By Dani Clevenger
In order for a species to survive the individual members of that species must reproduce. The drive to reproduce is programmed into all animal species, and parrots are no exception. Parrots are programmed to respond to cues from their environment, diet, and mate in order to determine the ideal time to raise chicks. In the wild this means healthy chicks hatched at the ideal time, but in our homes it can mean a cranky, confused bird who is sexually frustrated and humans who want to know what crazy psycho-bird body snatched their beloved pet. It can start out “cute,” but hormonal behaviors should never be encouraged.
Why is it important to manage hormones?
First of all, I want you to imagine someone deliberately leading you on sexually because they thinkit is cute or sweet or because it makes them feel like you love them, even though they have no intention of fulfilling those desires or making any kind of romantic commitment to you, even if they want to be your best friend. That would be cruel, right? Hurtful, mean, confusing, selfish, and downright nasty of them to put their desire for your “cute behavior” over your need to be respected and have stable relationships with those around you. Some owners do this exact thing to their birds because the hormonal behavior seems cute to them, or because “it isn’t causing a problem” meaning the bird hasn’t started to bite them for it yet. Some people think that the bird is “perfectly happy” that way, and by taking away the hormone stimulators they will somehow be depriving the bird of that happiness. Let me assure you, this is not the case. A sexually frustrated bird is not happy, he is frustrated. Remember the scenario where you are the one being led on? Wouldn’t you be happier with a clear understanding and friendship, even if your feelings for this person persisted? That would be much better than having “near encounters” and constantly wondering if your crush was about to finally fulfill your fantasies.
In addition to the fact that ignoring your bird’s raging hormones and letting them suffer sexually is mean, it can also lead to unpleasant consequences for the human family members. Have you heard the saying “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”? I think it would be truer “Hell hath no fury like a parrot who wants to have your babies.” Some behavior like I said is “cute,” like excessive snuggling and preening; some people even find the possessive behavior of a parrot over his or her chosen mate or nesting site to be adorable, but soon when the bird begins to regurgitate on people, scream when their favorite person leaves them, bite everyone who isn’t their “mate,” and bite the “mate” for not behaving properly, all the “cuteness” disappears, and usually the bird is blamed even though he is just behaving naturally.
Female birds are actually at risk when owners fail to manage their hormones because unchecked, breeding hormones lead to egg production. Many female birds will lay egg after egg after egg, depleting their bodies of nutrients, particularly calcium, and this can lead to all sorts of problems. There is also a risk of egg binding, which is when the egg gets stuck on the way out of the hen and she is unable to pass it. Egg binding can be deadly.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR BIRD WANTS TO HAVE YOUR BABIES
-Recognize your bird’s natural breeding season and be prepared to take extra measures.
-Limit daylight hours. Be sure the bird has 100% DARK AND QUIET for at 12- 14 hours per day. You may need a second cage for sleeping to make this possible. Long days means spring means BABIES!
-Make sure the cage is in a bright place (no dim/nesty corners) Dim areas can stimulate breeding and nesting behaviors.
-Rearrange his cage and even the room he is in, or move him to a different room. Safe and steady environments are signal to him that this room is great for raising a family. You want him to feel safe, just not feel like everything is steady and safe enough for him to think “Hm, looks like a great neighborhood to raise a family…”
-Limit fatty foods. If you are feeding an all seed or seed/pellet mix, it is time to change that. Research sprouting for your bird, it is easy and cheap, super healthy, and an easy switch from seeds. Diets high in fat are great for raising babies and your bird knows it! Begin incorporating as many safe veggies as possible and a few safe fruits. See the article on transitioning your bird to a healthier diet. An added bonus is that the new and more interesting food may take some of his attention from the idea of nesting. Please research the specific nutritional needs of your species when making dietary changes.
-No mushy or warm foods because that is what parrots feed their mates when they are getting ready for and raising chicks. That regurgitated goo he left on your shoulder? Warm and mushy food for his mate – you.
