Wild Bird Behavior

As stated in the introduction, although thousands of articles have been published on various aspects of psittacine behavior in the wild, what is unknown still far exceeds what is known. The development of ethograms for most parrot species has not been accomplished. An ethogram is a systematic behavioral inventory consisting of (1) a detailed list of all behavioral elements that occur in a given context and (2) guidelines for definition of and discrimination among those elements. The nature of the observations required, specifically tracking individual birds for prolonged periods of time, is daunting. Detailed chronologic records would need to be obtained relating to parent and sibling interactions, interactions with conspecifics of various ages and relationships, play behavior in juvenile birds, and the development and maintenance of pair bonds. This research, if and when accomplished, would identify various wild behaviors but not necessarily elucidate their functions.

Intriguing discoveries have been made in the past two centuries. Some of these are useful for directing future research. Others may be more immediately applicable in improving the environment of the current captive psittacine population, encouraging breeding, and improving physical and mental development.

Many studies are intrinsically fascinating but have no direct application or concrete interpretation at this time.3,4,19,20 Disagreements among researchers about general theories and terminology complicate the documentation and advancement of psittacine ethology. Studies of captive populations of psittacines have yielded fascinating data, but the captive environmental context may alter the results from what would occur in nature.


The range of vocalization in birds is extensive, and they can discriminate and identify individual songs and cries in order to interpret conveyed information. Evidence from studies conducted in disparate disciplines indicates that the left and right hemispheres of the brain in avian species have asymmetric functions; specifically, as in humans, the left brain is markedly dominant in the learning and reproduction of vocal communication (i.e., “song”) in birds.31

Unrelated newly hatched budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulates) produce comparable vocalizations. However, by 3 weeks of age their cries have been shaped to mimic those of their parents.4 Mutual vocal recognition of chicks and parents is universal. Parents equidistant from their own young and those of conspecifics will react frantically to distress calls by their offspring while ignoring the calls of others. Likewise, cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus) chicks in the nest will respond to the song of a parent bird outside their field of vision but not to that of other adult cockatiels.

Amazons in contiguous regions of Central America have been determined to have regional dialects. Individual birds in adjacent areas can vocalize and recognize both dialects.31

Extensive studies of avian neurology and neuroanatomy have shown it to be unlikely that birds that are not conspecifics can fully “understand” vocalizations of other species, although mimicry is obviously within the ability of many birds. The strength, duration, and timing of song in conspecific birds located in temperate climates vary significantly from birds in tropical climates. The potential significance of these differences is still controversial.20,31,40

Intraspecies Contact and Species Variations

Cockatiels engage in extensive head preening as part of their pair-bonded and parent-offspring interactions. However, this preening can take on an aggressive component. Adult birds (usually males) will “preen” the female’s head to get her to move from the nest box. This preening can turn into pecking if the preening hint is not taken.20 Most veterinarians have noted the tendency of some parent cockatiels to overpreen, pluck, or damage the heads of baby cockatiels in the nest.

Cockatiels are also notorious for becoming irritable if their head is being preened and the preener stops. What role in dominance or pair-bonding this demand for preening plays is either not known or not recorded.

Conversely, adult cockatiels tend to avoid body contact with conspecifics, startling readily if they accidentally touch another bird. This contact avoidance is present in most psittacine species.30

Compare this with Peach-faced Lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis), which tend to enjoy “huddling” not only as young in the nest but also as adults. In lovebirds, extensive body contact may be seen at all ages. Lovebirds are much less aggressive with their preening; males will often (when the female is in the nest box) preen the female all over her body without becoming aggressive.20

Tremendous variation appears to exist among species regarding the timing and extent of grooming and allogrooming. This makes it difficult to identify in captive psittacines when allogrooming may begin to be abnormal or excessive. (See Feather Destruction.)

