The Myth of Parrot Aggression


Avian veterinarians and parrot behavior consultants are dealing with the issue of "aggression" and "biting" in parrots all the time in companion parrots as well as in parrots kept in aviculture. Biting behavior has to be considered as not just biting behavior but as part of a complex behavior determined by the circumstances.

The main causes of aggression and biting will be discussed as well as the tools to deal with the problem without creating stress for the bird, the owner and the practitioner. Misunderstandings about aggression on the part of owners and veterinarians and the fear of getting bitten are constant issues.

One of the salient features of a parrot is an impressive beak. It is also often the source of considerable anxiety for parents who associate a beak with biting and are concerned about the damage that could be inflicted to themselves or their children. Therefore it is important to realize that a parrot does not use its beak in the wild in order to injure or kill, but for climbing, eating, preening, feeding youngsters, partners and for defending.

Understanding the background of behavior and proper handling of parrots will make all the difference.


In general, there is still a lack of awareness that with parrots we are dealing with non-domesticated prey animals that are kept in captivity. Living with and working with parrots as care takers and veterinarians, it is essential to know and understand the basics of handling and manipulating the birds in a professional manner. A professional manner is about preventing problems from occurring, avoiding unnecessary stress and (self) trauma to the animal and avoiding biting to the handlers. It is within veterinary science that the major dogma dealing with parrots is Do Not Harm. Reducing stress is an important responsibility for everybody dealing with and working with parrots.

Without knowledge and understanding about normal behavior in the context of a non-domesticated animal, many owners consider normal parrot behavior, like being noisy, as a problem. Many owners also underestimate the high intelligence of parrots. Therefore, when normal behavior is misunderstood and parrot intelligence is underestimated, a wide variety of behavior problems are apt to occur depending upon the individual parrot, species and circumstances surrounding the bird. Screaming, feather picking and biting are common behavior problems.

Within the Clinic for Birds it is my experience that many parrot owners /caretakers show that they feel uncomfortable dealing with a parrot. It is also not uncommon that veterinarians show fear of the parrot and have a problem handling and manipulating the bird. Under those circumstances it is predictable that parrots show behavior problems.

The beak of a parrot, especially a cockatoo or a macaw, is an imposing instrument that many bird owners regard with a certain amount of awe and anxiety. The power behind a parrot's beak is well known to everyone. In the wild, beaks are used to crack open hard nuts and strong seed coverings. Nesting holes in trees are enlarged using this same powerful tool. In captivity parrots adjust and destroy nest boxes, tree branches are turned into matchsticks, nuts fastened with a wrench are loosened from their bolts, and toys and furniture are reduced to fragments, all by these same beaks, and seemingly without effort. The amount of power that a parrot can exert with a lightweight skull and a lightweight beak is exceedingly impressive. By combining strong muscles and the hinge construction of the upper beak, parrot beaks can be as effective as a pair of strong sharp pliers.

Apart from eating and adjusting the nesting site, the beak also has many other important functions. It is used as a third foot when the birds are climbing to keep them steady. It is used to hold objects so that the sensitive tongue can investigate them. The beak is also the instrument that is used to care for the bird's own feathers and for those of his or her partner. Beaks also help care for young birds.

Biting is a frequently cited reason for relinquishing a pet parrot, who then disappears into the cycle of sale and re-sale, or is dumped in a rescue centre. It is the experience within the Clinic for Birds that the arrival of a baby in the house often coincides with the departure of the parrot because of the new parents' fear that their offspring will not be safe around their pet. If it's not the concern of the parents, then it is the concern of the grandparents. That beak-what damage that could do to little fingers, toes, ears or a little nose!

Parrots are Built and Behave as Prey Animals

Parrots are prey animals by nature. A typical anatomical feature of parrots as prey animals is the location of their eyes at the sides of their head as this enables the parrot to observe the whole environment. The eyes of predators are positioned in a way enabling the animals to watch straightforward with binocular vision. This enables the predator to determine the precise position of the prey and the distance between predator and prey.