-ABSOLUTELY NO snuggle huts, tents, nest boxes, and no letting the bird get into tight places like shoes, etc, because those are all great places to raise babies! Also, despite what the sales person at the pet shop might have told you, no parrot needs these things to be happy. In fact, they are some of the most dangerous items commonly found in bird cages as they are often made out of fabric and the chewed strands are perfect for entangling toes, catching on leg bands, and injuring or killing birds. Also, nesting parents have been known to eat rope and cloth toys and feed the fibers to their babies – not healthy.
-DO NOT allow your bird to snuggle under your hand when he is hormonal. Allow him ONLY to step up and get head/neck scritches. No shoulders as those can be snuggled against your will. Do NOT put your hand over the bird's back unless there is a true emergency. Every time you touch him, or even almost touch him on his back it can be sexually exciting for the bird.
-EVERY time your bird backs his (more likely her) butt up to you, tail in the air, tries to mount your hand, or does any other "nesty" things, immediately put the bird back in the cage or on a play stand. You need to send the signal that you are not interested in raising a family with him. One the bird has calmed down, get him back out and distract him with a non-cuddling activity.
-Increase hands-off training. Just because your petting time with your bird decreases does not mean the amount of time out of the cage should be cut. Put all that birdy energy to use and spend some time teach your bird new behaviors and tricks which do not involve excess physical touch. Things like teaching the bird to wave, come when called, return to his or her cage on command, turn in a circle, etc are all fairly simply behaviors that can be taught and need not involve snuggles if the proper food treat is identified. Learning new things helps keep your bird’s mind busy and gives you a non-sexual way to spend time together even at the height of hormone season.
-Limit food. Be sure your bird has enough to eat, but don't allow grazing. Feeding two "meals" a day and then removing the food is best here, because where there is an abundance of food, birds have enough food to feed babies. If you are going to do this, I highly suggest incorporating foraging toys into the bird’s life if you haven’t already. A foraging toy is anything that makes the bird work for his food, usually something that has been put inside the toy. Foraging is simply looking for food, and it is a natural behavior for birds, but is learned. If your bird has never foraged before start with something simple like switching the food and water dishes, then moving the dishes to new locations inside the cage, maybe even outside the cage. Work upward in difficulty but be sure your bird is getting enough to eat as he learns to work for his food.
-Make sure others in the home are handling the bird. It is tempting when a bird is misbehaving to simply put him in his cage and leave him there, or to have only the person who is least likely to get bitten handle the bird. However, neglecting the bird is cruel and irresponsible, and having only the favorite person handle the bird serves only to increase the mate bond the bird feels with them, thus encouraging hormonal behavior. Insist that the bird interact with other members of the family. This does not have to mean that other people put their fingers in harm’s way; interaction can be as simple as a third grader reading to the bird, a teenager doing homework while the bird is on a playstand nearby, or a spouse assisting in a training session by being the one to offer treats. Any positive interaction people other than the perceived mate can have with the bird is a step in the right direction.
-If your bird is laying eggs, be sure to provide extra calcium in the form of Kale, Spinach, cuttle bone, and other safe forms. If your bird won’t eat any of these, consider scraping the cuttle onto her food. I do not suggest throwing the eggs out because in my experience this usually leads to more eggs being produced. If your hen is alone and the eggs are infertile, simply leave them with her until she decides they are not worth sitting on (do not give her a nest box, let her sit wherever she has laid them)and THEN throw them away. If she has access to a male bird I suggest boiling the eggs as soon as they are laid and giving them back to her once they are at a safe temperature. Many people are at first opposed to this because it seems like some sort of birdy abortion, and in reality it is. However it is no different than taking the eggs and throwing them out, and I suggest doing it immediately after each egg is laid and before any nerve endings can develop. For the reasons why the eggs should not be allowed to hatch, please continue reading.
WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN YOUR BIRD WANTS TO HAVE BABIES
Don’t get your bird a mate. While it can feel like this is the kindest thing to do, there are many things to consider before you bring a mate home for your hormonal bird.