Captive Psittacine Development

The typical psittacine breeding facility has advanced in recent decades to meet many of the physiologic needs of neonatal birds, including regulation of temperature, humidity, and improved nutrition in the form of formulated hand-feeding diets. The acclimation of our birds to physical contact and handling has been part of the hand-raising process and generally produces a bird with more attachment to and positive interaction with people, at least initially. However, the emotional and social development of these birds is undoubtedly affected by the lack of conspecific interactions comparable to those that would occur in nature. Unacceptable and exaggerated behaviors such as feather destruction, excessive screaming, and biting have manifested in a large percentage of our current population of hand-raised pet psittacines. These behaviors are generally not noted in wild-caught pet psittacines or those captive-bred but allowed to be raised by the parents. These behavioral abnormalities have been postulated to be similar to the “orphanage syndrome” or relative attachment disorder described in human children deprived of affection and stability in their early months and years of life. Such behavioral abnormalities in children (and also those in human-raised psittacines) often do not manifest until later in life.22,23,50

Allowing the parents to incubate and raise their chicks creates potential financial and emotional liability for psittacine breeders. Broken eggs, abused or neglected chicks, and accidental injury can all occur when chicks are left in the nest. However, little doubt exists that this is the ideal environment for emotional and social development. There also are physical advantages to development within the nest box, as a study conducted on Dusky Pionus parrots (Pionus fuscus) demonstrated. Between 16 and 45 days of age, when bone growth is rapid and the skeletal structure still weak, chicks housed separately in incubators stumbled about, apparently in search of sibling or parental contact. Clutches maintained together huddled closely and moved little, and this huddling aided in supporting the appendicular skeleton.15 Additional studies have shown increased bony deformation and osteodystrophy in chicks housed individually in incubators. Fortunately, increasing numbers of breeders are now allowing the parents to incubate, hatch, and raise the chicks through fledging.

Human interaction with the chicks can begin either in the nest box (known as co-parenting) or after the chicks have fledged. In this way, young birds become acclimated to human handling by brief daily interactions while still benefiting from parental and sibling interaction. Ongoing work at the University of California, Davis has shown the benefit, at least in Orange-winged Amazons (Amazona amazonica), of handling the young on a regular basis while still allowing parent rearing of the chicks. In some species and individuals, interaction with humans may increase the risk of abuse or neglect by the parents, so this technique will not be applicable in all situations.

If it is necessary to hand-raise a psittacine chick, every attempt should be made to meet the physiologic and psychologic needs of that individual. Lack of concrete data regarding the exact nature of these needs leaves us with a duty to replicate the environment and interactions provided in the wild. This includes body pressure; warmth and contact; a dark, safe, secure nest box area; feeding on demand; the ability to incrementally explore the nest environment; and visualization of the outside world without physical exposure. Phoebe Linden has labeled these aspects of neonatal and juvenile psittacine developmental care, along with specific feeding techniques and materials, as Abundance Weaning.2225 Readers are urged to review this material in order to properly understand and inform their clients of the necessity for initial and ongoing developmental enrichment.24


As stated previously, there likely is a window of time in early development during which exposure of psittacines to various species (conspecifics, other birds, humans, other household pets) and objects results in acceptance of these, or minimally in a reduction of fear and avoidance. Lack of exposure to conspecifics during this time may prohibit normal development and the potential for successful pair-bonding.41 Substitution of the human caregiver for the parent, sibling, and/or mate occurs in many captive psittacines.

Psittacine owners usually seek a strong emotional and physical “bond” with their bird, which removal from the nest and hand-feeding provide. However, the oxymoron that results is that many of the behavioral and medical problems of pet psittacines stem from this abnormal bonding relationship.

The same phenomenon is documented with captive-raised birds of prey.18,30 Intensive socialization during hand-raising of falcons and hawks creates a bird that is less readily disturbed by the presence of civilization (humans, vehicles, hunting dogs, and so on). This imprinting on people is also used to encourage mating with humans who have been equipped with semen collection devices (hats or other designs) for later use in artificial insemination of pure and hybrid falconry birds. However, removing the fear of humans increases the potential that the normal territoriality of mature raptors may be violently directed at any humans invading this territory. Again, as in psittacines, certain species seem to be more prone to territorial aggression.18


Stimulation is similar to socialization but does not require an individual (person or animal) to interact with; it instead connotes experiences or situations. Generally, the more numerous and varied the stimuli to which a bird is exposed at a relatively young age, the less likely it is to develop fears of these objects, noises, or phenomena (Figure 2-3). The ability to retreat from overstimulation via a hide box should be provided, especially for the young but also for adults.

