How do I get my love birds to stop biting?

REPLY - By Jessica Miller

Owning a pet lovebird is a fun, entertaining, challenging, and sometimes confusing venture.  If you thought that you were acquiring a pet that will never bite you in the course of your relationship, then a lovebird was probably not the best choice of a pet.  Biting is a natural way for lovebirds to communicate.  Occasional biting is to be expected, but it doesn’t have to be a regular or common occurrence. 

      Lovebirds that have not been socialized with humans from a young age are very hard, if not nearly impossible, to tame and train to be a pet.  For these birds, biting is in fear of the human hands that they have never learned to trust or enjoy.  These birds will bite hard if captured, and will more than likely let go when they find a way to escape.  Lovebirds that were hand raised as youngsters but not handled much after weaning will also more than likely bite when an attempt is made to interact with them.  This biting is often less frantic than that from a bird that was never socialized, but it hurts just the same. 

      There are four main reasons why lovebirds that have been well socialized with humans may bite their owners.  Each of these should be dealt with based on the reason why the lovebird is biting.  This is the most effective way of correcting the behavior before it becomes a habit, which ruins the enjoyment you will get from spending time with your lovebird. 

      Young lovebirds, particularly recently weaned babies, often bite as a way to explore their environment.  Most baby lovebirds go through a phase that can be compared to a teething phase in human babies.  Everything must go into the mouth!  Of course, this is a lovebird’s main way of testing out his environment and all of the new things he is coming in contact with.  A lovebird does not have hands to feel and hold new items with, so he must explore with his beak.  This type of exploring is perfectly natural, and it is unfair to scold a baby for doing this. 

      With that said, there is also the trouble of the baby not knowing the strength of their own beak.  Little babies do everything gently, as they’ve never had reason to use force with their beaks.  As they begin to grow up, they realize that a lot of playing and hanging requires more force with the beak.  Once they understand that force IS needed in some cases, they begin to test out their beak on lots of different things.  Many of the foods that we offer lovebirds require beak strength to enjoy – they must crack seed, chew nuts, and tear carrots.  Climbing and playing on hanging toys requires beak strength in order to prevent falling.  Youngsters don’t yet understand that it is painful to their living companions to be a testing ground for chewing! 

      While it is unfair to punish a baby lovebird for this kind of biting, they do need to be taught what is okay and what is too forceful.  This type of thing often comes up when a youngster is exploring you:  the bird will notice something like arm hairs, fingernails, or a necklace, and start playing with them.  They will chew on them to see what the texture is like.  Sometimes, they’ll miss what they are playing with, and catch a little bit of skin.  Ouch!  That’s always a surprise to the unsuspecting pet owner, especially if it’s the back of the neck (where they may be playing with a necklace).  Honest mistakes like this should be treated as such… honest mistakes.  The lovebird should be gently, but firmly told “no” or “no bite” and be removed from the object that is being chewed. 

      The “teething” phase can last anywhere from a few weeks up to about three or four months, depending on the curiosity level of the bird and it’s willingness to make their new owner happy (by not chewing too hard). 

      Another reason a pet lovebird might bite its owner is when they are frightened or threatened.  Many times, this is not always the first thing that comes to mind, because lovebirds often appear to be completely fearless birds.  The thought that something might startle or frighten them doesn’t cross our minds.  It is true that fear is rarely the case for a pet lovebird to bite once they are familiar with their owners and surroundings.  This does happen on occasion, though, and pet owners need to be vigilant to analyze the situation when their bird bites to see if this might be the cause.  Things that might startle or threaten a pet lovebird are sudden or unexpected movements, loud noises, or people that the bird is unfamiliar with.  Again, it is unfair to punish a lovebird for biting in situations where the bird is afraid.  The best way to resolve this is to remove the bird from the situation that frightens it.  This will resolve this kind of biting immediately. 

      The third reason a pet lovebird may bite is to test out who is in charge and what he can get away with.  In the wild, lovebirds live in large flocks.  These flocks are organized into a hierarchy of levels.  The higher a lovebird is on the level, the more he or she can get their way – either the nesting site that they want or the first chance at a new food source.  Young lovebirds squabble among themselves to establish where they stand in that hierarchy.  The more they are able to get another bird to back down, the better their final standing will be in the flock. 

