Birdsafe California Bird Nerds


Regurgitation usually means "I love you!"

I am the third owner of male blue-and-gold and harlequin macaws, 12 and 13, respectively. I began feeding them oatmeal in the morning with my other birds and they started regurgitating. They do it all day, every day! Will this stop? I tried hand feeding soaked pellets and they bob for it like babies, then regurgitate - so far not on me but it has been offered. Any advice?


Our Illiger's macaw is demonstrating an unpleasant behavior - regurgitating food and re-eating it. This has happened periodically before but lately has increased significantly. We have taken him to a vet, and his blood work and gram stain results are fine. It does not seem totally behavioral, as we find his perch covered when we come home. Please help!

-- Robert Sica, South Hamilton, Mass.,

I've had my military macaw, Conan, since he hatched four years ago. He is very attached to me and this has not been a problem until this year. Recently, he's begun roaming around. He claimed the bathroom and started attacking anyone that walked in there or by the door.

He waits for a towel to be thrown on the floor and then regurgitates on it, and I mean a lot! He also does it on the carpet in front of door and on his toys.

I know this is a sign of love but its getting ridiculous. He's gotten real nippy, too. I was told this behavior would end after breeding season but it's gone on for about four months now. I'm tired of cleaning up regurgitation and hate to lock him up.


A parrot regurgitates usually for one of two reasons: he is ill or he likes you. One way to tell the difference is by observing the action of the bird's head. If he whips it from side to side, he probably is vomiting because he is sick. If the bird makes a bobbing or pumping movement, most likely he is offering food to a mate or person with whom he has bonded.

However, just to complicate things, a sick bird also can make the bobbing movement, and a lovesick bird may whip his head to dislodge food. Unless you're certain your parrot's regurgitation is aimed at you, it's best to let an avian veterinarian decide whether he is sick, especially if you've found food in the cage that was vomited during the night. With any luck, an upset tummy from some ill-advised tidbit of food will be to blame.

Regurgitation as courtship is what seems to be going on in each case here. As unpleasant as it seems to us, regurgitating food is perfectly natural for a parrot following its hard-wired urges. Here's what happens.

Most parrots kept as companion animals are hatched in captivity and raised by hand. This close association with humans allows the birds to imprint on humans. Imprinting is a form of early learning that results in the bird identifying with a particular species.

When humans imprint a parrot, the bird grows up almost thinking it is human. This confusion often results in a parrot pursuing a human as its mate when it reaches breeding age. And a lot of breeding revolves around regurgitation.

Parrot couples exchange food via regurgitation as part of the courtship ritual before breeding. It is even rehearsed by pre-breeding age birds once they have formed bonds.

Regurgitation plays an even more important role once the chicks come along. While the female broods, the male forages for food. About twice a day, sometimes more often, the male returns to the nest where he feeds the female by regurgitating the food he gathered on his foraging excursion. She keeps this food in her own crop and passes it on to the chicks in the nest over the course of the day.

When imprinted companion parrots reach breeding age, they often direct courtship displays, including regurgitation, to their human caregivers. Most parrots target a favorite person for these romantic overtures - but some birds pick inanimate objects, such as mirrors, toys and even towels as the recipients of their regurgitated bounty.

What triggers regurgitation? Almost anything. Some parrots do it when they sit on your hand or on a shoulder close to the face. Recycled parrot food has found its way into many an unsuspecting owner's hand, shirt collar, even ear.

Another trigger, as one owner mentions above, is food that resembles regurgitated food. In the eye of a romantic parrot, oatmeal or soaked pellets presented by its human "mate" often inspires a return of the mushy gesture.

The best way to avoid a regurgitation problem is to nip it in the bud. The first time you see your parrot bob his head, quickly disassociate yourself by setting him on a stand or back in his cage; do not tolerate even the smallest episode, no matter how innocent it may seem.

If your bird already has acquired the habit of regurgitating, the next time it happens take note of the environment and what seems to trigger it so you can avoid putting him in that situation again.

For instance, owners still feeding their young birds by hand as a way of bonding may have to start leaving the mushy food in the bowl. If the bird regurgitates to a towel or other inanimate object, replace these items with other things hes not as attracted to. If he typically regurgitates while on your hand or shoulder, remove him at the first sign hes about to do it again.

Like many other parrot behaviors, regurgitating is self-reinforcing. If you let it happen once, especially in association with other breeding behavior, you encourage him to repeat it. On the other hand, if you link it with something negative, like putting him back in its cage, the behavior is likely to decrease.

On the bright side, regurgitation means your bird is completely infatuated with you. That can't be all bad.

Steve Martin World-renowned animal trainer Steve Martin established one of the first free-flight bird shows in the country at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. His international consulting company, Natural Encounters, Inc., now helps zoos all over the world train all types of animals using positive reinforcement. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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