Birds that Bite—Successes and Failures

Early Days

Coming into parrots comparatively late in life after having raised, taught and trained several mammal species, kids, horses, dogs and cats with varying degrees of success, I was fortunate that my first two birds were sensationally non-biting. This pair of Red-tailed African Greys—handraised by Barrett Watson in Suffolk, UK—came fully weaned and flighted. They also had knowledge of the ‘step-up’ command and displayed a quality that they retain to this day—a basic trust in people. Bird keeping was a pushover, I decided.

By turning an old dog run into an aviary measuring l0 metres long x 10 metres wide x 4 metres high I had a large space at my disposal. This meant that I was offered rescue and re-home birds. A dozen years later that first aviary has been developed into a six-section interconnecting series of DIY flights which provides 130 metres of fly-through space for the birds when all section doors are open.

The flock varies between 20−30 birds—many of whom are rescues or re-homes—an eclectic mix of five Grey Parrots, two Amazons, two Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and 22 parakeets. It has become a passionate interest of mine to provide as natural an environment as possible. We even have four gum trees growing inside!

Some of the rescue birds were confirmed biters and were relinquished for that reason. I believed that given space, the possibilities associated with choice—such as where to perch and forage—and no approach being made by human hands until the bird regained some confidence, the biting behaviour would cease.

Mirt and Other Timneh Grey Parrots

It took two years before Mirt was comfortable flying to a hand

Mirt, a wild-caught Timneh—age impossible to guess—was one of the first rescues. Plucked and flightless, she’d been kept in a cardboard box for eight months. If you got too close she would crawl away or bite.

My aim was to get Mirt to gain trust in people. I also needed a bird that would ‘step-up’ so that I could move it around the aviary or put it in a crate for a visit to the veterinarian. Once Mirt lived free in the aviary she regained her flight muscles within two weeks. I joined the internet list started by Dr Susan Friedman—ParrotBas. You present a problem and your mentor—one of the volunteers initially trained by Susan herself—will help you design a program to alter the unwanted behaviour. The work is based on the principles of behavioural science, also known as the ‘ABCs’ of behaviour—Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence.

It took two years before Mirt trusted me enough to fly to my hand. That time spent with her was justified when she perched upon a friend’s outstretched palm for the first time and took a nut. The biting had ceased months before this.

Through a sad error I lost Mirt after five years. We still miss her. Her friend Sid—another elderly wild-caught Timneh—called loudly for weeks after she was lost. Sid had been caged alone for 12 years and at any brusque approach he lunged and bit. The solution was elegant and simple—positive reinforcement for something Sid craved. I held out a sunflower seed on the other side of a stick so that Sid had to reach across. Within two weeks Sid was stepping-up and could be carried from one spot to another. Sadly, however, he never regained more than minimal flight skills. It seems that some owners keep wild-caught Timneh Grey Parrots caged because they cannot be handled.

Big Boy was another such example. After spending 25 years in a small cage, Big Boy came to live with us when his 85 year old owner relocated to an old age home. His temporary carer showed me almost with pride the numerous bites on her hands and arms. ‘He won’t let me stroke him’, she complained crossly.

He’d only bitten her because he was afraid. Inexperienced in reading bird body language the woman had taken no notice when poor Big Boy tried to warn her. I never stroked him either in the year that he lived with us but he too learned to step-up onto a stick and make short flights. He flew to me one morning and died in my arms. The autopsy showed the enlarged liver due to a poor diet for so many years.


Australian BirdKeeper Magazine Issue 24 Volume 11  Page 714-715


The full article appears in Australian Birdkeeper Magazine Volume 24 Issue 11 available from


Reproduced with permission from ABK Publications and Australian BirdKeeper ©2011

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