Warning Signal                            Lunge                            Full Blown Biting Attack
  Cockatiels and Biting, Why Birds Bite 
What Frightens a Cockatiel

By Eleanor McCaffrey,
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Ouch! Your new bird or the sweet, tame cockatiel that you have had for years has just taken a small piece of flesh off of your finger and you're bleeding!  Both your finger and your feelings are hurt and you are probably thinking that your bird is nasty or that she doesn't like you anymore.  You may even be angry at your bird and be avoiding taking her out of the cage because you are afraid of being bitten again. According to Sally Blanchard, a very well known avian behaviorist, there's no such thing as a nasty bird and biting is never the bird's fault. Biting is always a response to a situation and it's always provoked.  

Warning Signs: Cockatiels will usually give you a few warning signals, conveyed through their body language, before biting. Warning signs that you are going to get bitten if you don't back off include: hissing, tail fanning, (bird spreads tail feathers apart) eye pinning,( eye pupil dilates, contracts and dilates) backing into a corner, swaying from side to side, moving away from you or turning their back on you, lifting 1 foot, moving wings away from body, raising feathers on the back (like a frightened cat) puffing out or constricting feathers so they look very thin, crest feathers down, flat against the head,  a few painless "nips or taps" with the beak,  sudden watery droppings that are back to normal within an hour,  and finally lunging at you with an open beak. Along with the lunge comes the inevitable painful bite if you do not back off first before the bite.  If you continue to interact  with you bird when he is displaying signs of aggression and you create a confrontational situation, your bird's aggression will escalate, resulting in strong and more bintense biting. If every interaction with your cockatiel is  negative, he will bite every time you approach him. Negative interaction should be stopped as soon as you notice the first warning sign of biting. Put your bird on your knee, on a play gym or  back inside of the cage for a brief "time out" until he calms down. Don't ever hit your bird or tap on the beak as punishment for biting. The beak is a living organ with blood vessels,  nerve endings, and pain receptors. Birds also have delicate bodies and bones which can be easily bruised, injured or broken. 

Why Birds Bite: Birds are not fighters. They are small animals of prey that lack the physical abilities, like massive body weight, teeth, fangs and sharp claws, that are needed to fight effectively. When birds feel threatened or when they are confronted with danger, their natural instinct is to escape by taking flight. According to avian behavior consultant, Liz Wilson, biting is a bird's last response if the bird perceives that there is no other way to escape a dangerous or threatening situation. Fighting and biting are not natural parrot behaviors for birds in the wild.  In the wild, parrots will only use their beaks to eat, climb, preen, build nests and feed chicks. However, birds in the wild will instinctively show aggression to defend themselves and their territory. Parrots in captivity have the same defensive instincts but they will cause biting. 

Survival biting Occurs when a pet bird feels threatened or needs to defend territory. Hormonal biting occurs in adult birds when they are frustrated by an inability to breed. Control biting occurs after the first few bites accomplish the bird's desired result. This encourages future biting because he has now learned that biting can control your behavior. Responding to biting with any type of reaction is perceived to be a reward by a bird. Even though yelling "ouch", shaking, wobbling or moving your hand, tossing your bird off, or blowing in the face will interrupt a biting session, it will ultimately reinforces biting by teaching a cockatiel that biting works and you stopped doing what ever it was that was making your bird afraid in the first place.  You will also lose your bird's trust, turning a basically friendly, bird, into a bird who is not only a biter, but a bird who is now afraid of you. 

Biting from Fear  Fear is a major factor in why many cockatiels bite. Cockatiels are easily frightened and they do not adjust to change very well. A good relationship with a cockatiel can quickly turn sour if a loving owner frightens a bird by making one or more very common mistakes that can cause biting. Sticking your hand inside of the cage to grab your bird or to retrieve using a towel will frighten a cockatiel and it usually results in biting as well as a fear of fingers and hands. Fear can also be caused by overhead objects, such as lighting fixtures, ceiling fans and hanging plants, the sudden movements of kids, dogs or small animals like hamsters on a wheel, other pets looking inside of the cage, large crowds or strange visitors in the home and being approached from behind by humans.  Cockatiels are also afraid of loud noises, deep voices, screaming, yelling, the high pitched voice of some toddlers, loud music or televisions, slamming doors, barking dogs, wild birds outdoors, thunder, fireworks, firecrackers, outside road construction etc. Cockatiels are also afraid of changes in their environment, like moving into a new cage or moving the cage to a different place, new toys, new perches or new foods placed inside of the cage, new curtains, new furniture or home decor, you wearing a new bathrobe or a different color nail polish etc. (Cockatiels need time to adjust to any new change in their environment.) Any of the above situations can frighten a cockatiel and cause biting.

Coping With Fear: Cockatiels will thrive in a safe and secure environment.  Birds feel safer in cages that have corners so avoid cages that are round or dome shaped.  Place the cage up against a wall and away from visible doors, hallways or windows, where approaching people, vehicles or wild birds may startle him. Adjust noise and activity levels in your home to create a more "bird friendly" environment. Keep dogs and cats away from the cage and encourage all family members to interact  with your bird. If you have small rodents as pets, keep them in a different room, away from your bird. Before placing new toys inside of the cage or placing your bird inside of a new cage, leave them out next to the cage where you bird can see them for a few days. When you offer your bird a new food, prepare some for yourself and eat with your bird. Take a good look around to see if anything has changed. Your child may have left a teddy bear near the cage and it's frightening your bird. If your bird suddenly starts biting when he's out of the cage, put him back inside of the cage for a brief, "time out", until he calms down. To help cockatiels cope with the inevitable changes in life, expose them to a variety of situations and places when they are young. Encourage visitors to talk to your bird. Introduce your bird to different rooms inside of your home and places outside of your home. Take your bird with you when you pick the kids up from school,  when visiting family and friends and when you go on vacation. 

