Mirrors and other reflective surfaces fascinate parrots. It’s fun to catch sight of a parrot admiring its reflection and singing to it. Unbeknown to many owners lurks a hidden danger. Mirrors can cause mental health issues in parrots.
Parrots may show interest and actively respond to mirrors in their cage. However, parrots cannot distinguish between their own reflections and an additional parrot as they lack self-awareness. Because of this, parrots will attempt to interact with the new parrot, leading to behavioral problems.
This may seem like a harmless situation, but it can be damaging. The parrot will eventually grow restless, frustrated, and angry. It could take out these emotional issues on itself, its cage, and even you. If you want to give your parrot a mirror, ensure it’s distorted and can’t offer a true reflection.
Can Parrots Recognize Themselves in a Mirror?
Parrots don’t recognize themselves in a mirror. Despite their high levels of intelligence, parrots lack the cognitive functions necessary to be fully self-aware. Instead of seeing their own likeness in the mirror, your parrot will see a ‘new bird’ staring back at it.
This applies to parrots of every species and size, but cockatiels and budgerigars are the most likely to develop behavioral issues. That’s because they’re more active and socially demanding. They may become aggressive when they don’t receive a proper answer to any of their questions conveyed via body language and songs. Coincidentally, these are the types of parrots that most people offer a toy mirror.
Some owners claim that they’ve trained their parrots to understand what they see in a mirror. However, these are anecdotal stories and are currently not backed by formal scientific studies. In reality, formal studies show that parrots cannot recognize themselves in the mirror.
As noted by the University of California, a study carried out by American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. put African greys through a mirror test. This is a behavioral evaluation to determine whether animals possess self-awareness.
Among the many animals picked for this test, African greys were chosen to represent parrots. They’re considered the most intelligent of all parrots, as shown by the special case of Alex. This African grey learned how to mimic human speech and communicate with it. If anyone could pass the mirror test, it should’ve been this breed of parrot.
Parrot Mirror Test
The mirror test is designed to tell if an animal is capable of identifying itself via a reflection. By extension, this tells us whether or not it’s self-aware. When you look into a mirror, you understand that it’s an image of yourself, not a new person. You clearly understand ‘self’ and can distinguish it, even when viewed through a different lens.
In contrast, animals that fail the mirror test think they’re looking at another animal. They can’t pick out their ‘selves’ from an outside view. This is how it works:
- The test begins by sedating the parrot, so there’s no chance of paying attention to where any markers are placed.
- Once safely unconscious, researchers put an easily identifiable mark on the parrot’s body. This may include a brightly-colored sticker.
- This sticker is placed somewhere the parrot cannot see without a mirror, such as on its head.
- The animal is then set in front of a mirror to observe its reflection.
At this point, the researchers observe the reaction of the parrot, noting all possible effects. How does it move? Does it approach or back away from the mirror? What emotions does it convey, such as interest, curiosity, fear, or aggression? Self-awareness is confirmed if the parrot:
- Notices the identifying mark on the mirror’s reflection
- Attempts to get a better look at it on its own body
- Tries to touch or remove the spot, since a reflection is the only way for the parrot to know the spot is there
To date, no parrot has succeeded on the mirror test. The birds may interact with the reflection and act positively, but they don’t identify the spot. Rather than seeing the mirror parrot as themselves and investigating the new marking, they ignore it or don’t appear to notice it.
Of course, researchers didn’t leave a big question like “are parrots self-aware” to chance. According to The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, another test was administered, called “Mirror-Mediated Object Discrimination.” In this test:
- A box is placed between the parrot and the mirror
- The box has a large opening on the side facing the mirror, but away from the parrot.
- A piece of food or a toy is placed in the box at an angle, so the parrot can only view it as a reflection.
- Ideally, the parrot will see the object and attempt to go around the box to retrieve it.
This would indicate that the parrot understands the mirror is reflecting the view. However, scientists found no conclusive proof that the parrots understood the mirror’s function. If the parrots searched the box, it was just a curious investigation without the mirror’s help.
