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!

 

Avoid the Pair Bond: Social Relationships with Parrots

At the heart of many behavior problems is a social relationship that has taken a wrong turn. Why? Because, despite our best intentions we often misunderstand what parrots really need from us socially. And then, we do the wrong things.

We take all that we know about living with other companion animals and attempt to apply this to life with parrots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Parrots are too different. They are prey animals, not predators. Most are not yet domesticated, while our dogs, cats and bunnies are. A parrot’s social needs are more closely aligned with the wild life than with captive life.

Lessons from the Wild

So, what do parrots really need from us socially? Observations of their wild lives provide valuable clues. They have many different relationships on various levels. They enjoy parallel activities which serve to cement the integrity of the flock. They all forage at the same time, preen at the same time, nap at the same time.

They are also full of trickery. They engage frequently in brief, playful interactions. They steal perches and food from each other. They engage with each other in mid-air. Some species even play physically with each other.

Each parrot also has a relationship with the flock as a whole.  The flock serves as the vehicle for finding food, accessing that food, evading predators and providing a sense of safety. A single parrot away from his flock would likely meet with a swift demise. They understand this instinctively.

Pair Bonds In the Wild

It is important to note that the only time that adult parrots in the wild spend extended periods of time physically close together is when they have formed a pair bond. They are engaged in cementing that pair bond through remaining close by each other, searching for a suitable nest site, excavating that nest and then laying eggs and rearing young.

Pair Bonds in Captivity

I assert that it physical closeness with a companion parrot that serves as a physiological trigger that causes our parrot to form a pair bond with us. This conviction is based upon two decades of anecdotal experience. Petting the parrot down the back and under the wings, having the parrot on the shoulder for extended periods, cuddling at night before bed, allowing the parrot under the covers…all of these activities give the parrot the wrong message – that we are inviting a sexual relationship. But, we certainly don’t want that, right?

What DO We Want?

I know what I want. And, I know what we should all want for a companion parrot. We should want that parrot to be fully independent, well able to entertain himself most of the time…foraging for food and interacting with enrichment. We should not want a parrot who sits on our shoulder or lap all day. That’s not much quality of life for a captive parrot, given the myriad of activities in which they would engage in the wild on a daily basis.

What DO They Want (Need)?

Lessons from the wild indicate that they need a sense of safety and security that the flock provides. What does this mean for us? I hate to break it to all of you who depend upon them, but bird rooms are a really bad idea. They may be convenient for us, but are a source of stress for parrots, making it impossible for them to satisfy their social needs.

Parrot have big personalities and a well-defined sense of territory. It is stressful for larger parrots to live in close proximity to others, especially others of different species. Parrots seem most comfortable with a minimum of about five feet between cages, which is hard to accomplish in the typical bird room.

Parrots of different species, while they may enjoy having other feathered ones around, will not usually form a cohesive flock bond with them. Instead, most parrots consider the humans in the home to be their primary flock. It is with us that they want to enjoy those parallel activities. Thus, the best thing you can do to facilitate a healthy social life for your parrot is to locate his cage in the living area of the home. (A play stand is not good enough.  Sorry….)

Parallel Activities

The importance of parallel activities to a parrot should not be underestimated. While we may imagine that our birds need hours of one on one time with us, that isn’t the case at all! They don’t need much focused time with us. This may be good news to all of you thinking that you may need to give  your parrot up due to your lack of time.

They will satisfy themselves socially by eating when we eat, preening while we ready ourselves for the day, and snoozing while we nap. We don’t have to do anything other than have our parrots in our proximity to satisfy this particular need of theirs. How easy is that?

Brief, Playful Social Interactions

How about the need for brief, playful social interactions? That one is easy to satisfy too. When our parrots are located in our living areas, it comes naturally to interact with them throughout the day in this manner.

Parrots and people have a way of developing little social duets over time. For example, my African Grey, Marko, loves to hang upside down from my hand.  She started that.  Now, I can step her up and give her the cue to flip upside down. Once upright again, she is happy to take a treat and go back to her perch.

