How can I stop my African Grey viciously biting whenever I go near him? He is hand reared but has become very nasty.
Submitted by: Liz Bradford
Answered by Jim McKendry:
Your question represents a real challenge – for both of us! While I haven’t got a lot of information to work with, it’s a great opportunity to highlight some key concepts that any parrot owner in your situation can apply.
Let’s start with what’s actually missing from your question. When managing encounters that result in an aggressive behavioural response towards us, we really need to carefully analyse the `context’. For behaviour as overt as aggression or biting, there is always a context that we can observe and identify. Being able to describe this context is going to be the first stage in developing some strategies to improve your relationship with your African Grey. So, how de we go about identifying the context for the biting behaviour?
Using a `behaviour analysis’ approach (sounds technical – but stick with me), we can easily identify what might be stimulating the behaviour and how your interactions with your African Grey may also be influencing the behaviour. This approach challenges us to focus specifically on what we can observe. The next time that you encounter aggressive behaviour from your African Grey, try describing the following...
A: The `antecedent’ – the stimulus in the environment that sets the behaviour up to occur. Ask yourself - `What happens immediately before you observe aggression or receive a bite from your African Grey?’
B: The `behaviour’ – what we observe in direct response to the antecedent stimulus. Ask yourself - `What does the aggressive behaviour look like? What are the visual and verbal indicators that you can observe that help you describe and label the behaviour as aggression?’
C: The `consequence’ – what occurs in the environment immediately after the behaviour. Ask yourself - `What has happened as a result of aggressive encounters with your African Grey in the past?’
Put those three together - `antecedent’, `behaviour’ and `consequence’ and you’ll be well on your way to understanding a context for the aggressive behaviour. Aggressive behaviour always serves a functional purpose, so writing down some information following the A-B-C guide described above will help you to clarify the function that the behaviour is serving. The physical act of biting is usually the end stage of a set of preceding communication cues that we have failed to respond to. As an example, if the body language of your African Grey didn’t achieve the function of removing you from its environment, then the next stage along that continuum is progressing to a bite. Challenging yourself to analyse the behaviour from an observable context will help you to identify the key visual cues that suggest the approach you are taking, and the expectations you have, may need reworking.
Judging from your question, it seems like you might be experiencing the behaviour at most times that you try to interact with your African Grey. This is a situation where a wonderful analogy, that I first heard used by avian trainer Steve Martin, applies itself beautifully. Steve refers to a `trust account’ that we build up with our birds. Deposits are made via interactions with our birds that are positively reinforcing and build strong associations between the delivery of reinforcers and ourselves. The more opportunities we encounter where rewards and interactions that are valued by our parrot are delivered, the more deposits we can make into that trust account. The flip side of course is that withdrawals can also be made. With pet parrots and aggressive behaviour, this often occurs when we fail to sensitively respond to the visual cues, that we should know from past experiences, indicate that our feathered friend isn’t likely to be receptive to stepping onto our hand or interacting with us. The challenge for you at this initial stage in your work with your African Grey is to start making some deposits into that trust account.
Traditional approaches to managing aggression and biting behaviour relied on attempting to dominate the parrot. Choosing a dominance approach is not an effective behaviour management solution for working with aggressive parrots. Attempting to force handling interactions with an aggressive parrot can result in effectively teaching your parrot that it needs to bite harder to get the aversive stimulus (your hand) away from it. In combination with this will be a breakdown in the relationship between you and your bird. This represents a major withdrawal from the trust account and can result in many consequences, the most common being the establishment of either fear responses, or a further escalation in aggression by your parrot towards you when you initiate interactions with it. If you have reached the point where your parrot has inflicted a bite then you need to take responsibility for the bite and start focusing on developing your awareness of what you can change in your behaviour and how you can rearrange the environment to avoid a bite in the first place.
Where aggressive behaviours get out of control and become a serious issue is when we have failed to maintain positive reinforcement based training with the parrot. Consistently implemented positive reinforcement based interactions help to establish an environment that increases the potential for the human carer to be viewed as stimuli in the environment that offers highly valued resources. Achieving this shift in stimuli association provides an alternative influence on the behaviour of our pet parrot. As an example, responding to handling cues such as `step up’, ultimately needs to have a greater consequential reinforcement value to the parrot than standing on top of a cage and biting a presented hand. The learning environment for our parrot needs to be set up to provide clear behavioural alternatives, so that;
• Our parrot has choice, and therefore is an active participant in the decision making processes occurring in its environment;
• It develops a relationship between the behavioural choice it makes and the consequential reinforcement it receives for that behaviour and;
• We respect the choice that our parrot makes and resist the temptation to enforce handling when it is obvious that our parrot is not receptive to us.
If the choices that your parrot is making are not achieving a behavioural goal that you have set then it is up to you to re-evaluate your expectations, improve your reinforcement schedule for the desired behaviour and perhaps most importantly, re-think how you have arranged the environment to set your parrot up to succeed with the highest potential to present the behaviours you seek. Managing the feeding schedules of our parrots obviously provides opportunities to deliver highly valued primary reinforcers that can often help to redirect the behaviour of a parrot that has started to display aggression in specific contexts within the home environment. Rather than providing all free feed opportunities at one time, or within a single enclosure, it may be more effective to deliver different food types, at different times of the day, in different contexts, and to reinforce different behavioural goals. This may help to improve the level of motivation required to interact with you and help you to capture and positively reinforce behaviours that are alternative to or incompatible with biting.
In general, avoiding and managing aggression can be achieved via the following...
• Developing a sensitive awareness of non-verbal, visual cues that may indicate that it is time to step back and away from a potential confrontation.
• Appreciating that an individual may not be receptive to the sort of social interactions that we expect from `pets’. Therefore we may be challenged to help them learn that social interactions with us can be valued via the delivery of positively reinforcing consequences for desirable behaviour.
• Minimising handling and preening interactions that promote the sexual bonding of the parrot with one individual in the household.
• Establishing feeding and enrichment schedules that provide opportunities for the parrot to present behaviours that are an alternative to or incompatible with biting and territorial aggression.
• Continually re-evaluating how you have arranged the environment of the bird so that it is best set up to succeed with behavioural choices that you desire.
The above only touches on some key behaviour management principles that might need more elaboration for you to start really applying them well. Check out the incredible articles that the WPT has collated in the Reference Library. You will find some amazing insights into better managing your biting African Grey by downloading and reading these. To further depth your understanding of these concepts there are a number of brilliant courses, workshops and learning resources that you can investigate. A perfect place to start your educational journey is via engaging in the `Living and Learning with Parrots’ online course coordinated by Dr. Susan Friedman and her dedicated tutors. For more information visit http://www.behaviorworks.org
. If you really want to get out there and like to learn with a `hands-on’ approach then consider the Companion Parrot Workshops coordinated by Steve Martin of Natural Encounters Inc. For more information visit http://www.naturalencounters.com
. If you’re an `armchair’ learner then I would highly recommend that anyone managing aggression and biting from their pet parrot purchase `The Parrot Problem Solver: Finding Solutions to Aggressive Behaviour’ by Barbara Heidenreich. This is an excellent starting point for learning all about recovering relationships with aggressive parrots and can be purchased right here from the WPT Store!
Kind Regards from `Down Under’,
Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations