What makes a cockatiel attack? What are the reasons behind the aggressive behavior? How can you build a better relationship with an aggressive bird?

Cockatiels are normally gentle and docile parrots. They try to avoid conflict and rather escape than bite. Sometimes you can still meet a tiel that shows signs of aggression and may bite. But the aggressive behavior isn't born itself: there is always a reason behind it. One of the most important things for the owner to realize is that there is absolutely no dominance in cockatiel world. There isn't a hierarchy or any such - only personalities and causes of the behavior. This means that phrases like "It's trying to be a boss!" or "It has a bad attitude and it's trying to be dominant" are actually false. Aggression is associated with fear or threating, meaningh that the the owner needs to find out what makes the cockatiel to be afraid or irritated. What is the thing that gives the bird a reason to bite. And believe me: there is always a reason, even if it may not seem like that at first. Sometimes things that have happened years back can affect the bird's behavior. The reasons of aggression can be roughly classified as such:

1) Aggression caused by breeding hormones.
2) Too small houseroom.
3) Learned aggression caused by disrespect towards the warning signals

The most common reason for a sudden occurance of aggression seems to be breeding mood. Breeding mood causes hormonal changes that are ment for making sure that the breeding is succesful. Especially males may get more aggressive than average, defending the potential nests. And when it comes to pet conditions, a potential nest can be a shelf, hole between books, a place under magazine, random box or such. If a human goes near to a place that the cockatiel concideres as nest the bird will see the human as threat and the most logical reaction is to attack for defence. I've noticed that the aggression seems to be strongest when there are eggs or small chicks. On the nature the aggressive behavior serves the cockatiel so that it has more courage driving beasts or competitiors away, protecting the next generation.

The breeding mood is born when the surroundings offer suitable stimulus. This stimulus can be a change in temperature, amount of light, diet or such. For example in Finland the most typical time for aggression is fall: as it gets colder we put the radiators on. This combined with beginning autumn rains and changes in light cause our cockatiels to have strong hormonal changes and they switch easily to breeding mood. One can make things easier by cooling the temperature step by step a bit and keeping the bird room slightly cooler. ALso all the potential nest holes have to be removed or covered. Lesser showering and mimicing the australian dry season may help, too. If you think about this from the bird's eye view, the cockatiel is just defending it's bedroom to where a huge, weird beast has invaded, showing its' white and shiny teeth.

The other common reason is that the cockatiel has too minimal space. This often means too small cage or too many birds with insufficient space or perches. If the houseroom is causing the aggression, the attacks are usually headed towards other birds. Little arguments between cockatiels are pretty much normal but if the attacks are continuous and cause all the time damage there is something wrong. BIrds that suffer from too small spaces can be divided roughly in two groups: those who learn to be helpless and submit to the attacks if they can't run away - and those that can't handle the situation and terminate their anguish by using violence. They do it to defence the little space they have left.

Once I received four rescue cockatiels that had lived their entire life in a cage that had measures 45x45 cm. They had never had flying possibility. There were three males and one female. One of the males had turned very aggressive, driving all the others away. At the same time it tried to mate with the female but plucked her in frustration. He also plucked the two other males a bit but mostly just bite them and tried to drive them away. The other males were often like paralyzed, just dealing with the attacks since they didn't have much space to use for escape. The female also just stood there. When these birds had a whole room to live in their natures started to balance. The aggressive male was at first very defencive amongst everything that came near to it but day after day it calmed down and finally stopped attacking. The other birds learned that they could again avoid conflicts so they rather escaped instead of having to deal with the attacks. And when they moved out of the way the aggressive male learned that his signals were respected and he no longer had to use violence to defend himself.

he third and trickiest option is that the aggression might be learned behavior. Usually the cockatiel always gives several warning signals before an actual bite. But if the human doesn't respect the signals and the bird will bite. I'll try to clear this up a bit:

Think about a situation where your friend approaches you with a stick in his hand. At first you would probably lean back, feeling a bit unsure what your friend is up to. Your friend pokes you with the stick. You tell him: "Don't do that!". He doesn't listen. Instead, he pokes you again. You tell him strongly to stop but he won't respect your words. You try to push him away, but he still continues. You tell him that you WILL hit him soon but nothing happens. It's like he was deaf or something. Finally the only way to make him stop is to hit him hard. He pulls away and stops. But. Next day he comes back and pokes you again! Again you try to tell him to stop but it's the same as it was yesterday: he won't listen. You hit him again and he leaves away. Next time when your friend comes with a stick and tries to poke you, you hit him before he even touches you. You have learned that's the only way to make him stop.

