Cuddles Mean Sex.

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!

Island Parrot Sanctuary 083 Ari the Greenwinged Macaw is defending his mate (he is warning me AND her by beak-bashing, vocalising, and puffing up his feathers). When I didn’t leave immediately, he drove his mate, Sally, away.

A quick caveat and update: There are few absolutes with parrots. The things listed below affect most birds, but not all – and it’s important to remember that each is an individual. When approaching the issues that come with avian hormones, look at what you’re doing and how your specific bird(s) react.

Cuddles and petting 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 affection. But to a parrot, most touch says, “Let’s be mates.” You see, only mates preen outside of the “safe” 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.

On an adult parrot, owners will notice that touching outside the “safe” areas can cause birds to do several things, possibly in combination:

  • Pant
  • Regurgitate by rapidly bobbing the head and neck
  • Quiver
  • Vocalise with squeaks, clucks, warbling noises, etc.
  • Drop its wings to stimulate/rub its vent with the tips
  • 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 parrot does these things, it is important for your safety and his/her well-being not to encourage it. In terms of well-being, with females, over-stimulation can promote egg laying, which has its own added risk of calcium depletion and egg-binding, too, in indiscriminate layers like cockatiels or budgies. If you find an egg or two (or three) in the cage, you can either leave them, or replace them with fakes of a similar size – and make sure you up her calcium and vitamin D intake. Additionally, there’s the effect of repeated frustration in both sexes: typically screaming and plucking, or biting you, or both.

With the larger parrots, your safety really does play a role. No one enjoys being bitten, but macaw, amazon, or cockatoo bites can be wicked. Many times, sexually frustrated parrots will dive-bomb a person, aiming for the face and head (or, if they’re our Senegal, Mavi, just any old bit within reach). They may also bite more frequently, particularly after a “cuddle” session.

IMG_4304 A good diet reduces hormones, and helps you out in this regard.

This is because, by encouraging a parrot to view you as a mate, you promote hormone production. First, your parrot may view everyone else in the flock as a threat. In the wild, parrots will attempt first to drive off such a threat, attacking until it leaves 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!

Note: the solution is NOT to clip the wings, because this can actually make the frustration worse.

Frame the situation a little differently: Every time you touch another flock member – be that a friend or relative – your bird cannot act as his instinct tells him. He wants to drive that threat away! If he or she is trapped behind the bars of his cage, unable to do so, how helpless and frustrated must s/he feel? Long-term, it damages your relationship together.

An anecdote: Mavi the Senegal struggles with hormones, and needs a strict diet and very limited touch – even less than my parrotlets, who enjoy head scratches without an issue. He’s really a hands-off bird because he quickly becomes completely over-stimulated. Before I learned about the issues with cuddling, he would raise his wings for a scratch, and I would oblige, assuming that the little squeaky clucks he made were of happiness. Well, they kind of were.

Long-term – though I didn’t know it then – I was encouraging hormone production. And then one day, after a snuggle, I set Mavi back on his playstand and went to greet my then boyfriend. Promptly, Mavi flew to us and and dive-bombed me, slamming into the side of my head. I remember it distinctly, shocked. After a moment, he tried again, catching my arm as I flung it up to protect my face.

Senegals may not have the sheer power of a cockatoo, but they are VICIOUS biters. They hang on and grind. I prised him off and put him back into his cage, wondering what had just happened. My boyfriend and I were both baffled. After all, Mavi had toys, foraging, a good diet, and plenty of exercise and attention. I remember him acting really hyper in his cage after, flying wildly about.

It was about that time that we brought foster bird Bobo home. Bobo, let’s just say, was a raging ball of hormones. He was always looking to mate, and became VERY aggressive when that instinct wasn’t sated. Because of his issues, we’d contacted the then Island Parrot Sanctuary (coincidentally, a source of many tips on this blog). It was from them that we learned about cuddling and sexual stimulation.

To make a long story a bit shorter, we made a few dietary adjustments (fewer pellets and more veg for somebirdy!) and went cold turkey on the petting. Mavi didn’t seem to miss it, and the dive-bombing subsided for the most part. He is still extremely hormonal, but it’s markedly worse when he gets, ahem, randy. For those who wonder, to make sure he still gets enough attention, we offer extra foraging, fresh toys, and some hands-off training sessions to teach silly tricks. Keeping his brain busy helps hormones, too.

