Hormones strike twice a year in most parrots, spring and autumn, turning your bird from a gentle angle into a rampaging monster. Or so it seems!
Upon reaching sexual maturity, parrots have a single driving urge: to find a mate and make babies. It is very simple, and yet also impossible for them. Hand-raised parrots typically choose their caretaker as their mate, which, of course, is a role we can never fulfil – much to the detriment of our captive birds. (Please note: The answer is not to breed your pets, as this requires a special set up, careful diet planning and expensive nutritional care, and the ability to care for and re-home any babies.)
Parrots in captivity find their hormones stimulated by a four main things:
- Light – too much daylight stimulates the hormones by making a parrot think ‘spring’ all the time. Give your pet bird 12-14 hours of undisturbed sleep in the complete dark. Any artificial light does the same thing as the sun in terms of imitating good breeding conditions.
- Diet – an enriched diet is part of caring for our pets, but it does also signal constant bountifulness. In other words, feeding a wide variety of nutritionally rich foods says ‘this is the perfect breeding season.’ Pellets are a key trigger – that soy stimulates hormones like nothing else. But sugary and fatty foods can do it too, depending on the individual.
- Cuddling – I’ve written about the dangers of too much cuddling before. This is the time of year to stop petting your parrot outside his head, neck, and feet, if you are! It tells your bird that you are about to deliver one thing… sex.
- Environment – birds will nest in just about anything. How do you know if your pet parrot is nesting? Is he or she hanging out in a dark, shadowy corner? Is he becoming aggressive over a certain place? Blankets, boxes, shelves, drawers, parrot tents, and shadowy nooks like behind the door or in the closet are all prime nesting spots to your parrot. Letting your bird hang out here encourages hormones.
What can we do?
- First and foremost, this is a time of year when it is critical not to encourage your parrot to let you think you are his mate. The risks of doing so include attacks on you and your loved ones in the house, plucking from frustration, excess screaming, and even depression in your parrot.
- Restrict daylight hours – again, 12-14 hours of complete darkness will help immensely.
- Conversely, fill the actual days with direct sunlight (or a UV-A lamp). This helps parrots process the vitamins from their food, reducing the chance of biting, screaming, and plucking.
- Swap cage and room contents around regularly to help with territoriality.
- Give fewer warm, spray showers, as these imitate springtime mistings in nature (again, a signal to breed).
- Consider a diet change, too, where you begin to feed a lot of chickpeas, leafy greens, carrots, etc., but skip the pellets and other proteins.
- Don’t cuddle your bird, even if he or she insists upon it. Remember, doing so makes a promise you can’t uphold.
- Do not bob your head, even in play or while dancing. A parrot reads this as regurgitation!
- Don’t feed warm and/or mushy foods – this is the equivalent of regurgitated food for them.
- Don’t offer food from your own mouth or hands, as birds take this the wrong way.
- Instead of cuddles, engage in some trick training – it serves as enrichment – and work on foraging to distract them.
- Don’t let your parrot play in boxes, have newspaper, shredded material, or cloth to play with (they see nesting material), or hang out in dark, tight spaces.
- Encourage your bird to fly as much as possible to burn off energy.
Know the signs and symptoms of a hormonal parrot:
- Trembling, with wings dropped low in a ‘begging’ posture (he or she is asking you to feed him as a mate)
- Panting when touched outside the head and neck
- Regurgitating for you or its toys
- Increased appetite
- Lifting the vent while cuddling (if female)
- Mounting your hand by gripping your thumb (if male)
- Masturbating on your or something nearby
- Showing off and flirting by flinging out the wings, doing mating dances with head-bobbing and hopping/bouncing, or making ‘heart wings’
- Plucking or barbering feathers
- Territoriality over the cage, room, you, or a family member
- Excess aggression, including biting, screaming, and beak-bashing
What do I do if my parrot is regurgitating for me, or if he displays one of these signs?
If your bird is trying to mate with you, or regurgitating for you, gently but firmly put your bird down. Walk away, feeling not disgust, but friendly affection. I sometimes tell Maverick, our Senegal, ‘I love you, too, but as a friend.’ My voice lets him know that I am not upset or angry. After he stops, I instigate a hands-off training session so that we can have a positive and distracting interaction. I try not to put us in a position where my birds will become that way, but sometimes it happens anyway.
If your parrot is aggressive, screaming, or being territorial, react with understanding, not frustration or anger. How must he feel, unable to fulfil his most basic instinct? It isn’t about ‘love.’ It’s about the need to reproduce. He isn’t lonely – he’s horny. It will pass.
Why is my parrot suddenly attacking me, or my husband/wife/daughter/son/friends?
When a parrot chooses a mate, they bond for life. Touching another bird is the equivalent of a human cheating on a partner. They don’t do it.
When an intruder comes too close to either a mate or the nest, one of the pair will drive this threat off (which one does this depends on the species). If a parrot feels they can’t drive an intruder off, they turn on their own mate, forcing them away from perceived danger. Thus, it is quite possible that a parrot who is attacking you either sees you as a threat to the nest, or to their ‘mate.’ You may be the mate, or someone else in the house may be.
I’ve talked about cuddling. Only mates preen outside of that head/neck area. Some of the worst places an owner can touch are around the vent (butt) area, along the back, and under the wings. This says, ‘Yes, I accept’ to a clear offer of sex. A parrot can’t understand why his ultra-obvious invites are always ignored, despite your own indications to the contrary.
A bird will become frustrated after time passes and you don’t deliver. Sometimes it will turn on you, biting you. Other times, it will turn its frustration inwards, plucking out its feathers, or mutilating its own skin. It is truly best not to pet our pet birds the way they so desire. They like a lot of things that are bad (or not so good) for them, and it’s our job to keep them happy and healthy by not giving in.
At this difficult time of year, try to understand that your parrot is doing what is instinctive for him. He is perfectly normal, and, in an oddly reassuring way, healthy! It will also pass. Persevere, and know that in a few months your bird will stop trying to bite you and will calm down once again.
What are your tips for surviving the hormone seasons with your parrots?