Written by Lee Stone, CPDT-KA, FFCP. This article first appeared in the Parrot Society of Australia's Parrot News Magazine.
It happens to all animals, including humans, at some stage we all hit ‘puberty’, the age when a juvenile begins to become sexually mature, but has not yet reached ‘adulthood’. This is often a difficult and challenging stage of life. Like with humans, parrots reaching puberty will experience similar changes in how their bodies function. These changes, triggered by a surge in various hormones from the brain, can lead to behavioural changes also. Suddenly our once ‘cuddly’ baby parrot is now standoffish, our previously very mild-tempered bird is charging and biting anyone who approaches their cage or a chosen human, or our formerly very tolerant young bird who would go back into their cage or wear a harness without a fuss, is now flying away or biting when presented with these situations.
It is at this age that parrots have the highest chance of being relinquished to shelters or rehomed, as often their families are caught off guard, unaware of the drastic change in behaviour that can occur as their parrot matures. Often when seeking advice online people are informed that their parrot is now ‘hormonal’ and left with the impression that this is a lifelong ‘condition’, of which they have little to no control and that they will just have to put up with year in and year out for the rest of the parrots' life - this can be disheartening for many parrot guardians and can lead to hopelessness.
Thankfully this is not true, just like in humans, puberty is a developmental stage, and like all developmental stages, it will eventually come to an end. Pair this maturation with solid foundations, proactive management and good guidance throughout the bird’s early life, adolescence and into adulthood, and you will set yourself and your bird up for success, avoid the most difficult issues that puberty can trigger and go on to have a behaviourally healthy adult bird.
We have previously written an article on the steps one can take to employ active management strategies to reduce issues caused by a ‘breeding flush’ in our companion parrots see our blog ‘Let’s talk about Hormones’.
In this article I want to talk about the proactive, preventative measures that companion parrot guardians can, and should, be implementing from the moment their new parrot joins the family. When we set up proper early framework and guidance for our parrot companions we set the stage for a smooth transition from juvenile, to immature/adolescent and into adulthood.
One of the very first steps families can take when bringing a new parrot home is ensuring that they interact with their parrot in a variety of ways. Too often we see new families inadvertently setting their relationship up with their parrots as primarily tactile, this is especially true for species such as Macaws, Cockatoos, Conures, Caiques and other ‘cuddly’ species, for the less cuddly species this often looks like the parrot riding around for long periods of time on the human's shoulders. Relationships should not rest primarily on one type of interaction but rather should be founded on many different positive interactions including training/learning, enrichment/foraging, independent play time (ie: the bird is on a stand amusing themselves), relaxing / quiet hang out time (watching tv together / listening to music etc), object play time (ie: playing with their humans with toys), side by side flock activities (ie: bathing, eating, preening) and some tactile affection. This well-rounded set of interactions then sets the stage for a relationship that has many layers and facets, so as the bird grows up and their behaviour changes our relationship can adjust as needed. A relationship based primarily on tactile affection is significantly more likely to morph into a pair bond as the parrot matures, increasing the chance of problem behaviours arising.
Proactive Training of Life Skills
Another important step we can take to set our young birds up for a successful adolescence is teaching them ‘life skills’ these are foundation behaviours that we can proactively teach in order to give ourselves and our birds the skills required to successfully share our home and cooperatively participate in their own lives and care. Some of the life skills we recommend clients train AND maintain include step up, step down, target training, stationing training, return to cage, and give. Although these seem like simple behaviours, these behaviours can mean the difference between a harmonious household and parrot pandemonium.
Proactive is truly a key word here, we should not be waiting for our parrot to be refusing to go into their cage, biting or flying away when we walk in the direction of their cage before we decide to train them to cooperatively enter their cage, instead this should be a skill we teach from the get go when a parrot joins our family. Often when I recommend to clients during foundation sessions that they should teach their parrot to return home voluntarily they will say to me ‘oh it’s fine he/she just steps right in off my hand’ and this is true often for young birds, but as they age this is often not the case and we end up with birds who fly away, bite or lead us on a merry chase around the house. Once the bird is actively avoiding the cage it becomes a much tougher job to train them to cooperatively return, and worse we have done damage to our relationship by catching them up, chasing them around or otherwise resorting to forceful activities to get them to go home.
