Ah, the signs of the birds and the bees with the birds. Are you able to recognize them? I like to think I do, but then sometimes I find myself in situations where I wonder if I could be sexually stimulating my bird without even realizing it. Are these signs important to recognize? Absolutely! Why? They are important because recognizing the signs can help in preventing not only behavioral problems but also medical problems in our birds.
I believe our birds show us so many signs of sexual interest or sexual arousal that we, as their caregivers either don’t recognize, don’t understand, don’t know why we shouldn’t, or don’t know the consequences of our actions on the bird and ourselves if we continue. Being able to understand and recognize these subtle, or not so subtle signs is so important on many levels. Each bird is different and one type of interaction may have a different effect on another bird. Most interactions and signs are very similar though, so I pay close attention to their responses to our interactions, especially at certain times of the year in which I know their sexual arousal is peaked.
The age of sexual maturation differs among species also. This span of time can also vary within the species. My suggestion if you are not sure is to do a little research on your species of bird and ask someone who may know such as your avian veterinarian, a knowledgeable employee at a bird store, or a well respected breeder. My goal is nothing more than to help one person in building a stronger, happier, and more understanding relationship with their bird through recognizing the signs of sexual arousal and how it can affect their bird’s behavior.
There are many signs of sexual arousal in a bird and some in which we probably don’t even know they exist because we aren’t a bird and can’t or haven’t been able to read them. Yet, some signs are so very obvious such as regurgitating and we assume we know what they mean by observing these behaviors in the wild and in captivity. In the wild, many times the mates will regurgitate food for their mates as a sign of increasing the bond with a potential mate. My greenwing macaw does this for me often and a lot of times, the only thing I do to trigger this behavior is walk in the same room in which he is. Here is an example of what it may look like, but with my greenwing, the behavior is very animated. In some birds, the reguring is not very obvious. Every time he exhibits this behavior, I ignore it and I do so by leaving the room, not showing him attention, or setting him down on to a playstand if he happens to be on me while performing this behavior. Some people think this is cute because it shows that they, the human, are the preferred object of their affection. I discourage this behavior for many reasons and one reason is not wanting birdie barf on my clean shirt as I’m trying to get out the door for work. Another is the fact that I don’t want to encourage this behavior with my bird because I cannot and do not want to carry out this behavior with my bird. If I was a bird and was accepting of my greenwing’s offerings, I would let him feed me. Yeah, I have no interest in this. I am not even going to let him offer it to me mainly because of the frustration level it must build in him. This is a natural behavior for him and since I have no interest in carrying through with the behavioral repertoire, why would I encourage it and frustrate him with my not allowing what comes next? Furthermore, what if he could be reading my behaviors as I don’t understand and he hasn’t gotten his point across to me? I would assume this could increase the behavior and the harder he may work in getting his point across to me. As his level of frustration builds, so may the negative behaviors such as nipping and biting that I don’t want to increase. So until I may find a better remedy, my solution is to ignore it or divert his attention to another behavior by causing a distraction and redirecting his attention to an alternate behavior in which he shows a lot of excitement.
Petting, the ways we pet, where we pet, and how long we pet are other factors in the sexual messages we may be communicating to our birds. One would think that stroking the bird on the back of the head and all the way down their backs and ending with their tail would be an amicable form of communication to their birds. Unfortunately, this is not so.
Most birds will find this form of petting as sexually arousing and this may bring about other misunderstood forms of communication from your bird. If I were to pet my cockatoos in this way they would be very accepting of it. They would lean in under my chin for a cuddle and lift their wing for me to continue petting under their wings and along their body. Does this sound familiar? To some people, I’m sure it does because I see it so often when talking to people as I watch them hold their birds. It can be easy to do because the birds are so accepting of it and they seem so content with it and it keeps them very quiet. Over time this can lead to many problems not only behaviorally but also medically. If I were to prolong this type of petting with my birds, I am not able nor wanting to carry out what would come next…..the mating. With my birds, and I’m sure in many, this would lead to severe
frustration and built up over a period of time this frustration needs an outlet and unfortunately, most of the time this outlet can be in such forms as biting, screaming, or even feather damaging behaviors. I do not want or need any of these behaviors in this household and will take whatever precautions I have to in order to prevent these behaviors which means, not petting in the way described, especially not under the tail which I also see so often.
