Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots

As we begin to search for favorite soup recipes and pull out that beloved afghan, our parrots also change their behavior in response to colder weather and darker days. My own become a bit more obsessed with getting into the bathroom or being on the floor somewhere. I may need to fish one of them out of the closet occasionally.

Today I want to say a few more words about cavity seeking. I did cover this topic in my blog post Companion Parrots and Reproductive Hormones, but I think that a single focus on this topic is worthy. At this time of year especially, we can begin to see an increase in this behavior, which can be both puzzling and aggravating.

What is cavity seeking? I get that question a lot, usually right after I use the term as if everyone knows what it means.

When I did a Google search for these words, I got a lot of information about oral cavities. So, I had to  wonder…am I the only one using this term to describe a particular aspect of parrot behavior? I highly doubt it.  However, while the behavior is as common as parrots vocalizing loudly, the name for this behavior and it’s ramifications are not well-recognized.

What Is Cavity Seeking?

Cavity seeking is behavior sexually mature companion parrots attempt to pursue with the goal of establishing a potential nesting spot (in their perception at least). This appears to be a very strong drive and may occur independently from the presence of any perceived “mate,” although the two usually go hand in hand.

It is typically regarded as cute, slightly quixotic, and harmless. It can also be reinforcing for us when parrots engage in cavity seeking because it keeps them occupied for long periods of time, leaving us free to pursue our own tasks without worrying about the need to provide enrichment.

The Many Faces of Cavity Seeking

What does cavity seeking look like?

The answers to this are extremely diverse, which is why I want to focus exclusively on this topic today. The fact that it so often goes unrecognized is a problem, since it so often leads to an increase in the production of reproductive hormones, which in turn results in resource guarding (territorial aggression), increased vocalizations, and can set the stage for feather damaging behavior (FDB).

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a photo of one of Chris Shank’s cockatoos. It looks like innocent play, doesn’t it? It’s not. This bird is cavity seeking – checking out a small, dark space even when he has the entire property to explore, being a free-flighted parrot. This same cockatoo often jumps into Chris’ washing machine if he happens to be indoors and the lid is open .

One day, some years ago, we received an urgent visit from the pastor of a local church. One of Chris’ cockatoos had flown down the chimney, apparently investigating it as a possible nest cavity.

This is a topic that Chris and I often find ourselves discussing. For someone like Chris, who free flies her birds outdoors, this behavior can be dangerous. It causes the birds to fly too far afield and stay gone too long. During a few months of the year, her birds are not allowed their typical free flight schedule until this seemingly overcoming urge diminishes. For me, it is more frustrating than it is dangerous for my birds.

Modal Action Patterns

There may be research about this aspect of parrot behavior, but I was unable to find it. As I said, everything that came up was about dental health.

However, I believe this behavior to be a modal action pattern. A modal action pattern is an innate behavior or chain of behaviors that is triggered by a particular stimulus. (These previously were referred to as fixed action patterns, but most are now moving toward the terminology of modal action pattern.)

Adult parrots are undeniably and obsessively attracted to small, dark spaces, round “holes,” and small spaces with darkness behind them. A companion parrot’s interpretation of a suitable nesting site can be pretty broad. Two dimensions can suffice, although a dark surface or dark background adds allure.

Cavity Seeking Examples

A few days ago, I allowed my grey Marko to be in the bathroom while I was in there. She began cavity seeking in a most unexpected way. I have a four-year-old granddaughter and happen to have a toilet seat her size which fits over the standard seat. When not in use, I have it on the counter. The oval shape was stimulating enough for Marko that she immediately began to investigate. No doubt, she would have jumped into the middle of it if I had allowed it to continue.

Many parrots become obsessed with getting into cupboards and drawers. This is often seen as amusing by owners and, therefore, is often encouraged. I once knew someone who had emptied out her kitchen cupboards so that her large macaws could play in them.  My own Marko will sit for hours atop my sock drawer if I leave it open a crack. She stares into that dark slit and chews on the top edge of the drawer.

She was also responsible for the need to replace my closet doors. As you can see, they originally had slats that allowed her to see the darkness behind the doors. Her flight skills were good enough that she could land on the outside of the doors and cling to them as she chewed. Before too long, she had remodeled things to her liking and proceeded to guard the site until I replaced the doors themselves with a mirrored substitute that did not allow for chewing.

Other Examples from Real Life

One client had an exceptionally aggressive little conure. When I visited the home, I immediately recognized conditions that set the stage for her biting behavior. Her cage was located in the dining area with an adjoining kitchen. She regularly got to spend time up on top of the refrigerator. There was also a dark wood bookcase with which she was fascinated. And, she often crawled between the dog kennel and the back of the bar top for seating that separated the kitchen from the area that housed her cage. Once her access to these spots had been eliminated, we were able to make good progress with a behavior modification plan.

Another client regularly allowed his Umbrella Cockatoo to sit in the drawer in his office next to him while he was at work. When I dictated this as “off limits” behavior, he provided her with a playstand.

