What do you do when your pet Parrot wants to mate? And what do you do when your pet Parrot sees you as his or her mate? The behavioural problems that arise when companion Parrots reach sexual maturity are due to a hormonal change.
The owner not aware of this finds him or herself in a situations where they can’t cope with the formerly agreeable pet who is now demonstrating unpleasant behaviour like screaming, biting, feather plucking, self-mutilation masturbation or obsessive stereotypical behaviour (when a bird repeats the same movement over and over).
If these problems escalate, it’s not unusual for the Parrot to be re-homed. But this doesn’t have to happen. Owners may resort to vet or behaviorists’ advice and this may achieve success.
Vets may prescribe hormone altering medication. Ben Bennett who ensures the health of all the exotics in our (East Anglia) area told me that vets will interfere with Parrots showing unacceptable levels of hormonal behaviours. He said, ‘Yes, I think it is quite commonly done by bird vets usually by implant. It is quite variable in effect.
Sometimes it does not work. Sometimes it works well but only lasts 3-4 weeks. Sometimes it works well and gets them through this year’s hormonal season, and they are fine until the following year.’
Alan Jones now retired has used drugs for cock birds and also to prevent egg laying in hens. He says, “on balance, I prefer to treat sexual aggression with management techniques rather than drugs.
Your ‘positive reinforcement’ training, reducing day light length, reducing protein and carbohydrate content of food for a few weeks, and stopping inappropriate stroking will all have a good effect.”
The problem the bird is experiencing is one of frustration. An imprinted bird that is hand reared with no contact with other Parrots is more likely to be frustrated and sexually fixate on humans than a bird that is parent reared than one who grows up sharing company with humans and Parrots.
Learning about a particular species reproductive behavior in the wild can give you better insight. But to lessen the bird’s frustration it experiences at the onset of maturity and the associated conflict it can cause, it’s important to examine how you handle and make contact with your companion Parrot to avoid simulating or reciprocating courtship behavior which the Parrot sees as a prelude to mating.
Curtailing the sexual advances your Parrot makes is natural. In the wild male birds are ‘turned down’ by females all the time. In fact. in some species only the alpha males get to breed, and the frustrated second graders bide their time till an alpha drops off the perch. Female, especially young birds are also often out competed by more experienced females who choose the best mates. So, the view that it’s unnatural for captive birds not to breed is false.
There are strategies to alter the home environment and Parrot/human interaction in such a way that will lessen the frustration and stimulation that a hormonal Parrot experiences even if they cannot totally eliminate it.
Puberty and beyond
The onset of reproductive behavior that happens in sexually mature birds – doesn’t happen at the same ages for every species, or at exactly the same time in every individual of every species. Puberty begins at a mere 2 months of age in the Zebra Finch.
Small Parrots like the Budgerigar, Cockatiel and Lovebird reach puberty between 6 months to 1 year of age. Conures achieve sexual maturity between 1 to 2 years, while Lories and Lorikeets are 2 to 3 years old.
Larger Parrots reach puberty between 3 to 6 or even seven years of age. Cock birds are generally older than hens. Males usually achieve sexual maturity at a later age than the female. Anecdotal evidence suggests that unwanted hormonal behavior is more intense in the male.
Among Parrots and the greater majority of bird species male birds initiate mating, but hen birds usually decide if it goes any further. One curious fact is that captive bred birds tend to become mature earlier than wild-caught birds. Possibly because they are better fed or have no predators or other factors to deter or stress them.
Mating in the wild
How do breeding pairs behave in the wild? Most Parrots live in flocks varying in size from a few to more than a thousand. When sexually mature, Parrots find a mate. The smaller species may not keep the same mate for a second season. Within the larger species, monogamy is the general rule. If one of a pair dies, the remaining Parrot will find another mate.
Divorce happens in the wild Parrot world but not as often as with us. But DNA analysis of egg parentage in nests suggest extra marital dalliances happen with as much frequency in human as in birds. A bonded pair of Parrots will perch and fly together; they share meals (regurgitate food to each other), and mutually preen.
I have seen bonded pairs in captivity; mirror one another’s movements. Depending on species, there are different strategies for incubating the eggs and for feeding the chicks. When the chicks fledge, they will remain with the parents for varying amounts of time.
Sometimes till the following breeding season. With the onset of the breeding season (when there’s abundant food and water and more daylight) Parrots’ behaviour alters. Mating pairs act in certain ways to strengthen the pair bond initially by feeding each other and mutually preening.
