Aggression in Parrots

Although parrots rarely bite in the wild, aggressive behaviour is often used to protect resources like a nest site/territory, food, a mate, etc. However, rather than physical contact, body language and vocalisations are usually enough to successfully drive away the intruder.
Bobbie tells Ollie, “Enter at your peril!”

Consider too, the average human caretaker who is often forceful or dominating in their approach to the parrot. Words often used are “command” not “ask”, disregard of body language (“oh, he’s only bluffing”), pushing a hand into the bird’s chest to make him step up, scooping him up to put him into a carrier, catching him up in a towel to clip his claws, and so on.

In the wild there is unlimited space for a parrot to flee to safety, but in a house, a cage, a small aviary or if the bird’s wings have been clipped, fleeing is difficult if not impossible. Often the only way a parrot can defend himself is by showing “aggressive” behaviour or biting.

We need to be more aware and sensitive in our approach.

Note: “aggressive” is in quotation marks because it is a construct, ie. a hypothetical mental cause. We don’t know for sure if the parrot is feeling “aggressive”. Someone else might label the exact same behaviour as “fearful” or even “excited”. It could be a mixture of all three. We can’t do anything about labels or constructs but we can work with observable behaviour, such as biting or any body language leading up to it.

Body Language

By heeding the parrot’s body language, we can often diffuse escalating unwanted behaviour. Birds are extremely aware of our own body language since it is their primary way of communicating. They are aware of our body language 100% of the time. We, on the other hand, are not so aware of theirs – we are busy watching TV, working on the computer, cooking the evening meal, etc.

Try to be aware of what the bird is doing all the time – his body language. Most birds will show body language to say “back off” or “I’m no longer comfortable”. It is up to us to heed it. If we consistently ignore the bird’s body language, eventually he won’t bother to give any and that’s when people say their parrot bit/attacked out of nowhere.

Sometimes changes in body language are so small they are almost imperceptible, but they are usually always there. You might see him breathe a little heavier, grip a little tighter, eyes might widen a little, his head might move back slightly or his whole body may lean away, his eyes might momentarily dart looking for an escape route.  The way he holds his feathers on certain parts of the body is a big give away – watch for changes – the feathers might rise or flatten depending on the individual. The bare skin on a Macaw’s face might flush pink. The bird might open his beak wide over and over (sometimes called gaping). Or you could get a full-on, standing tall, eyes pinning, raised head feathers, spread tail, or maybe crouching forward, beak open. These behaviours could be attributed to aggressive, excited or fearful but they all likely mean “I’m not comfortable” or “back off!”

With Kobe the Pionus, the times to watch out is if the feathers on his head and upper shoulders rise. That is my cue to back off and look away. I don’t want any conflict.  With Kobe I know that direct eye contact in these times makes matters worse. I have found I can diffuse the situation further by also saying something he says when he is relaxed which is just a soft “huh”. He often answers with something and all is ok again.

Do not touch if you value your fingers!
Kobe gaping (opening beak wide over and over) – back off!

Prevent the behaviour happening in the first place by changing the antecedent

Ask yourself, “what did I do immediately before the aggressive response? How can I do it differently next time?” If you don’t change your own behaviour, you are teaching the bird to respond aggressively in the future.

Perhaps you approached the parrot whilst she was in or on her cage and you were met with aggressive body language such as biting at the cage bars or lunging. One solution might be to move the cage where people don’t have to walk right beside or directly towards it. I have also zig zagged towards an occupied cage and also a hanging playgym pretending to be going somewhere else.

If the problem is cleaning the cage, remove the bird first. If that is not possible, move slowly so as not to reinforce his chasing of your hands/the cloth. Work on teaching him how to target/station to a perch in another part of the cage. This was how I dealt with the disabled Panama Amazon, Chico’s extremely aggressive (climbing the bars and lunging) response to me when he first arrived. I also found singing to him softly as I cleaned seemed to calm him and let him know where I was since he is almost blind. He now stations for the head rubs I never imagined being able to give him. Anything is possible when you are able to start pairing your presence with good experiences!

