Written by Nicole, Oh Mowsie
Sooner or later, that sweet baby bird you brought home will grow up. Some birds will gracefully enter puberty and their human companions will scarcely notice the change. However, depending on the breed and more specifically, the individual bird, many birds will begin to display those telltale behaviors that indicate your friend has entered...
The Hormone Zone
Once the hormonal madness begins, it seems, to many pet owners, that it will never stop. Or, it stops initially, only to repeat itself over again at various times throughout the year. That statement is true, or at least partially. Once your bird attains sexual maturity, that part of your bird's personality will never "go away." With this article, however, it's my goal to provide a guideline so hormones don't have to rule your bird's life, and in turn, affect yours as well.
First, I would like to examine the male parrot personality. Depending on the breed, sexual maturity can hit anywhere from six months of age for smaller breeds like budgies to 16 years of age for larger breeds. Males typically begin to become more vocal with the onset of puberty, and begin to display affection to their chosen mate (or anything they perceive as a mate) in ways typical to their breed. This can be anything to a show of plumage (such as the heart-shaped wings of a cockatiel male), strutting in a particular way, regurgitation of food and feeding of a mate (common with budgies), head bobbing, preening, and the list goes on. Now acts of display don't seem so bad, but couple that with screaming (typical with many breeds), feather plucking if frustrated, possessiveness of toys or whatever he perceives as a mate, cage protectiveness - as in - this is MY castle so KEEP OUT! In general, your sweet baby boy becomes a domineering, protective screamer who wants you to keep your hands out of his cage, away from his stuff! Many people find they can no longer handle the companion they once had a close relationship with, or frequently the scenario is, ONLY YOU can handle him, but heaven help anyone else who comes close for they will get mauled by Atilla the Beak! Sometimes, male behaviors can be confusing because they do things that are typically relegated to females (but shouldn't be) like shred papers and lurk in dark corners and "nesty looking" places. These changes can come on suddenly or they can happen progressively. They can seem to turn on and off like a switch. One day, he's very the sweetheart you remember and the next day, he's back to needing an Exorcism. Many first time parrot owners are shocked, appalled, or amused to discover their avian companions masturbate for pleasure and their "mate choices" range from the mundane - a stuffed toy, a perch or something easily obtainable to the bird inside his cage, to the more outrageous (to many bird owners). I've heard of birds being attracted to the very socks on the owner's toe if you get my drift.
Females, in my opinion, are a little sneakier about the initial "symptoms" of hormonal onset. (I have both males and females and I watch them carefully). Typically, in any parrot breed, females are not as vocal and that's one of the first signs that males are becoming hormonal. Also, females don't strut or display, which is another sign. Without those visual clues to guide you simply means you have to pay closer attention to the subtle hints a hen will provide. First of all, I said hens are not AS vocal, but I did NOT say that hens are not vocal at all. If you notice your hen is suddenly becoming vocal, or at least, more so than usual, take it as a sign. Secondly, hens will gain weight. Typically, up to 10% of their body weight can be gained because their bones thicken with calcium needed to produce eggs. So, it's CRUCIAL to have a gram scale on hand. Really, every bird owner should have one. If you notice your hen has gained weight but her diet hasn't changed overly much in the last few weeks, its time to consider that she may be going into egg production mode. Hens will become "broody" in attitude, looking for dark corners to nest in, shred papers, or scavenge for materials to line a nest with. The may become defensive of their territory (cage), and nippy. They may also become nippy towards those they feel threaten a perceived mate (defense mode) though perhaps not as much as a male. Moody towards many, yet sweet to the one she adores often describes the hen's attitude (but not always). Screaming fits are not uncommon with hens either so don't think you're off the hook if you have a hen. Hormonal plucking is found in some breeds due to frustration, and yes, the girls masturbate too though often, it's with the tail in the air and displaying the vent towards the object of affection while making inviting sounds. Owners of hens have often found their hens crouched in the bottom of the cage pretending to sit on eggs that aren't there as if practicing - yet not showing signs of distress when examined (as in, not egg-bound). Often times though, owners will not REALLY know the symptoms of hormonal onset in their hen (at least the first time around) until they are surprised by an egg in the bottom of the cage. Only THEN can they look back over the previous few weeks and realize that the signs were there but they were subtle and "if only I'd known..." plays through their mind.
