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Replacing Biting

Expert Question

Hi there, I have a parrotlet called Fynn and I've had him about a year now from when he was a chick (parent-reared, if that helps). I know parrotlets are sometimes territorial and the main thing to do is to teach them to step up. This does not work with him. He bites hard and lunges if I come close to his cage, and I always get bitten getting him out. He won't step up onto a twig either. But when he's in a different room he's a different bird- he loves kisses and stays with me (despite not being clipped- I understand this makes him harder to train as well but he's beautiful when he flies). This problem has got worse now I have moved to Uni with him, and his cage is in my bedroom. Now he won't have anything to do with me and I can't really take him into a different room. Please could you let me know if there are any ways of getting him to be less aggressive about his cage? Thanks so much! Lauren

Expert Answer

Hi Lauren,

Cory here from Susan Friedman’s ParrotBAS teaching team! Thank you for coming to us with your question. The great news is that biting doesn’t have to be a necessary part of living with a parrot. With careful attention to Fynn’s body language, thoughtful arrangement of his environment, and a positive reinforcement teaching plan, the biting can be reduced and Fynn can be taught a behavior you would like him to do instead of the biting.

It is great that you described the undesired behavior in observable terms (biting when asked to step up in cage), because this is the first step towards predicting and changing it! Biting is something that Fynn does which we can see. Labels such as “territorial” do not describe what Fynn is doing, but rather what we think Fynn is being. Since behavior is defined as something that an animal does which can be observed, given certain conditions, it is best to focus on specific behaviors that we want to see more of - just like you did. We can’t teach “friendly”, it's just a label, but we can teach Fynn to approach hands and step up, or even fly to you on cue, all of which are specific behaviors.

All repeated behaviors, including biting, serve a function, a purpose, for Fynn or he wouldn't keep doing them! Animals, including people, choose behaviors to either avoid something undesirable to them, or to gain something they value. The key to understanding what function the biting behavior serves is to look into the immediate outcome, the change the behavior causes in the environment. The event that happens right before the behaviors occurs, called the antecedent, is a signal or cue to the bird about what to do right now to produce the outcome. Identifying the antecedent helps us predict when the behavior will occur.  The event that immediately follows the behavior (called the consequence) determines whether the behavior will increase or decrease in the future. When the antecedent (A) happens, the animal can do the behavior (B), in order to gain or avoid the consequence (C). With the information that you have given me, I suspect that in this case it could be that when you reach your hand into Fynn’s cage (A), Fynn bites (B), in order to remove your hand (C). In other words, it seems like Fynn is biting in order to stop your approach and to create distance between you and his cage.

So, how do we teach Fynn to enjoy having you in close proximity to the cage? Approaching Fynn’s cage will become a signal that good things will happen if you continuously pair yourself with positive reinforcers such as food, and this means that your presence itself will become reinforcing to Fynn. Each time you pair yourself with food you will be making a deposit in Fynn’s trust account and growing a positive balance, so you can do this several times throughout the day by walking up to Fynn’s cage and simply giving him a bite of his favourite food. The key to keeping the trust account from going bankrupt is to avoid any negative or forceful interactions with Fynn.  Of course, since Fynn is flighted, he can fly away from anything aversive. Resist calling him names like stubborn, territorial or unfriendly. When that happens, it is good data for you that Fin is escaping your approach and so you need to change what you do and add more trust into the account.

While step up is a great management behavior to teach and it’s your ultimate goal with Fynn, it isn’t necessarily the first thing that you should teach him. A great stepping-stone towards the step up goal is to teach Fynn a behavior called targeting. Targeting is to touch his beak to an object like a chopstick. It sounds (and is!) simple, but it also extremely useful because of it’s versatility and many applications, one being that it can help you avoid being bitten while teaching the step up behavior!  The great thing about targeting is that you can teach it to Fynn while he is in his cage so that he isn't pressured to come to your hand, your fingers stay safe and you can work at his pace to continue building trust.

