Food guarding involves a parrot jealously defending its food dish, refusing to allow you to remove it from the cage, or preventing other birds from accessing its contents.
The more generic term ‘resource guarding’ applies when a parrot displays these behaviors toward other objects, like a favored toy, swing, ladder, mirror, or perch.
According to the Journal of Field Ornithology, resource guarding is common in wild parrots. They’ll protect preferred nesting spots and food supplies, an instinct that can carry over into captivity.
A parrot will hiss, lunge, or bite when you attempt to temporarily remove a bowl from the cage. This can arise when the dish is full (but the parrot has ceased eating) or when the bowl is empty.
Parrots can also display food aggression toward each other when sharing a cage. This problem is common in female budgies, who are highly territorial, especially during the breeding season.
Warning Signs of Resource Guarding
If you’re unsure if a parrot is guarding resources, look for these signs:
- A parrot refuses to leave a food dish unprotected, possibly extending to sitting in the bowl when resting or rushing to the vicinity whenever you or another bird approaches.
- When you provide treats, one bird attempts to force the other out of the way.
- One parrot deliberately blocks access to a food bowl or water bottle.
- One parrot raises its wings to show hostility when another attempts to eat or drink.
- Signs of injury on one parrot, like pulled-out feathers and bleeding.
If these actions become consistent, with the parrot responding angrily when expected to share resources or having them removed from a cage, guarding behavior has become an ingrained problem.
Check for these behaviors and body language cues before putting your hand in a parrot’s cage:
- Pinned eyes, watching your every move.
- Flicking the tail back and forth.
- Fluffing the feathers.
- Spreading the wings.
If the bird hisses when you reach for a food bowl or possession, it’s issuing a final warning before it bites. The parrot will likely attack if you continue attempting to remove the object.
How Does Resource Guarding Start?
Resource guarding in parrots has the following causes:
- Past trauma, especially extended periods spent without food or water.
- Two or more birds are forced to share a small space, leading to friction and competition over space, food, and resources.
- Unreliable, erratic scheduling surrounding mealtimes, leaving the parrot concerned about when it’ll next have the chance to eat.
- Previously removing a food bowl or other valued resource as a punishment.
- Removing objects from the cage while wearing brightly-colored clothing, like red, orange, or yellow.
- Insufficient exercise makes the cage feel like the only safe place.
Determining the cause of resource aggression is an essential first step to resolving the issue.
Is Resource Guarding Dangerous?
If a parrot becomes defensive of its resources, it’s likely to bite to safeguard them.
Small birds (like budgies and lovebirds) have small beaks, so their bites are unlikely to cause lasting harm. However, large parrots (like macaws and cockatoos) can deliver painful bites.
As well as inflicting pain and damaging your bond, parrot bites can lead to illness in humans. Hand warns that parrot attacks can lead to bacterial infection as a bird’s mouth hosts bacteria.
Does Resource Guarding Go Away?
Once a parrot starts resource-guarding, the behavior won’t stop without intervention. A parrot will become increasingly aggressive and possessive over its possessions.
Resource guarding is about a parrot protecting something it treasures. An owner’s role is to teach the parrot that a food dish or other resource isn’t life-critical or irreplaceable.
How To Get Parrots To Stop Food Guarding
Try offering two food bowls at mealtimes, with a serving for a pair of birds divided in half. Each bird may gravitate toward its dish if the bowls are different colors.
If you have two cages, consider temporarily rehoming one parrot during mealtimes.
This will help each bird understand which food bowl it has been assigned. Alternate which parrot is moved so neither feels it’s being punished for instinctual behavior.
Before reintegrating the parrots, check how the birds interact when no resources are disputed. If the birds avoid direct contact, they haven’t bonded and may benefit from living apart permanently.
Consider if you’re inadvertently contributing to resource guarding. Avoid wearing bright colors associated with danger, approach slowly, smile, and speak to the parrot reassuringly.
When ready to start training a bird out of resource guarding, a 4-step process can begin:
1/ Change The Food Bowl
If the parrot always eats from the same bowl, it’s much likelier to develop a fascination with this vessel. So, introduce a rolling variety of food dishes.
Parrots are neophobic (fearful of the unfamiliar), so don’t just change a food bowl and leave them to eat. The parrot may refuse to approach the dish, especially if it’s brightly colored.
While a parrot is outside the cage, leave some empty food bowls in a location the bird can access. Encourage a curious parrot to interact with them so it realizes they aren’t noisy, toxic, or threatening.
2/ Remove the Parrot from its Cage
Food guarding is associated with a dish within a parrot’s cage or the immediate vicinity.
By removing this object, the parrot sees you as invading its territory. This means you need to break this association to prevent food guarding.
Release the bird from its cage in a parrot-safe room, and encourage it to perch elsewhere in your eye line. Ideally, this won’t be another cage but a freestanding perch or hammock.
Don’t allow the parrot to perch on your shoulder for this part of the training.
Use clicker training and basic commands to encourage the parrot to remain on its external perch, rewarding it for obedience. Keep the parrot in this position while you move on to the next stage.
3/ Touch the Food Bowl
While the parrot is perched – and likely watching intently – approach its empty food dish. Then, touch the dish without snatching or removing it.
When the parrot sees you interact with the dish without reacting, reward it with a treat.
Repeat this step several times, regularly approaching the bowl without attempting to remove it, praising your parrot every time it remains in position.
After a handful of motions, remove the bowl from the cage and place it close to the parrot. It’ll likely investigate, hoping to find food in the dish.
Let the parrot see that the bowl is empty, then place it down where it can still see it.
4/ Feed The Parrot
While the parrot watches, fill the bowl with food.
Continue to clicker-train the parrot to remain in place, offering rewards while it does so. If the parrot loses composure and lunges for the food, empty the bowl and repeat the previous step.
Once the bowl is full, return it to its usual position in the cage. Let the parrot know it is free to eat. Let it fly to its cage to eat, praising the bird throughout.
The parrot will now understand that removing a dish from a cage means receiving more food, not less.
Consequently, the parrot will consider your interaction with its possessions a positive experience and won’t react adversely when you next attempt to remove the food dish.
If you struggle to convince the parrot to accept this arrangement, leave the food dish in a neutral location outside the cage and allow the bird to eat there. You can return to the training later.
This will at least break the parrot’s association between food and its cage.
While parrots are smart animals, resource guarding is a primal instinct that some birds struggle to shake off. You can help a parrot overcome the desire to hoard and protect its most treasured possessions.