Sex in the Psittacine
Summary: The dedication most parrot caregivers have to their avian companion’s wellbeing, combined with their air-conditioned, artificially-lighted indoor lifestyles, means they are in perfect shape to want to reproduce. If they’re not careful, caregivers may foster a sexual relationship with their parrot that leads to frustration on both sides. This article discusses the myriad factors that determine a parrot’s natural reproductive cycle, and explains how to make some simple changes to prevent hormone-related problematic behaviors from developing.
Bonding in juvenile and mature parrots
What is bonding? The dictionary defines it as “The formation of emotional bonds, the formation of a close emotional tie, emotional tie between people, for example, between a mother and her newly born infant.”1 Bonding in humans also exists between close friends, members of a sports team, church groups, and other social groups. However, bonding in adult birds is not merely a close emotional relationship. It includes fidelity and a sexual relationship; that is, “Parrots bond for life.”
Approximately 30 years ago, when hand-feeding became popular, the term “bond “was applied to the relationship between humans and birds. A good relationship with a bird, based on trust, can be maintained throughout a lifetime; however, it is not bonding in the strictest sense. It is essential to understand that bonding is a sexual relationship to the mature parrot. The dictionary definition, although anthropomorphic, can apply to juveniles. It does not apply to sexually mature adult birds.
In an effort to achieve a close and affectionate relationship with their parrots, people frequently set themselves up for failure. Anyone who inadvertently fosters a sexual bond is creating conditions that encourage biting, excessive screaming, and behaviors many parrot owners label as hormonal, mean, aggressive, dominant, or jealous.
Parrot owners are generally responsible and proactive. When their healthy birds mature into adults, the birds are in perfect shape to reproduce and live in the perfect conditions to raise babies. A healthy, sexually mature adult bird would naturally want to breed. The bird who has little exposure to conspecifics will turn an affectionate eye toward someone who seems like an acceptable mate but is not. This is frustrating for the bird and the entire family.
A perfect storm
There is a hypothesis that some birds, especially feather-picking individuals that do not molt naturally, may be stuck in a breeding cycle that makes them ready to reproduce year-round. The premise is reasonable. If a mature bird is imprinted on humans, living in an environment with a protracted or erratic photoperiod, being fed a healthy diet that includes a hormone that elicits breeding activity, and relegated to home activities, a perfect storm has been created. Breeding behavior may be observed year-round and elicited by any kind of touching or handling by the owner. In these situations, there are no signals being sent to the bird’s body that breeding season is over. Therefore the bird is ready to breed at any time during the year.
This article looks at the influence of imprinting, photoperiod, diet, and hormones in problematic sexual behaviors of companion parrots. It also suggests some structures for intervening in these behaviors and changes parrot owners can make to the environment to minimize the stress and frustration that these behaviors can cause to birds and humans alike.
Konrad Lorenz (1935) discovered that precocial birds imprint on the first moving object they see and exhibit following behavior.2 There are several critical periods of learning that take place during the early life of a bird. During one of these periods, filial imprinting takes place. Imprinting that occurs normally and naturally enables birds to recognize their own species. Lorenz’s first experiments were with goslings. Geese are precocial (or nidifugous) birds and fairly independent at birth. They are able to eat independently, walk, and control their body temperature. Parrots are altricial birds. When they hatch, their eyes are not opened and will not open for days. They cannot pick up and eat food or regulate their body temperature. They are fully dependent on their parents for a prolonged period of time. Exactly when imprinting occurs in altricial birds and to what degree is different with each species; however, it does not occur as early in life as in nidifugous birds.
Parents, siblings, and neighbors are an important part of sexual imprinting. There are exceptions – parasitic birds (like most cuckoos and cowbirds) do not imprint on their surrogate parents or siblings. Birds that grow up around heterospecifics may sexually imprint on a species other than their own, though this is reversible. Patrick Bateson wrote in his 1978 article, “Sexual Imprinting and Optimal Outbreeding,” for the journal Nature, “Even in the absence of conspecifics a bird may have a preference for their own species. Sexual imprinting may refine a sexual bias.”3 Although he does not discount that imprinting can be long lasting, sexual imprinting is flexible.
In 1964 Erich Klinghammer and Eckhard H. Hess wrote about imprinting in blond ring doves (an altricial species) in the journal Science. The optimum age for imprinting is about 8 days old. Ring doves fledge when they are around 15 days old.4
When baby parrots are removed from their clutch mates and taken to new homes where they do not see any conspecifics, sexual imprinting on humans is probable.
