Hi Dr. Tobias,
We have come a long way in understanding parrot behavior, and the key is to understand wild parrot behavior. Because these are not a domesticated species, they have the same instincts as a parrot in the wild. Most parrot species will gather in flocks for protection, feeding and companionship. However, physical contact is mostly reserved for a bonded mate. Young birds will groom each other, but this ends when the birds are mature and choose a mate. Even if it is not a species that tends to “mate for life” or have the same mate season to season. So when we pet them, yes, it is best to limit the interaction to head scratches. It is tempting to cuddle them like a dog or cat, and many parrots enjoy this cuddling, especially cockatoos. But when the bird gets older, the hormones kick in and suddenly these human mates can no longer provide what the bird needs. Female birds are more likely to become chronic egg layers and male birds are more likely to become aggressive, especially during mating season. Larger species of cockatoos can have a very dangerous bite. Because many parrots will breed whenever conditions are right, we can put them in a constant breeding state because of maintaining a stable environment with ideal temperatures, abundant foods, plenty of light and of course, all of the cuddling.
Dr. Susan Orosz, one of our consulting board certified Avian Vets, has done a lot of work with feather pluckers and with parrots with hormone related behavior issues. She and most parrot behaviorists now recommend reducing the handling to head scratches once a bird is fully weaned. The exception can be some handling to minimize stress during vet exams or grooming – so teaching them to allow handling the wings and feet, or minimal touching to mimic a physical exam. This should be done during training sessions so as not to confuse the bird. If a bird still exhibits hormonal behavior seasonally, reduce the petting even more, reduce the amount of fresh foods offered, shorten the exposure to light each day and keep the room temperature a little bit on the cooler side. You can also rearrange the cage – perches and toys, and move the cage to another place in the room. These things can disrupt the stable environment enough to signal the bird that it is not a good time to breed and nest.
In place of petting, the handlers can find creative types of enrichment. Offering a foraging diet is the first step – pelleted diets are boring and are not the only choice for a nutritionally complete diet. Our Nutri-Berries. Avi-Cakes and Pellet-Berries are all nutritionally balanced the same as a pellet, but they still contain whole ingredients and provide foraging exercise. A wild parrot spends most of his day foraging for foods. Our diets can be hidden in the cage and in toys to make your birds forage. There are also many natural behaviors that can be modified into “tricks”. You mentioned the birds perform, so focus on natural behaviors and work with these throughout the day. Just playing with a parrot can inspire new tricks. By doing this, the birds are more likely to be able to be handled by different people rather than bonding with just one person – their instinct is to bond with the mate and no longer have the physical contact with others. So you want to avoid this mate relationship and keep it as a flock member relationship.
Thank you for asking Lafeber,