Hormones and Your Parrot: the Triggers and What to Do.

Hormones strike twice a year in most parrots, spring and autumn, turning your bird from a gentle angle into a rampaging monster. Or so it feels!

Upon reaching sexual maturity, typical parrots have a single driving urge: to find a mate and make babies. It is very simple, and yet also impossible for them. Hand-raised parrots typically choose their caretaker as their mate, which, of course, is a role we can never fulfil – much to the detriment of our captive birds.  (Please note: The answer is not to breed your pets, as this requires a special set up, careful diet planning and expensive nutritional care, and the ability to care for and re-home any babies.)

Greenwinged Macaw
Hormones cause a lot of parrots, including this greenwinged macaw, to be re-homed to rescues and sanctuaries across the world

Parrots in captivity find their hormones stimulated by a four main things:

  1. Light – too much daylight stimulates the hormones by making a parrot think ‘spring’ all the time. Give your pet bird 12-14 hours of undisturbed sleep in the complete dark. Any artificial light does the same thing as the sun in terms of imitating good breeding conditions.
  2. Diet – an enriched diet is part of caring for our pets, but it does also signal constant bountifulness. In other words, feeding a wide variety of nutritionally rich foods says ‘this is the perfect breeding season.’ Pellets are often a key trigger – that soy is thought to stimulate hormones. But sugary and fatty foods can do it too, depending on the individual.
  3. Cuddling – I’ve written about the dangers of too much cuddling before. This is the time of year to stop petting your parrot outside his head, neck, and feet, if you are! It tells your bird that you are about to deliver one thing… sex.
  4. Environment – birds will nest in just about anything. How do you know if your pet parrot is nesting? Is he or she hanging out in a dark, shadowy corner? Is he becoming aggressive over a certain place? Blankets, boxes, shelves, drawers, parrot tents, and shadowy nooks like behind the door or in the closet are all prime nesting spots to your parrot. Letting your bird hang out here encourages hormones.
Ptak and Maverick's Arrival 043
Aggression in parrots is common at this time of year

What can we do?

  • Stop the cuddles. First and foremost, this is a time of year when it is critical not to encourage your parrot to let you think you are his mate. The risks of doing so include attacks on you and your loved ones in the house, plucking from frustration, excess screaming, and even depression in your parrot.
  • Restrict daylight hours – again, 12-14 hours of complete darkness will help immensely.
  • Fill the actual days with direct sunlight (or a UV-A lamp). This helps parrots fully process the vitamins from their food, reducing the chance of biting, screaming, and plucking.
  • Swap cage and room contents around regularly to help with territoriality.
  • Give fewer warm, spray showers, as these imitate springtime mistings in nature (again, a signal to breed). Note: This does not apply to pluckers, nor all parrots. It is, however, one factor to play around with.
  • Alternatively, offer MORE showers. Again, birds being so individual, this factor can make the difference.
  • Implement a diet change, where you begin to feed a lot of chickpeas, leafy greens, carrots, etc., but go lighter on the pellets and other proteins.
IMG_3334
Foraging Senegal Parrot
  • Do not bob your head, even in play or while dancing. A parrot reads this as regurgitation! As with showers, this is just one factor to consider; not all birds respond to this!
  • Don’t feed warm and/or mushy foods – this is the equivalent of regurgitated food for them.
  • Don’t offer food from your own mouth or hands, as this can be interpreted as you feeding as a mate would.
  • Instead of cuddles, engage in some trick training – it serves as enrichment – and work on foraging to distract them.
  • Don’t let your parrot play in boxes, have newspaper, shredded material, or cloth to play with (they see nesting material), or hang out in dark, tight spaces.
  • Encourage your bird to fly and exercise as much as possible to burn off energy.
IMG_3990
Nesting cockatoo: Knowing your bird and what’s he’s like will help you identify what you need to stop doing (or do).

