The sexually frustrated parrot: a man-made phenomenon

feather-plucking2According to a recent study, men think about sex 18 times a day, while women think about it 10 times a day. Should we be surprised that most parrots that are raised in the wild in large very social flocks also are obsessed with sex?

I recently attended the annual conference of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and heard a lecture that looked at just how much sexual frustration underlies many of the common disorders parrots suffer today. Among the most frequently treated problems for which parrots of all kinds are brought to the veterinarian are feather picking/chewing, self-mutilation of skin, dermatitis (skin inflammation), egg-laying difficulties, and aggressive behavior. When nearly 100 female and male parrots of varying ages and species each displaying one or more of these problems had a small implant (the size of a rice grain) surgically inserted under the skin over their backs to slowly release a hormone (Deslorelin) that shuts down the sexual cycle temporarily (for about 3 months), all of them had significant decreases in the problem behaviors they were displaying. When these birds again began to show signs of a problem, generally after about 3 months, many of them received a second hormone implant that again suppressed their abnormal behaviors for a period of months. While not all problem behaviors in parrots are due to sexual frustration, the findings of this study support the notion that a great number of problems in captive parrots have a sexual basis. This is not surprising, as parrots in the wild generally live in flocks of thousands and have the opportunity to mate whenever they want. Many wild parrots form pair bonds that tend to mate seasonally and that may actually remain bonded for years or even their entire lives.  Even during the non-breeding season, these pairs live in close contact – nesting together, preening each other, foraging for food and nest sites together, and vocalizing constantly. This strong need to socialize is a very important component of these parrots’ culture and directs much of their daily activity.

In captivity, most pet parrots are not able to interact with other parrots. Many pet parrots are housed singly in cages and given little to do but chew on a few toys hanging in their cages and eat food presented to them in bowls. They have neither the opportunity to socialize with flock mates, nor the chance to hunt for nest sites, food, or other activities. They generally crave attention from their human caretakers who often spend very limited time with them each day. When light cycles and temperature changes signal them to breed in the spring, they often become sexually frustrated and manifest behaviors such as feather destruction, self-mutilation, aggression, and purposeless screaming – behaviors that are generally not seen in wild parrots and that have no adaptive function for these wild birds. The fact that wild birds generally don’t display these behaviors and that administration of synthetic hormones that suppress natural sex hormone cycling in captive birds underlines that fact that the way parrots are housed and raised in captivity is completely unnatural for them; in fact, many of the problems avian veterinarians are challenged with treating in these birds are actually man-made. What is the solution? Should parrots be kept as pets at all? This is an ongoing debate for which there is no correct answer.

Many parrots, when given the opportunity to participate in activities (such as hunting for food, shredding and tearing up wood and paper, manipulating puzzle toys, interacting with humans on a daily basis, watching TV, listening to the radio, sitting in direct sunlight, bathing) other than those directly associated with mating seem to be less obsessed with breeding than those left with little other stimulation than that which they get by masturbating on their perches or toys.  So, the take home message here is clear: if you’re going to have a mentally, as well as physically, healthy pet parrot, you must provide it with outlets for activity other than those that involve sex. If you don’t, you may end up with a raging hormonal ball of feathers that is neither happy, nor makes a good pet.

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Positively Expert: Laurie Hess

Dr. Hess is board-certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in avian (bird) medicine and served as the President of the Association of Avian Veterinarians from 2009-2010. She is also an active member of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians and the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians.


22 thoughts on “The sexually frustrated parrot: a man-made phenomenon

  1. KIm Bateman

    I am thrilled that you wrote this!!! There are so many birds in homes with uneducated owners. It is time people understand what the parrot goes through while it lives in your home! It is great to see you "branching out" and speaking on behalf of the parrot. THANK YOU!!

    Oh and to answer your question: "Should parrots be kept as pets at all?"
    The answer is NO!!!! They are wild animals and should remain that way!!!
    No More Breeding and Please Adopt, Don't Shop!!!

