It is early spring, and already it has begun. The phone
rings and it is my client Mary. She has a two year old domestic-bred
African grey parrot that she purchased eight months ago. He is her first
parrot and she adores him. Mary's voice is shaking and she is obviously
barely under control as she says, "Liz, something is terribly wrong with
Alfred and I'm really upset! He's gone crazy or something!"
Thanking fate for my previous experience as a crisis
counselor, I manage to get her quieted down enough to get a somewhat
coherent story. Alfred, normally a gentle and loving bird, had suddenly
lashed out at her that morning and had actually drawn blood. I question
her carefully about his physical health and find he had just been to her
avian veterinarian last week for a routine check-up and everything was
So I ask her a number of questions regarding Alfred's
recent noise level (louder than usual?), his play behaviors (rougher
than usual with his beak?), and his attitude towards Mary (more
possessive?) As I suspected, all the answers are affirmatives. Sweet
little Alfred is growing up, and the spring nesting season has
A Lover's Triangle
In the twenty-three years
that I have cohabited with Sam, my female blue and gold macaw, I do not
remember really noticing spring behavior until my future husband David
appeared in our lives -- and he was also the one who identified her
behavior for what it was. After having me to herself for many years, Sam
was now having to share me with another, and the adjustment had not been
fun for any of us. However, David had kept his temper with her bluffs
and displays, and life had gradually settled down.
Then one morning in late winter, she was playing on the
kitchen floor when he came in for breakfast. Without a second's
hesitation, she viciously attacked his feet. Fortunately for him
(and her), he was wearing steel-toed boots at the time, so he was
uninjured. However, his comment was illuminating: "She is normally more
intelligent than that -- her behavior must be hormonal."
As it turned out, he was quite
correct about the cause for her lack of control -- once a year she gets
wretched for a month or two. I generally first focus on her behavior
change when she suddenly is attached to my body
whenever she is
out of her cage. Normally an affectionate friend, Sam is also quite
capable of amusing herself for hours at a time, playing and talking to
herself on her "tree" (fancy name for a 2x4 with a perch attached and
hanging toys) in front of the living room window. But when hormones
begin raging, she appears to be partially composed of velcro and I have
great difficulty separating her from my person. She also cannot seem to
stay out of trouble for more than, say, 15-20 seconds at a time -- I
turn my back and she's gotten into the clean laundry and shredded a
couple of David's shirts and my new skirt.
However, by far the worst part of her nesting seasons
has been manifest in her behavior towards David. In normal times, she
dislikes him intensely but confines her animosity to saying extremely
rude things with her body language. (Trust me on this -- you live with a
parrot for long, and you know very well when they are insulting someone
nonverbally) But during nesting season, she can be much more actively
aggressive, so her times out of the cage when he is home must be CLOSELY
Generally speaking, spring
behavior happens once a year in the life of a sexually mature parrot.
Also called nesting or hormonal behavior, it is a normal rhythm of
nature, and there is nothing you or your parrot can do about it
except wait it out. But you can be aware and understanding, and alert to
the possible changes - in hopes of minimizing the negative side effects
As a rule, any abrupt and dramatic behavior change in a
mature parrot that is NOT evidence of a medical problem
developing, can safely be classed as nesting behavior. (NOTE: If you
are not sure about your parrot's behavior, make an appointment with your
avian vet.) Parrots cannot control this hormonal stuff, any more than I
can control my own moods during times of raging PMS (other than to keep
my mouth shut).
Bad and Good Changes and "Characteristic"
Other possible behaviors or behavior changes include
one or more (or none) of the following (and this list is far from
Flat backing -- aviculturist
term for the submissive posture of some female parrots, with or
without accompanying wing shivering and/or clucking. Some birds may
also revert to baby-like behaviors, begging to be hand fed by their
Strutting with tail feathers fanned, neck
feathers up and eyes flashing wildly -- This is often
(but not always accurately) defined as male behavior and is seen other
times of the year as well -- especially when meeting new people. This
is probably normal territorial behavior that becomes more frequent and
dramatic during nesting time. Don't reach for this bird unless your
really want to check your normal healing time.
Nest-making -- manifests in
minor ways, such as burrowing in fabric or sofa pillows, or major ways
-- in the absolute destruction of anything and everything the bird
touches. The latter is (of course) what Sam does. This is not
necessarily a female trait, since in many species (i.e. many larger
cockatoos) the male is the primary nest builder. This behavior goes
above and beyond the "normal" destructiveness of parrots.
Some years, I have given Sam with a large cardboard box
to shred in her cage, which seems to ease the biological pressures on
her -- after all, she simply wants to make a nest. However, being
allowed a nest box of a sort also encourages Sam to lay eggs. These eggs
are infertile, of course -- she's my only bird and it takes two,
as they say. But there isn’t any point to her egg laying so I don't give
her a box, anymore. I especially would not recommend giving
nest-like boxes to birds like cockatiels, whose hens can be prone to
obsessive egg laying cycles that can become life threatening.
