Breeder's of Eclectus Parrots, Timneh African Grey, Great Billed Parrot, Cape Parrot
Facial Bites, Nozzle Nuzzling & Tummy Kisses
By Liz Wilson
Obsessions and Compulsions
I have a small 'perversion' I need to share - I adore the smell of parrot feathers. Red, white, yellow, blue and green, powder down feathers or not, I'm not picky - any psittacine species will do. I just have this compulsion to bury my nose in the tummy feathers of any parrot I meet.
Now, I have to say this obsession has gotten me into trouble more than once. After all, a parrot's tummy is only slightly south of an even more impressive part of a parrot's anatomy - it's beak. And I have learned from sad (and painful) experience that those beaks are often brought into play when strange middle-aged women accost the tummies of parrots that aren't accustomed to having their tummies accosted in this manner. BUT, this obsession of mine cannot be controlled (by me, anyway), so I have learned a few tricks over the years that enable me to satisfy this addiction with a minimum of risk to my vanity (and my reputation as a parrot behavior consultant).
Since I have recently discovered other unfortunates sharing in this compulsion, I figured that, rather than start a Support Group (Tummy Kissers Anonymous?), I would share some of my avoidance techniques. We addicts need all the help we can get.
But before getting into that, I want to discuss facial bites. After all, facial bites are obviously going to happen to inexperienced compulsive tummy kissers and facial bites are a Real Problem.
Since I worked in veterinary hospitals as an animal tech for 20+ years with all kinds of small animals, it's obvious that I don't worry much about the possibility of getting bitten by an animal. I can't say that I don't mind being bitten (I'm not THAT crazy, thank you). But I've survived chomps from many a different mouth, and I'm still alive and I still have ten (count 'em, 10) functioning fingers. I should also mention that scars don't particularly concern me. If I were concerned about scars, there were lots of easier (and better paying) ways to make a living that are not animal related.
So the first time I got bitten in the face, I was not at all prepared for the visceral nature of my reaction - and I was extremely lucky and was not severely injured. I'd been working with veterinarians (and other kinds of animals) for over a decade - then I was bitten in the face by a very large dog. With previous bites, I'd been a tad skittish around animals of the same type for a few days, but that was my only reaction. After all, animal bites happen when people work with animals, and that's part of the territory - it's not a daily occurrence, but it's certainly not unusual.
You maybe swear a little, shrug, do a little first aid and start healing. And I heal really well.
But facial bites are different, I found. VERY DIFFERENT. After being bitten in the face, it was a good six months before I could be on face level with an dog (any dog) without getting a really nervous stomach (and nervous stomachs are not my style!). Since that day, I have never been on face level with a dog without being conscious of exactly what that dog could do if it so chose. It's not that I'm afraid of dogs now, or that I don't like them. it's just that I am more aware of potential dangers than I ever was before. So that facial bite, many years ago, has made a permanent difference in the manner in which I approach dogs.
Super Trick For Whom?
Parrot owners often like the idea of teaching their parrots tricks, and one of the first tricks many syndicated parrot magazines teach is Giving Kisses. This is generally taught by the human holding a sunflower seed (or other treat) in his/her lips and rewarding the bird when it takes the see, therefore "giving a kiss." This is a fabulous idea, far as I'm concerned. It makes perfect sense to offer one of the most sensitive and tender parts of one's anatomy (psychologically as well as physically) to a sharp little parrot beak! Who thought of that one, a plastic surgeon?
The Dangers of Shouldering Parrots
Parrot people who have kept abreast of current information about parrot behavior are aware that allowing a parrot on one's shoulder is NOT recommended by those of us that are called parrot behavior consultants. Aside from the obvious dominance issues that can arise when a psittacine is above eye level, there is the very real problem of facial bites. As Sam Mall joked several years ago, "Why do you think all those pirates had an eye patch?!"
Parrot companions are not the only ones who've discovered the dangers of parrots on people's shoulders. During a beginner's avian veterinary lecture years ago, I loved the advice offered by an experienced practitioner to his audience of avian veterinary wannabes: "Never capture a parrot off a part of the owner's anatomy that you are not prepared to repair."
In the years that I've lectured around the country about parrot behavior, I have collected a list of names of people I have actually met - not just talked to on the phone or heard about - who have had plastic surgery to repair damage to their faces caused by parrot bites. At this time, that list has grown to 33 names.
To be perfectly frank, this doesn't concern me at all. What does concern me is what has happened to those 33 parrots who, for whatever reason, bit their owners so badly. In every one of those cases, either of two things have happened: they lost their homes, or they still live there but haven't had real human interaction since. And for most parrots, social creatures that they are, the latter was probably the worse fate.