Note: the head rubs are on his terms – I paired them with a short rolling trill, as he can’t see. The trill has become a cue – I trill, Chico puts his head down, and I give him his head rub. That way we understand each other – no need for him to startle and bite.

Chico stationing which I will reinforce every so often for a head rub so that I can clean the bars on the other side of the cage in peace

Be careful not to over excite the parrot when playing with him – over excitement can so quickly tip over into aggression/biting. If he’s getting over excited, stop play/freeze for a few seconds to let him calm down.

Resource guarding might be a problem – attacking the hand if it comes to close to the food bowl or a toy etc. It is easy to get a bird to station (the same as targeting) on a perch the opposite end of the cage for a lovely treat whilst you slot in or take out the food bowls.

If she is likely to attack/bite feet make sure everyone wears slippers/shoes. It is totally possible to gradually desensitize her to feet/toes. I did that with Bobbie the Red-lored Amazon. She would seek out my toes and bite them, especially if I had my feet up on the sofa. I caught the behaviour very early and covered my feet with a blanket. Gradually over a couple of weeks I slowly uncovered them in small stages, always stopping and covering again way before she even thought about biting them. Eventually there was no need for the blanket and I can now give her head rubs with my toes.

Does the bird defend nesting sites, say in the kitchen, making it difficult for humans to go into that room? There is a video of an Umbrella Cockatoo doing exactly that. Remove access to any perceived nesting sites – close off gaps, remove boxes, and don’t allow access to the cupboards. Make other places like playstands more enriching with toys and foraging opportunities so that the bird will choose to explore these instead.

Are visitors in danger of being attacked? Keep the bird caged for the duration of the visit… ie. make the unwanted behaviour impossible to do. Plus, don’t allow the visitors to go up to the cage if it makes the bird uncomfortable/causes an aggressive response. It is up to you to protect him.

When interacting with the bird keep your energy levels calm.

The aforementioned solutions have one thing in common. They are all antecedent changes. They take place before the behaviour. Antecedents cue or set the stage for the behaviour to happen. Once a bird has bitten/attacked, it is too late to do anything about it. The deed is done. Punishment is not going to change anything, and will in fact make matters worse.

Punishment

Punishment, 1, doesn’t work long term which is why the punishment usually escalates, and 2, has its own fall outs, which include aggression (the very response you are trying to address!), apathy, and fear even to the point of phobia.  Plus, do you really want to be pairing yourself with aversives? It means that you will be associated with the punishment which is a sure-fire way to lose the trust of your bird.

Instead of punishing the behaviour, there are other much more effective ways to address it. We’ve already looked at changing the antecedents, let’s briefly discuss using negative reinforcement/CAT.

Negative reinforcement and CAT

CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment) can be an effective procedure to address extreme fear or aggressive responses, and/or where desensitization and counter conditioning isn’t working.

The first task is to figure out what the parrot is getting by using aggressive (or fearful) behaviour. If it is to get you to move away, CAT might be a good tool to try.

CAT is based on negative reinforcement training. In a nutshell, it is reinforcing a desired behaviour by removing the aversive stimulus – which is exactly what the parrot wants. Often times that aversive stimulus is a human, but it can also be an object the bird is afraid of.

It takes a skilful trainer to be able to read the very slight changes in body language and to get the timing spot on. If you don’t get these absolutely right, you can make the situation worse so it might be better to work with a behaviourist clued up on CAT.

CAT – the shaping procedure

You (the aversive stimulus) would start at a distance from the parrot where his body language remains relaxed.

Take a step or two towards the bird until he begins to show the very beginnings of uncomfortable body language – maybe breathing a little heavier, eyes widening, maybe a tiny change in the way he is holding his feathers. Any more than this mild response and you’ve gone too far.

