Parenting: Kids and bird bites

Meet the Murphy's loud and occasionally snappy nanday conure, Bandit.
In addition to cats and dogs, David Murphy reminds parents that birds also bite.
November 21, 2011 1:47:24 AM PST
There are a lot of different pet options out there and the Murphy family has entertained most of them. Each of these pets can be lots of fun for you and your kids, but each has its drawbacks. In last week's blog, I talked about cat and dog bites. This week, I'm addressing bird bites which are one of the "must knows" before embarking on making a bird a part of your family.

Winged Wisdom Pet Bird Magazine has a nice article describing the types of birds that bite and the situations that can lead to biting. In most cases, the bird is upset or afraid and that's when bird bites can be at their worst, even breaking the skin at times, and in all cases, causing a good deal of pain. There are also more friendly pecks and pinches that certain birds will use to get attention. Avoidance involves several tactics, according to Winged Wisdom's Kelly Tucker, including avoiding contact when the animal is upset. Another idea is to make yourself smaller and less threatening by, say, sitting next to a bird's stoop and offering a perch with one's hand or arm from beneath the bird rather than above.

The One Commandment

It's also possible to teach birds how hard of a grip is acceptable by making a loud command like "nooooo!" or "owwww!" each time the bird bites too severely. Since birds use their beaks to climb and negotiate their surroundings, a certain amount of gripping and latching on is natural, but a bird can be taught limits. Avoiding the bird altogether should not be an option, as birds need contact and stimulus to stay healthy and mentally sharp. And by the way, birds do not respond to physical punishment, so hitting is not appropriate. Verbal reprimands are best.

There are also different techniques for picking-up a bird described in the aforementioned article. In general, providing a perch for the bird beneath and in front of him is a good practice, saying the words "step up" as he climbs aboard with the goal of being able to have the bird follow that command on his own in the future.

Bigger and Badder

Another point to make is that the larger the bird you keep, the worse the potential bite as bird's jaws get stronger as they grow larger. Anything larger than a cockatiel for a family with kids may not be a good idea. Plus, some advisers point out that while part of the fun of bonding with a bird is having the animal ride around on family members' shoulders, a large bird may be attracted to a human ear or eye as a target for chomping. It's also claimed by some that placing a bird above your eye level (which would naturally happen with a larger bird on a shoulder) can create a sense of dominance for the bird, which is not a position you want to concede, not only to a bird but to any essentially wild animal.

From a medical perspective, the Centers For Disease Control's webpage concerning animal bites has very little to say about bird bites, other than the fact that sick birds have in the past spread the deadly bird flu. However, this has occurred in distant parts of the world and would not be so much of a concern with domestically kept house pets. Other diseases can be spread through the air and through contact with feces, but again, the bird has to be sick in order to pass along these additional diseases and a healthy house pet would not be an issue. In general, hand-washing following any contact with droppings is essential, just as it would be with any other sort of pet.

Good Medicine

Cleaning any open bite wounds with water and soap, followed by the application of an antibacterial cream follows the general advice on most animal bites. If a wound does not respond to treatment or any other unusual symptoms emerge, you should pay a visit to your local medical clinic or doctor's office. Most bites do not draw blood, by the way, although I've read of some rare cases where bites from large birds have required stitches. On a related matter, a bird's talons must be trimmed regularly, which you can learn to do yourself or have the local veterinarian handle. Basically, the process involves gently wrapping the bird in a towel and using special clippers to remove the pointed tips. Wings should be clipped regularly as well, which not only lessens the chance of losing the bird through an open door or window, but also takes a little of a bird's bravado away and makes them less ornery.

Birds are not for everyone. Certain species (especially our nanday conure) can be loud. Some species are more agitated than others and can be more prone to biting. But birds are also surprisingly smart and can be very affectionate and desiring of human company. Our conure loves nothing more than curling up on a family member's chest, turning his head sideways or upside down and taking a long, gentle finger massage. Care must be taken while the bird is molting, as many tender, loose feathers can be painful to the animal if tweaked too forcefully. Birds also enjoy conversation, often repeating or imitating sounds. Our bird "kisses", says "yoo-hoo" when it's hungry, and mimics everything from human laughter to sneezes. It definitely enjoys communicating, and is thrilled when someone pays him attention. For kids, a pet bird can be a stimulating experience that teaches the value of care and patience, assuming they're old enough and mature enough to properly and carefully approach the issue of biting.

---David Murphy

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