Know the signs and symptoms of a hormonal parrot:

  • Trembling, with wings dropped low in a ‘begging’ posture (he or she is asking you to feed him as a mate)
  • Panting when touched outside the head and neck
  • Regurgitating for you or its toys
  • Increased appetite
  • Lifting the vent while cuddling (if female)
  • Mounting your hand by gripping your thumb (if male)
  • Masturbating on your or something nearby
  • Egg-laying
  • Showing off and flirting by flinging out the wings, doing mating dances with head-bobbing and hopping/bouncing, or making ‘heart wings’
  • Plucking or barbering feathers
  • Showing possessiveness over the cage, a specific place in the room, you, or a family member
  • Excess aggression, including biting, screaming, and beak-bashing
  • Increased screamed outside of the norm
Cockatiel6
Cockatiel displaying for mate by holding ‘her’ wings open and singing – she is a he!

What do I do if my parrot is regurgitating for me, or if s/he displays some of these signs? 

If a bird is trying to mate with you or regurgitating for you, gently but firmly put him or he down. Walk away, feeling not disgust, but friendly affection. I sometimes tell Maverick, our Senegal, ‘I love you, too, but as a friend.’ My voice conveys that I am not upset or angry. After he stops, I instigate a hands-off training session so that we can have a positive and distracting interaction. I try not to put us in a position where the birds will become that way, but sometimes it happens anyway.

If your parrot is aggressive, screaming, or being territorial, react with understanding, not frustration or anger. How must he feel, unable to fulfil his most basic instinct? It isn’t about ‘love.’ It’s about the need to reproduce. He isn’t lonely – he’s horny. It will pass.

Catalina mini macaw (blue and gold and scarlet macaw hybrid).
Catalina Mini Macaw demonstrates hormonal behaviour

Why is my parrot suddenly attacking me, or my husband/wife/daughter/son/friends?

When a parrot chooses a mate, they bond for life. Touching another bird is the equivalent of a human cheating on a partner. They don’t do it.

When an intruder comes too close to either a mate or the nest, one of the pair will drive this threat off (which one does this depends on the species). If a parrot feels they can’t drive an intruder off, they turn on their own mate, forcing them away from perceived danger. Thus, it is quite possible that a parrot who is attacking you either sees you as a threat to the nest, or to their ‘mate.’ You may be the mate, or someone else in the house may be.

I’ve talked about cuddling. 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.

Parrotlet
Ptak the parrotlet needs and enjoys the sun

A bird may become frustrated after time passes. Sometimes it will turn on you, biting you. Other times, it will turn its frustration inwards, plucking out its feathers, or mutilating its own skin. It is truly best not to pet our pet birds the way they so desire. They like a lot of things that are bad (or not so good) for them, and it’s our job to keep them happy and healthy by not giving in.

At this difficult time of year, try to understand that your parrot is doing what is instinctive for him. He is perfectly normal, and, in an oddly reassuring way, healthy! It will also pass. Persevere, and know that in a few months your bird will stop trying to bite you and will calm down once again.

What are your tips for surviving the hormone seasons with your parrots?

102 thoughts on “Hormones and Your Parrot: the Triggers and What to Do.

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  1. Very important information, my Amazon, Mad Max, has shown all the signs of “me” being his mate, biting etc. I now know what to look for and how to watch for his signs.

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  2. I don’t know if I read it on the site or on another one… but my African Senegal is sweet as can be… as long as I don’t give him a large amount of the high protein bird food that he actually likes the best. If he gets aggressive I just lower the amount I’m giving him and he turns sweet again. That’s what seems to work for us, especially around mating season. All though he is small and I’d prefer to feed him more protein. He exhibits all the other behaviors – except aggressiveness although I don’t encourage them. (I’ve had him for 18 yrs and strongly suspect he is a she but since I haven’t had the DNA test I don’t know for sure.) Maybe that will help someone else. I read- after much painstaking research during a particularly horrific period of many months where he was aggressively biting and holding on for dear life cutting me to pieces – digging in- and yet had never bitten before- that high protein causes the sexual hormones to heighten. Of course any bird should be given the appropriate amount of protein, but he had been sick and was only eating Harrison’s organic high protein at the time. It’s challenging as he has been super picky about bird food since then, but I’ve gotten him back on other foods for the most part and now only give him the high protein that he loves as a treat. Perhaps this will help someone else if they haven’t read the science on what high protein does to the sexual hormones yet?