Joanna Burger the American ornithologist, observing mating behavior of wild Amazons notes that the female preened the male for a shorter time than he preened her. My experience of a pair of pet Macaws is quite the opposite.
Benni (6) and Mina (3) are definitely a bonded pair. I expect that they will try to breed in 2021. Uptil now though in this, their first breeding season Benni wanted Mina to follow him under the cage where he tried to make a nest out of brown paper. Mina desisted. However now the breeding season is over she spends most of her free time preening Benni. My fears that in breeding mode Benni would try to bite me were not realised. I guess due to the daily socialization he has enjoyed all his life
Parrots in the wild feed one another as courtship ritual. When they are ready, mating will occur and a suitable nest box inspected and if suitable, becomes the family home.
Mating behavior in the home & addressing stimulation.
Our Parrot companions are only one or two generations removed from their wild ancestors and in accordance with their instincts will when the stimulation appears try to replicate wild behavior.
Once you realize that sexually charged behaviour in pet Parrots is NOT a behaviour problem, you can understand it (not be shocked or upset) and diminish the worst effects by addressing the stimulation.
Aim to encourage student to step up onto a stick.
Normal sexual behaviors by companion Parrots should not be misread and labelled problem behaviours. For the majority of pet bird carers, breeding won’t be expected or planned for. However, this won’t stop breeding behaviour occurring during the mating season generally the spring, if the appropriate accommodation is provided.
Here are some reproductive types of behaviour, which may be exhibited, and ideas on how to address them.
Parrots breed in burrows or holes in trees and seek out dark places to nest. In a home this may be under furniture, in cupboards, in an open drawer. One carer reports her Macaw entering the washing machine and remained there for hours crooning with a few towels. (Fortunately, she never turned on the washing machine.)
Lily a Lesser Sulphur Crested Cockatoo
Lily came to me from a sanctuary, partially plucked and often screaming. She was acquired to become a sister for Perdy my LSC. This did not happen. Lily never became friends with other Parrots in our flock. But I did find the way to keep her content.
She wanted to build a nest and was allowed to do so on top of a bookcase where unwanted books were stored. Lily, on top of her bookshelf, made confetti every day in her out of cage time and provided a hole almost large enough for her to get inside.
Artha, my African Grey, used to fly into the linen cupboard and stay there for hours. She did this for seven years. Although she had free access to Casper African Grey, they remained friends but never mated. Artha socialized to humans, only once displayed mating behaviour and that was to a visiting actor.
‘What is she doing’ he asked, as Artha crouched down, hollowed her back shivered her wings and crooned softly in front of him. “If you cannot guess, I won’t tell you,’ I replied.
Cardboard boxes only if they suit your bird
You can deal with this behaviour two ways. Either prevents the Parrot seeking out dark places; remove cartons and paper for shredding. Or – you can allow nest building behaviour. Both strategies can be successful. If you choose the first, you need to ensure the Parrot has alternative activities to occupy her time.
Some pet birds will masturbate; rub their vent over a toy of favoured perch or a part of person. They may rarely ejaculate sperm. Ignore masturbation. If your bird rubs their vent on you, calmly return him to his cage or his perch.
Don’t react aggressively or get embarrassed. It’s a natural behavior; any form of punishment is cruel. Preventative and diversionary measures are not difficult to implement. If the bird is humping your leg or your hand simply put him back in his cage on his perch. Divert attention by instigating another form of interaction. Having a basket of special toys for use of such occasion can work. Although sometimes a Parrot will initiate sexual behavior with toys, especially with soft toys.
Shredding paper and cardboard boxes
There isn’t a consensus over this. Some Parrot owners will remove any such objects; others will allow them. Much depends on whether your bird in a breeding mode becomes aggressive or not.
Calum Campbell-Jones takes charge of a Regent Parakeet just weaned and destined to be a pet
With Amazons most species are well known for aggressive behaviour during a hormonal spell. Flying at people, biting and so forth. When the breeding season is over, most will return to their normal socialized behavior.
Parrot who falls in madly in love with a person
This situation, which can range from the charming to the frightful, happens most frequently with Amazons, Macaws and Cockatoos. The hand reared Cockatoo for instance who is a cuddly teddy bear, until he grows up, will often choose a member of the household for his or her mate and then attack anyone else who seems to threaten their chosen favourite.
The pair bond may induce the bird to protect the chosen mate or in some cases bite the mate when another person approaches as a warning.