Just as a quick aside, young or baby birds CAN be safely touched all over, excepting the vent area. Some owners choose not to ever start this habit, but I did, teaching my parrotlet, Ptak, that being handled isn’t a bad thing. Now that he’s older, however, I do restrict scritches to the head area.

Showing-off wings. This bird is showing off for a perceived mate - probably the canary. 'Look at me, I'm so big and SEXY' is the gist. “Showing off” wings. This bird is showing off for a perceived mate – probably the canary. “Look at me, I’m so big and SEXY” is the gist.

There are many things that can inadvertently encourage your bird to view you as a mate, and again, these are to be avoided IF you notice them contributing to the problem:

  • Head bobbing: if you rapidly bob your head and neck up and down, even when dancing or kidding around, parrots may view this as you trying to regurgitate (mates do this to impress one another with their ability to feed babies).
  • Feeding a bird from your own mouth.
  • Offering mushy or warm foods from your 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 often best to avoid.
  • Petting and cuddling.

There are some things that parrots themselves do, too, which you should understand is simply instinct:

  • Dancing: this is often pure sex to a cockatoo, and is a way to impress a potential mate. (Island Parrot Sanctuary tip.)
  • Rapid wing flaring and holding the wings open: says ‘Look at me, I’m so big and gorgeous!’
  • Sensually rubbing or petting himself.
  • 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 hormone production.
IMG_3946 This moment is, unfortunately, very sexual for Bobo – but, like many cockatoos, he demands physical touch and will attack if he doesn’t get his way. It’s hard to say no to, but remember: this is the equivalent of making out to him.

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 the nesting instinct in males and females, which stimulates hormones. And some birds are always looking to nest!
  • Nesting material: what looks to us like ripped up newspaper, or a nice, warm blanket, is actually nesting material for them. It can be anything! Bits of cardboard or pieces of a toy. 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, conditions mimic 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 s/he’s doing these things! I think that we just need to consider what we’re conveying to our pets, as we can inadvertently cause some pretty serious behaviours – and it’s a simple, small thing to stop doing.

058 Sex and the Pscittacine.

41 thoughts on “Cuddles Mean Sex.

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    1. This is something that I think is really important, and I’m glad it helped. It was actually our umbrella cockatoo who really drove this point home for us – as he was very violent if he didn’t get his own way!


    2. Oh no, I kiss, cuddle, bop my head, dance with my bird all the time (don’t dance often as it really annoys her, especially loud music she starts getting really loud).

      I haven’t seen any signs that she sees me as a ‘mate’ but if I stop hugging her, will feel like I’m neglecting her – especially as I’ve hugged her for 3 years and all of a sudden I stop? Don’t want her to feel abandoned?

      She is small conure if that helps?


  1. Much food for thought here. After 21 years of hand feeding and cuddling with our Timneh African Grey, who is 90% adorable, but sometimes momentarily aggressive, I may need to change some habits.


  2. I didn’t know that head bobbing was a mating signal but I’m familiar with all the others. My lovebird has laid eggs six times in little over a year. I know this isn’t good for her and I’ve tried to discourage her but she is persistent. She is afraid of hands so we aren’t touching or cuddling her although she does like to ride around on my shoulder. There is no paper in her cage – she will shred anything – and on the advice of the vet I remove her snuggle hut during the day and return it at night. She has now defeated my efforts by laying eggs in her food dish.


    1. Aw, poor girl – have you tried getting one of the dishes that clamps onto the cage via a washer (if that is the term, haha)? This way, you can put them in at an angle at which she can’t nest, but can still eat. I am glad I don’t have females, as this isn’t something I have to cope with! Maybe also taking out the bowls during the day, if possible?

      I learned about head-bobbing from the Sanctuary when we were having trouble with Bobo – the owner said ‘NO head-bobbing, whatever you do!’ Some birds are just looking for any indication that you will be their mate, I think. And some, like your lovebird, seem to be caught in a perpetual cycle of hormones no matter what!