-Most pet birds are hand raised and thus imprinted on humans. There is no guarantee that your bird will accept the new bird, even if the new bird accepts your original pet. This is especially true if the bird has already decided that you or another human member of the family is his mate; how do you expect him to react when you are suddenly “cheating on him” with another bird while his urge to raise a family is in overdrive? Then you will be left with not one, but likely two highly hormonal birds who do not want to be together. Do you have time to work with both birds, knowing that they may never be able to come into contact with each other safely?
-Some utterly reject their human family when provided with an avian mate. Your bird may very well love his new friend; and hate you. This does not happen in every case, but when it does it can be devastating to the family who lost their beloved pet to another bird because the pet now wants nothing to do with the humans he used to enjoy interacting with. Are you willing to risk forfeiting the relationship you have with your bird by bringing another one into the house?
-They might actually have babies. This may not seem so bad, but most homes are woefully unequipped to properly raise even one clutch of babies. When considering whether or not you should allow your bird to breed, please first ask yourself the following questions:
>How will I make sure I am not inbreeding my bird? Am I 100% sure that the bird I buy from the store is not related to my bird, even though most pet stores work with only one or a few breeders to supply their stock, and even though many breeders supply multiple stores?
>Does my bird have any traits that may be genetic defects? For example does my bird, or a known relative of my bird lay eggs often when no male is present?
>Do I have a firm grasp on what kind of mate I need to get for my bird? Do I know what color combinations can produce things like baldness, even if both parents are fully feathered?
>Has my bird been to an avian vet recently to insure he is healthy enough for breeding?
>Do I have thousands of dollars in savings for a potential trip to an avian veterinarian EVEN ONCE with a problem in the nest?
>Do I have a detailed understanding of the specific nutritional needs unique to my species, and furthermore the additional nutrients they require while laying and feeding?
>Can I afford even the most basic breeding and feeding equipment which can cost many times the price of the original bird?
>Do I know the developmental ramifications of hand feeding, co-parenting, or allowing the babies to be raised by the parents, and do I understand the pros, cons, costs and time commitments involved in each?
>Does my living situation allow for not just the mess of multiple birds, but the noise? Are my neighbors far enough away that they will not be able to hear my flock as it grows?
>Do I spend the majority of each day at home so that I can quickly react to problems in the nest, and so that I can hand feed babies in need even if hand feeding is not my first choice?
>Do I know the signs of distress, illness, dehydration, etc, which could make it necessary to pull a chick for hand feeding?
>Do I know how to hand feed a chick formula, including the importance of exact temperature in order to avoid burning a hole in the crop, or slowing digestion and causing crop stasis, both of which can be fatal?
>Do I fully understand the life-long consequences of clipping the wings of a young bird before it is a strong and confident flier able to expertly navigate?
>Am I prepared for a clutch of baby birds to learn to fly in my house, even though they will likely crash into things, poop all over, not come when I want them to, and in general act like young birds who just want to fly? Is my house a safe place for this, and do I have hours a day to supervise fledging babies?
>Do I understand the vital concept of abundance weaning and the devastating effects of force-weaning? Am I therefore prepared to allow baby birds to wean on their own schedule, even if the new owner is waiting impatiently and pressuring me to “hurry the baby along”?
AND HERE IS THE BIG ONE:
>Knowing that parrot sanctuaries, craigslist, and other venues are overflowing with unwanted parrots, how do I justify producing more? Will I keep them all myself? If so, how will I handle THEIR hormones when the time comes and they all want to inbreed with each other? What if the unthinkable happens such as the loss of a job, family illness, or other extreme financial hardship occurs, what will happen to all the babies then? Will I sell them to new homes? If so, how will I insure that my birds are never unwanted and alone, bouncing from home to home? What will I do next year when the whole cycle begins again, this time with more birds?
With these tips and questions in mind, let’s all do our best to be sure our parrots understand our platonic relationship with them, and that their environments are altered to minimize hormone triggers, both seasonal and otherwise.