Parrots are loving pets, but their affections can turn sour if they feel under threat. Making sense of territorial behavior can make you a better parrot caregiver.
Since parrots are a prey species, their primary concern is to defend themselves. They’re also biologically driven to find a long-term, loyal partner, so expect them to guard their mate. Parrots can become hostile when protecting what is theirs, but this is an adaptive behavior.
Territorial aggression isn’t ‘bad behavior,’ so it mustn’t be punished. Being territorial has enabled parrots to survive for thousands of years. The best way to handle territorial aggression in parrots is to help them feel safe and discourage them from choosing a favorite family member.
Do Parrots Have Territory?
Territorial behavior is common in the animal kingdom, occurring in mammals, fish, insects, and birds. According to Royal Society Publishing, animals act territorially to improve their access to two things:
- Resources (shelter, safety, food, water, etc.)
Given this truth, it’s easy to see why parrots are so territorial compared to other pets.
Parrots are a prey species, so they need to feel safe in their shelter. Parrots can feel very insecure if someone touches their cage, leading to territorial outbursts.
Parrots form long-term monogamous bonds, so they take mating seriously. Parrots will become reactive and territorial if anything threatens access to their mate.
Since territorial behavior is linked to mating, it’s most noticeable in spring (breeding season).
How Do Parrots Claim Territory?
Parrots claim territory over anything that’s attached to resources and mating.
There are three ways parrots lay claim to their territory. If you see your parrot doing these things, it’s likely letting you know something belongs to them.
Beak Rubbing and Wiping
Parrots claim territory by rubbing their beaks on things, which is similar to how cats rub their faces on door frames and furniture to mark their scent. Some parrots wipe their beaks to mark their territory.
Some parrots rub their beaks after eating a messy meal, which isn’t a sign of territory marking.
Hogging the Territory
Unsurprisingly, parrots spend lots of time in areas they’ve claimed as their territory, which is why it’s sometimes difficult to coax a parrot out of its cage or into a different room.
Similarly, once a parrot has bonded with a special person, it’ll become devoted to that person, following them around the house and even ‘defending’ them from other family members.
Foot tapping is more common in cockatiels than parrots, but some parrots do foot tap to mark their territory. Perhaps some learn it from their cockatiel friends!
Essentially, foot tapping is when a parrot taps its foot on its perch (or another personal area) to signal that it belongs to them.
Foot tapping shouldn’t be confused with toe-tapping, which is an automatic and involuntary opening and closing of the toes.
According to Watch Bird, we don’t know what causes toe-tapping, but the first line of treatment is to remove all processed foods, vitamin powders, vitamin seed mixes, and pellets from the parrot’s diet.
Providing a completely natural diet sometimes fixes toe-tapping in parrots.
Although beak wiping, area hogging, and foot tapping can signal a parrot’s ‘territory,’ you’ll more often learn about a parrot’s territory by watching it defend its space.
How Do Parrots Defend Territory?
Parrots defend their territory by making noise, body language, and physical attacks, including biting.
Parrots’ reactions tend to be graded, meaning they’ll start by issuing a warning before moving on to more hostile behaviors.
Although parrots defend their territory using hostility, this isn’t bad behavior. Parrots are prey species, so they must always be on their guard. So, defending their territory is a sign of insecurity and fear.
Parrot Noises When Defending Territory
If you hear a parrot clicking its beak, it’s probably feeling very defensive.
Beak clicking is when your parrot rapidly clatters its top and bottom beak together. As well as beak clicking, its eyes will expand, and its feathers may lift.
In this case, your parrot is scared and defensive and wants you (or another bird) to back off.
Don’t confuse beak clicking with beak grinding, though. Beak grinding is much softer (like purring) and a signal of happiness.
Other territorial sounds to look out for include growling and shrieking. These are both signs that your parrot is scared and agitated and wants you to move away.
That said, shrieking can sometimes signify boredom and be an invitation to play.
You can look at a parrot’s body language to determine whether the shrieking is invitational or defensive.
Body Language of a Defensive Parrot
A defensive parrot will provide clues through its body language. Here are some signs to look out for:
- Big Eyes – Parrots’ eyes will become enlarged and intense when they’re scared.
- Ruffled Feathers – Many parrots ruffle their feathers as a warning sign to move away; ruffled feathers on the parrot’s head indicate agitation.
