Bird Behavior E-mail

Mating and Aggression

Birds are flock creatures, by nature. In the wild, birds live within a hierarchical community, where one flock member is dominant within the group. Although your bird may no longer live among other birds, it will still perceive all family members as part of its ‘flock’. And much like dogs within the family structure of the pack, a bird needs to understand who is dominant within its flock.

Dominance

Within the flock, a bird chooses a mate and dominance is determined. This instinct doesn’t leave the bird just because he now lives with people. A bird may choose one person as its substitute mate, and dominance problems can then occur. Watch for screaming, biting or lunging. You may also notice low crouching on a perch, raised wings, fluttering of wings and/or fanned-out tail feathers. These behaviors can be directed at any member of the family – even at the object of the bird's affection, as an attempt at protection. The bird feels that if he is aggressive toward his “mate” and forces that person into the nest, harm will be prevented. Dominance and mating aggression are seen in both males and females, although the behavior is often more vicious among males.

If not stopped early, dominance aggression will likely worsen at the time of sexual maturity. From a person’s perspective, an attack of dominance aggression may seem unprovoked, but you must understand that a bird perceives instinctive threat differently than people. For instance, you may not notice that a dog just walked into your yard, but the bird may see the dog through the window and feel a strong need to ‘protect’ you, its substitute mate, from harm by biting or lunging at you in an attempt to force you to retreat into the safety of the nest.

Parrots are the most common species associated with dominance and mating aggression, especially Amazons and macaws. Cockatoos can also be extremely aggressive at breeding time, posing a potential danger to the mate. It’s critically important to recognize and put a stop to aggressive tendencies while your pet is still very young, so that serious injury to yourself, your bird and any potential mates can be avoided.

Breeding season (late winter through summer) is when dominance behavior usually becomes worse; recognizing when the bird is becoming sexually active is key. The bird may attempt to lure the mate into a nest site, typically small confined spaces such as a closet or under large chairs or sofas. The bird may also preen the mate. Eventually, food may be regurgitated on the mate. Some people may even witness a mating dance: The male bird will squeal, begin fluffing his feathers, bobbing up and down and raising a leg. The female may also fan her tail and back onto the mate.

If dominance aggression is seen at any stage of the bird's life, it should be stopped immediately. Mating behavior should also be discouraged, no matter how charming or flattering it seems to be the object of your bird’s affections. Aggression during the mating season, whether toward a human ‘mate’ or another bird, is no laughing matter – the bird’s protective instinct can be quite intense; when cockatoos mate, for instance, fatalities are known to occur in the attacks between male and female birds.

Prevention

The best way to prevent bird aggression is to clearly make the bird understand from a very early age that he is not the dominant member of the family flock; all family members must likewise individually establish personal dominance over the bird.

The easiest way to do this is to control the bird's movement. When you are removing him from his perch or cage, always give the ‘up' command. When the bird steps up to you, remove him from the cage and place him on the desired area. Never allow the bird to leave the cage or perch on his own, and never let him walk or fly free in the house until he understands that the family is dominant. It’s important to know that birds exert dominance by being at or above eye level, so never place him on a perch that’s high enough to be at or above eye level. This means NEVER carry your pet on your shoulder.

Biting, screaming and lunging can be deterred by firmly saying “no” and then removing the bird from human companionship by immediately putting him back in the cage and ignoring him until he calms down. If this method doesn’t work, the bird can be placed for a short time in a temporary time-out structure like a sturdy box, small cage or travel carrier. As soon as he calms down, allow the bird to come out. If aggression occurs again, repeat the process. Be patient: altering behavior in highly intelligent animals such as birds can be difficult.

And remember: no matter how tempting it might become, never strike a bird; significant internal injury can occur, even though it may not be visible to the eye. Besides, physical punishment tends to make an already aggressive/dominant bird even more aggressive in response, making matters much worse for both of you.

Understanding why bird aggression occurs and what you can do about it, is sure to help you achieve a safer and more loving relationship with your pet. Whenever aggressive behavior is noticed, stop it immediately. Never allow your pet to choose a human as a substitute mate, and be sure to always reprimand and remove the bird from the area immediately whenever you notice courting behavior.