Both the mirror and the box test have a clear result: if an animal passes, it has some degree of self-awareness. Animals that have passed include some primates, corvids, dolphins, and one species of elephant, among a few others. Parrots, however, are still unable to pass the tests.
Are Mirrors Bad For Parrots?
Since parrots can’t understand their own reflection, it can be dangerous to give them mirrors. After all, your pet won’t see it as a new toy to admire itself with. It will think that a ‘newcomer’ has appeared in its cage. There are a few ways this can go, both good and bad. The parrot will:
- Investigate the mirror and then ignore it.
- Play with the mirror, but grow bored or disinterested in the ‘newcomer.’
- Get offended when the new parrot doesn’t respond to its advances.
- Get angry and defensive against the newcomer that invaded its territory without permission.
- Become obsessed with getting the ‘new’ parrot’s attention, refusing to spend time with you or properly eat.
Not all parrots will react badly to mirrors. The negative consequences are more common in parrots that:
- Are kept alone, without a companion
- Are left by themselves for long hours while you’re busy
- Don’t get enough social interaction with you
This will encourage them to bond with any ‘new birds’ (reflections) they come across. As they try and fail to connect with the newcomer, this may get out of hand.
In most cases, when your parrot sees another bird moving along, it will perform common social rituals associated with greetings and mating. Expect to see dancing, singing, or chirps. The reflection will naturally copy this, and your parrot will feel welcomed. However, as the interactions continue, your parrot will find that this new bird copies it and nothing else.
Mimicking is important for parrots. In the wild, it helps them fit in with a group and show interest in one another. However, parrots also rely on unique social calls and responsive body language. If the newcomer isn’t truly interacting, then your parrot will eventually grow confused.
At the very least, the new bird can’t be touched, groomed, or played with. This is damaging because of the social nature of parrots. In the wild, they live in enormous flocks consisting of up to 30 in a single group. In a broader sense, they will interact with dozens of other bird species throughout a single day. Your pet parrot has an instinctual need to share, play, and groom with others.
When your parrot is denied this ability, it will become confused in the least and aggressive at worst. This will grow even worse if your parrot tries to initiate mating rituals. Mating advances unmet by its reflection may cause sexual frustration since the mirror cannot provide what it needs.
Your parrot may also view this newcomer as a threat. It was not formally introduced to the new bird, yet a second bird is there without permission. This could make your parrot:
- Wary. This is a new invader of its territory.
- Defensive. The ‘new bird’ may want to take its food and water.
- Jealous. The ‘new bird’ might want your attention and love, and your parrot doesn’t want to share. This can lead to jealousy.
- Angry. This ‘new bird’ doesn’t back down when your parrot uses dominating body language. In fact, it appears to ‘react’ just as aggressively.
If your parrot is territorial, it may not take kindly to this intruder and attack the mirror. You might see it:
- Flapping its wings
According to the University of Arizona, parrots will sometimes recognize their reflection as a conspecific behaving abnormally. It will think the other bird is sick or unfathomably strange, so it will become even more defensive.
This hostility is usually a sign that your bird needs more company and socialization. Bickering and arguing are normal aspects of everyday parrot life, particularly for small ones such as budgies. If your parrot can vent its energy healthily, it’s less likely to see new birds (or reflections) as a threat.
In the worst case, your parrot may become obsessed with getting the attention of this ‘new bird.’ This may involve regurgitating on it, which initiates mating rituals and shows affection. The parrot may also dance and chirp at it for long hours, even into the night. Some parrots become entranced by this doppelganger that also dances and moves with it.
Even if mating is not on a bird’s mind, a parrot may still become overly attached to the mirror. It will prefer the company of the reflection, excluding you and other parrots. Excessive regurgitation can potentially lead to a thin, unhealthy, and malnourished parrot.
