Reducing hormonal behaviors in parrots.

Well, it’s springtime, which means that love is in the air for a lot of companion parrots.

Parrots in Love

I actually wrote a version of this article a long time ago for a companion parrot group online that I moderate, but since I’ve had so many clients telling me about their hormonal birds lately, I figured that now’s the perfect time to dust this thing off and re-use it.

There are a many things which will trigger hormonal surges in parrots, some of which include:

* longer daylight hours; shorter nights

* a perceived nest box

* a perceived “mate”

* high fat foods

* warm, mushy foods

* excess energy

If you have a hormonal parrot, you can try the following to reduce them:

* Make sure that (s)he gets 12-14 hours of total darkness. If you can’t provide that in their regular cage, get a sleep cage and put it in a separate room or closet with dark curtains or no windows.

* If your hormonal bird has a happy hut, cardboard box, grocery bag, makes a tent out of newspaper, has access to a dark corner, or any other conceivable permutation of a nesting box, remove that stimulus from their environment.

* If your bird regurgitates for you, masturbates on you, or if you pet your bird anywhere other than their head or feet, stop. Walk away any time your bird exhibits the aforementioned sexual behaviors, and restrict petting to head and feet only, as petting anywhere else on a horny bird can be mistaken as sexual advances. Make more of your interactions hands-off, like training sessions, so that your bird can redefine your role in their life. Make it clear that they are loved, but not, you know, LOVE-LOVED. ūüėČ

* Most parrots in the wild will only breed when resources are abundant. The problem is that resources are *always* abundant in captivity. What an individual bird may perceive as abundance can vary, but in some cases high-fat and high-sugar diets can play a contributing factor. One thing you can try is providing your bird with a lower-fat, lower-sugar diet. More veggies, herbs and flowers; give berries as the only type of fruit; feed fewer seeds, nuts, and grains (including pasta and pellets). BUT!! It’s imperative that you make sure that your bird doesn’t lose too much weight from a drastically reduced diet, so weigh them frequently and add back in a few soaked nuts, sprouted seeds, and higher-protein pseudo-grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat paired with a higher-protein legume such as black beans, if they are acting super hungry and/or losing too much weight.

5/26/13 EDIT: I will say that I have lately put my birds on a grain-free diet to see how they did, and it seemed that they all experienced a reduction in hormonal behaviors. ¬†Then, a couple of weeks ago, I ran out of ¬†their chop, so I ended up feeding them a birdie bread and pellets. ¬†Almost instantly, all five of them started up with hormonal behaviors again, and both females – one an Aru Eclectus and the other a Red Bellied Parrot – became super nesty. ¬†After about a week, I got a paycheck, went grocery shopping, and made more chop. ¬†Within two days, the nesting behaviors in the Red Belly ceased, and by the end of the week all other hormonal behaviors in the Red Belly and the males had ceased. ¬†My female Ekkie is still a little nesty, but she willingly comes out of the cage, steps up, and shows interest in playing and exploring again, which she had not been doing while on the birdy bread and pellet diet. ¬†A study of five is by no means comprehensive, but I find it interesting that the birds had such dramatic behavior shifts when on a diet high in grains. ¬†Whether that’s due to the carbohydrates/sugars, or because grains are pro-inflammatory, or due to some other factor I don’t know about, the results were quite apparent in my flock. ¬†So, that may be something else to consider and experiment with in your own flock.

* During the mating season, birds will feed each other by regurgitating their food. Even though in most species it is primarily the male who flies off to forage for food then returns to the female in the nest to regurg for her, it still seems that warm, mushy foods can trigger male parrots as much as females. Serve mash and chop cold; don’t feed heated foods or warmed up birdie breads; don’t offer anything by hand. Even during training sessions, you can offer treats by putting them in a spoon or a shallow dish instead of giving them by hand.

* Just as with people, making sure parrots get more exercise can and often will reduce excess sexual energy. Make sure your bird gets plenty of exercise every day. If they are flighted, train them to recall to you and do so until they are winded every day. If they aren’t flighted, train them to flap their wings and do it every day until they’re winded. Play with them. Train them. Get them to use their brains. Also, make them work for their food. Don’t put anything in a bowl. Make them forage for everything. You can even make them forage for chop/mash by putting it in wax free paper cups and covering them with tissue paper. If they’re having to expend energy and devote brain power to just obtaining food every day, that’s a lot less energy left over to be in the mood for sexy time!

