Why Does My Parrot Bite Me (And How To Avoid It)?

parrot bite cartoon

Your new pet bird has a world to offer you! Parrots are one of the most intelligent creatures out there but it’s also important to be prepared for incidents of parrot bite. It’s time to learn all about parrot bites and what you can do in such situations!

Parrots and birds in general are creatures of the wild. They have hardly been domesticated when compared with dogs and cats, and some instinctive traits simply cannot be eradicated. One such trait is biting, which is a natural behavior in their books. It is hence very important for a bird owner to first understand why birds bite. Know that birds do not usually have hatred or malice on their minds when they bite you – try to understand from their point of view and you will be better equipped to handle or avoid situations of your parrot biting you!

Why do parrots bite?

If you are wondering why your parrot bites you, there are some specific reasons for this behavior. A parrot’s bite stems from some particular situations, and a better understanding of them will allow us to not only create a more sustainable atmosphere for your bird but also be protective of you.

Birds are wild animals and they hardly ever bite out of malice. They will only bite as a response to a stimulus and these are what needs to be managed. Developing a negative perception about your bird simply because they bite will lead to more trouble than finding a solution. Here are some reasons that will help you understand why your parrot has bitten you or someone else:

Exploration

One of the reasons why your bird may “bite” you may be because they are exploring their surroundings. When birds are young, they may show teething behavior that many of us bird owners call “beaking”. This means that they may lightly chew on your finger or nibble on them. However, this is light and playful, and a way for them to feel the various textures.

This is not a true parrot bite and should never come with any form of negative reinforcement or punishment. However, if you start to feel that the bite force is becoming stronger and stronger, you should tell your parrot “no biting” or something similar, and gently move your hand away from your bird. Over time, the bird will start to understand that this type of hard beaking is not desired, and it will learn to do it less.

See the section about “beaking” below for more information.

A budgie exploring a finger. Image by Dominic Winkel from Pixabay

Unfamiliarity

As the bird gets older, they start to identify members of the family as the flock who are safe and do not come as a source of threat to them. At such a juncture, those they don’t know may count as a threat which may lead to biting. Your bird may even find certain members of the family to be aversive for reasons that may not be obvious to you, which can also lead to biting. 

One of the easiest ways for you to start training your bird to like someone they do not like is to reserve a special treat only for that person to use. The person can offer the bird the special treat when the bird has provided a positive interaction experience to the person.

Generally speaking, it is best to never let guests or children handle your bird without your supervision. Unfamiliar people definitely counts as a threat for your bird who may resort to biting if they feel unsafe. The exception is if your bird is very well-socialized, having met various people on a regular basis, and is relatively comfortable with the unknown. Even so, you should be present to watch any potential events that might make your bird feel like it is in danger, which could result in biting.

Between my three birds, Bibi the conure is the most well-socialized bird. He loves to fly towards any new visitor of the house and perch on their shoulder. However, he is often very excited and might still nip at people. So far, he has never allowed anyone else except me to handle him with hands (e.g. to step-up). This is something that can be difficult to train, as often, people fear the pain of Bibi’s bite and hence dare not continue trying the step-up training.

Conversely, Freya is the most fearful of the three. She is often easily spooked by something passing the window. It takes her time to be comfortable with unfamiliar people around the house. She has improved over time, although she is still not as friendly as Bibi yet.

Self-defense or Protectiveness

Birds are protective by nature. They can show protectiveness towards their play stand, cage, or even you. They like to protect what they consider their own and have an affinity towards it. For example, if your parrot is protective about its cage, it may try to bite if someone keeps their hand on it. This is simply to signal the person to stay away from the cage and respect the bird’s space.

Similarly, if your bird has become protective of you, biting is a means by which it might want to let this protectiveness be known. It may bite you not only for attention but also to keep you from others who are perceived as rivals or threats. It may also bite others who come too close to you for its liking, in order to chase them away.

This is something I manage on a daily basis. All three of my parrots are bonded to me, which means that each of them consider me their own best friend. However, when I let them all out for flying in the house and for playtime, they each want to stay by my side, but don’t want the other birds to be near me. This often results in territorial behavior or full attacks (which has caused some injuries before!) which I always try to prevent. Occasionally, the only means to stop an attack is to use my own hands to separate the birds, which results in my self getting bitten!

Not all multi-bird homes have dynamics like mine. This is really the result of each bird being bonded to me rather than interacting together as a flock. There are pros and cons to this, which I might discuss in a separate post.