In addition to preventing fears, this mental stimulation is challenging for the bird as it attempts to determine the nature and function of the events or objects. A simple example is placing the bird’s cage where the bird can see outdoors (preferably through a screened window) and observe the sky, trees, other birds, and squirrels; hear traffic noise; and feel barometric pressure changes. This is much preferable to leaving the television or radio on for the bird.


Depending on the individual bird, toys may be useful displacers for mental and physical excess energies.27 Varieties of toys are available, and these can serve multiple purposes. Objects such as old telephone books provide an outlet for the need to chew and mechanically dispel excess energy. Puzzle toys (with a food treat or other object that is revealed and obtained after manipulation) provide both physical and mental stimulation (Figure 2-4). However, the ability and desire to interact with toys is not universal and may be learned to some degree. Seldom will the instillation of toys into the environment substitute for human interaction and training.

Behavior Modification

Much of the remainder of this chapter discusses various aspects of behavior and its manipulation in captivity. The following applicable generalities bear mentioning here.

Never Punish

At no time is physical punishment ever an acceptable or productive training method for birds. Although punishment is already generally discouraged by behaviorists and trainers for any type of pet, this is particularly true for birds. There are multiple reasons for this. First and foremost, most normal interactions with conspecifics are not physical beyond general grooming. Birds communicate and interact using vocalization, display, access to resources, location in the environment, and even space occupation to intimidate or establish dominance; therefore these are the inherent training tools used to shape behavior. The rare occasion of physical violence usually involves either a particularly dominant individual or a life-changing event (e.g., a territorial dispute); this type of interaction would normally breed avoidance or resentment, not the type of continued harmonious and intimate relationship that an owner is trying to foster. Even if desired, it would be impossible for a human to replicate the typical negative physical interaction because of anatomic differences: whereas humans interact primarily with their hands, birds interact with their beaks, for example, darting the head in close to provide a carefully placed warning nip. They do not interact with, nor seem to comprehend despite their intelligence, any gestures or acts made with hands and arms that are not for mere display.

Often, the types of behaviors that punishment is used to suppress (screaming, biting) are at their core a normal behavior that cannot be absolutely suppressed without risking emotional health. Sadly, extremely intelligent psittacines that are “acting up” because of boredom will be positively reinforced by the mere attention that punishments convey, no matter how aversive the reaction.

Identifying and Creating the Proper Human-Psittacine Relationship

Establishing, or even defining, a healthy relationship between bird owner and captive psittacine is challenging. The degree of interaction desired by owners often either is not normal for a given species in the wild or is encountered only between parent and offspring or mated pairs. Excessive or improper bonding (malimprinting) can have negative physical and behavioral outcomes in captivity.

For example, the inherent dependence in a relationship in which an Umbrella Cockatoo (Cacatua alba) perceives the owner as its parent may result in prolonged or incomplete weaning. In addition to the emotional stunting that may accompany this relationship, the constant crying for food can be both an annoyance and a precipitating factor in the production of cloacal prolapse (see Cockatoo Prolapse Syndrome later in the chapter).

As the parrot matures, it may transfer its affection to another person in the household. This often occurs following the absence of the previous “bonded” individual, who was perceived as the parent figure. It should not be surprising that the developing parrot seeks a companion, if not a mate, other than its perceived surrogate parent. Ideally, the mate would be a conspecific of the opposite gender. However, the need for a companion, and possibly the increased security and advantages provided, is apparently stronger than the requirement for a member of the opposite gender. In nature and in large aviary populations in which there exists a disproportionate number of one gender, homosexual pair bonding is commonly encountered. (Author note: No studies were located that attempted to determine whether a predisposition to homosexual pair-bonding exists when sufficient numbers of both genders are available.)