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  3. My Blue and Gold (rescue) is hormonal 24/7. She stopped plucking after almost 3 years under my care. That is, until she lays another clutch. I’ve tried 72 hours of light, 72 of dark, daily baths, no baths (she absolutely HATES water). I’ve limited her food…. Now, i just try to make her comfortable. She needs a partner but I can’t afford to buy one and I dont know that I want the challenge of another rescue.

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    1. Have you tried lowering the protein content of her food rather than her actual food? The worked with mine nearly miraculously. Different parrot but maybe worth a try? (Still I can only give her 2-3 of her fav. high protein pellets per day or the hormones spike and she gets extremely aggressive. Otherwise she’s a sweet adorable kitten of a bird!)

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      1. I have tried to adjust her diet before (she doesn’t eat as many vegetables as she should) but I cave after 2 days.

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        1. I get that! But, does she eat pellets? If so, you can look at the actual protein percentage of the pellets and buy some with less protein. I know it’s hard. I used to cave and would see my bird getting thinner until he would suddenly turn around and eat what I gave him. (I was a total wuss where that was concerned with all my birds for over 30 years. The vet said they know you’re going to cave.. until you prove you won’t. But I wouldn’t want my bird to die either. The best bet is looking at the protein content and trying other brands that have a less high content. If your bird eats seed as a main source… oooooh. So bad in so many ways. You have to try and find a way to switch! (Perhaps with a vets help)

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  4. Actually a vet or naturalistic vet might be able to help to begin with.? At least with the food issues! I would consult one. I know it’s expensive but likely worth it. There’s also bird behavior experts who will come to your house. Although I’m sure that costs an arm and a leg! It’s worth your bird having a healthy diet and eating enough but also worth you having a good relationship with her! (She’s not egg bound or anything is she?)

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    1. She isn’t egg bound. She laid it last night. She gets Harrison’s High Potency. That was a huge pain in the ass for me as she was being fed dollar store bird food whenever the owners remembered to feed her that is.

      She does get some fresh veggies, but not enough. So i give her vitamins and scratch the cuttle fish in her food. Good news, she seems to “accept” my daughter (she will chase the wife out of the room/kitchen and at one point, she was preventing her from getting to our daughter when she was 3 months old).

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      1. Harrison’s is the exact problem! That is exactly why my bird got so aggressive! You need to take away the Harrison’s and only give it as a treat! First, if She just laid eggs she’s going to be protective anyways. But second Harrison’s was the 100% exact cause that my bird became aggressive and when I took the Harrison’s high protein away and fed her Zupreme instead and only gave the Harrison’s as a treat she became the sweetest little bird in the world, back to her old self. I am telling you Harrison is the problem! It is super highLy concentrated in protein. Harrison’s is a great food because it’s organic and the high-protein is great when a bird is sick and not eating a lot. But it seems to be far far too high in protein to be a regular diet ! If she just laid eggs she’s going to be protective anyways. But Harrison’s was the 100% exact cause that my bird became aggressive and when I took the Harrison‘s away and fed her zupreem instead and only gave the Harrison‘s as a treat, she became the sweetest little bird in the world, back to her old self. I am telling you Harrison is the problem! It has a super high concentrate in protein. She needs a food that has less of a protein concentrate. Zupreme or Kaylee works for mine. It was very difficult to get her switched back and I had to really stick to my guns and not cave, but it made all the difference in the UNIVERSE!! I still give her the regular Harrison’s but not more than three squares per day because she still gets aggressive if I give her more. Sometimes within 24 to 48 hours. As far as her not excepting your wife that is pretty normal because she sees your wife is a threat since you are her person. It’s been suggested that you help the relationship there by taking the bird to somewhere that she is not -normally -and where she would be uncomfortable and have your wife rescue her from that area repeatedly. Obviously not the same area, but I read that that is sometimes a technique that behaviorist use to get the bird to be a little bit more friendly with the significant other. That would just be a place to start. But I would get some Parrot training and behavior books and use that to help. If I’d known that you were feeding her Harrison’s ( especially the high protein ) I would’ve told you that was your problem in the first place. That is your problem. Again I love Harrisons because it’s organic but the protein concentrate is way too high and this seems to be a real issue with it. They have lower protein versions. Perhaps you might try those if you don’t want to go to a non-organic bird food. My bird still gets aggressive with more than a few squares of the lower protein versions so I find zupreem to be a better option for her. Zoo cream is a minimum 14% crude protein. My bird is a Senegal parrot so probably much smaller than yours as yours is an Amazon, right?