The same happens with parrots. They have very sensitive body language and it can be hard to read it at first but the owner just has to learn it if she/he want's to tame his bird without creating behavioral problems. If the bird leans away it tries to tell you "I'm scared. Don't come any closer." If the bird has to take steps away the amount of fear is a bit greater. And if the bird gives you a hiss it means "Why don't you listen to me? Go away!" And, if the bird hisses and leans actually towards the human it means a clear warning: "Okay, now I'm getting irritated. Leave me alone. NOW!" ...And adding there a knock against the perch, cage or even your hand if you have really been disrespectful, the meaninh is "If you do not stop RIGHT NOW you force me to bite you. This is the last warning." If you still won't listen the bird will not only knock but it will take your skin between its' jaws and bite. If you let the situation to go this way you know you went way too far long ago. And if the bird learns that the minor warnings won't work it just starts to skip them and moves straight to the stronger acts.

If your bird has learned to be aggressive you really need to clear the table and start many things from the beginning, being very patient. Often the new beginning demands a sort of a cool down, meaning that the bird really is left in peace if the bird wants it. This might feel bad for the owner to have a bit more distance but it will be worth it. In its simpliest, the training begins with paying attention to the way people move near to the bird. Forget about quick moves, flailing or rushing right next to the cockatiel - don't let it get scared of you. Don't invade to the bird's personal space unless it wants you to. The cockatiel has to learn that even the smaller signals will be respected. This is done by reinforcing smaller signals by listening to them. If the bird pulls away it wants to have more distance: let the bird have some space and withdraw yourself a bit, too. This is how you reinforce the bird to use even smaller signs of body language. If you have gotten used to asking the bird to step up by poking its chest or tummy, stop that. You may not do that anymore since it is counted as forcing, even it may feel small to you. The cockatiel should be trained to just nicely step on the hand that is offered in front of it. If the bird has learned that the hand that is coming near will poke, cockatiel might bite already as the hand is moving towards the bird. If this is the case, leave your hand clearly behind a good distance and slowly move it closer. Reward the bird with small treats and pull the hand away slowly but immediately if the bird shows any signs that it doesn't want the hand near: pulling even a 1/4 inch away, hissing, stepping away or anything such. When you get to the point where the hand is near to the bird and the bird is still relaxed, you can re-train step up by luring the bird to your hand with millet. In time you can leave the treat away but for now it is important to train the aggression away, reinforcing positively the wanted behavior. Follow these principles in everything you do. If cleaning the cage makes the cockatiel attack, do the cleaning when the cockatiel isn't inside the cage. This is how you won't seem like a threat. Remember that new ways may take time. Sometimes traumas are very deep and it will take several weeks, months or in worst cases even years to train it away.

Behind the aggressive behavior lurks almost always something that the owner (or sometimes the previous owner) has done, causing the bird to react the way it does. Sometimes realising that our bird may behave aggressively due to our acts may cause us to get angry, defencing with denial.This is very common reaction. Just remember that oversights won't make anyone necessary a bad person. It is important not to get defensive but to face the fact that everyone makes mistakes. No-one wants to be a bad owner: we just do things accidentally because we don't yet know so much. But we can always learn from our mistakes and do our best to fix them. Admitting our own misteps are actually the most important thing in every retraining. That is how we can guarantee our beloved cockatiels the best life they deserve.

© Ida-Emilia Kaukonen 2003-2016
Neitokakadut - Variaatioiden Aikakausi / Cockatiel Chromatics
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