training entirely. It's not a lot of time but it was always a focused and goal oriented time. For each specific thing I taught her, we would have a burst of focused training and in between training new things we would just take time off or review known behaviors. The time off between training to let things sink in is nearly as important as the time training itself.
This DVD features Santina and covers the entire harness training process from start to finish. You can see the exact steps I took to teach her to want to wear the harness and assist me in putting it on. The DVD covers 6 days of training and the 50 minute section of harness training equates to about 1/4 scale. In other words, some repetitions were cut out and the real training was only about 4 times as much as what you see in the DVD. Put a different way, that's just 3 hours of training or 6x 30 minute sessions. That's nothing! In a single outing, I can spend more time out with Santina wearing a harness than all the training that it took!
The secret is, well watch the DVD for secrets. But what I want to say is that you really have to see the DVD in conjunction with my book. The DVD is strictly about harness training and does not teach how to do training, how to manage motivation, etc. The approach demonstrated in the DVD presumes a moderately tame parrot that is capable of at least step up, being touched, being grabbed, targeting, and having its wings pulled open. All of these things are covered in my book and are absolutely mandatory requisites to even think of beginning harness training. I don't know how some people think they will stick a harness on a bird that bites them and won't even step up. Not gonna happen.
But all things said, I taught Santina all those requisites in about 4 months really taking my time. Then I taught her to wear a harness in under a week and spent another week or two getting her used to going outside. Some days I would take her out twice just so she would be more used to being outside and wearing the harness. In 2 months since harness training Santina, I had already gone so far as to take her to Coney Island (a really busy amusement area), on the Subway into NYC, and out with my other two parrots at the same time. This article and video aren't meant to teach you what to do but rather to inspire what you can do with your birds. All you need is some love, time, patience, and some Wizard's tools to help you in the process.
I often receive questions about age for training parrots. People still have trouble believing that you can just as well train older parrots as younger ones. When I'm asked what kind of parrot can't you train? My response is "a dead one." All kidding aside though, age plays a far smaller role on training than people believe. Technique has far more to do with it than age. The right technique on an older rescue parrot is far more likely to be successful than poor technique on a younger hand raised one.
But given good training technique, there is one age of parrot that to me stands out as potentially the hardest to work with: young babies! Young weanlings with a poor upbringing have got to be the hardest parrots to keep (at least for the time being). Well raised babies can be a pleasure to deal with and almost too easy to be true (that doesn't mean you should assume they won't need training down the line to maintain that easy nature). However, a poorly raised baby that bites, doesn't step up, and is all around difficult puts the owner in a bind. The bird is too young to motivate with food/attention, too frail to food manage, too inattentive, and too inexperienced to know what to do.
For hand tame baby parrots, my best suggestion is to treat them like a baby. Instead of focusing on formal training, work more on exposing the parrot to anything and everything. Show it objects, take it around the house, let it try foods, let it feel different materials, etc. This will help it develop and make it more aware of its surroundings as it becomes older. The formal training that most of my blog covers is ineffective for wearnling parrots and even unnecessary. They are programmed to watch, mimic, and learn from their surroundings more so than adult parrots. This is your one opportunity to teach good habits and behavior without having to work too much for it.
Now when it comes to the dilemma of the untame baby parrot, things are tough. The bird won't work for food in training because it doesn't have to. You don't want to withhold or manage food because the baby is still growing. Heck, it is barely accustomed to eating hard food and it is important to let it eat and grow. On the other hand, since the untame baby bites, doesn't step up, and doesn't trust people, you won't be able to handle it the way you would like.
When it comes to the untame baby, patience is going to be your best tool. Waiting until the baby is old enough to become more interested in food - and when you can begin to manage the good to an extent - is when you can put a greater emphasis on formal training. Until then, work on building trust hands off by spending time around the bird and not forcing it to be handled. Since you cannot use food, attention, or pretty much anything else at this point as positive reinforcement, any handling you do will most likely result in punishment and only make the bird distrust further. Take things easy for a few months and wait for the bird to become more interested in food before beginning a target training based approach for building trust and teaching step up.