Once he follows the target stick for a treat, you will be able to target him out of the cage. New behaviors like targeting can be shaped through reinforcing small approximations towards the final behavior goal. When you present the target stick to Fynn at first, be sure to hold it on as close as he remains relaxed. Then some approximations you can reinforce are: 1) Looking at the target stick, 2) Leaning towards the target stick, 3) Touching beak to target stick. Each step should earn him a food treat and should be repeated until he performs that step without hesitation. If he happens to be afraid of the target stick in the beginning, just introduce it gradually at his pace, pairing its presence with a food treat. Body language that could indicate that Fynn is uncomfortable with something could include things like feathers slick against his body and leaning away. Learning to recognize subtle changes in Fynn’s body language and respecting it is a great investment in having a good relationship with him!

Once Fynn is touching the target stick with his beak, you can then teach him to approach it from further away by gradually increasing the distance you hold it out at. You can also teach him to follow a moving target by first reinforce him following it for a step, then a few steps, and so on. To keep the positive reinforcement really effective when teaching new behaviors deliver a food treat every time he does the approximation correctly, and immediately (within a few seconds). A great thing that you can do to improve your timing is to use a word like “yes” as a bridge to mark the exact moment that Fynn does the correct behavior, and then follow it up with food each time.

When Fynn knows how to target, you will have a full trust account and it’s time to zero in on teaching him how to step up onto your hand. To start, you can use the target to move Fynn onto a designated perch in his cage and reinforce him for standing on it while you open the cage door. It’s important to continue to reinforce Fynn for having calm body language as you gradually move your hand closer to him. Here’s where the target comes in handy. You can use it to orient Fynn’s head upwards as you shape him to step onto your hand because he can’t hold his head up and bite you at the same time - they are behaviors that are incompatible with one another. Since Fynn already knows how to follow the target, he can follow the target onto your hand at his pace, and then you can fade the target so that it isn’t needed anymore. Or, you can target Fynn to the top of his cage or to a perch affixed to the inside of his door.

For more ideas, go to and read Susan's and Lisa's article called "Right On Target", under "Written Works." It is always best to focus on what we want the animal to do, since after all, animals are built to behave and we can take advantage of that to empower them to do desired behaviors. There are some wonderful resources available to learn more about this: Dr. Susan Friedman’s excellent articles can be found at, Natural Encounters also has some quality avian training articles at and some great parrot training videos by Barbarah Heideneich can be found through

I wish you the best of luck with training Fynn!

Cory Cordes
Animal Behavior Technologist

Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates
About Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates

Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D., is currently a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. A Behaviourist for more than 25 years, her area of expertise is learning and behaviour with a special emphasis on children’s behaviour disorders. 

In the last several years, Susan has helped pioneer efforts to apply to animals the humane philosophy and scientifically sound teaching technology from the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis, which has been so effective with human learners. The guiding principle of this approach is a hierarchy of teaching interventions starting with the most positive, least intrusive, effective behaviour solutions.
Susan is a steadfast proponent of changing behaviour through facilitation rather than force. These tools of facilitation focus on animals’ extraordinary biologic capacity to learn by interacting with their environment. She teaches that by changing the environment for success, animals learn to behave successfully. Susan currently teaches Living and Learning with Parrots: The Fundamental Principles of behaviour several times a year. (See for more information and links to her recent articles.)

Susan is the first author on two recently completed chapters on learning and behaviour for two new avian veterinary texts (in press, Harrison and Lightfoot’s Clinical Avian Medicine and Luescher’s Manual Parrot behaviour) and enjoys contributing to and learning from several internet lists on parrot behaviour. She is a core member of the California Condor Recovery Team and takes every opportunity to work with companion animal caregivers, veterinarians, animal trainers and zookeepers to empower and enrich the lives of all learners. Foremost in this interdisciplinary effort is her passion for and commitment to working with companion parrots and their caregivers.