It is usually quite the surprise to parrot owners when their pet lays an egg, especially if they thought it was a male, or if it lives without a mate. Just like with production chickens laying eggs for consumption, any single bird will become reproductively active and can lay an unfertilized egg during its life in captivity. This article will focus on some key points to help explain the answers to the most frequently asked questions our clients have regarding this behavior including: why it happens, possible harmful complications, what to do when it happens, and how to prevent it from happening over and over again. Since reproductive disorders are common in pet birds, prevention and self-education are better than treatment, especially since some of these conditions can be life-threatening.
Why did my bird lay an egg when there is no mate present?
Egg laying can start whenever the species becomes sexually mature and can continue throughout the bird’s lifetime. Some birds will lay only once or twice in their lives, others will lay several times a year depending on the home environment and stimuli. In the wild many natural factors influence egg-laying and female parrots will generally not lay eggs unless they have a mate, a suitable nesting site, and the right environmental conditions and food availability. Their reproductive behaviors are often guided by food abundance and seasonal changes such as daylight hours. In captivity however, this behavior is often stimulated by other factors we may not even be aware we are providing. Some companion birds are more prolific and much more likely to lay eggs than other species based on genetic predisposition, such as budgies/parakeets, cockatiels, and Aratinga conures. Others can randomly lay due to the stimulants we provide in captivity. Some of these stimulants include:
- Increased daylight hours: when birds think it is springtime, they are more likely to reproduce. When we wake them up early and keep them up with us at night, they don’t understand that our artificial light is not the sun and they can become reproductively active.
- Constant sources of rich foods: when birds have ample foods high in fat and protein, their bodies become prepared to reproduce. In the wild, they reproduce when these kinds of natural resources are available based on the season. In captivity, when they are given these rich foods every day, their bodies are constantly ready and amped up for reproduction!
- Inappropriate pair bonding with humans or inanimate objects: when birds perceive that there is a mate present, their bodies will think it’s time to make babies. An inappropriate mate is most often a chosen person in the home- often someone who allows the bird to physically be with them more than others, allows regurgitation behaviors, and is very affectionate. Occasionally this perceived mate could also be a mirror, a stuffed animal, or a favorite toy that the bird cuddles with, regurgitates on, or spends many hours a day with.
- Excessive allopreeing: it is very rewarding to have a bird that enjoys being scratched, rubbed, and will reciprocate with straightening our hair or giving sweet nibbles. However, this behavior directly mimics what parrots and their mates do in the wild. Scratching under the wings, over the back, under the chin, and around the face/beak are all behaviors of bonded pairs of parrots in the wild. Doing this can encourage reproductive behavior such as egg laying.
- Having access to a nesting sites: of course purchasing a nest for a bird is an obvious nesting site, but often people don’t realize that allowing a bird to forage/play in a cardboard box, offering the fuzzy tents sold in pet stores, allowing them to explore the kitchen cabinets, or burrowing in our clothes/bed linens are all nesting sites as well! In the wild, birds seek out small, dark spaces to make a nest such as a tree hollow or rock crevice. There are many of these “sites” in our homes and allowing birds to find them can induce them to lay eggs sometimes in these sites.
What are the potential complications?
1. Eggbinding: When birds lay eggs, they need to be in optimal condition in order to be able to produce the protein required, the calcium to shell the egg, and the energy to lay it properly. A poor quality diet for a bird that is not exposed to natural sunlight (to aid in calcium absorption) and that does not fly or have exercise may be deficient in many nutrients and vitamins and be in poor body conditon that is required for healthy egg laying. If the eggs are not shelled properly, they could be soft or lump or, they could have difficulty or even get stuck moving through the oviduct. If the bird does not have good muscle development or calcium stores, passing the egg may be difficult or impossible. These conditions can cause dystocia, or “egg binding” in birds. Read our case study on eggbinding for more information.Birds that are having difficulty laying eggs may have the following symptoms:
- Sitting on the bottom of the cage
- Difficulty breathing, which can appear like a tail bob, open beak panting, or a wide-legged stance with increased respiratory effort
- Blood coming from the vent (the opening where they poop from and where the egg passes)
- Straining or pushing excessively with no egg produced
Pathologic bone fractures: When birds produce eggs, their bodies mobilize calcium from their bones, leaving them weak. Over time it is common to see fractured wings and/or leg bones occurring with no trauma, especially if they are not getting enough calcium and vitamin D3.