Stand at this sub-threshold distance until the bird begins to relax and offer other behaviours like turning his head to look at other things, shifting his weight on the perch, rousing his feathers or even preening. Immediately reinforce any of these alternative behaviours by turning around and walking back to your starting point (removing the aversive stimulus).

Repeat this step/approximation at the same distance until the bird remains consistently relaxed.

Then move on to the next approximation which is to slightly decrease the distance between you, i.e. walk and stand slightly closer to the bird, never eliciting any more than the very lowest level of discomfort. Again, wait until he offers any other desired alternative behaviour and immediately reinforce (timing has to be spot on!) by turning round and walking back to your starting point.

Repeat this approximation at the same distance until the bird remains consistently relaxed… and so on, getting gradually closer to the bird.

Keep training sessions short as there is a low level of stress involved – maybe 5 to 10 minutes, here and there through the day. The reason for shaping different interactive behaviours is because you want the bird to feel comfortable enough to move around at your approach rather than freeze to the spot.

If you have used CAT correctly there will be a point during the training where the bird will start to offer only relaxed body language. That’s when you can gently switch to using positive reinforcement, maybe by offering a favourite treat to reinforce the relaxed body language.

Note: I have never used CAT as I am only just learning about it. However I have used negative reinforcement, which is very similar, to approach a fearful parrot with great success.

Other strategies

What acceptable behaviours can our parrot do? How can we arrange the environment so that he is successful?

Differential reinforcement

This is putting an unwanted behaviour on extinction (ie. never reinforcing it) and instead, reinforcing another more acceptable behaviour. It is important the acceptable behaviour is already known so that it can immediately be cued. Cue and highly reinforce the desired behaviour before the aggressive behaviour is likely to occur or escalate. Instead of biting, cue the bird to pick up a favourite toy, or instead of lunging at your hands when you ask for a step up, have him follow a target out of the cage for a lovely treat.

Increase the bird’s repertoire of behaviours

The more behaviours the parrot can do, the more choice you have to cue in that moment.

Training

This is where training is a wonderful tool.  Teaching the parrot a new behaviour can be reinforcing for both of you. Start with something easy, like targeting. Targeting is touching an object (perhaps the end of a chopstick or toy) with a body part (perhaps a beak or foot) for a reinforcer (a treat often works well). It can be taught inside or outside the cage. When shaping any new behaviour there is plenty of opportunity to earn reinforcement. And because you are the one providing the reinforcers, the bird will also begin to look forward to your presence.

Ollie targets the end of a chopstick

Get the whole family involved in target training so that each person can provide reinforcers and therefore be paired with a good experience for the parrot. Even if the parrot has pair bonded with another family member, you can still build your own special relationship with the bird through training. Note – training will likely be more successful without the favoured person in the room, at least to start with.

Other ways of keeping your parrot occupied

Think about what he can be doing whilst you watch TV, work on the computer, cook dinner, etc. Does he have somewhere to hang out on? Maybe a large spring swing hanging from the ceiling (which takes up no floor space), or a play stand on wheels with favourite toys tied onto it? Or foraging opportunities? Make his environment interesting. If he is busy there is less time for aggressive behaviours.

A busy Bobbie

I have had many years of what I originally perceived as “hormonal aggression” with Kobe the Blue-headed Pionus. However, it is interesting that at night when he gets treats, head rubs and praise for going into his night cage, there is/has been no aggression at all – ever! I think it is because at night he is being successful and earning reinforcers. I just expanded the idea of being successful into the day time too.

Hormones

Aggression is often blamed on hormones, however hormones or not, the rules of behaviour (i.e. cause and effect) still apply. If you/your arm wasn’t there, you/it wouldn’t get bitten/attacked etc. A parrot certainly can be more sensitive to cause and effect when hormones are surging. Throw in access to perceived nesting site and/or unhealthy pair bonding with one human member of the family and you can definitely have a problem as the bird tries to drive off the rest of the family.

What can we do to address hormones?

