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Nesting behavior in a conure

Expert Question

Dear Phoebe, We have a 17-year-old female dusky headed conure, Pickle, whom we love very much. She has always been a highly “interactive” bird, craving the company of me (female) and my partner (male). She also has enjoyed spending some time inside her “precious.” which is a chest of drawers. However, her behavior changed radically about a month ago. She has started spending almost all her time inside the chest of drawers, exhibiting nesting behavior by creating “nests” out of shredded clothes. She comes out only to eat, drink and go potty. Even weirder, she recently switched her preferred drawer. When I take her out, she leans toward the bedroom and tries to make a dash for her drawer. My avian vet checked and said Pickle is not carrying an egg. And my partner (her “mate”?) has been out of town for a week, but Pickle’s behavior hasn’t changed. I don’t want to stress or traumatize her. She does sleep in her cage at night. I am very concerned that Pickle will be “stuck” in her nesting behavior and not come out of it.

Your expert advice would be greatly appreciated. I have been a WPT member for quite a few years, but I never knew about this Ask an Expert feature.
Thank you. Arlene

Expert Answer

Hi Arlene, Thanks for writing WPT and welcome to our "Ask the Expert" feature. I'm delighted to read about your loving concern for Pickle, a mature highly interactive female dusky-headed conure, Aratinga weddellii, and glad that she went to the vet. I presume that she is healthy in every regard. Also, some eggs are palpable only right before they are laid, so Pickle could still have one or more eggs in process.

All of Pickle’s time inside “precious” is, indeed, precious to her because it gives her the chance to behave like a biologically real parrot. Now that the days are getting longer, her efforts will undoubtedly increase. It's not too weird that she changed her preference from one drawer to another. Based on observations of the wild Amazon parrots of Santa Barbara (, we see parrots religiously work a particular nest site only to abandon it for another. Perhaps a disturbance encouraged Pickle to move -- perhaps you “cleaned out” the first drawer --- or perhaps Pickle was ready for something new.

Either way, it's not unusual for a fixed-up site to be abandoned and sometimes that ends the laying right then. Other times, a new site is selected and a new remodel begins. We use this abandon-one-site and select-another-site propensity to divert companions from laying or to slow down excessive laying.

At 17, Pickle is definitely biologically mature, but like many mature psittacines, she has not yet laid eggs. However, with time and access to a viable nest, it's not surprising that she's exhibiting what we humans call "nesting behaviors." Parrots might call these “shredding fun stuff in a cozy places” behaviors because not all parrots who build nests end up laying eggs. They just like making places.

For instance, our flock comprises two proven pair of African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). They are retired, so they no longer produce or incubate eggs or raise chicks, processes that formerly took up most of their time. In retirement, they've discovered new hobbies and because they have ground in which to dig, and neighbors who do the same, the two pairs dig and dig and dig every day. They also shred pine, deforest millet, destroy banana bark and pulverize cotton rope toys. Every day, they make elaborate soups, and every evening they practice solos, duets and quartets. They make big messes, talk about everything a lot, have sex whenever they feel like it, feed each other and, after a full day, snuggle on perches that afford them ease and privacy. The removal of their nest boxes disallowed eggs and parenting behaviors, but alternate behaviors are greatly increased.

A great way to focus Pickle's attention towards non-reproductive place-making would be to offer her a variety of places to explore and various substrates to pulverize. If you don't want her to go all the way through laying, you might be able to non-stressfully change the environment in ways that she values so that egg-laying becomes ho-hum compared with what's new. However, it might also be too late in her cycle this time around for this level of diversion, so we'll discuss what to do if she lays, below. In the meantime, think about making some future places for Pickle that are conducive to shredding and privacy, but not necessarily laying.

Additionally, not all parrots who lay eggs incubate them. Pickle might lay a nice little clutch only to be done with it. In all cases, your companionship with her need not change except to deepen.

Parrots like Cella, (Eclectus roratus vosmaeri) seek a nest, make it nice, lay eggs and incubate them but give up the eggs when don't hatch. Pickle could do the same. Therefore, an element of “wait and see” accompanies this new phase of Pickle's behaviors and your reactions to them.