Sexual imprinting does not pose a problem when the birds are still juveniles, but healthy, mature birds naturally have a desire to breed. If they are imprinted on humans then they will choose a person to become their mate, and when breeding season arrives they may chase away anyone who comes between them and their chosen mate. Anyone perceived as a threat to their relationship may be bitten and screamed at. Some species, like conures and hyacinth macaws, will masturbate in front of anyone they perceive as a threat by pulling on their own tails with their feet. At these times the bird is frequently labeled “hormonal.”
The role of hormones
Hormones are often blamed for every conceivable behavioral problem that presents itself. In birds too young to breed, the problem is a lack of proper training, not hormones. Young birds do not always receive appropriate training, since some of the behaviors are considered cute or have not progressed to the point of being frustrating for the owner. As the bird develops self-confidence and independence, the “cute” behaviors happen frequently and grow in intensity. They are eventually shaped into problematic behaviors that were avoidable. Baby parrots will often nibble on people’s fingers. They may roll over onto their backs grasping a person’s hand as they chew on a finger. In time this slowly becomes a painful pressure bite. They may wrestle a toy or food from someone’s hands. It is cute when they are small and clumsy. However, it is a learning experience and may become a hindrance when the baby is bigger and stronger.
These “hormonal” birds are often taken to a veterinarian for what are really behavioral problems and not an illness or even excessive sexual behaviors. Often, the owner’s expectation is for the veterinarian to give the bird drugs, such as haloperidol or prozac, to cure the problems.
Changing unwanted behaviors is not the veterinarian’s job unless they are a behavioral veterinarian. The job is the health of the animal. In most of these cases, the bird should be seen by a parrot behavior consultant who can teach the owner how to modify behavior.
There are definite signs that a bird’s unwanted behaviors are linked to hormones. Birds are their most beautiful when they are ready to breed. A parrot’s wings and tail feathers will be full. This allows them to expertly escape from predators, find food faster and return it to the nest to feed their babies. Beauty is especially evident in birds that sport breeding plumage such as egrets and peacocks. During breeding season a healthy, mature bird’s body screams, “I am beautiful. I am healthy. I can make beautiful and healthy babies. Mate with me!” They are not, or should not, be molting. Molting takes place once breeding season is over. Pet parrots that are ready to mate will masturbate on their toys or on the person they perceive as their mate. They will try to feed the human they have bonded to. They may gain weight. They look for small dark places to nest. Wood chewing increases. They may scream more. They will chase some people away. If they have not bonded to a person, the activities that require a partner will be focused on an inanimate object.
Other factors influencing breeding cycles
Breeding cycles can be truncated and the experience made less chaotic with careful antecedent placements. Understanding the role of these environmental factors gives behavior consultants a set of suggestions that require relatively little effort on the part of clients and may give more active training a greater chance of producing desirable results.
Only equatorial birds have a natural photoperiod of approximately 12 hours of daylight. Some examples of equatorial parrots include island cockatoos, golden conures and grey parrots. Many other species do not naturally occur near the equator, or they have a very large range that extends for thousands of miles across and beyond the equator. According to the NOAA Solar Calculator, in their natural environment Patagonian conures experience a photoperiod of eight hours and seven minutes on June 21, which is the generally the shortest day of the year in Patagonia. On December 21, the longest day of the year, the photoperiod is 16 hours and 40 minutes. In the Northern hemisphere Indian ring-necked parakeets have a photoperiod of nine hours and 51 minutes during the winter solstice and a photoperiod of 14 hours and 28 minutes during the summer solstice. For these birds, a 12-hour photoperiod year-round is unnatural.
In their 2001 review “Photoperiodic Control of Seasonality in Birds,” Dawson, King, Bentley, and Ball examined “… how birds use the annual cycle in photoperiod to ensure that seasonal events – breeding, molt, and song production – happen at the appropriate time of year.”5 Some birds are predictable and others are opportunistic breeders. However, photoperiod is the predominant factor. In 1940, Brown and Rollo manipulated the photoperiod of equatorial whydahs and weaver finches, which normally produce breeding plumage once every two years. By increasing the photoperiod, they were able to obtain breeding plumage once a year. In birds from other latitudes, the photoperiod had a stronger influence on seasonal gonads, maturation, and breeding. In 1934 and 1935 Miyazaki was able to induce three sexual maturation seasons in oriental white eyes during a single year.6
Twelve hours of darkness do not equal 12 hours of sleep. The role of light and darkness is very important to all birds. An erratic or extreme photoperiod will affect the bird’s circadian rhythm and therefore the bird’s physical and mental health.
