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!
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:
- Regurgitate by rapidly bobbing the head and neck
- 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.
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.
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.
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.