Understand Your African Grey Biting
Believe it or not, biting in an African Grey Parrot is not the norm. African Greys in the wild seldom bite each other. So why is it that this seems to be an issue with pet birds? Very simply, it is because of a behavior problem and one that can and should be corrected for the enjoyment (and safety) of both the bird and the bird’s owner.
African Grey biting is a learned behavior. We, as the bird owner, need to learn to understand their body language, learn to control our own reactions to the bite (and yes, getting bitten by that beak can hurt!), and learn to teach and encourage our African Grey what is appropriate and acceptable behavior. To be able to do this, we need to understand what can cause an African Grey to bite.
Common Causes of African Grey Biting
Fear: one of the most common causes of biting is out of fear. The “fight-or-flight” response is a normal reaction used by animals if they are afraid or hurt. Birds out in the wild usually take flight if something startles or scares them. Some birds that live with us have clipped wings, and to them flight is not an option, so they may bite if they are afraid or hurt.
Control / Territorial Dominance: Your bird may be protecting his territory which could be his cage, his toys, another bird, or the human that he has bonded to.
Hormonal: Just like in humans (especially teenagers!) birds experience hormonal changes. During molting periods or breeding season, your African Grey may become irritable, moody, and tense which could lead to biting. Be respectful of their moods during these periods and leave your bird alone when they don’t want your attention.
Medical: If a bird doesn’t feel well, they often want to be left alone, no different than us humans. If your bird starts biting or you see other changes such as eating or playing less, have your bird examined by an avian veterinarian.
Playing: Your bird may occasionally bite while it is playing. This can occur if the bird is overexcited, or unexpectedly grabs some part of you to keep his balance.
Lack of Attention: Birds who are ignored and left in their cages for extended periods of time may take their frustration out by biting. Give your bird attention and time out of the cage that it needs and deserves.
Baby Bird Behavior: Just like any other baby, a baby bird is going to explore. During this time it is learning how to use its beak and doesn’t realize the strength they possess. It is important during this stage of a young bird’s life to set the boundaries and teach them not to bite. Remember it is a baby and does not know what pain its bite can cause, so try not to react by yelling – we’re dealing with parrots here and they do love drama – gently but firmly tell them NO and lightly blow in their face. Don’t let your baby bird nibble on your fingers, ears, toes as it encourages them to continue to do this throughout their lives; distract them with a foot toy, food, etc. Be consistent with your teachings during this stage of their lives as you would with any other baby so they don’t get confused.
Now that you have a better understanding of why your African Grey may bite what do you do? How do you best handle the situation so as not to encourage this behavior?
What to Do When Your African Grey Bites
Make sure you comprehend why your bird is biting. Some of the common causes listed above are common sense so we will not make light of your intelligence and only touch on the ones that we should.
Correct Fear Biting
If he is biting out of fear, figure out what made him afraid. While it might not seem logical to you why they’re afraid of it, they are. It could be something in their past that they were taught to be afraid of – I once had a rescued bird that was petrified of a broom and would attack whomever had it. Even though we tried to patiently work with him, he never overcame that fear and had to be taken to a different area of the house whenever we swept the floor.
So once the cause of fear is isolated you have two options:
- Avoid exposing the bird to it.
- If this is not possible, work with the bird by exposing it to it from a long distance where they are not showing fear but can still see the object. Over the course of a few days (in some cases weeks), slowly move closer but stay far enough away where your bird is still calm. Give them positive reinforcement with praise or a treat. They may then learn to associate it with good things, thus lose their fear of it.
Correct Control / Territorial Dominance Biting
In your relationship with your African Grey parrot, you should be established as the “head of the flock” and he should already be trained to step up onto your hand when asked to do so. Birds react to facial expressions and praise. So if your parrot is biting very simply you should:
- Calmly and firmly (not loudly, remember no drama) say “No” and then
- Give your bird the “evil eye” – meaning a very dirty look and he will know you’re not pleased with him
- Then do what is known as “laddering”. This is where you calmly and firmly (yes once again!) tell your bird to “step up” and then have them do this over and over in a row (approx. 3 to 4 times).
You will be amazed at the difference. What this does is put you back in control and remind your African Grey that you are the “head of the flock”, not him. You must be consistent with this technique and if you are, the biting should stop.
What You Shouldn’t Do If Your Parrot Bites
First of all, above all things, DO NOT REACT BY YELLING! This is known as the Drama Reaction and birds love drama and yelling. They think it is a fantastic response and are actually fascinated by it so will bite just to get this “reward” from you.
Next, never under any circumstances, use any type of violence with your bird. Do not grab their beak and shake it, don’t throw them on the floor or run back to their cage and slam them into it. Even if there is no physical harm done, you have damaged their trust in you, therefore damaging your relationship with the bird.
Also, don’t punish the bird by putting it in its cage because by the time you get him there it’s pretty much a fact that he’s already forgotten what he did and doesn’t make the connection between biting you and getting locked up. Of course, by doing this, he can’t bite you again, but you haven’t taught him anything about NOT biting.
Learn to read your bird’s body language—it will tell you how your African Grey is feeling and will help you avoid situations where your Grey may bite. This knowledge will help your bird be what we like to call around our house a “happy bird.”