Rainy and dry seasons
In Piaui, Brazil, there are three species of large macaws that inhabit the same area. According to Cid Simones, who was with Bio Brazil in 2005, the first to go to nest and lay eggs are the blue and golds. A month later the greenwings begin laying eggs; and a month after that the hyacinths lay their eggs.
Breeding season for these large macaws begins near the end of the dry season. The monsoon season generates the production of a wealth of food. To feed one chick and sustain themselves, the parents must consume up to four times more food than they did before the chick hatched.
Once the rainy season begins, the birds must have found a mate and procured a nest. Timing is important or there will not be enough food to feed the chicks. If the parents delay in obtaining a mate and a nest, they will have to wait another year to reproduce.
In 1950 Moreau stated in The Breeding Seasons of African Birds that there may be no distinct breeding season for birds from the inner tropical belt (Congo). However, in East Africa there are two breeding seasons, both during the rainy seasons.7
Pet birds in people’s homes do not experience a dry and rainy season, nor do they experience seasonal changes in ambient temperature, all of which are signals to begin or stop breeding. They may get a bath once a week or even less. Food is provided in abundance year-round, and this unchanging season within a home is opportunistic and could encourage continuous reproduction in tropical and opportunistic birds.5
There is very little known about the dietary needs of parrots. Information about their diets is based on conjecture and to some extent on the dietary needs of poultry. The dietary necessities of babies, adults, geriatric birds, inactive birds, free flyers, and egg-laying hens all differ. This means that there is little known about the effect of diet — both overall caloric intake and micronutrient profiles — in the development of sexual maturity and the expression of breeding behaviors in companion parrots.
Studies have shown that vitamin D3 plays an important part in the breeding behavior of birds. In Avian Medicine Principles and Application by Richie, Harrison, and Harrison, Randle Brue states that in a prolonged study of cockatiels fed a diet containing 4000 ICU vitamin D3, high egg production was observed for approximately one year.8The addition of high concentrations of vitamin D3 increased breeding behavior. However, this was followed by deterioration in production. The birds developed gout, they were polyuric, and they became lethargic and anorexic. Some developed diarrhea or lameness. Many females in the study expired, although males were not as severely affected as females. Once the birds were removed from the experiment, they returned to normal. Interestingly, vitamin D3 is not technically a vitamin. It is considered to be a steroid/hormone that is produced by the body. We continue to call D3 a vitamin even though for almost 100 years it has been documented as not being such.
Pelleted diets do not take into account the dietary needs of each species. They are designed for the ever-elusive generic parrot. Even when pellets are fed with other foods, the levels of D3 may be too high for the individual bird. The amount of D3 in pellets is not typically specified on the label. High levels of D3 in a bird’s diet can induce a strong desire to breed, like the cockatiels in the study. Adding D3 to the diet is not advisable unless it has been prescribed by an avian veterinarian.
Location and travel
In the wild, young birds and birds without mates roost together in small communities. Bonded pairs roost with each other or with their juvenile offspring who still rely on them for guidance. At dawn, the pairs and small family groups fly for miles to meet with their flocks and extended families to forage for food and to socialize. At dusk they return to their roosting/nesting sites. They do not stay in small areas the size of houses and yards year-round.
During breeding season, the birds remain close to their nests and forage in the vicinity. A male will stand guard over the nest when he is not procuring food for himself, his mate, and their babies. Females stay in their nest for extended periods and do not venture away for very long. Once the babies’ demand for food increases to the point that the male cannot meet them alone, the hen will leave the nest to join the search for food. The only biological reason for parrots to stay in one small area is because they are nesting.
Pet parrots should go on frequent day trips to visit bird-friendly people or just go to a safe location outside of their homes. Spending time in an outdoor aviary may be helpful. They should not be cooped up in their homes or yards if they are hormonal most of the year.
Inappropriate touching does not apply to birds that are not ready to breed. The concept that touching a bird’s back, head, sides, feet, belly, or chest will sexually stimulate them is an anthropomorphic perception. Birds do not become sexually excited most of the year by touching a particular body part similar to humans. You can touch them over their entire body if they are not already predisposed to being sexually stimulated. If they are ready for breeding, then touching them on any part of their body can sexually arouse them. Even making eye contact during breeding season is sexually stimulating.