  2. Cheryl Wellman

    Ty so much for making the parrots part of your education.
    So many are so uninformed about them and their needs I hope you continue to be a voice for them
    Love you for respecting all animals 🙂

  3. Erica L

    Thank You Dr. Hess for this Blog your information always comes in handy, will be sharing this! To the question Should parrots be kept as Pets? Depends on the people....
    My birds are out everyday for 3-5 hours during the weekdays when i get home... Weekends my parrots are out all day/night busy chewing and hiding in boxes, watching TV, hanging with me, but most of all being a bird meaning Freedom of Flight! I BELIEVE in "Freedom Of Flight" is a vital for mental & physical health. If people want it done, that's their prerogative, but please get it done professionally. I don't clip ANY of my birds, building the trust with them is the most important thing you can do, & forcing them to interact with you by removing their freedom of choice is the worst thing you can do. Always ask your bird to do something, never tell it! 🙂

  4. Barbara L. Rothschild

    Dear Dr. Laurie Hess:

    Thank you so much for posting such an informative article, which makes so much sense decifering the hormonal negative behaviors in household pet parrots. I only wish you were local, so I could make my parrots your patients. My Moluccan Cockatoo is now 22 years old, and has been a wing and tail feather plucker. However, the behavior does stop in the summertime, when he is bathed much more frequently than in the wintertime. My avian vet, Dr. Marvin Rothman, OBM, passed away in 2010, at the age of 84 years old. He was one of the most knowledgable of veterinarians, having taught most of the practicing avian vets, (also specializing in exotics), in the Southern New Jersey region. He also once held the position of the Avian Vet of the Philadelphia Zoo. I have yet to find an avian vet as skilled as our beloved Dr. Rothman, who was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. We now take K.C. there for his checkups. My brother, Dr. Albert N. Hirsch, is also a retired vet and graduate of the U. of Penn, and he was a friend of Dr. Rothman. My brother is now 84 years old, but did not specialize in exotics, but rather equine and domestics.

    My K.C. ("Kosher Cockatoo"), actually attempts to mate with me when he is "in season,", but he is quickly distracted by television, music, his toys, and lots of attention. One of his favorite toys, is tearing up the tube rolls of cardboard from paper towels, and I always check there is no glue on the cardboard roll. I feed him a well rounded variety of good foods, with little emphasis on a seed diet. I also do the same with my Myers parrot, although he seems to favor only apples, corn, and occasionally, peas.

    My other little parrot, is an adoptee, a Myers parrot, I have had since 1995. He is in a cage adjacent to K.C., and unfortunately is a biter, however, with a charming little personality of his own.

    For the most part, my birds are well adjusted and very much loved, although I do feel sorry for K.C. when it's that hormonal time of the year. I never seem to notice anything "hormonal" in the Myers behavior, ("Winston").

    Before he passed away, Dr. Rothman told me about the rice sized hormonal pellet, but we never pursued it, since at the time of his discussion of it to me, it was fairly a recent therapy, which he, at that time, was looking into.

    Thank you again, for your very imformative posts. Consider me a great fan of yours. Wishing you much success and happiness always,

    Barb L. Rothschild
    Sewell, New Jersey

  5. Sherry Knight

    I think it is okay to own parrots. There are a lot of birds in captivity and many get the opportunity to mate, if they didn't then there would be no more birds available for many countries it is now illegal to bring in wild birds. The captive birds can not be released back into the wild they would die. All dogs started out wild and became domestic, so did cats. There are parrots very happy not living in the wild. I think it would be a great justice if people who own parrots were licensed and had to take classes before owning these beautiful animals. I think that might cut back on a lot of the birds in rescue facilities. These problems a lot of time can be avoided but the owner has to become knowledged of the animal they are keeping. These animals need stimulates for their mental state and I am not too sure about the thing under their skin to decrease their sex drive. It makes total sense I just don't know if it is humane. There are many things this article mentions on how to keep the bird active so that they don't get sexual frustrated. I on the other hand think it would be a great relief if they don't have to go through the hormonal issues relating to their sexual frustration.

  6. Kathleen Schwab

    "Should parrots be kept at all?"

    I don't think this is as simple as a yes or no. I think you can ethically keep parrots if you are willing and able to understand and provide for the nature of the animal. They are flighted, highly social animals. If you can provide them a flock, space to explore and forage, and allow them to fly, they can fulfill their instincts.