Generally, psittacine hens lay eggs at 24 hour intervals until their clutch is complete. Conures lay between 2 -- 5 eggs per clutch, sometimes more. Incubation begins when the last egg is laid and for conures occurs over 21-23 days. (Clinical Avian Medicine and Surgery, Harrison and Harrison, Appendix 5 by K. Flammer, pg 663.)

Another consideration is Pickle's overall athleticism. Please be sure Pickle regularly exercises because we know that parrots who are in good shape are better equipped to lay eggs than over-weight, under-nourished or sedentary birds. Therefore, when she's not nesting, encourage Pickle to fly if she's flighted. Or to flap, climb, run and walk if she's not flighted. I bet she's happy to run to precious, for instance.

Regardless of whether or not Pickle lays, your relationship with her can and should continue to grow and deepen. In fact, now that she's shown you her new talent for place-making, you can get creative. That's what Cella and I have discovered.

Cella, mentioned above, is 24 and incubates 2-3 clutches a year. When she's incubating her eggs, I ask her to fly or run back to her nest because other than digging and shredding, she doesn't get much exercise during egg time. When she's not nesting, she exercises more which we both enjoy. Her privacy box is a cardboard box fashioned to her liking and suspended in her large macaw-sized cage; she incubates each clutch, during which she thoroughly attends the eggs, cooing and clucking with absorptive attention. After about 32 days, she leaves the box and ignores the eggs, so I remove all in order to give Cella a break from nesting, which lasts a few months, and all is well.

During the break, Cella exercises, takes lots showers, chews up stalks and stalks of millet and is in every way a delight. Until it's time to do the place-making again. When the break is over and she wants another box, Cella starts pacing inside her cage. Outside it, she intently seeks out any dark place in which to scratch and hide. She's been known to scurry and freeze deep inside the pantry, run out of reach behind cabinets and hide silently underneath the dishwasher.

As soon as Cella gets a new parrot-appropriate box -- even if she cannot immediately get inside it -- she stops pacing and hiding and becomes intent on place-making. When I say the box is fashioned to Cella's liking, that's partly true because some of the box is fashioned to ensure her health and safety. Because Pickle and Cella do not get to experience feeding and caring for chicks, which takes 10 - 12 weeks, they might cycle before their calcium and other supplies adequately replenish. Too many eggs can deplete them. So, if Cella starts signaling that she wants a box too soon after finishing the last clutch, or by the year's third clutch, I make a box that challenges her. It might have a really teensy entry hole (1/2") through which she'll peer before she chews it large enough for entry. Plus once she makes the hole, she finds the box stuffed with materials that need to be shredded and excavated. Then again, just as in the wild, some disturbance might occur with that site (think big storm, high winds) that necessitates Cella starting again with another -- imagine this -- even better site.

If you want Pickle to continue in the dresser, you can make that site more challenging for her to access and more creative once she gets there. For instance, will she climb a ladder to get to precious or go through a parrot-friendly agility course? The more action-packed, the more Pickle-appropriate materials that surround this series of events, the more creative your shared flock environment becomes. Of course, if she lays and incubates, the flock will ensure she has a serene and stable environment with plenty of flock attention. Until, that is, she's ready for something new.

All best,
Phoebe Greene Linden

Phoebe Green Linden
About Phoebe Green Linden

In 1986, Phoebe married the love of her life, Harry Linden, at the place of her avicultural beginning, the Santa Barbara Bird Farm. 20 years of dedicated observations and avid learning have formed her opinions surrounding psittacine neonates, neophytes, fledglings and adults who benefit markedly from thoughtfully arranged environments. She and Harry include boxes, playgyms, cages, aviaries and agreed-upon furniture and counter surfaces for parrot activities. There are no spaces in their home or on their property untouched by parrot dander.

During the years they raised parrots for the pet trade (they no longer do, since 2001) and continuing through today, they have dedicated themselves to developing environments that increase observable natural behaviours such as exercising, interacting, foraging for foods, touching, preening, flapping, flying, showering, mulch-making, wild bird watching, helping with chores, and goofing off—not always seen in captive birds. Their experiences are happily shared with World Parrot Trust members with the objective to foster enrichment for captive psittacines and their caregivers.