Interventions for parrots and their owners dealing with inappropriate sexual behaviors
The role of training
Training is paramount. Parrots can be co-parented, which entails regular handling by humans while the chicks are parent-raised. The parent birds must be relatively calm and trained to do certain behaviors, such as targeting and stationing. These birds are proof that training makes a difference even in situations that are highly charged with reproductive hormones. The breeder can handle the chicks without stressing the parents, and in some cases the breeder can handle the parents too. Co-parenting requires a good solid relationship with the parents, training and perhaps an innate ability to read body language and understand when to avoid interactions. Handling hormonal pets is less complex or difficult than handling a breeding pair that has gone to nest.
Pets that bite their owners should be trained to target and station. They should be trained until the behavior is fluid and extremely reliable. This is crucial if the birds fly at people and bite them. However, all training is helpful since training improves the relationship and promotes communications.
Parrots have eyesight that is far superior to humans. They can see close up and far away with greater clarity. Birds are able to see into the ultraviolet spectrum, allowing them to see colors we are incapable of perceiving. They also have a red oil in their eyes, passed down from their dinosaur ancestors, which permits them to see many more shades of red. The placement of a parrot’s eyes allows the bird to have a visional field of almost 360 degrees. These advantages allow a bird the ability to read the body language of a human far better than we can read them or each other. They can see microexpressions, such as tightening of the jaw or even mild flushing that we would not notice. Therefore, it is important for people to maintain a sense of calm and peace when they are around their birds, especially during training. Histrionics should be avoided. If self-control is improbable or impossible in a situation, then the person should remove themselves from the vicinity of the bird, or the bird will learn undesirable behaviors.
- Change the photoperiod to mimic or come closer to natural periods of light and darkness. The solstices and the equinoxes can be guiding indicators to determine when the photoperiod should be increased or decreased.
- Increase baths as the photoperiod decreases.
- Do not provide a nesting area. The only exception is to provide a box for an egg-laying hen. A hen should be allowed to sit on eggs until she abandons them. If an egg breaks or is removed she will continue to lay more eggs to replace it. Excessive egg-laying can result in egg binding, egg yolk peritonitis or egg yolk stroke.
- Train the bird to target and station. When a bird exhibits body language that suggests they will bite someone, target the bird to another location such as a cage or gym to avoid the bite. It is best to begin training before breeding season and even before the bird is sexually mature. However, training can begin at any time and should continue year-round.
- Give the bird other things to do. Teach the bird new behaviors or offer more foraging opportunities.
- Do not feed a breeder’s diet and do not supplement with D3 unless advised to do so by an avian veterinarian.
- Take the bird out of the house to visit with friends and family.
This intervention is not meant to stop hormonal behavior. It is intended to reduce the natural cycle to a manageable level without the use of drugs. When all else fails then the bird may need hormone treatments to reduce breeding behaviors. In cases of breeding behavior being hard to stop, especially if the bird’s health is at risk, an avian veterinarian and the behavior consultant should work together with the owner to avoid having the bird on drugs for prolonged periods of time.
We make the mistake of trying to prevent a sexual being from behaving sexually. Oftentimes, owners expect them to stay babies and never grow up, not even taking into consideration how unnatural it is for birds not to have a sex life. Fortunately, a bird’s sex life is usually limited to only a small part of year and can generally be controlled and shortened without the use of medications.
- Microsoft Encarta, Reference Library Premium, DVD-ROM, 2009
- Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie, 83, 137–215, 289–413.
- Klinghammer, E. & Hess, E.H. (1964) Imprinting in an altricial bird: The Blond Ring Dove (Streptopelia risoria). Science 146:3641, 265-266
- Bateson, P. (1978) Sexual imprinting and optimal outbreeding. Nature 273:5664,659-60
- Dawson, A. et al (2001) Photoperiodic control of seasonality in birds. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 16:4, 365-380
- Miyazaki, H. (1935) Notes on the relation between the moulting, the sexual maturation and the light period in Zosterops palpebrosa japonica. Scientific Reports of Tohoku Imperial University, 4th B.
- Moreau, R.E. (1950) The breeding seasons of African birds. Ibis 92:2, 223-267
- Brue, R. (1994) Nutrition. In: Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. G.J. Harrison, L.R. Harrison, B.W. Ritchie & D.W. Zantop (eds). Wingers Publishing, FL