      1. Last cycle I tried removing each egg from the food bowl and putting it on the bottom of the cage but she just kept laying them. At six eggs I put them back in the bowl and let her sit there for a week or two until she lost interest. I’m not sure what is the trigger. It could be diet. She only wants sunflower/safflower seeds or millet. She won’t even look at pellets and won’t eat nuts or dried fruit. She gets a bowl of fresh fruit & veggies every day and will only nibble at it. Now I take the seed out when the fruit goes in, but often she just waits for the seed. Frustrating. I suppose at her previous home she was feed only seed. A friend of mine who has some experience with birds thinks she might be laying because she feels secure for the first time in my home.


        1. Aw, poor girl, but glad that she feels secure! Our parrotlet is very similar in his diet. We ended up hitting on a new food by accident, and were able to use that momentum, but it took an age to do. Maybe it’s just a combination for your girl – diet and safe feelings combined!


    2. ummmm you can NOT discourage a bird from laying eggs. Its what they do. Its a bird. Can you be discouraged from having your monthly periods? its kinda the same thing. a passing of unfertilized eggs.


      1. As far as I’m aware from my research and speaking with my vet, this isn’t the case for parrots (chickens, yes – although they are generally also stimulated to lay year-round through the use of full-spectrum lights in the coop). Parrots in the wild tend to lay only when they have a mate. In captivity, however, certain species – like cockatiels and budgies – are prone to overlaying, and this is where controlling hormones can help control the frequency of eggs. Overlaying is sometimes also called indiscriminate laying. It can be quite dangerous, so we humans may need to step in and limit some factors, like diet or light.

        If you have any supporting articles or research, I’d certainly be interested to read! Here is what I’ve based my knowledge on (from a couple veterinarians and a reputable rescue):



    3. I would start off by putting her to bed (in the dark) earlier. For awhile.
      I had an eclectus parrot, the vet can put a chip (hormone ?) In their neck. Don’t known if they do it to little birds.


      1. Dummy eggs help A LOT with habitual layers. I had a cockatiel who was a habitual layer…I do feel I was a big part of why she became that way because I listened to dumb advice to remove her eggs when she laid them. I found out later that was the wrong thing to do but the damage was done. I was worried about her health because of the amount she laid (the worst year was 7 times in one year) and was at a loss as to how to help her. The only thing that worked was dummy eggs. As soon as she laid the first egg my hubby would distract her and I’d go in her cage, remove it, and replace it with a full clutch of dummy eggs. She sometimes would lay one more egg because her body was already working on it, but the dummy eggs would prevent her from stressing her body out by laying egg after egg. She still insisted on sitting on them for about a week or so and I’d rearrange her cage so she could easily reach her food and water. But the dummy eggs gave her the experience of sitting on her clutch without all the stress on her body. She gradually laid less and less….I’m not sure if it was because of the dummy eggs and her body just not producing as many eggs or because she got older.


  3. Very good advice! The only time our Amazon takes food from my mouth is when she sees me eating a Smartie. I won’t allow that again! After nearly 30 years of being classified as a male, she laid eggs last November and I let her sit on dummy eggs for 27 days then removed the eggs and nest box. We have restructured our routine and behaviors to keep her out of the nesting mood. We stopped touching her back and giving hugs when I read about this last year from another source. She will still throw up food but usually when she’s in her cage alone (few occasions) or when I’m barefoot and she nibbles my toes and then regurgitates on them. Gross. She on occasion will get on my chest, give me this sideways glance and do the feather fluffing. I touch her head only and discourage the behavior. She gets the hint and leaves. We think she’s in love with our male ring-neck dove. She gets on his cage screaming at him. He pecks her feet! We have initiated more flying & climbing exercises and verbal interaction, but she will still look down behind bookcases and counters looking for a nest spot!


    1. It’s a lot of work keeping those hormones down, isn’t it?! I don’t know what it is about toes, either, but I know a lot of birds (including Maverick the Senegal) who regurg for them. Ew.

      It’s funny that she loves your ringneck – our cockatiel loved our canary, despite the canary being so much smaller. Not sure what it was? Ringneck doves are so cute – I would love to adopt one, one day.

      Flying is a great distraction – I think burning off some energy really helps. It’s like it gets all bottled up, making things worse. I am dreading springtime, as I’m sure our flock will also be diving into nests.


  4. How would you go about getting an adult bird used to having its wings handled for the purpose of harness training, clipping, etc. while avoiding sexual touch?