2. Egg yolk peritonitis: If there is reproductive disease, either from chronic egg laying or pathology in the oviduct, ovarian follicles can develop and instead of passing into the oviduct to be shelled normally, they fall into the body cavity. This can cause a serious inflammatory process that causes the coelom (abdomen) to fill with fluid. This can be very uncomfortable for birds, causing them to not be able to breathe well, become lethargic, and have a decreased appetite.
3. Hyperlipidemia: When birds are constantly laying eggs, there is often a high amount of circulating fats and proteins in the blood to facilitate egg production. This can cause dangerous thickening of the blood, with the potential to cause a bird to have a stroke (sometimes referred to as “yolk stroke”). These changes in the blood are often impossible to change with diet and exercise, and in many cases only hormone therapy or spaying will stop the condition.
4. Behavior problems: When birds are in a state of reproduction, they often have hormonal changes that make them irritable and uncomfortable. They can turn from a human-friendly buddy, to a vicious cage protective demon! Birds will often aggressively protect their eggs and/or nest area by lunging, hissing, biting, and screaming. They also will sometimes pull feathers from their body to make a nest (called a “brood patch”) in order to keep the eggs warm with their skin contact on them. But this behavior can preclude chronic feather picking behavior.
What do I do now that my bird laid an egg?
These recommendations are based on the assumption that you are not trying to breed your bird. The staff at the Center strongly discourages breeding of pet parrots, especially by non-experienced pet owners. If you are trying to breed, please consider discussing this with your avian veterinarian prior to breeding to learn about the potential for health problems, financial expense, and ethical reasons why we do not recommend breeding parrots.
A few species of parrots are sexually dimorphic (you can tell the gender based on the physical appearance) and others are not, so many owners don’t know if they have a male or a female. (We strongly recommend bringing birds in for testing BEFORE a crisis occurs- we can easily determine the gender with a single drop of blood.) If you have a male and female, or are not sure, it is possible that the egg could be fertile, so as soon as you see an egg, you should remove it and replace it with a fake egg. Alternatively, you could boil or freeze the egg, but then return it to the nest. It is important to return some sort of egg to the nest because some birds will continue to lay eggs, trying to replace the lost ones. Once the eggs of a clutch are all laid and exchanged for fake or sterilized eggs, leave them with the birds, regardless if they are nesting them or not, for approximately 3 weeks. Then, remove them one at a time every other day until they are gone. This will hopefully give the female the time she needs to understand that those eggs are not viable and will not hatch. In most cases the birds will abandon the eggs after a period of time.
While she is laying/nesting on the eggs, be sure to communicate with your avian veterinarian regarding diet and possible nutritional supplementations. Each situation may be different based on history, species, diet, and other variables. Your pet’s doctor may recommend extra calcium, full spectrum light, protein, or other supplements during this time.
If you see any symptoms as described above, please give your avian veterinarian a call right away to schedule an appointment, or potentially bring your bird in for an emergency visit. These situations can be very dangerous and life threatening so you should not wait.
Tips to prevent pet parrots from laying eggs
1. Move the bird’s cage to a different area of your home. Sometimes
making birds feel a little uncomfortable will make their bodies
recognize that it is not an ideal time to lay eggs.
2. Rearrange any perches, bowls, and toys in the cage. Again, making them feel just a bit like things are different or strange, less comfortable, they may not be as likely to lay eggs.
3. Remove any objects that your bird associates with “nesting”. These are usually cardboard boxes or fabric toys that your bird can “hide” in. Food bowls are also often used as make-shift nests and changing sizes and location may limit this behavior.
4. Remove any objects that your bird considers a “mate” such as mirrors, stuffed toys, special favorite perches, or even other birds. Sometimes birds may need a time-out from a mate or a perceived mate in order to prevent chronic egg laying.
5. Limit time with the bird’s human “mate”. Avoid bonding behaviors like grooming, kissing, and sharing food.
6. If your bird spends a lot of time out of its cage, discourage all nesting behavior. You may need to keep the bird caged for a while to prevent them from laying eggs in closets, behind/under furniture, or in cabinets.
7. Alter your bird’s light/dark schedule by covering the cage for at least 12 hours a night. Keeping them quiet and dark during these hours will create a sense that it is not springtime and not the time for making babies.
8. Keep your bird away from direct, bright sunlight during the day. It also may help to keep them away from windows and in a normally lit room.
If you are concerned that your bird may be having difficulty laying eggs, or if your bird just needs an annual checkup please book an appointment.