    I have four free flighted cockatiels, who have the freedom of the house. They have two big trees, but they prefer to perch on a human whenever possible.

    Small parrots are under rated: they are as interesting as large parrots, and because you can have a small flock, they aren't prone to isolation. A cockatiel can bond to a partner, forage for food, and fly for fun and exercise, while living in a house and interacting with their human friends. I see the joy they get out of finding & bonding with a partner, and conquering their space through flight. Watching them do all the things natural to their kind is the enjoyment of having pets like these.

  7. Erin O'Brien

    I would like to know more. I felt a little mislead by the title of this too. I would like to know if they looked at body fat percentage and diet. Not just what the parrots were eating but how they were being fed. I want know the ages of the parrots they looked at. Are these parrots clipped or allowed to fly? Where they hand raised and fully fledged? These are just the first few questions I have reading this little bit of information.
    Higher body fat content lead to higher concentration of hormones it is true in people as well is in many other types of animals, Typically wild animals go through a feast famine cycle through out the year. They typically breed as food is becoming more available (their body fat is rising) this means they have hopefully the optimum amount of food the environment has to offer when the offspring need to be feed. In captivity these parrots are getting fed all the time, their body fat is kept high therefore they are always being kept in breeding condition. We as a whole need to look more seriously at what we feed, how much and how often.
    I do realize and understand that, for some parrots the issue is bigger and more complicated than this. I do parrot behavior and training consultations as a hobby I also realize as humans we don't often meet the social needs of singly kept parrots. I know that most all parrot owners don't meet the activity needs of parrots, in the USA it is common practice to clip parrots to "keep them safe" although I am glad to see the tide turning on this. More breeders are keeping babies longer so they may actually learn to fly and they are also encouraging owners to do the training needed to live with flighted parrots.
    I live with flighted parrots as pets. I train them using R+ methods. They are just as well behaved as any of my dogs, they go out in public, they travel with me they do all sorts of things. I will leave a link to a video of them free flying at my local park. Gizmo is 10 years and Rufus is 2 years, they are caged separate inside at night but enjoy a 20 foot by 10 foot outdoor aviary together for 8 - 10 hrs a day.
    The Red Fronted Macaw boys at the park:

    I think parrots make fine and wonderful pets for the right people that have been given the right information and have done their homework to really understand what they must provide to keep these animals healthy.

    Victortia or anyone else interested in how R+ has impacted my relationship with my parrots is welcome to contact me.
    [email protected]

  8. Laurella Desborough

    While ONE study using implants has had an effect on a selected group of parrots, (no mention of species was made I note), I would like to read the study before I come to the conclusion that sexual frustration causes all the mentioned behaviors, from feather plucking to chewing on flesh. IME and in the experience of others, very often the cause of feather destruction and even chewing on the flesh, is DIET. Specifically, the use of colored pellets is a problem for individual parrots of different species and specifically the dyes pose a serious allergenic problem for eclectus parrots. Additionally, the use of man made vitamin A poses a problem as it is used in many commercial treats and other commercial food products for parrots. (See Dr. Debra McDonald, Aussie avian nutrition expert for indepth details on the consequences of vitamin A use.)

    I have a very large flock of eclectus parrots and I see very few instances of feather destruction or chewing on flesh. In fact, for those individual birds with that condition, most have arrived at my facility with the condition. VERY few of my birds chew feathers. Of course, I do provide them with their favorite chewables, which are live branches from safe trees. They spend a lot of time removing leaves, chewing on the leaf tip which intersects with the branch, and chewing on the soft bark and turning tiny branches into splinters. These are important activities especially for the females.

    Individual adult birds can choose a mate if they wish. MANY do not choose a mate, but instead enjoy interacting with same sex members in play activities, which may include lining up a group of stones in a row on the sand floor, while discussing it with each other in their own parrot language.

    Should parrots be kept as pets? IMO that is an animal rights question. The animal rights agenda is that NO animal should be anywhere around humans...not as pets, not in zoos, and not as meat on our plates.