During maturation, the transference of affection from the original person who has raised and nurtured the bird to another may occur. This can be very traumatic for the individual to whom the bird was originally bonded. In certain situations, there may be no other person to whom the bird can or desires to transfer the bond; in such cases the relationship remains with the same individual but changes in character.

In nature, most parrots practice “perennial monogamy” or long-term, year-round pair-bonding to the same individual.45 Pair-bonded Glossy Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus lathami), for example, are found to be higher on the dominance hierarchy than any given individual and also to be very closely ranked in the dominance scheme relative to their mates. Much has been written regarding the reasons for the endurance of the pair bond throughout the nonbreeding season. Continued care of juvenile offspring and ease of mate location during subsequent breeding seasons are involved in some species. However, studies of wild cockatoos, lorikeets, and White-fronted Amazons (Amazona albifrons) have shown that the primary advantage seems to be the dominance conferred by a mated pair acting in unison—usually to supplant other conspecifics from a preferred food tree, therefore ensuring optimal nutrition throughout the year.

In captivity the mated-pair relationship may induce behaviors such as territoriality, mate or nest protection, aggression, and ovulation or egg laying when a bird perceives its owner as its mate (Figure 2-5). However, if this perceived relationship can be maintained as a prolonged nonbreeding season alliance, some or most of the negative aspects may be avoided. This is what most veterinarians and behaviorists, intentionally or not, are recommending when they advise clients on frequency and type of interaction allowed with the pet bird, the caveat being to avoid all behavior that can be construed as sexual (petting, feeding by mouth).

Is this the best solution to the relationship between owner and captive pet psittacine? Are we even wise to look for natural equivalent relationships for which to strive with our captive-raised pet psittacines? The answer may vary among species, individual birds, and owners. Long-term relationships between bird and owner that appear psychologically healthy are commonly encountered. This would connote both a mutual enjoyment regardless of the amount of physical contact and an absence of serious unacceptable behaviors (possessiveness, separation anxiety, copulatory behavior, biting, screaming, and so on, by bird or human).

Obviously, this area requires more study and the acknowledgment that what is desired by the owner may not be within the comfort zone or ability of an individual captive psittacine.

Husbandry Considerations


Many factors are involved in the selection of appropriate caging for pet psittacines.

Grooming: Nail, Beak, and Wing Trimming

The trimming of toenails in young and middle-aged birds is done almost exclusively for the comfort of the owners and to the detriment of the bird’s physical (and therefore emotional) stability. Sharp, needlelike points are normal on psittacine nails and enable them to have a secure hold on various-sized branches during adverse weather conditions such as rain and wind. However, most owners will not tolerate multiple puncture wounds on their hands and arms in order to allow a pet parrot to have optimal perching stability. Therefore dulling of the nails is often performed in the veterinary office. Owners generally need to be educated about the bird’s need for some degree of sharpness to assure a secure grip. They may also need to be shown that the nails they consider long are often normal for the individual. The exceptions most commonly are geriatric birds, birds with poor nutritional history, or those with decreased hepatic function. In these cases the nails tend to curl prematurely and often must be trimmed to allow the bird to perch comfortably and securely. Concrete perches, mentioned previously in regard to toenail maintenance, do not usually work on nails that have very acute curvatures

Wing trimming is another subject with implications beyond a mere grooming procedure. The removal of the ability to fly and the compromised balance that occur when symmetrical wing flapping is disrupted are major impediments to full function in captive psittacines. It is rightfully argued, however, that the dangers of being full-flighted in captivity may outweigh this handicap. If wing trimming is elected by the owner (to prevent escape or injury or to assist in training), several factors need to be considered.

Disease Considerations

Neurologic Disease

This section addresses selected neurologic signs and associated diseases. Additional information may be obtained from the references.

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Aug 21, 2016 | Posted by in EXOTIC, WILD, ZOO | Comments Off on PSITTACINE BEHAVIOR

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