A good portion of my article will focus on the hen, as many physical repercussions can result if hormones are allowed to go unchecked. As the owner of 11 cockatiels (four of which are mature hens, three are mature males and four are just babies) I can tell you that hormones CAN be curbed if you're willing to put forth the time and effort. Whether you have just one bird, or a flock, the first thing you need to realize is that although some of the measures may seem "cruel" or "drastic", they are for the betterment of your birds psyche and health, and for your peace of mind as well.
First things first: If you have a flock of birds, the first thing you need to do is decide if you are going to breed or not. I should also point out that there are many unwanted birds in this world, and so much goes into breeding besides just A + B = cute babies. So, consider your decision carefully before allowing your birds to breed. Lastly, I would also like to point out that often times, breeding doesn't just stop at ONE clutch. Birds have a knack for double and triple clutching without any thought to OUR "good intentions" - so keep that in mind and ALWAYS put your birds' best interest before your own curiosity.
- So, with that said, if there is a male and a female in one cage - ultimately breeding WILL happen. If it doesn't happen, it will at the very least, stimulate hormones. So, if you don't want to deal with it, keep the "Helens" and the "Troys" in separate cages.
- Make sure your bird gets plenty of sleep. During times of hormonal onset, and I do mean the FIRST signs of it, cover that cage! Your bird needs 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep, the darker the better. If a small night-light is needed to stave off night frights, okay, but that's it. I even recommend clearing out a closet (Yes, I said closet) and placing a sleeping cage in it. Move your bird to that closet at night so that it's peaceful and quiet - no TV, no doors opening and closing, no disturbances. 12 HOURS! So if you get up at 7 am, Polly goes to bed at 7 p.m. If Polly has eggs in her cage, the eggs go WITH Polly.
- Polly laid eggs but has no mate - now what? DO NOT take Polly's eggs away. It doesn't matter if she's sitting on them or ignoring them. Birds CAN count! (Trust me on this!!) If you remove them, she will lay more to replace the ones you took. So leave them. The usual length of time is approximately a month from the time the first egg is laid. This way her biological month tells her they won't hatch and the laying cycle has stopped by then. It's okay to boil the eggs and let them cool (one by one) and give them back to her so they won't break and stink up the cage while she's sitting.
- Give your birds drenching showers (both male AND female) during hormonal periods. Same mindset as the cold shower theory for people. Of course, you want to use warm water though. For birds who are plucking, a mist of pure aloe-vera can be soothing as well.
- Rearrange the cage frequently. Move toys, dishes and perches around. Also, remove anything your bird may perceive as a mate or your bird masturbates on. Install the grate if you don't already have it in so your bird does not have access to the newspaper on the bottom to shred. Remove ANYTHING in the cage that provides a shadowy recess for nesting, or anything your bird can use as a nest (happy hut, coconut hut, box, etc.)
- Change the location of the cage. The reason for changing things inside the cage and the location of the cage is because the comfort level a bird has makes breeding more inviting. Changing things makes it less inviting for breeding.
- Get your birds out of the cage for exercise. Get their mind off of it. But, limit the time with "that special person" if they perceive a particular member in the house as their mate. Have someone else do the handling. Be BRAVE my friend, if your hormonal bird is nippy. With some therapy, your nippy friend will come around. But a change in scenery is in order, and helps with the cage territorialism.
- Don't let your bird hide in cupboards, old boxes, baskets, cubby holes, etc. It's NOT cute; it's encouraging the hormonal behavior. BOTH genders will do this, so don't allow your male to get away with it.
- For hens: A laying female should be provided with extra calcium, as laying eggs depletes a hen's body of a lot of her calcium.
- For hens: If you notice your hen straining on the bottom of the cage, panting, possibly unable to move her legs, GET HER TO THE VET! She could be egg bound.
- For hens: If you notice a yellow substance oozing from her vent, possibly accompanied by a wet sound as she passes her stool, GET HER TO THE VET! This is an indication of a soft shelled egg or of an egg breaking inside of her. If she's laying soft shelled eggs, GET HER TO THE VET!
- For other hen-related egg-laying problems, please see our article Egg Laying & Possible Problems.
Finally, perhaps you've tried all of the above mentioned methods and your male is still screaming or your female just lays clutch after clutch. You may need to consider a trip to the avian veterinarian to rule out other problems. Sometimes, a bird has other problems in conjunction with hormones that may be causing behavior problems, or your veterinarian may have suggestions for you on how to deal with your unique situation. Your hen may need Lupron shots to combat her excessive laying problem. The only way you'll know is if you see your vet so he or she can examine your bird and determine what is best for your avian companion and you.