Over-Stimulated Parrots

Over-Stimulated Parrots

 February 9th, 2010
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Blue and Gold Macaws

With springtime fast approaching, we have to be on the lookout for “quirky” behaviors that are related to onset of hormones.  I have often compared hormonal parrots with teenagers.  They both know what is right or wrong in terms of their behavior, but neither seem to be able to control themselves at times when hormones are involved.  Your once placid parrot may overreact to things that he would normally overlook, and he might express himself with aggression.

Linus, my umbrella cockatoo, always seems to be walking a fine line when he is excited.  Throughout the entire year, I have to carefully watch his body language to make sure his play doesn’t escalate into aggression.  He gets to a point of excitement where he seems to lose control, and is quick to bite.  It really appears to be temporary insanity.  Sometimes he seems as shocked by his actions as I am, and he quickly tries to make amends by doing something cute.  Or he walks away grumbling something along the lines of: “Look what you made me do!”

Linus is not a bad bird.  He is typical of a cockatoo in every way, except he has a bit of an edge.  Over-stimulation is something that affects all species of birds.  I bring it up now because it is a behavior that is exaggerated by hormones this time of year.

Camelot Macaw

How much is too much for our parrots?

The signs of an over-stimulated bird look very similar to typical signs of aggression, but they are easy to confuse with a bird that is excited by play. A parrot that is playing hard will have raised feathers, pinned eyes and a fanned tail at times.  Since these are also the signs of an angry bird, the best way to figure out if your bird’s mood is by assessing how it is responding to you at that time.  A playing bird will encourage you to join in the fun, or at least want you as an observer.

For instance, when I get on the floor and roll a ball to Linus, he might grab the ball, throw it over his back and run after it.  He’ll look at me to make sure I’m watching.  He’ll grab the ball, run back and forth with it and then drop it.  He’ll look at me to see that I am watching and cheering him on.  Then he’ll grab the ball, bang it on the floor a few times, maybe smack it into the wall, and then stop to see that I am paying attention.  This is a happy-excited bird, who is behaving in an interactive way with me.

However, the tone can change quickly.  I will retrieve the ball and toss it to him again and he will go through his repertoire of moves.  After doing this several times, he becomes possessive of the ball, and is no longer including me in play.  He is now eying me wearily and is taking the ball in a direction away from me.  If I approach him, he takes on a defensive stance and might hiss at me.  It is a perplexing behavior, and frustrating to say the least.  Playtime comes to an abrupt halt.

Umbrella Cockatoo

What could I have done differently to avoid over-stimulation?

The first and most important thing to remember is that your bird keeps a scorecard.   The card has two categories:  good experiences and bad experiences.  Any time something unpleasant happens, he puts a note under bad experiences.  When that column is full, behavior problems begin, even if there are an overwhelming amount of entries in the good experiences category, and even if the bad experiences are brought on by himself.  Any experience that is perceived as negative, regardless of our level of involvement, can be related back to us, so we want every interaction to have a positive conclusion.

That said, we need to halt the escalation of a potential problem BEFORE we get there.  Knowing Linus has a short window for play, I should have stopped the game while it was still fun and interactive.  There’s nothing really gained by continuing until the bird is tired or bored with the game anyways.  Keeping him wanting more will only make it that much more fun the next time.  I should have stopped after a few tosses of the ball, and moved onto something different.  Once I am able to notice subtle changes in tone and attitude, the game is already over.

Blue throated macaw

How do I handle my bird once he has reached the point of aggression?

Usually, over-stimulation is easy to calm.  Remember that it was just seconds ago that the two of you were having fun.  I find that lowering levels of excitement and speaking in quiet tones gets the job done quickly.  Parrots are quick to match our energy levels.  Since your bird is just high-strung at the moment, and you have not committed an atrocity for which you must be repaid, a parrot will generally relax quickly.  A period of quiet cage time is a good idea at this point, not as punishment because he’s done nothing wrong, but to maintain calm and assure his level of stimulation has lowered.  Playtime can resume, more carefully, in a while.

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11 Comments on “Over-Stimulated Parrots”

Shirley Angulo  02/09/2010 11:00 am

Thanks, this helps as my 10 year old male Cockatiel does the same thing. He will climb all over the place, whistle, eat then drink some water and come over for a head scratch. After that, he will go to his cage and kind of squat down in the back corner and stay there for a while. When I look at him he hisses or comes to the lip of his cage and opens his wings and bows his head a couple of times. I then usually find something where he was sitting, like a hard kernel of corn that he thinks is an egg. I guess the instinct to nest is very strong in him. If I ever give him a small box, look out, he gets really aggressive then. I do have a question for you, Fred is adventurous, fearless, but when there is a tiny miller moth around, he gets scared, why would that be? Thanks for all your info and I am in the middle of your DVD set and learning a lot.

Patty  02/10/2010 10:09 am

Hi Shirley,

Their reactions to insects is a funny thing. I think it’s probably a combination of bugs moving quickly and getting so close that unnerves the birds. My umbrella gets SO mad if a fly has the gall to buzz him. You really get to see the flexibility of that neck as he’s snapping at the air. Now if we could just teach our birds to catch ’em and eat ’em!


Connie  02/10/2010 12:28 pm

Patty, is there a particular age when one can expect their parrot to be more prone to behavior changes in spring?

Patty  02/10/2010 11:31 pm

Hi Connie,
When a bird reaches sexual maturity is when you might start noticing changes. Each species has a different age when sexually maturity might arrive. You can google the question (“age of sexual maturity for a senegal parrot”, for instance) and get an approximate age for your species of bird, but it might actually occur a year or so earlier or later than the age they state. You might also notice no changes. It will vary from bird to bird, and season to season. You might experience a tough spring with your bird one year, and have no problems the next. It depends more on triggers like the weather and the bird’s environment than anything else.

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