This a genuine problem, which people often solve by rehoming the bird. In the case of Cockatoos, prevention is better than cure. And with a young Cockatoo, everyone in the household should take a part in her care. This is a way to discourage the Parrot from perceiving the principal caregiver as her chosen mate.
If a Parrot especially a Cockatoo or Amazon – grows up viewing everyone in the household as part of its flock, problems of sexual behaviour may rarely or never arise.
Another not uncommon situation
Vets and behaviorists remark on a particular situation that can arise – which can be puzzling and upsetting. A Parrot has had a favorite person while it was growing up. As a mature bird, he switches allegiance swiftly and with no prior warning becomes fixated on someone else in the household.
This can go as far as biting the former favoured person. A convincing explanation for this strange behaviour is that the Parrot previously perceived the primary caregiver in the parental role. Now as a young adult, the Parrot wants to leave home and choose a mate. In the forest he would fly off. In our homes no such facility exists.
Maisie bred Cockatiels successfully. She then decided to buy a Parrot and chose an Umbrella Cockatoo as her first large bird. I boarded Fred when Maisie, son and husband went on holiday. He was a friendly bird but had had no special training. His normal daily routine was to be with Maisie all day; she worked at home. After four years, Fred was now seven, Maisie called to tell me he had been relinquished to a sanctuary. He had started to attack her husband and had bitten her when he came into the room.
This sad story is not unique but could have been avoided had Maisie thought more carefully of how Fred was treated a spent more time training him in alternative behaviours.
Ways to limit or discourage mating activity
Four valuable tools exist to deal with hormonal behaviour
They are light, food, petting and positive reinforcement training of alternative behaviours
In climates where daylight hours vary between seasons, the increase in daylight hours (photoperiodism) is the biggest trigger for stimulating breeding and other reproductive behavior in wild birds, and this can have a similar effect on our Parrot companions.
Making sure that a Parrot doesn’t receive more than 12 hours of daylight or artificial light can prevent his or her thoughts turning to mating. Covering the cage is not a good idea if the Parrot perceives the cage as a proto nest.
The easiest way to provide dark for a Parrot is to put the sleep cage in a darkened room. I’d avoid pitch-black conditions as some Parrots develop night frights like Cockatiels and can injure themselves in the cage by flailing and panicking.
Wild Parrots breed when the food supply is plentiful, generally after the rains. They pair off and after breeding return to their flock. Their progeny remains close to them for differing amounts of time dependent of which species.
For our Parrots the food supply is often too plentiful and unchanging throughout the year. You don’t need to keep a Parrot hungry but avoiding a too rich, too plentiful a diet provides help in curbing the urge to mate. Hemp seed and wheat germ which stimulate breeding behavior should be avoided.
If you’re used to administering frequent petting – just STOP. Grooming over the back and under the wings touching the feet is a sexually charged behavior for birds. Don’t hold the Parrot close to you, putting pressure on the back, touching near the vent, or playfully tapping the beak.
Gently grooming the pin feathers around the head is a safe way NOT to overstimulate your pet bird. Treating a baby bird much as you would treat a human baby seems adorable at the time but when that baby bird matures such petting or grooming is sexually charged and can lead to unwanted behaviour.
Please don’t let your pet on your shoulders during reproductive or broody periods. A bird perched on a shoulder is too close to your eyes and face.
Positive reinforcement training
If your Parrot came to you as a young bird, you can establish yourself as the flock leader.
Harder to do with a mature bird but still possible. In the wild the parents would teach the youngster correct social behavior. In the home you have to adopt that role.
You set guidelines for your pet through positive reinforcement training. A young bird that is trained to integrate into a household as a junior member is far less likely when mature to mimic a pair bond relationship with you.
With a young bird stick training is an invaluable tool. Then – if a mature bird is offering biting behaviour and you don’t dare place him on your hand, stepping up onto a stick means that problem is solved.
If you wish to find out how an experienced ornithologist dealt with the amorous advances of her Amazon Tiko, you will not be disappointed with The Parrot Who Owns Me – The Story of a Relationship – Joanna Burger.
You can plan strategies so that your household and you can live in peace during the hormonal period. It usually lasts two or three months. You may have to keep the Parrot in his cage (even a mild Cockatiel can become a fireball at this time) if he is super destructive, territorial or biting during this period.
Most pets will revert to their former behaviour with increasing maturity and become again the sociable pets you love for most of the year.