    Furthermore, not all parrots are interested in sex, nor do they show any signs of sexual frustration. Some are also homosexual in preference. Some are asexual. Some are heterosexual. Some do masturbate on their toys or perches. Some with active sexual partnerships will ALSO masturbate on perches. So, the idea that "these poor parrots are starving for sexual partners" is so much b.s. as it ignores the great complexity of the nature of parrots, the differences in the species characteristics and the differences individuals.

    As far as sexual frustration goes, what about all the sexually frustrated human men who are busy masturbating to pornographic photos??? This whole matter of sexual frustration of parrots is likely given attention because SOMEONE is going to produce a product that is going to make MONEY for some company. How much of this issue is related to finding new marketing avenues for drug makers.?

  9. Alvaro Martinez

    This article makes a lot of sense. I’m the owner of a feather picking military macaw, Sam. For the last 15 years it has been painful to see this obsessive behavior without a “cure” to prevent and change this behavior. I definitively agree that pet birds such parrots and macaws should be discouraged if not alone due to their life span to their sociability needs.

  10. P.D.Bird

    Parrots should not be pets at all. They should be companions. Cage free and with their human 24 hrs a day. If this is not possible,then maybe the human should consider a 'Pet" as in a dog or cat. While im sure that most of the problems of feather picking come from sexual frustration,we are also pretty sure that some come from being in cage,neglected for 20-23 hrs a day. #ParrotRevolution! Stop caging birds! No to harnesses(control devices)

  11. Carleen

    I am so glad you brought up these issues. People don't realize what a commitment they are making when buying a bird. And like puppies and kittens , they fall in love with the babies and lose interest when they grow up They also don't take into account the life span of these beautiful creatures! A bird that can live 60 or more years should have an extensive amount of thought, not to mention a another younger person that the bird likes, before airing one!!!Although I bought my first pair of birds, zebra finch, the rest were adopted (I have a cockatiel and a Quaker) I did extensive research and keep up to date new info, before taking on another bird. I don't agree that they should not be pets, I adore mine and lavish then with affection, attention, healthy foods and regular vet visits. They bring me great joy and are very well behaved (aside from some usual antics, like most pets). I have an extensive library on everything from breed specific material, second hand parrot ownership, emergency avian husbandry and much more. I am lucky enough to have an avian vet close by and another for emergencys after hours I have a cage set up for immediate health issues and a first aid kit I also have a duffel bag , with bottled water, toys and a tupperwear containers of food and treats for each bird.They also have a carrier for each bird (the finch have one)My young niece adores my birds and if I am hospitalized or the worst happens, she is ready to take them over for me In the emergency duffel, I also have copies of their vet records . I hope everyone is as vigilant as I am , but I know they are not as I adopted birds in terrible condition . Thank you for letting me have my opinion heard- Carleen

  12. Karen D

    I appreciate the article and love your work Victoria. I am upset because the whole issue of rather or not people should be allowed to keep 'parrots' is really becoming a heated topic. Just like having ANY animal it's not fair to lump the bad owners with the good. Birds have been kept as pets for centuries happily and successfully. I have parrots that are joy filled, well adjusted and fed nutritionally balanced diets. They spend more time outside of their cages then in. They literally are a major part of our family. They are interacted with in an appropriate, intelligent, respectful and loving manners every day of their lives. I personally do not own nor do I support those that were captured and taken from their natural habitats. My concern is not in 'educating' bird owners no more then educating dog owners but in the fact that those that have never owned or understood having birds as pets often take a position that since they are against it therefore it should be "illegal". Somewhere, this mentality has to stop and if not, when does it end? When our government tells us we are no longer allowed to have any pets at all including dogs/cats/fish etc. etc??? Why are good people always having to suffer the consequences of a few bad ones??

  13. Howie

    I had a conure for 25 years and he lived great.Miss him dearly.Maybe I should come back as a parrot as they have a good sex life.Trouble I could not afford the offsprings..

  14. About Cockatiels

    A great interesting read.

    I can totally relate to the sexual frustration part within caged birds.

    We have 11 cockatiels whom live with us 24/7 and have lots of toys, browse, chewable natives etc. Two females have had no partner and after a visit to our avian vet, it was concluded that they are sexual frustrated.

    Since then we have managed to pair one of the girls up and she is making a remarkable improvement. The other has slowed her picking down probably due to the re arranging of the groups of birds. We still need to pair her up.

