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!

a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!