Bad Bird Gone Good

Pet owners often have to be trained to not inadvertently reward and encourage bad behavior in pet birds.


Learning how to train a pet properly is generally considered one of the hardest yet most important concepts for pet owners and anyone in the pet industry to master. Still, since no one wants an ill-trained pet that behaves badly, anyone that sells pets and pet products should invest time into learning effective training methods that they can teach new owners.

To help us understand and train intelligent species like parrots, comparisons can be made between parrots and toddlers. For example, when a toddler throws a tantrum to get attention and the parent reacts—even negatively—the child is being “rewarded” to some degree with the attention he craves. The same principle applies when a parrot screams for attention. By yelling back at the bird, the pet owner has rewarded the bird for screaming. The pet is doubly rewarded if the owner comes into its room, as well. The bird does not understand that it is being yelled at—it believes the owner is yelling with it.

It seems completely counterintuitive that birds can construe owners’ negative reactions to their bad behaviors as a reward, but that is what is happening. It is difficult to stop an unwanted behavior such as yelling or biting once it has been reinforced, albeit accidentally.

Parrots are naturally loud creatures, especially early in the morning and at dusk as they gather to settle in for the night. Stay in a place where there are wild parrots, and chances are you will not need an alarm clock. Covering a parrot until the owner wakes up in the morning is fine, knowing the bird will be vocal for a while after it wakes up. Birds also make contact calls, where they will call out lightly to locate a mate or flock members. When a pet parrot in captivity can hear but cannot see its owner, it will keep calling out, louder and louder, until it hears the owner call back. The owner should whistle back or call out quietly to the bird right away. The owner can even teach the bird a particular contact call or whistle that the owner will know to respond to quickly—this prevents the pet from learning that it has to get loud to get the reaction it wants.

Contact calling and even getting a bit loud—mainly early and late in the day—may be a natural parrot behavior, but screaming all day is not. A bird that does so was rewarded for it one way or another, and unfortunately, it is very difficult behavior to stop. The owner needs to figure out how the yelling has been reinforced. Typically, the behavior was reinforced by yelling back at the bird. The pet owner then needs to stop giving the pet any attention when it yells. At first, the bird will just keep yelling louder and longer, since it is used to getting the attention it wants that way, so the owner will have to be extremely patient and maybe even use earplugs.

Ignoring an unwanted behavior is the best and only good way to stop it. Punishing the bird by throwing objects at the cage, hitting or shaking the cage, waving your hands close to the cage, or tapping the bird lightly on the bill or body only will make the bird fearful of you and your hands, causing another behavior most parrot owners wish to avoid—biting.

Besides fear, other factors that can cause a bird to bite are stress, hormones or even boredom. However, it is not a parrot’s natural tendency to bite hard, unless it is feeling really frightened. In fact, a bird may nip at first, then nip harder, and then finally bite as a last resort because the owner did not realize that the bird was troubled or being forced to do something scary or undesirable.

As with yelling, an owner may also unintentionally reward a bird for biting. For example, my husband decided to keep the oldest of a clutch of kakarikis, a New Zealand parakeet, for a pet last summer. These birds are highly energetic, fearless and very curious. This young male, appropriately named Rascal, would often sit on my husband’s shoulder as they babbled to each other. However, after a while, my husband would get caught up with something on TV, and Rascal soon discovered that if he chewed on his hair, particularly his beard, he would get attention. When chewing on his hair did not work, Rascal found that pulling the hair harder and biting his ears, would get him lots of attention. My husband inadvertently taught Rascal to become a biter.

Stress is another trigger for biting in pet birds. New situations, people, noises and so on can stress them. Health issues or a lack of sleep can also stress birds, which need around 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

Parrots can also become stressed when their owners are upset, angry or stressed, so it is important to avoid being around the pet when feeling this way. If a bird is stressed and trying to bite, try to figure out what is disturbing the bird, and if possible remove the cause of the stress. Birds can adapt, but they do need time.

Parrots can become territorial around their cage or even with their owner, leading them to bite. They sometimes learn that if they bite, they can stay where they are. Young birds will sometimes test their boundaries on occasion by first chewing lightly on the finger and then biting harder to a point where the owner reacts, inadvertently rewarding the bird with more attention. If a bird reaches for a finger with its bill to steady itself or to climb up on a hand, that is fine. But if the bird is starting to nibble on the finger, stop the behavior before it escalates.

The only exception may be with African grey parrots, which seem to like to mouth their owners’ fingers. However, if it gets to a point where any pressure is being used, stop it immediately by putting the bird down on the floor or somewhere other than on its cage, and ignore it for a moment. Saying “no” in a firm but not loud voice can be effective, as well. Do this every time, and the bird will stop nibbling or biting.

Owners also need to be on the look out for when a bird hits sexual maturity or becomes excitable. The easiest way to spot if a bird is hormonal, excitable or agitated is to look at the bird’s eyes and feathers. The bird’s pupils get very small—called pinning—making the iris look huge, and the feathers in front of the head and other areas will rise or fan out. It almost appears as if the bird is possessed. Forcing the parrot to come out during this time will only go badly for both the bird and its owner, so it is best to just leave the pet alone.

Super-smart parrots can get bored easily, so owners need to be aware of what their bird is doing and to give attention when needed. One of the best ways to do this and help avoid bad behaviors such as yelling and biting is by training the bird. All pet parrots should know the step-up command, just like a puppy should be able to sit when asked. To do this, use positive reinforcement training by offering treats and lots of praise, especially at the beginning, and train a few times a day for only a few minutes. Owners can teach the bird other tricks as well, and training is literally only limited by our imaginations when working with such an amazing and intelligent animal.

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.

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