When our pet cats and dogs become sexually mature, we can prevent them from mating and breeding by having them castrated or spayed. However, we don’t routinely desex birds as the procedure is expensive, can be risky and is usually only undertaken in female birds with gynaecological problems Therefore our pet birds will have a sex life whether we want them to or not.
Most pet bird owners fail to understand that their newly acquired, hand-reared, pet will grow and develop like a young child. Just as a child grows and matures through the various stages of development to reach sexual maturity, so will the pet bird. The cute, young, cuddly, baby bird will reach puberty and undergo hormone induced behavioural changes just like their human, adolescent counterpart. I commonly get calls from unhappy cockatiel owners. Their sweet little bird has started to bite and be aggressive and demanding. These behavioural changes in cockatiels usually occur between nine months to one year of age. They correspond with the bird reaching puberty.
When birds become sexually mature, their instinct is to find a mate. Birds don’t have ‘casual sex’. They choose and court a mate, select or build a nest and have sex for procreation rather than recreation. If there is no ‘feathered’ mate to choose from the bird will choose a mate from the ‘human flock’ (i.e. one of the family members). Many behavioural problems induced by sexual frustration occur when a pet bird chooses a human as his/her mate. When pet birds are inappropriately bonded to a human mate, they become frustrated because the human mate cannot fulfil the role of mating or laying or sitting on the eggs. In these circumstances birds can be driven by sexual frustration to feather picking or even self-mutilation (where skin and soft tissue is chewed). They masturbate and can become aggressive and dominant towards other family members that they perceive of as a rival.
Female birds that are inappropriately sexually stimulated by their owners (eg on the shoulder, kissing, feeding from the mouth etc.) can become chronic egg layers. Chronic egg laying can cause uterine prolapse, egg yolk peritonitis, malnutrition from the depletion of the body stores of calcium and other nutrients and many other problems associated with female reproductive organs and ‘secret women’s business’.
Therefore, it is very important for the humans associated with the pet bird to always act as a parent or ‘older bird’ to the pet rather than as a lover or a mate. I always tell owners that they should never become a ‘birdophile’ in their relationship with their pet. Just as there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling pet birds. In other words, owners should not touch or handle their pet bird in inappropriate or sexually suggestive ways. They should never allow the bird to eat out of their mouths or stroke it on the lower back or abdomen if the bird is presenting. These types of behaviours are ‘birdy foreplay’ and encourage sexual and mating behaviour in the bird.
Seasonal changes also trigger the sexual instincts of pet birds. In the wild, heavy rain after a prolonged dry spell will indicate to birds that there will be abundant food supplies to support a clutch of offspring. Abundance of food and longer daylight hours signal the appropriate time for breeding. Recently, the prolonged drought has caused unnaturally dry conditions that have mimicked the natural environment of many inland Australian birds. The onset of spring rains after the period of drought has stimulated many single pet female cockatoos or galahs to lay eggs. I have received many calls from surprised owners of 20 to 30 year old sulphur crested cockatoos or galahs that have suddenly laid an egg in response to these conditions.
Spring time is the mating time for many species of birds. As a result of increased hormone levels in spring, birds may show behavioural changes. Males can become more ‘pushy’ and aggressive. Females become more cuddly and amorous, ‘presenting’ to their owners. Owners need to be aware of the reasons for these seasonal hormonal changes in their pets.
It is natural for a bird to reach puberty and choose a mate. It is unnatural for pet birds to be isolated from their own kind and restricted to a caged environment. Well-meaning owners often provide a mirror for company. This is the worst thing that they can do. The sexually frustrated, single pet bird will often try and ‘bond’ with his own reflection in a cage mirror. ‘Randy Budgie Syndrome’ is a recognised medical condition where a single, pet, male budgie endeavours to maintain a sexual relationship with his reflection. He masturbates on his perch or cage toys and regurgitates food to his reflection. Some owners consider this activity as a form of entertainment, while others find it distressing. Such activity on a constant year round basis can lead to digestive and hormonal disturbances. Frustrated, single pet birds will often engage in stereotypic and obsessive compulsive behaviour. Some birds will continually pace up and down the length of their cage. Others will acquire a ‘drinking problem’. This is a form of displacement activity where the frustrated bird channels its sexual urges into an obsessive compulsive activity such as excessive drinking.
The obvious way to counteract aberrant sexual behaviour in pet birds is to introduce a mate of the opposite sex. There are many ‘old wives’ tales’ about having a mate for a pet bird. The most common misconception is that your bird won’t be tame or talk if it has a mate. This erroneous idea has been disproved so many times. Instead of having one friendly little bird, you have two (provided recognised training and behaviour is applied). When birds have mates of the opposite sex, they have a natural outlet for their sexuality when they become sexually mature. Many owners are horrified when I suggest this. “We don’t want our bird to have babies” is the common response. However, there are forms of ‘birth control’ that can be introduced. The important aspect from the bird’s point of view is that they can pair bond with another bird and undergo normal sexual activity. If an when they do mate and lay eggs, the eggs can be boiled to prevent any potential chicks hatching, while still allowing the parent birds to undergo the whole cycle of laying and sitting on the eggs. It is important to leave the boiled eggs in the nest for the incubation period. If the eggs are removed, it will stimulate the female to lay another clutch.
Owners need to have an understanding of bird sexuality as sexual frustrations and inappropriate bonding with owners can result in aberrant behaviour that will affect the bird’s physical and mental health and its relationship with its ‘human flock’.
Information supplied by (c) Currumbin Valley Vet Services August 2010