Are Big Beaks Or Little Beaks More Dangerous?

Posted by Mel on

Lorikeets

My three lorikeets love meeting new people and appear friendly but they're fast moving and capable of biting if provoked.

 

My house hasn’t been the calmest, quietest place lately. I’ve been catching up on a lot of jobs that have needed to be done, many of which are outside of my abilities and have required the assistance of some handy workmen. This has meant my birds have seen more strangers than usual. It’s always interesting to see what happens when a stranger is around.

 

I have nine parrots in my flock. The endless cages, aviaries and a house full of bird accessories tend to get noticed by visitors. There is nothing discreet about my birds either. A galah excitedly squealing “PIGGY!” at any oncoming stranger might also have something to do with that. (Handy hint: don’t make fun of the way your bird eats, it’s likely to get repeated.)

 

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Galahs/Rosebreasted Cockatoos, Merlin and Nemo are the biggest pigs in my flock.

 

Naturally, the largest bird draws the eye first, usually with an awed: “Wow look at the size of that beak – I wouldn’t want to get bitten by that!” In contrast, the smaller ones get called “Cute”.

 

I have absolutely no trouble whatsoever with convincing people not to stick their fingers in the macaw’s cage uninvited. I have a lot more difficulty stopping people from doing it to the smaller birds. The irony of that stands out to me.

 

Fid

A beak that demands respect! Fid can freeze his audience with this expression.

 

Of my nine parrots, only one has ever inflicted an injury that has inflicted permanent scarring and required a doctor. That award goes to my smallest and least intimidating bird – Otto my musk lorikeet. The amount of blood that bird has drawn in his short life convinces me that he wants to be a vampire. He was re-homed with me after doing some serious damage to his previous owner’s face. He is a difficult bird to read at the best of times and I would say easily the most dangerous bird in my flock.

 

In contrast, I have two birds in my flock that have never drawn blood. That award goes to the largest bird, Fid my Blue and Gold macaw and my least tame galah, Nemo. Fid gives a good strong pinching nip or bone-squishing crunch when he wants to – but he hasn’t drawn blood. Nemo on the other hand avoids any contact with most people, but will gingerly mouth someone she knows as a warning (it tickles). Her bite is so gentle; that I used to worry it meant she had no strength in her beak. Her splintered perches suggest otherwise.

 

Musk Lorikeet

Otto is quite approachable in this picture. His colour is dull, his stance is relaxed. This can change in a heartbeat.

 

It does seem odd that my smallest parrot is the one I’m most wary of, but there is possibly a good reason why he is the most likely to bite. It may well be that because people tend to be less afraid of smaller beaks; people tend to be less concerned about biting warning signs and try to touch a smaller bird more than they might try with a larger bird. It is possible that my musk lorikeet Otto has learned that he has to really react to maintain his personal space, whereas my macaw can achieve that same result with a simple intimidating look.

 

My idea of a dangerous bird is not primarily based on the size of a bird’s beak. I’m more concerned with how easy a bird’s body language is to read, how quickly the bird moves, how quickly a bird’s mood tends to change and how controllable the bird is when it snaps.

 

Musk Lorikeet

This photo of Otto was taken in the same location as the 'relaxed' photo so the lighting is similar. To most people he looks happy at getting access to flowers, but... Note the bright green under his eyes and the brightness of his red colouring? This is the first sign that my fingers may not be safe. He is guarding that plant and I have just enough time to get him into his cage before he snaps.

 

When Otto goes off, he goes in to full attack mode, lunging and biting continuously and there is no off-switch to that behaviour. When he bites, there is no warning bite and he will be continuously biting and scratching until he dies or until his victim does. He will go for a person’s face and try to scratch their eyes out. It is most definitely NOT something you want to be on the receiving end of. The only way I have found to stop it is to throw a towel over him and drop him back in his cage (with towel). He is extremely fast moving and very difficult to catch in this situation, so that is easier said than done. It’s this particular behaviour that was the reason why he was re-homed with me in the first place.

 

I have come to realise that while there is no warning bite with Otto, he displays very quick subtle color changes as a warning when he is upset by something. In particular the red feathers around his eyes almost start to glow and pulse when he’s becoming agitated. (Birds use light to communicate, changing the angle of their feathers reflects different amounts of light.) It’s enough of a sign to allow me to prevent him attacking and there hasn’t been an incident with him for over a year. However, the colour change in his feathers is so subtle and so fast that I’d absolutely never trust him with children or inexperienced bird handlers. This is despite the fact that Otto is actually a very friendly bird – he absolutely loves meeting new people. He whistles songs and sucks up to strangers like you would not believe in an effort to get them to pick him up. The problem is, his mood can change in a split second. People who can read and respond to that split second are really the only ones who can safely handle Otto.

 

Pepi

A formidable beak. Pepi is quite calm in this picture and that is obvious to me because his colour is an even shade of green.

