Kashmir's Korner

Bonding and Breeding Behavior in Pet Parrots

How is the word "bonding" applied to parrots? Technically it means that a pair of parrots is monogamous —they are bonded to each other. In colloquial terms, bonding implies that a human and a parrot have a deep relationship that goes beyond friendship and is similar to a healthy family bond among human family members. I am often asked, "How old should a parrot be when I get him? I want to make sure that he is young enough to bond to me."  A parrot bonding to humans is not an innate behavior no matter which definition we use. For one species to sexually bond with another is not normal, even though birds often develop this type of bond with a human.

The bond that develops between a parrot and a human is based on the experiences of the individual parrot and the human. Bonding will not happen automatically and it does not develop without effort or trust-building practices. Getting a baby bird can be a shortcut to building a trusting relationship, however the relationship must be nurtured. Warm and wonderful relationships will not ensue simply because the baby is hand-fed, even if you do the hand-feeding yourself. Trust-building practices must be in place and reinforced if a bond is going to be maintained.

When you bring a baby bird into your life, the bird will have little past experience. You will provide most of the baby's experience.  Any mistakes will be on your own shoulders, whether you like it or not. If you get an adult bird, the bird may have some past experiences with humans that make it harder for the bird to immediately trust you and your family. Even an adult bird with little experience interacting with humans can easily distrust of all but one or two people until he has enough positive and pleasurable experience with strangers. In time, an abundance of pleasurable interactions will override a lack of experience or unpleasant experiences, building trust and a strong relationship.

Parents do not raise offspring with the intention that the chick will never leave home. The chicks are raised to be independent and to shed the security of their mother and father's protection. They will grow into adults with an urge to find a mate and raise babies of their own. This is part of the cycle of life and is as normal and natural to a parrot as flying. For most species of parrot this means finding a mate to bond to.

In your home, sexual maturity becomes tricky since there may not be a suitable mate present and breeding your pet birds is not your objective. Yet, the natural compulsion to complete the cycle of life is most compelling.  The urge is so strong that pet parrots will use kitchen cabinets, fireplaces, dresser drawers, the areas under tables or any enclosed dark spaces as nests.  A parrot may even decide that a bed, a throw rug or any corner is a suitable nesting site. This often results in the destruction of the area and nearby furniture to turn the spot into a comfortable nest for his imaginary future offspring. Since, a pet parrot may not have a mate to bond with of his own species, he may bond with a human family member or another non-human family member—like your dog. He may even pick a favorite toy to be his fantasy mate.  

When pet birds develop sexual bonds it can cause many problems in the family. Their behavior may be viewed as "jealous," "territorial" or "mean." Breeding behaviors are natural behaviors in an unnatural setting.  Abnormal bonding is not something that must necessarily take place. If a bird is frequently handled by all family members and given plenty of opportunity to interact with people outside the family, it is less likely that he will bond to one person or to another pet.  Isolation and lack of interaction leads to birds developing unhealthy bonds.

It is possible to reduce sexual urges in pet birds by making environmental changes. Many species of parrots are not equatorial, therefore a lengthening photoperiod is one of the signals that indicates to them that it is time to breed, while a shortening daylight period is a sign that breeding season is over. Weather conditions, ambient temperature and availability of food also mark changes in the seasons and are indicators that it is or is not breeding season.  Allowing birds to regularly spend time outdoors exposes them to natural changes and keeps them cycling normally. Keeping them indoors and maintaining the same conditions year-round may cause them to get trapped in a stage of their breeding cycle.

Healthy parrots normally have two fairly hard molts a year, one at the beginning of breeding season and one at the end of breeding season. If your bird begins a hard molt and you suspect that he is going into a breeding cycle, then begin providing him with more time outside of your home, and include enriching activities such as learning new tricks and having fresh branches to chew. Get his mind focused on something other than making babies. Remove antecedents such as access to dark safe places to nest and control his diet.

 If you are too late, you can keep him occupied with a fake nest box. Place a thick board (relative to the size of your bird) in a place where he seems to want to nest. Drill a small hole in it to make it easier for him to destroy the wood. He will try to enlarge the hole to enter into the nesting cavity, which does not really exist. When the wood is destroyed or holds no interest because the opening goes nowhere, replace it with another piece of wood and keep replacing the wood until the breeding cycle comes to an end and he molts again. At that time, he should behave as if breeding season is over.