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Spinning Behavior in a Parrot

Expert Question

Dear Steve, About a year ago i adopted a Moulaccan male that was about 20 years old. I adopted him through a very wonderful rescue organization. He had been there for about three years and had also been through about 7 homes. When I adopted him he spun to the left almost all day long as if he had a neurological condition. He also did not balance well when I took him to play in his outdoor aviary. When one of the rope swings moved in the breeze he would struggle to keep his balance. On several occassions he lost it and did not even try to keep himself from hitting the ground. It has now been a little over a year. He seems to only start spinning when he is getting worried about something and his balance seems to have improved immensely.

He is a wonderful intellegent bird and the majority of his chest feathers have surprisingly regrown in. He seems to use words appropriately telling me "I love you big momma" Which I have to admit would be cute except for the big part! My question is could what seemed like a neurological problem when I got his be more related to hormone swings? The rescue had taken him to the vet who did declare it was likely neuro but after a year of seeing the behavior slowly disappear I wonder if I should be prepared for it to return?

Expert Answer

Hello, Whenever someone asks me if a particular behavior could be related to a health problem I always recommend the person have the bird checked out by an avian vet. I figure if the person wonders if it is possible, then it likely is possible, and it is usually best to have a professional evaluate the possibilities.

That said, there are a number of things you mentioned that caught my eye. To begin with, I have seen several parrots do the spinning behavior you mentioned. Now, we know that most behaviors that are repeated have some form of reinforcement associated with the performance of that behavior. What we don't always know is exactly what those reinforcers are. The reinforcers for some behaviors, like persistent vocalizations (screaming), and maybe even continuous spinning, might be the attention the bird gets from a human. Even the attention given to the bird by a subtle glance can be enough to reinforce the behavior, and cause birds to continue a behavior with hopes of getting more attention. However, I bring this up as background and it may have nothing to do with your bird.

Then, there are the multitude of reinforcers for behaviors that are private to the bird and we will never get to know. In the case of spinning, we don't know if the bird finds some form of enjoyment in performing the behavior, maybe like a person exercising or running on a treadmill. Animals perform many behaviors for reasons we will never understand. The repeat of these behaviors tells us there is something reinforcing the behavior. But, exactly what those reinforcers are may never be known to us. Beware there are many pseudo experts out there who will diagnose or interpret behaviors such as the spinning you have described and tell you why the bird does the behavior in terms of what the bird is thinking or what the bird "is." For instance, some may say the bird spins because it "wants to impress you," or the bird "Is neurotic" or "Is hormonal" or any one of many other interpretations that may actually sound feasible, but are far from the true motivation for the behavior. Keep in mind that no one knows what a bird is thinking. Although many of the explanations you hear may make sense to you, the reality is the only real information we have to deal with is what you see the bird "Do." Often following the lead of people who describe behavior in terms of what a parrot "Thinks" or what the parrot "Is" will take you farther from a true understanding of the motivation for undesirable behavior.

You also mentioned that the bird had trouble keeping his balance on the rope swing, especially when the wind blew. This information raises a few flags for me. First, a bird with clipped wings will generally have more trouble balancing in situations like you described. However, even birds with clipped wings should not fall off a perch. The fact that he has fallen off of a perch on multiple times causes me to again encourage you to have an avian veterinarian check him out. I have many birds in outdoor aviaries and cannot remember a bird loosing its balance to the point of being unable to retain its perch. All of our birds are full-flight, which gives them a balancing advantage over birds with clipped wings. But, I still believe it is very uncommon for a bird even with clipped wings to fall off of a perch, even in the wind.

As for the spinning behavior being related to hormones, I suggest a vet will be a better person to answer that question. But, I will say that this companion parrot world is flooded with people blaming undesirable behavior on hormones. I believe most of the undesirable behaviors we see in parrots are inadvertently reinforced by the owners and have nothing to do with the bird's hormones. Unfortunately too many so-called experts are quick to label birds and situations with explanations that relieve the owners of responsibility, but do nothing to solve the behavior problem.

You mentioned that your bird speaks. This is a good sign that may give some insight into the bird's health and emotional status. Mimicking sounds is one of the first things to stop when a bird is not healthy or feels stressed in its environment. I believe vocalizing is in many ways an expression of well-being. Though we will never know what a bird is thinking, we can see behaviors associated with a bird being comfortable in its surrounds. These behaviors are things like rousing or shaking its feathers, preening, playing with toys, bathing, and vocalizing in ways that are not associated with obvious stress or alarm calls. When I see a bird talk, or mimic sounds, I usually see other signs and behaviors that tell me the bird is comfortable in its surroundings.

I hope that helps,


Steve Martin & Staff
About Steve Martin & Staff

Steve Martin has lived with parrots from the time he was five years old. By the time he was 16 his bird interest expanded to falconry and he has been a Master Falconer ever since.

He began his professional animal training career when he set up the first of its kind, free-flight bird show at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. Since then he has produced educational animal programs, or consulted at, over 50 zoological facilities around the world.

Steve has produced three videos on parrot behaviour and training and lectures frequently about parrot behaviour. He has also written several articles on animal behaviour and conducts training workshops each year at his facility in Winter Haven, Florida. Over two-thirds of his year is spent on the road consulting with zoos and aquariums on animal behaviour issues or teaching staff the art and science of animal behaviour.

Steve is President of both Natural Encounters, Inc., ( a company of over 20 professional animal trainers, and Natural Encounters Conservation Fund, Inc., a company dedicated to raising funds for conservation projects.
Steve has been a long time fan, supporter, and a Trustee of the World Parrot Trust. He is also a core team member of the California Condor Recovery Team, and Past-President and founding member of IAATE, an international bird trainers’ organization.