How to prevent resource guarding and “sudden biting” in parrots
People often ask what the most common problems are that parrot owners seek behavior consultations for. In my experience, lack of trust is among the most common problems parrot owners have with their feathered friends, or that parrots have with their owners for that matter, 🙂 “Lack of trust” is of course pretty arbitrary in itself, but this often manifests itself in a variety of observable ways, such as biting or fear responses. As always, carefully observing our parrots and respecting what they try to tell us with their body language at all times is key to maintaining trust between us and our birds.
One of the ways this lack of trust can express itself is through what I like to call resource guarding. Resource guarding is more commonly associated with dogs, but my personal experience is that this is also a pretty big issue when it comes to some pet birds. First off, I would like to say that this has nothing at all to do with “dominance” or parrots trying to gain control over their owners. Parrots are nosy and curious, always getting their beaks in to things where humans have decided that beaks do not belong. There is no reason to believe that parrots have a concept of “yours and mine”, nor that they understand- or care about concepts such as “being allowed” to do something. Parrots are independent beings that see the world for what it is: a neat place full of cool things that can and should be investigated!
So, it’s parrot playtime, and you have forgotten your glasses on the living room table. Nosy-beak sees this, flies over and starts massacring your seeing-aides. What do you do? Most people act on instinct in these situations and simply run up to the bird and desperately start trying to pry the expensive glasses out of the bird’s beak. In many homes, this isn’t a one-time occurrence, but happens pretty frequently. Sometimes it’s not an object, but a favourite place that we forcefully remove the bird from, such as the TV or a shelf with fragile items.
Let’s look at this from the bird’s perspective: people are unpredictable and kind of crazy! They run up to you when you least expect it and steal things, often while moving very fast and being generally disrespectful and scary. This leads to many parrots becoming very defensive of things and locations. Some parrots will start flashing eyes, fanning tails and use their body language to signal “don’t you dare come near me” when they are somewhere humans usually remove them from, are playing with something or maybe they are just sitting in their cage wanting to be left alone. My observation is that a lot of “unpredictable biters” bite without warning because they think a human is about to take something from them or do something scary. After all, you don’t give any warning, why should they? The thing is, these feelings will quickly generalize to other situations as well. It doesn’t matter if you are super responsive to the birds signals when you are training for example, if there are still times outside of training sessions when you don’t respect the bird and use force, like when trying to get back an expensive or possibly dangerous object from it’s beak, the bird will probably still always feel like you are a bit unpredictable, and that will effect your relationship.
So how do we solve this? Luckily, training can help! Of course we can’t just ignore it when a bird gets a hold of something dangerous or very expensive. What we need to do is instead to teach our parrots a cue, like “drop” or “give me”, and that letting go of items after hearing these cues will result in wonderful consequences for them. Of course, setting you and your bird up to succeed by always trying to put non-parrot things away and trying to make those no parrots allowed-places hard for the birds to get to, and offering plenty of desirable alternatives and reinforcing the bird for sticking to those places, is the most important thing of all.
Teaching a “drop” cue is pretty simple, all you need is something your parrot really likes, some patience, and good timing. Give your bird an item that it is allowed to have, preferably one that isn’t easily destroyed and maybe a bit hard for the bird to hold on to if possible, like a hard plastic ball. Let your parrot play with the object until he drops it or lets go. As soon as he does, reinforce! Give the object to your bird again and repeat. Pretty soon your bird should be dropping the object very quickly after you’ve handed it to him. When that’s the case, it’s time to add a cue. Preferrably something short and distinct. Now as soon as you see that the bird is about to drop the item, give your cue and reinforce after the bird lets go. Repeat this, and as always when adding a cue, only reinforce the drops that follows the cue! If the parrot drops it without you asking for it, just give the item back to the bird and try again. Eventually you can start waiting longer and longer before giving the cue and also start to generalize the drop to lot’s of different items (and locations!) to make it really solid.
When the behavior is solid and we’re practicing this under controlled circumstances, I always make sure to reinforce extremely heavily (remember, this behavior needs to be a 100% even when the bird has something reeeeally desirable in it’s beak already!) and often give back the item they were playing with as a bonus, if it’s safe. This way we build a alot of reinforcement history for dropping things when asked, before we actually need to use the cue in real life.
If generalized enough and if you spend enough time proofing it, this cue will even work for getting your bird to drop desirable food items! And, most importantly, it will save you both a lot of unnecessary conflict and strengthen your trust in the long run. In the video above you can se Echo giving me a highly valued walnut when I ask him.