      Lovebirds are very stubborn birds, and if you want them to do something they don’t want to do (or vice versa), then they will try to bully you into allowing them to have their way.  If they get their way, then they will assume that they are the dominant bird in the flock, and will come to expect that they should always get their way.  This is NOT acceptable behavior and NOT a reason to bite.  If it appears as though this is the case with your pet lovebird, then you’ll want to nip that in the bud right away.  First thing is to try and not react suddenly to the bite.  This is especially difficult for some people to master, as it’s a natural reaction to try to pull away and yell out in pain.  If a lovebird gets a good reaction out of the victim of his bite, then it becomes fun to bite just to get the reaction.  

       Punishment for this kind of biting should be immediate and more severe than for the innocent type of chewing.  Firmly tell the bird “no” or “no bite.”  One of the hardest punishments for a pet lovebird that wants to be out and about is to be returned to their cage.  A short time-out for dominant biting usually works wonders.  It is even more effective if you have a small cage (or carrier), with only a single perch (no toys or food) to put the offending bird in for about five minutes.  Do not look at your bird or talk to him while he is in punishment.  Once the five minutes is up, you can go and get him out.  In this case, you have proven to him that he does NOT get his way when he bites, but rather is punished by you.  You are the dominant member of the flock, and he will quickly realize that if he does not follow your wishes, he is punished. 

      If on your hand or someplace that is easily accessible when dominant biting occurs, you can immediately blow a puff of air in your lovebird’s face.  Put a little force behind the air.  If you blow hard enough, your lovebird will be startled.  Lovebirds hate this.  They will let go right away and shake their heads.  This makes them let go of what they’ve gotten hold of and is one of those instantaneous negative effects that was caused by the bite.  Adding the firm “no” or “no bite” to the puff of air will also train a lovebird that dominant biting is not acceptable.   

      Physically striking your bird is NOT an acceptable form of punishment for any kind of biting, and will only cause your bird to fear and/or dislike you.  No matter how tempted you may be, NEVER physically strike any pet bird. 

      The fourth most common reason why a pet lovebird may bite often comes as a surprise to the pet owner.  Sexual maturity causes hormones to rage and the behaviors we come to expect from our pets often are not what we see one day.  Lovebirds generally reach sexual maturity between the ages of 10 – 12 months of age.  At this age, they can be like teenage children – unpredictable and moody.  Knowing the age of your lovebird can help you prepare for this time when it happens.  Some birds (not necessarily all of them) will become territorial about their cage or playgym, and attempt to bite anyone who dares try to reach a hand into that territory.  Other birds will defend a specific toy, dish, or perch as if it were a mate.  Some lovebirds will be fine one day, but decide they do not want to come out to play the next day.  All of these behaviors, when connected with sexual maturity, should be respected.  It is natural and there is nothing that the bird can do to change it. 

      Fear not, though!  Sexual maturity does not last forever.  Once your pet lovebird goes through that first surge of hormones, you’ll find that the hormones will wane and your bird will return to its sweet, playful self.  These seasonal changes usually happen once or twice a year (most often in the spring time), and will last for about a month or so.  There are some things that can be done to minimize this.   Lengthening the amount of darkness your bird gets at night helps to trick the body into not knowing that spring time is arriving.  Avoiding places that can be misconstrued as nesting sites goes a long way to help reduce hormonal surges.  Happy huts and other dark, small places make pet lovebirds believe that there is a place to make a nest.  If it is apparent that your pet lovebird views a particular human as its mate, then this person should avoid petting the bird on the back during hormonal times – this is very suggestive and sends mixed messages.  A territorial bird that puffs up and threatens when you try to take him out of his cage should be left alone.  Think of it as a friend who is in a bad mood today and doesn’t want to come out to play. 

      Careful observation of the natural and typical behaviors of your lovebird will give you a good basis for understanding many different behaviors in your pet.  Every lovebird has a different personality, and they do not always act exactly in the same manner.  There are common characteristics that the majority of lovebirds will display.  Biting is often one of those traits.  You will be the best person to be able to read your pet lovebird’s body language and determine what the reason is for your lovebird’s biting.  Once you’ve figured out why your bird bites, you’ll be able to direct the right punishment for it.  Doing this while the bird is still young will improve your relationship with your lovebird for the long haul.  Most lovebirds learn the rules when they are younger, and then stay within the boundaries that were created for them as they get older. 

Love 'n Let Aviary


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Photo credits: blue peachfaced lovebird by Vera Appleyard, black-cheeked lovebird by Deb Sandidge, Madagascar lovebird by Gwen Powell (bird owned by Roland Dubuc), Fischer's lovebird by Lee Horton.