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Ask The Behaviorist
Birds: Sally Blanchard answering questions
Please be aware that the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 13, 1998 | previous set


Question:

Hi there....
I have a female lovebird without a mate who has been in heat for months now...All she does all day is have sex with whatever she can get her little self attached to...I was given the advice of putting her to bed earlier and getting her up later in the morning, but that didn't work...I'm at a loss and not planning on getting her a mate so WHAT CAN BE DONE FOR HER ???????!!!!! ANY ADVICE WOULD BE WONDERFUL!!!! THANKS

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

I realize this is a difficult subject to discuss because so many people have different ideas about this type of behavior. I have been asked this type of question hundreds of times and I can assure you that masturbation seems to be a normal behavior in most parrots. The best advice I can give you is to ignore it. It is surprising how many people actually encourage this type of behavior without realizing it because they make such a dramatic fuss when they catch their parrots doing it. Some birds masturbate a great deal as a form of self stimulation. Because of this, it is important to make sure she has a lot of other things going on in her life. She should have lots of toys, exercise, and focused attention from you. If your lovebird is getting a lot of full body petting from you, she may become sexually stimulated by that type of handling during some times of the year. An increase in light and humidity may also contribute to hormonal stimulation. Sometimes providing nest-like enclosures within her cage or the territory she frequents can encourage sexual behavior. If she is spending a great deal of time in a sleeping tube or some sort of container, I would remove it for the time being and see if it cuts down on some of the sexual energy she exhibits. Make sure she is on a good diet, because if she starts egg-laying and she doesn't have enough calcium for proper egg production, she could develop life-threatening health problems. Getting her a mate would probably not solve the problem you are having with her and could lessen her bond with you. I would also encourage you to talk to your avian veterinarian. In some cases, there are ways to curb this constant sexual behavior from a medical standpoint. Although I would not encourage drug therapy before working with her behavior, sometimes if the sexual behavior is really excessive, your veterinarian may be able to help.



Question:

We have a two-year-old fallow cockatiel (presumably male) and a nine-month-old female white-face cockatiel. Both were hand-fed and are very tame. They have separate cages but had been allowed together a couple hours daily in a playpen. A week ago the white-face began laying eggs. We don't want them to breed. Immediately we placed them in different rooms. Every other day now she continues to lay eggs. At this point is there anything we can do to help stop the egg laying?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

Fortunately for breeders and unfortunately for people who just want pets, keeping a male and female bird of the same species in the same household often results in eggs. Even separating your cockatiels to different rooms probably will not stop the hen's egg laying. In fact, many hen 'tiels lay eggs without a male present so the fact that your hen is laying eggs is not proof that the other bird is a male. So what should you do about this?

First of all, realize that this is a biological response and does not necessarily mean that your birds want to get married and raise a family. With cockatiels, it is possible, with a good amount of human attention and interaction, to keep them tame even though two (or even more) birds live in the room or even, in some cases, in the same cage. I don't see a serious problem with moving the birds back to the same room and letting them interact if they are happy doing so. However, you will want to do some work to try to manage the egg laying. First of all, make sure there are no boxes, drawers, or enclosures that the female is spending time in where she is being stimulated to nest. One smart client of mine piled a whole bunch of washable plastic toys on the bottom of her 'tiel hen's cage when she started laying eggs there. You could also cut down on the amount of light the bird is getting for a short period of time and see if it stops the egg laying. It is probably a good idea to let the eggs stay with your 'tiel for a few days. With cockatiels, if you remove eggs, they will normally keep laying until there are the right amount for a clutch. By removing eggs, you may actually be encouraging her to lay more.

Egg laying itself should not be a problem as long as it doesn't become excessive and your bird is in good health. If she is calcium deficient, the egg production will take the calcium from her body and bones. This could lead to health problems if she continues laying eggs. Parrot-family birds usually only have problems laying eggs if they are on an inadequate diet or if they do not get enough exercise. Try to feed her lots of calcium-rich foods like fresh greens, and chopped up well-cooked hard-boiled egg with the shell.



Question:

The vet I use has a lovely umbrella cockatoo that is very affectionate with certain people. When we are interacting (I was, for a time, one of his favourites) he snaps his bill repeatedly. It seems to be a message, but for the life of me I cannot "read" it. It isn't a snap like a dog might do with his teeth, it's more like a finger snap. What is he saying? What other behaviors are signals? I am fluent in "dog" but this bird language is really foreign! Thanks.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

Companion parrot body language can be quite complicated to understand because the natural body language is so affected by interaction with people. I can discuss the cockatoo beak snapping behavior but to discuss other signals would require a book. Most of the cockatoos I have worked with snap their mandibles together when they are excited or stimulated. Since the beak is actually very sensitive, snapping or grinding the mandibles together can be very pleasurable. If I was to compare it to a dog behavior, I think it is similar to the way some dogs scrunch up their faces and lick the air when they are enjoying a good scratch.



Question:

Dear Ms Blanchard,
I am reasonably experienced with parrots having bred and hand-reared them for approximately 10 years, although I am by no means anywhere near being an expert (another 50 years maybe). I really really need some help with my Red-sided Eclectus cockbird Tea (tia).

I took over his hand-rearing when Tea was eight weeks old. I followed all your advice in the mags you write for and ended up the most sweetest adorable friend you could ever ask for. To make a very long story short, when he was six months he got very sick and had to spend three weeks at the vets, with home time in between (2-3 days at a time). Now I can hardly handle him. Tea bites me very nastily, like I lose chunks of skin and lots of blood, but at other times there is a vague resemblance to the bird he used to be, cuddly and loving and my best friend. I looked back through my mags to find suitable advice you had written but none of it has worked. How can I win his trust back? As I live in Australia, and there are no behaviour specialists here that I know of, do you know of anyone who could help me on an ongoing basis as I know this will take time (of which I have plenty for him) and probably money which I am prepared to spend if need be. I love my Tea very much and will not give up on him even if it takes the rest of my life.