As this escalates, the parrot may refuse to do anything else. It won’t like playing with you, leaving its cage, or even stopping to eat. If it gets frustrated with the apparent rejection, it may become destructive. Watch out for signs of your parrot:
- Plucking its own feathers
- Attacking the mirror
- Nipping at you
- Ignoring all its other toys
- Starting fights with other cagemates
- Refusing to leave the mirror’s side for hours at a time
It is advisable to remove the mirror if this happens. A mirror distorts your parrot’s reality, which can lead to real stress and, eventually, psychological damage. At the least, it will dampen your parrot’s social skills.
Are Mirrors Good For Parrots?
With all that said, mirrors don’t immediately spell disaster for your parrot. In fact, mirrors are a common parrot toy for a reason. They have many benefits, allowing your parrot to:
- Dance with and peck at ‘another parrot.’
- ‘Play’ with a parrot that’s just as energetic as it is.
- Enjoy the flashing colors of its own reflection as it runs by.
- Investigate flashing lights if it knocks the mirror around in the sunlight.
However, these benefits only come into play if your parrot is:
- Spends time with you or other parrots.
- Isn’t defensive of its cage, food, or water.
- Only has limited access to a mirror.
After all, a mirror’s negative consequences only arise when parrots are frustrated, threatened, or confused. If your parrot only sees its mirror every now and then, it won’t have time to bond or fight. As such, it can’t get rebuffed, ignored, or insulted.
Likewise, parrots that spend ample time with cage mates or their owners are less likely to grow obsessed with a newcomer’s undivided attention. That’s especially true for larger parrots, which may be more even-tempered. Small parrots, like budgies and cockatiels, are more energetic and demanding. They will want immediate reactions from their mirror-friend and will be more aggressive when rejected.
If you want to include this toy, do so carefully. Here are the safest ways to incorporate a mirror into your parrot’s life:
A Temporary Distraction
Never use a mirror as a substitute for human interaction. If you have the opportunity to spend time with your parrot, you should.
However, there may be times when your parrot must be alone for short periods. For example, you may need to run an errand, so the mirror can provide short-term comfort. Your parrot will see it as company but won’t interact with it long enough to get overly attached.
Mirrors should be a toy, not a new best friend. As such, you should let your parrot enjoy the mirror when you’re present. You can dance it in front of your parrot or use it to reflect light, piquing its curiosity.
This will ensure that you remain the focus of your parrot’s attention. If the ‘new parrot’ doesn’t react as it should, your parrot can take comfort in the bond that you two share. It’s less likely to seek the mirror’s reaction and approval.
Use Distorted Mirrors
The more perfect the mirror, the more likely your parrot is to confuse it with another parrot. If you want a toy that will reflect lights, colors, and wobbly shapes, then buy a thick plastic mirror.
The reflection will be distorted, so your parrot will struggle to pick out a new creature from a random bunch of shapes. This allows your parrot to enjoy a mirror without immediately thinking it’s another parrot that needs to be scared off or wooed.
Are Parrots Afraid of Mirrors?
By default, parrots are not afraid of mirrors. If your parrot seems scared of the new toy, it’s likely:
- Startled by the ‘new parrot’ (reflection)
- Scared by the movement or reflected light, even if the mirror is distorted
- Afraid of the new change in its cage
Parrots are neophobes, so they’re naturally suspicious of anything new in their environment. Mirrors will be a brand new addition to the cage, making your parrot wary. Likewise, the reflection will introduce several ‘new’ changes, as it displays a ‘new’ cage, water dishes, toys, and even a new parrot.
Do Parrots Like Shiny Things?
Parrots love shiny objects. In the wild, shimmers have an association with clear water. Likewise, parrots may collect shiny objects to add to their nest during mating season.
That can make distorted mirrors a great toy with less danger. Your parrot will still benefit from the reflective light and the silvery appearance. However, it won’t be able to catch sight of any mysterious ‘newcomers.’
Should You Give A Parrot A Mirror?
Avoid giving your parrot a mirror. The only exception is if the parrot had a mirror in the past and didn’t react adversely. If it didn’t show aggression, attachment, or social issues as a result of the mirror, then you can let it have the toy.
However, if the parrot has never seen a mirror before, it’s wise to avoid introducing one. In most cases, the negatives exceed the positives.