Discourage unhealthy pair bonding with one family member. Be a good friend to your parrot and encourage him to play independently, to sit by you, not on you. No stroking your bird anywhere apart from the head and possibly neck. Baby parrots allow you to do anything with them, but it is different when they begin to grow up and look to become more independent – all the tactile cuddling starts to mean something very different.

Encourage all family members to interact with the parrot in a healthy way e.g. by positive reinforcement training. A parrot will choose to interact with a person who provides reinforcing consequences.

Remove all perceived nest sites. Boxes, access to small dark places like drawers, cupboards, the gap under the sofa or behind cushions, playing with the bird under sheets or blankets, etc., can be a real problem.

Bobbie in a box
Kobe in a cupboard – his body language is already saying, “do not touch!”

Make sure the bird has plenty of exercise to get rid of pent-up energy. Flying in particular will use a lot of energy, and release feel good endorphins. Using the muscles and bones connected with the process of flying will also help protect against a whole host of physical problems later, e.g., arthrosclerosis, osteoporosis, etc.

Look at the diet.  Avoid warm, mushy foods and too many carbohydrates or sugars.

Make sure the bird gets plenty of sleep so that he is not grouchy. If you are watching TV all night in the same room as the bird, regardless of a cover over his cage, he is not going to be able to get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps wheel his cage into a different room or put him to bed in a dedicated night/travel cage where he can rest undisturbed.

What if the bird bites/attacks? 

Never ignore the bite, as is so often advised. Ignoring shows the bird his attempt at communication has not been heard, that he has no control over his environment. This is the same as putting him in a position of learned helplessness which results in loss of trust. He has no option but to bite harder and more savagely to try to make himself understood.

Show him it hurts but don’t go over the top in your reaction or else he’ll be looking for a wonderful high energy ‘drama reward’ next time. Try your best to diffuse the situation and remove any reinforcement by putting him down if he’s on you, and if his body language says he’s still hyped up, simply walk away.

If you are subject to a flying attack, remove any reinforcement for it by ducking and walk away.

In a nutshell

The best tactic is to catch the problem as early as possible. Arrange the environment so that he doesn’t attack or bite in the first place. This includes reading and heeding body language and adjusting the antecedent. Keep pairing yourself with good experiences for the bird which includes earning reinforcers through training. Highly reinforce any other acceptable behaviours whilst being careful not to reinforce aggressive responses. Provide an enriched environment – a busy bird has less time to engage in unwanted behaviour.

There is more discussion on this topic in Help! My Parrot Bites!

Resources

Steve Martin’s Understanding Behavior, Naturally: https://naturalencounters.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Understanding_Parrot_Behavior_Naturally-Steve_Martin.pdf

Dr Susan Friedman’s Alternatives to Breaking Parrots: Reducing Aggression and Fear through Learning, 2002: https://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/Alternatives%20to%20Parrot%20Breaking%202002.pdf

Pamela Clark’s Avoiding Aggression with Start Buttons: https://blogpamelaclarkonline.com/2019/01/31/parrot-and-start-buttons/

Pamela Clark’s Aggression in Parrots: https://blogpamelaclarkonline.com/tag/aggression-in-parrots/

Barbara Heidenreich’s Addressing Aggressive Behavior in Birds: https://journals.tdl.org/watchbird/index.php/watchbird/article/download/1869/1842

Dr Susan Friedman’s Parrots in Temporary Shelters, 2004: https://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/Parrots%20in%20Temporary%20Shelters%202004.pdf

Mario Ancic’s explanation of Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT): https://www.training-your-dog-and-you.com/constructional_aggression_treatment.html

Barbara Heidenreich’s podcast interview on CAT with Kellie Snider: https://animaltrainingfundamentals.com/podcasts/c-a-t-with-kellie-snider/

Barbara Heidenreich’s podcast interview on CAT with Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Mary Hunter: https://animaltrainingfundamentals.com/podcasts/effective-reinforcement-with-jesus-rosales-ruiz-and-mary-hunter/