Feather picking -- some
individuals do a little feather chewing or picking, usually in small,
localized areas of their bodies like their breast or the tops of their
wings. From my experience, hormone-induced feather chewing or picking
is ONLY seen during spring behavior. It should not be confused with
the more dramatic and extensive plucking seen as a manifestation of
physical problems such as infections in the feather follicles, or in
allergies.... or as a behavior problem.
Regurgitation of food -- Ah,
Birdie Barf! Parrots will regurgitate food to feed their mate and
their young, so if your parrot upchucks on you, don't get grossed out
-- take it in the spirit it's offered. It is, after all, a tremendous
compliment. This can happen whenever your parrot is feeling loving
during the year, but it definitely happens more often in nesting
season. By the way, sexual regurgitation is associated with a favorite
person, toy, etc.. When it occurs without any obvious stimulus, it may
be evidence of a medical problem. If the human is unsure as to what is
happening, one’s avian vet should be consulted.
Notwithstanding whatever feelings their pet humans might have about
this subject, parrots have no moral hang ups about it at all -- they
just enjoy it! If you're lucky, your visiting minister or maiden great
aunt will not catch on to what is happening.
And as previously mentioned,
making more noise than
usual and biting harder than usual.
Not All Bad….
But not all of these seasonal
behavior changes are negative -- a client of mine has an Amazon who
becomes a real snugglebug when in nesting behavior, at which time he
LOVES to be cuddled -- which is the only time all year that he will
accept any human touching at all!
Dealing With Your Feather Duster's Sexuality
what is the human to do with all this unwanted loving behavior? Well,
you can't eliminate it, but there are certain things one can do to help
everyone muddle through this uncomfortable period.
As they say, forewarned is forearmed, so mark on your
calendar when spring behavior starts and stops. In this way, you will be
aware BEFORE nesting behavior starts next year and, you are less likely
to be caught off guard. If your parrot becomes aggressive towards other
humans, then do everyone a favor and leave it in its cage when other
people are around. And NEVER leave it out unsupervised (but then,
you are not supposed to do that, anyway).
By no means should the human encourage sexual
behaviors, because that only leads to confusion and frustration for the
parrot. After all, you are NOT going to make babies together, are you?
So avoid doing things like petting the bird's back, wings or tail
feathers. Restrict your petting to the bird's head so you don't further
stimulate them. If your parrot becomes obsessed with a particular object
or toy, remove it from the bird's area. If you feel that masturbation is
a problem (and it certainly isn’t for the bird), simply remove the love
object (toy, particular perch, food bowl, mirror, etc.) and don't return
it to the bird until spring behavior has passed. If the little monster
happens to be masturbating on a part of your anatomy, don't make a fuss
(remember the Drama Reward?). Simply rearrange him (or you) so it is no
longer happening. On the subject of regurgitation, I'm sure you would
just LOVE to share your loving little bird's food so sweetly offered
(oh, YUCK).... but don't encourage that either.
If the bird's wings are not clipped, it would probably
be a good idea to do it now -- after all, you can always let the wings
regrow when the bird settles down, if you like. But since there is often
a direct correlation between full flight and increased aggression, it
makes sense to remove this additional problem when the parrot is already
awash with hormones.
don't try to punish the birds for totally
natural behaviors -- you don't want to encourage them, but what they
are doing is not wrong.
Birdie Abuse (of Humans)
One thing is virtually
guaranteed – increased hormone levels often lead to increased
aggressiveness -- this is documented in many/ most animal species and
parrots are no exception. And it follows that if your parrot is
established as dominant in its relationship with you, you can expect it
to try to tell you how to behave -- and you can expect yourself and
other humans around you to be the recipient of violence if your
behaviors don't measure up to your bird's exacting standards (following
orders is tough when you don't speak the language). As head of the
flock, your parrot is only doing his/her job. On the other hand, if you
are well established as head of the flock (thanks to having established
a relationship of loving controls with your feathered friend), then your
parrot (being in a submissive position) will generally wait for you to
show it how to act towards others. In a nutshell, increased aggression
is to be expected -- but a parrot in a submissive role can be expected
to display less aggression than one that perceives itself to be
head of the flock.
Yearly Fun & Games
So every year in the
Wilson household, the three of us (four, counting the cat) suffer
through this period and it feels like it lasts forever. In reality, it
lasts one to two months and we all survive. We all dislike it -- Sam's
no happier than the rest of us -- but we get through it. Small price, if
you ask me, for the remaining ten or eleven months of the year, when
Sam's company is a constant source of pleasure.
most of the time!