- Pacing – If your parrot is pacing up and down its perch quickly, this might signify fear, and it could also be an attempt to work off the intense energy/anxiety it’s feeling.
- Head Bobbing – Some parrots begin head bobbing as a sign of aggression.
- Tail Fanning – This is a common defensive behavior, especially when the parrot is protecting his or her mate. Tail fanning is more common in spring (mating season).
If you can become sensitive to your parrot’s body language, you’ll be able to respond more effectively and diffuse territorial aggression.
Parrot Biting When Defending Territory
According to TDL Journals, parrot biting signifies insecurity and defensiveness, not aggression and dominance.
This is evident when you take the parrot away from its habitat (and the things it feels it needs to protect) because its behavior often improves drastically.
Also, children seem to be immune to parrot bites. According to TDL Journals, it’s unheard of for a child to be seriously bitten by a parrot because they don’t see children as threatening or intimidating.
This is interesting because it suggests that you can alleviate territorial behavior like biting by appearing less threatening to your parrot.
Ways You Are Threatening Your Parrot’s Territory
Since your parrot has evolved to be constantly on guard for potential threats, the following things can scare your parrot:
- Putting your hand in its cage – We wouldn’t like it if someone trespassed into our home so expect your parrot to feel the same way.
- Direct eye contact/staring – Parrots have eyes on the sides of their heads, so they only ever look at each other using one eye. Predatory species, like humans and dogs, have two eyes on the front of their face which can be intimating to a prey species.
- Not providing enough resources or an escape route – Parrots may fight over territory if kept in the same space, which is why providing ample resources for your birds is so important. It is also important to provide an escape route for birds, as parrots usually attack other parrots when there’s no opportunity to flee, so the only option is to fight.
In addition, remember that parrots perceive threats when they think they might lose their mate.
In captivity, this mate sometimes becomes a person within the household. If that’s the case, every other person in the household will be seen as a threat to the relationship.
Why Do Parrots Get Territorial Over Their Owners?
As mentioned, parrots are motivated by pair bonding, which means they’ll seek out a partner automatically, especially when they feel that the environmental conditions are optimal.
The HPG Axis is an important part of the parrot’s biology, as it governs its reproductive behavior. Many of the luxuries of good husbandry stimulate the HPG Axis and thus prime parrots’ reproductive desire.
The following things act as cues for the HPG Axis:
- Including soft foods, like bananas, because males regurgitate food for females.
- A comfortable ‘nest.’
- Physical affection, including petting and handling.
Treating your parrot well can stimulate its reproductive system, making it believe you’re a suitable mate as a pet owner. Instead of its owner, a parrot might choose a pet or toy to lavish its affection.
Parrots are highly intelligent and adaptive, which explains why they can form bonds with other species.
In some ways, this behavior can be endearing, but it can lead to insecurity and defensiveness because the parrot’s special person can’t spend all their time with them.
Moreover, the parrot can quickly become aggressive and territorial if another person interacts with their special person. For this reason, discourage your parrot from developing a favorite in the house.
How Do I Stop My Parrot Being Territorial?
If your parrot is territorial and aggressive, you can improve the situation.
According to WBI Studies Repository, parrots have the intelligence of around a 4-year-old. They can learn new ways of responding to their environment if you support them.
Here are some tips and advice for minimizing territoriality:
- Don’t react aggressively to your parrot, as your parrot is scared and defensive. It’s advisable to ignore ‘bad behavior,’ as even negative attention is reinforcing.
- Avoid putting your hands inside your parrot’s cage.
- Avoid staring into your parrot’s eyes, especially when beginning the interaction. Turn sideways so that only one eye is looking at the parrot.
- Don’t walk head-on towards your parrot – shuffle sideways, or walk backward towards your parrot.
- When your parrot is interested in something you’re doing, reward it with positive, non-threatening verbal reinforcement.
- Pet your parrot on its head rather than on its back, as this is less likely to stimulate the HPG Axis.
- Remove all processed sugars and feed your parrot the most natural diet possible.
Everyone in the household should take care of the parrot, as this will discourage it from developing a favorite person or bonding with one individual.
Sit in a circle as a family. Pass the parrot around and allow all family members to interact with it. This should be repeated regularly to prevent your parrot from choosing a favorite.