MINIMIZING REPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS IN PET BIRDS
Pet birds somewhat commonly develop health problems related to their reproductive physiology. Examples of such problems include chronic egg laying, egg binding, dystocia (difficulty laying), cloacal prolapse, and unwanted behaviors such as aggression. All of these problems are serious and some can ultimately be fatal.
Reproductive behavior in birds is also known as broody behavior. Avian puberty occurs at different times for different species: 2 months of age for Zebra finches, 6 months to a year for parakeets, cockatiels, and lovebirds, 1 to 2 years for conures, 2 to 3 years for lories and lorikeets, and 3 to 6 years for larger parrots. Males usually reach puberty later than females, and captive-bred birds usually become sexually mature sooner than wild-caught birds.
In the wild, mating pairs of birds will preen each other, feed each other, build and maintain a nest together, and, of course, copulate. Engaging in these behaviors strengthens the bond between the pair and encourages continued reproductive behavior. Some birds develop a relationship with their owner that mimics pair bonding. Such a relationship is abnormal and should be discouraged (see below).
Broody pet birds may: look for dark places to nest, shred newspaper and chew wood, become territorially aggressive around their cages, and masturbate by rubbing their vents on people or inanimate objects.
ENVIRONMENTAL CUES THAT STIMULATE BROODY BEHAVIOR
There are many environmental factors that stimulate reproductive behavior. Four of the most important are:
- LIGHT Wild birds become reproductively active when daylight extends to 12 hours or more. Pet birds are often exposed to light for much longer each day because of artificial lighting.
- A NEST Wild birds seek and/or build their nests when they become reproductively active; subsequently, being in or around this nest promotes more reproductive activity. Providing a pet bird with a nest, or nesting materials, will stimulate reproductive behavior.
- ABUNDANT FOOD SUPPLY For wild birds, breeding season is usually the same season that their desired food is most abundant. Pet birds often have food available all day every day; this may make them behave as though it is breeding season all the time.
- A MATE An available mate is a strong reproductive motivator for wild birds. Pet birds extend the definition of a mate beyond a real bird of the same species, to include mirrors, toys and people.
MINIMIZING PET BIRD REPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIOR
Minimizing the stimuli for reproductive behavior in our pet birds is a goal accomplished by managing our relationships with them to prevent pair-bonding with us, and also by managing the pet bird's environment.
- Discontinue grooming and cuddling the bird. Grooming down the back and under the wings is sexually provocative. Avoid stroking the pet bird down the back, touching near the vent, encircling the body, or playing with the beak.
- Use positive reinforcement training to establish yourself as the flock leader, instead of a potential mate.
- If the pet bird rubs its vent on you it is masturbating. Ignore it. If it persists, calmly return it to the cage.
- Do not place the bird on your shoulder when it is broody. It may become aggressive in an attempt to protect its mate and/or territory, and it obviously has easy access to your face.
- Perch training can be substituted for hand training and control during breeding season.
- Do not provide a nest box. (In some less common cases of chronic egg laying we will have owners provide a nest box in order to encourage the bird to lay a clutch of eggs. Once the bird is sitting on a clutch it will temporarily stop laying.)
- Decrease light exposure to less than 10 hours per day. This includes daylight and indoor lighting. One particularly effective way to do this is to have two rooms for the bird, a day room and a bedroom. The bedroom should be a room that can be completely darkened and very quiet.
- Improve the bird's plane of nutrition by providing a non-seed based formulated diet supplemented with orange and yellow vegetables and dark leafy greens. Incorporate foraging and other enrichment strategies.
- Medication may be helpful, but medication alone will not solve the problem. Behavior modification is essential.