Dancing with your parrot is another example. How about playing toss the paper ball for a few minutes? What else can you think of? What does your parrot like to do? Can you turn that into a 60-second game?

Following the Flock

Parrots also need to follow the flock. That means that, when we change rooms, they want to change rooms to accompany us. A flighted parrot will do this on his own. If you live with a clipped parrot, you will need to provide the transport. Think about having a perch in every room. This way, if you are going into another room for an extended period of time, you can bring your parrot with you to perch while you go about your activities.

Other Social Needs

Aside from these very specific social needs, parrots must have a minimum of three to four hours out of the cage each day for a decent quality of life. More is better. This block of time should be divided into two periods, one in the morning and a second later in the day. It is simply too hard on a parrot to only come out of the cage once a day. Such a schedule often contributes to behavior problems. This time out of the cage allows them to make choices, change locations, and engage in those important social activities outlined above.

My Flock

For the past 15 years, I have worked full-time as a veterinary technician while pursuing my behavior consulting career on the weekends. People always ask me how I can possibly care well for eight parrots while doing all that. I have been easily able to meet the social needs of my own parrots because I follow the advice given in this blog. My parrots are happy, undemanding, and keep themselves busy without needing big chunks of my time.

Does a Pair Bond Already Exist?

What if you have already allowed your parrot to form a pair bond with you? How will you even know if a pair bond exists? I can tell you some sure signs:

  • Your parrot hates everyone but you.
  • Your parrot tries to bite your partner when he or she comes close. (Or the parrot bites you under the same circumstances…another fun variation on that theme.)
  • Your parrot tries to masturbate on you when you are holding him.
  • You can’t get the parrot off of your shoulder (and you’re not in the veterinarian’s office).
  • Your parrot frequently wants to preen your hair, eyebrows, or beard.

I can tell you that you don’t want a pair bond with your parrot. Such a bond leads to increased aggression, screaming and feather destructive behavior. For females, it can also lead to chronic egg laying, which puts the parrot at risk for egg binding. Not only is that a life-threatening condition, it generally incurs astronomical vet bills.

Evolving the Pair Bond

A pair bond can be evolved into a more appropriate relationship with consistent effort over time. First, figure out how much time your parrot currently perches on your shoulder, lap or chest. Begin to reduce that systematically by small increments each week. At the same time, immediately stop petting him anywhere but on the head. Keep him out of your bed. Stop the cuddling. (I know…this is hard. Perhaps a cat or a Yorkshire Terrier might be a good addition at this time.)

Replace that physical closeness by beginning some parrot training. Parrots in the wild are constantly problem solving. Their physical environment requires this. In captivity, most parrots are bored.  By doing some training on a daily basis, you accomplish some very important things.

Parrot Training

Learning new behaviors enriches the parrot’s experience to an extent  you can’t imagine. Learning new behaviors in an important form of enrichment. Learning new behaviors tires a parrot out mentally so he has less need to threaten your eardrums with vocalizations.

But, most importantly, training your parrot will serve over time to evolve that pair bond. By placing yourself in the role of teacher/trainer, you encourage the parrot to look to you for guidance and direction, rather than physical love.

Training doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Five minutes once or twice a day is enough. It doesn’t even matter if you skip days. Your parrot will quite easily pick up where you left off in the training.

What to Train?

It’s best to begin your training by teaching a simple behavior like targeting. Not familiar with targeting? Here is an excellent video, created by behavior consultant Stephanie Edlund, to get you started: http://understandingparrots.com/guide-to-target-training-your-parrot.

Summary

Parrots need the following for social satisfaction:

  • Cage located in the living area.
  • The ability to engage in parallel activities.
  • Brief, playful social interactions with you.
  • Three to four hours out of the cage each day.
  • Parrot training with you as the teacher.

Happy training! Happy Socializing! Sent with much love to you all!

`Pam