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Biting Amazon Parrot

Expert Question

Hi: I have a yellow-cheeked Amazon that I purchased from a pet shop 8 yrs. ago.  At first he/she was very loving and I could walk anywhere with him. Two years ago he started attacking me for no apparent reason, flying at me and biting. He has an open cage door and comes and goes as he pleases. I can not predict when the attacks will happen. We can be chatting and he’ll fly at me and when he lands, he bites. Any suggestions as to what I can and should do would be most helpful. Thank you. Sincerely “Merlinsmon”

Expert Answer

Dear “Merlinsmom”, Hello, my name is Courtney Festa and I am an Avian Trainer at Natural Encounters, Inc. With regards to your concerns with Merlin’s behavior I have a few suggestions, but first I would like to commend you on reaching out for help in order to provide the best environment for both you and Merlin.

When looking at any behavior with our own birds here at Natural Encounters, Inc., we put ourselves in the place of the bird and ask “What’s in it for me?” We can never know what a bird is thinking, but we can gain valuable insights from learning to read the bird’s body language. We always strive to make all interactions with our birds positive, and in order to do this we have to examine what encourages the bird to do the wanted or unwanted behavior. Behavior can be influenced by anything in the environment including the relationships we have formed with them.

Parrots are very social creatures.  In the wild, a bird Merlin’s age would likely be bonded to a mate.  Companion parrots in the home usually form this sort of bond as well, oftentimes with a human in its environment if there are no other birds around.  Is there someone in your home who Merlin has developed a strong bond with? If so this may be a contributing factor to the increased aggression towards you as he tries to protect a territory with his perceived mate. However, by increasing your positive interactions you can strengthen the bond between the two of you.

Another contributing factor that may be causing the unexplained burst of aggression by flying at you could be environmental. Parrots in the wild are very territorial. You had mentioned in your question that his cage door is always open giving him the freedom to be anywhere in the house. This in turn may cause him to claim a room as his territory instead of just his cage especially if he is strongly bonded to another bird or a person in the house. With our birds here at Natural Encounters, Inc., we like to empower the birds and always give them the option of allowing us into their territory. Again I’m making some assumptions here, but Merlin may have claimed the room where his cage is located as his territory and the aggressive behavior may just be him chasing what he views as intruders out of his territory when people are inside it.  Another possibility that could cause an increase in aggression may be that he might be trying to protect something he holds valuable, such as his food or maybe even a favorite toy within his territory. Parrots are very sensitive to their environment, so if there have been any changes to his environment that may also lead to an increase in aggression. Any small change may be a big change to a parrot, for example, new furniture, a new pet, or a new family member all can trigger a behavior that, once practiced, can become a habit whether it being a desired or in your case a undesired behavior. Repetition builds confidence, so once a behavior has been practiced the bird often gets better at it. 

Now that we have examined some possible causes for the problem behavior, let’s investigate your relationship with Merlin and some possible solutions that may help resolve some issues. My first suggestion would be to close his cage door for just a day or two while you’re rebuilding your relationship with him.  By shutting his door it will help build both your confidence in him and his in you. You’ve now given him a safe spot that is his own. Rebuilding relationships takes time and patience.  Closing his cage door at this point also eliminates some of the safety issues that arise for both you and Merlin while these aggressive behaviors are being practiced.  Also, now, when you do open the cage door in the future, you remain a positive in the bird’s life, and there may be value in the fact that you are the one who gives Merlin access to be out of his cage, as long as he displays good behavior while still inside the cage.

I would first start out by just reinforcing him with his favorite treat by dropping it in his food bowl when just walking by his cage, as long as Merlin is displaying good body language, like sitting quietly on his perch.  In order to establish what his favorite treat may be, try giving your bird a bowl of food with a nice variety of fruits, veggies, pellets, nuts, seeds, and any other treats he may have been getting in the past like dried pasta. What Merlin goes for first is most likely his favorite treat, and can be set aside just for those times when the two of you are working on your relationship together. Feel free at these times to hang out next to his cage for a second and interact with him by just talking, if the bird’s body language suggests that he is comfortable with your presence. If your Amazon’s eyes are pinning (the pupils are rapidly expanding and contracting), if its feathers are slicked tightly to its body, if its tail feathers are fanned out, or if it’s lunging at you or biting at the cage bars these are good signs that your bird is uncomfortable, and you should simply walk away until he is showing signs that he is calm. These displays of discomfort are often precursors to aggression, and if you continue to stand there when they are displayed you are actually increasing the chances that the bird will want to bite once the cage door is opened again. Let Merlin’s body language shape yours. If he is calm then you can calmly give him attention, if he seems worked up then just ignore him and walk away. 