The fear of being killed determines a major part of normal behavior. In situations in which a prey animal is not able to prevent a dangerous situation or escape from the predator one of the survival strategies left is to bite and intimidate the predator. It makes sense that under those situations biting is meant to cause serious damage to the predator as part of their survival strategy. The fear of being killed is also normal behavior within captivity.

Dealing with parrots without understanding the consequences of the specific characteristics of parrots as prey animals can create problems. Humans have all the characteristics of a predator. The eyes of humans are positioned like those of dogs, cats, owls and birds of prey with binocular vision. Many well meaning people are intimidating their birds without realizing it. Being nice does not solve the problem. Demonstrating respect for the background of parrots will make a difference.

Breeding pairs sit or eat next to each other and observe each other with one eye. Positive social behavior includes turning the neck and back to the other bird to show the opposite of intimidating behavior. How different from human behavior among lovers. Lovers will sit opposite to each other in a restaurant looking into each others eyes. Parrots sit next to each other in a restaurant looking with one eye. Parrots that are intimidating another parrot mimic the posture of a predator looking straightforward with their body pointed towards the other bird. The same posture can be seen in frightened birds that have no possibility of escape. Under these circumstances "aggression" should be considered a defensive behavior instead of an aggressive behavior.




Clubb, S,L KJ. S.L. Clubb, S. Phillips, and S.Wolf. 1002. "Intraspecitic aggression in cockatoos." In: Psittacine Aviculture: Perspectives, techniques and research, ed. R,M, Schubot, KJ. Clubb, and S.L. Clubb, chapter 8. Loxahatchee, FL .

Friedman S.G., Edling T,M, Cheney C. 2006. The natural science of behavior. In: Clinical Avian Medicine, ed Harrison G ., Lightfood T. Spx Publishing, Inc. Fl. Palm Beach. Pp. 46- 59

Marquardt C. 1992.An Experiment IN Colony Breeding The Hyacinth.

In: Psittacine Aviculture: Perspectives, techniques and research, ed. R,M, Schubot, KJ. Clubb, and S.L. Clubb, chapter 26. Loxahatchee, FL .

Hooimeijer J, Organizing a Parrot Walk/Parrot Picnic: Proceedings of the Annual Conf Assoc Avian Vet, Pittsburgh, 2003

Hooimeijer J. Behavior Problems of Cockatoos in Captivity. Proc. Assoc.

Avia Vet, New Orleans 2004, 271-281.

Hooimeijer J. A Practical behavior protocol for dealing with parrots. Proc.

Assoc Avian Vet, Pittsburgh 2003: 177-181

Well, K. 2006. Aggressive Behavior in Pet Birds. In: Parrot Behavior Manual ed. A. U. Luescher, pp21 l-217. Blackwell Publishing. Iowa.

Sant Van F, Problem Sexual Behaviors of Companion Parrots. 2006. In:

Parrot Behavior Manual ed. A. U. Luescher, pp 233-245. Blackwell Publishing. Iowa.

Wilson L. Biting and screaming in companion parrots. Proc Assoc Avian Vet, Portland 2000, 71-76

Wilson L., Linden P., Lightfoot TL, Early Psittacine Behavior and Development. In: In: Clinical Avian Medicine, ed Harrison G., Lightfood T. Spx Publishing, Inc. Fl. Palm Beach. Pp. 60-84

Van Sant, F. Seeing The Rain Forest Through The Trees; Proceedings Annual Conference of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, 1993 Nashville, p. 228-232

Davis Christine. Behavior Problems Unique to the Companion Psittacine Bird. Proc.Pre Conf. Spec. Progr. Assoc Avian Vet. Monterey 2001 ; 17-23

Lightfood T.L. Captive-raised Psittacine Birds and Species Differences in the Animal Hospital Environment. In Proc Pre Conference Specialty Program of An Conf. AAV 2002, Monterey. P 25-33

Wilson L, Behavioral Problems In Pet Birds. In Olson GH, Orosz SE, eds. Manual of Avian Medicine, St. Louis, MO: Mosby: 2000: 125-147