EGG LAYING:

If a hen has already laid an egg, you have a few options:

1) If you know the egg is infertile, leave it and let the hen sit on it until she decides for herself that the eggs are infertile. In some cases, this will prevent her from laying more eggs and will more or less “get it out of her system” by letting the nesting process take its course–letting her do what hens do. This is a more practical option for birds who are not aggressively territorial over her eggs, obviously. If, however, she is so aggressive as to become difficult to care for, or if she keeps laying beyond the normal number of eggs in a typical clutch for her species (for example, in Eclectus, more than 2 eggs is abnormal, whereas Cockatiels can have up to 8 eggs in a clutch, so you wouldn’t need to start worrying until 9 eggs or beyond), this is not the best option for your situation.

2) If there’s any chance the egg(s) might be fertile, it is important to remove them, shake or boil them, and then you can elect to replace them. Then everything mentioned in Option 1 would apply here as well. One benefit I forgot to mention in Option 1 is that letting her sit on her eggs buys you some time while you try the hormone reducing tips above, so that when she does finally reject the eggs, she won’t try to lay more. You will, however, need to supplement her diet with extra calcium during this process, since egg laying depletes her own body’s calcium.

3) For hens who become extremely aggressive and territorial over their eggs, seem anxious or depressed, start plucking or self-mutilating, or continue to lay eggs beyond what is typical for her species, you can remove the eggs and try to make her chosen nesting site less nesty–or if necessary, prevent her from accessing it altogether. Unfortunately, that won’t necessarily be enough of a dissuasion from certain species who lay eggs on the ground or on a cliffside; those little ladies will often lay eggs just about anywhere! But removing them and disrupting the nesting site might be enough of an upheaval that, again, it might buy you some time while the rest of the hormone reducing attempts take effect.

I know it sounds a little crazy to say, “You can either do this or do the exact opposite thing, and either might work,” but the reality is that every bird is different and reacts to their environments differently. It’s up to you to observe, assess, and act accordingly. Now at least you know the potential pros and cons of each choice.

Anyway, these are a few things you can try. Of course, hormonal behaviors are complex and many factors contribute, not all of which we have control over, so this article is just scratching the surface of this topic. Nevertheless, these strategies have worked very well for me with the majority of hormonal birds I’ve worked with. Very few have needed medical intervention afterwards. ¬†However, know that Lupron is an option, albeit a more last-resort option that does not come without potential side-effects. ¬†Have a discussion with your avian vet about whether or not this is a viable option for your bird. ¬†In general, though, if you really commit yourself to trying the options above, you will have a really good chance of finding some combination that reduces these behaviors. ¬†Good luck!

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About Emily Strong

behavior consultant. veterinary technician. crazy parrot lady. lifelong animal lover. cellist. yogi. hula hooper. horse rider. swimmer. singer. reader. writer. dreamer. music lover. amateur gardener. nutrition enthusiast. eternal student. language lover. aspiring polyglot. tattoo canvas. water drinker. overthinker. bountiful laugher. overenthusiast. attention deficit meditator.
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13 Responses to Reducing hormonal behaviors in parrots.

  1. webpage says:

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  2. Dana Wade says:

    In reality it’s Fall now, but my macaw, Noelle, laid an egg about 4 months ago. She is 18 years old this month. I allowed her to sit on the egg presumably until she was tired of it. She went to the bottom of her bars and laid her egg. I gave her an old towel so she would be more comfortable. Noelle sat for about 10 days and, in my opinion, was not eating sufficiently. So I took her to another part of the house and my friend pulled the egg. I felt enormous guilt, but when I put her back into her cage she looked around for a few minutes and than dove into her food. At the end I had been hand feeding her baby bird formula with a syringe. I was so concerned that she got her needed nutrients. Noelle finally started using her perches and acting normally again. I threw the towel out so there would be no association. Any comments for next time-which I dread.

    • Emily Strong says:

      As Dr. Friedman says, “behavior is a study of one.” This is exactly why I wrote the post as I did: what works for one bird may not work for another. You did an excellent job handling a stressful situation, Dana, and by observing your bird’s behavior and responding in the way that made the most sense to you, you were able to improve both her and your quality of life. Well done! The only comment I have is keep doing what you’re doing: observing her behavior and responding in the way that makes sense to you.

