As the hours of daylight start to increase in the early spring, life becomes chaotic for companion Parrot behaviour consultants, and we are inundated with phone calls and emails from distraught Parrot people whose birds are suddenly a problem.
It is tremendously sad that Parrot rescue organizations are equally swamped with psittacines that are losing their homes.
The owners of these birds are apparently more inclined to dump an animal than they are to understanding and trying to deal with problem behaviours.
Since early February my phone has been ringing continually, and this time it is Beth, who has a 7-year-old Yellow-Naped Amazon named Henry that she recently adopted. Henry and Beth were getting along beautifully until today. Beth's voice cracks and she is obviously barely under control. "Liz, something is horribly wrong with my Amazon and I'm totally freaked out about it! He’s having a nervous breakdown or something!"
It is fortunate for my work that I have previous experience as a crisis counsellor. With a little gentle talk, she quieted enough to give me a somewhat coherent story. Henry, always a rowdy but loving bird, had suddenly bitten Beth badly that morning.
In responds to my questions, Beth said he’d had his annual check-up a few days ago, and had gotten a clean bill of health. More questions follow, this time related to Henry's recent noise level (louder than usual?), his play behaviours (rougher than normal with his beak?), and his attitude towards Beth (more possessive and demanding?)
As I suspected, all the answers are affirmatives. Some people call it “spring behaviour.” I prefer to call it seasonal, hormonal, or nesting behaviour, because it can happen any time of the year. This is what Beth is encountering with Henry.
A Lover's Triangle
In the twenty-eight years I have lived with my Blue and Gold Macaw hen Sam, I never noticed seasonal behaviour until David, my future husband joined our lives and he was the one who correctly identified her behaviour. Sam and I had been cohabiting for a decade without anyone else, and the adjustment to having to share me with another had not been easy or enjoyable. However, David had kept his temper with her bluffs and displays, and life had gradually settled down.
It was the end of December in our first year together, and she was happily paddling around on the living room floor when he entered. Before I had a chance to react, she launched herself at him, viciously attacking his feet. Fortunately for both of them, he was wearing his work boots and no injuries occurred. His comment was enlightening: "She's normally smarter than that – she must be hormonal."
This was an interesting observation from someone who knew nothing about Parrots, and he was quite correct about the cause for her out-of-control behaviour. Once I started paying attention, I realized there was a pattern, and once a year she gets absolutely wretched for a month or two.
The first sign of this change is when she suddenly becomes incredibly, obsessively destructive. Normally content to hang out on her tree in the living room for hours at a time, laughing and playing and talking to herself, in hormone season she changes. Having more important things to do, she is off the tree in seconds.
Her greatest attachment the last few years has been to the cereal cabinet in the kitchen. Ambling happily into the pantry and climbing the cupboards easily, she pops the cabinet door open with the point of her beak, and goes to town. Shredding the cardboard cereal boxes is an endless source of delight for her, and if I would allow it, she would rummage around in the billions and billions of pieces of cardboard she’s made, happily mumbling “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” for hours at a time.
Symptom number two is her sudden need (when not otherwise occupied in the cereal cabinet), to be attached to my body. Normally an affectionate friend, when hormones rise, Sam suddenly becomes incredibly clingy and it requires a tremendous effort on my part to separate her from my body. Among her many friends and fans, this has led to her nickname of The Blue Cockatoo.
Clinginess and destruction notwithstanding, undoubtedly the worst component of her seasonal behaviour is manifest in her attitude towards David. She has always disliked him but has politely restricted her hostility to saying rude things in Macaw body language. I’ve lived with her long enough to easily recognize when she is insulting someone nonverbally. Nevertheless, when awash with hormones, she is much more actively aggressive, so to minimize the potential for blood and gore, her out-of-cage time has to be closely supervised when David is in the house.
As a rule, sexually mature Parrots get into nesting behaviour once a year. This is a normal rhythm of nature and other than waiting it out, there is nothing you or your Parrot can do about it. However, if you are aware and alert, odds increase that you can minimize the negative effects.
Generally speaking, an abrupt alteration in the normal behaviours of a mature Parrot that is NOT medical in origin can reasonably be categorized as seasonal behaviour, especially if it happens when daylight hours start increasing. (NOTE: Your avian veterinarian is the expert on this, so make an appointment for your Parrot if you are unsure.)
