How I Trained My Bird To Bite Me by Jennifer Phillips

Written By: B.D. Butler - Nov• 08•12

How I Trained My Bird to Bite Me

By Jennifer Phillips

 We all make mistakes.  When it comes to the animals we love, it’s difficult to put our egos aside and admit we messed up.  This article is about one of those situations that seemed inconsequential at the time, but could have become a larger problem very quickly.  Parrots are highly intelligent, sensitive animals, but we need to keep in mind that they are prey animals.  As prey animals, they depend on members of their flock for guidance, assistance, care and protection.  How we humans behave and react to a situation can dictate their behavior.  One of the main things I try to impart to a first time parrot owner is, “If you want your bird’s behavior to change, you need to change your own behavior first.” 

Photos courtesy of: Jennifer Phillips

That said, this is how I trained my bird to bite me…

Burt is a 30 + year-old wild caught Timneh African Grey.  He’s a very inquisitive, outspoken fireball of grey and burgundy feathers.  Even though we are tightly bonded, his one requirement for me is that I don’t touch him.   He will interact with me on a very intimate level, performing behaviors on cue, eating out of my hand, sitting inches away from me while I work on my computer, but he just won’t let me touch him.  I will never know his entire history, and I can’t rewrite it.  I only know that he came from a horrible hoarding situation, spent some time in a vet hospital receiving medical care for cage sores, and then ended up in Rescue before he came to live with me.  He has 28 years of behavioral baggage that, no matter how hard I try, I will never undo. 

Despite his aversion to being handled, Burt loves to interact with me – especially during training sessions.  His favorite training toy is the colored ring game.   The trick is to take colored rings out of my hand and put them correctly on corresponding colored posts.  His reward for doing it correctly is a delicious piece of sunflower seed!   If the rings are anywhere in view, he will pick them up and eagerly offer them to me until I play the game with him. 

One afternoon I was engrossed in working on a project on my computer.  I didn’t notice Burt climb down the side of his cage, on to the desk and over to the rings.  He apparently offered me several rings without getting my attention.  Finally, I felt a little nudge against my arm.  It was Burt!  It was the first time I owned him that he made physical contact with me.  I was overwhelmed with emotion – a breakthrough!  I quickly offered him a sunflower seed and praised him. 

Photo courtesy of :Jennifer Phillips

Needless to say, when a particular behavior occurs, it is because it has been reinforced in the past.  I was so excited that I finally had contact with Burt, that I did not see any harm in it.  Nevertheless, I needed to finish what I was doing, and I did not pick up and give him the colored rings.  As a result, the little nudge on the arm became more insistent.  Then the nudge became a push and finally a nip on the arm.    

This is how easy it can be to train a parrot.  Burt progressed from a nudge to a nip very quickly.  One nudge got him a treat and attention….surely a bigger nudge would get the same or bigger reward, right?  I quickly realized my mistake.  Rather than punishing the behavior (after all, I helped create it), I manipulated the environment for more positive results.  After we played the ring game, I always moved it out of sight.  He responded by coming down to the desk for interaction and I rewarded that behavior.  I asked for other behaviors (such as turning in a circle) so that he still had the opportunity to receive reinforcements.  Typically, if I didn’t have time to pay attention to my birds, they remained in their cage, or I worked in another room.  

Photo courtesy of: Jennifer Phillips


I changed my routine, and the result was my creation of an environment for Burt to succeed. I eliminated the opportunity for him to nip my arm again and gave him other prospects in which he could receive praise and reinforcement. 

We can’t always be as diligent and mindful as we’d like to be with our birds.  But practice, patience and consistency go a long way.  If we slow down and concentrate, read the bird’s body language and the subtle signals they give us, and if we change our own behavior, we are on the road to having a great relationship with our birds. 

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One Comment

  1. Barbara Jacques says:

    This is a very important topic concerning African Gray birds and almost every parrot. I have a beautiful Congo and he does the exact same thing. Acquired at the age of 6 years old I don’t know his past and probably never will. All I do know is that he prefers females and doesn’t like my husband. He bites him every chance he gets. I am trying hard to break him of this. Otherwise he is full of communication skills and a happy bird overall.

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