      FWIW, my female Ekkie, Cah’ya, just laid her first eggs ever (she’s 7, almost 8) a couple of weeks ago and she’s been in brood mode ever since. She’s really insistent that I regurgitate for her, which we all know is not a good idea since human saliva can make birds very sick. I have, however, been spoon feeding her, and it’s been a great bonding process for us. She lets me handle her eggs in her presence, which demonstrates the amount of trust we have in each other. BUT, like you, I’m considering pulling her eggs in the next week or so, because she’s so focused on her eggs she’s not playing, foraging, or exercising at all. So yeah, these situations require good observational skills and deciding what’s best for the individual bird on a day-to-day basis!

  3. My Eclectus Hen has hit age 4. I read that’s the peak of sexual maturity. I’ve never seen her so wild. She laid 2 eggs last month and I took both away hoping she’d get over it (I did the same thing a few years ago and it worked fine) She no longer greets me with words or cooing, instead she makes the motion like she expects me to regurgitate. When I ignore her she runs to the corner of her cage and starts this weird sound of honking and clucking with her butt up in the air. I tried to let her out to get exercise but she goes right back to her cage. When shes in the cage she’s climbing the walls and destroying all her toys. It also looks like shes molting but there’s no bald spots. (feathers do not look plucked) She seems very agitated and I wish there was more I could do. I just let her sit on her cage and I talk to her, give her a shower now and then, but shes too unpredictable. She will growl and snap if I get too close. I’m going to try eliminating grains from her diet, as nothing else has helped.

    • Emily Strong says:

      Hi Melanie. I’m sorry you’re going through that, but I can relate. My 8 year old Eclectus hen recently laid her first pair of eggs and has been very nesty as well. Fortunately, she lets me into her cage and doesn’t growl or snap at me if I do. She also lets me handle her eggs.

      Since hormonal behaviors are so tricky and can vary not only from bird to bird but from season to season for an individual bird, you might consider trying to let her sit on her next clutch of eggs to see if it relieves some of her crankiness. Of course you can try the grain-free thing as well, to see if that works for her. As I said in this blog entry, I’ve seen it make a huge difference in some birds and no difference whatsoever in others. But at least it’s something to try.

      As for the other behaviors you described – running to the corner of her cage, honking and clucking with her butt up in the air, and begging for you to regurg for her – those are also behaviors I’m seeing in my hen. At first I was really sad that she wasn’t the same bird I used to know, but eventually I just accepted that this is a different phase of her life, and I have to let her go through it. As soon as I let that anxiety go and I was calmer around her, she started engaging with me more whenever I have her out of the cage. In the cage she still does her nesty thing, but out of the cage we can play and explore and hang out together and take showers together and do all the things we used to do. She’ll even play on some of the foraging stations. I fully recognize that this is purely corollary phenomena and I have no evidence of causation. I also recognize that every bird is different, so what has worked for me with this particular bird this year may not work for you with your bird. But it *is* true that parrots are incredibly sensitive to our emotional states, so it is possible that my ability to be calmer around her and accept her for who she is right now contributed to her ability to relax and engage with me in the way that she used to. It might be worthwhile to try that as well and see how that goes for you.

      I think the name of the game for sharing our lives with wild animals is learning to roll with the punches and become sleuths, being committed to relentless trial and error until we find what works. As a last resort, Lupron is always an option. But it doesn’t hurt to futz around with diet, environment, and our own emotional state to see what sticks.

  4. Bill Esposito says:

    I adopted a Hawk Head parrot on Dec 20th 2015. I’m not sure of either her age or sex as the person I got her from told me a couple of different ages. I think she could be between 19 and 28 years old. She is supposed to be a “she” but the prior owner had her for 8 years ant she never laid an egg.

    Anyway, the problem. She immediately bonded with both me and my wife and she gets real excited when she sees my wife doing some wing flicking and regurgitation. She will almost never do that to me with the exception of right before she goes to bed, she seems to get very horny with me and tonight she even started masturbating on my hand as I was talking to her. I simply got up and put her to bed.

    I uncover her at 8am (or later) and her light goes out at 7″30pm. She has a 27w Full spectrum light over her cage but often when I’m home she spends little time in her cage and just get natural room light.

    The first week or two that we had her we were petting her all over and cuddling but we stopped that a month ago because she was getting progressively worse. Now I don’t touch her at all with the exception of putting her on my shoulder and a few minutes a day on my hand. My wife will pet her head a bit but not daily and not that often…we’re really trying not to touch her.

    The only aggressive behaviour has been towards my daughter who she originally liked but not immediately gets aggressive once she sees her. She is not aggressive towards me or my wife.

    I’m in the middle of converting her from seed to pellet so I’d like not to interrupt that.