Is my parrot biting or “beaking” me?

Before you start correcting the behavior of your parrot, you need to be able to differentiate between a parrot bite and when they are simply beaking you. When your parrot simply places its mouth on your hand or other body parts and applies a gentle force, it is known as a beaking behavior and is quite different from a bite.

Since the beak is used for various other activities like grasping things, maintaining balance, and more, beaking can be isolated from biting. The reason why you should know the difference between a bite and beaking so that you can differentially react to them, to reinforce the right behavior. 

Here, a cockatoo has its beak around someone’s finger, but its tongue is also out, so I daresay it’s just licking the finger and not really biting! Image by Elias Nössing from Pixabay

Why does beaking take place?

Just like biting, there are various reasons why birds use their beak. Firstly, birds often use their beak in order to test branches and other places that they might step up on. In doing so they can check the physical rigidity of the surface and climb structures without falling. When you observe how parrots move around, they use not only their feet to get to various places, but also their beaks as a “third foot” to reach out or climb up and down. Hence, another reason why the bird is reaching out with its beak is because it wants to support itself while getting from one place to another.

This is something that might also do when perching on the owner’s shoulder or hands before they step up. For new and inexperienced bird owners this might seem as if the bird is going to bite you but it may not always be the case.

Thirdly, a bird’s tongue, just like our tongues, has a number of nerve endings. They use the tongue not only to sense taste but also the texture. Hence the beak is often used to evaluate items in their texture, especially if it is a novel stimulus. For example, if you are wearing different clothing or holding something that is new, this may intrigue the bird, who may then use its beak and tongue to scrutinize it. 

Undoubtedly being beaked by a bird is not a pleasant sensation if you don’t understand the reasons behind it. However, it is important to be able to differentiate it from a true bite. Being able to differentiate between the two will allow you to understand your bird better. 

What counts as a true bite?

Before starting to wonder why your parrot bites you, you must understand what a true bite actually entails. A parrot will essentially only bite if it is feeling vulnerable or frightened. Most often when parrots bite it is not because they are aggressive. Biting is not necessarily a dominant behavior but a protective act, especially since parrots are prey animals. It is majorly used as a self-defense strategy.

A true parrot bite is generally very quick and quite hard. A parrot can pack a lot of force in a singular bite which may lead to an injury. When a parrot bites, it is often accompanied with ruffled feathers and other body signals like eye pinning. This is usually a signal for you to maintain distance from your bird as it might be needing more space. At times it might also be a simple act of self-defense which generally leads to some sort of injury. This injury is a telltale sign of whether you were being beaked or bitten. 

Why is my tame parrot suddenly biting me?

Even when birds are domesticated and have never had any incidences of biting before, you might suddenly experience them biting you. It might be induced because of some unfavorable stimuli which might leave you shocked. For bird owners who have never had a history of biting before, it might come out of nowhere and leave you a little rattled. However, it is important to understand why even a tame bird can sometimes bite, even if it seems out of character. Here are some situations that might be responsible for your tame bird to suddenly start biting:

When something in the vicinity has changed

Ask yourself if you have changed the location of the cage or re-arranged any of the toys. Many owners have also reported biting behavior from their parrots after they have changed their appearance, such as after a major haircut, dyed hair, or even after applying nail polish! See video below where Loki and Freya both became wary of the bandage on my thumb and wanted to bite it!

Loki and Freya are NOT liking my new bandage. You can tell that their body language is a bit tense, especially with Loki where she is crouched down low and ready to lunge! Freya’s eyes were also pinning a little bit when I moved my thumb – another sign of an impending attack!

When your bird is not receiving the right nutrition

A number of behavioral problems in birds can be because of an unbalanced diet. A nutritional deficit in birds leads to various problems such as difficulty molting, irritability, lack of energy, grumpiness, and more. It might become frustrating to change your bird’s diet from seeds and treats to more wholesome meals, even though it leads to a great end result. However, make sure to research and consult with your vet before beginning the journey. You do not want to change your bird’s diet, only to make it unhealthier. 

Hormonal or seasonal changes

This is an important factor that you must be aware of. Depending on the species of your parrot, the age at which it reaches sexual maturity changes. When parrots reach sexual maturity, it is accompanied by various hormonal changes that may lead to frustration and irritability in your bird. Such hormonal changes can take place during particular seasons.