During the waiting period, work toward the bird accepting treats from you. Learn what its favorite treats are and begin to withhold them. Don't forget that the baby bird likely does not yet know what its favorite treats are so exposing it to a variety of foods to try is very important. As you begin to see which foods it prefers, stop giving them in the bowl and instead see if it will come over to you to take it. If it does, you can move on to target training (but keep in mind that the attention span of a young baby may be very limited so don't expect the kind of results you can get with an adult). If not, try laying foods down in places and removing your hand and seeing if the bird will at least eat the treat near your hand or in your presence. Keep working on trust so that the bird is comfortable eating around you and from you. With the untame baby parrot, it mostly comes down to waiting things out and then applying a formal training approach once the bird is of suitable training age. What that exact age is will depend on species and maturation process. Wait until the bird is at least a few months older and taking food from your hand.
Do not expect to be able to solve nipping, biting, and other issues with the baby parrot. A lot of people complain about nippy and even aggressive behavior in baby parrots but there just isn't a way around it. Those young birds don't know any better, are curious, and want try everything with their beaks. Punishment cannot be applied as it will cause major detriment to your relationship that has not even yet been established. The only thing you can do is avoid putting the baby in a position to be able to bite/nip and wait until it is old enough to apply a well-behaved parrot approach for the long term. Just one thing I want to assure you of is that the baby nippinesss usually wears off on its own or can later be solved. Don't feel that by not punishing it now that it will persist. Once you can begin formal training, it can fairly easily be solved.
I had plenty of trouble with Kili & Truman as babies. I wanted to teach them things but they just wanted to play or do something else. It was just a matter of patience and working through it in small amounts that eventually lead to the awesome pets they are now. But I've gotta say the two toughest times to work through are a parrot's adolescence and babyhood. Working with an adult parrot is much more consistent and predictable. This is why I often recommend an adult rescue parrot over a baby for many people. I think (despite common prejudice) that you can have quicker success with an average rescue parrot (merely in need of a new home) than a baby parrot that is too young to train.
In conclusion, since it is nearly impossible to train an untame baby parrot during that age, the best approach is to find a source for a mature rescue parrot or an already tame baby. This gives you the advantage of being able to start your bonding and training processes immediately. Given the amount of training you can have in the first few months you keep a rescue parrot, you may well find yourself ahead of where you'd be with an untame baby that forced you to wait until you can begin training. Keep these things in mind when looking for a parrot and try to avoid getting a baby parrot that isn't already accustomed to handling.
I have been writing this book for the last half year but more importantly it is the culmination of five very intense years of parrot education, training, consulting, and performing. I've taken everything that I have learned, applied it, and then wrote down for you the essentials that you can apply to your bird. This book isn't there to teach you how to teach a million tricks or become a performer. It's about how to achieve a well-behaved parrot and ultimately a mutual relationship!
It's not that I think I know better than others, but I just was never very pleased with the other books I've read about parrot keeping. Many of them are obsolete and don't recommend best practices. But even some of the books I agree with, I just found terribly boring. They are written by experts for experts and really leave the common parrot owner in the dust. Parrot owners don't need the nitty gritty technical stuff, they need something accessible that they can apply and that will work! I understand this because I'm a pet parrot owner and it wasn't long ago that I was desperately seeking help on the most basic things.
Instead of teaching you how to do absurdly complicated tricks with your parrot, my book is there to teach you all the essential stuff from merely approaching your parrot's cage without it freaking out to being able to grab it. A lot of emphasis is placed on taming, health, safety, and other things that are essential elements of keeping a pet parrot. Also the first chapter is entirely about how to choose a parrot in the first place for folks who do not yet have one and attempts to answer the classic question, "what kind of parrot should I get?"
In my book, I tell it how it is. I don't try to sugar coat things or make a parrot owner out of everybody. The purpose is to help those who want the help and to get them to achieve a good relationship with their parrot. The book takes a very balanced approach keeping both the parrot's well-being but also the parrot owner's sanity in mind. I realize that people are busy, have other commitments, may not have the means to buy fancy stuff. That is why my book is down to earth and really about finding a way that anyone can make it work rather than a professional approach to training performing parrots.
Unlike any other parrot book I've ever come across, mine presumes that parrots are flying creatures and takes an approach to keeping them as such. Despite the recommendation of keeping them flighted, the book presents countless ways to get more out of your parrot than if it were clipped! Flight safety, flight recall training, flight trick training, and managing flighted parrots are key themes throughout the book. Even if your parrot is clipped you will find this book extremely helpful and I think it will convince you that you can still have a relationship with your parrot by allowing it to fly. Better yet, you will have a better behaved, healthier, safer, and more fun parrot than it could ever be while clipped!
