Biting and Screaming in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Why does my bird people?

A bird may bite out of fear, excitement, true aggression, or displaced aggression, and there are warning signs that every bird owner should be aware of. Beware of a bird flashing his eyes and contracting the pupils quickly, as he is likely overexcited and about to bite! Birds can become overly excited if a new bird is close by and bite the nearest person. Birds may bite their owner if a human they do not like is approaching (displaced aggression). Some birds do not like the person approaching or trying to pick them up.

How can I manage my bird’s biting?

When your bird bites, try to remain calm without reacting. If you react, your bird may learn that biting gives him control or dominance, and he may learn to bite more. Even negative reactions, such as yelling at or striking your bird, can inadvertently positively reinforce the biting behavior. If your bird bites while on your hand, slowly put him down and walk away, like giving a time-out to a child.

NEVER hit a bird! Birds do not respond to physical discipline, which often results in losing trust in their owners and becoming fearful of hands. Wait until he is calm again and will step up on your hand without biting. If your bird continues to bite, stop attempting to pick him up. If he continues to refuse to step up without biting, you will need to regain his trust. Additionally, it is generally recommended not to use gloves to pick birds up. Most birds are afraid of gloves. Instead, use a thick towel over your hand to avoid injury.

"If he continues to refuse to step up without biting, you will need to regain his trust."

You can start by slowly and gradually hand-feeding a favorite treat that is only given in special circumstances. First, offer your bird the treat without asking him to step up. Once he takes the treat several times over several days without attempting to bite, offer the treat so that he must step with one foot onto a perch and eventually with both feet onto the perch to access it. This may take several days or weeks of practice before your bird trusts you enough to step fully on the perch.

Once your bird has mastered stepping onto a perch for treats, you can teach him to step up onto your hand to accept a treat similarly. This process can take a long time, so be patient.

Pay attention to your bird's body language to understand when he may prefer some personal space. He may lean forward with his head to bite, lean away from your hand, or make an unhappy vocalization to indicate that he does not want to step up at that time and may attempt to bite. Consult your avian veterinarian for advice on dealing with behavioral problems if you encounter these issues with your bird.

Why does my bird scream?

This is a common complaint from bird owners and a challenging dilemma. The most talented talker can also be a skilled screamer. Screaming or loud vocalization is a natural way for wild parrots and other birds to communicate with each other in their flock environments. They will also scream if they are alarmed. Birds will vocalize if they are frightened, bored, lonely, stressed, or unwell. Pet birds often vocalize when people are talking loudly, vacuuming, chatting on the phone, or playing music. They may see these times as appropriate for vocalizing back as part of normal flock behavior.

"Pet birds often vocalize when people are talking loudly, vacuuming, chatting on the phone, or playing music."

Birds usually scream in the early morning and dusk when they naturally gather in the trees to socialize and eat. Because you are part of the flock, your bird likely wants to communicate. Unfortunately, what may be natural behavior for birds can be annoying to their owners in the confines of their homes.

How can I manage my bird’s screaming?

First, know that your bird does NOT understand that it is NOT acceptable to scream and squawk in your house; this is a human problem. Your bird is screaming to communicate or ‘talk’ and to get attention.

There are many different approaches to managing this human problem. Often, people make it worse by yelling back at their birds and inadvertently positively reinforcing the screaming. Rushing to the ‘aid’ of a distressed screaming bird or yelling at him gives him the attention he demands. If you run to your bird when he screams, even to reprimand him for screaming, he will quickly learn that it is the way to get the attention he is seeking and will likely continue screaming for it.

Note: Most birds vocalize when having a seizure, so one must realize that a vocalization that has never been heard before warrants immediate attention.

Some people cover the cage or turn the lights off their bird screams. This is another form of positive reinforcement for the bird, as it gives him attention, even if just to come to him to cover his cage. Any acknowledgement of screaming, even if negative, should be avoided.

"A more effective approach is to reward calm, quiet behavior by offering a favorite treat."

A more effective approach is to reward calm, quiet behavior by offering a favorite treat. Common ‘healthy’ treats are pieces of walnuts, almond sticks, baby carrots, or pieces of coconut. This response positively reinforces quiet behavior. When your bird learns that screaming does not get your attention, he may ultimately decide to stop screaming in favor of displaying quiet behavior that does.

Of course, birds are not machines, and there may be times when even the best-behaved bird screams inappropriately. Overall, however, positive reinforcement training of acceptable behaviors is the best way to deal with problem behaviors in birds.

Many good training books and videos about positive reinforcement training for birds are available for reference. You can also consult your avian veterinarian for help and possibly a referral to an avian behaviorist.

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