Hormonal behaviour in captive parrots

Giselle Diemer

A large percentage of birds in our network portray signs of hormonal behaviour. In the wild, hormonal behaviour may be triggered by factors that change with the seasons, such as extended hours of sunlight, higher food abundance, or warmer weather. While seasonal procreation is natural for parrots, constantly comfortable conditions in the household setting may contribute towards year-round hormonal behaviour in some parrots, while others remain affected only seasonally. 

While parrots are capable of reading birdy body language, this understanding does not come as naturally in humans and must either be observed or learned. We love to anthropomorphize our pets and this is a huge mistake in parrot ownership. Misunderstanding your bird’s body language can lead to issues such as screaming, biting, fear, aggression, and hormonal behaviour. Many of these lead to the surrender or rehoming of the bird.

What does hormonal behaviour look like?

Hormonal behaviours can look different across species, so we encourage you to do your own research on the species you have in your home so you are best able to identify these behaviours and avoid any long lasting issues with your bird. The attached videos are good examples of some of the most common behaviours listed below.

Common signs of hormonal behaviour include:

  • Regurgitation on people/objects, or for other birds 
  • Masturbation
  • Territorial issues
  • Wing dipping/flapping 
  • Tail fanning
  • Panting
  • Nesting
  • Egg laying
  • Aggression
  • Feather plucking on legs and chest

Why shouldn’t I encourage this behaviour?

In the wild, parrots engage in allopreening with a friend or mate. While head scratches are common, birds seldom get touched on their bodies unless there is intention of mating. Petting/touching on the back, under the wings and near the vent are mating signals in birds and can lead to sexual frustration in your feathered friend. Encouraging a bonded/mated relationship with your bird can cause your bird to become territorial over you or pluck its feathers, lead to seemingly unprovoked biting habits or screaming when you are out of sight and also increase the chances of egg binding in females. Feather plucking is a major concern in parrot ownership. Many times it is exacerbated by unaware owners unknowingly encouraging hormonal behaviours/failing to determine the underlying causes of the plucking in time (although this is only one of the many reasons a bird may pluck).

How can I prevent this and what can I do to help if it does happen?

There is no cookie-cutter solution to fix every situation. Most of the listed behaviours can also be a cause for medical concern so it is important to discuss any changes in behaviour/concerns you may have with your avian veterinarian. In some cases, medical intervention may be required in the form of a hormonal implant/injection should there be an underlying cause for the overactive hormonal behaviours. 

If you have a young bird then set it up for success from the start. In the wild, young birds are fed and preened by their parents until they are mature enough to take care of their own survival. Encourage independence and foraging behaviours in young birds. Focus on enriching your bird’s life through target training and activities which engage their minds, rather than solely cuddling them. Do not touch your bird in a repetitive manner other than on their heads. Assisting them with their pin feathers is a great way to bond as a flock member, rather than as a potential mate. Avoid having nesting sites or mirrors in the cage and ensure your bird gets a good 10-12 hours of undisturbed sleep per day.

This article does not serve to diagnose or treat hormonal behaviours in parrots. The purpose of this article is merely to educate unaware owners of the factors contributing towards hormonal behaviour and steps they could take to reduce this in their homes. Always consult with your veterinarian if you may suspect there is something wrong with your bird.

The behaviours depicted in these videos are for educational purposes and were not encouraged by their owners. Thank you to everyone who allowed us to use this footage.

Video 1: Regurgitation and attempted feeding in an African Grey parrot, triggered by bringing the bird onto the bed

Video 2: Wing dipping/flapping/panting in an African Grey parrot triggered by the foster walking into the room

Video 3: Wing dipping (mating dance) in a Senegal parrot. This was not triggered by anything the human had done, and the bird occasionally does this in its cage. If this was encouraged, the bird would have regurgitated for the owner

Video 4: Mating behaviour in an Indian Ringneck

Video 5: Wing dipping, soft panting and regurgitation in an African Grey parrot, unknown trigger