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Hormone amplification in companion parrots

Leo during his behaviour modification programme for his extreme mating behaviour - now corrected
A parrot’s behaviour changes when they mature. The degree it changes is up to the individuals’ genes and their early experiences – if you have prepared for maturity by setting up your parrot with a great environment, confidence, independence and obedience behaviours you will have a smoother ride through maturity than a needy, dependent, overly ‘coddled’ parrot will.

Behaviour changes may include regurgitation to their perceived mate (male, female, object, human, hand), displaying and soliciting mating, aggression towards any other people or animals approaching their perceived mate, territorial aggression, development of a nesting site and excavating a nest, calling to their mate frequently when out of sight (perceived threat), mating or masturbating, to actually breeding and rearing young if they are with other parrots. No longer are they young birds learning about the world, their hormone production has kicked in and drives their behaviour towards procreation, and can be a very powerful force.
If your parrot is beginning to bond a little too strongly with a human, you may find that they protect that human against others by attacking, lunging, rushing or fluffing up displaying full wings at others to warn them away. If warnings are not heeded this can lead to bites to the offenders, or frustrated displacement bites to the mate or nearby objects if the parrot does not feel comfortable or is far away from the intended target (or just because!). You may notice your parrot regurgitating for you, or trying to mate your shoulder or hand. They may begin lurking in dark areas or looking for a nesting hollow. A separation anxiety scream may shows how upset he is by being away from his mate, who he thinks he should be with 24/7. She may start laying eggs. If really frustrated, they may start plucking on her chest and legs – a common pattern for a hormonal frustration if no medical causes can be found.

Many of the ‘problem behaviours’ we deal with as behaviour consultants have at least some degree of hormonal influence with mature birds. They can be mitigated largely by setting your young parrot up to cope with maturity by not basing your sole relationship on touch. While touch acceptance training is essential for a companion parrot, touch should not become the main way that you interact with them. Try to focus less on ‘cuddling’ your parrot and more on advanced behaviours that stimulate the brain and put you into the ‘fellow flock member’ category rather than ‘parent’ or ‘potential mate’. Young parrots get frequently touched and preened by their parents when they are young, however as they gain independence they tend to only intensely touch another parrots body or get touched when they are pair-bonding… which can give them mixed signals as they get closer to maturity. The head seems to be a safe zone that other parrots can preen in the wild, so tends to be a spot of enjoyment for a human to preen, but try to avoid petting and cuddling the rest of the body. Touch acceptance training should be maintained on occasion, but not as the constant that your parrot will expect as the standard of interaction with you. Touching is a very human, very mammalian trait – we find comfort in touching and nurturing – try not to project this too much onto a parrot who when mature will only naturally cuddle up extremely closely to a bonded mate. This seemingly caring human behaviour can lead to unhealthy human-bird bonds when your parrot decides to take you as a mate, so something to watch out for. Instead train all sorts of useful behaviours, encourage flying to your hand, use novel behaviours to distract you parrot and put them into ‘foraging mode’ when they are beginning to demonstrate breeding pre-cursors. Food based training from an early age can help immensely here as they still associate you with foraging, not a threat or competition to their new mate.

You can learn to identify triggers to breeding behaviour and manage them to reduce hormone production. Daylight hours lengthening may put your bird into breeding mode (an increase in hours of light in your home may trigger ‘spring’ or ‘dry season’), touch may sexually stimulate your bird (especially on the back, chest, vent and under wings), and your diet may have so much excess energy (or a sudden flush of protein and fat) that your parrot’s body is telling him he is in great condition to breed! Another major trigger to breed is access to a perceived nesting hollow. Have you accidentally provided your parrot with what he or she perceives as a nesting hollow? Dark corners, cardboard boxes, dark spaces behind couches, fridges or bookshelves, or even a nest-box or ‘parrot hut’ that you may have in the cage or aviary could all be triggering a hormone flush in your parrot. Try to avoid access to sites like these where you can, and have strong recall cues trained to call the bird away from them. Unfortunately, once your parrot has decided on a good nesting spot and has started to work it, it can be very hard to dissuade them.

Your parrot will have individual triggers too, some birds I have worked with get triggered when they see a cardboard box, some when petted even on the head, some when given high sugar natural browse. If a head scratch doesn’t trigger your bird to start acting hormonal, great, but keep an eye on it. Every bird is a bit different. Learn the body language of your individual parrot, they will tell you everything you need to know to troubleshoot, analyse and manage their behaviour accordingly (if you are not sure book in a consultation with a behaviour consultant, see www.parrotlife.com.au/consultations for Parrot Life’s options). In severe cases where they are a hyper-sexual bird whose behaviour is negatively affecting their health or the condition has gotten so out of hand that behaviour modification alone cannot manage the hormones, hormone suppressing implants or injections can be quite effective when used in conjunction with behaviour modification (see your avian vet). 

- Rachel Riley
Train touch acceptance, but don't make touch the primary standard of your relationship
A common hormonally linked feather destructive behaviour pattern in parrots
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