You must understand those things that stimulate your bird’s hormones and it needs to be kept away. Otherwise, it can lead to an unnecessary trigger for their sexual instincts. It might also become necessary to provide your parrot with more space than usual during these seasons lest they become overstimulated. Conversely, the attention can also be shifted to other activities such as playing or training that can deter frustration-based biting. 

Illness or Physical injury

Before trying to understand the behavioral pattern of your parrot that might have led to biting, it is important to rule out injury or illness. If your bird is particularly not feeling well, it might not want to have interactions and can bite if forced to do so. A tame bird suddenly biting or avoiding contact, maybe doing so because of some illness. If you notice your bird being out of sorts and lethargic, it should be taken to the vet immediately. 

What to do (and not to do!) when your parrot bites

A parrot’s bite is no joke because it can lead to injury and even cause infection and bleeding. Understanding why your parrot bites needs to be followed with remedial actions as well as proper behavior that will terminate this. Here are a few things you can do to stop biting from happening in the future. 

Do: Be calm

If your bird bites you, it is important to stay calm! This is especially so for parrots that are relatively new and a bond has not formed between you and the bird yet. You can rebuke it firmly, only using words such as “no”. You can consider to drop your tone of voice and hold out a finger as a sign of disapproval. Over time, the parrot may learn that when your tone of voice drops and you hold out your finger, it means no biting.

Don’t: React in a big way!

One such way is to simply ignore the behavior. Some parrots interpret a yelp of pain or large movements or reactions to a bite as rewarding. This leads to them possibly biting more later on. When the parrot understands that biting is not resulting in attention or satiation, it might stop.

Do: analyze the situation

Often, your parrot bites you as a way to communicate with you. It is trying to tell you that there is something that it is experiencing negatively. It can be something you did, something near it that it did not like, or something that happened out of your sight but was seen by your parrot. It can be a combination of various things. Each time your bird lunges to bite, try to take a quick glance around and make a note of what you have observed, and then spot trends to narrow down the reasons why it bites.

For example, I usually use a T-stand perch to let Freya step up on, then bring her into her cage. During a period of time, Freya was very averse to the T-stand and would scream loudly and fly away and around the house. It was very difficult to put her back as anything I tried during such episodes would 100% end up in a painful bite.

I paid more attention to what goes on and figured out something else. The T-stand perch is rather bulky, and very often, after putting her into her cage, the perch would either brush against, or bump onto the cage. Freya would turn around and growl or lunge at the perch. It has happened so many times that Freya preempts the bumping sound even if I did not actually bump it, and lunges anyway. Previously, I had thought that she did it because she hated the T-stand and associated it with being put back in her cage, which she probably did not like.

However, when I was careful not to bump the T-stand against the cage, the incidences of her attacking the T-stand or turning around and growling at it, reduced. I figured out that what she hadn’t liked was the experience of the T-stand bumping into the cage, rather than the fact of being put back in. I continued being careful and now she is less averse to the T-stand!

Don’t: Push the boundaries!

As mentioned earlier, parrots are prey animals and may sometimes behave defensively. If they do so, it is a sign of them telling you that you are encroaching upon their boundaries. In such a situation, trying to push your limit is not going to improve the situation. A cornered bird will most definitely bite out of fear or frustration.

This is often observed in nesting bird couples. Some of them start to rear up and fluff up their feathers when you approach too closely to their cage or nest box. In this situation if you ignored these signs and tried putting your hand near them anyway, you would undoubtedly receive a bite, as they are trying to protect their area and their young.

Do: Train your bird patiently to understand not to bite

A method that many owners find useful is to apply the “time-out” method after the parrot bites. This works for some parrots but not others, and it highly depends on the situation.

The time-out method refers to putting the bird back into the cage after it bites you, and allowing it to spend some time alone to calm down in its cage for a few minutes, before you approach it and interact with it again. Generally, this can be a good way to tell the parrot that biting is not pleasant and results in no playtime. Plus, you approaching it later after it has calmed down serves as a reward for staying calm. Eventually they may get the message that biting is not getting them anywhere, but staying calm is.

On the other hand, if the parrot bites you because it does not want to interact with you, putting it back into the cage only serves to reinforce the biting behavior. The next time it wants to get away from you, it is more likely to bite you as it is “rewarded” by you putting it back into the cage and moving away from it.

Here I reiterate that it is very important to pay attention to your bird’s behavior and try to find the reasons why it behaves in certain ways, in order to apply the right methods to improve its discipline.

Don’t: Be abusive or hurt your bird!