    1. We had this issue with my adult Senegal; I would instigate a training session BEFORE I even tried to touch him, so that he was already distracted and not thinking about mating at all. If your bird knows touch training (touching the end of a stick), this is a good activity to begin with. Or you could cue a trick, like speaking or waving, for instance.

      So I’d do that, and once Mavi was really into getting his treat, I would pet and lift his wings very gradually. He’d get his reward only if he wasn’t displaying hormonal behaviour. I’d always try and stop the session before he got that way. If your bird does get worked up, just calmly start touch training again and then move on. It’s all about the art of distraction, really.

      Training like that is a bit more difficult with an adult parrot, but as long as you can keep the bird focussed on food or another reward, it’s completely doable! Hope that helps!


  5. Terrific Topic
    My husband and I are parents to two 15yr old female Caiques. Thank-you for such a concise well written article which completely covers those mystery bird behaviors we eventually figured out along the way. At 5yrs old egg laying became a big problem with one, becoming life threathing. Finally our avian vet got through to us all the correct changes must be all applied concerted together and voila’ miraculously no more eggs. Your article is well supported by avian experts and should be included in essential guides caring for companion parrots, the perfect catchy title spells it out plain and simple.


  6. Is the beak a safe area? I keep hearing both answers, yes and no. I’d like to have some infos on this matter, same goes with the toes when on their back and playing with our hands like they would a toy.


    1. I personally don’t grab and hold the beak, even in a play wrestling type motion – it’s too much like what mates will do. Other kinds of touch are largely okay, though – and I do generally consider feet to be a safe zone (for instance, I gently hold my birds’ toes when we’re walking around the house).


  7. Reblogged this on Zelda Reville and commented:
    I know this sounds ridiculous but birds are so easily triggered…cute as their head-bobbing and regurgitation may look (eww), but their jealousy isn’t something to kid about…


  8. I only started worrying about mating behavior when I noticed that “Jeckyl”, my Hans Mini Macaw when he snuggled into my neck with his wing over my cheek, then recently he started to snuggle his butt into my neck. After reading your blog, he exhibited signs of aggression to other family members when they kept him from coming to me directly. I thought it was a normal bonding. I did nuzzle his beak, and pet him under his wing, and he rides on my shoulder alot around the house, and he bobs his head, and recently started “looking like he was choking”, but I guess that is an attempt to regurgitate? Like the other posts above, I am worried what effect an abrupt change in my behavior will have, but I certainly agree with not “leading him on”.


  9. My experience over 46 years living with parrots is: it totally depends on the individual bird. My hyacinth, Lilly, will be 20 this December. I’ve had her 11 years. She cuddles by standing on my chest and laying her head on my shoulder or under my chin while I stroke and preen her head and neck. It’s the best.

    Lilly came to me from the man who raised her from the egg – circumstances dictated rehoming her. He preened her tail feathers from the time she was fledging. She still doesn’t remove the sheaths from growing tail feathers; he did and I do. There is nothing sexual about it. I can preen her wings as well. She doesn’t respond in any way unless there have been other natural breeding cues – increased sunlight, too much protein, etc. And of course I avoid doing it during those times. Fortunately, molting generally occurs after breeding season is over.

    Lilly treats me like a mate as far as allopreening and mildly to vehemently warning off other people, but she never masturbates on me – obviously I’d not allow it, but this is her choice. I know spring has sprung because she wants to feed my feet (someone should study foot fetishes in psittacines) and burrow into cloth. The masturbating happens on occasion year round. As in humans, this is a normal expression of sexuality in my experience. Not all parrots masturbate, but certainly many do.

    Lilly has produced eggs only twice in her life – when she was 15 and again at 17. She’s my only macaw and I had to learn what dietary/sleep/play adjustments discouraged that. I will say that when she is experiencing normal high-hormone periods, her entire body is an erogenous zone. Beak, toes, head, wings, tail…touch her at all and the tail juts up and the wings drop. I find a bath or putting on the harness and going for a drive are excellent distractions.

    Lilly isn’t my only parrot, and she isn’t the only one I can cuddle without adverse effects. I wanted to avoid tl;dr.

    I think the appropriate course of action with your parrot is if you notice sexual responses to previously innocuous cuddling, then alter your behavior. Being aware their interpretation can change is important.