Problem solving receives an entire chapter in the book. Solving problems such as biting, screaming, plucking, and even flighted related issues are extensively covered. However, the main purpose of the book is to present an approach to follow from day 1 to ensure that those problems don't arise in the first place. This information is all based on problems I have solved in my own parrots or have helped others solve with theirs.
You'll find it interesting that I barely wrote any of this book at home. It has bits written all over the world on planes, trains, and automobiles. I've been writing it on the go during my travels. Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia are some of the places I was in while writing the books. During those trips I got to observe parrots in their natural habitats so it was especially encouraging to me to help owners find the best compromise between a parrot's nature and desirable household pet qualities.
I have received much criticism of my atypical approach to using the clicker from beginners to experts alike. Many have noticed that I don't always give treats after using the clicker and that I make clicks while training two parrots simultaneously. I'd like to take a little time to explain how and why I am doing this and the impact it has on parrot training.
First of all, let's go over the typical approach to using a clicker as a bridge. At the moment the parrot does the right thing, a click is issued by the trainer using a clicker. Then at the trainers soonest convenience, a treat is given to the parrot. In other words, the clicker is a promise to give a treat as reward for the behavior being performed at the moment of the click. This is a highly effective techniques for capturing and shaping behaviors in training. Using the clicker can consistently and precisely mark the desired behavior so that the parrot can catch on and repeat it more readily.
I have used and do recommend the standard method of clicker training described above. For the vast majority of parrot owners, trainers, and performers, this may be the optimal approach. However, I have taken the clicker a step further and would like to present my method for those parrot owners and trainers that want to achieve even greater success with clicker training. The fundamental prerequisite is 6-18 months of consistent and successful clicker training using the standard method. The parrot should have already learned a bunch of different tricks and be reliable at demonstrating them. Attempting my special approach with an inadequately trained parrot will surely ruin the clicker and confuse the bird so I do not recommend this approach for most people. Only put this into effect if you have had extensive success training your parrot and want to take it one step further.
My clicker approach is made up of two parts. First is transforming the clicker from a bridge to a secondary reinforcer and the second is to use it in this way with multiple parrots simultaneously. Both of these parts require extensive successful clicker training of one bird at a time. Thereafter, either one or both of these can be applied although I would put off training two parrots simultaneously to the last. If you don't anticipate to move away from one click means one treat, you can skip to clicker training two parrots together.
The main reason I moved away from one click means one treat was because I wanted to train Kili to perform many different tricks but couldn't give her treats for everything or she would get too full. Thus I employed a variable ratio reinforcement schedule when it comes to treats. What this means is that the parrot has to complete the right behavior every time it is asked but only receives a treat some of the time at a random trial. However, one problem with doing this is that if the parrot botches one trick in the process, giving or not giving treats does not provide reliable performance feedback. With classic clicker training, not receiving a treat and likewise not receiving a click mark failure in regards to the bird's behavior. Since treats are necessary for continued motivation but providing them randomly provides poor feedback, I decided to use the clicker every time the right behavior is offered but provide food on a variable interval. Thus the clicker is used a continuous secondary reinforcer while the treats are provided on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. This works out as a perfect blend of feedback and motivation with minimal satiation and maximum success/improvement.
In this way I can have my parrot run through 10 tricks in a row, click for the 9 correct times, not click for the 1 wrong time, and provide just a single treat at a random point (but only following a correct attempt). The parrot is still told that the 9 attempts were correct and could have earned a treat, 1 attempt was wrong and should not be done that way, and motivation was maintained the entire time. Furthermore, 10 treats could be used to elicit as many as 100 iterations (and thus 100 practices of performing the right tricks the right way at the right time) instead of just 10. This is how my special clicker approach is successful and goes well beyond the classic one click one treat approach. By having 110 trick attempts, 100 correct/successful ones, and 10 incorrect unclicked ones, he parrot has 10 opportunities to learn what not to do and 100 chances to learn what to do for the same number of treats that would have only provided 10 opportunities for learning. This allows my parrots to practice more behaviors, exercise more flight, and be overall more reliable than with the standard clicker approach.
