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Let's talk about hormones....

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

This article first appeared in the Parrot Society of Australia's 'Parrot News' Magazine in 2021.

Written by: Lee Stone, CPDT-KA, FFCP (Trainer)

If you have spent any time on parrot-related forums or social media groups you will have observed the use of the word ‘hormones’ or ‘hormonal’ on a very regular basis. As soon as someone mentions that they are experiencing a behavioural issue with their parrot, whether it be biting, fighting, ignoring cues, screaming, plucking or one of the many other common behaviour challenges faced by companion parrot owners, the answer from a large portion of the group is to suggest that the parrot is ‘hormonal’. In fact, this response has become so ingrained within the companion parrot community that I have ever seen behavioural issues in birds barely weaned and fledged suggested as a hormonal problem!​

The use of this label as an explanation for every problem under the sun is one that both places the blame on the parrot and provides no workable solutions for the owners experiencing the problem behaviours. In fact, in many cases those asking for assistance are told ‘you just have to wait it out’, suggesting nothing can be done to reduce or modify the problem behaviours. So are hormones the cause of all of our behavioural struggles as companion parrot owners? Are they really something that you just have to deal with and ride out? As a professional parrot behaviour consultant with an education founded in behaviour science my answer to this is a resounding no. ​ The problem with the suggestion that these behavioural issues stem solely from hormones is that we are ignoring the fact that the environment is what triggers breeding flushes in our parrots in the first place. An increase in hormone load is just another symptom of inappropriate captive environments. This is not to say that the flush of hormones experienced by our parrots may not then heighten and contribute to behaviours exhibited by our birds, but rather that they are not the sole cause of these behaviours. In fact, many other issues are likely contributing to the problem behaviours being experienced including a reduction in behavioural choices through caging or clipping, lack of appropriate socialisation/flock interaction, lack of species-appropriate enrichment/foraging, too much energy and too little exercise and poor or forceful training/handling techniques. ​ When we begin to look at the environment as a primary contributing factor to these issues we can begin to implement environmental changes that can reduce or eliminate the flush of hormones experienced by our parrots when the conditions are right for breeding, while also addressing the other areas of concern within the environment that may also be contributing.​

In the wild, some of the environmental factors that trigger breeding include the season (which includes temperature, humidity and precipitation), photoperiod, access to nesting areas, availability/abundance of high-energy food sources, and access to a mate. Depending on the species of parrot and the geographic locale they inhabit these factors can vary greatly. For instance, it is a widely held belief that all parrots nest/breed in spring but this is not true. For example, the Forest Red-tail Black Cockatoo of Western Australia usually has a peak breeding season in Autumn/Winter, this is likely connected to the volume of food produced at this time of the year by their primary food sources, the gumnuts/fruits of the Marri and Jarrah eucalyptus trees. Some other species, such as Eclectus parrots, breed nearly year-round if the conditions are correct. ​

Recommendations for environmental changes to address all of the factors that contribute to problem behaviours in captive parrots can include; increase or give access to the outdoors either in a large cage or aviary, reduce amount of food provided to an appropriate amount for that individual bird, reduce high energy foods, increase foraging/enrichment activities, increase overall exercise (this can be achieved through more enrichment/foraging, training activities such as recall / tricks and access to a large flight space), increasing and encouraging independent play, removing access to cavities/spaces that may be perceived as a possible nest, address relationship issues that may exist through inappropriate pair bonds with humans within the household through the reduction of petting erogenous zones, shoulder time and ‘cuddling’ while increasing time spent engaged in suitable activities together such as positive reinforcement training, play and socialisation with other humans / parrots, as well as the addition of a specific training plan to work on behaviours that the client may be struggling with. Each of these recommendations is customised to the individual household, parrot and specific species of parrot we are working with. ​​

It is incredibly important as a community that we begin to address and debunk the common misconception that hormones are not only the primary reason for problem behaviours in our parrots but that they are also something that cannot be effectively altered. Like any construct or label used to describe behaviour the use of the words, hormonal/hormones, as a behaviour construct, disempowers the human and parrot alike, leaving no room for effective behaviour change. If companion parrot owners believe that they must live with this ‘hormonal devil’ year in and year out with no hope of preventing the ensuing behaviour then they are significantly more likely to resort to forceful or punishment-based training methods and look at rehoming or even euthanising their parrot. Additionally, it means that many parrots are living lives devoid of many opportunities that they may otherwise have because they are clipped, kept caged or receive minimal interaction from their human flock members due to fear of aggressive behaviour or the damage wrought on the human/parrot bond. ​ By changing the way the companion parrot community views hormones we can significantly improve the welfare of companion parrots, foster more harmonious relationships between humans and their parrots and keep parrots in their homes.

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