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Once Bitten, twice shy!

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

This article first appeared in the Parrot Society of Australia's 'Parrot News' Magazine in 2019. Written by: Lee Stone, CPDT-KA, FFCP (Trainer)

One day in December 2018 I was in my kitchen while my Eclectus, Koda, was out of her cage. I cannot remember what I was doing at the time but when Koda flew over and landed on me I decided to put her back into her cage so I could continue my activity. As I stuck my arm with her on it into the cage she bit me, not once, but three times. The bites were uninhibited and very hard leaving deep indentations and small lacerations around the site of the bite.

When we are caught off-guard and bitten by our parrots, our immediate response is usually emotional. Shock and pain, mixed with anger, confusion, fear and even guilt for thinking we created a bite can all rush into our heads in the moments following. As the popular saying goes, “once bitten, twice shy”, afterwards we are racking our brains trying to explain why our bird suddenly turned into a blood-thirsty feathered demon, and are staying well away in case the bite happens again. Our instinct to protect ourselves can lead us to avoid interactions of a similar nature or justify to family members that may have witnessed the event what the possible causes are. It is very easy to say she was being ‘aggressive’ or ‘mean’ or place blame on ‘hormones’, especially from a female, adolescent Eclectus parrot!

Using these labels as justification, we write it off as just something that we just have to live with when we have parrots in our home. I disagree. As a professional behaviour consultant, I do not believe that we are destined to be bitten if we keep companion parrots. In fact, I believe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy! Because we believe we will get bitten at some point, we do. We spend so much time labelling our parrots and placing the blame on their nature that we do not truly address the function of the behaviour and the context in which it is occurring.

So why did Koda bite me? Is it because she is an Eclectus, a parrot, hormonal, mean or aggressive? Is it because female Eclectus in the wild protect their nest site above all else, and she bit me because she was just being territorial of her ‘area’ and should I just write this off as ‘one of those things’ that female Eclectus do? No, I got bitten because for weeks prior to this incident I had been returning Koda to her cage more often than not when she flew to me, I had also been very negligent in reinforcing her for returning to her cage and was rather relying on out persisting her when she wanted to hang onto my arm to get her to step off into her cage. With the benefit of hindsight, I see that she had been trying to communicate to me (by hanging on tighter to my arm rather than stepping off) that she did not want to go back into her cage and I had ignored this communication. In fact, Koda had been particularly patient with me based on the number of times this had occurred without a bite. On this day, Koda finally decided to communicate with me in a more forceful way, with a bite.

How did I go about addressing this issue? Firstly I needed to go back to my behaviour ‘ABCs’ and break down the behaviour clinically, without emotion or labels. For those non-behaviour nerds out there, A = Antecedent, or what comes before > B = the Behaviour itself, and > C = the consequence of the behaviour, or what happens after or in response to the behaviour. Since we want to avoid the biting behaviour completely in future, I worked primarily with the antecedents rather than changing any consequences. Identifying the ‘antecedents’ to the bite, in this case, was quite easy - placing Koda back in her cage was the immediate antecedent, the distant antecedent was Koda’s prior learning history that I would ignore her gripping my arm tighter and ‘force’ her to go back into her cage. Secondly, I needed to develop a plan to change how Koda felt about going into her cage by changing the antecedents to the bite so the behaviour was less likely to happen and then changing the consequences of alternative cage entry behaviours so I didn’t need to place her back in myself at all. This involved 4 primary steps:

  1. Rearrange Koda’s cage so that she had a perch on her door that she could easily step onto herself from both inside and outside the cage.

  2. Work on her ‘station’ behaviour to this perch both while she was inside and outside the cage and make this station a very ‘valuable’ location for her to be.

  3. Practise going to her station while she was out of the cage without shutting her back into the cage (ie: going onto your station does not always mean loss of freedom)

  4. Heavily reinforcing her when she did need to return to her cage.

Within weeks of implementing this training plan, Koda was voluntarily climbing from the top of her cage door, down onto her station so that she could be safely returned to her cage. Within 4 months she was enthusiastically flying across the room to her station perch and then jumping back into her cage when cued to do so (see the video>>). This has not only been effective in completely avoiding any biting practice, but it is also fun for both of us and has strengthened our bond once again.

Labels such as ‘hormonal’, ‘aggressive’, ‘territorial’, and ‘mean’ do not help address problem behaviour. In fact, in many cases, these labels are harmful because they place the blame on the animal, rather than on the environment, therefore, stopping us from problem-solving the issue. In the years since the bite incident outlined above, I have not been bitten again. Koda has not changed, I did not ‘change’ Koda nor did I change any consequences for her biting behaviour, I changed the environment instead because the behaviour of biting only occurs under those preceding environmental conditions.

“When a flower does not bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” - Alexander Den Heijer

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