Good, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about cuddling and what you’re really telling your parrot when you snuggle up and pet him outside of his head, neck, and feet!
Cuddles like that mean sex to a parrot. Not companionship or love – at least, not the way owners are thinking. To a person, touch is a way of connecting emotionally, of expressing empathy and love. But to a parrot, most touch says, ‘Let’s be mates.’
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.
On an adult parrot, owners will notice that touching outside the ‘safe’ areas can cause birds to do several things, possibly in combination:
- Regurgitate by rapidly bobbing the head and neck
- Drop its wings
- Raise its wings to be petted along its sides
- Put its vent/tail in the air (if female)
- Or, if male, try to mount your hand – or anything else in reach
- Masturbate by rubbing the vent area on you or anything else handy
- [In the long term] lay eggs
If your bird does these things, it is incredibly important for your own safety not to encourage it. For your parrot’s own well-being as well, owners should not ‘lead their birds on.’ Laying eggs has its own added risk of calcium depletion and egg-binding, too. If your bird is laying eggs, you can leave them in, or replace them with fakes of a similar size – and make sure you up her calcium and vitamin D intake.
You might notice that when you stroke the back, and your bird drops its wings accordingly, that the tips actually brush the vent area. This essentially stimulates it sexually.
By encouraging a parrot to view you as a mate, you start a progression of events. First, your parrot will view everyone else in the flock as a threat. In the wild, parrots will attempt first to drive off such threats, attacking others until they leave the mate alone. If this doesn’t work – or if they think it’s not possible – they will drive their own mate away by attacking and biting them until they leave the situation.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over well in a human home!
Another problem with letting your parrot view you as a mate is that eventually he or she will get tired of you failing to deliver. Yes, when you continue not to do what mates do for one another, your parrot’s frustration will manifest in two ways: Turning on you, or turning that anger inwards. If a parrot does the latter, heartbreakingly, this can result in screaming and plucking.
Finally, every time you touch another flock member – be that a friend or relative – your bird sees it as betrayal. If he or she is trapped behind the bars of his cage, how helpless and angry must he feel? It’s only so long before those emotions win out, eventually damaging your own relationship together.
Note that young or baby birds can be safely touched all over, excepting the vent area. Some choose not to ever start this habit, but I did, as it taught my parrotlet that being handled isn’t a bad thing. Now that he’s older, however, I restrict ‘scritches’ to the head area.
There are many things that can inadvertently encourage your bird to view you as a mate, and again, these are to be avoided:
- Head bobbing: if you rapidly bob your head and neck up and down, even when dancing or kidding around, parrots will view this as you trying to regurgitate, and may return the favour (mates do this to impress one another with their ability to feed babies).
- Feeding a bird from your own mouth: only mates will do this, so again, offering food from your mouth is making a promise you can’t uphold.
- Offering mushy or warm foods from your own hands: this is an equivalent of regurgitation, and seeing as birds can’t differentiate between warmed in a microwave and warmed in your crop, it’s best to avoid.
- Petting and cuddling: as discussed, this is for mates only. Cuddling promises sex.
There are some things that parrots themselves do, too, which you should understand is your bird just doing what’s instinctive to him:
- Dancing: this is pure sex to a cockatoo, and is a way to impress a potential mate.
- Rapid wing flaring and holding the wings open: says ‘Look at me, I’m so gorgeous!’
- Sensually rubbing or petting himself: it means a parrot has mating on his mind.
Climbing or hiding under the blankets. This – as with boxes, drawers, bags, and shadowy nooks – is a nesting behaviour, and if you encourage it, you encourage him to become hormonal.
Finally, there are some things that encourage hormones in general:
- Enclosed spaces: blankets and cloth, boxes, closets, drawers, dark corners, spaces under furniture, cosy huts and parrot tents – all encourage birds to nest, which stimulates hormones. And some birds are always looking to nest!
- Nesting material can be anything: what looks to us like newspaper shreds, or a nice, warm blanket, is actually nesting material for them. Make sure you don’t provide shredded materials at hormonal times of the year (mainly spring and fall).
- Too little sleep, and too much daylight: our pet birds need at least 12 hours of undisturbed sleep in a dark, quiet room. Without this, they think it’s the breeding season, so try and limit how much daylight our birds see.
- The wrong diet: feeding your parrot too much protein, sugar, or fat – depending on the bird – can stimulate those breeding hormones. For example, Maverick the Senegal Parrot is triggered by pellets, Ptak, by seed, Bobo by nuts and pellets, and Mishka by fruit.
Hope this helps owners understand what’s on a parrot’s mind when he’s doing these things! I think that we just need to think about what we’re telling our pets, as we can inadvertently cause some pretty serious behaviours – and it’s a simple, small thing to stop doing.