Chronic Egg Laying in Parrots
Although a bird laying an egg may seem like a normal behavior, parrots are not little chickens and laying eggs is a very dangerous habit. Chronic egg laying can lead to numerous medical and behavioral issues such as infection, cloacal prolapse, weak bones, aggression, egg binding, and more. Luckily, there are steps we can take to help prevent or stop egg laying, but first we must understand the triggers that lead to unwanted reproductive behavior.
A mate or perceived mate is another reason birds start to lay eggs. Birds can become pair bonded to other birds of the same or different species, inanimate objects, and to humans. Hens can even perceive their own reflection as their mate, so sometimes mirrors need to be removed from cages. While many of us enjoy cuddling with our birds, we need to be careful with the type of relationship we create with our feathered companions. Cuddly, preening-type interaction is a pair bonding behavior that can stimulate the reproductive hormones which mediate egg laying and other undesired mating and reproductive behaviors. Never pet your bird down her back and avoid hand-feeding your bird soft foods if you are struggling with unwanted pair bonding behaviors. While some preening is okay, make sure that most of your interactions with your bird are more platonic, such as positive reinforcement training and passive flock-type interaction. Some examples of more flock-based interactions are putting your bird on a play stand where the family is (like in the living room in the evenings or in your bathroom when you’re getting ready in the morning), playing with toys together, teaching your bird to forage for food, etc.
If you think about wild birds, most will become reproductively active in the spring when there is an abundance of food and natural resources. This makes sense because the birds need the extra nutrients and calories to produce eggs and raise their chicks. If you then think about our pet birds, most birds are fed like it is springtime year-round. With laying hens, it is helpful to take a step back and take a look at how her diet might be contributing to the issue. First, make sure your bird (male or female) is on a nutritionally complete diet, such as a formulated pellet base with added vegetables and occasional fruit and whole grains. If your bird tends to lay eggs, you can put them on a birdy “diet” by limiting high calorie items such as nuts, breads, seeds, and fruits, and give them a pre-measured number of pellets per day appropriate for their size and weight. Your veterinarian can help guide you on a safe and appropriate diet for your bird. The ease of availability of their food is also an important factor to consider. Train your birds to work for their food, like they would in the wild, by hiding their pellets, veggies, and limited amounts of treats in foraging toys, wrapped food bowls, or small dishes placed throughout the cage.
While we don’t want to cause undue stress to our birds, sometimes temporarily moving the bird to a new cage or new room in the house when they begin to exhibit reproductive behaviors can stop the laying cycle before any eggs are laid. Ensure that your bird is still getting adequate enrichment, social interaction, and an appropriately sized, safe enclosure.
The lengthening photoperiod (amount of daylight) is one way that birds perceive that springtime is coming. If your bird seems to be very in tune to the season, perhaps only laying in the spring or at a predictable time each year, we can manipulate the day length to basically skip over this season using artificial lighting and automated light timers. Consult with your veterinarian for tips on how to do this safely and effectively.
A nest can be all the stimulus it takes for a hen to start laying eggs. The hens will usually make it pretty clear when they have established a nest by spending a lot of time tending to and/or protecting this area. The “nest” stimulus can be something quite literal like a nest box, or be as simple as the cage bottom, or just having the supplies to build a nest (such as paper, wood fiber, soft fabric, etc.). Nest boxes, perceived nests, and materials being used for nesting should be removed and cage grates should be put in place to discourage nest building with laying hens.
It is important to keep parrots stimulated in healthy ways through enrichment. Examples of this include flock behavior, foraging, and physical exercise. See previous blog post Encouraging Foraging Behavior in Pet Birds for more information on foraging for enrichment.
If your bird continues to lay eggs despite your best efforts to address the aspects discussed above, there are a few medications which can be given to help stop the laying cycle. As a last resort, a salpingohysterectomy can be performed, which is basically the bird version of a spay procedure performed in dogs and cats. However, with a bird spay, only a portion of the female reproductive tract can be removed safely and the ovaries are left behind. These birds are at risk of medical complications, such as releasing an egg yolk into their abdomen, and hormone related behavioral issues can persist despite this surgery. For the best chance of a positive outcome, this procedure must be combined with a comprehensive behavioral modification program and medications.
Professional animal trainer Barbara Heidenreich has a great website (www.GoodBirdInc.com) with numerous resources on training and solving behavioral issues with parrots. She has posted a Webinar
on “Solutions for Parrot Behavior Problems Related to Hormones” with some very helpful tips on territorial aggression, biting family members, and excess vocalization.
There are many factors to consider when addressing a bird with chronic egg laying. With a little bit of work and some critical thinking, many can be managed without medications or surgery but through recognizing and addressing the environmental stimuli which have led to egg production. Help your bird live a long and healthy life by stopping the cycle!