Companion Animals > Pet Care > Parrots > Handling

SPRING BEHAVIOR
Oh, Joy! Tra La… OUCH!
Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant

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 fine.

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 begun.

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."

Nonverbal Insults
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 supervised.

Normal Cycles
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 wherever possible.

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" Behaviors
Other possible behaviors or behavior changes include one or more (or none) of the following (and this list is far from complete):

    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 favorite person.

    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.

    Masturbation – 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
So 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.

Above all, 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.

Well..., most of the time!