He reported progress a couple of weeks later, due to the fact that she had begun staying in a corner of the office, chewing on the woodwork. I had to break the news to him that this too was nesting behavior and that he really needed to teach her to remain up on the playstand, as we had agreed. Although the two or three dimensions seen here wouldn’t lead us to think about it as a suitable site for nesting behavior, it was for this parrot.

Many of my clients regularly (until they speak to me at least) provide cardboard boxes for their parrot to play in. Seems harmless, right? Enrichment is good, right? Not in this case.

Such play should never be encouraged. I suggest that anyone reading this should stop this practice immediately. It’s much healthier, from a behavioral standpoint, for a parrot to perch on a well-designed playstand and interact with enrichment there.

Another problem can be the provision of toys and “sleeping huts” sold for birds that encourage cavity seeking behavior. If a parrot spends time in these during the day, I suggest their removal. They are not necessary and can be a real problem.

If your parrot spends any time in a place that results in what we typically call “territorial aggression,” access needs to be prevented. In other words, if your parrot darts out suddenly to bite you from a favored spot, it is likely that she regards it as a potential nest site, no matter how you view it.

Training Solutions

As any of us know who have tried to keep parrots where we want them to be, this can be a struggle. Training/teaching is necessary. Always when we want a parrot to stop a behavior, we must replace it with another, incompatible behavior.

The incompatible behavior for cavity seeking is stationing on acceptable perches. This is not difficult, but it takes consistent, daily effort over a long period of time. It is not nearly as quickly accomplished as training specific behaviors like targeting, for instance.

If your parrot regularly walks on the floor and engages in cavity seeking or regular chewing on baseboards or other wood in places there, he has established a relationship with that dimension of your home. He finds significant reinforcement in that physical location.

Therefore, the solution must be to establish a relationship with the perches you provide. That takes time, so don’t despair. Just keep doing the right things for long enough.

I work on this on a daily basis and see continued improvement. I put walnut pieces in my pocket every morning. I keep these in front of my coffee maker so that I don’t forget (habit stacking).

Every time I walk through my living area where the birds are located, I offer a walnut piece to those birds who are perched where I want them to be (hanging perches, cages, playstands). Mine are fully flighted and have freedom to go where they want at all times, so have many choices available to them.

If they are perched on the refrigerator or the dog kennel door or the floor, they get nothing. You would be amazed at what I have accomplished. Almost always, they are all perched where I want them to be.

Synopsis

As I have said, the real problem with this behavior is that we fail to recognize it, don’t understand the ramifications of allowing a parrot to pursue this activity, and so often accommodate it because it meets our needs.

As an example, I just spoke with a new client whose two greys have “nests” all over the space where they spend their days – cardboard boxes in which they spend time, trash cans, etc. This has never been viewed as a problem. They enjoy this activity and it has appeared to be a good way for them to spend time.

However, the problems to be addressed in this case include screaming, aggression and feather damaging behavior – all of which result from such activities. It will be impossible to address these until this behavior is replaced with the behaviors of perching up higher and interacting with enrichment in those places.

It is never happy to find yourself in this position. So, let’s clean this up right now before things get worse! I would love to hear from you. Is this something that you struggle with? Let’s all share what we know about this problem and help each other to find more solutions. Please provide a comment here on or Facebook, where you will find this post on both of my pages, Pamela Clark and The Parrot Steward.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots and offer behavior consultations to that end, as well as publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Published by

Pamela Clark, CPBC

I am an IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant who successfully helps parrot owners to resolve behavior problems and train their parrots. I also help determine the best diet, social and physical environments to help that individual parrot flourish.

8 thoughts on “Cavity Seeking in Companion Parrots”

  1. Cavity seeking is a daily issue—I cannot fathom or anticipate some of the places—and training to station has alleviated many attacks and behavior issues. When I enter the room, the birds station. They get treats. I clear out the nesting sites as they station and dole out treats. Yeah, didn’t save me right away but well worth training every single day. Think I have 11 flighted birds…Several different groupings in different rooms.

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    1. I love this comment! I have exactly the same experience – 11 flighted parrots in different groupings. Cockatiel, budgie and two Amazons in my office (which was supposed to be the “bird-free” room). Six greys and a Moluccan in the rest of the house (which is only two rooms). As you can imagine, I don’t have many visitors:)

      Stationing saves me as well, although the daily struggle continues. Keeping them from getting under the bed has been the hardest. I finally put two wardrobe boxes under there and that has helped. I just moved the bed so that there is more “open space” around it – so far that works well. I keep the greys out of the bathroom – learned that one after they chewed up some of the flooring. Geeez! The battle continues. Thanks for commenting. It makes me feel better to know that I am not alone:)

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  2. I don’t allow my Jardines to go into cavities; however, my plucker loves to spend time chewing up the junk mail in a corner of the kitchen counter. She has become territorial about this area. Paper shredding seems like a good activity but in this case it has become a hormonal activity. Should I just change the location of the junk mail so she can shred it in a more open spot?

