How is isolation affecting bird behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The COVID19 pandemic has presented us all with unprecedented challenges. A unique phenomena that we have noticed at Lynwood Animal Hospital over the last few weeks is an increase in birds demonstrating reproductive behaviours (nesting, egg laying), inappropriate/atypical behaviours (i.e. aggression), and feather destructive behaviours.
With people spending more time at home, they are unknowingly providing triggers or reproductive cues to their companion birds.
Most parrots use several triggers or cues to stimulate reproductive behaviours. These include:
1. Long days (>10 hours of light)
2. Diet rich in fats and simple sugars (seeds, fruits, nuts)
3. Increased access to potential mates (or reflections of a mate, or humans – depending on how the bird was raised, they may not seek another bird for a potential mate)
4. Molt – when the new feathers come in most birds feel their most attractive
Even birds who have not tried to lay eggs or mate in the past are being stimulated right now.
When parrots cannot meet these needs, birds become frustrated, leading to territorial displays, aggression, or feather destructive behaviours. Some birds who have been on a high fat/cholesterol diet for years have developed athlerosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) or other heart/vascular diseases, and these stressors are increasing the risks of strokes and heart attacks. Females who have not been on a calcium and vitamin A rich diet are having trouble laying eggs resulting in a range of complications (tremors, not eating, stuck eggs, etc).
Behaviour patterns, social interactions, even diets that were ‘normal’ before self-isolation, are now being misinterpreted by birds.
During reproductive season or when inappropriate reproductive behaviours are noted:
1. Reduce your bird’s total light exposure (natural and artificial) to 10 hours max (mimics non-breeding season/short days of winter)
2. No petting belly/over back (erogenous zones in birds)
3. Reduce simple sugars (fruits) and fats (seeds, nuts, etc)
Breeding and egg production are calorie demanding for both male and female birds (as males often regurgitate calorie rich foods for the female). A diet rich in seeds, nuts, processed foods, and fruits signals to birds that there are enough calories to mate and raise chicks. These diets also increase chemical signals (hormones) that encourage birds to continue to seek out calorie rich foods.
– Do not change diet suddenly as birds will ‘go on a hunger strike’
– Please consult your veterinarian for tips on transitioning diets to maximize your bird’s compliance
– If your bird is already on a balanced diet, during reproductive season/behaviour do not offer fruits and fatty treats, rather focus on fresh veggies (especially vitamin A and calcium rich foods) and pellets
– “Bridging foods” can be used to assist with diet transition; these items appeal to birds as they look like “junk foods” but are actually fortified with nutrients and help shift the diet from simple sugars and fats. Items such as Avi-cakes, Nutriberries, and BirdieBread can help transition your bird’s diet and lower the chemical signals for reproductive behaviour.
4. Increase showers/misting to at least every other day, with more frequent bathing if able (especially if feather destructive behaviours noted)
5. Increase foraging
– During this diet transition, increasing foraging opportunities provides mental stimulation, but also increases the ‘value’ of the food – the bird has to work harder to get the food and is less likely to waste that effort. Working for food also sends the message that food is not abundant (ie it’s not mating season). During the non-mating non-breeding season, birds spend up to 80% of their awake time working for food. This is what we are trying to EVENTUALLY simulate.
– This is a learned skill. Some birds take longer to master the skill or learn to enjoy the ‘game’. Birds, like most people, also do not want to work harder than they have to – so some birds may initially resist foraging when they are used to getting food “for free”.
6. You can offer egg white omellettes (mixed with crushed pellets, shredded veggies) to increase protein (for feathers) and help introduce new foods; a variety of colours and textures recommended. Please note, on average, birds need to be exposed to a new food item up to 300 times before they definitively ‘reject’ it – birds naturally are suspicious of change.
7. Nekton and calcium supplements may be needed (as egg laying is a substantial drain on calcium and vitamin A reserves) until the diet transition is complete.
8. Introduce training
Reshaping interactions can also help, and during this time clicker training and foraging can be very rewarding for birds and people alike.
Clicker Training Parrots
Please review the resources provided by Barbara Heidenreich and Karen Pryor for clicker training in birds. This is an invaluable method for training your bird, enriching your interactions, and shaping positive behaviours.
A rich resource for information and training techniques is Parrot Partner:
If you are noticing any concerning behaviours or your bird is injuring themselves during this time, please alert us at Lynwood Animal Hospital right away.