So where do I pet? I try and keep most of the petting of my birds to their head. There are all kinds of areas to pet on the head. Most of mine love to close their eyes while I gently pet the skin around their eyes. I do this quite a bit and they really seem to enjoy it and it also builds their confidence and security with me because they need to close their eyes in order for me to do so. I also pet on both sides of their beak at the same time with my thumb and middle finger. They also seem to love this and will often close their eyes while I pet here. I pet their neck and preen their head feathers. They are usually really accepting of this because these are areas in which they cannot easily reach to preen themselves. I will confess, I also give the occasional wingpit scratch. Does this sexually arouse them? I’m not sure so I keep it really brief and I use my thumb in their wingpit with my other fingers on the topside of their wing and move my thumb and forefinger down their wing following the bones in their wings until I have their wings fully stretched out. I do this intentionally to get them used to me extending their wings for future husbandry behaviors that they may need done, such as wing examinations or checking for blood feathers and this procedure would make it less stressful on the bird for those that clip.
One example of not easily recognizing sexual stimulation in my bird is a behavior I unknowingly began instigating with my greenwing macaw. He used to tuck his head in to my chest and he would do a sommersault with his back bracing against my chest. He would slide down my chest on his backside and then I would cup him in my hand. After a couple of times of doing this he would stand on my hand and show what I thought was his excitement by gently nipping and trying to get closer to my hand. This was actually behaviors of him trying to mate. Then he would start regurging. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. “How couldn’t I realize this?” I thought. I stopped that trick immediately but he still remembers this trick and will occasionally try to initiate this trick. It is at this time that I will divert or redirect his attention to performing another behavior such as flapping his wings or initiating a loud call. Either redirects his behavior almost immediately.
Another behavior that needs to be addressed is covering the bird, whether it be under the covers with you, in your shirt, or covering their cage at night. This is a behavior that needs to be paid close attention. Make sure it is not sexually arousing or inviting to your bird. I have an umbrella cockatoo that used to crawl under the covers or what looks like resting comfortably inside my shirt. When he did this I also noticed he clicks his tongue and raises his tail in the air. Dark areas may look like nesting sites to a bird. Nesting sites will initiate sexual behaviors and parrots can become very defensive of nesting sites. My males do not act aggressive in these areas but I choose to avoid these areas to prevent bringing on any future behavioral issues. My female eclectus, on the other hand will show serious aggressive behaviors in dark areas or around nesting sites. Dark areas such as under the covers, in a shirt, or under a covered cage may look like a great site to build a nest to many birds. Many people cover their bird’s cages and have no problems. Other people may have serious behavioral problems with their birds such as excessive screaming, biting, and aggressive behaviors around their cage. If behaviors such as these are being exhibited, I would suggest getting in contact with your avian veterinarian, a parrot behaviorist, or a well informed employee at your bird store.