If you get bitten by your parrot, it is important to stay calm and not hit your parrot or grab it by its beak. Many experienced parrot owners advise to flick the bird’s beak with your finger, but this hardly works as it is a very negative experience for the bird. This is called positive punishment, which may sound counterintuitive, but it basically means that something is added (positive) to the interaction that results in an undesirable experience or consequence (punishment).

While it depends on the individual bird, I personally find that positive punishment hardly works for parrots, and one that has a painful or physical consequence is even less effective. Any act of aggression on your behalf will only frighten or excite them even more which will worsen the biting behavior. For smaller parrots, you might not be aware of the strength you apply or degree of pain you inflict upon them if you grab their beaks or flick them. This can lead to them becoming even more fearful of you and as a result, bite you even more when you approach.

If all else fails…

Some parrots, due to negative experiences with humans or prior trauma, take a long time to become comfortable with new owners. If your bird is one such type, understand that it may take a lot more patience, effort, and discipline on your part to gain its trust and reduce biting. I have noticed that with Freya, who is an easily fearful bird, the more time I spend with her creating positive experiences, the less she bites me. Any aversive behavior from me can quickly erase weeks or months of trust building, and I would have to build it up all over again.

However it is understandable that you may encounter situations where you may need to quickly handle your bird. For example, someone rings the doorbell and you can only open the door if your bird is back safely in its cage. In such mini “emergencies”, consider getting an interesting toy or treat to distract your bird and lure them into their cage. It has worked most of the time for me!

Parrot bite force

The extent of a parrot’s bite force depends on factors like the size as well as the structure of your bird’s beak. Some birds that have the worst bite include larger parrots like macaws, cockatoos, and more. However, don’t underestimate the bites of small or medium parrots – they have enough bite force to cause broken skin and bleeding as well, which is always unpleasant for anyone!

Parrots can bite in two ways (according to my personal, painful experience): either a quick, hard pinch, which often results in the tip of the beak piercing the skin, or a “bite and hold on” with repeated hard chews using the side of its beak. The first one is sharp and surprising, but does not result in long-lasting pain, but the second one can bring tears to the eyes instantly, and resulting in bleeding, skin tears, or bruising.

The level of pain and extent of injury also sometimes depends on whether your bird has recently been sharpening its beak! Sometimes, I have received a bite just after they have rubbed their beaks against their perch that resulted in a polished, angled edge that cuts skin easily.

Here is a forum discussion about parrot bite force. One interesting point raised there is to not obsess over how painful parrot bites can be, but rather, focus on corrective actions to avoid being bitten!

Can parrot bites cause infection?

Sometimes, though rarely, it is possible to have an infection caused by a parrot bite which is popularly called parrot fever or psittacosis. However, for you to catch this infection, the bird has to already be infected as well. The most common symptoms of this ailment are fever, nausea, cough, fatigue, diarrhea, and body pain. If you suspect yourself or your bird to be infected with this, always seek advice from a doctor (for yourself) or a vet (for your bird).

Other than zoonotic diseases, infection can result from secondary causes, such as the wound not being cleaned or treated properly, or coming into contact with contaminants or allergens that exacerbate the condition.

How to treat a bird bite

Depending If the bite breaks your skin, it should be cleaned and irrigated immediately. Depending on the severity of the wound, you can consider different treatment methods. For minor cuts and superficial skin tears, you can put a small bandage to protect it from inflammation. I often also use aloe vera gel to soothe the area and to speed up healing. Of course, for major cuts or deep cuts, you should visit the hospital or a local clinic to get the wound treated or stitched

In cases of secondary infections or possible zoonotic transmission (bird diseases being spread to you via the wound), you might also consider more thorough checks upon the advice of your doctor and plan a course of treatment.

Final notes

So, now you know all that is important about a bird bite. Remember it’s all about treating your bird with respect and love. Punishment and harsh words may not do much against a parrot bite, as would a strategic plan for behavior modification. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Parrots don’t generally bite out of malice or aggression. Their biting behavior is generally caused due to either a protective instinct or for self-defense reasons
  • There is a difference between a parrot bite and when your parrot is beaking you. Beaking should not be punished and should be differentially treated from a bite. 
  • If you are wondering how to train a parrot not to bite, there are various methods for behavior modifications that you can follow. 
  • Parrot bites generally don’t cause infections unless the parrot itself has a zoonotic disease.

With kindness and love, you will soon be able to understand why your parrot is biting you, and find ways to train it not to bite!

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