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        1. The problem with not using Harrison’s: she is still underweight. She weighed 700 grams or something like that and she is barely 1100 now.

          I would prefer to move away from pellets completely tbh. Unless there is a premium class of Zupreem (pretty sure thats what I used prior to Harrison’s), I dont want to feed her that much sugar/filler.

          I figured the vet would have told me to moderate the Harrison’s. And this is why I tell my wife it’s all about checklists in the medical field (animal and human). I will look for a substitute.

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        2. It makes sense that you would use the Harrison’s , when trying to get her weight up . And I don’t think the vets are up on this Protein issue at all !!…. it literally took several years of research and someone telling me up the cuff that protein might be the issue . After she put scar after scar on my hands for a couple of years !!! . The vet is who recommended the Harrison’s in the first place, Because she had gotten sick and wouldn’t eat and was too skinny , Also killed my other bird. That same vet gave her medicine that damaged her Kidneys and literally KILLED my cockatiel !!! And most vets give this medicine for what she had although it’s highly known to cause Kidney damage — amd most are not the least bit educated about this or the available non Kidney destroying alternatives! This was the 3rd most highly rated Avian vet in all of California … so although I would consult your vet … you have to Realize they don’t know everything they should . I learned the hard way by loosing the bird I had since childhood and trusting the vet over my own judgement . ( my gut told me it would hurt my bird and he lost his ability to walk in the first dose , and all that after the vet refused to test for the illness The Senegal had in the first place . Even after I called and her and said he was nearly dead, she told me to keep giving it to him. I literally coddled and nursed him and kept him alive on colloidal silver I found on my own , for an extra 2 years after she destroyed his kidneys w her medicine , before they finally went caput, but it was not a good two years . Before that he was tested to be as healthy as a 5 year old . She killed him … so although the vets are the experts , I’m just telling you they don’t know it all . Sadly ! Again , typing on the phone on the subway so please forgive any errors .

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    1. Hi Anne, So sorry about your birds, cockatiel dying… I have several breeds of birds, and 2 cockatiels, and mine lived 17.5 and 19.5 yrs, and I have 2 more, one about 15 and other 20 yrs old, and blind as a bat! She was a rescue at 18 yrs of age. In your comments above, was there another medication that this CA vet gave your bird that killed it, something else besides Harrison’s? If so, what was the name of the medicine. Many thanks and all the best to you and your birds! I have 9, 5 finches, 2 cockatiels, Sun Conure and Umbrella Cockatoo/rescue 24 yrs old.

