With springtime fast approaching we have to be on the lookout for “quirky” behaviors that are related to the onset of hormones. I have often compared hormonal parrots with teenagers. They both know what is right and wrong in terms of their behavior, but neither seem to be able to control themselves at times when hormones are involved. Your once placid parrot may overreact to things that he would normally overlook, and he might express himself with aggression.
Linus, my umbrella cockatoo, always seems to be walking a fine line when he is excited. Throughout the entire year I have to carefully watch his body language to make sure his play doesn’t escalate into aggression. He gets to a point of excitement where he seems to lose control and is quick to bite. It really appears to be temporary insanity. Sometimes he seems as shocked by his actions as I am, and he quickly tries to make amends by doing something cute or walks away grumbling something along the lines of, “Look what you made me do!”
Linus is not a bad bird. He is typical of a cockatoo in every way, except he has a bit of an edge. Over-stimulation is something that affects all species of birds. I bring it up now because it is a behavior that is exaggerated by hormones this time of year.
How much is too much for our parrots?
The signs of an over-stimulated bird look very similar to typical signs of aggression, but they are easy to confuse with a bird that is excited by play. A parrot that is playing hard will have raised feathers, pinned eyes and a fanned tail at times. Since these are also the signs of an angry bird, the best way to figure out your bird’s mood is by assessing how it is responding to you at that time. A playing bird will encourage you to join in the fun or at least want you as an observer.
For instance, when I get on the floor and roll a ball to Linus, he might grab the ball and throw it over his back and run after it. He’ll look at me to make sure I’m watching. He’ll grab the ball and run back and forth with it and then drop it. He’ll look at me to see that I am watching and cheering him on. Then he’ll grab the ball and bang it on the floor a few times. Maybe he'll smack it into the wall and then stop to see that I am paying attention. This is a happy and excited bird who is behaving in an interactive way with me.
However, the tone can change quickly. I will retrieve the ball and toss it to him again, and he will go through his repertoire of moves. After doing this several times, he becomes possessive of the ball and is no longer including me in play. He is now eying me wearily and is taking the ball in a direction away from me. If I approach him, he takes on a defensive stance and might hiss at me. It is a perplexing and frustrating behavior, to say the least, and playtime comes to an abrupt halt.
What could I have done differently to avoid over-stimulation?
The first and most important thing to remember is that your bird keeps a scorecard. The card has two categories: good experiences and bad experiences. Any time something unpleasant happens, he puts a note under bad experiences. Even if there are an overwhelming amount of entries in the good experiences category, and even if the bad experiences are brought on by himself, when that bad column is full, behavior problems begin. Any experience that is perceived as negative, regardless of our level of involvement, can be related back to us. So, we want every interaction to have a positive conclusion.
That said, we need to halt the escalation of a potential problem BEFORE we get there. Knowing Linus has a short window for play, I should have stopped the game while it was still fun and interactive. There’s nothing really gained by continuing until the bird is tired or bored with the game anyways. Keeping him wanting more will only make it that much more fun the next time. I should have stopped after a few tosses of the ball and moved onto something different. Once I am able to notice subtle changes in tone and attitude, the game is already over.
How do I handle my bird once he has reached the point of aggression?
Usually, over-stimulation is easy to calm. Remember, it was just seconds ago that the two of you were having fun. I find that lowering levels of excitement and speaking in quiet tones gets the job done quickly. Parrots are quick to match our energy levels. Since your bird is just high-strung at the moment, and you have not committed an atrocity for which you must be repaid; a parrot will generally relax quickly. A period of quiet cage time is a good idea at this point. Remember, this is not a punishment because he’s done nothing wrong, but it's to maintain calmness and to assure his level of stimulation has lowered. Playtime can resume more carefully in a while.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.