    As for birds as pets. Well I do believe that people need to be educated in how to care for birds more than the concern of whether birds should be kept as pets. Birds will always be kept as pets, be it right or wrong... Education, training and an understanding of what makes a suitable pet owner prior to purchase is what is required.

    About Cockatiels
    Facebook Cockatiels A-Z

  15. Marie5120

    I have a quess or two why birds pluck. Sitting a bird under bright lights out in the open all the time may not be so healthy. Especially with white animals that are easy to spot in the wild. They may need places to hide to feel secure and rest from time to time,

    A handfed parrot that doesn't really understand it's a bird may have trouble adjusting without fear when placed in room with a lot of birds. When I moved my pet Goffin to a room of other parrots she pulled herself near bald. When I added a snuggle tent she's feathered out. I had to put her in it at first. I think she needed to hide when frighten or tired.

    I also think that sometimes breeders feel sorry for a chick that has been scooted over out of the way of the other chicks in the box to die. Possibly we save a bird that is "wrong" from birth. Maybe we should assume the parents know what they are doing and let the abandon chick go. I am already dodging rocks for saying this. LOL Just a thought . . . I am no expert!

    The way we pet birds may not be so smart either. Rubbing down the backs ALL the time could be foreplay to a bird. I've never seen my pairs preen one another down the back, just around the head/neck. They preen under wings when mating.

  16. Chris Harris

    It is an interesting concept but sadly this is one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach and you should be very wary of these kinds of miracle cures. We have to remember that there are other factors involved in every one of these issues. You can't pigeonhole everyone of these ailments into one pile just because there was a benefit in one small group - especially with no other "control" group to refer to and see how another group would do with traditional avian medicine. Could this be a medical breakthrough for avian veterinarians? Sure it could, but we do medical trials a certain way for a reason. How many birds with skin and plumage issues are caused by allergies and not hormones? Why didn't the author mention anything about this? How much aggression in companion birds is accidentally taught and is only exacerbated by seasonally/stimuli induced hormones? The author didn't mention that either. How much feather plucking is unintentionally rewarded (reinforced) by the owners and the owners are not even aware of it? Again, no word on this from the author. Women taking birth-control pills (hormones) rave that their overall skin complexion improves remarkably - How do we know that the psittacines reportedly suffering from skin and plumage issues aren't benefiting in the same manner? Also, Avian Dystocia (egg binding) is caused by a multitude of issues - Hormones are at the bottom of the list. I find it puzzling that none of this seemed important enough to mention. I sincerely hope that the author will research topics such as this further in the future before posting, and leave out their veiled anti-avicultural view and biases that cheapen the entirety of the text.

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  18. Laurul FeatherCat

    Nice article and there is a lot of truth in it. However, it discusses the problem of sexual frustration without actually dealing with the most natural solution: allowing our parrots to naturally express their sexual needs. Whether this comes as masturbation or with pairing up birds in bonded mates, the problem is actually easily solved if people stop avoidng the true solultion to the problem.

    Every one of my parrots who wants one has a mate and is encouraged and allowed to act out their sexual instincts. Those who do not want a mate are permitted to masturbate whenever they wish, with whatever they wish to use (except my body). I have weaned several parrots from using my body as a mate to using a specific stuffed toy very successfully. I have only ever had one parrot who was a feather plucker, and the hen cockatiel had been traumatized in her adolesence by an aggressive cock bird and literally beaten. The hen avoided cock birds at all costs and had to be caged only with hens or she would completely pluck herself bald.

    The key to keeping healthy, happy parrots is allowing them to BE parrots, including allowing sexual behavior as a matter of course. Parrots are not domesticated animals and have all their wild instincts. This means we must allow them outlets for their instincts while also earning their trust and their emotional loving natures.

  19. Elizabetta

    People should never have just one bird. If you cannot own two birds of the same species, then you should not own a bird at all. Having one bird is cruel.

  20. Drketki

    Hi. My zebra finch male is sexually aggressive. Feather plucking female. My Dr here can't believe she said it's cz of lice. I am gonna dust powder for that. But, I can see haircut for my What to do.. Can anybody help? Pls drop a help at Skype greenaapples.

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