Most parrots are monogamous, whether it be for one breeding season, for several years, or for life. In captive breeding situations, once a bird has picked its mate often times the human’s have much difficulty trying to interact physically with the birds. I hesitated in stating these two points but chose to do so anyway because it may help in understanding some of the complications we as bird owners have in understanding some of the behaviors of our companion parrots. The reason I hesitated is because I am afraid it may cause some bird owners to give up on working with some behavioral issues in their birds. I am afraid it will give a bird owner a reason to say “It is a natural behavior and there’s nothing I can do about it.” This is so not true and one of my birds is living proof of that! This mindset sets the stage for the relationship between the owner and the bird for failure and many times the result is the bird losing its home. In most behavioral issues the owners find statements like this as reasons to stop working on the issue at hand. Where I am going with this point is in most households one will find that a bird prefers a particular family member and often times only that one family member will interact with the bird. First the bird will show tendencies to one particular family member. That particular family member will start interacting more with the bird because they feel honored to be picked as the favorite. The others will slowly refrain from interacting as much as they used to with the bird. Soon no one in the house besides that one family member can handle the bird and the behavioral issues skyrocket from there and continue to grow in intensity. A lot of times, at this point is when I here there is an ultimatum that is made and the bird will lose its home or lose out on all of the possibilities of the social enrichment that could have originally been provided in having this bird growing to be a welcomed part of the family and its functions. Problems like these can be avoided by not becoming the bird’s human perch and by allowing the bird to interact with all of the family members from the beginning. Don’t think it is too late to start because the bird is now used to the preferred human or the bird is too old. In most instances, this does not have to be the case. There is one major rule my husband and I try and follow in our interactions with our birds. We hold or walk around with one of our birds on us for 10 to 15 minutes at a time and then it is time for them to find something else equally or more enriching than staying on us. This allows the opportunity for our birds to grow in independence, interact more with the other birds in the house, and refrain from becoming too dependent on humans as their source of entertainment. By them not being on us doesn’t mean that we don’t interact with them verbally from across the room or from different parts of the house. When my husband comes home from work, we make it a point for him to go in and interact with all of the birds. They get so excited to see him and he gives them their favorite treats since he doesn’t get the opportunity to interact with him as much as I do. I want my birds to be just as excited to see my husband as they do me. This helps in preventing them from becoming too dependent on me and helps in preventing the serious behavioral issues such as screaming for the preferred person which may relate back to the monogamous relationships they have in the wild.
In conclusion to this important topic, there are still a few things I would like to mention. How do we know what a bird looks like when it is sexually aroused? Some of these behaviors are obvious and some are not as
obvious. This is a short video of my umbrella cockatoo attempting to get into a mating position with my hand but not quite sure of what he’s supposed to do next. His next behavior would be to tuck his tail in toward my hand and begin vent tapping. He will also grabs my fingers and tries to move them where he wants them. I took this video for educational purposes only and I quickly diverted his attention from this behavior by knocking on the table and letting out an excited yell in which I often do when it’s time for everyone to get excited and flap their wings. Once I did this, it was a big enough distraction and he eagerly hopped off of my hand awaiting his much anticipated exercising that he loves. There are additional aspects that need to be taken in to consideration with sexual behaviors in our companion parrots. Nutrition is very important and certain foods may need to be moderated during certain times of the year. Artificial lighting
and how much or how little also needs to be taken in to consideration during these times. Medical conditions such as egg binding, excessive egg laying, and cloacal prolapsed are more serious and need to be discussed with a well qualified avian veterinarian. For questions with any of the above conditions, it is important to get in contact with someone well versed and educated in avian care.
Research your specific species of bird, how they live, the behaviors they exhibit, and the daily activities they perform in the wild. This will help you better understand your bird’s behavior and help in creating a healthy bond between you, your parrot, and your family.
As additional reading, I would suggest reading the May 2008 issue of BirdTalk Magazine. Mattie Sue Athan has written a great article in this issue titled “Sending the Wrong Signals”. I would also recommend reading “Sex and the Single Bird” by Dr. Brian Speer.
About the Author
Lara Joseph lives in Ohio where she shares her home with four birds; two cockatoos, a large macaw, and an eclectus hen. She dedicates her time to the work and study of parrot behavior and their welfare in their captive and native environments. She writes articles on different aspects of companion parrot welfare, including behavior, enrichment and foraging and its effects on behavior, her life with her own birds, and approaches on increasing the human/parrot bond. In her free time she enjoys consulting issues of parrot behavior, working for her avian board certified veterinarian, designing her own line of foraging and enrichment toys, and traveling to further increase her education in the world of these amazing, intelligent, and extraordinary creatures.