The day after an emergency room visit for three stitches in her lip, a client of mine told me about the experience. She'd heard me lecture about this, and she'd understood what I'd said - yet she still wasn't prepared for the psychological impact of a facial bite. Commenting that she was really glad the cut was the result of a "kiss" from a friend's bird and not her own, she said, "NOW I understand, and I can really see how something like this could do permanent damage to a relationship with a bird."
Obvious Dangers, But....
So ok, putting one's face close to that little buzz saw's face is obviously dangerous. A parrot is, after all, Nature's Cuissinart.ä (Someone on the internet described his bird as a Chain Saw With Feathers). However, I've already confessed to an addiction here, and addictions aren't easily dismissed. So how does one minimize the danger of a cheap (or cheep) nose job? I have a few tricks that have worked (so far) for me.
Before I go any further with this, here are two disclaimers I need to insert. (These are, after all, still the 90s) First and most importantly, none of these techniques should be used with a parrot who would be frightened by such impudent and brazen behaviors from a human. Not ever. This is supposed to be at least tolerable to the bird, not torture. And second, don't kid yourself that these tricks of mine will protect you from facial bites. They can decrease the risk, but they certainly don't eliminate it. And none of these techniques will even begin to protect you from a parrot who wants to bite you. Easiest way to avoid a bite from that critter is to stay in another room.
Nozzle Nuzzling Trick #1: Beak Holding
This one's pretty obvious, and works nicely when dealing with species of psittacine whose beaks are easy to grasp firmly with one's fingers. (For many sizes of human hands, hyacinth macaws don't fall into this category.) Once I've decided I can no longer resist a fast nose nuzzle with a parrot, I'll gently grasp its beak with a couple of fingers and pop in for a quick fix. This is a hit and run kind of technique, to be used for a quick tummy kiss but not to be used for prolonged nuzzling sessions.
Nozzle Nuzzling Trick #2: The Loving Neck Throttle or Throat Grab
I couldn't think of a better name for this one, and these two names sound quite violent, which the techniques most definitely is not. When a bird is relaxing and enjoying a good head stroking, I gently grasp it around the neck and bring up my thumb to block it's face. This leaves the field clear for a kiss or snuggle.
Nozzle Nuzzling Trick #3: Mutual Trust Beak Restraint
This is my favorite technique for nose nuzzling with a bird that doesn't know me well. To demonstrate it's safely with me, I offer a hostage - usually my thumb. With my pollex in its mouth, it can quickly and emphatically inform me if it doesn't like my attentions. Since I do so much consultation work, I am often pushing the envelope with birds I've just met. I feel it is only fair that I offer this gesture - and interestingly enough, I have not been bitten (YET), using this technique.
Other Fun, Kisser-Threatening Games
For an addicted nose nuzzler like myself, these tricks have enabled me many a snout snuggle that would otherwise have been foolhardy or virtually impossible. So far, they have kept my gorgeous face intact. (They have also kept my regular face intact, which is great since that's the only one other people see.)
They can also facilitate tow other games that many parrots seem to really enjoy - opposed to tolerate (which is what most do with Tummy Kisses): Mouth Blowing and Wingpit Raspberries.
Mouth Blowing: For some unknown reason (to me, anyway), most parrots seem to get a huge kick out of having someone blow in their mouth. They usually respond with eyes flashing and unrestrained birdie tongue-wagging. My own blue and gold macaw (Sam, a.k.a. The Blue Chicken) responds to this game by making blowing noises back ("phooooooo!"), then snickers ("hehehehehe").
Wingpit Raspberries: This game is played by burying your face under a parrot's wing and blowing with your mouth up against the bird's skin. This is also called a "ploo," due to the noise one can make when it is done properly. Again, this appears to be wildly funny to many parrots, especially bappies.
So, for pitiful souls such as myself who are addicted to the extraordinary smells of these extraordinary creatures, there is a chance of avoiding nasal amputations and split lips. These tricks certainly can't protect you, but at least they tell you the location of a parrot's beak when your face is too close to see it. And that may give you enough warning should something (like you) upset the bird.
For those of you who can't tolerate the idea of a facial bite, it is easy to avoid - don't put your face anywhere near a parrot. And for those fearless danger junkies in the audience, don't whine if you get your face a tad customized. Otherwise . live dangerously!
Copyright © 2004 Valley Aviary
Last modified: November, 2007