    For some parrots this may indeed mean avoiding the body, wings and tail. For others, not so much. I think the goal is to make sure we don’t tease our parrots with unintentional sexual stimuli which means understanding what those stimuli are to our individual parrot, and when they provoke a sexual response. No sexual response = no problem. The only expert on your parrot? is you.

    One other comment – head bobbing is *not* always sexual. Any parrot dancing to music will bob their head and it’s not because they’re horny. (Always and Never – words I avoid when discussing behavior)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My 8 year old male eclectus is super hormonal year round, regurgitating and masterbating daily. I have removed cooked mashes from his diet, and I know not to stroke his back, vent area, etc., but he still regards me as a mate to defend from all visitors (screaming in his cage) and is totally a foot fetishist. Because of a few face bites I never trust him on my shoulder anymore, the way I could my first parrot, who escaped and was eaten by a hawk. I’ve had this boy since he was rehomed to me at six months of age. As a baby, he was safe to cuddle and pet, and we established a tickle game of me tickling him in his “wing pit” which I no longer do. I’ve known most of this info for years, but as a recent widow living alone for the first time, I have only him to love. I do kiss his beak, occasionally wrap an arm around him or play hide and seek. He doesn’t like his head skritched except on rare occasions, and at bedtime when I take him into his sleep cage in his own bedroom, I frequently kiss under his wings very briefly, which I know is bad. THE ONE THING I’D NEVER DO IS TO FEED HIM FROM MY MOUTH! This is very dangerous as our mouths and anything we’ve had in them are full of dangerous bacteria that could make our birds very ill. So, please, never do that, as tempted as you may be. My bird is beautifully feathered, healthy and fully flighted, the only way to keep a bird, and is fed a totally organic diet of my own blend of sprouted seeds, plus fresh veggies and fruits, a very few seeds and nuts, and very occasional tiny morsels of supplemental proteins such as wild caught cooked fish, chicken, yogurt, and a morsel of egg no more than once a month. Eclectus have very different digestive tracts from those of other parrots and do poorly on pellets, reacting negatively to any fortified or colored foods, developing neurological problems such as wing flicking and toe tapping.


    1. Before I started educating myself on this stuff – I had the same problem as you. Very slowly change your behavior. You don’t want the bird to think you don’ love him anymore. Ween him off. Use toys and new things to shift focus from old behaviors. It took me a month+ with mine. It worked and my bird is happier – less screaming and more “normal” friendly.


  11. Is nesting behaviour attention only related to female? Or should we avoid tents, boxes etc. also with male?


  12. Does this count for doves as well? I have a mourning dove, I usually pet her head and back. She Bob’s her head and coos at me, we thought this just a bonding behaivor. Sometimes she gets really fluffy, flaps her wings, and shakes her butt over my head. Should I be worried?


  13. if cuddles mean sex then if a person who has the same gender of the bird touch it outside of the “safe area”


  14. So basically I can’t do….anything with my parrot. How am I supposed to get a harness on them? I have to lift their wings to do that. But if I can’t get them used to being touched on their wings then I’m not going to be able to take them outside.

    That’s pretty disappointing. My male african grey constantly bobs his head up and down all the time at me, and me and my fiance jump up and down with him every time he does it. The girl too. That’s my favorite thing, it makes me so happy cause it’s so cute. I read that it just meant they were in a good mood.

    What about the girl? If we’re both girls does it matter? Can she tell I’m a female too? If she can I’m sure she knows it doesn’t work like that so I can’t be perceived that way.

    What if they’re already mated? They’re already “together” so If they’re mated, then they won’t think I’m their mate and it’s fine? Because I don’t really have any problems with them. I just got them a bit over a month ago, and the male was a ruthless a**hole to me, but I read about petting them on the back and stopped, and he stopped being an a**hole. They don’t do any mate guarding and they’re chill with everyone.

    But he also might have just gotten used to me, since they were new here. Got them from our mother in law when she passed away some weeks ago.

    Though we bob up and down, I give them cardboard, they’re always climbing on me to sit on my shoulder, they do the wing thing and I pet them all the time on the beak, on their neck and head. It’s all good now, I don’t really have any “bad signs” from them.

    Honestly they seem completely opposite to how everyone tells me African Greys are. I heard that if Greys are mated, they won’t be your friend anymore and you’re basically just a biological food dispenser. But the boy is my best friend.


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