Once you feel that both of you have a little better relationship, try hand feeding him his favorite treat through the cage bars. Make sure when offering him the treat that the communication between the two of you is clear. Hold the treat between your two fingers to avoid any miscommunications. If Merlin happens to offer any behaviors such as talking or maybe lifting his foot, or something as simple as touching his toy, you could train these behaviors to make your interactions with Merlin even more positive. When training these behaviors you may not be able to give Merlin his treat quick enough, for instance if you are across the room when he offers a behavior. In that case you can use what is called a bridging stimulus, or “bridge.” At Natural Encounters, Inc., we use a quick verbal “good”.  The use of the bridge tells the bird that what they have done at that exact moment was good, and that a treat is on its way. You may even want to keep a handful of treats on you and whenever you hear Merlin make the noise or do whatever behavior you decide, you can bridge him and give him the treat.  When Merlin is making the noise or doing the behavior consistently you can start to cue him for the noise or behavior. A cue is a sound or an action that lets the bird know you want him to make that noise. You may notice that before Merlin makes the desired noise, he flaps his wings or does some sort of behavior just before the noise is about to occur. When you see this, you can cue Merlin for the desired noise, bridge after it is presented, and then walk over and provide the reinforcement.

Remember all this may take time. Work at the birds pace. Eventually down the line when you and Merlin have had many positive interactions with one another you may be able to open his cage and offer him his favorite treat through the doorway. However, remember the object is to make all interactions positive and avoid all negative interactions that may lead to aggressive behaviors. If Merlin shows body language that suggests he chooses not to participate in the training or perform the desired behavior, simply close the door and leave with the treats and try again later in the day. The more times the bird practices the aggressive behavior, the better at it the bird may get. So keep all interactions short to be sure to avoid the opportunity for aggression to even occur. By ending training sessions at the first signs of subtle body language behaviors that suggest the bird no longer wants to participate, you can better insure all sessions are positive.  The key is to give the bird the power over its environment to choose to participate or not, and to not force the bird to do anything its behavior indicates it does not want to do. We try to create opportunities for birds to perform the behaviors we want to see and then reinforce those behaviors with something the bird wants, like a scratch on the head, verbal praise, a favorite treat, etc.

I hope that this information is helpful to you and Merlin. If you have any additional questions about anything involving you and Merlin please feel free to contact us again.  On our website,, you can find additional responses to companion parrot owner questions such as yours, as well as articles on training, enrichment, and behavior that are great resources for all companion parrot owners to have handy.  On our site you can also read more about the companion parrot owner training workshops that we offer several times a year at our facility in Winter Haven, Florida, if you interested in getting some more hands-on experience. Another resource we like to recommend for those seeking to further their knowledge of training is an online course taught by Susan Friedman, a behaviorist that we as a company have a long history with. Susan is a psychology professor at Utah State University who has worked in applied psychology for over 25 years. Susan oversees an 8-week online course called Living and Learning with Parrots: The Fundamental Principles of Behavior. The goal of the course is to teach participants how parrots learn in order to better understand what caregivers can do to improve their birds’ quality of life, eliminate unwanted behaviors, and enrich the relationships they have with their birds. More information about Susan Friedman and the course itself can be found online at

Good luck, and we look forward to hearing more about your future successes!

Courtney Festa
Avian Trainer
Natural Encounters, Inc.

Steve Martin & Staff
About Steve Martin & Staff

Steve Martin has lived with parrots from the time he was five years old. By the time he was 16 his bird interest expanded to falconry and he has been a Master Falconer ever since.

He began his professional animal training career when he set up the first of its kind, free-flight bird show at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. Since then he has produced educational animal programs, or consulted at, over 50 zoological facilities around the world.

Steve has produced three videos on parrot behaviour and training and lectures frequently about parrot behaviour. He has also written several articles on animal behaviour and conducts training workshops each year at his facility in Winter Haven, Florida. Over two-thirds of his year is spent on the road consulting with zoos and aquariums on animal behaviour issues or teaching staff the art and science of animal behaviour.

Steve is President of both Natural Encounters, Inc., ( a company of over 20 professional animal trainers, and Natural Encounters Conservation Fund, Inc., a company dedicated to raising funds for conservation projects.
Steve has been a long time fan, supporter, and a Trustee of the World Parrot Trust. He is also a core team member of the California Condor Recovery Team, and Past-President and founding member of IAATE, an international bird trainers’ organization.