Psittacines cannot control this hormonal stuff, any more than people can. For example, I certainly can’t control my moods during PMS other than to keep my mouth shut.
So when do Parrots mature?
Sexual maturity is reached at differing times, depending on species as well as the individual, with the smaller species tending to mature earlier than the larger ones. For example, the Cockatiel is physically capable of starting a family around nine months of age, whereas a nine month old Hyacinth Macaw is still very much a dorky baby, barely coordinated enough to paddle around on the floor without tripping over its humungous feet.
Small birds like Cockatiels and Budgerigars or Budgies (what Americans incorrectly call “Parakeets”) may reach sexual maturity around 6-9 months. Medium-sized birds like Amazons, Greys and the smaller Cockatoos and Macaws mature around 2-4 years. The largest species of Macaws and Cockatoos usually reach sexual maturity anywhere from 3 - 6 years.
The following is an incomplete list of possible changes evidenced in hormonal psittacines, and your feathered friend might display one or more of these:
Flat backing – this is an old aviculturist term for the submissive posture seen in some female Parrots. It may or may not be accompanied by clucking sounds and/or wing shivering.
Begging Behaviours – Some Parrots, especially females, often beg to be hand fed by their special human. This is not, as some assume, evidence that a Parrot is reverting to babyhood and the joys of being handfed. Male Parrots feed their mates as a part of the bonding process, so it makes sense that a hormonal Parrot would wish this from their favourite person.
Displaying – Display behaviours can vary between species, but generally they involve a Parrot strutting with tail feathers fanned, neck feathers raised and eyes flashing. Often described as a male behaviour, displaying is also done by females. It is also seen other times of the year, especially when Parrots encounter strangers on their turf. Undoubtedly, this is normal territorial behaviour that increases exponentially during nesting time. The very best advice for dealing with a displaying Parrot is don't reach for the bird unless, of course, you enjoy the sight of your own blood.
Nest Making – Nest making can manifest in minor ways, such as burrowing in fabric or sofa pillows, or major ways – in the absolute destruction of anything and everything within beak range. As before mentioned, the latter is (of course) what Sam does. Often assumed to be a female trait, this isn’t necessarily the case. With many species (i.e. many larger Cockatoos) the male is the primary nest builder. Nest-making behaviour goes well above and beyond the "normal" destructiveness of Parrots (which is saying a great deal), so be prepared and alert.
In the past, I gave Sam a cardboard box to shred in her cage during this time, which seems to ease the biological pressures a bit. After all, this allows her to do what nature is telling her to do. However, I discovered that being allowed a nest box of sorts also encourages her to lay eggs. They are infertile, of course. She's my only bird and it takes two, as they say. I see no point to this tremendous stress on her system, so I don't do it anymore. I especially would not recommend giving boxes to birds like Cockatiels, whose hens can be prone to obsessive egg laying cycles that can tap them out so much that it becomes life-threatening.
Feather picking – Occasionally we see a bird that does a little feather chewing or picking during hormone season, usually in small, localized areas of their bodies like their breast or the tops of their wings. However, hormone-induced feather destruction is ONLY seen during nesting season, not year-round. It should not be confused with more extensive feather destruction that is a manifestation of physical problems such as bacterial infections in the feather follicles, toxic metal ingestion or allergies.... or as a behaviour problem.
Regurgitation of food – Ah, Birdie Barf! If your Parrot upchucks on you, try not to get too grossed out. Parrots regurgitate food to feed their mate and their young, so take it in the spirit it is offered. It is, after all, a tremendous compliment (yuk).
Regurgitation can occur whenever your Parrot is feeling loving throughout the year, but it definitely happens more often in nesting season. As an aside, sexual regurgitation can be associated with a favourite person, toy, etc.
When it occurs for no obvious reason, it may be evidence of a medical problem such as a yeast (candida) infection or a physical obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract. If you are unsure as to the cause, consult your avian veterinarian immediately. Playing with a Parrot’s beak can also stimulate this behaviour.
Panting – This is especially common in Cockatoos, especially when they are being petted, and its evidence of sexual excitement. Whatever you are doing, you should do something else. More on this in a moment.
Masturbation – People might have taboos about this subject, but Parrots have no moral hang-ups about it at all – they just enjoy it! Female birds may masturbate (as my friend Sam does) by getting their tails tangled up in things, whereas male Parrots often rub their lower bodies on favourite toys, favourite people, etc. Sam, for example, does this thing on her tree and goes on and on and on„ and one year she managed somehow to masturbate on our Christmas tree. (Please don’t ask me to explain.) If luck is smiling on you, your visiting minister or maiden great-aunt will not figure out to what is happening.
