Hide your hands – Kelly is a biting parakeet

I realized recently that I never provided an update on Kelly’s hand-aggressive behavior.  In my last post on the subject, Hide your hands – Kelly is a teenager I ended on a somewhat hopeful or positive note, assuming there was a solution to this issue. I can now report I have not found the method to solve a biting parakeet.

Many people will tell you that A. budgies only bite when they are scared, and B. the bite of a budgie does not hurt. I am here to tell you that these statements are not absolutes. Kelly is not scared of us, and Kelly bites hard enough to cause pain, bruising and broken skin. She bites completely unprovoked, choosing to land on your hand and then biting incredibly hard.

I have tried the following conventional attempts to discourage biting with zero impact:

  • Gently wiggle your hand so the parakeet cannot keep its balance and learns to stop biting.  HAHA. Kelly seemed to either enjoy the wagging hand, or it made her angry thus increasing the frequency and pressure of the bites.
  • Blow in the budgies face lightly (which they dislike) until they learn that biting causes you to blow in their faces. Again, Kelly either ignores this or it makes her madder and she bites harder.
  • Say “no” or “ouch”, budgies are intelligent creatures and will learn that the behavior is undesirable. No impact.
  • Ignore the behavior until they learn that there is no consequence to biting and since it generates no reaction they stop. This is simply impossible as her biting hurts too much and you end up looking like you got a bunch of needle sticks in your hand from bruising! 
  • We also tried going the positive reinforcement route. This involved verbal praise for not biting as well as providing a treat. There was little to no impact as Kelly is not motivated by treats and does not care if we praise her.

I should add that the aggression is not limited to hands, she will land on your shoulder and bite your neck. She loves climbing in and out of shirt collars but we can’t let her do it anymore because she bites your chest and neck too much to bear it. This isn’t even aggressive initially, but if you try to redirect her she gets angry and bites harder.

I’m sure some of this is impacted by the fact that she’s in breeding condition, but it’s been an issue all along. She also has AMPLE appropriate toys and perches to destroy in her cage, which she enjoys.

Ultimately our solution has ben to take a hands off approach with Kelly. It stinks because I feel like we don’t have much of a relationship with her, but interacting  with us does not make her happy. Not that much does, she is just generally a real crab. If she had been our first bird I’m sure I would have quickly concluded that parakeets were difficult and violent pets!

I wanted to write this post for a couple of reasons, firstly so I don’t give the wrong impression that I managed to resolve this issue. But, more importantly, I want you to know that if you’re struggling with an aggressive budgie and people keep telling you that budgies aren’t aggressive you are not alone!  There are other angry parakeets out there biting their human flock for no reason who cannot be stopped.

If I do manage to reduce the aggression I’ll report back, but other wise it’s safe to assume that Kelly’s human flock is walking around with a few bites at all times! I should add that she has never harmed another parakeet. When she is  aggressive towards Kevin she focuses on trying to pull out his feathers. I’m not a fan of that behavior either, but if it was more serious I would think about separating her or even rehoming to an environment she might enjoy more. What that would be I have no idea!

Biting budgies – Kelly’s progress with hand aggression

This past winter Kelly’s juvenile hand biting, which initially seemed like very normal parakeet exploratory biting, turned into major hand aggression.  She was simultaneously going through her “teenage” phase, entering breeding condition for the first time, AND having a really heavy molt. We struggled with her very sharp and painful biting which we were almost completely unable to dissuade her from and which caused several bruises and even broken skin!

Fortunately I think we are coming out of the woods, after a final sharp escalation.

Shortly after I wrote the initial post in January, Kelly got much worse. She no longer limited her aggression to hands but would unpredictably bite any piece of you she could grab.

It was becoming difficult to trust her enough to interact with her at all, but at the same time we could tell she wanted to be with us, and would get more upset if we ignored her.

This culminated in a moment where Patrick lost his patience and almost his nose!  He had Kelly out on his hands and was working with her and the clicker, trying to increase the time between landing on his hand and biting it. She was feeling particularly aggressive that day and bit him, latching on very hard.

Patrick made the HUGE mistake of putting his face right up to her and sternly saying “NO”, whereupon she promptly bit his nose, hard enough to draw blood. Patrick put her down immediately and went to the bathroom. I think in that moment it was probably the best way to handle it, he didn’t give her the gratification of a reaction, but he did stop working with her, which may have been her intent in the first place.  Sometimes you just have to do the best you can in these situations.  He cleaned it off a bit and I asked for his permission to take a picture (in case he forgets when he sees this post – he said YES!).

Once he calmed down we talked about what happened and agreed that there was no way to blame Kelly for the nose bite. Patrick reacted in an aggressive way towards Kelly and it was reasonable to expect her to react in kind.

After that we decided to go all the way back to the beginning and treat Kelly like we would treat a new feral parakeet. We limited her interaction with hands and started by placing one hand at a time facing her through the cage bars. She would react aggressively every time by banging her beak against the bars, nodding her head very rapidly and trying to reach through the bars to bite the hand. We would keep the hand still and not move at all until she stopped of acting aggressively and went back to her usual routine.  Doing this a few times a day made a huge difference, in short order we saw a drastic reduction in the amount of time she would spend acting aggressively when presented with a hand.

I also started putting my hand in the cage with millet, the same way I would with an un-tamed parakeet and let both budgies eat millet while perched on my finger. As soon as Kelly started biting I would take away my hand and the millet.

While working on her in-cage we continued to really back off on pushing her outside the cage. We continued to allow her to hang out on us and explore our pockets and t-shirts, but tried to keep our hands out of it completely.

After a few weeks of these tactics combined we have seen a huge improvement.  I know that some of it is because she’s coming out of breeding condition and made it through her uncomfortable molt, but I think the big driving force was finally getting her adjusted to seeing our hands as non-threatening.

Recently she’s been stepping up with minimal biting that’s delivered much more gently.  She’s also stood on my hands a couple of times without biting at all, while I basically held my breath waiting to see what would happen!

She doesn’t see our hands as friendly birds the way that Toby seems to, but I think we are finally over the hump of having her accept that she can’t get rid of our hands, and they are not a threat, and sometimes quite helpful, if not desirable playmates.