Territorial Aggression

Psittacine aggression is one of the more serious of behavioral problems for pet bird owners. The strong jaws and hooked bill of parrots can inflict serious pain and do substantial damage to the owners. Aggression in parrots takes the form of biting or lunging at the object of their aggression. As in any other species, this type of behavior has several causes. While an individual bird can have overlapping and interacting causes, it is helpful to categorize the problem in order to treat it. Causes of aggressive behavior in pet birds include fear, dominance, territorial behavior, and possessive behavior. Diagnosis is based upon the behavioral history.

Territorial aggression is particularly common in certain species. Quaker parakeets, conures, miniature macaws, African grey parrots, and Amazon parrots are prone to develop this problem. Breeding birds of all species tend to be territorial about their nest area and cage. In these birds, this behavior is considered desirable. Guarding of the nest territory is an important breeding cue. While the sex of many avian patients is unknown, it appears that territorial aggression is somewhat more common in males than females.
Diagnostic criteria for territorial aggression are very simple. For territorial aggression, the aggressive behavior must occur when the bird is in or on its cage, playpen, or other living area. If this is not the case, the aggression cannot be territorial aggression. If the bird exhibits aggression in other circumstances, then other behavioral problems exist. The instructions found here may not be enough to control the unwanted behavior.

Behavior modification for territorial aggression is multifaceted. In order to achieve the specific goals, general obedience training is essential. The step-up command should be automatic for the bird. This command is an important training tool. To avoid personal injury, your bird should be removed while servicing the cage. You should know how to perform atraumatic but secure towel restraint of your bird if necessary. Birds that will not leave the cage without biting should be caught and carried to a separate area. Some birds can be safely handled following voluntary exit from the cage. This facilitates training measures.

Corrections can be given when bites occur but many of the appropriate reprimands will not be applicable. Repeated step-ups can be used, but only if the bird can be brought out of the cage within a few seconds of the bite. Towel restraint can be a useful method of gaining control, especially with smaller birds. Verbal reprimands can be effective as long as they are stern but calm. Dramatic responses like yelling are entertaining to birds and should be avoided. Striking the bird and beak grabbing are unacceptable corrections. They further excite the bird, induce fear, and can potentially injure the bird.

An attempt should be made to make the bird less dependent on the cage. This helps both in the prevention and treatment of territorial aggression. Birds that spend most or all of their time in one cage can become viciously aggressive about defending it. In the wild, birds roost in the same area each night. During the day, they travel to other locations to forage, usually with their flock. A two-cage housing system helps provide a more natural system. A large, well-furnished cage or playpen should be used during the daytime to encourage activity. The cage should be rearranged frequently to promote adaptability in the bird. During the night, a smaller roosting cage with rather Spartan accommodations should be used. Each morning the bird can be transported to the larger cage and evening to the roosting cage. If further measures are needed the bird can be meal fed twice daily in another location.

The bird should be integrated into the family social unit. Portable stations allow the bird to sit close to the activity of the family. This, combined with consistent handling and training, provides the bird with the social skills needed to be well-adjusted pets. Regularly scheduled handling and training are important for maintaining socialization. The two-cage housing system described will force you to handle birds at least twice daily to transport them.

Psychotropic drugs are not generally indicated in the treatment of territorial aggression in birds. The chemical basis of aggression is unknown in birds. Additionally, the prognosis for territorial aggression with behavioral modification alone is favorable.
Like any behavioral disorder, improvement will usually occur slowly and gradually. Keep a journal of your bird’s behavior. The frequency, severity, and nature of any occurrence of aggression should be logged. A reduction in the frequency or severity of aggression indicates that the treatment plan is working.

​The success of behavioral modification is improved when the cause of the behavior is determined. A diagnosis of territorial aggression can be easily made from a behavioral history. This problem is exceptionally common in certain species. Often birds will be banished to their cage, further aggravating the problem. When integrated approach is used, this problem can be successfully treated and prevented in most cases.

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