The Tail In The Face Routine – An additional behaviour has been noted that is most likely sexual, and related to the previous behaviour. From my experience, it involves female Macaws, but this doesn’t preclude the behaviour in other species. Since Sam enjoys getting her tail twisted up in things when she’s feeling sexy, I assume this is a form of masturbation. At any rate, when Sam is sitting on the back of the couch next to me, she constantly seems to be turning around and around, so I keep getting a face full of tail feathers.
I cannot speak for others who might encounter this, but personally, I find this extremely annoying, and usually respond by tossing her up in the air so she flies back to her tree. (Obviously, Sam is not clipped.)
And as previously mentioned, we see hormonal Parrots making more noise than usual and biting harder than usual.
Contrary to much of the literature, not all of seasonal behaviours are problematic. A friend of mine has a Grey who becomes a real love bug when hormonal, during which time he LOVES to be cuddled – which is the only time all year that he will accept any petting at all.
An old boarding client of mine has an Orange-Winged Amazon that is so cute during seasonal behaviour that she’s practically edible. Her family never leaves town voluntarily during this time, because she’s so delicious, but I was lucky once and experienced her amorous attentions. She would fluff up her face feathers at my approach, and make lovely little trilling sounds while she rubbed her beak on my nose.
Dealing With Your Bird Brain’s Sexuality
Most of us are accustomed to living with dogs and cats that are not sexually intact, so living with a hormonal Parrot can be quite a shock. Since this is a natural biological process, you can't eliminate it, nor can you expect your Parrot to turn it off. However, there are some things that will help everyone survive this sometimes-difficult period.
As they say, forewarned is forearmed, so mark on your calendar when you identify that hormonal behaviour starts and stops. Also write the dates on a Post-It and stick it on the month of December, so you carry over the information onto next year’s calendar. By so doing, you will be aware BEFORE nesting behaviour starts next year and you won’t be caught off guard.
If your psittacine feather duster becomes aggressive towards other people, then do yourself and everyone else a favour and don’t allow it out of its cage when others are around. Of course, NEVER leave it out of its cage unsupervised but you're not supposed to do that, anyway.
Back to the subject of petting, humans should NOT encourage sexual behaviours, since that only leads to confusion and frustration for the Parrot. After all, you are NOT going to run away together to make babies, right?
Avoid petting the bird's back, under or on top of the wings or tail feathers, as this is sexually stimulating to most Parrots. Restrict your petting to the bird's head so you avoid that problem.
Sexual frustration can lead to serious aggression – just like with some people – so avoid it. If your Parrot becomes sexually enamoured with a particular object or toy, remove it from the bird's reach.
If dark cabinets look like love nests, don’t allow access. If masturbation is a problem for you (and it certainly isn’t for the bird), remove the love object (toy, particular perch, etc.), and don't return it to the bird until nesting season is over. If the little fiend happens to be masturbating on a part of your anatomy, don't make a fuss or try to punish him. The bird is doing nothing wrong. Simply change the subject. Rearrange him (or you) so it is no longer happening. As for Birdie Barf, I'm sure you would just LOVE to share your loving little bird's offering (oh, YUK).... but don't encourage that either. Once again, don’t punish, change the subject.
If your Parrot is fully flighted and starts attacking people during hormone season, it would probably be a good idea to have its flight feathers clipped. You can always let the wings re-grow when the bird settles down.
There is often a direct correlation between full flight and increased aggression, so it makes sense to remove this additional problem when the Parrot is already awash with hormones. The only alternative is to continually keep the psittacine locked in its cage, which isn’t fair. Once the bird’s hormones settle down, train him properly so you have better control before the next hormone season begins.
Above all, don't try to punish your Parrots for totally natural behaviours. You don't want to encourage them, but what they are doing is not wrong.
Every year, all three of us in the Wilson-Hearn household (five, counting the cats) suffer through this nesting season and I admit it feels like it lasts forever. In reality, it lasts one to two months and we all survive. None of us enjoy it, since Sam's no happier than the rest of us, but we manage. If you ask me, it is a small price to pay for the remaining ten or eleven months of the year, when Sam's company is – usually – such a pleasure.
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