Thank you for any help. It is very much appreciated from Tea and myself.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

It is not unusual for sensitive parrots who have had an illness and/or a series of traumatic experiences to lose trust in the person they are most bonded to. I believe these parrots go into "prey mode" and act as if anyone who puts any pressure on them is a predator. Sometimes they will allow others who have had no relationship with them to handle them without fear. I have often written about my theory of "Nurturing Guidance" where verbal commands and nurturing interaction are used to guide a parrot's behavior. I have found that many of the principles of "Nurturing Guidance" need to be abandoned for a while in order to win back the trust of a phobic bird. Avoiding direct eye contact, not using verbal commands, letting the bird have height dominance, and letting the bird come out of the cage by himself are the exact opposite of what I recommend for most pet parrots but stopping this kind of direct approach is essential for working with birds who have been traumatized. I often advise my clients to place a chair by the cage door. If Tea would be frightened of a new chair near its cage, do it gradually or use a more familiar piece of furniture. Approach the cage, do not look at your eclectus, open the cage door, and sit down on the chair at a three-quarter angle to the bird. Read a good book and sort of gradually lean towards the cage without looking at Tea directly. Repeat this process a few times a day until he becomes comfortable enough to climb out and join you. You can also lower your head submissively and offer Tea special treats. Giving him a choice to join your without being direct will help his confidence. Once he comes to you, make sure you stay calm and relaxed. My guess is that he allows you to handle him when you are more relaxed and mistrusts you if your energy is higher or if you are too direct with him. Patience and consistency are critical. This is not something to rush. Once Tea starts to be more and more comfortable with you, you can gradually begin to become more direct and start to guide his behavior more and more—but make sure to pay close attention to his body language so you don't go to fast with him.



Question:

Sally,
I have a two-year-old Blue & Gold Macaw, sex unknown, that was hand-raised and is very sociable and healthy. I've owned him for about six months and I have two questions for you:

If he is out of his cage on a perch in room with me and I move out of his sight, he screams bloody murder (regardless if another human or bird is in the same room with him). I try talking to him from the other room, but most of the time he just keeps screaming until he can see me. I know that going into the room to yell at him just reinforces the screaming and I assume talking or yelling from the other room probably reinforces it too. If I wait until there's a break in the screaming to go back into the room, how do I know that I am not still reinforcing the "bad" behavior? What approaches usually have good results with this problem. I wouldn't mind if he used words that he knows or made smaller sounds, but he just screams at the top of his "air sacs!"

The second question has to do with what option is in the bird's best interest. He is currently living in a great environment (a whole basement that has been converted into a "bird room") gets fed a good diet and there are three other parrots in the same room for company during the day when no one is home. The arrangements that allowed me to keep him in this environment may be changing and I may have to take him elsewhere.

Although I am very attached to him and he is a very sweet bird, I want to make the decision that will be in his best interest. If I move him to my house, his cage will be in a room, with plenty of windows, off the first floor hall. The bird would be by himself while I am at work during the day and also few evenings during the week when I have meetings or other activities. Even if he's able to be out of his cage for a bit in the mornings and at night before bed, he won't have the company/stimulation of the other birds that he's been accustomed to or possibly even the same amount of "out" time that he's used to and I'm wondering if I should look for another home for him where he can be with other birds and have more attention - he loves interacting with people?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Ms. Blanchard:

The rule as we hear it has always been "Don't pay any attention to a screaming bird or you will reinforce the screaming." While it would be nice in this world of many variables if black and white absolutes like this always worked—they don't. Remember that parrots are highly social creatures that use verbal calls to communicate with each other over vast areas of land. They are intelligent flock animals who are rarely separated from their flock. We need to take these facts into consideration when we consider WHY a bird is screaming. In order to really stop the excessive screaming, we will have to deal with the cause of the screaming, not just the screaming itself.

Yes, when a parrot is screaming, it is not a good idea to return to the room and run up to the cage yelling for the bird to be quiet. That is definitely a drama reward and the bird learns quickly that screaming will get him that kind of attention. Most birds actually have more subtle contact calls that they use to try and get our attention before they start screaming. If we are observant to see the body posture or hear the quiet sound, and we respond to that, often we can stop the screaming before it starts.

Meeting the social needs of a macaw also helps. If we get into the habit of telling them when we are leaving the room and that we will be back, or greeting them when we come into the room, bouts of screaming may be avoided. Substitution will also work. By teaching him to talk, whistle or whisper to get your attention and giving him very positive attention when he calls to you in a more acceptable manner will help. Changing the behavior of your macaw will take time and patience. It will also most likely take you changing some of your behaviors around him.

As far as finding him a new home or not, I believe that at this time there are probably more good birds than there are really good homes. The need for so many parrot rescue and adoption centers is evidence of this. Macaws, like most parrots, are complicated companions and are not always easy to live with. I happen to think they can be incredible companions if they are nurtured properly. While your new situation may not be ideal for your macaw, the question is whether you can find him a new home where people will really bond with him, get the right information and work to change his negative behaviors instead of just giving up on him. If he gets really focused attention from you on a daily basis when you are home, this may actually be the best situation for him despite the fact that he is losing the stimulation of the other birds.



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