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      1. I have to look it up , it was an anti fungal in combination w an antibacterial at the same time . I’ve written about it but now can’tRemember the official name. He was 30 when he died but he was 27 ( with the tested health of a five year old bird ) when she gave him that medicine and within one does he lost his ability to walk and nearly died. And it just got worse and worse. I nursed him for the last 2 1/2 years but the med killed his kidneys so it it just got worse until until he bit the dust. I don’t remember the official name. He was 30 when he died but he was 27 when she gave him that medicine and within one dose he lost his ability to walk and nearly died.. And he wasn’t even tested for the illness. The other bird had it the illness,. It’s called Mega bacteria ( A lot of birds have this and it doesn’t cause a problem apparently unless something stresses the bird out or damage is his immune his or her immune system .) and a lot of vets use this medication rather than researching the new stuff that’s out there. But if you go to a vet that’s worth his salt, he or she will tell you never to give your bird that medication. I’m traveling right now but I’ll look it up as soon as I can. No it definitely wasn’t Harrison‘s though. Harrison’s just made my bird extremely mean and aggressive because of the high protein content , but that was also the high-protein Harrison‘s.

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        1. I’m sorry my phone is re-texting everything I write repeatedly after I try to send anything right now.

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        2. Mary, I’m in the middle of moving across country and I haven’t been able to find my bird’s file yet. It might be buried in my car at this point. I will still print the name of this medicine as soon as I find it but in the meantime I can tell you it was a combination very heavy duty antibiotic ( I don’t think it was Amphotericin, I think it was something much stronger. ) in addition to an antifungal. It was the anti-fungal that did the damage and killed my bird. ( Via destroying his kidneys, which it has a reputation for doing , so should not be given to any bird – ever .) There has been for many years, a treatment which comes from a preservative that we use for food. They are not sure why it works but it had had good results without killing the bird , and the top bird vet in Southern California said that’s what he would’ve used without hesitation . So, I would look into that. It may still be considered experimental. I believe it started with an S. I did a bunch of research and I can’t quite find the name of it or the medicine that was bad.

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  5. Also, thank you auto corrupt: That was zupreem or Kaytee. It’s still a fight, because she still really loves the Harrison’s, but she is much nicer on the zupreem. Actually the sweetest bird in the world! She has even been nesting repeatedly and not gotten aggressive while she’s nesting!

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  6. zupreem! I hate auto corrupt! Read what I write about Harrison’s.. it seems to be further up in the posts rather Where it should be. I repeat Harrison’s high-protein is your problem!

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    1. I should add, when i first got her, she was far, far worse. She hasn’t actually charged my wife in over a year but will lunge at her. She seems “tolerant” of our daughters but i dont trust her (or my 2 year old).

      My bird used to sit on my 2 year olds head and once, she undid her cage, traversed the house, perched on her chest, and threw up on her. Utterly disgusting.

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  7. I am not an expert, obviously, like a vet is . I have just had years upon years upon years of experience with and training parrots and I am very well read and researched. And I learned the hardest possible way that vets aren’t always … well, you know . That one completely killed my cockatiel and I had to pay a fortune to the # 1 vet to know that for Sure and still the # 1 Avian vet here in nyc predominantly uses that medicine, utterly known to be highly toxic and is 109% uneducated about the alternatives… so ….. he’s destroying other birds’ kidneys ! I also know Harrison’s high protein was 100% the cause of my Senegal’s aggression and it took forever to even learn there was any link in raised sex hormones and a high protein diet . ( not that Harrison’s was the cause , but the high protein diet was and it was specifically Harrison’s that I fed her —- as per that Highly recommended avian veterinarian. ) Maybe another alternative is to go ahead and let her continue to be aggressive on the high-protein diet until her weight gets up and then see if there’s a lower protein source of food. I don’t know but I’m really sorry that you’re having this issue! Please let us all know when you find a solution!! I am really glad that she is much better with your wife! Obviously you’ve done some good work in that area. My understanding is that’s a very difficult area to navigate. And I can I am so sorry that she was Went out if her way to throw up on your daughter, that’s insane! And kudos to you for rescuing and loving this bird so much! I am glad there are people who love their birds like you do out there. I know they’re a lot it’s just nice to talk to one!

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