These Lifeskills should also be actively maintained through consistent training and reinforcement
of the behaviour. Too often we attend sessions where clients report their bird is no longer stepping up, or is biting when asked to step up and often this can easily be traced back to the fact that we no longer reinforce the behaviour, but regularly use the behaviour to either move them away from something they are enjoying doing or take them back to their cage. Effectively we are punishing them for stepping up and because we have not continued to maintain the behaviour through regular positive reinforcement training, the bird naturally begins to avoid it.
Diet and Foraging
Setting our parrot up from the get-go with good eating habits is an excellent way of avoiding future problems. Although we want to encourage our young parrots to try a wide variety of food items so that as they get older they will eat a diverse diet - providing an over-abundance of food can have the opposite effect. This is especially true when we provide a lot of high-energy foods such as fruit, nuts and seeds, as the young bird will often pick out these items and throw away or ignore the more healthful items which we will need them to eat later on such as vegetables. Instead of providing a huge abundance of food, we should be aiming to provide an amount that is similar to what they consume on a day-to-day basis, whilst providing a good variety of different foods in appropriate amounts. This encourages the bird to try many different things, instead of filling up on one or two of their favourites and helps to reduce waste.
Foraging should also be introduced early on. Foraging is a learnt behaviour, in the wild our parrots would begin to learn not long after fledging from their parents how to forage for their food. In captivity, it is up to us instead to instil this highly beneficial activity in them. Early, gradual introduction to foraging means that our parrots learn from the get-go that food isn’t just always freely available in bowls but needs to be worked for. This sets us up so that as they get older we can gradually increase the amount of their day-to-day diet that they are working for and provides them with a good outlet for excess energy, keeps them busy and allows them to engage in and use their body in species-appropriate ways.
Another way we can help to lessen some of the issues seen at puberty is to ensure our parrots are well socialised to a variety of people. Good early socialisation can ensure our parrot does not grow up to see their primary caregiver as their mate, but rather just one of the ‘flock’ along with other people who live in the household or visit regularly. If your bird does not see any particular person within the household as a perceived mate, then you are much less likely to see behaviours related to ‘defending’ that mate such as aggression towards family/friends. Additionally, without a perceived mate we can reduce our parrots' overall drive to engage in breeding behaviour. So not only can we avoid inappropriate pair bonds with our parrot but we can also lessen the impact that puberty has on our parrot. See also our article on ‘The Myth of the One Person Bird’ for more information on this topic.
When sharing our home with another species, especially one so different to us, it is critically important that we set them up with consistent expectations from the get go. If we have a different set of rules and expectations for a young bird to an adolescent bird this can create confusion and a breakdown in communication. Allowing our snuggly, baby parrot to ride around on our shoulder
for hours at a time may seem really cute, but it is less so when that bird is no longer a baby but rather an adolescent who is beginning to trial using their beak, this puts them close to our face and ears, and it can be incredibly difficult to change this behaviour at this stage. Rather if we set our parrot up for success from the get-go by minimising shoulder time and encouraging independent play we are in a much better position to avoid ear-biting incidents from ever occurring. This also avoids the conflict that we often see arising when caregivers begin changing their expectations leaving our parrot companions feeling bewildered and frustrated about the sudden change in rules. When adding a new parrot to your family, think ahead to how you would like them to behave in future, what are your expectations going to be of them as they reach maturity and into the many, many years ahead with them (and the many years they may spend with someone else if they outlive you!) and ensure you are setting them up to understand those expectations from the start.
Although puberty with a species so different from our own can be a truly challenging event, we can significantly mitigate the problems that might occur by recognising and preparing in advance for their changing needs and behaviours. Prevention is most certainly better than a cure when it comes to our parrot companions.
Parrot Life Behaviour and Training provides training and behaviour in-home and virtual consultations all over Australia and the world. Get in touch today if you require assistance with your parrot!