    Should I put her to bed earlier than 730 (she now gets 12.5 hours of covered sleep though not all of it is totally dark}?

    Any other helpful hints would be appreciated.
    Thanks
    Bill

    • Emily Strong says:

      You could certainly try slightly increasing the amount of sleep she gets to see if it helps. Providing her with more exercise and increasing her enrichment opportunities may also help. I know you said you’re converting her from seed to pellets; does she eat any fresh foods? If so, you could try increasing the amount of vegetables she’s getting each day and decreasing the other types of food. The thing about hormonal behaviors is that every bird is different, so different strategies may work for different people. As long as you don’t try anything dangerous, I’d say experiment with her routine and environment to see if you can find what works best for you.

      The aggression towards your daughter may have nothing to do with hormones. Hawkheads as a species have been known to pick their favorite people and their enemies seemingly at random. That’s not to say those behaviors can’t be changed–it is entirely possible to change her response to your daughter. I just wouldn’t assume it’s due to hormones. Barbara Heidenreich offers a lot of free or cheap resources on dealing with aggression in parrots on her website goodbirdinc.com. Alternately, you may want to consider hiring a professional behavior consultant to help you. You can search for a CPBC in your area at iaabc.org.

      Best of luck!

  5. Dawn Harris says:

    Thank you for this information Emily. We adopted a male Blue-fronted Amazon last July. He’s 21 years old and fortunately had a pretty good life with one owner until she got a new boyfriend and the boyfriend didn’t like the Amazon and vice versa. I share that just to say he hasn’t been passed around from home to home and was loved and cared for by his previous owner. He bonded to me quickly and while he shows typical aggression to anyone who isn’t me (ie. my husband) we understand this is normal and won’t be re-homing him. My concern is that he has been masturbating and showing slight signs of hormones for two months but has never been aggressive to me. Two months ago we put him on a sleep schedule of 14 hours a night in a sleeping cage in a dark and quiet room to temper the hormones. Just yesterday everything changed and he is what I am calling “on fire!” He’s on a rampage to bite me (he has never bitten me before) and anyone else who even looks wrong at him. I put him to bed last night and thought it would be better this morning. When I uncovered his cage he rushed right at me with eyes pinning and tail fully flared and beak lunging. I knew what this meant and didn’t go near him. Instead I used a leather glove on my hand and picked him up with a wooden dowel (he’s stick trained so my husband can move him around the house when I am not there). I moved him to his cage and he never stopped showing aggression. I know it’s only been two days and I am almost certain the triggers for this behavior are hormones PLUS we adopted another parrot (a 19 year old male Ekkie) a week ago who is bonding with my husband. I’ve been super careful to not show any attention to the Ekkie and for the most part the Ekkie is in a separate room but they can hear one another. I’m wondering what I can do immediately to reduce his hormones outside of the 14 hours of sleep, reducing petting (he only ever gets head scratches), and the avoidance of mushy foods? Or is this just something I need to wait out? He never spends the day in his cage and is always out but today we had to lock him up all day to protect ourselves. I feel guilty but should he remain in his cage during a large part of the day if I can’t trust him…at least until the hormones decrease?

    • Emily Strong says:

      Hi Dawn. It sounds like you are handling this beautifully and I love that you stick trained him so that he can be safely moved around the house. Excellent work!

      I would not rush to assume that this increased aggression is due to hormones. Before making that assumption, I would look into behavior modification as a possible way to resolve the aggression issue–both the new behaviors towards you and the long-standing behaviors towards your husband. Barbara Heidenreich offers a lot of free or cheap resources on dealing with aggression in parrots on her website goodbirdinc.com. Alternately, you may want to consider hiring a professional behavior consultant to help you. You can search for a CPBC in your area at iaabc.org, or you can always contact me privately to schedule a Skype consult with me.

      Whatever you decide to do, keep up the fabulous work you are already doing!

  6. jeniseharmon says:

    My male eckie normally is “happy” and tries to mate frequently. Recently, every single time he’s out he goes right for my hand, or knee, or foot. He’s regurgitating for me now in his cage. He is making some noise that I’ve never heard before, and only when I’m in the same room. He normally talks to me when he can’t hear me. He’s also banging his toys around. Help!

    • Emily Strong says:

      Hi Jenise! I’d be happy to help you troubleshoot and see if we can’t find a combination of environmental and behavioral solutions that will help your Ekkie. Feel free to get in touch with me to set up a consult!

  7. Pingback: Boxes + Female Parrots = Mistake – The Pampered Flock

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