Instinctive Biting: Although instinctive behaviors may cause a bird to bite the first few times, after that biting becomes a control issue. According to avian behavior consultant Mattie Sue Athens, Crankiness, territorialism and hormonal aggression are the most common instincts that cause initial biting. Crankiness usually occurs when a bird is over stimulated or over tired from playing outside of the cage too long or too roughly or from not receiving a full 10-12 hours of sleep at night. A bird that does not feel well because of malnutrition or a physical illness will also be cranky. You may be making your bird cranky if you are bothering her when she is busy playing, eating or napping. Sometimes your bird may just want to be left alone.  Note: If you think your bird may be sick or  malnourished from an improper diet, she probably is. Take her to an avian vet for a check up. Click Here

Territorial Aggression: In the wild, cockatiels are territorial and they will defend and protect their nests, their young and themselves from predators daily.  Pet cockatiels can be territorial as well. They will aggressively defend and protect their mates, cages, toys, food and just about anything else that they are interested in, by biting the intruder. Don't put your hand inside of the cage and grab your bird or towel him to take him out.  Don't invade your bird's territory. If your bird doesn't want you touching the inside of the cage, then don't. Putting your hands or new toys inside of the cage when your bird is still inside, disrupts your bird's "nest". You are then perceived to be a predator and your bird will lose trust in you.  Take your bird out of the cage before you replace toys.  (In the above, right hand photo, Mama is protecting a feather. He's guarding it with his life and he will lunge towards anybody who dares to come near his cage. The feather is removed as soon as he comes out of his cage.)

 Cage Bound Birds Cockatiels that are deprived of out of cage time and human interaction  will become overly attached to their cages and reluctant to venture out of them.  Birds that are constantly ignored, single birds that are left home alone all day, birds that have been rescued from abusive or neglectful homes and birds that have been in pet shops for a long time may be cage bound as well. Cage bound birds becomes very territorial and possessive of their food, toys, cages and will bite to protect them. The bird becomes almost phobic, feeling compelled to stay inside of the cage and defend his territory.  Cockatiels that are overly attached to their cages need to be gently nurtured and taken out frequently to prevent further behavior problems such as feather plucking or screaming. Patience and a great deal of time is needed to re-establish a trusting relationship with a cage bound bird. 

Hormonal Aggression: As young cockatiels approach the adult age of 18 months, they may bite because they no longer want to cuddle or be pet as often as when they were babies. This is normal, temporary behavior and it's the equivalent of a human teenager who wants more independence. Expecting our cockatiels to behave like baby cockatiels for their entire life is unrealistic. Kittens grow up to be cats, puppies grow up to be dogs and baby birds grow up to be adult birds with adult hormones. Normal, hormonal changes occur in all adult birds and they can cause birds to have rapid mood swings which you may not understand. One moment your bird will be loving and gentle and then suddenly, he will become a biting machine. Your bird does not have any control over the hormonal surges that occur throughout the year. An inability to breed may cause your bird to feel frustrated and bite. These hormonal changes usually occur during the Spring and Summer months when there are more daylight hours, which signals breeding time. Hormonal biting is usually temporary and by being patient with your bird and waiting until the mood passes, the problem usually corrects itself.  Sometimes it may be necessary to decrease your birds exposure to daylight hours during these months if biting becomes vicious and prolonged. Covering the cage for 4 more hours each night for 2 weeks may help. 

You can cause hormonal changes and biting in your bird by petting under the wings and on the back. Avoid petting your bird on the back and under the wings. Because a bird's ovaries or testacles are located near these areas, petting them stimulates the release of breeding hormones.  Mirrors in a cockatiel's cage can also cause hormonal frustration and biting. A bird will preen, sing and display feathers for the image but the image does not respond. This frustrates the bird and it causes biting.  Cockatiels can also become very possessive of the mirror image, biting to protect their "perceived mate". If your bird is biting and you have a mirror inside of the cage, remove it. Avoid using birdie beds or other sleeping tents and don't allow your cockatiel to hang out in small, dark, cozy spaces like cabinets, bureau drawers, under furniture or on top of a closet. These are perfect nesting sites, which will stimulate breeding hormones that can cause hormonal biting. (Female birds may also start laying eggs)

One Person Birds: Cockatiels who have not had the opportunity to socialize and interact with different people  may become possessive and protective of their human mate. They may bite you when someone else enters the room, thinking that biting will make you escape a threatening situation by "taking flight".  Encourage all family members to talk to and spend time with  your bird. Give family members a treat to drop into your bird's food dish each day. Have family members take turns changing cage papers. Hug family members in front of your bird so she can see that they are not a threat to you or to her.

 NEW BIRDS: All new birds will go through an adjustment period when they move into a new home. You can expect a new bird to be afraid of you and her new environment during the first few days or  weeks in a new home. If your bird wasn't hand fed or hand tamed,  she  will probably hiss when you come near the cage and bite if you put your hand near her. If your new bird is an older bird that was neglected, she may be cage bound or territorial. New, untamed birds that are frightened should not be taken out of the cage for the first week. Recently weaned, handfed, hand tamed or tame birds should be taken out of the cage the same or next day,  if they want to come out and be with people.  Keep visitors and friends away from all new birds for at least a week. Go over to the cage, sit down and talk to your bird softly for about 10 minutes, then go back to what you were doing and let your bird watch you.  Do this several times a day throughout the first week. When the first week is over, DO NOT put your hand inside of the cage or grab your bird with a towel, forcing him to come out. Your bird will bite and lose any trust he gained during the first week. Have patience with your new bird and respect both her fears and territory.

To help tame and stop a bird from biting
Click Here,"How to Stop a Bird From Biting"



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