 

The safest bird in my flock is the second largest bird here, my male eclectus Pepi. He has a truly hideous bite. There is a sharp edge to his beak that slices through skin really easily and it’s a bite with a lot of strength to it. I can see him inflicting a wound that could require medical intervention. He has a tendency to be a little grumpy and he has a very real temper but is generally a pretty friendly bird. The reason he is my safest bird is because he is by far the easiest bird to read. I can hand him over to a complete stranger and confidently say that if his head turns bright green and his body gets darker then something is annoying him and a bite is pending.

 

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Notice how his head appears to be lighter green than the rest of his body? This is a warning sign for me.

 

I have plenty of time to react if that happens because he then goes through a whole range of other very clear signals.  He’ll even show me the red under his wings as though holding up a stop sign.  His signals end with an unmistakable ferocious growl and only then will he bite. The signals are so clear, that it makes him very easy to handle.

 

leg warning

The red under the wings? He may as well be holding up a stop sign!

 

I have to say even if you think you know your birds well, sometimes you can be surprised. As I type I’m actually nursing a slightly bruised nose. My galah Merlin got me this morning. I was hanging a toy in his cage when he suddenly lunged forward and grabbed my nose. He squeezed it and then released it and yelled: HONK!!!! I was very unimpressed by this trick (it hurt) and I have absolutely no idea where he learned that? I can only assume that his previous owner taught it to him years ago and I must have done something to inadvertently cue it. I hope I never accidentally cue it again and the little rotter had better not teach it to the others! My nose is most definitely not made for honking.

 

Merlin

Merlin my honking galah.

 

In short, I try very hard not to judge birds by their beak size or by the bite they might inflict. I’m more inclined to look at the whole package. Even within a species, body language can vary between birds. Any bird can bite. Any bird can be dangerous. Even the smallest parrot can do serious damage. The trick is to learn the body language of your bird and learn to respect their signals. You can then manage your interactions and that personalised knowledge definitely comes through training and working regularly with your birds.  If you’re having problems with a biting bird check out the Stop Biting Training course for some more help.

 

Meanwhile what warning signals do your birds give you? Let us know in the comments field below.


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8 comments

  • Anyone notice any color variations when a CAG’s behavior starts to change…as a warning sign?

    Rebecca on
  • I have found the above info on big beaks or little beaks, to be very eye opening, as well the comments have made me feel able to relate & I now feel not as alone in the, “Bird World” I have a 1 year+ old green cheeked Conure, Joey “mischievous lil devil” who I once returned to the store I got him from but have since returned him home due to the care I noticed he was getting there….As well, I have 2 rescue Cockatoo’s both 30 yrs. Old. I am deaf, so the only way for me to learn about my boys, is by there body language. I’m finding this more than challenging as they all get quite active at different times of the day, & for a variety of reasons. And so, My learning continues! I’m left war wounded by Joey, so to now look at much, much, bigger beaks? I have a great respect for those two birds… being disabled at home alone most of the time, is like raising 1 child. I need these comments, to help me compare what I am doing along with what others are doing. I am very thankfull in receiving these emails:)

    Tammy Coulter on
  • We had a male white ‘tiel for about 6 days…He bit so hard there was no taming him. We named him Sid Vicious and he went back to the store after the 6th day. My other ’tiel, a beautiful pearl named Zuzee didn’t know how to bite. She was my sweetie girl.
    Now I have a male Senegal that loves me but hates my husband. He will try to bite my grand daughter if she comes too close to the cage, but always will take a nut from her very gently.

    Julie Scriver on
  • My macaw first bit me very hard, enough to draw blood and mangle flesh on my arm, when he was 8 years old. We called a “parrot behaviorist” in the San Francisco East Bay area and she said it was probably due to hormones and puberty. Sigh. So, I only picked him up if I was wearing a sweater or jacket, both to protect from any bites and to be more relaxed so he wouldn’t pick up on my fear.

    After four years with no problems, I decided to pick him up when I had no covering on my arms. A couple of weeks later, I picked him up and he bit and held on to my bicep muscle. I dropped him on the ground and went to tend to my wound. This also caused a large bruise which peaked out below short-sleeved tops (it was summer), so a couple of people at work were concerned that I had been beaten up by my husband or someone else. I told them no, my bird did it.

    So, I went back to only picking up my macaw with my arms covered. He is now 20 years old. I have learned lately to recognize his warning bites, where he puts his beak around my finger but does not bite down, and I stop doing whatever I was doing before he did the warning bite so I’m not bitten much now. It’s a matter of watching out for his warning signs.

    I have a friend with a lot of small birds and she always has small bites on her arms so I really don’t know which size of beak is worse, large or small. The large beak can do a lot of damage but small ones can, too. I got bit a couple of times by a cockatiel that we had for a while and those bites hurt!

    Evelyn on
  • My problem bird is my green cheek, he looks sweet but has bite people several times causing really damage, I would take my larger sun conure any day hers is just some pressure and lots of screaming at you to try to tell you to go away. People see size of beak, my tiny love bird is so cute but when she bites it is such a pinching pain that I cant help screaming even though I know I’m not suppose to act like it bothers me so that I don’t reinforce the biting as fun, but dang she hurts.

    Angela on

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