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    1. Janine,

      Thank you SO much for your comment. Good for you for identifying this behavior in the kitchen as a problem! You’re not the first one to describe this exact behavior to me. Kitchens seem to be a prime area for this type of behavior, likely because we spend so much time in there ourselves perhaps. I would say that paper shredding is a good activity, but only if performed up on a perch. And, you may find that her interest in this wanes if she doesn’t have a corner in which to be while she chews. Perhaps you could give her a paper and cardboard project up on a playstand or in a cage if she spends much time in there. Do you have my Enrichment Pamphlet? You can find it here: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/2346483a-32b0-4032-8070-2efb263e6a90/downloads/1coj2pi60_817276.pdf?ver=1571253241591. It is 38 pages that offer complete instructions for 20 different toys that you can make from materials readily found around the home. I hope this helps! And, again, thank you for sharing this with me and others. It helps us all to feel that we are not alone:)

      Pam

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  3. I have enjoyed putting a tent over my bent legs and letting my 22 year old blue fronted Amazon explore it. She LOVED it. Well, after reading your article, I guess I’ll have to stop that! But it is one of the few things she has seemed really happy with!

    Her first owner hand fed her when tiny and kept her wings clipped. She was trained to sit and do nothing. She probably had limited time with bird parents, didn’t learn to fly, and didn’t learn how to play with toys, chew, or forage. However we are quite attached to each other. Her main joy in life is to sit on my left shoulder and keep me company all day, and I enjoy her too. I do have four perches around the house I put her on as I go about my day.

    I wish she would become interested in toys and foraging. Spending 15 minutes in her tent made her SO happy, but I guess I need to find something else for her. She isn’t a chewer except for one toy I just found recently.

    Last year, I ordered a three sided tent that I got– figuring it would keep her warmer at night during the winter. I never did train her on it, and it’s not something she wants to enter. I guess that’s out too?

    How do you teach a bird to play and forage?

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    1. Dear Laurie,

      Yep. The tent is out too:) She doesn’t need to be warmer at night. She’s warm enough if she’s acclimated to the temperatures of your home and it sounds like she certainly is.

      It’s possible to actually train a bird to interact with enrichment. The first step is to find ANYTHING that she will interact with. Some birds like paper. Some like cardboard. Some like fabric. Some like thinner wood that is usually put on the toys that are sold for big birds like yours.

      Then, once you find anything that she will interact with, you provide her with reinforcement (rewards) for doing so.

      It sounds like you might benefit from my Enrichment Pamphlet. It has 20 different toys that you can make at home, most from things that you would throw away anyway. It also has instructions for one of the toys, from step one to the end for birds that don’t know how to forage. It also has really simple toys, like just a whole roll of toilet paper. You can find it here: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/2346483a-32b0-4032-8070-2efb263e6a90/downloads/1coj2pi60_817276.pdf?ver=1571253241591.

      If birds are afraid of new things, you may have to desensitize them to them first. Please let me know if you would like to do a one-on-one coaching session by video. Inf oration about my consulting services is available on my website. Just scroll down on the home page: https://pamelaclarkonline.com.

      My best to you!

      Pam

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  4. Thank you so much for talking about this behavior. I cannot tell you how many people think it’s fine to give a parrot a cardboard box to play in. I know better and will break them down and cut them up into pieces and put them on a skewer so chewing can be enjoyed but cavity seeking is no longer a problem. Even I messed up a few years ago with two of my female Amazons who are bonded. I tell this story often because this behavior can be deadly! I had some boxes in the corner of our living room next to an open cage that they have access to and they were having so much fun in their “boxed condo” that I just let them. That and a little bit of “I’ll get to it later” attitude and I had a Double Yellow Headed Amazon who was egg bound. I was very lucky to have even caught it because she wasn’t showing any signs being egg bound. The vets tried to remove it surgically and accidentally cut her intestine. She was incredibly lucky to even survive the repair but we still had the egg to deal with. They removed it through the cloaca successfully but it was so hard on her, a 19 year old who had never laid an egg before. Then she developed pneumonia after that. We spent most of the summer in and out of the vet school dealing with the problem of a single egg, caused by laziness and a few boxes. I was so lucky she recovered and we haven’t had a single problem ever since I made sure that no more cardboard boxes were available for my girls!:)

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    1. Dear Jennifer,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. Your message broke my heart. I’ve been there. Not with one of my own birds, thankfully, but as a vet tech I cared for many egg bound birds. As you know, this is always a life threatening situation…expensive for the owner and heartbreaking, even if the bird does survive. I wish I could get everyone to read your message. I’m so glad to hear that she recovered!

      I certainly don’t see this situation as one in which you messed up. It’s hard keeping a balance with birds. There’s always so much to do. So many messes to clean up. I could easily see this happening here. I’m pretty vigilant, but it’s challenging keeping up with the prevention of this behavior.

      Again, thanks so much for sharing your story. Consider yourself hugged:)

      Pam

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