Since the clicker has been so closely associated with food from the beginning, doing things to hear clicks can become desirable and thus a conditioned reinforcer of its own. Since good things tend to happen around clicks but don't have to, the parrots are still more inclined to demonstrate clicker-worthy behavior. This is also a great way to retain motivation through very high ratio variable reinforcement. For example, if I am going to make Kili fly 20 recalls to earn a single treat, as long as she keeps getting clicks, she knows it is worthwhile to keep trying and not give up. She knows from past training that as long as she keeps getting clicks, there will be a treat offered at some point. Since there is no other way to get that treat except to keep trying, that's the course she has to take to earn it.
Keep in mind that I only use this approach while I am sustaining tricks through practice. I do revert to the more effective continuous reinforcement strategy of one click one treat when teaching a fresh new trick. Once the parrot is well accustomed, I add that trick to my list of tricks to practice using variable reinforcement.
There are times when I chain behaviors either out of convenience or because it is a trick that requires multiple components. This is another great time to employ my click for correct behavior rather than treat for every correct behavior approach. Many times when I am training tricks to my parrots, I continue having them fly recalls to me from across the room for exercise. I used to feel bad when I would divert treats away from flight recall (which is valuable exercise) and use them for trick training instead. Lately, I've come up with a much better approach where I make my parrots first fly a long recall (or several) to me just to get the opportunity to practice a new trick to earn a treat.
After years of training, both of my parrots understand very well that new tricks earn treats every time while old behaviors only some of the time (although they are easier so they love to perform them). For this reason, they are very eager to give me some flight recalls for the chance to get a guaranteed treat for learning a new trick. Plus it's simply more fun that way.
Now when it comes to chaining tricks to form a long sequence, the clicker can apply in the same way. Let's take Kili's famous stroller trick (which was performed on the Late Show with David Letterman) as an example. Clearly the complete sequence is comprised of several independent tricks that she must perform in order. First she must pickup her baby, then she must patiently hold it for demonstration, then she must take it over to her stroller (and not the bed) and place it in, then she must walk around the stroller and start pushing it, then she must stop pushing and walk around, then transfer her baby from the stroller to the crib, rock the crib, and then finally wave goodnight to baby. How do you teach such a long chain to a parrot without stopping every couple of seconds to wait for it to eat a treat? This is where the click for every correct behavior but only a treat at a random time approach proves such a success! Obviously I taught Kili the separate tricks that combine into the sequence separately, but when I was finally teaching the complete sequence, I used this exact clicker approach. A problem that I was running into was her eagerness to skip steps to jump to the end and get the one final treat for finishing the sequence. For this reason I went back to the click every correct behavior and offer a random treat to ensure that all steps in the sequence are equally rewarding. After she got really good at the trick, I returned to clicking along the way (to remind her that she is doing things right by not skipping to the end) and only giving one treat at the end. Since she won't get a treat at the end of she misses a click along the way, she learned to patiently go through the entire routine.
The final non-standard complex use of the clicker I employ is teaching two parrots simultaneously while using just one clicker. I sneaky (but too annoying) approach could be to have two different sound makers where one is for each parrot and they know their sound. I differentiate who is earning clicks through attention and eye contact. Even though I say I train the parrots together, it's not actually in the exact same moment. Normally I'll have one bird stay on its training perch while I have the other fly over to me to learn something. The parrot near me knows it is earning the clicks and not the one far away. If I have the two birds on perches next to each other, they know when I am clicking for them because I am looking at them at the time of the click. Sometimes I have them perform the same tricks at the same time. In this case I am looking in a blank way toward both of them. They are exceptionally intelligent and catch onto all of these subtleties. The important thing is that I am consistent in these methods so the specifics they learned apply each time.
Although it might seem that mixing the clicker in the ways I do would be confusing or dilute its effectiveness, this couldn't be further from the truth in reality. Parrots are so highly intelligent and catch on to things very quickly. They learn the multi-dimensional complex of the clicker based on the context they observe. It's like we can hear the sound “toooo” and still be able to understand whether we are talking about “to”, “two”, or “too”. Since my mixed clicker strategy has not resulted in a diminish in clicker effectiveness (and in fact improved it), I am certain that parrots too can learn to understand things in context.
So that is my special mixed method of parrot clicker training. Although I would not recommend anything but the one click-one-treat approach to most people, I think this article should help clarify what I do and why. Also for the select few who have taught many tricks and wish to take their training to a new level, I share my approach. Whatever clicker approach you use, as long as it is effective, the parrot is learning, and you are both having fun in the process, it is already a major success.